Our daughter Eleanor died 21/04/2020

Statue of Bud Neill characters in Glasgow

E:

I am not alive as I have been imagined.

When Bud Neill invented his characters Rank Badyin

And Lobey Dosser he never thought they really existed;

But when you imagine me alive in heaven you’ve twisted

Memories together with theology to make me as real as

Donald Trump or Boris Johnson or the wee lass

Who tends the early morning till at Tesco’s, who are in

The world and make a difference to it. Not me. No sin

or grace of mine makes anything worse or better.

I am not alive as I have been. I am neither giver nor getter,

Lover nor hater. The particulars of my character are scattered

With the ashes of my body, becoming part perhaps

Of some other assemblage of life, which will itself collapse

Into dissolution also. Death is the mother of beauty, the glory

Of life is its balance on the edge of nothingness, my story

Has a beginning and an end; surely it’s good after

All the fights to say R.I.P.? And if there were laughter

Too, and beauty, to say Well Done? But the griever

Wants to continue what has finished, and becomes a deceiver

If he thinks the phantoms of his grief are real. Leave me!

I am not. The pronoun that named the beautiful bundle

Of molecules that was me, applies to nothing now. Wonder

At its loveliness, mourn its fragility, but let it, as it must,

Go and cease to be, like all the productions of dust.

The tree on Rannoch Moor

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year

Me: Of course we’d been on holiday without you before, but not without you being on this earth. We’re in Ballachulish where the only good day saw me on the first summit of Beinn a Bheithir, lacking the strength to go any further. If you’d been with me, I might have refused to admit I was knackered and maybe gone on.

El: Considering how often in recent years I’ve had to admit my weakness, that would’ve been daft. But big boys have their pride.

M: We’ve seen so many of your West Highland landmarks in the last week: the Cafe at Tyndrum, the track to Inveroran, the tree growing through the rock on Rannoch Moor, the Kingshouse Hotel, Buachaille Etive Mor, the Horse Riding School at Glen Creran. We even stopped at the Wide-Mouthed Frog Cafe. It’s been a bit of a pilgrimage really.

E: Are you blaming me for being dead?

M: No, certainly not. Yet I remember that you did say often enough that you wanted to die. I suppose I saw that as drama, as a provocation. But maybe it was your real wish?

E: You know as well as I do how hard it is to be sure of your real wish. But I don’t think I was grandstanding. It was more…..more factual: I was an addict who couldn’t or didn’t want to give up her addiction, which did such damage that my body was packing up on me. And I was in constant pain from osteoporosis and stomach ulcers, that the thought of an end to it all was quite attractive.

M: And as I understand, you thought heaven was a fairy tale, so really you were looking forward to nothingness?

E: When you’re in constant pain, nothingness can seem very attractive, but truthfully I thought God might have something better in store for me. I wasn’t suicidal, however. I knew you had to wait your turn.

M: Pain is strange. It tells a body – of a woman, a bird, a tree- “this is harmful, don’t do it,” and yet many joyful achievements in sport, the arts, giving birth, struggling for justice, involve pain.

E: The suffering teaches us compassion and the painful achievement teaches us fortitude. Both have their counterparts here. Although we have no suffering of our own, we suffer out of compassion with the worlds; and we have opportunities to grow which still require fortitude. For example, I am still learning to be myself without booze.

M: We are still learning to be ourselves without you. Although often, like in this holiday, you are never far away.

E: I am infinitely far away, like God, and therefore able to be near.

M: Can I ask you a question?

E: You can ask…

M: A minute a go you said, “worlds, plural, compassion for the worlds.” Was that telling me something that human beings don’t know?

E: You’ve asked yours, now here’s mine: in whose imagination is this conversation taking place?

M: Mine, you mean..

E: Whatever I am, I’m not a source of supernatural knowledge; but I’m not just an absence either.

M: What then?

E: The presence of love.

Ballachulish

Ballachulish on the West coast of Scotland, in the old territory of Lochaber, is not known for its dry climate; there is often rain falling, persistently. The temperature is usually mild, the nearness of the sea loch, Loch Linnhe moderating the fierce winters which clothe the mountains in snow and ice. This leads to an extraordinary cover of vegetation in spite of the acidity of the soil. Trees are abundant in and around the village, and are beginning to repossess the mountains, while wild flowers blossom in all types of land, even for example in the gravel of the hill tracks.

The people who live and work here, some native, some in-comers from other parts of the UK and Europe, think the village is beautiful, and have approved their council decorating it with flower tubs. They are quiet people, but ready to converse and full of mischief. Not many of them are rich, and the poorest, such as single mothers, are known and supported.

This is not my village or culture, I am an urban beast, but it is one of the places where I feel strongly my love of my native land. It is the only land I know well enough to love, so I make no comparisons with other lands and their peoples: this, in all its variety and with all its peculiarities, including Ballachulish, is my land. I recognise that its socially responsable nationalism, although not my favourite politics, is a reasonable democratic balance of the interests of my fellow Scots.

I don’t really like patriotism, but I’m happy to lay claim to a Scottish matriotism, which reacts with rage to most English patriotic nonsense, especially “ Land of hope and glory,” as if any decent nation would want to rule over others.

There’s not much love of country in the New Testament, albeit plenty in the Old. Jesus shows his love for Jerusalem by weeping over it, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have wanted to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not.” Jesus’ love for his people’s holy city is no slight to any other city; it’s the one he knew well. But he was able to accept that his city and nation were under the control of a foreign empire, against which he forbad armed resistance.

My instinct is opposed to that of Jesus in this particular: if any empire invades my country I want to oppose it with whatever force I possess. If the soldier of a foreign power marches through Ballachulish without respect for the democratic rights of its people, I want to kill him. I want to take to the hills I know and love with others in resistance against any invader.

Jesus in the other hand was able to appreciate the virtues of a Roman centurion, and to devise a peaceful response to being forced to carry a soldier’s pack. He commanded love for enemies. but he maintained his own freedom to proclaim the empire of God and to act according to its laws. That’s what got him killled.

The Prophet Muhammed, peace upon him, believed that the justice of Allah had to be established on earth, by all forms of jihad including violence if necessary. Vicious and cowardly distortions of jihad should not blind is to its obvious merits. Our police work by Muslim rather than Christian principles and are none the worse for that.

I am comforted by Jesus’ love of country and impressed that he could refuse violence in its defence. In faith I would obey him, but I wonder if he was right.

The New Testament has almost nothing helpful to say about sex, other than Jesus’ quotation from Genesis, about the man leaving his parental home to be united with his wife, and the two becoming one flesh. St Paul focuses so much on avoiding sexual sins that he never gets round to the good things. Fortunately the Old Testament is sane, recognising the delight of sexual love as well as its pitfalls. But the centre of biblical witness to sexual love is a book which is hardly ever read in church for fear of embarrassment, namely The Song of Songs, called in my Boy’s Brigade bible the Song of Solomon. This wrong title (there are certainly two speakers in the Song, a woman and a man) is typical of the dishonesty of both church and synagogue, which have insisted that these sexy lyrics express the mutual love of God and his people. This metaphorical sexuality set off a whole genre of Christian art and literature culminating in Bernini’s orgasmic statue of St Theresa. If handled delicately, as in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome,” it can be touching, but there’s not much of it I would miss if it were destroyed, and moreover, it perpetuates a wrong interpretation of the Song of Songs.

It is a difficult book to read as it consists of speeches by two characters and a chorus, but doesn’t tell which character is speaking. Many modern bible have designated them for the reader, but different bibles do so differently. Still it’s possible to enjoy the frank sexuality of these exchanges, and realise that, although doubtless the main characters love each other, it’s sexual love, making love, which is portrayed and celebrated, in which the woman is as desirous as the man, and often takes the lead. A wealth of images from nature, animals, birds, flowers, mountains, and so on, are used to depict the lovers’ bodies and embraces. Unlike modern novels which tell you exactly what’s happening, these poems leave you guessing and imagining which is more sexy.

So what is to be concluded from the presence of this book in the Bible?

1. The bible sees women as powerful people in their own right. This is true of both testaments. Yes, they depict a patriarchal society, but there are many stories in which women are the leading figures, and many phrases in which their female dignity is upheld. This book shows the woman as an equal partner in sexual love.

2. Sexual love is depicted partly as an intoxication with the partner’s body. Clearly this text depicts male-female sex, but it can be appreciated by people of any sexual preference. Moral approval or disapproval are irrelevant in the poems. A powerful and beautiful thing is happening. Sexual love may need moral guidance, but the morals need to do justice to the thing itself. Modern amoralities and older puritanism alike fall short in this respect.

3. This depiction of sexual love is almost a commentary on Genesis 1, 2. In sex the separated bits of the original dust-creature make a real effort to get back together again, to become one flesh. This humorous and sensual teaching is a particular gift of male/female sexuality to the understanding of human beings. Because we see the worth of other sexualities does not mean we should neglect the male/female tradition with its special insights.

4. The poems show that the sexual relationship as beautiful without compromising its fierce desires. D H Lawrence among others wrote and argued for a culture in which the beauty of sexual love could be celebrated. All this is a thousand miles from the soft-porn constantly used in our media to sell commodities. The timidity of Christian churches with regard to sex, has left the field to exploiters and abusers.

5. All of the above are reasons why the book has been neglected by the Christian tradition. The absence of sexuality in the thought, worship and work of the churches may explain the absence of young people.

Eleanor Mair 1/9/71 – 21/4/2020

Me:

You got birthday cards from Jules and Duncan, I doubt

I’ll get any when I’m dead, seeing I get none

When alive, so you should feel honoured

If in that strange place to which you’ve gone

Worldly love still counts. Jesus said there were no

Marriages in heaven, warning us that

Heaven isn’t a detached villa in the sky

Or even an economical council flat.

So no families there, for “they shall be like angels.”

Thinking of you as an angel makes me snigger,

but I hope you can still feel our our affection.

The miracle of your new life is a trigger

For memories of that other miracle, your birth.

I intended to be with your mum in labour

But tough nurses shoo’d me out from most of it

Then let me back in for maybe

The last ten minutes before they dragged you

Red and screaming into the air,

Scary small mammal person needing

arms and milk and many years of care,

A being like no other in whose genesis

We had shared. I vowed then I’d protect you

From the filthy world and even from my filthy

Self: whatever fate threw at you, I’d deflect to

Give you the best chance. I failed, overestimating

My wisdom and my love, minimising

My faults, so now this anniversary

Cannot be a simple nice thing

Since filled with yearning for the birthday girl

No longer here, but shining in the ranks

Of (really?) angels. With Duncan and with Jules

We remember you and give thanks.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

………………….

Having completed my physical exercise

For today, I sit and think of what needs doing

For our holiday next week in Ballachulish

Knowing you’ll help as usual screwing

The luggage box to the car roof. There’ll be some laughs

About my inability to put the washers right

Way up. My stuff’ll go up there while your case

Will go in the boot with mum’s. A few bright

Days will mean we can climb Beinn a Vair

By the ridge and maybe another mountain

If you’re fit. I wonder if your gear is good?

I’ve checked the routes at the fountain

Of all knowledge, Google Earth. The eating places

Are short on veggie choice, you’ll be enraged,

You’ll be… we’ll be….ah, what are these hot tears

Run down my nose and fall upon the page?

The insufficiency of revelation

Buddha. Now there’s name you don’t hear often in the Bible. Krishna’s another. And Aphrodite, Zeus, Hermes, Apollo. Some Gods are mentioned, the Baals, Moloch, to whom children are sacrificed, Astarte the Venus of the near East, but all are mentioned simply to be condemned as idols, as no-beings, as manufactured distraction from Yahweh, the one true God.

Early in the composition of the Bible, Yahweh is praised as the High God who is above all the Gods, signalling a recognition of a hierarchy of heaven, in which the God of Israel is top dog. The faith that Yahweh was the creator of the universe, however, led in the direction of monotheism, and the conviction that the Gods of other nations were unreal. As the Scots version of the Psalm has it:

For all the Gods are idols dumb/ which blinded nations fear

But our God is the God by whom/ the heavens created were.

To the imagination that produced a God who made uncongenial demands for communal justice, and who stood above nature as its creator, the gods of Israel’s neighbours might well have seemed trivial. This meant however that Israel saw God as the inventor of the people, rather than vice versa; which in turn led to an abdication of responsibility for the nature of its God, who for example, commanded the ethnic cleansing of the peoples who had formerly occupied the land of promise. These commands are extant in scripture and are not, as far as I am aware, officially disavowed by modern Judaism or any mainstream Christian church.

And while the followers of Jesus believed they should take his good news of God to all peoples in the world, they maintained their Jewish contempt for the gods of these peoples, so that with few exceptions, until the late 19th century, Christian churches showed no positive interest in any other faith.

This is an astonishment to a believer such as I who has been helped by the Hindu Shiva to notice the creative and destructive dance of cosmic energy, by the Sikh Guru Nanak to value the ministry of communal eating open to all strangers, by the Jain teachers to comprehend the equality of all living beings, by the Prophet Muhammed to fight for the justice of God on earth, and by the Buddha to understand that all of our realities including Gods are produced by the interaction of humanity with its environment. Yet I am still a follower of Jesus. Yet again, I think I am a better follower of Jesus by virtue of what I have learned from these other religions.

An open-minded study of world religions helped me to identify in my own faith those religious motifs that are common to most; and those that are unique to Christianity. It gave me a critical perspective on Christianity and a new appreciation of its originality. Above all it gave me an understanding of the insufficiency of orthodox christianity, in its dishonest closure of revelation at a fixed point in the past, and its lack of interest in pursuing the truth of Jesus beyond its own definitions.

Perhaps my relationship,with the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn might be a useful example. He has written beautifully of many aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching which he affirms. But he ignores, and is a little embarrassed by, his suffering and death, because for him there is no possible positive meaning in suffering. I understand his conviction and completely disagree with it. But with him I wonder at the ease with which Christians assert the eternal value of a Roman torture; what are all those crosses doing? Buddhism is to do with avoiding, minimising, exiting from suffering, which is an important human skill, but just because of that wisdom, it fails to value the bearing and sharing of suffering. I think that the great Buddhist teacher and I have things we can learn from each other, but I’m not sure if he would agree.

Usually however, those who know best their own traditions of faith also know their limitations, their insufficiency. This knowledge is an essential mark of the health of all traditions of faith. Placing a full stop at the end of a creed is like placing the stone on Jesus’ tomb: finis, caput, done, no more from this source. But hallelujah, he is alive to contradict all claims to finality, even those made in his name.

Our daughter Eleanor died 21st April of this year.

Me:

“My colleague who has brittle bones tells me she’s

Broken her ankle turning over in sleep. Back

From Casualty she says it hurts; I guess it does, remembering

I heard my friend’s forearm crack

On the football pitch. It’s not a great day for being on earth:

In this leafy village the trees are thrashed

By a whipping wind which drives the rainflow

Horizontally past the window. It smashed

My neighbour’s clothes-pole through her yard-light.

I give thanks for a dry house, thinking

Of those who don’t have one, especially the toothless

Big Issue sellar at M&S in his minking

Jacket: how would the body sustain itself, how

Would the mind endure? The one

Human being ever to choose this life was Jesus,

Said by the Nicene Creed to have come

Down from his life with God, and been made flesh.

All the rest of us are here willy-nilly

Including you, my dear, who had your own exposure

To the worst the world can do. Chilly

Wet days you could handle like a hero, but nights of

Being battered, morning bailiffs at the door,

Vodka weekends, hospital fortnights, and years

Of osteoporosis being sore-

How did you keep going? Now again lovely,

Tears wiped away, you come to tell me

He came down so that you could rise up merrily

With all the disregarded ones whose bellies

Were never filled. Now, as I read how the U.S. cops

Shot an unarmed black man in the back,

Teach me, lady, to live with grace and patience

Till I am given what I lack.”

The Insufficiency of Revelation

“God is insufficient in himself.” These scandalous words ended my last blog on this topic. Of course, I want to add that God has made himself insufficient by being the creator of the universe(s). It is, if you like, God’s will that she/he should be insufficient. The promise of the eschatological passages in the Bible is that God’s sufficiency will also be the sufficiency of creation, when it is brought to perfection. God’s sufficiency is communal.

One question that arises is whether the perfecting of creation is imaginable. Indeed, by what sort of judgement have I decided that it is imperfect? May not the present universe be the best of all possible worlds? My answer is that it may be, if there is no God. But if there is the God of love and justice depicted by the Christian tradition, then surely the condition of the earth, where hatreds abound and millions of people and creatures live and die without justice, can reasonably be called imperfect. I guess I might without faith have judged the universe to be imperfect, but in fact this judgement is consequent on my faith: the condition of the world is a challenge to the honour of God.

If, then, the imperfection of the universe is all too imaginable, can we imagine its perfection? I have already described the eschatology of the Bible as evidence of insufficiency; and this is true not only of its critique of the present, but also of its vision of the ultimate future, which provides prophetic glimpses rather than any detailed blueprint: death will be swallowed up in victory, there will be no crying or mourning or pain, God will wipe away all tears, God will dwell with his people and they with God. These glimpses are more statements of faith that there will be perfection, rather than descriptions of it. That is because we are not the creator or the makers of perfection. When we try to create our own heavens, we make our own hells.

Recognising our insufficiency as makers or planners of perfection is a moral, religious and political virtue. God is the maker of perfection, and we believe it will have the same marks of God’s character as have already been revealed in the world, especially in Jesus. That’s why the eschatological promises envisage the return of Jesus. In the process of perfecting the universe, God requests our cooperation; that we should continue to publicise the story of God, building communities of faith which are capable, with the Spirit’s help, of “living tomorrow’s life today” by sharing God’s love and justice with each other, and with our neighbours.

This does not abolish our imperfection and insufficiency. There have been and are churches which have imagined that God’s perfection is incarnated in them or in their hierarchies, allowing them to pass judgement on other human beings, to make absolute declarations of right and wrong, and arrogate to themselves the holiness of God. This is the behaviour of the High Priest who is so certain of what is good that he secures the crucifixion of Jesus.

By this time my acute readers will have sussed out that my notion of insufficiency has similarities with classical doctrines of the sinfulness of humanity and even of the saints. I am not opposed to these doctrines, but think that they need to be revised and to find their true place within the broader framework of insufficiency which I have tried to sketch in these blogs.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

Me:

People mean well, but when to bypass

The word death, they say loss, “I’m sorry

For your loss,” as if I’d suffered a financial fraud

Or been in too much of a hurry,

mislaid you in the supermarket and never found you

Again, I find myself replying

Although I realise it’s unfair and indecorous

“Yes, we are grieved by her dying.”

Then I remember how for years I’ve been terrified

Of losing you, even when you were well,

Were you safe getting home from the night club?

Was the man you were with reliable?

How much more in your illness! If you weren’t answering

Your phone, I’d get in the car and drive

Miles just to see you, and if you were socialising

I’d need repeated proof you were alive.

My brother said I was trying to micromanage you,

But I knew you’d been assaulted

More than once, or taken double your medication;

So my anxiety could not be faulted.

Often I fore-imagined finding your lifeless body

Or having to identify your corpse;

Living in fear of losing one I loved so dearly

I lost you often in my thoughts.

But now you’re dead and gone from me, your ashes

scattered, it seems I have not lost you;

You talk with me from the other bank of the river

And show me how to trust you.