Laughing with God

And sometimes I wonder why I feel a kind of affinity with Finnishness. It’s not just the food, though that helps…the Eastern European comfortingly unhealthy fried herrings and boiled or mashed potatoes, which echo  the  salt beef and latkes of my childhood. But more so it’s the fixed grin, the hardened smile, the sardonic uncontrollable laughter in face of tragedy, the melancholic absurdity expressed and befriended by Tove Jansson and Aki Kaurismäki and of course, Finnish Tango (or should I say just, “tango”?).

And to find a voice for this, try listening if you can to the words of the writer Elie Wiesel, who as a teenager survived Auschwitz but granted survival, that blessing and that curse, testified to the horrors through a torrent of books, including a play, “The Trial of God.”
Elie Wiesel NYC 3.9.07 075
A group of travelling minstrel’s appear in an inn in seventeenth-century Ukraine, planning to perform a Purim schpiel a traditional play of the biblical Book of Esther, on this most joyful, drunken and raucous of the Jewish festivals. But as Berish, the innkeeper reveals, all the Jews in the village are dead, murdered in a pogrom; only he and his crazed daughter survived. Instead he insists that they perform a different kind of play, a trial. In the dock stands God, though absent. Berish takes the part of the prosecutor.

The story is based on an actual event which Wiesel witnessed in Auschwitz. Three great Jewish scholars assembled a rabbinic court of law to indict the Almighty for allowing the massacre of His children. The verdict was unanimous: God, the Creator of heaven and earth was found guilty of crimes against creation and humanity.

After what Wiesel described as “an infinity of silence” one of the scholars looked at the sky and said, “It’s time for evening prayers.” And the members of the tribunal began to recite the evening service.

What can we do in the face of such horror? What can we say against the din of unbearable silence? Berish the Innkeeper, says this:

I am ready to invite all people to come and eat, drink, sing and celebrate – and together drive away the curse that transforms certain people into killers and others into their victims…And listen to a clown who makes people laugh. And then, I realize that the clown, that’s me.

Seasonal #7

Repellent wine
Each day overlaps
the next, when music shines on
drunken mosquitoes.






The rest is silence


Finns are world experts in reticence. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht  is reported to have described the bilingual Finns as “a people who are silent in two languages.”

On Friday evening, I heard a rabbi give her final sermon to the community she was leaving, centring on the mysterious silence of Aaron after the destruction of his two sons with fire by God for what seems to us to be the most minor ritual infraction  (Leviticus 10:2). The gist of her drash – if I understood it correctly – was that sometimes we must remain inconsolable, and when nothing either can or should be said to ease our pain, the only appropriate response is silence.

I was reminded of Wittgenstein’s  concluding sentence of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

 The word drash is short for the Hebrew word midrash, which means “investigation” or “interpretation”, generally of a text, usually of a portion of the Bible. So what would it mean to investigate the meaning of silence: the silence of another, or of ourselves?

I sometimes go and stay at a  retreat centre in the West of England, which continues an ancient tradition known as Noble Silence. The guests are asked to refrain from speech as far as possible during their stay, which is mainly taken up with periods of silent sitting and walking meditation. At first this being speechless with others seemed strange, awkward and uncomfortable, but after a number of visits, I’ve found the silence richly supportive,  holding me fast in a risky space of enquiry and self-discovery. Last time I was there, I saw on the wall of the laundry a sign with this rather lovely line from the thirteenth century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

 Let silence whisper you the secrets of the universe.

And it seems to me at least that even with the near ceaseless chattering of my mind, the stillness of my tongue helps me to hear the undertones and to see the world afresh.

The Shakyamuni Buddha was famous for his meaningful silences, often held when asked metaphysical questions such as whether the self is real. To answer such a question either in the positive or in the negative, he said, would only lead to more confusion. In fact if the Buddha had had it his way, he would never have spoken at all, as he thought that for his generation, enjoying attachment as it did would not be able to see what he saw:

And if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.

According to legend, it was only through the pleading of a deity known as Brahma Sahampati that the Buddha broke his silence and showed others his way to freedom, though there are probably many people who think he would have been better off sticking to his original decision. Which raises the question, how many great saints and sages have passed unnoticed in this world as they wisely choose to refrain from speaking or writing?

On the other hand, I’ve always been suspicious of “the ineffable”, as it sometimes seems an excuse to shut down a discussion, to close down the investigation. People sometimes say things like, “I can’t explain it; I just feel it’s true” just when the conversation is getting interesting (for me at least) – a defensive unwillingness to to expose cherished but delicate beliefs to the light of scrutiny.

At such moments, I really don’t have the heart to press the point.  I would have to admit that some profound emotional, aesthetic, contemplative or religious experiences, are to be expected to be beyond the capacity of the literal. For some, it is this inadequacy of language to the task of addressing the nameless – and the golden residue that remains after a description has been attempted – that defines the mystical, a realm in which the most educated is the least articulate. It’s not about facts, theories or propositions but insights which can only be spoken of, as the Israeli scholar  Joseph Dan says, apophaticly, through “a language of unsaying” –  or else through metaphor, parable or paradox.

Going back to Wittgenstein, who, for a philosopher in the analytic tradition,  makes some remarkable references to mysticism,  he writes (again in the Tractatus):

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)

And then…

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

Or, as my Finnish friend Mikko once put it, when I complained of the difficulty I had in speaking the Finnish language, “The best thing is to say very little. That way you make very few mistakes.”

Wrestling with Bento

In an essay by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, I find this passage, quoted from Ghandi:

What I want to achieve–what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years–is self-realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha (Liberation). I live and move and have my being in pursuit of that goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.

I am certainly no Ghandi. Far too little of my living, moving and being is in the pursuit of anything much more than maintenance and distraction. But I often sense something of that deep longing for a kind of union with that which is eternal and infinite, a bonding that paradoxically promises true freedom. If, like Spinoza, we conceive Natura Naturata as that very substance, on which we depend and in which we participate, then as Næss proposes, we see that Self-realization comes when we identify with the whole of nature as a “wide and deep ecological self”. And just as nature itself is limitless, this identification is necessarily without limit, and by virtue of this we come to realise that genuine or intellectual self-love is nothing less than God’s love for Himself.

As I struggle with forming a clear and distinct idea of Spinoza’s God, I sometimes feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:24-32). The battle with the mysterious adversary continues through the hours of darkness and there is no victor–only the breaking of the day. In the undimming of the light, I am exposed: I can only, weakly, profess my individuality, my identity, only to be told that it is not my true name at all. And when I try to balance the books, demanding, like St Augustine (self-)definition from the Other, He only interrogates my question, “Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?”

The questioning of the question is itself puzzling. But maybe the reward, the blessing, the revelation which we are insufficiently attentive to hear, is that which we could receive every waking moment, but in fear we avert our eyes. Like R.S. Thomas’ bright field, we have to be prepared to give all that we have, indeed give up all that we hold true, to possess it. In that instant of letting go, we glimpse God’s face, and as with Jacob our life is preserved.

It sometimes seems to me that every attempt to pin down (another wrestling term) Spinoza’s God by equating it with a tidy, contemporary concept is a form of misrepresentation, as much a deception (or selfdeception) as Jacob’s fooling of Isaac: “I am Esau thy first-born.”

Maybe I should not demand a resolution for the vexed questions of the relationship of substance and mode; whether Spinoza’s God should be understood as the God of the Philosophers or at least derivative of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; as the laws of physics or the Lawmaker; as the totality of things or the single essence expressed by the infinite attributes. Rather, could I just learn to live with the blessing of this ancient dance, an eternal striving with God?

“Imagine that a…

“Imagine that a spaceship has landed on the front lawn and these martians have come out and come up to you and asked, ‘What is anger?’ That’s how you should relate to anger.”

Anagarika Shri Munindra

Quoted by Sharon Salzberg


Seasonal #6

Seasonal #6

Strewn like confetti

outside a town hall entrance,

the tender blossom.

On meeting anger from the outside

??????????????????????????????Some years ago I went on a brilliant course with the not very catchy title of “Dealing with Difficult Behaviour in the Library.” At the time, I was working in a community library on one of South London’s least lovely estates, where we fought running battles with gangs of teenagers.

One of the things I learned on the course was some simple phrases that I’ve found useful in dealing with all sorts of difficult situations. One of these was for use with a person who was irate, even aggressive. What she warned us never to say (unless we wanted to get hit) was, “Calm down!” Instead she recommended the simple sentence, “I can see you’re very angry.”

Recently I wrote about Descartes’ view on anger, and the post was orientated towards how we can own, manage and transform the anger within ourselves. But lately, circumstances have made me consider how to meet the anger of other people, especially those close to us. Of course, if we encounter a violent or aggressive stranger, the sensible thing may be to avoid them. But so often it’s our closest friends, lovers, work colleagues whose anger vented against us leaves us hurt, confused or angry ourselves.

In  Marshall Rosenburg’s theory of Nonviolent Communication, anger, like other feelings, is understood as a message that expresses a need. On one level this seems a trivial claim: we get angry when service is slow in a restaurant, for example, because we’re hungry and need to eat.  But  there are other, higher needs, in particular the need to be respected, to be recognised and accepted.

Psychologist Dorothy Rowe,  in her manual on depression Breaking the Bonds, also holds that anger has a meaning, and that meaning is, “I am here, and I have the right to be here, and I will survive.” So this sense implies that the person experiencing anger feels that these three aspects of our existence are threatened or denied.

Aristotle  saw anger as a revenge-seeking reaction against disrespect or belittling:

Let anger be defined as desire, accompanied by distress, for apparent retaliation because of an apparent slight that was directed, without justification, against oneself or those near to one.

According to Aristotle, when one person belittles another, they actualise an opinion that the person is worthless. Belittling can come in three forms: contempt, spite and insult.

So how might this help us cope better with our angry friend, our angry child or our angry lover? If we are not going to add insult to injury, we could first show that we acknowledge what they are feeling. That’s why just saying “I can see that you are angry” can begin to alleviate a tense situation, while saying “calm down” just makes things worst. But if we are to go further, and help our angry friend to see past their overwhelming sense of being squished, we have be with them, feel with them as they themselves look within to ask “what does she really need right now?”

It’s undoubtedly a tall order. Some people are  so bound up in their own needs that they’re hard to cope with. Often their anger, even when not vented at us directly, elicits  our own, born of our very human instinct for self-defence which goes into gear in frightening situations. But maybe we can learn to take the other’s anger a little less personally, to open up just a crack to seeing it as a poorly articulated request for recognition, for support,  to be heard – to be loved even.

This doesn’t mean I have to be the angry person’s punchbag. We can also express how it feels for us to be shouted at or insulted. We can also draw boundaries, insisting that there are behaviours we will not tolerate.

But – and I’m still experimenting with this myself – it seems that when we try to give compassionate  attention to our friend and their anger, just as with our own, this light causes it to soften, and open communication returns.

Sometimes we have to listen to be heard.


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