Category: religion

Only Connect

walpole

The delightful word serendipity, meaning ‘the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way’, was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole before or at the beginning of 1754, from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific letter writer, and he explained to one of his main correspondents that he had based the word on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.

I’ve seen it suggested that the OED‘s definition of the word – “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident” – is at variance with Walpole’s original meaning. However ‘faculty’ suggests a natural ability which could be called ‘sagacity’. Another name for it might be ‘common sense’.

My question would be, are such discoveries just happy accidents or has our successful evolution left us stronger instincts to recognise connections than we sometimes realise? My answer would consider the huge popularity of the detective story, where scattered clues tell a hidden story …

Misfortune befalls The Three Princes of Serendip when a camel driver stops them on the road and asks them if they have seen one of his camels. Although they have not, they have noticed signs that suggest a camel has passed along the road. Ever ready to dazzle with their wit and sagacity, the princes mystify the camel driver by asking him if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth and lame. The camel, they say, carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. Concluding that the princes have stolen the camel, the driver has them imprisoned. It is only after the driver’s neighbour finds the camel that they are released.

The princes are brought before the Emperor, who asks them how they could give such an accurate description of a camel they had never seen. It is clear from the princes’ reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road.

As the grass had been eaten on one side of the road where it was less verdant, the princes deduced that the camel was blind to the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, presumably they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was clear because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

The deduction regarding the pregnant rider is more complicated than the rest and is somewhat lewd, so those of a sensitive nature may wish to skip this passage.

“I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman,” said the second brother, “because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was near by, I wet my fingers (in it) and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said the third, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”

It’s all rather far-fetched, of course, but there’s something fascinating about the scientific method used here. There is also an element of teamwork involved, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson who remind us that teams work best when they are free to disagree. (Many marriages, my own included, offer plentiful evidence of this!) Several great scientific discoveries were made by two people, where one alone might not have put the serendipitous two and two together. And most people know how apparently unrelated events, when discussed, can lead to fresh insights.

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Here’s a humble example. A few days ago I read three WordPress posts back-to-back whose mutual connections set my head spinning. The first called for sustainability to become the new religion, dedicated to our offspring, where blasphemy would be conspicuous consumption and the failure to recycle. The second described how university scientists have determined the best technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and try to reverse global warming. It turns out to be trees. The third spoke of a spirit of inquiry which forgets previous knowledge, questions without agenda, listens with openness and curiosity … and suggested tree-climbing as an example of natural investigation teeming with insight and revelation.

Compassion. Learning. Realisation. Only Connect and you can achieve Enlightenment!

Or so I’m told. I do know that time is short. Perhaps we serve (and save) time best by indulging our natural love of serendipity. Language in its widest sense has roots in history and enables us to bring the disparate world together. But things being various, let our legacy be to keep them that way …

 

Water

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Philip Larkin

water-glass

 

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My Prayer

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I reckon being separated from people in life helps to prepare us for their absence in death. And when they die, their lives take on a new shape and significance. Where a life has been full and complete, we can only celebrate it.  We express its value in the currency of contribution, influence, relationship. Where there has been pain and suffering, we view death as a release. Quality of life is valued over mere existence.

And wherever death is unexpected or premature, we value the human potential that has been lost. So often the prematurely bereaved become campaigners and even reformers, honouring the memory of their loved ones by seeking to save others from the same misfortune. Their lives … and deaths, we hear time and again, will not have been in vain.

Avoidable death is a constant spur to human progress. It challenges politics, economics, ethics – to my sceptical ear, diminutives with a sonic similarity to ‘antics’ and ‘frolics’ – by reminding us that within each word there beats a moral heart … respectively liberty, equality, fraternity. And no other human right outguns the right to life.

But whatever the circumstances, death can be the moment that life burns brightest. With our last breath we pass into the collective consciousness, an apotheosis far superior to any egoistic notion of individual transcendence. This is poignantly described in the second verse of Wilfred Owen’s  Anthem For Doomed Youth (quoted below) where the dead can be said to pass into folk memory. Funeral elegies and fond memories held in common can bring us back to life where we really belong, in the hearts and minds of others.

What greater incentive could we have to slip the reins of ego and gallop free of death’s burdensome saddle? What greater reward for a good life could we hope for than to be recalled with a grateful smile? What else could have driven great artists through the present pain of creation but the knowledge that they might live on in their masterpieces?

And my prayer?

Let not humankind curse me for a destroyer but praise me for a creator.

 

“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”   –  Terence

 

‘Days’

What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question brings the priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields.

Philip Larkin

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen

 

Part of the Problem?

It behoves us oldsters once in a while to put aside the comforting toys of our second childhood and consider the state of the world we leave our children. Against a background of rising inequality and failing ecology that surpasses the foggy 19th century, we witness religious upheaval that seems to emerge from murky mediaeval mists. Wasn’t the Enlightenment supposed to banish the Dark Ages for good? And who in the egalitarian and optimistic 1960s would have predicted such a lurch into irrationalism and tribal conflict?

E.P. Thompson in his brilliant book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) suggested that history showed a desperate oscillation between periods of political activism and religious fervour: whenever one was seen to fail, the other would be tried once more. And as in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm … if my own experience is anything to go by.

I was a churchgoer as a child and would sit in my pew searching for spiritual illumination through stained-glass windows with the best of them. Left to my own devices I would later climb tall trees to the sound of church bells, as if to gain a higher perspective. The voice that came to me in the wind through the leaves spoke a different truth than the preacher below. Two voices, then, and both of them in my head still …

 

“I am an actor mouthing another’s words, my days spent in drab rehearsal for the cavalcade that shimmers behind death’s parting curtain. I want to know nothing beyond scripture, for it is blasphemy to search out divine purposes. I seek only to assuage an angry deity, despising and even persecuting those who fail to observe the little rituals and shibboleths that may keep the wrath of heaven at bay. I think of Us and Them. I am generous to those whose ways I approve because I yearn for eternal reward. No matter what else I may say, my one concern is personal salvation.”

 

“I search for the voice that nature and experience will give me, each day until my last a new voyage of discovery. I want to know everything because I seek to become as whole as the world. My happiness and security are founded in the union of equals. I think only of Us. I study the ways of every creature and strive to be generous to all. I do not fear death because it brings value to life, which I hold sacrosanct.”

 

A third voice might point out that the other two are polar opposites, exaggerated and even caricatured. Most of us are strung out on a ragged continuum between those positions, with many believers more charitable and many non-believers more selfish. My only question in these turbulent times would be,  which perspective is most conducive to peace?

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