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Revelations of Divine Love

rogier_van_der_weyden_-_portrait_of_a_woman_with_a_winged_bonnetI’m currently reading Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich (1373). Nobody knows Julian’s real name or where she began, and most other details are based on conjecture. But we do know she wrote some of the greatest prose of her time, and was even the first woman to write a book in English (as far as anyone can tell). What fascinates me particularly is that the book opens as a spiritual memoir – a genre very close to my heart.

I confess the above is not a picture of Julian. We don’t know what she looked like, as she doesn’t tell us. There is a modern statue of her at the entrance of Norwich Cathedral, but I can’t picture her so troubled and stony as that. She often uses the word ‘homely’ in her writings, so I see her as plumpish, rosy, and as sanguine as anyone dared to be in those days. This is just a painting by Rogier van der Weyden from around Julian’s time, which Penguin have adopted for their cover. As an unknown Dutch woman, it’s otherwise irrelevant, but it does seem to have a little more about it.

The Church in Julian’s day was far from sanguine, and wasn’t much interested in women’s rights either. It was steeped in national politics, fixated on sin and hell to frighten peasants and keep them subordinate. Only a fifth of men would have been able to read, and far fewer women. Most teaching was received via sermons and paintings in church, so the religious imagery was often gruesome and menacing. Many of the literate were part of the Church, and would thus have used Latin. Heretics were burned at the stake for even reading the Bible in English.

So for a woman to write at all, let alone on religious matters – and in English, the language of the masses – was not only astonishing, but also dangerous. Add the fact that Julian experienced God as an unconditionally loving parent, with both ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities, and it all becomes terribly shocking. God came to her as powerful and omnipotent, but equally as nurturing, reassuring, ‘homely’ and compassionate. She even uses the term ‘meek’ in certain cases.

Until the age of thirty, Julian (whatever her name was then) lived as a laywoman, and was probably from quite a privileged background. She then fell seriously ill. Barely able to see, and with paralysis creeping up her body, she surrendered herself to the seemingly inevitable. A priest was called to administer last rites, and as part of the ritual held a crucifix up to her face. The wooden figure came to life before Julian’s eyes, and there followed a series of vivid and detailed visions, replete with teachings: in words, images and inner realisations. These form the basis of her sixteen Revelations.

From the time of her visions until death in her early seventies, our heroine lived as an anchoress, never leaving the cell attached to her namesake, St Julian’s Church. Her room had no doors, but three windows: one opening onto the church for services, one for supplies and waste, and another facing the street. There she would have met with people from wealthy and lowly backgrounds alike, offering her counsel. No doubt she formed some careful friendships in this way, and her writings thus found a secret audience.

After Julian’s death, the manuscript seemed to disappear, perhaps hiding here and there in wealthy homes and monasteries, but between the Reformation in the 15th Century and the French Revolution in the 18th, many such copies were no doubt destroyed. Mysteriously, at the start of the 20th Century, Grace Warrack came across a copy in the British Library, hand-written by 17th Century nuns. She translated it from its original East Anglian dialect to more modern English, and further modernisations by other editors have followed since.

Many thanks to Bhashini for recommending The Search for the Lost Manuscript – a BBC documentary by Dr Janina Ramirez. But for that, I would probably have never started reading Julian’s works, and would know very little of her history. It’s an amazing wealth of research, compellingly presented.


All shall be well

The more I read, the more the book rings true to me. I even see so many parallels in the modern-day writings of Sri Chinmoy. Initially it was this well-known line which prompted me to read on:

…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

It kept turning in my mind, and I realised how much power it had amidst the struggles and disappointments of daily life, not to mention the constant barrage of devastation one hears in the news. Its context is Julian questioning why sin had to be created in the first place, since everything is made by God.

And thus, in my folly, afore this time often I wondered why by the great foreseeing wisdom of God the beginning of sin was not letted: for then, methought, all should have been well. This stirring [of mind] was much to be forsaken, but nevertheless mourning and sorrow I made therefor, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered by this word and said: It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

She questions Christ further, troubled by the thought of those who have died as heathens and cannot be saved according to the Church, thus condemned to eternal damnation. In our day I may occupy myself by wondering “without reason and discretion” how we will avoid another Cold War (or a not-so-cold one), or how my country will thrive outside the EU. Either way, whatever seems impossible to us is not so to God.

And as to this I had no other answer in Shewing of our Lord God but this: That which is impossible to thee is not impossible to me: I shall save my word in all things and I shall make all things well. Thus I was taught, by the grace of God, that I should steadfastly hold me in the Faith as I had aforehand understood, [and] therewith that I should firmly believe that all things shall be well, as our Lord shewed in the same time.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

In Sri Chinmoy’s words:

Precisely because He is all Love and all Goodness, God will never allow mankind to destroy this beautiful world of His. Sleeplessly He tells us to claim His world as our own, and to serve Him in this world by increasing the purity and divinity of our lives….

“We must remember that the Creator is always more powerful than His creation. The Creator can easily influence or change the negative and destructive forces in the world. Our Beloved Supreme could stop a pending nuclear disaster, for example, by changing the mind of the pilot who was about to drop the life-devastating bomb. So we must have faith in our Creator and trust that He will, without fail, do the needful for His creation.
– Sri Chinmoy, WDNI 14


Does sin exist?

One especially radical idea in Julian’s writings is that there is not really any such thing as sin:

But I saw not sin: for I believe it hath no manner of substance nor no part of being, nor could it be known but by the pain it is cause of. And thus pain, it is something, as to my sight, for a time; for it purgeth, and maketh us to know ourselves and to ask mercy. For the Passion of our Lord is comfort to us against all this, and so is His blessed will.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

To me this passage echoes Eastern traditions, summing up the concept of karma. We suffer when we go against the dictates of our soul, when we harm others and destroy goodness in the world. God does not want us to suffer, but often there is no other way for our lower nature to learn and progress. Hell is thus not a physical place necessarily, but a state of consciousness – the result of one’s own mistakes and inner blindness. It is not a permanent state, but an inevitable state in the course of human evolution. In Sri Chinmoy’s words:

To me, sin is a kind of imperfection or ignorance. It is not necessarily something very bad, ugly or untouchable. In the process of evolution we are aiming at perfection, but right now most of us are still wallowing in the pleasures of ignorance and self-indulgence. Each self-indulgent action of ours is a manifestation of our present ignorance. As long as we remain in ignorance, we will do things wrong, we will commit sins. But we must not feel that we are completely lost or covered in darkness. We are just progressing from less light to more light, and ultimately to liberation from ignorance-imperfection-sin.
– Sri Chinmoy, WDNI 30


God and Anger

And notwithstanding all this, I saw soothfastly that our Lord was never wroth, nor ever shall be. For He is God: Good, Life, Truth, Love, Peace; His Clarity and His Unity suffereth Him not to be wroth.… For our soul is so fully oned to God of His own Goodness that between God and our soul may be right nought.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

No, God does not get angry. Our way of anger and God’s way of anger are totally different. God’s anger is His divine dispensation. When He sees that His love does not work, then He uses His force.”
– Sri Chinmoy, GSH 143


God and Happiness

All this was shewed in these words: Art thou well pleased? – and by that other word that Christ said: If thou art pleased, then am I pleased;—as if He said: It is joy and satisfying enough to me, and I ask nought else of thee for my travail but that I might well please thee. And in this He brought to mind the property of a glad giver. A glad giver taketh but little heed of the thing that he giveth, but all his desire and all his intent is to please him and solace him to whom he giveth it. And if the receiver take the gift highly and thankfully, then the courteous giver setteth at nought all his cost and all his travail, for joy and delight that he hath pleased and solaced him that he loveth. Plenteously and fully was this shewed.
– Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

Happiness
Is on the top
Of God’s Priority List.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 28115

God’s only Aim
Is to make me happy
And see me happy.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 40104

God will never
Be tired
Of loving me.
– Sri Chinmoy, ST 9394


Julian’s Revelations are soothing to the mind and comforting to a heart that recognises the truth in them. I find solace in that line, “…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” because it reminds me of how I feel after a good meditation, when the mind and body are calmed, when action – mental and physical – no longer seem so urgent. One realises how little can actually be solved by doing, and how much by being.

2

The Mystery Plays

york-minster-stageSince the Mystery Plays chart the story from Creation to Last Judgement, there is only God at the beginning – God with a Yorkshire accent. There’s a certain kindliness, a kind of certainty to a Yorkshire God – you’d probably know where you are with Him. He’d be firm but fair. “Ah, merciful Maker, full mickle is Thy Might,” speaks the first of seraphim, as the planets and realms are made. All angels rise and Lucifer falls. Christ is born on earth.

It’s only the second time in 700 years the Mystery Plays have been staged at York Minster – usually they’re out in the open air. This performance, nearly 4 hours long, used to be 48 separate plays in the 1300s. Here ‘mystery’ was also a play on words – its alternate meaning is ‘craft’ or ‘trade’. Each was staged as a pageant by a different guild, travelling through the city on wagons. Shipwrights covered the building of the Ark, goldsmiths the coming of the three kings, bakers the Last Supper, and so on.

Angels would not have had LED halos and planets would not have been marked by enormous helium balloons as they are today. There would have been no dry ice or coloured spotlights or backdrops lit with immense graphical projections. But what endures through the ages is the unity and enthusiasm of local people. Excepting one professional actor – as Jesus – all roles are played by the community. There are over 150 players, from tiny children to octogenarians, and many take more than one part. Then there’s all that goes on behind the scenes, from the orchestra to carpenters and costumiers.

Many moons ago, when I was a stripling at art school, I had my heart set on studying theatre wardrobe. I loved the wild creativity of theatrical costume, as well as its transitory nature, and am still peculiarly fascinated by its construction. In this epic production, countless props and costumes were made, largely by the hands of local volunteers. Many are animals: from sheep for the shepherds at Bethlehem, to elephants, giraffes, chameleons and walruses for the Ark. With the humblest of materials – hessian, cane, canvas, wool – the stage is alive with a sample of all God’s inventions. The detail is astonishing. The effect is entrancing.

I’m glad to have bagged a ringside seat so as to admire the wardrobe’s very seams and hems. The Roman soldiers are particularly convincing, and they remind me the Minster rests on the site of an earlier Roman fort. While there has been some form of church at the spot since 627 AD, the city itself was founded as Eboracum in 71 AD. Constantine the Great was crowned Augustus right here in the year 306. He was the first emperor to allow Christians to worship openly, and brought an end to their persecution. Could there be more fitting a place for the staging of this story?

The players are not always in ancient or animal costume. As members of crowds and of the choir, as wafters of fabric seas and rivers, as hoisters of planets or paper birds on fishing rods, they are in mufti, and quite unashamedly. Jeans and jeggings, khakis and anoraks, t-shirts and biker jackets somehow seem perfectly apt. This is the community as it lives now, and it need not pretend to be anything other. Herod may need 13 attendants to carry his golden train across the stage, but addresses the visiting magi: “Now then, kings, how do?” While the time spans every era, one cannot not forget one’s true location.

Though I sit transfixed by the heart-wrenching brutality of the Crucifixion, and the ethereal light finally climbing the central tower as Jesus rises to Heaven, it’s the message of the Last Judgement that stays with me most powerfully. Since I did not pay attention in RE and never went to church, you probably know it better than I do. Those who had fed, clothed and cared for Jesus are offered safe passage to Heaven. The crowd is baffled: when had they done such things? When feeding and caring for one another, comes the answer. Those who withheld their love from one another are herded to… the other place, (though I like to think the Yorkshire God gives them another chance in an unseen epilogue).

I dare say there are not many stages blessed by Archbishops. I’m not sure how to feel about ice cream being served in the interval, or beer in the Dean’s garden next door – that’s perhaps a tad terrestrial – but overall I am left greatly encouraged by this sense of community, and of the ultimate triumph of good over… not-so-good. I feel jolly lucky to live here, in the erstwhile capital of Yorkshire – ‘God’s Own County’.


More about the 2016 Mystery Plays »

2

The Real Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

hedgehogOne of the very (very) few German words I know is the one for hedgehog. I don’t remember where or why I learned it, but it stuck in my head because igel sounds like eagle, and there can be no two creatures more dissimilar. In fact there are not many creatures similar to the hedgehog at all.

These curious urchins have been in Britain for 15 million years, yet they’ve been driven to the brink of extinction in recent decades, perhaps soon to topple into obscurity with their erstwhile peers – the woolly mammoth and sabre-tooth tiger.

The culprits? Over-zealous gardeners and developers, scatterers of poisonous slug-pellets and builders of impenetrable fences. I’ve heard from local enthusiasts these pint-sized neighbours will walk 2 miles a night in search of sustenance, and can eat up to their own body weight in food. I’d rather not imagine what that feels like.

My first introduction to the species came shortly before leaving for America, where no such creatures live – the porcupine being but a distant cousin. I was given a tiny bookshelf for my second birthday, holding the complete works of Beatrix Potter in tiny hardback volumes.

Mrs Tiggy-winkle was amongst my favourite characters – along with Squirrel Nutkin, (Mr) Jeremy Fisher, and the stalwart Peter Rabbit. As with many a children’s story in those days, horrid dangerous things happened to the main characters, especially if they’d been naughty. Mrs T, resident of Catbells in Cumbria, was a notable exception. She was far too busy to go about courting mischief.


Mrs Tiggy-winkle 1“Who are you?” said Lucie. “Have you seen my pocket-handkins?”

The little person made a bob-curtsey – “Oh, yes, if you please’m; my name is Mrs. Tiggy-winkle; oh, yes if you please’m, I’m an excellent clear-starcher!” And she took something out of a clothes-basket, and spread it on the ironing-blanket.

“What’s that thing?” said Lucie – “that’s not my pocket-handkin?”

“Oh no, if you please’m; that’s a little scarlet waist-coat belonging to Cock Robin!”

And she ironed it and folded it, and put it on one side.*


I can tell you for certain you wouldn’t want to trust your clear-starching to a hedgehog, no matter what clear-starching is. When they walk they look as though they’re daintily lifting their hems, but they can smell a slug or worm three inches underground, and are quite happy to dig for it. Their little webbed paws turn into boots of soil, which doesn’t seem to bother them a bit.

How do I know? I’ve recently taken up a new post as part-time stay-at-home daughter – the other part remaining as designer. There is quite a garden to oversee, and I’m woefully inexperienced, but we take a very flexible view of perfection when it comes to the outdoors. This is good practice for a die-hard perfectionist. Nature will, after all, do as she pleases.

And nature may be cruel at times. Blackbirds are my favourite creatures of the air – for their jubilant songs and for their exemplary work ethic. They toil all hours to raise their young this time of year, and it smarts to see the remains of that labour after the sparrowhawk has paid a call. But she has mouths to feed as well. Not everything can thrive – not even one’s favourites – so balance is perhaps the best objective.


Mrs Tiggy-winkle 2Then she took something else off a clothes-horse –

“That isn’t my pinny?” said Lucie.

“Oh no, if you please’m; that’s a damask table-cloth belonging to Jenny Wren; look how it’s stained with currant wine! It’s very bad to wash!” said Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.

Mrs. Tiggy-winkle’s nose went sniffle, sniffle, snuffle, and her eyes went twinkle, twinkle; and she fetched another hot iron from the fire.

“There’s one of my pocket-handkins!” cried Lucie – “and there’s my pinny!”

Mrs. Tiggy-winkle ironed it, and goffered it, and shook out the frills.

“Oh that is lovely!” said Lucie.*


Since we have our hearts set on growing greens, fruits and flowers, we face a moral dilemma. I could not physically kill a slug, and nor would I want to, but there is little point growing food and effectively handing it out as alms to the slug population. Anything within reasonable reach is considered a free buffet by these ill-mannered gatecrashers.

We have everything in pots with awkward rims, covered in petroleum jelly and tied round the top with copper taping. Anyone bold enough to traverse the gravel will then be faced with a gastropodic obstacle course.

Which, I’m assured by gardeners more seasoned than myself, is not enough. So, not wanting to get our hands dirty with actual murder, we’ve hired a mercenary.

Her terms are quite particular. She wants a low dwelling with a front door facing a wall or fence in a quiet and rustic corner of the garden. She wants free access to surrounding properties (ideally four additional). She wants fresh rainwater and a little food provided daily – though not bread and milk as people tend to assume. Since she is carnivorous, I leave that side of things to my mother.

I say she as we assume this is the ‘sow’, and her occasional visitor is a roaming ‘boar’, though it’s hard to tell them apart in their country fashions. We’re hoping for an ‘array’ come summertime, though that term rather conjures up carpet samples, or gloves in a department store display, than a litter of blind and spineless offspring.

It’s best not to count one’s chickens, or hoglets in this case, but our little harvest is so far flourishing. Spinach is happily billowing out its big green sails, rocket is shooting sunwards and chard is champing at the bit. Even young delphiniums – apparently a delicious item on any buffet menu – remain untouched by mollusc mouths.


Mrs Tiggy-winkle 3“And what are those long yellow things with fingers like gloves?”

“Oh, that’s a pair of stockings belonging to Sally Henny-penny – look how she’s worn the heels out with scratching in the yard! She’ll very soon go barefoot!“ said Mrs. Tiggy-winkle.

“Why, there’s another handkersniff – but it isn’t mine; it’s red?“

“Oh no, if you please’m; that one belongs to old Mrs. Rabbit; and it did so smell of onions! I’ve had to wash it separately, I can’t get out the smell.”*


While building the ‘house’, I petitioned my mother not to tell my friends how I spent the weekend, lest they thought I’d lost my marbles permanently. I could be seen weaving lengths of purple dogwood into a wire frame – quite feverishly, before it turned too brittle to use, or too thick to fell in the first place.

How much care went into that little home, how many planning meetings passed, and how many minor injuries were sustained in its construction. We double insulated with bubblewrap and lined it with plastic for the wetter months. We hewed out a back door for deliveries, and fitted CCTV (for our own entertainment more than for her security). We stopped short of washing lines and clothes horses.

Since my early introduction to Mrs T, I’ve always had the sense of hedgehogs being too absorbed in their own service to seek out trouble or to meddle in other people’s affairs. Just so, it seems the real Mrs T is proving an asset to her community.

I find myself wondering what quality Sri Chinmoy would have assigned to the humble hedgehog. In his book Animal Kingdom, we find the duck symbolises discrimination, the buffalo wisdom, the rabbit sincerity, the jackal roguishness, and tortoise immortality. The eagle is vision, but the igel is not listed. Were the post of service not already filled by the squirrel, that would have been my best guess, but whatever the answer, no doubt it would have been a great surprise.


Mrs Tiggy-winkle 4She was running running running up the hill – and where was her white frilled cap? and her shawl? and her gown – and her petticoat?

And how small she had grown – and how brown – and covered with PRICKLES!

Why! Mrs. Tiggy-winkle was nothing but a HEDGEHOG.*


2

Easter Reflections

daffodilsEaster was always my favourite time of year growing up. A long weekend with extra chocolate – what could be more appealing? Nature reaches a turning point at last. Birds are busy staking their claim on real estate for the coming season, singing their pitches in the early dawn. Snowdrops make way for crocuses and celandine. New buds arrive daily. In York the city walls have full yellow skirts of daffodils.

Often Easter falls when I’m away on retreat. April 13th is a red-letter day in the Sri Chinmoy Centre calendar – the day Sri Chinmoy came to the West. This year Easter came early, so I spent Good Friday at home, baking hot-cross buns and filling vases with daffodils and purple tulips. In amongst spring freshness and the cosy aromas of spice, I did leave time for reflection though. While painting the dough with white crosses and hearing the full intensity of Bach’s St John Passion, there was no forgetting the day’s meaning.

Though brought up in the UK and US, I was not brought up a Christian. It’s only since following a rather different spiritual path that I’ve come to appreciate the life of Christ, as well as the lives of other Avatars (incarnations of God). In Sri Chinmoy’s words:

“As the true oneness-friend of mankind, Jesus Christ flooded the earth-consciousness with Compassion and Forgiveness. His immortal prayer, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ will forever draw down God’s Compassion and Forgiveness from above for the inwardly hungry and thirsty truth-seekers and God-lovers. Indeed, Jesus’ self-offering life and earth-illumining message will shine bright, brighter, brightest in the aspiring heart and God-loving life of humanity throughout Eternity.”
– Sri Chinmoy, WDNI 23

I try to hear one or other of Bach’s Passions live each year at York Minster. This year instead I’ll see the Mystery Plays in summer – a 700-year-old tradition of theatre, telling the (somewhat condensed) story from creation to last judgement. None of these are West End productions. Perhaps it’s the very fact the casts are made up of local people, and the settings are fondly familiar, that they always bring the story of Christ’s life home to me.

On Easter Sunday I’m thankful for all this new life around me. The old roses are coming into leaf, as well as our latest plantings of greens and berries. Skylarks pipe their epic tales without a pause for breathing. This evening at meditation we’ll sing songs Sri Chinmoy composed for the Christ, and recite some poems he wrote on the theme of resurrection. We’ll no doubt have our share of chocolate afterwards too 🙂

“The beauty of peace
Is being buried every day,
And every day
It has to be resurrected.”
– Sri Chinmoy, AP 25867

“My hope’s resurrection declares
Earth’s transformation-promise,
Man’s perfection-dream,
God’s Satisfaction-Dance.”
– Sri Chinmoy, FF 109

“My Lord,
Please tell me if I am alive.
My child,
Resurrect Me first.”
– Sri Chinmoy, MCSB 21

0

Sugarless Tea

sugarlessteaI just found this enchanting short film, written and directed by Sai Selvarajan.

It caught my attention by connecting India to Queens, New York (Sri Chinmoy came from India and made his home in Queens).

The artwork itself is brilliant, and the story heartwarming. Next time you have 4 minutes spare, I recommend it.

2

Flaubert’s Saint Julian

St Julian the Hospitaller, ChartresIt was Oscar Wilde who said, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” I don’t necessarily agree with the first part – not that I’m qualified to say – but there’s some hope for us mere mortals in the second.

Having had a bit of a grumble lately about saints not showing their human side, I was reminded of Saint Julian the Hospitaller – as described by Flaubert – and had to change my tune.

Strange that Flaubert the radical realist should choose an ancient and (probably) embroidered tale to re-tell. Some say it was his nostalgia for a faith by which he was surrounded in childhood, but which did not hold water for him as time went on. I wonder if he just got tired of his warts-and-all view of the world, and wanted to be lost in a good old swashbuckling legend.

Either way, his Three Short Works – Saint Julian making one – marked the rise of secularism and decline of spirituality in 19th Century France. (I’d say try Britain in the 21st Century if you think that’s worrying). Despite his usual skepticism, Flaubert was affected by the change, be that from a place of secret sentimentality, social concern, or hard-nosed observation.

Sadly my grade B French O-Level doesn’t stretch to reading it in the original, but the translated text ends:

And this is the story of Saint Julian the Hospitaller, as it is given on the stained-glass window of a church in my birthplace.”

This made me laugh out loud. As though all the intense drama and aesthetic refinement described by Flaubert could be detailed on a stained-glass window, especially one from the 13th Century. The window at Chartres is remarkable for its time, and obviously made an impression on the young writer, but the realism in this case is borne on the wings of his imagination. Delightfully so.

Having spoiled the punchline already, I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it, but it’s a cracking tale of transformation. Julian’s father is told by a soothsayer that his son will marry into the family of an emperor, and his mother is told he’ll become a saint. So it sounds like he has it all mapped out nicely, but that’s not taking into account the prediction he will murder both his parents.

Young Julian certainly has a nasty streak – killing countless animals for sport and vainglory – but he dotes on his parents and does all he can to avoid his fate. Ultimately he’s haunted by the animals he’s slaughtered, and after emerging from a deep terror, leaves home with the dual intention of protecting the local community and staying away from his parents for their own good.

St Julian the Hospitaller, Franz MarcAnd so as not to give away the best part, that’s where I’ll leave Julian, as pictured above in the window at Chartres. In contrast, here he is as Franz Marc saw him – now in the public domain courtesy of the Guggenheim. Not sure if this is Julian in his hunting phase, in which case the animals are cowering from him. I like to think it’s after he’s renounced hunting, so they’re curled up safely asleep. Anyway, refreshing to see such a lively-looking saint.

From Guggenheim to Gutenburg, Flaubert’s Three Short Works are also in the public domain. A Simple Soul is my favourite, but she will have to wait for another time. There’s also an audio book – useful if you suffer from chronic insomnia, but I recommend reading Saint Julian from the page at least, and in a swashbuckling voice. À chacun son goût.

E-book: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10458
Audio: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21604

0

The Lost Thing

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is a labour of love – a film of only 15 minutes which took 4 people 3.5 years to make. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, as the saying goes. I love to see any creative work done with such complete commitment, devotion to detail and (most of ALL) heart.

The story is set in a retro-future world, where most people are too absorbed in their colourless drudgery to notice anything truly special or unique… even if it is bright red and bigger than a transit van.

Ostensibly this is an innocent childlike fable, and yet it has a deeper commentary which is as sad as it is hopeful. It hints at a safe and bright place where individuality is the norm; where specialness itself is harboured and celebrated; where lost things find their home.

…but it’s worth watching just for the artwork alone. There are countless endearing details that can easily be missed on first viewing.

2

Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa

Miyamoto Musashi is Japan’s most famous swordsman. The account of his life, meticulously researched and documented by Eiji Yoshikawa in the 1930s, was carefully crafted into English by Charles S Terry 50 years later; a work transparent enough to preserve Yoshikawa’s exquisite poetic style.

This is ostensibly a book of swordsmanship, and includes its share of martial combat, but that element is neither gratuitous nor glamourised – it serves to support rather than blemish the story’s purpose. Musashi transforms himself from a brute and selfish thug, to a hero of great depth and honour. Through the teachings of Takuan Soho and through his own self-discipline and one-pointedness, he transcends his natural capacities in the pursuit of his life’s mission.

Although Musashi was the maven of martial arts in his time, Yoshikawa portrays his many human aspects so as to bring his character into real and living relief – not a mere legend, but a man struggling with failings and weaknesses, in whom one can surely glimpse one’s own self. Never coldly observing from outside any character, Yoshikawa becomes the character and writes straight from that beating heart, or racing mind, or pulsing body. Each character has its place in the tale and its own unique lesson for the reader.

Yoshikawa’s research is such that every angle of the culture and every level of the social hierarchy is revealed in robust detail. The writing is complete and completely satisfying, pristine and elegant. No single word is superfluous, yet no detail is trivial enough for exclusion. One may well take any sentence from any of the 970 pages and let it stand as a striking, intriguing work of prose.

More graceful than grisly, this is the account by one master of another master’s life. Whether you choose to read this book for its historical content, its study of martial arts, its celebration of Japanese culture, its portrayal of human transcendence, or simply as a heroic piece of writing, you will not be disappointed.

18

The Scent of Green Papaya

papayaI revisited one of my favourite films last week. Every time I see it I love it more.

Masterfully directed by Tran Anh Hung, it follows the life of a Vietnamese servant girl in 1950s Saigon. The characters are subtly contrasted — male with female, young with old, decadent with diligent, selfish with satisfied, exposing the wide gamut of human experience.

This film heightens the senses — the attention to detail is exquisite. The photography is a feast in itself, like visual poetry, and with not a word wasted. Each sound is carefully placed, whether evoking the refinement of eastern culture or the simple elegance of nature.

It thus invokes my reverence for nature and my empathy for humanity. It awakens me to the flow of life and to my surroundings, however simple — after all, the whole set of the film is little more than a few rooms.

These ingredients are more than enough for me to return to the feast again and again, but what I love most is its message, like a constant heartbeat throughout: that duty is at once strong and beautiful, that humility and service win happiness, and that all we need is already within us.

4

Shaggy Muses

Behind every great woman

Shaggy Muses by Maureen AdamsThey say that behind every great man there has to be a great woman, but behind a great woman? They do not mention. Perhaps we should look down toward the hearth. Shaggy Muses, by Maureen Adams, is a heartful tribute to the dogs who unknowingly, and unconditionally inspired five iconic female writers: Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.

I suppose there are dog-lovers in all walks of life. So, what makes this connection interesting, or is it just a coincidence? Having read to the end, I see that the dogs—differing vastly in breed, breeding, size and temperament—played differing roles in the lives of each woman, but there are themes in these interspecies bonds too strikingly similar to be coincidental. That makes for a fascinating read, but the dogs themselves make it heart-wrenchingly un-put-downable (for this dog-lover at least).

Sadly all women had one clear thing in common: traumatic lives. That is a well-trod path for writers in general; not so much in terms of life’s challenging events per se, but the heightened sensitivity and emotionality of creative people leaves them ill-equipped for bereavements, illnesses, emotional or physical abuse, the sheer overwhelming nature of creative output itself, and in many cases everyday life in general. In each of these five cases the dog (or dogs) had a soothing and joyful influence, keeping the writer grounded, as well as offering empathy, employing that other-worldly sixth-sensitivity which is the hallmark of their species.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (pictured on the front cover), the most tragic of all, maintained humour in her letters about dogs and their refreshingly earthly simplicity. But she had no qualms about referring to their spiritual qualities either. It seemed both were equally essential to her, making her literally inseparable from them:

“Out after lunch with Gurth to … the Joachim concert at the Bechstein Hall, where Gurth accompanied a … song with a voluntary bass of his own composition & I had to remove him in haste.”

“I took Max along the River, but we were a good deal impeded, by a bone he stole, by my suspenders coming down, by a dogfight in which his ear was torn & bled horribly. I thought how happy I was without any of the excitements, which, once, seemed to me to constitute happiness.”

“And the truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at it vanishes; but look at the ceiling , at Grizzle … and the soul slips in.”

“Your puppy has destroyed, by eating holes, my skirt, ate L’s proofs, and done such damage as could be done to the carpet—But she is an angel of light. Leonard says seriously she makes him believe in God…”

In one passage Virginia hits the cornerstone of what it is to be a writer, which may further explain why a writer may be willing to overlook the less desirable canine traits to behold the more refined and inspirational:

“Why does my spaniel jump onto chairs when she is dripping from a swim in the river? The answer is that instead of controlling life … we writers merely contemplate it.”

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton with Chihuahuas Mimi and MizaI say the most tragic of all was Virginia Woolf, but I felt sorriest of all for Edith Wharton. Who would be born to a wealthy family in Victorian times? Denied the privilege of reading novels until after she was married, the awkward seventeen-year-old was primped and primed as a debutante, a husband being the only seemly occupation for a young lady of her era.

The young Edith was certainly forbidden from writing novels; imagination could not be a helpful quality for a wife to possess, and as for self-expression, well! In a world where every daily act and duty followed strict rules of propriety, what place could there be for spontaneity or spirit? As a child she begged the servants to save oddments of brown wrapping paper from any parcels delivered to the house. Crouching on the floor, she wrote on them her first secret stories.

She did marry an eligible and affable chap in the end, but he suffered a hereditary form of insanity, which came on soon after. Although she devotedly nursed him and encouraged him, he did not improve, and became too dangerous to be alone with, so Edith was left to her dogs and her servants. As the latter could not be decently leant on emotionally, that job fell to a string of Poodles, Chihuahuas and Pekingese, on whom she was almost excruciatingly dependent. In the autumn of her life, that role only increased in importance. Her own words describe why it was dogs who won her heart:

“If ever I have a biographer, it is in these notes that he will find the gist of me … Let us begin with some stray thoughts—The subconscious … of the psychologists … I am secretly afraid of animals—of all animals except dogs, and even of some dogs. I think it is because of the usness in their eyes, with the underlying not-usness which belies it, and is so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off and left them: left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? their eyes seem to ask us.”

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

Elizabeth Barrett-BrowningOne can say unequivocally in the case of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning that her dog was not merely a companion, but a life-saver. After a volley of painful bereavements, and many years of debilitating illness, it seemed the young poet had given up the will to live. Bedridden in a darkened room, mourning acutely for her closest brother, she barely ate or slept, and was described by her family as “close to death”.

In a daring attempt to lift her from despair, a friend offered a spaniel puppy named Flush. There were many near-refusals by the poet, born of misgivings about the dog’s cloistered future, and mere shyness of accepting such a dear and generous gift. But even before she did finally accept, thoughts of the puppy had begun to turn her from her grief. By the time he arrived, he had already entered her heart and begun to transform her suffering existence into a life of joy and creativity. To her benefactor, Elizabeth wrote:

“How I thank you for Flush!—Dear little Flush—growing dearer every day!… Such a quiet, loving intelligent little dog—& so very very pretty! He shines as if he carried sunlight about on his back!”

Not exactly the words of a person close to death. The dog had a blissfully spoiled existence, sleeping on his mistress’s bed and eating from her hand. They were singularly devoted to one another. One problem with devotion to dogs is that they do have such short lives compared to ours. It would seem perilous for such a fragile girl to invest her whole heart in a mere spaniel. Indeed she plunged back into despair when the dog was stolen more than once by a gang of professional dog-nappers, demanding a ransom for his return. The two were reunited each time (both somewhat the worse for wear), and their bond only deepened.

For all they say about similarities between dogs and their owners, one can’t help noticing that this mistress wore her hair uncannily like a spaniel’s ears. Flush’s greatest gift to Elizabeth was not hairdressing though, but self-confidence. That trait was sorely lacking in the poet as as she lay immobile for much of her early life, unable to contribute to the family household, and seemingly ineligible for marriage. But soon, basking in the dog’s devotion, she grew spirit enough to think and act for herself, to write prolifically, and to live happily ever after with fellow poet Robert Browning.

By the time Flush passed away Elizabeth was an established writer with much finer health than when he came into her life, leaving her far better equipped to accept the loss and to replace her grief with gratitude for his life. Although she survived him by only six years, they were for the most part happy and creative years; a continuation of the strength he had brought her.

Emily Brontë

Emily BrontëBrontë dogs were a far cry from pampered Pekingese and spoiled Spaniels. The one who featured most prominently in Emily’s life was the formidable Keeper, brought into the family to deter burglars. Maureen Adams sets the scene:

“On England’s Yorkshire moors in the mid-1840s, the villagers of Haworth often paused in their work at the sight of Emily Brontë, the parson’s daughter, striding across the heath with a massive dog at her side. Years later, they could still remember the tall woman and her dog appearing suddenly out of the fog. No warning of their approach could be heard except for the dog’s odd breathing, a wheezing whistle, the result of an injury from one of his fierce brawls with the local dogs. Emily would nod a greeting and pause to hear the latest tales of quarrels, thievery or ghost sightings. The dog, Keeper, stood completely still—his eyes on his mistress—until the moment she stirred, when he instantly followed her. A strange pair they were, uncanny and frightening, like the old stories of the goddesses and their dogs. Yet there was gentleness between them.”

It was more a battle of wills between the two characters than an abundance of affection as with the other women and their lapdogs, but it was as powerful a connection. In fact it seemed Emily was not entirely aware of a boundary between herself and the dog, in the same way that she had difficulty distinguishing her outer life from her inner life of fiction. Maureen Adams notes:

“Most dog owners depend on their dogs to keep them connected to the natural world. Taking a dog for a daily walk allows one to experience the changing seasons and the vicissitudes of weather. But Emily Brontë, who wasted away if not free to wander the moors, did not need Keeper to connect her to nature. Instead, she needed him to help her stay grounded with daily routines, which she tended to forget when she was absorbed in writing.”

All the Brontës died young, so, unusually, Keeper outlived his mistress. According to one observer:

“Keeper walked first among the mourners to her funeral; he slept moaning for nights at the door of her empty room, and never, so to speak, rejoiced, dog fashion after her death.”

Emily Dickinson

This poet was by far the most reclusive of the five women, and thus perhaps the most dependent on her canine muse to keep aloneness from turning to loneliness.

The puppy Carlo was a gift from her father. As a successful lawyer he spent a lot of time away, and fretted about the safety of the three females he left behind: Emily, her sister Lavinia, and their mother. His fears were not unfounded, as bandits and burglars were rife in New England, but he was somewhat overprotective, which perhaps swayed his choice of a very large breed: the Newfoundland.

It was no accident that he gave the puppy specifically to Emily, but it may have been a fortunate coincidence that he also chose such a very sensitive breed. He knew very well of his daughter’s preference for solitude, which turned easily into anxiety about what lay beyond the garden hedge. It seems he gave Carlo not only for practical outer protection but for “human” companionship and reassurance when he could not be there himself.

Again this huge beast was no lapdog, and spent most of his time outside, but he was allowed upstairs into his mistress’s living quarters. Not quite fitting into the private conservatory where Emily spent much of her time, he would lie in the doorway with only two paws inside. Emily loved the outdoors, and roamed happily alone with Carlo in the family meadow and neighbouring woods before entering into her best-known state of complete seclusion. Even then the family had a large garden where Emily grew fragrant flowers and sketched poems, always with Carlo looking on.

It must be said that it was not only fear which kept her alone, but a disillusionment with the world and with humanity. She craved silence and sensitivity, but found it only rarely in human society. Carlo’s virtues grew in her esteem; a tribute to the dog and to dogs in general, if at the expense of some cynicism about the human race. In letters she openly credits Carlo with more refinement than society:

“They [men and women] talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog—He and I dont object to them, if they’ll exist their side.”

“You ask of my Companions—Hills Sir and the Sundown—and a Dog—large as myself, that my father bought me—They are better than Beings—because they know—but do not tell.”

“I talk of all these things with Carlo, and his eyes grow meaning, and his shaggy feet keep a slower pace.”

Says Maureen Adams:

“Carlo never grew exhausted by Emily’s need for constant, attuned attention because it was part of his inbred nature to provide such a response. All dogs naturally look at their owners with a steady gaze, but it can be argued that the Newfoundland’s deep-set, dark eyes are the most sympathetic of all.”

As with most of these writers when their favourite dogs passed away, Emily did not write much about it to her friends. She would understandably have been too grief-stricken at Carlo’s death to speak of such a delicate subject to mere humans, remaining more inclined to “tell it slant” through her poems. Years before the event finally came though, she told a friend:

“Gracie, do you know that I believe that the first to come and greet me when I go to heaven will be this dear, faithful, old friend Carlo?”

Acknowledgements

Maureen AdamsWith many thanks to Maureen Adams (and her two shaggy muses) for this touching and insightful read. It is truly one of the best books I have ever owned, and I will treasure it.

Found out more at ShaggyMuses.com

4

English as a Fecund Language

A Chicken and Egg Situation

I spent a while teaching English as a second language in Thailand many years ago, and had a splendid time. Not only did I find the language (especially the written characters) more beautiful than my own English equivalent; the culture, the etiquette, the people, the weather, the food, everything beguiled me and I felt entirely at home, as if remembering a Heaven where I once belonged. Maybe I’ll tell you more about it another time, but I will say two things for now:

  1. My grasp of the Thai language extended barely beyond the basic pleasantries and the buying of food. This was mainly due to the importance of inflections and polite appendages, which English has no care for. The word “khai” could sound from me at random as the verb “to sell” or the noun “egg” or the noun “chicken” depending on its delivery. Vegetarian as I am, my linguistic state was precarious.
  2. Explaining English to other people made me extremely glad that it is my first language, so I don’t have to struggle with its peculiarities from a text book or teacher. The more I explained, the more baffled I became by my own explanations, gradually realising that there are as many exceptions as rules. I was tempted to take the stance of Frenchman G. Nolst Trenité:

“Finally, which rhymes with enough —
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!”
[source]

Image: Kedar Misani


Contextual Complexities

Learning our first language comes from constant immersion combined with dire necessity. We pick up meanings largely from the words’ environmental context, and grammar from their verbal context. This leaves us able to use a large number of words effectively but often only notionally; without really knowing their precise meaning, let alone their origin.

Words such as man, woman, cat and dog have not changed throughout the ages, but more complex phrases evolve relatively fast:

“…the phrase ‘willy nilly,’ which we now take to mean ‘any which way’ originally had a much different meaning. Willehe-nellehe was an Old English term meaning ‘whether he will or whether he won’t’ and implied someone doing something against their wishes — whether they wanted to or not. Over time this concept has been misinterpreted to the point where its meaning is entirely different. Extrapolate this example across the language and you get constant evolution.”
[source]

The speed and accuracy with which we pick up a language no doubt depends on many factors; partly environment/encouragement, partly our own propensity. Elizabeth Barrett (pictured) is one extraordinary example; something of an infant prodigy in the world of words, not just speaking but reading before she can walk. Elizabeth read her first word when she was 13 months old, from then devouring books with exceptional voracity. In her father’s words:

“I think she has some special abilities that have just been a fortunate thing she’s been born with.”

“This is something we never expected,” added his wife. “We didn’t teach her this. We don’t sit down and drill her on words. She loves reading books.”

[source]

Believing in reincarnation as I do, I can’t help wondering if such capacity is not only to do with nature and nurture, but past experience. Perhaps the name Elizabeth Barrett is a clue? 😉


The Word Burglars

So the English language is as fond of breaking rules as it is of making them up as it goes along, it also is in a constant state of evolution because we don’t always really know what we mean when we speak it. Add to that the (disputable) fact that it has the largest vocabulary, and I am yet more glad I don’t have to learn it from scratch.

“The Oxford English Dictionary lists a total of 171,476 words with an additional 47,156 obsolete and 9,500 derivative words as subentries, giving almost a quarter of a million words in the English language, even when technical terms, place names and multiple word senses are excluded.”
[source]

But that includes all the words we’ve half-inched from other languages. So-called loanwords are “a consequence of cultural contact between two language communities”. As such contact will presumably only increase, so will our vocabulary.

So far we have taken ketchup from… Chinese (yep), gingham from the Pacific Islands (and I dread to think what we gave in return), Japanese gave us karaoke (whether we wanted it or not), American Indian gave us avocado and hurricane (a mixed blessing), African languages gave us jitterbugs and zombies (which we probably could manage without, but it’s the thought that counts), Arabic gave us caravan (thence all sorts of traffic problems during the British summertime), Hindi gave us bungalow and chintz (to be used sparingly, especially in a bungalow), German gave us poodle, noodle and apple strudel (enough said), Dutch gave us smuggle and freebooter (well, we stole them really), French gave us garage and sachet (which we’d struggle without), Italian gave us opera and umbrella (which we needed badly), Spanish gave us mosquito and tornado (which we didn’t). Shall I go on, or are we sufficiently incriminated?
[source]


Shakespearean Tragedy?

I’ve already briefly touched on the subject of poets adding to our lexicon in John Milton and the Origin of Space, but, says Stuart Waters, Shakespeare et al are doomed:

“There is no motive in this crime of the future, just an inevitability based on one undeniable fact. Language changes, and ironically, Shakespeare was himself perhaps the greatest ever at introducing new terms, concepts and metaphors into the language. The very craft he mastered will eventually consign his works to history.

“Technologically, the very nature of communication is changing on a daily basis and we are only at the beginning of this revolution. The internet, email and text messaging are tremendously fertile fields for the growth of new words and concepts and because this type of technology changes so quickly it is very difficult to see where it will take the language. On the one hand communication technology exerts pressure for language evolution, but on the other hand, it puts everyone in touch with everyone else, breaking down the barriers of distance and culture which traditionally fuel language change. What will be the outcome? Who can say.

“It is clear however that sooner or later the poetry and artistry of the Bard will be lost to all but historians of English, just as the works of Homer are unintelligible to modern Greeks.
[source]


Outcome 1: Pidgin

“What will be the outcome?” asks Waters. Well, Pidgin English is one (pidgin, not pigeon).

“A pidgin is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common, in situations such as trade. Pidgins are not the native language of any speech community, but are instead learned as second languages.
[source]

English may have the largest vocabulary. Its offspring, Pidgin English, claims to have the smallest, but is possibly yet trickier to learn. With just a few examples from the version spoken in Papua New Guinea, I am amply convinced of that, (although it does have logic, phonetic continuity, and absolute cuteness in its favour):

  • television: bokis wailis wantem piksa
  • corridor: ples wokabaut insait long haus
  • antiseptic: marasin bilong kilim jem
  • bathroom: rum bilong waswas

[source]


Outcome 2: LOLspeak

LOLspeak is born of our modern-day 24/7 culture where everyone is multi-tasking, communication is as urgently important as breathing, and everything is too much hassle to do properly or fully. Some familiar examples of LOLspeak are OMG (oh my God), BRB (be right back), and the eponymous LOL: laughing out loud, lots of love, or…

Depending on the chatter, its definition may vary. The list of its meanings includes, but is not limited to:
1) “I have nothing worthwhile to contribute to this conversation.”
2) “I’m too lazy to read what you just wrote so I’m typing something useless in hopes that you’ll think I’m still paying attention.”
3) “Your statement lacks even the vaguest trace of humor but I’ll pretend I’m amused.”
[source]

Does LOL mark the demise of the beautiful English language? IMHO, no. Whatever it signifies for humans, it is a mark of progress for all other species. If it counts for English, animals have finally started to speak, and even nuborned ones are typing their own messages on sites such as cuteoverload.com, ihasahotdog.com and icanhascheezburger.com (pictured). So LOL is progress. Officially.

(Ono! U meen dey don type teh msgs demself?? Srsly?).

Who Has The Largest Individual Vocabulary?

Whatever may happen in the future, regardless of species, who has the largest English vocabulary right now? This is not a straightforward question. Michael Quinion explains why:

“What we mean by word sounds obvious, but it’s not. Take a verb like climb. The rules of English allow you to generate the forms climbs, climbed, climbable, and climbing, the nouns climb and climber (and their plurals climbs and climbers), compounds such as climb-down and climbing frame, and phrasal verbs like climb on, climb over, and climb down. Now, here’s the question you’ve got to answer: are all these distinct words, or do you lump them all together under climb?

“The other difficult term is vocabulary. What counts as a word that somebody knows? Is it one that a person uses regularly and accurately? Or perhaps one that will be correctly recognised — say in written text — but not used? Or perhaps one that will be understood in context but which the person may not easily be able to define?
[source]


Of all the people I know, my meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy (pictured) definitely has the largest vocabulary, however it’s measured. Growing up in East Bengal, English was not his first language, but I regularly come across English words in his writings which I have never seen before. Take my favourite example: sesquipedalian (meaning a very long word).

Sri Chinmoy published almost 1600 books during his lifetime, including around 117,000 poems. Whatever happens to the English language – however it evolves, however it is used and misused – I will always relish it and cherish it, and I will always look to my teacher Sri Chinmoy for new words and new inspiration. It is not only his vast vocabulary, but the use of it which I love. He reminds me to stay in my heart, and to try to use whatever capacity I have for goodness. Although he passed away last year, and I still miss him dearly, he left behind the legacy of his writings for us all to enjoy. Read to your heart’s content for free at Sri Chinmoy Library!

“No more am I the foolish customer
Of a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze.
I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald-Beyond.
My heart-tapestry
Shall capture the Himalayan Smiles
Of my Pilot Supreme.
In the burial of my sunken mind
Is the revival of my climbing heart.
In the burial of my deceased mind
Is the festival of my all-embracing life.”

—Sri Chinmoy (from The Dance of Life)

Image: Pavitrata Taylor

10

The Spirituality of Emily Dickinson

Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson referred to herself as a pagan. Some biographers would go so far as to label her a druid for her worship of nature. But was this apparently stubborn heathen life really built on atheism?

On the surface what seems a blatant rebellion against the Christian reforms sweeping New England in the 19th Century could be misinterpreted as a lack of spiritual inclination. If we look beneath even a single veneer we will undoubtedly find true spirituality at the heart of her endeavour; far from snubbing God, but simply insisting on no less than a first-hand experience of Him.

The poet shunned religious doctrine, but did she shun religion? Certainly not as a whole, and even then it may be merely a matter of syntax. The words ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ may at times be used interchangeably, and at others a fine distinction must be made. Charles Anderson chooses to make no distinction, using the word ‘religion’ in its broadest, and perhaps most primal sense:

“The final direction of her poetry, and the pressures that created it, can only be described as religious, using that word in its ‘dimension of depth.’”

Emily inherited the Puritan traits of austerity, simplicity, and practicality, as well as an astute observation of the inner self, but her communication with her higher Self was much more informal than her God-fearing forefathers would have dared. The daughter of the ‘Squire’ of Amherst, she came from a line of gritty, stalwart pioneers, carrying what was almost considered the blue blood of America. Her family was far from poor, but she did not lead a lavish life, for the Puritans abhorred luxury and waste (even a waste of words, which trait the poet did well to inherit).

She accepted the Puritan ideals of being ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ by God, and fully embraced the merits of transcending desire, but not the concept of being inherently sinful:

“While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that ‘this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption’ it has already done so and they go defrauded.”

She had faith in her own divinity, so perhaps she was yet more certain of God than her peers. She did not claim to fully understand Him, or even to have perennial faith in all His Ways—her poetry bears a continuing strain of doubt—but she certainly did not fear Him. The inner freedom this afforded her—rare for a woman of her time—brought her to the point of being almost cheeky in her familiarity and certainty. This confidence fed her poetry sumptuously, and gave it the well-known child-like quality. To her, truth was in nature. In that beauty she could see and feel God directly:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I’m going, all along.

Emily did actually attend church regularly, sometimes traveling to hear some of the rousing and charismatic preachers who stamped their mark on that era. She was often moved by these sermons, perhaps as compelled by the speaker’s delivery and the construction of words as the message within them. But this was not enough to entice her to succumb to the fierce religious revival. One by one her friends received an inner calling and were ‘saved,’ officially accepting Christianity. Members of her close-knit family eventually followed suit, including her strong-willed father, and finally her brother, Austin, perhaps her closest ally. Emily would not commit to something she could not sincerely feel, even under the unthinkable social pressure that surrounded her.

Until the age of 30 she continued going to church, although she was excluded from certain meetings and services open only to those who had been ‘saved’. She became increasingly reclusive throughout her 30s. It is tempting to see her seclusion as further evidence of spiritual asceticism. Her spiritual path was certainly intensely lonely in such a social climate, but she craved aloneness more and more, and seclusion somehow formed a symbiotic relationship with her art. Increasingly her art became an expression of her spirituality.

Immortality (“the Flood Subject” as she called it) consumed Emily’s consciousness. Dwelling on death was natural in those times as illness and general hardship frequently took lives around her, her awareness heightened further by the many years spent in a house adjoining a cemetery. But dwelling on death was also almost a spiritual practice, a ‘graveyard meditation,’ a means of focus, breathing life into the concepts of Eternity, Infinity and Immortality.

Poet and philosopher Sri Chinmoy said of the poet:

“Emily Dickinson wrote thousands of psychic poems. One short poem of hers is enough to give sweet feelings and bring to the fore divine qualities of the soul.”

“With a deep sense of gratitude, let me call upon the immortal soul of Emily Dickinson, whose spiritual inspiration impels a seeker to know what God the Infinite precisely is. She says:
‘The infinite a sudden guest
Has been assumed to be,
But how can that stupendous come
Which never went away?’”

From Patriots of America by Sri Chinmoy

What drove her consistently was that she needed truth, and at any cost. She needed to see it with her own eyes and feel it with her own heart, not grasp at it in the words of a clergyman but explain it to herself through her own words. It seems she was even ready to die for her cause:

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, —the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Emily’s truth-seeking was a spiritual quest that governed her inner life, and naturally blossomed through her poetic works. Her own words, in a letter to a friend, succinctly claim Eternity and Immortality as her own. Perhaps they also presage the enduring spiritual appeal of her writing, far beyond the short span of her life:

“So I conclude that space & time are things of the body & have little or nothing to do with our selves. My Country is Truth.”

13