Compassion.

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I was listening to the radio the other day and I heard the English singer songwriter Billy Bragg talking about how empathy was an important in the creation of songs – he suggested that even if the song was in a different language it was still possible to be moved by the performance. He then said something that set me thinking; he suggested that in these days there was what he called “a war on empathy”. As a bit of a word nerd I looked at various definitions of the word and the omniscient Wikipedia I came across this; “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is feeling from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position”, or to put in another way you must walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand their position. The word ‘compassion’ is closely associated with this word – the ability to ‘suffer with’ another person and to be alongside them in whatever they were experiencing. As a working minister this was often the best that I could offer the people I came across in whatever situation they faced – it seemed to me that what most of these people wanted were not answers but some sense that someone else was alongside them.

But a ‘war on empathy’? It seems to me that we are living through a particularly cruel time – violence of varying kinds comes and goes whether it be through jealousy, crime or state sponsored activity. But what stands out is a marked lack of compassion – we have a species of ‘leader’ these days who seem to pride themselves in a lack of compassion for the weakest and the marginalised in our midst – and often populations seem to become complicit in this. It can be argued that this has always been the case we just know more about it these days but it seems to me that it is worse at present because our knowledge is greater as is the simultaneous realisation of our inability to address it or to call it out – the bully pulpit always shouts the loudest and those who stand up seem to be paying a higher price today than ever!

In this (still) United Kingdom we are living through a particularly difficult time, but whatever happens in our relationship with the European Union after October 31st this year, it will have little effect on our political class – they will ride it out (and possibly grow richer because of it!) – but those at the bottom of our society  will feel the harsh effects of what I believe is the fruit of untruths and manipulation on a massive scale. So I would argue that we need a return to empathy and compassion – the ability to feel alongside others and to act on the strength of that feeling. It may not be fiscally prudent or politically expedient but it will be human – and the human project is more than just figures on paper or facts in a government project.

I write from a Christian perspective, aware of the lack of compassion often shown by Christians, but also aware of the way that, on this subject, my faith is in accord with all the other world faiths, after all the Golden Rule is not golden for nothing! I am also aware of something that G.K. Chesterton wrote; “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried”. I am also aware of Jesus of Nazareth and the more I read the gospels the more subversive a figure I find him – he lived and spoke into a cruel and largely unforgiving imperial environment and as the gospels remind us “the common people heard him gladly”. His passion for God’s just and gentle rule took him to the cross and beyond and he left a compassionate template for all those who claim to follow him. This can be dismissed as a ‘social gospel’ but it has, on balance, changed human experience for the better. And to the voices of Jesus and Gilbert Keith I want to add Todd Rundgren and his song ‘Compassion’, the closing lyric goes like this;

“Open up your heart
So you can start to feel compassion
Get down on your knees
Pray to heaven for compassion
Everybody needs compassion
If you want to be healed
Then you know you got to feel compassion”.

(G.K. Chesterton’s remark comes from a collection of his essays called ‘What’s Wrong With the World?’ published in 1910. Todd R’s song appears on his album ‘Healing’ from 1981).

Serenity……

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“God grant me the serenity/ to accept the things I cannot change; / courage to change the things I can; / and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; / Enjoying one moment at a time; /Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; / Taking as He did,this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; / Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; / That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him / Forever in the next / Amen”.

This ‘serenity’ prayer is attributed to the American theologian Reinold Neibuhr. It was first noted in a notebook by one of his students and it has been used in various contexts through the years. It stands on one of my bookshelves and someone obviously thought enough of it to laminate it. I look at it most mornings as I get dressed and its words never cease to give me pause for thought. There is so much wisdom here that it is hard to take it all in, except possibly by reading it slowly and, prayerfully. The thought that “accepting the things I cannot change” is an invitation to a sort of quietism is immediately dispelled by the next’ “”courage to change the things I can”. How often do I challenge the things that make me uncomfortable? The casual racism and Christian arrogance that is often the common currency of much of life? What would the world really be like if these things were never called out and the monsters who have seized the ‘high ground’ of our common discourse were never held to account?

The prayer continues with more wisdom, “living one day at a time”, “Enjoying one moment at a time”, this is a discipline I struggle with yet this day and this moment is all I really have and they must be savoured. What would life look like if every moment was truly sacramental? And this world has to be taken as it is, not as I would like it to be (even though it is the province of grumpy old people everywhere to moan about how things are not the way they were!). And surrendering to God’s will takes a lot of faith, but I can sometimes glimpse the sense in these words, if God is alongside me struggling to make sense of what is going on then surely I am in good company. But this perspective is so fleeting it is hard to hold on to – like every moment these flashes of illumination have to be savoured as they pass for to try to hold on them is a foolish pastime.

And as for the final words in this prayer, well eternity is written about a great deal and I have used a lot of these words in the pursuance of a public ministry, but in the end this has to be taken on faith. None of us knows how the human journey will continue, but continue it will as everything returns to the benevolent hand that welcomed it in to existence in the first place.

A postscript; as I finished this post I came across the following thought from Thomas Merton quoted in Richard Rohr’s book ‘The Universal Christ’ and I thought it spoke to what I was reflecting on here; “No despair can alter the reality of things nor stain the joy of the cosmic dance, which is always there”.

And all that remains is to put on your dancing shoes!!!

(I am indebted to Kurt Elling’s album ‘The Questions’ which was playing as I wrote this post. The photograph was taken on Portstewart promenade in Northern Ireland on a summer evening in this year of grace 2019).

Joni and the Machines.

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Following a favourite recording artist can lead to some interesting places. This thought is in some respect a variation on the famous (or infamous!) ‘difficult third album’ syndrome – you know – a singer or band has a hit album, then they repeat the formula for the second but decide to spread their wings and ‘get creative’ for the third which bombs initially but then finds a new audience years later and receives retrospective acclaim. And sometimes favourite artists travel into a strange and difficult place where all the familiar signposts seem to have been removed. Think Dylan going electric (to cries of ‘Judas’) in the 1960’s, or Miles moving from the period that produced ‘Kind of Blue’ and his collaborations with Coltrane and Gil Evans to the sometimes shapeless studio jams that feature on ‘Bitches Brew’ – it can often be a difficult path to follow.

When I think of Joni Mitchell I think of ‘For the Roses’ which was the first of her records that I bought – hearing it made me immediately want to get her earlier releases starting with ‘Songs to a Seagull’ and ‘Blue’ (another favourite). There was something about ‘Roses’ that intrigued me – here was what looked like a conventional singer songwriter flirting with jazz (‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’), radio friendly pop (‘You Turn Me On I’m A Radio’) and bringing Stephen Stills in as a ‘rock band’ on ‘The Blonde in the Bleachers’. A look at the players involved here gave a massive clue to her next stylistic leap – Stills and band mate Graham Nash mixed with members of the (formerly Jazz) Crusaders and pointed on to ‘Court and Spark’ and the albums that followed. But then in the 1980’s she also embraced a shift towards the greater use of technology in a series of records she made for David Geffen’s label. In a recent article in The Guardian 19 of Joni’s albums were ranked and three of the four Geffen albums were, respectively, 19 (‘Dog Eat Dog), 18 (‘Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm’) and 17 (‘Wild Things Run Fast’) and the fourth (‘Night Ride Home’) was 12th. The writer remarked of 1985’s ‘Dog Eat Dog’ “She is virtually unrecognisable here subsumed by a homogenised 80’s sound that leaves you pining for the astral lifelines of her earlier work”, and asking rhetorically, “is any Mitchell fan truly comfortable with her 80’s output?”.

I have been listening to these records again and whilst I agree with much of what the above writer says about their clanking, synthesised sound palette I think that in places it is quite effective. For example, the ticking (synth?) pattern behind ‘The Three Great Stimulants’ for example, like a time bomb behind the world weary lyric, or the sound collage effects on ‘Fiction’, and the role of Rod Steiger as a crazed televangelist on ‘Tax Free’ (all from ‘Dog Eat Dog’). There are other examples of what I have called ‘Joni and The Machines’ on other record of this period – ‘sound collages’ and sequencers appear on ‘Chalk Mark’, the Native American voice that opens ‘Lakota’ recalls the Burundi tribesmen she recorded for ‘The Jungle Line’ from ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ and, amongst the personnel synth pop maestro Thomas Dolby is present in various capacities. But for all the synclaviers and Fairlight CMI’s I find it interesting that each of these albums ends on a much more ‘organic’ note – witness ‘Impossible Dreamer’ and ‘Lucky Girl’ (both featuring the agile reeds of Wayne Shorter) from ‘Dog’, ‘A Bird That Whistles’ from ‘Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm’, her reading of 1 Corinthians 13 ‘Love’ that closes ‘Wild Things’ and possibly my favourite Joni song ‘Two Grey Rooms’ from ‘Night Ride Home’ featuring a gorgeous string arrangement by Jeremy Lubbock.

The glories of her ‘orchestral’ albums ‘Both Sides Now’ (2000) and the wonderful ‘Travelogue’ (2002) were yet to come but the four Geffen records remain intriguing -sometimes they don’t work but they contain songs and treatments that are worth re -evaluating, and Joni Mitchell is always worth listening to, no matter what period you choose!!

(The Guardian’s writer Kat Lister ranked Joni’s albums on the 15th of August – I read the article online in a County Mayo hotel).

 

 

 

 

Along the Pirate Coast.

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We have just spent four days staying near Achill Island in County Mayo. In the picture, the cloud rolling down the hill opposite this former pirate castle at Kildavnet is just a slight suggestion of the climate. We have visited twice this year (previously on St. Patrick’s weekend) and as they say here in the north of Ireland it didn’t take time to rain – in fact there were times when I was convinced that the wind was going to blow the roof off the house where we were staying. This has reminded me more than once of lines from one of Ted Hughes’ poems ‘Wind’;

“This house has been far out at sea all night, / the woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills/ Winds stampeding the fields under the window/ Floundering back astride and blinding wet/ ‘Til day rose”. 

To say that this coast is wild is an understatement – the coastal scenery is amazing and stories abound – from the exploits of the 16th century pirate queen Grace O’Malley (who stayed in this castle and took on the might of the Elizabethan navy) to the many wrecked ships from the Spanish Armada and more modern shipping disasters this coast has witnessed it’s fair share of tragedy. If the wind will allow, you can stand above some of these cliffs and try to imagine what it must be like to live off the sea and trade and fight on it.

Thinking about this coast also set me looking for other poems about the protean nature of the sea. I came across these words from ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Walt Whitman (the poem called ‘Or From That Sea of Time’);

“Currents of starting a Continent new,
Overtures sent to the solid out of the liquid,
Fusion of ocean and land–tender and pensive waves,
(Not safe and peaceful only–waves rous’d and ominous too.
Out of the depths, the storm’s abysms–Who knows whence? Death’s
waves,
Raging over the vast, with many a broken spar and tatter’d sail.)”

For me, there is also a sense that this wildness is a part of the Irish character, a quality that always speaks truth to power and does not sit well with the idea of colonisation – even though like other parts of these islands that aberration has been part of life. Yet the land and the sea remain, a restless mystery and a protean miracle, feeling the wind and the rain may feel like a 21st century inconvenience but it is something that reminds me of the created glory of the world. This glory is a constant even though it sometimes feels like it is running through our fingers like sand.

(Thanks to the Henry’s for the use of their house, and the view over the island – weather permitting!!).

London!

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“The people of London, having developed a technique of living in the face of repeated danger, now accept the preposterous, and what was so recently the incredible, as the normal background of existence, I often think that the ability to reduce the preposterous and the incredible to the level of commonplace is a singularly English gift”. (H.V. Morton’s London 1941).

As an irregular visitor to the capital the urban jangle of the city always comes as an unsettling surprise. Like a high stakes cycle race where a rider cannot afford any lapse of concentration London demands complete attention. First of all there are the people travelling in every conceivable direction, hurtling like planets in erratic orbits, each one riding the pedestrian wave to their own destination. Then there is the noise, a concatenation composed of random shouts, overheard conversation and the almost constant wail of sirens. Add to that the noise of building works as the city seems to be reforming itself as stone and brick give way to glass and concrete. The noises continue as you descend to the underground as trains brake and shudder through the labyrinthine tunnels. Travelling through ticket barriers and across crowded platforms demands concentration and a willingness to be led by those whom such journeys are to some extent second nature. You find yourself longing for the quiet oasis of a coffee or book shop to step away from the melee and catch breath.

Yet this manic energy can be contagious, it takes a particular discipline not to be carried along with everyone else. But such independence can seem like a betrayal as the city sea demands surrender to its caprices, going with the flow is one possible answer, striking out with purpose another. On an average day in London (if there is such a thing!) there is a mixture of all these approaches – there are the groups of tourists waiting for the instructions of a guide, hesitancy and a little awe (how will we ever find our way around this place?), then there are those (like me) who sort of know what they are doing (?) but still feel vaguely unsettled by the sheer weight of the whole experience. And, in contrast, the vast legions of those who know (or give a good impression of knowing) just exactly where they are going – armed with coffee and the ubiquitous mobile device!

It is impossible for anyone like me to travel around London without thinking about the symbolism of the city – hence the quote at the top of this post from travel writer H.V. Morton – it is about the extraordinary circumstances of warfare but it could also speak to the rush and jangle of the modern city! London is not just the real city under your feet and in your nose – it is also about the sense of history that permeates the streets. This is not only ‘modern’ history but also about the way that, like all great cities, London’s history reaches back into the historical and mythical past. I get a real sense of this in novels. for example, by people like Michael Moorcock (‘Mother London’), and Ben Aaronovich’s stories about Peter Grant, a probationary police constable who is also a wizard (for example ‘Rivers of London’). The city also suggests to me sources as diverse as Dante (descending into the underground!!), and the recent discovery that in the Harry Potter books Gringotts bank vaults are located further underground than the Underground!! And to mix up my metaphors, I also think that London is a bit like free jazz, there is the technique and the power, but it is also sometimes a bit mixed up and the search for a tune seems elusive. Perhaps that not a good metaphor but London always finds me a little off balance, and free jazz will do that too!! It is said that if you are tired of London you are tired of life, well, I am not sure about that but it does seem that just as soon as you get used to this craziness it is time to go home to quieter places where some will renew their journey again the next day.

(I found the quote from H.V. Morton’s London in the front of Michael Moorcock’s 1988 novel ‘Mother London’. The Peter Grant stories are worth investigating – what if Harry Potter grew up and joined the police force? And, HP is everywhere these days and Stephen Fry’s readings on audio-book bring the (print) books to life).

The Journey of Faith.

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“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”

It is impossible to spend any time as a Christian without wondering about the word ‘faith’. It comes up time and again, from those gnomic words given to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (“If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you”) to the verse the letter to the Hebrews at the top of this post. But what is faith, for me it is clearly not believing, like Alice,  in ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ but rather it is a habit of mind and practice. I do most of the things that Christian believers normally do, I attend worship, I pray every day and I read the bible and other religious books regularly. I have reached this position after years of guilt because I felt that I did not do any of these things with the sort of regularity I should – but then bad religion will do that to you! I learned long ago that, whilst it is always possible to pray more the best way to do this is, in the advice I noted down years ago “pray as you can and not as you can’t” – there is a tremendous freedom in realising that faithfulness is the key not a rigorous diet of religion that would shame a monastic hermit! Similarly, whilst daily bible reading works for some, mine tends to be in spurts inspired by sermon preparation or by my religious reading – if I read anything every day it tends to be the Psalms which have been more help to me than I can say.

But to go back to the question, according to the author of Hebrews faith is “the assurance of things hoped for”. The word ‘Assurance’ has a long track record in Christianity (for example the hymn “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, O what a foretaste of glory divine”), but the word that works better for me here is ‘hope’. Of course we all hope that in the words of Julian of Norwich “all things shall be well”, but if the things we hope for do not work out God’s grace will still be there to hold us and keep us for the duration of the journey. But then the author of Hebrews talks about “the conviction of things not seen”. Faith is as much about the things we cannot see as it is about what is tangible, “things not seen” is a strange verse – but then Hebrews chapter 11 concerns a host of people who did crazy things because they had caught a glimpse of something just beyond the range of normal sight. In his memoir ‘Leaving Alexandria’ the priest and writer Richard Holloway describes what he calls “the presence that speaks” in these words;

“the mystery of latency I encountered in the hills above the Vale, the sense of something just out of reach, something unseen that listens….Jesus called it Father and offered himself to it without condition”.

It seems to me that faith is above all the embrace of hope – even, as especially so, as we seem to live in hopeless times, and it is also the ability to open ourselves to that presence which speaks. I have felt that in church, but also by hospital bedsides and even in my own darkest hours. But the moment I try to pin it down, classify or codify it, it disappears! It would be great if we could have our theophanies on repeat so to speak but faith demands that we remain ready and open to new experiences instead of trying to recapture old ones. Faith has to be open ended or it isn’t faith, it isn’t proof of a set of beliefs but strangely enough it can bolster a set of beliefs in a host of mysterious ways. The closing words of this meditation come from the late Marcus Borg who, like Richard Rohr and Paul Knitter, has inspired me greatly in the last few years. In a sermon collected in his book ‘Days of Awe and Wonder’ he says this about faith; “Faith is thus about setting out on a journey like Abraham’s in a posture of trust, seeking to be faithful to the relationship we are called into. We are invited to make that journey of faith, in which we  learn to trust our relationship to God, learn to be faithful to that relationship, and learn to see in new ways”. That makes a lot of sense to me,  but as for Matthew and his Jesus moving mountains, maybe that will take a little more (or less!) work, and a lot more faith!!

(I took the photograph on Portstewart Strand in Northern Ireland – and yes I think I might have used it before!! Richard Holloway’s memoir ‘Leaving Alexandria’ was published by Cannongate in 2012 and Marcus Borg’s book ‘Days of Awe and Wonder’ was published by SPCK in 2017). 

Mr. Bradbury’s Pandemonium Shadow Show.

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Is Ray Bradbury the greatest science fiction writer? Forgive the hyperbole, I have just read ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ for the third or fourth time and I just wanted to write to something about it. I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury in the 1970’s through two paperbacks that I think were compiled for what would now be called the ‘young adult’ market – ”S’ is for Space’ and ‘R is for Rocket’ contained many of his famous short stories – I loved the poetry of his style and the way that he wrote science fiction in a way that was a million miles away from the harder types of speculative fiction. For example, compare his stories about Mars to other writers who have written about the Red Planet, there is a mystical, human quality to the writing and ‘Something Wicked’ has the same qualities. It is a story about a small town and a mysterious carnival, a story about growing up and growing old, a story about the eternal conflict between good and evil, but above all it is a story about the redemptive power of love and laughter. The section where the proprietor of the carnival Mr. Dark (also known as ‘The Illustrated Man’) captures the boys Will and Jim in a darkening library is the stuff of nightmares, and the section where Will’s dad Charles defeats the Dust Witch with a loud laugh reveals how important it is to laugh in the face of whatever comes your way. The carnival and its denizens offer the ability to change but at terrible cost – to grow up quickly and lose all your childhood friends, or to reverse ageing and lose all that hard won experience and maturity – the novel extols the ordinary transcendence of living over any magical gimmick or carnival huckster.

Then there is the language; I could choose many examples, early in the book Bradbury writes of the way that a “weather of stars” hover over Green Town, Illinois, and the lightning rod seller who comes to town “just ahead of the storm” is wearing “storm – dark clothes” (I always wondered what colour that is). The language in the book is explosive, words cascading over each other in a breathless race to tell of experiences not only rooted in the everyday world but also the product of some darker place at the margins of life.

Enjoying a good book always fills me with a strange sort of evangelism – I want to share the good thing with others. Now I know that taste is a strange and fickle thing but Ray Bradbury deserves to be read and not just by those who consider themselves SF fans – he has that mark of a great writer to be able to honour a genre but also to reach beyond it’s confines. So Ray could write stories about Mars, and about space travel, but he could also update Edgar Allen Poe, he could write horror stories, poetry and detective thrillers. I believe he could do this not only because he was a writer and wrote every day, but also because he wrote out of love.

According to a piece in The Guardian, Neil Gaiman (no mean writer himself!) found himself reflecting on Ray Bradbury’s influence on his life and writing and he said that Ray had once said; “Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything”. That sort of says it all! Now all you have to do is to discover (or rediscover) him for yourself!

(Ray Bradbury’s books are available everywhere and in multiple editions. I would recommend the subject of this post ‘Something Wicked This way Comes’ (1963), or ‘The Martian Chronicles’ (1950), or one of his masterpieces ‘Fahrenheit 451’ from 1953 but with a relevant message that only the best fiction can deliver!)

 

 

Redemption and The Goldfinch.

I have just finished Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel ‘The Goldfinch’ and I felt that I had to write some more about this luminous novel and particularly its final twenty pages or so. When I first read it back in 2014 I recorded this in my journal (the ‘hero’ Theo is describing the painting he has jealously hoarded for years);

“…the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone. It’s the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true” (p. 859). This is part of the glorious meditation on art and ownership with which she concludes the novel. The use of the word ‘transubstantiation’ really struck, I thought of the Holy Communion, which is also that “magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true”.

Apart from this there are other sections where the idea of the numinous is introduced – for instance Theo is in conversation with his friend Hobie trying to explain his extraordinary journey and Hobie says “Who was it said that coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous” (p. 850). Or the long section that closes the book where Theo reaches what I think is a sort of redemption; he spends his time flying around the world buying back all the counterfeit pieces he has sold as originals. He does this by using the money he was given by Boris after ‘The Goldfinch’ was surrendered to what he calls the ‘art cops’. Whilst I am not really sure you can atone for the act of violence that explodes into the closing section of the book, no matter whether it was done out of self defence but I still think that my idea of Theo’s redemption holds true. As he points out life is not perfect, in fact it is often far from perfect but between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And – I would argue as well – all love” (p. 863).

And in another passage Theo describes how “just as music is the place between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky – so the space I exist in…..is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime” (p. 863). That last sentence could well describe an encounter with the divine, Theo concludes that although all sorts of disasters have followed him through his life so has love – perhaps the love of his mother, or of his friend (and mentor?) Hobie or even the rackety love of his friend Boris – in the end it seems to me that is all he has but there is hope there too.

Although ‘The Goldfinch’ is ‘just a novel’ (was there ever such a stupid sentence – all creation speaks of transcendence like it or not!) it speaks volumes to the business of living and failing to live, and to the importance of love itself. Even though the church often acts as though it had never heard the word it strikes me that religious people like to act as though they have a monopoly on love – which I believe in all its expressions carries an echo of the love that shapes everything. Yet (and this sounds really twee!) love is present in the whole of creation, much like a golden thread woven deep in cloth of contrasting colour. Despite the continuing arguments about doctrine and dogma that confound the church and turn many away, there are those who suggest that the expression of love and compassion are the most important contribution that religious people can make to the human story. And the quality of our love may be more important than we know, as the Spanish mystic St. John of The Cross wrote so long ago; “In the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”.

(My quotations from ‘The Goldfinch’ are taken from the 2014 Abacus paperback edition).