Saturday 23 June 2012

Experiment Two

This is Experiment Two. Gemma is doing it aswell. We are honing our skills for being 'Explorers of the World'. It is all based on a book she bought, and then which I bought, the story of which is narrated in another post. 

Experiment Two is all about the objects that surround you everyday, the things you handle, the things you use, the things you see. In the book it is called 'Exploration #26 - Becoming Leonard Cohen' because he does this regularly as a form of meditation. He says, 'I have always loved things, just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things'. 

In the experiment you are meant sit down with a pen and paper, in your usual spot, and draw the things which surround you. Gemma said I should do this at home, not work, as it would be a more true reflection of me. She is going to do her experiment at home too.

I am at a distinct disadvantage with this experiment. You see, Gemma is an artist. And, she works in a Museum. Gemma loves objects and she surrounds herself with them. I love Gemma's objects. However, in my own life, I spend my time throwing stuff away, or at least recycling it. For me to feel at peace, objects and visual 'noise' has to go away. There is only one picture in my bedroom, Our Lady of Częstochowa, given to me by my parents on their return from a holiday in Poland. Other than that, I like clear spaces and clear walls.....

That's not quite true. My room is dominated by something...books. I love books. I hoard them. There are hundreds, arranged, not in alphabetical order, but in order to which authors I think will get on with which other authors. Words surround me in my daily life. I treasure them, they bounce round my brain. I get passages from novels, poems, Bible readings, psalms, prayers, radio broadcasts, advert slogans, limericks, and snippets of overheard conversations stuck in my head like other people have tunes and songs. Unlike my other siblings, I rarely listen to music. If I do, I often prefer music with no lyrics, or lyrics in another language. This is not because I do not love it, but because I get distracted. This is particularly the case if I am driving. I lose track of my direction or plan. The other day I was walking up a chalk hill in pouring rain. A group of us had been visiting the White Horse at Faringdon. I was sent to collect the car, whilst the rest of the party made their way down to a meeting point. The rain was very heavy, and I was walking with my head bowed. Beautiful rivulets began to form, mixing with the white chalk of the landscape to make milky streams to run down the hill. I got caught up in an old Simon and Garfunkel tune, 'and as I watched the drops of rain weave their weary paths and die, I knew that I was like the rain, there before the grace of you go I. I walked almost a mile off course thinking about those words. Oopps.

Anyhow, when I sat down to do this experiment I found it hard. Everything that was around me, those things which most inspire me, were not visually attractive. I had to choose carefully from the objects around my bed. Our Lady of Częstochowa made it in, with the Palm Sunday cross sticking through the back; the vitamin pills, which I take everyday, that advertise 'Health' and 'Balance' made it in too; an open bottle of red wine (old) and a glass; a notebook, open and covered in  scrawl - my diary; my rosary; and, the small pile of books that live next to my bed. That pile of books is always changing, but on the day I drew this it contained: The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch, The Penguin Book of Irish Verse; Wildwood - Roger Deakin; One for Sorrow - Chloe Rhodes; Morning and Evening Prayer; Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro; The End of the Affair - Graham Greene; Imitation of Christ - Thomas A Kempis.

I read the novels cover to cover. The others I dip in and out of, love somedays, ignore the next.  This experiment highlighted something I already knew, but which it is worth knowing again and again. I explore the world through words, words and language shapes of the world around me. When I was done drawing some of the objects around me, I still felt I had not finished, so a drew a few interconnecting words - the way it can sometimes be in my head. If I go to a museum, I want to read the blurb. If I listen to a song, I want to read the lyrics on the flysheet of the CD. I watch the TV with subtitles even when I do not need to. Words make shapes for me, landscapes, atmospheres, worlds. I explored this once before, in this post.

Only two exceptions to this habit stand out: when I am cooking I never read the recipe, and, when I am in Church I never read the Order of Service  / Newsletter / Hymnbook. In both these cases I prefer my taste buds and and sense of touch to do the exploring.

And, that is what I learnt from Experiment Two.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Dissed by McCabe - A Repost

I was thinking about the world and McCabe came to me, mostly because of my reflections upon this, way back when in 2008. Please excuse the repost.....

My liberal tendencies have just had the wind knocked out of them again. I like being challenged by my reading and this extract from Herbert McCabe OP took my sheepish wooly principles and kicked their stuffing across the field. Fleeced.


(Image from Wikipedia)
"I can remember.... the days of liberal progressive Christianity, a form of religion ideally suited to the liberal democratic way of life in which people were expected to be basically rather nice, and changes, if any came about by talking around a table and excersizing your free choices at elections. It was a time when the highest virtue was tolerance and the finest praise you could give people was to say that they were moderate. It was the good old days: a kind of Garden of Eden from which, however, we have all been expelled. This is just as well because it was a place of not very innocent illusions.......

.....In general it is young people who know that the world is lousy, who know about what is happening in places like South America and Northern Ireland. It is older people who have to cling to comforting myths about defending democracy somewhere or bringing prosperity to somewhere else or about how their country's troops are doing a marvelous job in the face of vicious and cowardly attacks. There are just a few people left who believe that the problems are all due to a misunderstanding and if only a few people would talk together it would all be cleared up. All of these people are over 35.........

........Perhaps they should start reading the Gospel of John. It's author is a pretty unchristian writer in any modern meaning of the word "Christian". He has very little to do what we have come to think of Christianity - that rather attractive, idealistic, but ineffective set of attitudes that make up the Christian spirit (a way of responding, a warm friendly way of responding to people, because people are fundamentally nice). He has little to do with Christianity that on the east coast of America has been called a belief in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighbourhood of Boston. This Christianity has, of course, social responsibilities. Christians, you remember, ought to improve things in this world, they ought to play their part in making this world a better place, they ought to help people live together in unobtrusive friendliness, persuading them not to be violent and so on. But with all this Christianity, John has nothing to do. He doesn't want to improve the world. He wants it destroyed. John thinks violence is inevitable, especially if the Gospel is preached. Salvation for him is not making this world a better place. It is salvation from the world. It means smashing and defeating the world, John has no use for the world at all.....

.......John's Gospel (and his Epistles) are much in tune with a generation that simply cannot afford the cheerful optimism of the past. There is a harsh realism about John that says something to us. No writer in the New Testament tells us more about love than John does. And none is less lovely. John directs us to the real world. He makes us look at it. It is in John that we read 'The Truth shall set you free". But for him, seeing the truth is (like love) rare and difficult. For him, indeed, it depends on love. Not loving, though; he doesn't say if you love you will see the truth. For him it depends on being loved. This is love, he says, not that you loved, but the God loved you.

The reason why John might appeal to us is that we have rather recently become aware of the interlocking complexity of evil. I mean the time has gone when we could think about bad actions in isolation, as random results of the individual free will....We have become aware, in fact, of a whole system of human exploitation, a balanced and self adjusting system, almost like an animal organism, a very resilient and flexible system...If you attack it in one place, it adjusts itself. It may appear to give into your attack, but in fact it has found another way of carrying on its life........
.......We have become aware of this complex system; we have become aware, in fact, of the World. Because this is exactly what John means when he talks about the World. The world for him plainly does not mean earth, the world of nature, creation, the material things around us. It means the way of being together that people have worked out.....
....In John's view you cannot tinker with this world. We need to be redeemed from it. The attempt to work within it to improve it only means in the and that you are co-opted by it and find yourself working for it. ....In this world, for John, there is no brotherhood of all men, and any attempt to pretend that there is is illusion and deception. For him we shall only have real brotherhood when this world has been destroyed and a new one has arisen, when the world has gone through a conversion, a radical change, a change that means the ending of an old life, the complete collapse of the old system, and the start of a new one." 

(Rain in a young star system: very complex, inescapable)

I think that McCabe is being deliberately provocative in his analysis of John's Gospel. But isn't that brilliant? He stopped me dead. I felt my liberal views had just been slapped and thrown out of a top floor window. I am not sure when he wrote this essay, but it was clearly some years ago - 15 maybe? Politics has changed, but I think 'the system' McCabe talks about is still around. In the context of this essay 'the system' is linked to the idea of 'original sin', something that is always wrong with the World. It is a powerful piece of writing - designed, I think, to wind you up and make you think. It works. At first I thought he was cracked and all wrong, then I thought he was onto something - now, I think I might think he is cracked, too pessimistic about the human race, sounds like a raging hippy blaming 'the system' for all the ills of the world when really people just need to get off their backside. It could take hours of 'putting the world to rights' conversation, with a bottle of wine in the small hours, to sort this one out. And I could be proved wrong thousands of times over, because McCabe is a genius. Excellent. Cheers Herbert.

Thursday 14 June 2012

An Odd Dream Recalled

Last year, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, I wrote about an odd dream. I do not often dream, and it is almost unheard of for me to remember my dreams, but last year I was struck. Today, I repost that dream, and the food that was so integral to it. It resonates with me still, and reminds me of new friends I have met this year. It has become suddenly relevant again in these days, and makes me smile. Enjoy!

'I had the oddest dream. I rarely remember anything about my dreams, but last night's was so vivid and strange that since waking up it has been coming back to me in snatches. For starters, the Sacred Heart chapel from the Oratory morphed itself onto the side of the Priory Church at Blackfriars. Those of you who know those places can figure out how odd that was. Suffice to say the aesthetics and the architecture shouldn't have matched, but somehow it worked. Despite the setting, it wasn't a dream about being in church. There was a big party going on in the chapel, and many people I knew from different walks of life were there laughing, joking, talking and generally having fun. I was wandering in and out of the different groups joining in for a while and listening. Often there were people talking to each other that I would never put together, I shan't go into details because all the people were 'real' so it wouldn't be fair. But everyone was getting on and the place was packed. And the food! The food was Jambalaya. How can you say the word Jambalaya and not feel happy? It is a glorious mix of cultures, french and spanish cuisine combined with deep hearty spices from the caribbean; vegetables, fish, meat and rice all cooked up together in one big open pan. There was wine too. It was Rose, which is odd, because I don't particularly like Rose, but I guess I wasn't choosing and it went really well with the Jambalaya.  There was music playing, but I do not remember what it was, and often it was only the background to the many animated conversations taking place. The person who stood out the most, standing right at the top of the room, chatting away to various others, was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP. He was wearing his usual white habit, and a huge, diamond shaped, iridescent green ring. The ring quite freaked me out. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I even asked him to take it off, but he shrugged me away and didn't.  Once I had spotted it though, I couldn't concentrate on the party or the food anymore, only the stupid ring. It really bothered me. No matter where I went in the room I could see it.  No one else seemed to mind. I left the party, and wandered through what would be the sacristy out into the main church of Blackfriars. It was empty but I could still hear the party. The light was beaming in through the top windows, as it often does, causing the tabernacle, which was dressed for ordinary time, to sparkle and sparkle....Then I woke up, and I have been haunted by the dream ever since.  I hope Fr. Tim won't mind me mentioning him by name. It is only a dream after all. I certainly hope he doesn't own any diamond shaped iridescent green rings. I do not like them.'

By way of therapy to get rid of this dream I shall share the recipe for joyful jambalaya. It is great for parties, and I am sure it would go very well with a chilled Rose, dry, not sweet. 

You need for 4 people:

About 150 - 200g of smoky chorizo, diced
a red pepper and a yellow pepper, deseeded and sliced
1 onion, finely sliced
2 celery sticks, finely sliced on a diagonal
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 red chilli, finely chopped
a few fresh thyme sprigs
1/2 teaspoon paprika
about 200g long grain rice
a can of chopped tomatoes
700ml vegetable or chicken stock, hot
1/2 tabasco, plus extra to serve
200 - 300g tiger prawns, peeled
If it is a party party I get some whole ones too, because they look good and I like watching guests struggle to eat them politely.
4 spring onions (scallions), trimmed and finely sliced
Peas (if you fancy)
Lemon and Lime wedges, to serve

Cook the chorizo in a wide, deep frying pan, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Add the peppers, onion, celery, garlic, paprika, and chilli to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened slightly. Stir in the thyme and rice, cook for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes, stock and Tabasco and bring to the boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer very gently, stirring occasionally, for 12 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Season to taste. Stir in the chorizo, peas, prawns and spring onions and cook briefly until the prawns are cooked. Serve immediately with lime wedges.
Do not get freaked out by your dreams. Mostly, they are friendly.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

How to be an explorer of the world

"We shall not cease from exploration
 and at the end of our exploring
 will arrive where we started
 and know the place for the first time."

TS Eliot 'The Four Quartets"

My sister Gemma showed me a new book she bought. I loved it so much, I bought it too. Gemma is an artist and has a way of seeing things, check out her Tumblr. The book is called 'How to be an explorer of the world' by Keri Smith. It contains many different ideas to help us to do what people should do, as artists, as scientists, as appreciators of the beauty of creation, as human beings. It gives ideas about how to 'open your eyes and see'. It makes clever points, such as, an average tree looks very different depending upon if we view it from far away or close up. It changes again if we choose to look at is as a colour palette. Maybe you decide to study it in separate parts, the bark, the growth patterns, the root system. You could also choose to see how a tree has functioned in a community (a meeting place), or examine the stories that those that live around it choose to tell. What sounds are made by the tree? What does the space around the tree look like? What is it made of? How does the tree change visually over the course of a day? A year? How do different people you love view the tree?

I love this book because I saw immediately that I could use it to see things anew. Perhaps I could consider the Church, or even my faith,  as a tree. Taking things in such carefully thought out stages would have the capacity to open new patterns of thought, perhaps it could shift and change the stubborn thought processes I am used to. Teachers should always learn new tricks. So I began. Maybe one day, one day, I might get close to imagining a 'God's eye view', and how different might that be from my own limited thought patterns. The picture to the right helps me to begin to think about that. Can you even imagine what a record of immediate post-Communion prayers and experiences might look like? What it might show you? Even if you only made the simple record below?

The instructions were to write ten things about the place where you are sitting that you hadn't noticed when you sat down. Use you senses. Do it quickly. Do not censor.

1. The television is too loud, there are people shouting and I wish they would stop
2. My feet are on a soft cosy blanket. It is my favourite colour, purple, but I do not like it
3. My toes hurt after a long days teaching
4. I can hear the traffic of people going up and down the Woodstock Road, they are busy
5. I love the trees that I can see, everyday I love them
6. It is not raining, this is remarkable
7. I don't really know how to use the TV controls, they confuse me
8. The carpet below my feet is made of sheep skin. It is cosy on my toes, but I worry about the dearly departed creature.
9. My boots lie where I threw them. Last night I had a dream in which my boss thought they were 'unprofessional'. He might well think such a thing, but has never said it to me!
10. I have a tall stool that I use as a table. There is a glass of white wine on it. There always is. I feel guilty about this.

I am going to follow the advice of my new book and make some 'experience logs' about things I notice in my daily life: location, time, date and a brief note about the thoughts that cross my mind. Perhaps doing such a thing might help me to learn something new. A human being must always be ready to learn something new, be startled by something or change their mind.

A new notebook is required.

UPDATE: Gemma did this experiment too! Here are her findings.

Friday 8 June 2012

Besara - Broad Bean Mash

June. The month of the broad bean. I love broad beans. You can pick your own just over the big red pedestrian bridge on Port Meadow. I have been neglecting a series I have barely started: Friday Vegetarian. Today I am home in Shipton, looking after my Da who has been poorly of late and had a pacemaker fitted this afternoon. In hospital I read lots of information about how you should eats lots of pulses to keep your heart healthy. So, in honour of a healthy heart in the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart, a snack made with a good heart.


300g double peeled broad beans (see recipe for details)
splash of olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp green cumin seeds
juice of a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Pop your broad beans out of their big pods and boil them in salted water until soft. Drain them and cool with cold water. Double peel your beans to reveal a delicious bright green centre bean. . Next heat a little oil in a saucepan and fry the onion and cumin seeds, followed by the paprika. Add most of the drained double peeled beans (keep a handful back). Stir well before adding a cup (250ml) of water, and bring to the boil until all the water has been absorbed (if it begins to look dry a little more water). Once cooked blend the beans together with the lemon juice and season to taste. Finally, heat a little oil in a pan and fry of the remaining beans until the go brown and crispy. Transfer your besara to a serving bowl, scatter the fried beans on top, drizzle with olive oil and scatter paprika decoratively. Serve with crusty bread, still warm.

Two wordles

It seems there is a lot of food going on. This is from today....

This is from April, around Easter

Thursday 7 June 2012

Giving gratefully

Someone once told me, and I can't really remember who but the faces of both Mr. Singleton and Mr. Quinn come to mind (two of my Secondary school teachers), that you cannot really give unless it costs. What they meant by this, I seem to recall, is that too often people give what is spare. Someone asks for a donation to charity or the weekly Church collection plate passes by and the 'spare change' we might not notice is passed on freely. Real giving, this someone told me, was when you gave what you might have needed, but did not count the cost of it. This real giving, it was argued, is what we do when we truly love someone. 

Think about it. When we really want to give something to someone we love, time and energy goes into the planning of it. We save up, use money that we have set aside for some other purpose, resolve to buy that new frock next month, make sacrifices...and none of it matters because the aim, all along, was to give.  The same is true for the time we give, we make sacrifices to spend time with loved ones, friends and family. We put other concerns aside. 

There is a morally argumentative side to me which says that that which we have spare is not ours to give, it already belongs to the person who needs it. It's a view that has precedent - I think St. Thomas Aquinas may have spoken a little like that (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q 66 Art. 7, if you must know). St. Francis probably did too. 

It has been a long time since I have written here. I have missed the Feast days for many of those I hold dear, not least St. Dominic, St. Madeleine Sophie and St. Phillip Neri. Ascension and Pentecost have also come and gone, the days seem to fly by. I have, to be honest, been struggling for time.  As part of my teaching job I am asked to help students with their Duke of Edinburgh Award. Last week a team of teachers, including myself, went to complete some training to begin the process of becoming Mountain Leaders. We walked in the hills, practised our rope work and navigation skills, hiked up mountains, wild camped and cooked in the great outdoors. All the while saints I have been missing in the blogosphere have been alive and well in the ruminations of my mind. Not least because, when the rain turned horizontal and the wind brutal, I was imploring every angel and saint to keep me alive and attached to the side of the mountain! Still, when I returned I was asked by a good friend why I bother with all this extra effort in my teaching job: could I not just settle for teaching the lessons and coming home? The simple answer is, no, I couldn't. I love the students I teach, and sometimes that means sacrificing evenings, weekends and little comforts in life to ensure that they get everything they deserve. The same is true, of course, of my loved ones, my friends and family. And, as in recent days, that can make things hectic. My one resolution for all of this is to give my whole attention to the present moment and devote my complete attention to whomsoever I am with. As for spare moments, they are already owed to the One who makes all things possible. I take that quiet time and give it in prayer, sometimes sneaking into empty churches to just 'be'. Quite frequently I am humbled, honoured and truly grateful for the wonderful company love provides.

The next few days, as Corpus Christi approaches and then, on the following Friday and Saturday, the Feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary arrive, I reckon I will be thinking about how hearts have an infinite capacity to give, and an infinite capacity to love without ever counting the cost. For what it is worth, I will be returning to a prayer I learnt in Secondary School and seeing if I can find anything new in it that will expand my heart.

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward
save knowing that we do your will.


St. Ignatius of Loyola

Tonight I am cooking up a curry for a friend and we will be catching up on all things new. I delight in good company and love to listen to the stories of others and tell my own. Cooking a good curry, with all the sides and some chilled wine, seems an excellent way to get started.

Chicken Curry

500g boned chicken thighs, cut into big chunks
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground black peppercorns and coriander seeds
1/4 tsp garam masala
1 tsp paprika
1 1/2 tsp tumeric
1/2 tsp red chilli flakes
2 fresh tomatoes
a handful of fresh coriander
3 bay leaves

Tarka Masala Sauce
3tsp olive oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled and chopped
a tin of chopped tomatoes
5cm fresh ginger, grated
2 green chillies

Start by making the Tarka Masala sauce. Heat the oil in a large pan until fairly hot, add the cumin seeds and fry for 10 seconds. Add the inions and fry until golden brown, then add the garlic and fry until slightly golden. Drain the tin of tomatoes (keep the juice), and add them to the pan, the add the chillies and ginger and fry.

Put the chicken, salt, spices and chilli flakes into the pan and cook over a fairly high heat. Keep turning the chicken and continue to cook until the meat is sealed and browned and the liquid has evaporated. Add the juice from the can of tomatoes and about 450ml of water, bring the the boil and simmer over a medium heat for 15 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Add the fresh tomatoes about three minutes before the end of the cooking time.

Sprinkle with fresh coriander and bay leaves to serve

Sweet Lentil Daal

250g green lentils
2 bay leaves
1.2 litres of water
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp garam masala
salt, to taste
2 - 3 tsp sugar
2 tsp butter
5 cardamon pods
1 tsp cumin seeds
5 cloves
1 stick of cinnamon
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 - 2 dried red chillies
3 heaped tsp flaked coconut

In a large pan place the lentils, tumeric and bay leaves in a pan with the water, measured. Bring to the boil and simmer for almost an hour, or until soft. Add extra water if necessary. Stir in the coriander and garam masala, salt and sugar to taste. Cook until the lentils are completely soft and beginning to break up a little.

Heat the butter in a small pan. Fry the cardamon pods, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, mustard seeds and chillies for 30 seconds. Add the coconut and cook until it turns golden, then pour the mixture over the lentils. Stir in or leave to stir at the table.

Serve both dishes with chapatis, naan and / or rice. Little E if you read this, guest post me a recipe for naan? I'd love to learn how to make it. :-)