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Saturday Ramble: Resolutions, fasts and Rowan Williams

Resolutions My new year’s resolution for 2013 is to spend one day every week fasting. And I mean fasting: nothing for 24 hours except cold water and cups of green tea.

I’ve dabbled with this regime before but only for a day or two. This time it’s serious.

The big question is, should it be on different days each week, or on one particular weekday, and which one? Looking through my collection of old diaries only Saturdays are consistently clear of events. Besides, I dislike Saturn’s day almost as much as I enjoy the Sun’s weekly outing.

Plus, a healthy food-free Saturday will set one up for the day of rest, not to mention a clear-headed start to the working week.

What’s not to like? Well, one has to get through the fast day itself and during the nation’s favourite feast and booze-up time. I can report that the first fast is rocketing by with just the evening to go.

There was a recent Horizon programme on the BBC which investigated a two-day a week fast, but the jokey scientist involved was allowed 600 calories a day — what a wimp!

However, after the allotted timeframe, all his vital signs showed marked improvement, clearing him from the at-risk register for the usual batch of male, heart-related problems.

So, how is mine going? I spent the day lying in bed until mid-afternoon reading the newspapers on the iPad, which I’m now using to write this column. Modern tech is not only about frivolity, you know.

My sister is fond of saying she hates Saturdays because of the relentless sound of sport echoing from radio and television. It is possible to insulate the jangling nerves from such din by walking out in the country, which is my favourite leisure occupation. Hence the generic title of this column: Saturday Ramble, which incidentally is often written on Sundays.

She’s right, though, except when it includes Test Match cricket and a rugby international or two. But I’ve already foresworn them on my designated day. I hope the sacrifice will be rewarded.

I intend to spend the evening of this first fast day watching Rowan Williams’s superb film Goodbye to Canterbury on the iPlayer for the second time. It was made by the BBC to commemorate his period as Archbishop of Canterbury, which has just ended, and is a must-see if you have not done so already. As I write, it only has a few days of iPlayer time left, so hurry.

It reveals a very relaxed Rowan, with little there to remind us of the Leftie politician, dubbed Beardie, that so infuriated many would-be supporters during his time in office.

Indeed, here he is positively mystical, taking us into the Cathedral’s “core”, the Choir, where the old pre-Henry VIII monastery once stood. His description of life there is eye-opening.

The monks were “wrestling with Eternity on behalf of the rest of us”. Moreover, they knew how to “contact God” and spent their time rising above “this thin reality” to the richness above, for the benefit of all. This is heady stuff and it includes a thoughtful riff on the inevitability of death and how the monks prepared for it.

Watch it if you can. If you like our Midweek Mysticism columns, you will certainly enjoy it.

But that’s enough ramblings for today. It’s back to the penance for me.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world. Also a website, mystology.com.

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Midweek Mysticism: Towards a truly English church

Druid

Christianity is often thought of as quintessentially English. A country parish church or a great cathedral are so typical of our landscape that they have become deeply woven into the tapestry of British life.

We easily skip over the oddities and cultural disparities of the Bible texts because they are so familiar. But try reading Leviticus with its many pages of detailed proscriptions and “thou shalt nots”. The similarities with stern Islamic texts are immediately apparent. It might be renamed The Ten Thousand Commandments.

It is not easy-going Anglicanism where a belief in God is optional. While the New Testament is more compatible with spiritual Protestantism, the cultural and legalistic overlay of authoritarian desert tribal beliefs are still present.

In short, the full texts grate on modern British sensibilities and become more alien over time. Of course, not many churchgoers bother to read the Bible today, and the Church does its best to water down the mystical passages by attaching literal meanings to them.

And yet, the mystical bits are often superb and, properly understood, are on a par with any other spiritual traditions in world mysticism.

I’ve long trawled the Old and New Testaments, and the Gnostic Gospels, for their spiritual truths, while passing over the cultural complexities that embed them.

In our age of Middle Eastern turbulence and sickening violence — the very antithesis of religion — we in the West are turning away from the bedrock that once supported our belief system. It’s not as English as we thought.

The churches are struggling for adherents. Catholicism is buckling under the weight of sexual and mafia scandals, while the CofE seems almost alien on holy days when the clergy parades at Canterbury in full regalia.

The Rt. Rev. Peter Price, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, addressing the Church’s General Synod, claimed that “rioting can be, literally, an ecstatic, spiritual experience. Something is released in the participants which takes them out of themselves as a kind of spiritual escape”.

The words literally and ecstatic betray an abyss of ignorance: “literally” suggests exactitude, when it’s no such thing, and “ecstatic” paints an emotional element into a period of preternatural tranquility.

More pointedly, a spiritual episode is not an “escape” but an uplifting from the darkness into the light.

Clearly, His Grace has never had a spiritual experience, which is almost certainly true of the vast majority of churchmen and women. To confuse the sublime calm of individual spiritual/mystic experiences with the mass hysteria of groupthink euphoria found in riots and the so-called Toronto Blessing, is to demean his calling.

I’ve spoken to a number of CofE clergymen who think that spiritual experience is a diversion from their real work of officiating at services, running the church fete and, above all, social work in the parish.

They should read the passage in Luke’s Gospel where their saviour tells Martha that she is destined to labour and organise (as an Active), while her sister Mary is a natural Contemplative who must be excused work “for she is of the highest kind”.

Not surprisingly, the passage has been severely edited and curtailed by a fastidious Romanised hand, but the meaning survives. Moreover, this Mary of Bethany is almost certainly Mary Magdalene who has her own Gospel in the Gnostic tradition and was said to be the highest of the disciples.

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Last Supper (see below) has a very feminine figure leaning away from Jesus on his right and forming a powerful “M” shape. Traditionally, this is John, “the Beloved Disciple”, but it’s actually Mary. Leonardo was trying to tell us something that had been suppressed by the Roman Church.

Last Supper

That distinction between Active and Contemplative was once prevalant and understood in the Church. Nowadays, the art of contemplation is dying out in everyday Christianity in favour of social work and political activism.

It’s not so odd then, that pagan beliefs, which Christianity attempted to stamp out, are making a strong recovery from a long near-death experience. Human beings need to believe in something, and if they stop believing in the official code they will believe in anything.

On this site I’ve been suggesting an alternative: taking the genuine mystical insights from both Christianity and Paganism — remember that Plato and Aristotle, the Buddha and Krishna, are regarded as pagan by hardline believers — and forging them into a modern, near-scientific system, minus the excessive materialism, that both fits our age and has the merit of leading directly to spiritual enlightenment.

The alternative is a world of rapidly growing cults and a slow decline of Christianity and the crumbling of our magnificent churches.

Let’s leave the quarrelsome Middle East to its own devices and reintroduce an English sensibility to our national religious life.

John Evans?

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.

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Saturday Ramble: A new Anglican dawn?

Church of England

How strange everything is becoming. The question of whether British people are free to wear the Christian Cross is now being decided by a reading of “human rights” legislation in a foreign court at Strasbourg.

Once again, a piece of paper is being pored over to determine the outcome. It’s like that old Goon Show joke where Eccles writes down the time of day in the morning, then consults it in the afternoon when asked for the time.

What is really spooking the political classes is that if Christians have such “rights” — not age-old liberties, mark you — Muslims and others must have them too, and some faiths often go to aggressive extremes.

Thus, Christians must drop their time-honoured, inoffensive ways, which seems inexplicable in our own country.

But isn’t there more to it than that? Wonderfully, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, now calls the Cross a symbol of the “Religion Factory”. Wow, it’s cat among pigeons time!

Cue general outrage from clergy, members of the religious lobby and anyone wanting to remain suspended in time. Actually, the telling phrase Religion Factory sums up exactly what it is: an empty vessel that has been drained of true spiritual meaning.

When most people look at a cross, they see an instrument of torture used against someone they have been brought up to revere and worship. That is not its true meaning, which is that death is inevitable for us all, but is not the end of our story. The Crucifixion was a Mystery rite demonstrating everlasting life.

The problem occurs because Jesus was rebranded as “the Son of God” by ignorant, or power-seeking, followers after his death.

That is not what he himself said: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are the children of the living Father.” Gospel of Thomas

Nothing could be plainer, we are all “children of God” but are not aware of it. Once we break away from this Religion Factory that has been manufacturing falsehoods, simplifications and misinterpretations for centuries, we will arrive at the truth, which releases us all and grants us our proper status in life. Call it “equality” if you must.

The Cross has ever been the symbol of our servitude, not our freedom. But that should not remove our ancient liberties in the matter of wearing it.

Is this a new dawn for the Church of England?

Reference: Mysticism is not religion but more like science and is the basis of both

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Mysticism in the Modern World is coming soon.

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DIARY: Grown up religion, Lethargy, Trees and more of them, Poppycock Watch: Brainboxes, Aphorism of the Week

Ladder of Understanding Have you ever wondered why most religions are little more than childish storytelling? Virgin births, “immaculate” mothers and deathless demises. In ancient Egypt, for example, the godman had to be reassembled from bits by his consort, Isis. An early version of Lego, perhaps.

A great deal of this comes from the choice of texts to represent the religion. Some are written in impenetrable code to prevent the authorities knowing what’s going on. Thereafter the document will be explained literally, causing a lot of puzzled head scratching among future congregations.

The Christian New Testament ends with surely one of the silliest books ever written: Revelation, progenitor of countless prophesies of the end of the world. There was one only last week, you may remember. It didn’t happen — it never does — so the prophet has moved the date to October.

In his eyes, a select few, including him, will rise to heaven in a Rapture, while the rest of us get crumpled in worldwide earthquakes. Nice. The pastor in question is 89, so clearly wants to take all of us with him when he goes. It makes you proud to be a Christian.

There is a strong case then for retiring the infantile aspects of our major religions and seeking out more reasonable texts to replace them. In particular, the whole of the New Testament should be recreated from scratch.

First off, out with Revelation and in with the very grown-up Gospel of Thomas. Here’s why:

His disciples said to him, “When will the rising of the dead take place, and when will the new world come?”

He [Jesus] said to them, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognise it.”

Apocalypse? What apocalypse? What a breath of fresh air!

* * * * *

Over the last Bank Holiday (I don’t remember which one, there are so many these days) my cable television service disappeared. Pop, and it was gone.

Virgin Media confirmed that a major fault had occurred in the Westcountry and their wizard engineers were on the case. The service was down for three days. So much for the wonders of the latest fibre-optic technology.

During that period I explored the TV possibilities on the computer, discovering that one can watch all the channels online, including such obscure outfits as ITV3 and Watch. And, there’s often a choice between live broadcasts and catch-up TV.

Now, Virgin regularly pesters me with juicy offers to combine the television experience with broadband — everything down one superfast fibre-optic pipe. I confess, I have been tempted. But for some reason I stuck with BT’s ancient copper-wire landline with broadband zooming in at 4Mb per second. Virgin offers 10, 20 or even 50.

The reason I stuck with the wire for phone and online was pure lethargy. I couldn’t face another telecoms upheaval in the house: number changes, new business cards and letterheads, engineers crawling all over the place and BT’s endless refrain: Come back to us!

Had I succumbed to Virgin’s siren song, not only would the TV have gone south, but the broadband and main phone as well.

Lethargy, apathy, inertia, laziness can be positive forces too, I realised.

I’m thinking of writing a book: In Praise of Lethargy.

But I just can’t be bothered.

* * * * *

Three cheers for the Bateman report on Welsh land usage, with national implications.

Professor Ian Bateman suggests that Welsh farmers should give up on unprofitable sheep and turn their fields into woodland for recreational use. It will be part of the National Ecosystem Assessment to be published by the Environment Department on Thursday.

We need more trees and plenty of them. They provide habitat, recreation for weary city types and, yes, they have impressive carbon storage abilities. All shall be saved.

It’s a desolate fact that most children now live far from accessible woodland, and grow up thinking that the world equates to ugly buildings, roads and varieties of mental illness.

As a boy, yours truly lived close to open country amid spectacular woods and streams with real fish swimming in them. Paradise is an inadequate word to describe these God-given play areas for boys.

My small tribe of friends named most of the trees in the spacious clearing we made our own. There was the Robin Hood tree, the Peter Pan tree, the Faraway tree and the Tree of Doom, because so many boys fell out of it.

We made our own vehicles from two pairs of pram wheels with a plank mounted between. The front pair was held by a single bolt so that they could be steered with a length of string. Formula One it was not. Much more fun.

One day I decided I would tackle an impossibly steep hill, never before attempted. The descent began well, cruising at a steady 80mph, when one of the wheels struck a submerged rock sending the jalopy careering straight into a dense thicket of brambles. I was cut to pieces.

The tribe laid me out on the plank as with a corpse and solemnly bore me homeward like a funeral cortege. Shocked adults stared at my unrecognisable body in disbelief. Quite what my horrified mother made of it is not recorded in the annals.

It was said that one mischievous boy announced: “We brought back as much of him as we could find.”

As the Romans used to say, a man must die once before he can live.

And none of those delights would have been available without the trees. There’s a hospital there now, and acres of car parking where our woods once were.

Three cheers for trees. Long live Professor Bateman.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
Where have all the neurologists come from? They are all over us like a swarm of bees. They pop up in colour supplements and newspapers smirkingly telling us how we work, rest and play, nothing is beyond their explanation.

The latest nonsense is that they will soon be able to see sentences forming in our brains by linking a type of signal to a particular word. Then, they claim, they will be able “to read our minds.”

During my close encounters with the TV’s digital box (see above) I realised that the mistake of neurology — in a wider philosophic sense, not of specific brain surgery — is that it confuses the signal processing mechanism with the source.

A digital box picks up countless invisible signals from the space around it using a type of aerial. You wouldn’t know they were there unless you were told. The box then manipulates the signals and streams them into the TV where they are converted into moving and talking pictures in a recognisable sequence and format.

But the signals originate elsewhere. The box is not a closed system. It just seems to be.

A primitive scientist unaware of how a digital box works might be forgiven for monitoring the signals within the box electronically and concluding that the box itself is the source of the television programmes.

That, I believe, is what is happening now with brain research. The brain is a kind of interface into the body, which is not a self-sufficient organism. The body is not a closed system.

This is one of the greatest misconceptions of our age.

* * * * *

Aphorism of the Week
If, when you open your eyes in the morning, the world does not look newly-minted, the problem is you, not the world.

John Evans

Who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Saturday Ramble: The Church and a State of Grace

Archbishop of Canterbury Christianity is plausibly the world’s greatest organized religion, both in reach and in power. The West would be a very different place without the Church’s curate’s-egg influence down the long centuries since the reported birth of its founder, the shadowy Jesus Christ.

It differs from other faiths beyond the three related “Book” religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), by tone, by magnificence, and regrettably, by its bloody history of domination.

As a writer on Christianity, and religion generally, I dislike the political aspects now indispensable from its dispensation. It is an old saw that power corrupts. This Easter especially we are all too aware of the weaknesses of clergy on an almost industrial scale. Even the Pope is mired in sleaze after a blizzard of accusations centred on child abuse.

This gathering ecclesiastical storm easily outruns our own Parliament’s expenses scandal which seems trivial in comparison with the lost lives of thousands of preyed-upon children. If only they had been prayed upon instead.

Into this incendiary mix come two seemingly unhelpful interventions. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, chooses this moment of maximum weakness to counterattack the Pope’s landgrab of Anglican members who dislike the “liberal” cast of current personnel, including the Archbishop himself. If this is a deliberate distancing exercise, it is very welcome at long last. Ecumenicism, like European Union, has only one boss: Rome — as the EU has Brussels. This is all about power, not spirituality.

Second, Philip Pullman, of His Dark Materials fame, has a new novel out questioning the authenticity of the character and existence of Jesus. The book, The Good Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, supposes that Mary had twins called, oddly enough, Jesus and Christ.

Jesus is the good guy, strong and truthful. “Christ” is small and weak — the real Satan — which sounds very much like Paul. While Jesus preaches the optimistic message that comes down to us today, the jealous Christ tempts his brother in the wilderness, and even manufactures his divinity.

I haven’t yet read the book, so can’t comment too keenly. However, it seems to ignore the awkward fact that “Christ” derives from the Greek, Khristos meaning, annointed and thus in Hebrew, Messiah. Had Jesus been born around 7 BC as is supposed, he would certainly not have been called Christ, nor would a twin brother. The term Christ was possibly applied to him by the Greek-speaking Paul, who is said to have cooked up a lot of what we think we know of Christianity.

The problem remains that half the texts attributed to Paul in the New Testament are forgeries. What is left show that Paul was a Gnostic, a mystic who believed in a direct relationship with the source of all things, and no founder of churches or funder of bishops.

Hardly any of the much-redacted “Christian” texts can be taken at face value, except perhaps the very early books of sayings (“Q”) from which the synoptic Gospels were clearly developed, adding in the narrative history of an apparently real person. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas is the closest we have to the Gospel of Q. It is a purely mystical text that resonates with Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and other Idealist (consciousness-based) religions of knowledge.

To make any definitive historical statement about these later documents is, frankly, assumption piled upon assumption, not good scholarship. At least John’s Gospel is unashamedly mystical in nature and clearly allegorical in intent. It possibly derives from a Jewish version of the Mystery School texts then dominant among the inducted educated classes around the Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt and beyond.

The essence of moral Christianity can be traced back to the Axial Age some 500 years before Jesus. The dying and resurrected Godman* aspect, together with the virgin birth, were echoes of tales told in most Middle-Eastern countries from the Axial Age onwards. Far from being original to Christianity, they would have been instantly familiar to intelligent citizens of many of the surrounding lands. You don’t have to rummage very far through the history of the times to find this myth embedded in dozens of traditions.

Even Easter is a Celtic, or Druidic, festival (Eastre) centred around the rebirth of nature in the Northern spring.

All is not lost though. The central story of Christianity is of immortality, not of one man, but of everyone. The import of the Jesus story is correct in its depiction of life itself, as I point out in my book, The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face?

My wish this Easter is that the Church of England would mature away from these simplistic stories that hardly anyone takes literally now — with the exception of a few American cults — and pronounce the real message behind the allegory.

Oddly enough, Rowan Williams might be very good at that. He has scholarship enough, and is acutely aware of the mysticism at the heart of the Church, having written books on Teresa of Avila and Dostoevsky.

In doing so, he would save his Church (our Church) and release it from the tainted hand of Rome which has built another empire on a feast of lies and confusions.

This Eastertide, truth and a State of Grace is not a lot to ask, surely?

* See the works of Freke and Gandy.

John Evans

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