Archive | Memoirs

The Eye of the Beholder

Me painting, age 2I don’t mind admitting that beauty is crucial for my inspiration: in itself, and as a context for other experiences. Beauty owns a door through which I reach the vestibule of love for God, from which I can (potentially) access doors to other spiritual qualities: service, patience, trust, carefulness, willingness, (et al, ad infinitum). If I return through the door to beauty having experienced love for God in that central vestibule, that beauty is augmented.

Colours are nutrients. I crave them and forage for them. When I see a new combination or ingenious use, I gorge and am replete. A visual clash or lack of care unnerves me like an ugly noise. Like sounds or scents colours harbour harmony or dissonance; they breathe or bleed life and energy.

On the balance of my life’s priorities, it was the relative weight of beauty that enticed me to study art.

It was not glamorous.

Socks, books, hair, fingernails all betrayed my occupation. Everything I owned was ink-smirched or bore a stray blotch of colour in a circle of oil. However carefully the charcoal was stowed, a crushed stub would find itself a most inconvenient and disappointing home.

I walked eight miles a day on flimsy plimsolls, in all the relentless weathers of North Yorkshire, existing mainly on potatoes and donuts. Why? To pass a day in paint fumes, observing the scales of a dead fish, or callusing my young fingers with wire. Why?

They were bleak, hungry years, but they were beauty – inward and outward.

I went nowhere without a sketchbook, and nowhere without observing the shades, shapes and spaces in things. Fine art formed my first year, but textiles and costume followed. My tutor was ruthless, for which I am now glad – that built me self-assurance. For me her common comment was: “Nice maquette” when presented with a finished piece. Costume thrives on impermanence, thus its enchantment. It is now that I can see reverence for impermanence as a useful quality: to move on to higher perfection without attachment. Are we not ourselves just God’s maquettes?

We are fortunate indeed to have devised ways of reproducing colour. Gone the days when blue came only sparingly from the grinding of precious lapis lazuli, and the hues of cloth relied on the nearest available herb. At the click of a button we may change the shade or shape of anything.

Yet in God’s Lila the spectrum always jumped and spread in endless glory as it does now. The cornflower defeats even lapis in brilliance; the sunflower deafens a saffron robe. I am more content nowadays to see art in natural situ; un-transferred to canvas, and un-described by paint.

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For an in-depth study of the relationship between art and spirituality, you may be interested in Art’s Life and the Soul’s Light by Sri Chinmoy


A Foreign Tourist At Home: York Minster

York Minster: Chapter House CeilingI was brought up as an atheist, so it may count as rebellion that I went to church today: a Sunday… perhaps… until you hear I went as a tourist.

I am not an atheist, far from it. I must get that straight. Straight away. I never have been. I am not a Christian either. My path is the path of meditation. My spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy believes in embracing all sincere religions and other spiritual paths as paths to one God. This is something I have always felt in my heart as true.

I know surprisingly little about Christianity for someone who was born and brought up in a Christian country. It is as if I tried to read Christ’s Words but they are in a language I do not know… yet I feel them in my heart as good and true.

So I entered my local church today, overwhelmed like a foreigner, yet somehow at home. York Minster is very big, and very old; too big and old for my mind to comprehend, thus to express or even appreciate. For a thousand years York has been a site of pilgrimage as spiritual capital of the north of England; her Minster at once the reason for and the result of her wealth.

Many times I wanted to stand back and take some perspective, but it seems the architects made sure I could not, almost as if to remind me that God cannot be captured in the span of my eyes. Caught in the cross-fire of flash photography, I wanted to be there alone so as to grasp it all in silence, but that would almost be more daunting a task.

York Minster: Half Way Up The TowerI decide to start at the top, perhaps thinking the vigorous exercise of climbing 275 steps will bring me some focus. On the contrary, dizzy from turning in a spiral and testing my lungs beyond their usual scope, I take my eyes from the steps to note that carving graffiti is not only a modern sport. I try to find the earliest date. Lost somewhere in the 1600s I return my full attention to the task of placing my feet on ever-narrowing stairs, since a tumble in such a place could be quite inconvenient.

York Minster: From The Top Of The TowerThere is something in the human instinct which makes one look for familiar places when reaching a height. Perhaps the thought of seeing my house was embedded in my desire to climb in the first place. Some Italians seem to be hoping for a glimpse of their hotel, while I follow the city walls out of comfortable sight to wonder which brown dot is my own.

Someone is practising the pipe organ as we descend, and I want so much to hear it closely. One can only go so fast on such a precarious route though, especially with legs still jellified from the upward climb. I am disappointed when I find the instrument; not by its commendable beauty, and not by the player, even though he makes and polishes many mistakes, but the sound is damped, so I cannot drown in it as I had hoped, even when standing directly underneath.

York Minster: Stained Glass From the 1400sI try to avoid treading on the worn names of many distinguished gentlemen long-deceased, but there are so many set into the ground. I imagine them shifting uneasily beneath and tutting under their breath through hundreds of years. I am looking for a happy face in stone, but all are solemnly in prayer, unless they are one of a hundred gargoyles, whose job is not to smile.

St Peter stands forever on a little plinth holding outsized keys. He looks weary from the responsibility of his job. The face is so endearing I think to comfort him, but remember I am nobody to do so, and the image of him only stone. One has no face at all, a boy in grey marble, the body a likeness of one who fell too early some time in the 1300s. Was there a face? Was it worn away by the weight of a mother’s grieving caress, or did the mason fall early too? Some seem at the unflattering mercy of unskilled craftsmen, but I suppose tools were brutish in those days, so could bring only vague refinement in any hands.

York Minster: Five Sisters Window Circa 1260Glass painting was clearly easier. I stare long at many windows, great beauteous works of art. Circa 1260? Such devoted intricacy, all in greys and greens, a murky yet mesmeric light gazing back at me through time. 1422? Such delicate lines, yet such strange faces have endured so long the same expression.

But where is God? He is not on the coloured map in 6 folds that the ticket man gave me at the entrance so I’m not sure where to look. I thought I saw a lady talking to Him as she sat alone, until I saw her bluetooth headset. I used to come here in my youth when something troubled me, hoping God would hear out my grievances. I always felt better for sitting in this majesty. It made my problems seem smaller. I sit and listen for Him this time, assuming He must have grown tired of listening to me here. It is too big for me though, too grand, too old, too daunting. I open a book of hymns but there the foreign language speaks again. I follow the pattern of the notes for a while and head for home.

For me God is in my little white room at home. We listen to each other there. I am sad at my failing to truly appreciate the grand and ancient place of pilgrimage on my doorstep, but then remember it is just not my path to tread. I crane my head through the window and smile at her from afar, picking out one face of the tower that I climbed. I can love her all the same, even though I cannot understand her language. I am glad and grateful she is there.

I wonder whether to be sad that an entrance fee is necessary these days; that wealth comes to the city through tourism rather than worship. I decide not to see that as a sign of declining spirituality in our time, as that is too dreadful a thought, but instead that people are choosing to look for God inside themselves at home. I hope it’s true.

“God has an easy access
To every place,
Specially to our heart-temple.”

—Sri Chinmoy
(Seventy-Seven Thousand Service Trees, part 7)


Cowfish Out Of Water

Cowfish: the one that got awayI was in the sea, snorkeling I think, or maybe diving. It was a long time ago. The sun heaved magnificent light into an already magnificent ocean, and all was bathed in lucid unearthly beauty below.

I was very fond of cowfish. They were like cartoons, little horns like raised eyebrows, boxy bodies puffing happily in and out as in a fit of laughter, big dark eyes, two arms fluttering – seemingly too small to do for anything but decoration. They always looked young, with childlike curiosity, as if so sure their own cuteness would keep them out of danger.

Their colours varied like all things in the sea, wearing different shades even when a cloud passed overhead. They were always brilliant, as if generating their own light, and always in such complex detail as if embroidered with a very fine needle and silk.

Someone caught one in one hand. The hand broke the surface and there she lay on the broad of the palm, in the raw blades of the sun, with no significant fins or tail to flip her back to safety. Her body looked instantly starved, the skin now dry in mottled greys stretched over a tiny twitching skeleton, eyes like dull flakes of flint, mouth and gills straining and sucking for a life she might never feel again.

I, like the cowfish, did not know the intentions of the human hand. For all we knew she’d breathed her last of the ocean, in the homely gardens of a coral maze. I held my breath with her, unable to speak or act in a daze of horror. The hand closed around her again

and let her go.

She puffed downwards as if squirted from the bulb of a pipette, her colours instantly proud and resplendent in the sun, now through its proper lens of sea. And she was gone.

I was told that it was all for me—so I may have a closer look at her when she was still. Still, I thought. But it was not her at all. Fish are colour and movement. I saw only the shrouds of death closing around her. Ridiculous. How can she be herself when she is in the air. I remained silent for a long time.

If it is true that fish have short memories then she would have been unchanged by the trauma, but I carry it with me everywhere. I glimpse her when I feel coerced by others—even when their intentions are innocent—to be something other than myself. True, I am in no mortal danger, but I am reminded that what is comfortable for others may be harmful for me. She reminds me to allow others their freedom too; to let them be as God made them, in their own proper environment. Only then may we each laugh and let our colours shine as He intended. I still have a way to go, but the shock of the cowfish makes me try.

“Accept God’s Will
Rejoice in God’s Will
And move on with God’s Will

—Sri Chinmoy
Twenty-Seven Thousand Aspiration-Plants, 25101