Cooking the Books

In the introduction to his dream-vision poem, The Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of Fowls), the great medieval author, Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400,) wrote “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne”, meaning, of course, that life is short and acquiring proficiency in any craft takes a very long time. In Chaucer’s case, he was reflecting particularly on the craft of writing. Writing IS a craft, and it IS hard work and I mention this because it’s been quite a while since I posted to this blog.

It’s not that I’d stopped writing. In fact, during my absence from the blog, I worked on my latest book, the creative non-fiction The Mystics Who Came to Dinner, and was thrilled to have it published by Orbis Books in April this year. And it’s that book that showed me exactly what Chaucer was talking about in his aphorism about the time required to attain competency in writing, or in any craft really.  For although I completed the book in under six months, I had wanted to write a generally accessible book on the medieval mystics for quite a long time. In fact, I had been asked to write such a book very soon after the completion of my PhD on medieval mystical texts back in 2001. There was no way, at that time, that I could envisage conveying the deep experiences of these mystics in more transparent terms without diminishing their messages. I tried but just couldn’t come up with something that seemed convincing to me, let alone anyone else.

Still, I did manage to produce an academic book on the subject in 2008, and I was content with that … for a while. But almost every time I gave a public talk or interview about the mystics someone would ask, “Is there an accessible book on the topic, not too heavy?” And, though there were, and are, many wonderful books, I knew that what the audience members were asking for was a book that delivered the deep insights of the mystics but in a lighter form, a form that encompassed their humanity, personalities, tribulations and triumphs, as well as honouring the deep spiritual experiences that had been theirs. A book that was more like a conversation than a lecture. And I knew that the books I would recommend in answer, though excellent, were not quite what they were asking for. So I continued to turn over in my mind the hope that, somehow, someday, I might write a more widely readable, more widely relatable book about the mystics.

And then Covid came along and I had time to turn over that hope even more concertedly. And one night I awoke at 3am with the ‘conversational’ component of my wonderings pushing itself to the fore and I suddenly knew that I’d invite six of my favourite mystics to dinner for an evening of conversation about their lives, loves and lessons. I would let them speak for themselves, basing their words on their own writings but updating and creatively elaborating their interactions, and reimagining their personalities, to highlight their relevance to 21st century readers.

How did Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, The Cloud of Unknowing author, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe communicate with each other, and with Annie, their host, you might ask, especially considering that their birth dates range from 1098 to 1373 (and those dates are a long way from 2022), and their places of birth (and, therefore, native languages) vary considerably. Perhaps I’ll answer by offering some extracts from the book in subsequent posts. But, for now, I’m thinking of Chaucer and his point that “the craft [is] so long to lerne”. Yes, The Mystics Who Came to Dinner took me less than six months to write, but it was really over 20 years in the reading, learning and planning stage, percolating in my imagination without me consciously realising it. I could not have written that book twenty years ago. Like bread, I had to mix and knead the idea, give it time to rise and bake before taking it from the oven to share with others.

Perhaps many of you are cooking the books, too, at this moment, even if you don’t know it.  

New York: Orbis Books, 2022

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Our Milky Way, spiral-arm, galaxy

O the dignity of that small speck of human dust
Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence
To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s heights
Gertrude the Great (1256-1302)

As of today, 17th June 2020, the United Nations Worldometer estimates the world’s population as 7.8 billion and growing at the rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.

Julian of Norwich, the great 14th century English mystic was given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. She explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because the Divinity loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense: love enables us to endure.

Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) was a nun in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as ‘the scholars of Helfta’ because of their extraordinary writings and mystical insights. In one of her poems (see excerpt above) Gertrude brought together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence: our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and the dignity that is each and every person’s right, regardless of colour, creed, gender, or economic standing.

In the face and aftermath of Covid-19 and the social upheavals being played out as a result of inequality, 14th century Julian and 13th century Gertrude might just be onto something for 21st century earthlings.

Raising Specks to the Spectacular

Meister_der_Manessischen_Liederhandschrift_001

O the dignity of that small speck of human dust
Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence

To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s height
                                        (Gertrude the Great 1256-1302)

Gertrude the Great was a nun and mystic in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as “the scholars of Helfta” because of their extraordinary writings and mystical experiences. Gertrude’s prayer brings together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence – our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and our dignity. Her lovely metaphor for each of us as “that small speck of human dust” is even more relevant today than it was when Gertrude composed her poem in the late 13th century.

Last time I checked, the world’s current population is around 7.5 billion people, and increasing at a rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.

The 14th century English woman, Julian of Norwich (another great mystic), was also given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her (what she termed ) “Revelations of Divine Love”. In her writings on those profound revelations she explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because God loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense to us: love endures.

We cannot hope to truly comprehend the vastness and complexity of our universe but we can understand, from our own everyday human experience, what it is to be loved and to love ourselves and others. Of course, to truly love others we must acknowledge their humanness – the positive and negative attributes of the personality, the annoying habits, the inconsistencies, the humour and kindness, the bad temper, the fears, the thoughtfulness, the failings as well as the successes. In our enduring love for others, we raise them up in our own estimation and, as a consequence, they are also raised in their own view  – from specks to spectacular. So, like Gertrude the Great, Joe Cocker was onto something in his song “Love Lifts us up Where We Belong”.

 

Dally Messenger III

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