Thursday, 25 February 2016
Going to Church
I have recently begun an activity which, to anybody who knows me, may seem rather bizarre. I have started visiting the local cathedral. Not, mark you, for Eucharist or Holy Communion. And certainly not for the speeches given by a man in funny clothes, on the subjects of sin, repentance, the wrath of God for the unrighteous, and his quirky sense of the meaning of love. No. I have generally popped in during the middle of a morning walk - about 11.30 is a good time. Sometimes there are two or three tourists around - normally female -, sometimes I have the place to myself. Despite the words of error often spoken within the cathedral walls, and despite the international missionary zeal that sometimes echoes through the place, the cathedral remains by and large a still, quiet, tranquil space.
Built during the nineteenth century, the cathedral has little historical significance. It was constructed, though, in the neo-Gothic style that was the rage at the time, and I find it effective. It is simple without being plain and without suggesting the sinfulness of richness and colour. Unpretentious stained glass covers most of the windows. On one wall there are a few miniature icons of Jesus presented as a gift by Alexander the Second, one-time Tsar of Russia. There is a copy of Melozzo da Forli's well-known Angel Gabriel in Annunciation. What I like most, however, is a little Madonna and Child, so sweet and delicate. It is apparently a copy of a fifteenth century Sienese, but looks older to me, like a contemporary of Duccio. I enjoy gazing at it, immersed in the silence of the cathedral.
It's a funny story, the Italian art thing. Thirty years ago, I was in the throes of life as a dedicated Buddhist. I lived in Buddhist community, and worked as chairman of the modestly-named West London Buddhist Centre ( a position I was in some respects remarkably ill-suited for; but that's another story). You might have thought that everything my soul yearned for would have been provided on a plate in this heady life deep in the Buddhist spiritual world. Wrong. Despite all my Buddhist, supposedly spiritual, life, I would long for my annual trip to Italy, to look at art. Italian art. Italian renaissance art. This spoke to me, fed me, in ways that no manner of study of Buddhist texts, sitting-on-a-cushion meditation even, appeared to do. One year I made a thorough cultural pilgrimage through the centres of northern Italy. From Ventimiglia and Genoa in the west, then to Vicenza, Verona, Padua, Venice, Siena, Florence, Lucca, Pisa. Rarely in my life have I felt so vital. It finally came to an end when I walked into an exhibition in Pisa that was composed entirely of crucifixions, and I felt a wave of revusion ripple through me. But I had had almost two months of immersion in painting, sculpture, and architecture by then.....
That I have lived for a decade within an hour's walk of the cathedral and until a few weeks ago had never entered its portals speaks volumes of my feelings about Christianity and Christianism, particularly the fundamentalistic, literalistic brand that remains in vogue hereabouts. But something has loosened up: not regarding the religion as such, but about the nature of its many expressions. I think that returning to Acharya S.'s work following her untimely death has had an effect. Her contention, which I find pretty watertight, is that Christianity, in common with other 'major world religions', has its own roots in the ancient astrotheology (sun, moon, planets, stars, zodiac etc). Furthermore, its assault on the former 'pagan' traditions is due in part to the need to cover up its own astrotheological beginnings.
Seeing the veneer of Christian dogma and doctrine overlaying the natural 'spirituality' of humankind for what it is - a synthetic gloss on the real thing - permits one to look beneath. I can enter the cathedral without playing the game. Opening my eyes to the Madonna and Child in my local cathedral, I was astonished that I felt myself to be looking at Gaia-Sophia, Mother Earth. And she was presenting us with her creation: possibly the entire world, possibly the divine child as representation of the human species, her special offspring, the one who is capable of becoming aware of its source. Maybe the creative act as an eternal, ever-present reality, the 'world' coming into being on a moment-to-moment basis: the never-ending game of creation and its emanations in their infinite variety.
Ah, poor old Mother Earth. She's having a hard time of it, we are told again and again, at the hands of her most destructive creation, humanity. She is angry,we are told, especially about our rapacious use of fossil fuels; she's had enough, fed up with it all. This is a common sentiment; some people who I generally respect take this line of thought. May I respectfully suggest that it may be utter bullshit.
James Lovelock has a lot to answer for in this respect. Having done a lot of valuable work in developing Gaia theory, ten years ago he produced a book entitled 'The Revenge of Gaia'. I have a copy on my bookshelf, which stares out at me from time to time; I think it's time for the book to be sent to the garage,out of sight, but just hanging around in case I need to refer to it at some point in the future. Over the course of nine contentious chapters, Lovelock outlines how the Earth is hotting up quicker than a modern-day fan oven, and it's all our fault. Gaia is straining to absorb the change, and is going to get real nasty with us as a result. Lynn Margulis, co-creator with Lovelock of Gaia theory, apparently opined that Gaia is a 'tough bitch', and can come through all this. The overall tone of Lovelock's book, however, is that Gaia is old, worn out, and that she is unable to absorb the manifold damage done to her by humanity's exploitations. 'Gaia, the living Earth, is old and not as strong as she was two billion years ago' (chapter nine). 'Unfortunately, we are a species of schizoid tendencies, and like an old lady who has to share her house with a growing and destructive group of teenagers, Gaia grows angry, and if they do not mend their ways she will evict them.' (end of chapter three).
I suspect Lovelock has come to regret writing the book: a while ago he admitted that the Earth wasn't bubbling and boiling the way he thought she was going to, and maybe he got something wrong. This in turn provoked the wrath and typically cruel and vicious ad hominem attacks from the green totalitarian zealots, who accused him of being senile and past it. What thoroughly nasty people.
So let's have a look at Mother Earth. No, let's look first at ordinary, decent mums. Or at least the image of an ordinary, decent mum. Ordinary, decent mum is a picture of unconditional love. Her function, if you like, is to give birth, protect, and provide for her baby offspring. She gives freely, without thought of receiving anything in return. She is prepared to sacrifice something of her own welfare for the sake of her child. This sounds like a ridiculously lofty spiritual idea, the stuff of high-level Buddhas and similar entities. My own experience of observing mothers, however, suggests that this is not too far off the mark. Mothers can make considerable sacrifices physically, emotionally, and energetically in child-bearing and pregnancy, in the act of giving birth, and in the rearing of their offspring. As their progeny have grown up, I have seen mothers in great sadness, anguish, despair even, as the child they have lovingly nurtured refuses to grow up into anything other than a monster. But punishment? Revenge? No way. Unless she's not the real deal, and is an archon in disguise.
If everyday mums do not have punishment and revenge on the menu, how less our archetypal female parent, Mother Earth? The notion that she's out to give us a hard time because we've been naughty boys and girls, using up her resources, shows a severe twisting of the archetype. She is, I would suggest, more than happy to give of her resources (even her coal, gas, and oil, for crissake!) for her special children, as the Gnostics would have it, those endowed with a spark of divinity (however hidden it may sometimes be). On our side, it behoves us to act respectfully, responsibly, lovingly, with her great gifts. Use them well, wisely, and she will be happy. Use them for nefarious ends, as has so often been the case, and Mother Earth may well lament to see her divine children failing to follow their innate divinity. But calling for revenge, for punishment, just ain't gonna happen.
Footnote: as an illustration of the nature of the Divine Mother, check out the Duccio at the beginning of this piece. The divine child is messing around with the Madonna's headgear. There are several Duccios depicting a similar act from the infant. He is apparently pulling aside her headdress, though to me it looks like he's tweaking her ear. Whatever, it's a tad irritating for the long-suffering mum. But is she angry? Does she look disturbed? Is she about to whack the baby with a rolling pin? Nothing could be further from the truth. Pseudo-greenies, if you're going to invoke archetypes to shore up your viewpoints, at least get the archetype right.....