Tag Archives: atheism

1 May: The fools that we were.

wild plum blossom

The First of May

by A. E. Housman

 The orchards half the way
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.

 The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.
 
Between the trees in flower
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now's the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.
 
Ay, yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.


From Last Poems by A. E. Housman.

It is as well to acknowledge the other side of the coin. Not everyone accepts the Christian or any other religious view of life. Housman was an atheist, and here seems close to despair: the sumless tale of sorrow is all unrolled in vain. Sorrow is beyond calculation: May fair at Ludlow repeats May fair at Ludlow, repeats May fair at Ludlow; and the sons of men learn sense only when it is too late. The poet was writing in the years after the Great War, and like many of his lyrics The First of May alludes to the futility of war and the price of war in human suffering.

No skating over these questions of human sinfulness and apparent divine indifference!

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19 June, Heart VIII: Psalm 17

Let’s go back to our search for the meaning of heart in the Bible. As we’ve seen, Scripture says more about the human heart than about God’s, but then, we need to be careful with our metaphors, lest they diminish God to what the atheists deplore: a product of human imagination and need. But here we have King David, of all people, claiming that there is no wickedness in his heart!

Well, I know that I’ve not held fast to God’s paths, my feet have indeed slipped; even if I examine my conscience carefully, I’m well able to deceive myself. Maybe that’s the spirit in which to pray this Psalm: dear Lord, this is an aspiration!

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
    give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
From you let my vindication come;
    let your eyes see the right.

If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
    if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
    my mouth does not transgress.
As for what others do, by the word of your lips
    I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
    my feet have not slipped.

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12 June: No heart In God.

IN SLEEP

We step aside from our Scriptural exploration of the Sacred Heart to listen to a poet, Alice Meynell, from her 1917 collection, ‘A Father of Women’. There was much to be wrathful about, much to shed a tear for. To continue to fight for justice, all the while believing there is nothing, springs from a special courage acknowledged here by Alice Meynell, friend of the rough sleeping drug addict and insightful poet, Francis Thompson. Thirty years on and the Welfare State was coming to existence in the United Kingdom.

I dreamt (no “dream” awake—a dream indeed)
A wrathful man was talking in the park:
“Where are the Higher Powers, who know our need
         And leave us in the dark?

“There are no Higher Powers; there is no heart
In God, no love”—his oratory here,
Taking the paupers’ and the cripples’ part,
         Was broken by a tear.

And then it seemed that One who did create
Compassion, who alone invented pity,
Walked, as though called, in at that north-east gate,
         Out from the muttering city;

Threaded the little crowd, trod the brown grass,
Bent o’er the speaker close, saw the tear rise,
And saw Himself, as one looks in a glass,
         In those impassioned eyes.

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9 February: Creatures of illusion.

beach.pebbles

An outsider would be forgiven for thinking that Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set of writers and artists led charmed lives. Not so. If we are to believe Woolf herself, it was all a lie: a veneer of self-confidence, achieved by despising other people.
Life for both sexes—and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement— is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to one self. By feeling that one has some innate superiority—it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney—for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination—over other people. Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power.”
{from “A Room of One’s Own (Wisehouse Classics Edition)” by Virginia Woolf, available on Kindle}
Woolf, of course, lived at a time when ‘half the human race indeed’ in the West was gradually gaining what we now call human rights: the vote, schooling and higher education, owning and administering property and so on. Woolf was far better placed than most women to grasp these opportunities, but she seems to have felt, if not to have totally acknowledged, that she was to an extent living a lie. How else can we describe ‘the feeling that one has some innate superiority’ over others?
Her suicide could be construed as a rational response to the despair such a position masks; rational if you see no God, no created order to show that you are as a little child, to offer sustaining help. 
Let us pray for all who feel desperate:
Lead Kindly Light amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on,
MMB

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July 31: Traherne I: We love we know not what

river.monnow.

The preacher deplored how some people claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’; when looking at religion with something of an outsider’s eye  – as an often alienated Catholic – I have more sympathy than Father was expressing! We have to leave room for the Spirit to blow where s/he will and try not to get in the way.

Edward Thomas pointed me towards Thomas Traherne not long ago. This Meditation of his goes some way to defending the ‘spiritual but not religious’ soul. We surely cannot maintain that atheists and agnostics do not love.

Though it be a maxim in the schools that there is no Love of a thing unknown, yet I have found that things unknown have a secret influence on the soul, and like the centre of the earth unseen violently attract it.

We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us.

As iron at a distance is drawn by the loadstone, there being some invisible communications between them, so is there in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing?

Surely the spiritual but not religious person feels so drawn? And if we church-goers are honest, at both institutional and personal levels, we have sometimes, often even, got in the way of the Spirit. Thomas Traherne’s theology of Joy seems a good way to enter the holiday month of August. Laudato Si!

WT

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March 23: Into that Good Night …

crypt (640x481)

“Do not go gentle into that good night”.

As I slipped into the dark crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, Dylan Thomas’s poem to his dying father slipped gently into my mind, and there it stayed:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rage at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

So this was the prayer I had to sit with.

Note that, as a true Welshman, Dylan writes of a ‘good’ night; knowing that at nightfall a Welsh parent might sing ‘Ar hyd y nos’:

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,

All through the night.

Guardian Angels God will send thee,

All through the night.

Dylan himself had an angelic First Voice Under Milk Wood, watching over Laregub, his ideal corner of the Principality of Heaven; now though he was facing the death of his atheistic father, and with mixed feelings. Should an atheist, could an atheist, accept death without a burning rage?

The prophet Simeon’s ‘Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace,’ (Luke 2:29) was uttered when the old man saw the true light come into the world (Luke 2:31; John 1:1-14). But what did Dylan’s dad see at the end? Did his light die?

+   +   +

Jesus went out into the night of Maundy Thursday, well aware of the dangers facing him. He did not rage, he went gently, but even so by way of intense emotional and spiritual wrangling with himself and his Father. And an angel did attend him (Luke 22:43).

The angels were to be seen once more on Easter Sunday morning (Luke 24:4) testifying to the Light reborn.

The peace of the Prince of Peace was not lightly won, but it is freely given. (John 14:27) Let us pray that Dylan and his father were able to receive it at last. And let us be grateful for the peace that the world cannot give, but that we can indeed receive from the one who calls us his friends. (John 14:27; 15:14-15).

MMB.

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