Why I’m a Remembrance dissenter

Lone soldier with rifle marching in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington DC

The following is an extract from The Secret Life of God

On the Sunday closest to the eleventh of November, I set off to see how the Newington Unitarians mark Remembrance Day. This year, the day has acquired an added poignancy, with record poppy sales attributed to a rise in support for the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. A generation that has never known war finally has a conflict of its own, with real dead people to commemorate.

Fate, or rather my own incompetence, is against me. I miss the train by seconds, my hand smacking against the closing door. I know there is another Unitarian church just a bus ride away, although I don’t have the address. And so it is that, at a few minutes to eleven, I find myself careering around the concrete jungle that is Croydon, asking directions of the policemen posted at street cordons in readiness for the military parades. One officer helpfully walkie-talkies another to ask the location of the Unitarian Church, but he doesn’t know either. Cantering off in a likely direction, I enter the United Reformed Church just as the two minute silence is ending. The minister, seeing a woman in spiritual need, comes and put his hand on my arm, looking empathically into my eyes. But I am just physically lost, and in a hurry to get to a rival church.

Croydon Unitarian Church is a few hundred yards further on, a modern building crouching by the flyover. The service is well under way as I take a pew behind a sea of white heads. The interior has a utilitarian plainness and an abstract mural hangs in place of the east window; I feel momentary disappointment at the lack of the visibly numinous. But the proceedings have pace and interest: an American minister with a walrus moustache reads a poem by Mark Twain with aplomb, and introduces a silence with eloquence.

Yet as he moves to the pulpit to give the address, the Revd Art Lester seems gripped by hesitancy. It is a day on which it is easy to give offence, he begins slowly, a difficult day for ministers obliged to preach. Perhaps it has something to do with Britain in November, the loss of the last of the warmth which gives the time of year a bleakness like no other: he pauses, and mops his brow before finally getting to the point.

Remembrance Day is very different in the Spanish village where he and his wife once lived, he tells us. Every year, the whole village troops up to the hilltop cemetery for a service followed by a picnic among the dead. Graves become tabletops and commemoration gives way to fiesta because, for the locals, the dead are all around. ‘Here’s my father,’ a village woman had once said, and the minister had turned, hand outstretched, to find, instead of the bent old man he expected, a tombstone.

Unlike the Spaniards with their enviable connection with their dead, the Croydon minister continues, Britain’s remembrance of its war dead is dominated by a feeling of them ‘not being all right’. The country strikes him as being stuck in the first stages of grief – anger – and the triumphalist trappings of its annual commemoration suggest there are unresolved feelings. Their belligerence left out something that was important yet difficult to think: the fact that the conflicts had created deaths which were ‘early and probably senseless’. Maybe, he suggests, it would be better to ‘remember differently’ rather than continue to mark the day with brass bands and bugles. He pauses. He had often met with anger when expressing this unorthodox view, and had hesitated to give this sermon today, even though he knew he was among friends. Then he leaves the lectern and goes and sits down at the back of the dais with the air of a man who has got something difficult over with.

I gauge the silence that follows for signs of tension or discomfort, but find only calm. As the next hymn fills the air, I find to my surprise that I am suppressing a strong urge to cry. I master myself in time to notice the elderly lady in front dabbing her eyes with a white cotton hanky. ‘Is it the emotion?’ asks her neighbour sympathetically. The white head, doubtless full of its own war memories, nods wordlessly.

As the congregation gathers itself to leave, an elderly gentleman sporting an outsized poppy gets to his feet. The sermon leaves us with an important question to take away, he declares: how do you remember the dead without celebrating the war? He had been to a number of services in various churches that week but – he inscribes the air with a rhetorical flourish – he was certain you wouldn’t find anything like this anywhere else.

I should mention The War.

Or rather, the first and second world wars and how the deaths and enforced separations they brought worked subterranean influences which rippled down through the generations of my family, leaving their traces in absences and silences. It was a common enough story, shared by many British families.What made mine different was having a parent on each side of World War Two: a mother whose childhood was shaped by Blitztime London and evacuation to the country, and a Viennese father who had been conscripted at seventeen to fight for the Nazis and subsequently taken prisoner-of-war by the Americans.

Both histories came together in an odd postwar confluence in San Francisco in 1960. My mother was fleeing the gloom of 1950s’ Britain, with its greyness and rationing: with her best friend, she packed her trunk and sailed across the Atlantic. Other young Europeans were also escaping to the New World. At a party in San Francisco she met my father, who was building a new life in a society which, he said, had treated him better as an enemy than the one for whom he had fought.

Elements of life on the Home Front often entered my youth in fragments, like findings from an archaeological dig: vivid, yet lacking in context. There was the story of how a freshly docked sailor endowed my mother, then about eight, with the ultimate wartime rarity of an orange; references to the moving around and making-do of the time were always getting into admonitions about how you should be grateful for what you had, and look after your things. But while the facts of my father’s very different war were never hidden, he rarely talked about his experiences. Ebullient in company, at home he was a man of long silences from which it was difficult to recall him.

One day, in possibly my tenth year, as yet another battle played out on the TV screen, it dawned on me that being a soldier involved physical violence. ‘Dad,’ I asked, wide-eyed from my place on the sofa, ‘Did you ever kill a man?’ ‘Oh no,’ said my father, almost contemptuously, and relapsed back into silence. His wartime legacy manifested itself in other ways. There was his habit of bolting his food and then absent-mindedly helping himself to more when the rest of us had barely started eating, which he put down to his time in prison camp where, if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat much. At village parties in the 1970s, the fact that some of the men had fought on the same battlefront entered the small talk. ‘Oh, were you at Monte Casino, too?’ a neighbour would ask cheerfully as he sipped his sherry. Decades later, when the village amateur dramatic society put on a production of ’Allo ’Allo! to mark D-day, my father, who could not act but was valued for his innate ability to play the funny foreigner, was General Von Schmelling. The play ended in satirical chaos, with a row of goose-stepping, uniformed Nazis – a part for every older man in the company – lining up on stage while the audience howled with laughter. The horrors of war had been tamed, rendered hilarious and made available in a village hall near you.

But within the family, the solution of not talking about the war prevailed. One day, a man from the Imperial War Museum in London came to record my father’s experiences for the oral history archive. Afterwards, hoping to get some real sense of his past, I listened to the tape alone. I was disappointed. The recording had the same tone of faux jocularity that coloured the rare occasions he did talk about his past, the anecdotes of his life as soldier and prisoner-of-war recounted as if they were part of some great escapade. This was my father the raconteur, the persona he used to entertain visitors and villagers. As a personal response to a youth blighted by war, it didn’t ring true, and I sensed that some sort of emotional burial had taken place.

It wasn’t the only war burial in the family’s emotional history. As long as I could remember, I had been familiar with the central story of my grandmother’s life: her love for Jack. She had waited patiently for him to finish a long-running dalliance with an older woman before he finally proposed. But four years after they married, Jack was dead, leaving her a widow at twenty-nine. It was the age before the welfare state, so she returned to junior school teaching, farming out her baby daughter as best she could. She taught until retirement. She thought then of the prophecy, made years before by a fairground fortune teller, that she would spend all her life surrounded by young children. My grandmother was puzzled. She was getting married, and married women didn’t work; that phase of her life was over. But the fortune teller couldn’t or wouldn’t explain, merely repeating: ‘All your life, I see you surrounded by small children.’

I was twenty-one before I learnt the truth about my grandfather’s death. One afternoon during the university holidays, my grandmother told me how, in her late twenties, she had needed medical treatment for gynaecological problems. But the NHS did not yet exist, doctors were costly and Jack didn’t have the money to pay the bill. He was discovered having ‘borrowed’ from the petty cash at work and given the sack. Facing financial ruin and social shame, he sent his employers an ultimatum via a messenger boy: ‘Reinstate me, or I will jump from Waterloo Bridge at two o’clock.’ It’s not known how the employers would have responded, but by the time the boy arrived at the office just after two, Jack had jumped. His parents refused to talk to his widow about the death, but my grandmother’s sanity was saved by some good friends who invited her to stay and encouraged her to talk. She talked for a week. My grandfather’s suicide was later put down to shell shock stemming from his time in the trenches of the First World War.

I can’t honestly claim that some shadow-knowledge of these events played a part, but as soon as I was old enough to think about it, I was uncomfortable with Remembrance Sunday. Every November brought a drawn-out moment at the memorial cross, torn between reverential silence and embarrassed fidgeting until the Last Post cut through the damp air, signalling the resumption of normality. Later, as a young adult living in London, there were parades in the streets. In my early twenties, I once tried wearing a white poppy, but it wasn’t my thing: it was too partisan, oppositionist and, anyway, I wasn’t a pacifist. So I gave up any kind of observance and the biggest challenge on Remembrance Sunday became working out why the Archers were on early and then reaching for the off-switch. Not this, this faux 1950s’ solemnity from Whitehall.

Now, decades later in Croydon, I leave a Remembrance Sunday service having heard something that makes emotional sense for the first time. Maybe I have finally found a name for that sense of emptiness that always beset me when standing in silent communion around a village cross. Maybe I was a Remembrance dissenter.

Outside the Unitarian Church, the parades are in full swing. I stand and watch them go by under a pale November sun. First come the brass band, weaving carefully between the cordons, then the various regiments and, finally, the youth corps of teenagers, their arms moving stiffly as they march.

© Alex Klaushofer, 2015

The Autumn equinox and the symbolism of the apple

Red and green apple held between fingers and thumb against a blue sky

The autumn equinox – one of two days in the year when day and night are of equal length and which, in the pagan tradition, marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, comes as Christian churches celebrate the gathering in of the crops with the Harvest Festival. This year, for me, it’s all about apples.

Six months ago, having moved to an area of the West Country
historically dominated by orchards, I took the first steps in creating my own garden-orchard by planting some saplings.

And now, the light half of the year later, the first fruit of my orchard is a single, golden Russet. It’s Applewatch! If I allow it to fall, it will bruise and get eaten; if I pick it before it’s ready, I will have bad luck till Spring!

Apples have a rich and complicated symbolism across spiritual and religious traditions. For the Celts, apples had the power of healing and rebirth; for the Druids, as host to mistletoe, it was a sacred tree like the oak.

But of course, in Britain, the most powerful story about the apple is the Biblical one, portraying it as the fruity incarnation of forbidden knowledge. The cause, along with the serpent and the weakness of Woman, of The Fall, the apple represents the power and risks inherent in knowledge. In other words, it’s the Freewill Fruit.

The idea of the riskiness of apples permeates western culture. The apple in ‘Snow White’ is the container of poison, the vehicle of the evil stepmother’s magic that places the girl into a death-like state. In ‘Cider with Rosie’, Laurie Lee chronicles his sexual awakening thanks to an illicit jar of cider under a hay wagon in a chapter entitled ‘First bite of the apple’.

I’m not sure what the apple represents in contemporary British culture, but I suspect it may something to do with an attempt to preserve community and local character in the face of
homogenizing, impersonal modernity. In a couple of weeks, my local community group is holding its annual apple pick in the community orchard, a child-focused afternoon which will result in apple juice for the rest of the year.

And it’s a quarter of a century since Common Ground launched Apple Day on 21st October,
suggesting that the apple be used as ‘a symbol of what is being lost in many aspects of our lives and shown that anyone can take positive action towards change’.

My final thought about apples takes me to Lebanon, where I once went on an apple-picking weekend with a local eco-tourism company. I was a lone foreigner among a group of Maronites, and we picked apples for a leisurely while before having lunch and a lie-down in the orchard. The Syrian seasonal workers – living in nearby tents – were the best pickers, scrambling fast up trees to protect the apples from a bruising fall. There’s a symbolism in that, too.

No presenters were sacked in the writing of this blog

Mother Teresa and the dark side of goodness

Face of Mother Teresa
Photo by Papa Lazarou

So Mother Teresa has finally become a saint.

In the matter of Mother Teresa as an exemplar of whether religion is Good or Bad, I’m neither for nor against, and certainly wouldn’t go along with Christopher Hitchens’ condemnation of her as ‘a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud’. It’s a view which, as part of an atheist critique of organised religion as oppressive and irrational, loses sight of a rather interesting human being and ignores some important questions about the nature of altruism.

Leaving aside the potentially fraught question of how canonization is achieved in the Catholic Church, saints are interesting. I’ve seen how, in countries which really ‘do’ saints, they can function as a human locus for spiritual meaning: the drama of a saint-based festival in a Spanish village involving the whole community in dancing and parades; the way a mountain-top shrine in Lebanon becomes the recipient of the hopes and griefs of people from miles around.

Even in secular, post-Protestant Britain, saints live quietly on, reminding us through the names they’ve given to churches and hospitals of the needs of certain groups of people. And, as exemplars or intercessors, saints have parallels in other traditions, in the bodhisattvas of Buddhism or the wali of Sufism.

The more worthwhile controversy surrounding Mother Teresa, in my view, raises a more interesting issue to do with the psychology of goodness. Testimony from a former nun in her order and investigative work by a journalist and an Indian medic reveal the horrors bound up with the good deeds: the harsh conditions that prevailed in the orphanages, for both patients and nuns, despite the millions of dollars in the charity’s bank accounts donated by those who wanted to help alleviate suffering. Mother Teresa, her critics concluded, was in thrall to a ‘cult of suffering’.

From Mother Teresa’s point of view, all this suffering was in the ultimate good name – that of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, she suffered, and encouraged her followers to do so too. But a good psychoanalyst wouldn’t take this kind of theological justification at face value. S/he might point to, for example, the denial involved in imposing unnecessary suffering on others, and ask questions about the feelings and repressed energy that drove such obsessiveness. Taking a further, sociological step, s/he might also question the kind of idealized view that the mainstream west has of Mother Teresa, asking why we as a society tend to think of public figures in black-and-white terms, as either entirely good or entirely bad.

Personally, I also wonder whether this tendency to split the world into good and evil is fostered by Christianity and its legacy. Pagan traditions, by contrast, are much better at acknowledging the dark side in life and all of us; in modern terms, they’re more psychologically realistic.

Incidentally, when I wrote briefly in The Secret Life of God about about the spiritual doubt expressed in Mother Teresa’s diary, I unwittingly came up against the dark, controlling side of the Catholic establishment to which the Hitchens critique refers.

The context – you’ll need to bear with some technicalities to do with copyright law here – was that I wanted to quote a paragraph from Come Be My Light and wrote to the Mother Teresa Center seeking permission. Now, I was almost certainly being over-zealous here: as a friend with copyright expertise reminded me, citing a short passage from a long work of prose comes under ‘fair use’, and no permission is required. But the request had gone in, and the answer came back: permission was conditional on Mother Teresa being ‘accurately represented’ in my book, and the MTC wanted to see the whole chapter in which the citation would appear. Without it, permission was withheld. ‘God bless you,’ the email concluded.

Obviously, no journalist worth her laptop would allow her writing to be censored in this way, so – on the offchance that the citation might, in a copyright case, be subject to the more stringent rules governing the use of poetry or song lyrics, I took the simple expedient of deleting it from my manuscript and paraphrasing its sense.

But I was left with mixed feelings about the body which represents the work of the now-Saint Mother Teresa. One of them was surprise that they’d managed to confuse copyright – which simply protects a creator’s rights to credit and remuneration for their work – with potential defamation. It was supplemented by a feeling of wry amusement at the hopeless hubris of seeking to control how a person is perceived in the world – whether it’s a boss trying to ban gossip among the workforce or a government to quash dissent, it never fully works. Bless them.

St Giles, patron saint of hermits

There he lived with only a deer for company – according to some legends, the hind provided the under-nourished hermit with milk – until one day he was wounded by a stray arrow from a royal hunting party. Refusing all worldly inducements, he went on to found a forest monastery under the Rule of St Benedict. And so, with the motley biographically-based portfolio given to saints, Giles became the patron saint of woodland, the disabled and diseased, outcasts, and hermits.

I’m fond of St Giles. With the church in the village where I grew up named after him, I’ve spent many a dull moment staring at his image in the the east window, appreciating the presence of the animal and image of simple companionship.

These days, he strikes me as a useful emblem of the need for solitude in modern life and the stillness that can bring a deeper connection with nature. Modern society tends to discourage and dismiss solitude, portraying it as the loneliness which speaks of failure, those who seek it out as misfits and misanthropes. But, as this piece by Phil Daoust about the actively-chosen solitude makes clear, for some it’s the condition for exploration of both inner and outer worlds, creativity and, for some, just a peaceful life without the white noise of constant chit-chat.

Britain’s fractured religious history has contributed to the decline of the solitary, privileging busyness and action even in religious circles. The hermits and anchorites that were a part of society in medieval England largely disappeared with the destruction of the monasteries, and the Church of England has never been big on contemplation.

Hidden Hermits, launched on the Feast of St Giles, features a rare interview with a hermit of the old-fashioned variety – he’s lived on a hilltop for decades, doesn’t like speaking to journalists and yearned for solitude even as young monk. It also chronicles the rise of a new kind of solitary, a little-known network of modern people combining silence and solitude with ordinary life, without the requirements of an institution.
HiddenHermitsTHUMBNAIL

So as September ushers in a new season of busyness – back-to-school, off-to-uni, return-to-work – spare a thought for St Giles and his life of solitude among the trees.

Hidden Hermits is available on Amazon

To be a British pilgrim, 21st-century style

Weary pilgrims rest against the yew tree at Wilmington Churchay-pilgrimage/pilgrim-numbers/” target=”_blank”>Camino de Santiago which is now drawing an average of a quarter of a million pilgrims a year. Like the stewards of the Camino, who are argue that pilgrimage is for those of ‘all faiths and none’, BPT founders Guy Hayward and Will Parsons advocate a ‘bring your own beliefs’ approach.

I was curious about this new form of pilgrimage. It seemed to me a prime example of the kind of emerging, evolving British spirituality I documented in The Secret Life of God, in which the spiritually serious go in search of a form of faith based on experience and authenticity rather than doctrines or rituals handed down to them. While this quintessentially 21st century way of making meaning may still include organised religion, it involves reworking relationships with traditional institutions, along with an openness to other faiths and paths. I wondered whether I would meet the counterparts to the pioneering individuals and communities I’d found in the course of my research, ordinary people quietly discovering their own verions of the sacred while living normal lives.

And so it proved. Over two and a half days, two dozen people from a variety of backgrounds traversed the rolling Sussex hills, appreciating the beauty of churches – and the utility of their standpipes – honouring the ancestors of the land and doing a spot of yoga on a long barrow. Our guides sung to us – hear this ancient piece of British plainchant here – and led us in the singing of rounds they’d written to mark the connection between people and place.

New rituals emerged: drawing on eastern and Islamic traditions, Guy and Will encouraged the circumambulation of every church before entering it as a way of pre-empting the colonial ‘greed’ of marching straight in. And, as I write, there are probably some Japanese tourists telling their relatives how the British worship the cliffs edging their island in the way that Jews honour Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall – the fruit of Guy’s accidental discovery that placing your forehead against the east wall of a locked church can give you a powerful sense of the whole building.

I was surprised and yet not how readily the motley group embraced this easy syncretism: it clearly draws on a range of ideas and practices that have become commonplace in religious and alternative circles in recent years. I was entirely surprised by the way passers-by seemed to understand what we – identifiable as something more than a walking group by our pilgrim staffs – were doing, greeting explanations of a modern, non-dogmatic kind of pilgrimage as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I think the fact we were doing the most British of things – walking about the countryside for no practical reason – helped. (As we left the South Downs, we were awarded an impromptu medal by an YMCA worker, who said that collectively we’d done the same mileage as the walker who’d just spent four days walking from Winchester to raise funds.)

The vestry at Firle. That's my sleeping bag.
The vestry at Firle. That’s my sleeping bag.

As nature-loving inhabitants of a chilly island, we perhaps have a instinctual understanding that forging a relationship with the place which harbours us involves a degree of effort and travail.

For me, the experience fulfilled a lifelong ambition I never knew I had – sleeping in a vestry, in this case that of extreme pilgrim Peter Owen Jones at Firle. It’s also crystalised my intention of walking the pilgrimage routes that traverse Wiltshire: what better way of getting to know my new county than to be a pilgrim? Watch this space.

Toasting St Benedict – and Britain’s new monastics

A gate and archway revealing a vista of tree, garden and house that is the cover of The New Monastics by Alex Klaushofer

Not a lot of people know this in secular Britain, but July 11th is the Feast Day of St Benedict, the father of western monasticism.

Born around 480 in the Italian province of Nursia, as a young man Benedict spent three years as a hermit before being headhunted to become abbot of one of the monasteries near Rome. He went on to found a dozen more, out of which came his legacy – The Rule which still informs religious life fifteen centuries on.

The Rule of St Benedict distinguishes itself from other, harsher monastic regimes by its humanity and balance. The day is to be divided between work and prayer – or the needs of body and soul – and monks are to have a full night’s sleep. Its guidance takes account of human foibles: the porter who acts as the gatekeeper to the community should be a ‘sensible old man’ whose age ‘keeps him from roaming about’.

In a rather nice coincidence for a Britain dealing with the fallout from Brexit, St Benedict is also the patron saint of Europe and students.

It’s easy to forget how important, in the times before widespread education and healthcare, monasteries once were. As well as spiritual beacons for their communities, they were the centres of learning of their day, where the monks undertook the laborious process of making books and building libraries. Their gardens were the source of medicinal herbs which could be used to treat the local community. Remember the friar, in Romeo and Juliet, out gathering herbs in the early morning?

In Britain, until the ‘dissolution’ – the political euphemism for the nationwide destruction carried out under Henry VIII – monasteries were extraordinarily successful centres of wealth and influence.

Is monasticism breathing its last in 21st century Britain? Certainly it’s on the decline in its traditional form: the monasteries that re-established themselves in the modern age struggle to keep their numbers up. Monks and nuns are an ageing population, and new recruits are hard to find.

But my research into the faithscape of contemporary Britain reveals that the contemplative tradition is alive and well, and finding new forms in spiritual communities up and down the land. The two that feature in The New Monastics are firmly rooted in the Christian tradition, but situated at opposite ends of the spectrum: one, Holy Trinity Monastery, is a tiny start-up community of Benedictine nuns, founded on a shoestring without any major institutional backing. The Northumbria Community, following in the footsteps of the Protestant thinker Bonhoeffer, is a dispersed community which provides a way for its members to pursue a life of contemplation while remaining in mainstream society.

Both are 21st century attempts to carve out a space, in an StBincreasingly noisy, chaotic world, for the spiritually serious to balance the demands of the soul with the call of the world.

So on July 11th, raise a glass to St Benedict – monks also made wine – supporter of contemplatives, Europeans and students!

The New Monastics is available on Amazon.

Subverting the stereotypes: Britain’s Sufi Muslims

A whirling dervish in white and the cover of Sufi Circles by Alex Klaushofer
Photo by K T Lindsay

In the years since 9/11 and 7/7, Britain’s Muslims have tended to be categorised into one or other groups – either as dangerous religious extremists or ordinary British citizens much like the predominantly secular population. But when I went undercover to explore the world of the British Sufis, I found a way of living and being that occupied a spiritual-political elsewhere, a place in-between the polarities.

Sufis belong to an ancient mystical tradition which has always had an ambiguous relationship to orthodox Islam and who have often been treated as dangerous subversives by the authorities. Today, in countries such as Pakistan, they still are persecuted by followers of hardline Islam.

The religiously-tolerant atmosphere of Britain enables a
variety of Sufi groups to quietly flourish, both westernised forms of Sufism and a range of Asian groups from those which separate men and women to the liberal and pluralistic. I went undercover into gatherings of each of those types.

When I say ‘undercover’, I don’t mean a big operation with all the paraphenalia of deception – I just didn’t tell people that my main reason for being there was to research a book. In the groups with close connections to mainstream Islam, I did, on advice, wear a headscarf and, by default, feign an interest in conversion. My intention was to use the stance of insider-observer to gain an understanding of that world; I also wanted, rather like the Ship of Fools’ ‘mystery worshipper’ to test the warmth of my welcome as a westerner.

I heard, in the course of my research, that some Sufi groups tend to be politically conservative – even, one person insider told me, to the point of supporting authoritarian regimes. But through the months I attended Sufi circles, I never found it so.

In the end, I found a group as right for me as any could be for a cultural Christian with pagan tendencies commited to religious pluralism. It would be unwise for a non-Muslim to try and pin down their relation to Islam, but I can say that I found them to be a most faithful people who quietly subvert the stereotypes afflicting religion in Britain today.

Sufi Circles is out when the moon declares Eid.

In praise of the micro-solstice

The New British Druids cover
Photo by JB Kilpatrick

This year’s summer solstice is a special one. First and famously, as it’s all over the media, this year’s longest day coincides with a full moon. This is rare: it last happened in 1967, and won’t happen again until 2062, by which time I’ll almost certainly be stardust.

I like that there’s a growing custom, deriving from Native American tradition, of giving full moons their seasonal names. So the June full moon is the Strawberry Moon, to mark the beginning of the strawberry season.

I also rather like how here in Britain, we use the summer solstice as a yet another reason to grumble about the climate we live in, pointing out that the longest day marks the moment at which the days begin to shorten on their inevitable march towards winter. It’s downhill from here on, we like to remark, momentarily forgetting that some traditions consider mid-late June as the start of summer.

Yet I suspect this particular version of British pessimism is a way of relating to the climatic quirks of the natural world which we inhabit. And since recently I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the British way of relating to nature, this year’s summer solstice seems the right time to release The New British Druids, a piece of longform reportage on contemporary Druidry. Anyone who’s read The Secret Life of God will find most of the material there, so this standalone short ebook is aimed at those who would appreciate a shorter read specifically about neopaganism.

I loved summer solstice long before I discovered the rich rituals and lore of our native nature faiths. In praise of the micro-solsticeYears ago of a solstice in London I used to drag any friends willing enough up Primrose Hill, and for the last couple of years I’ve held a suburban solstice fire party in my back garden in Crystal Palace. See those flames leap!

This solstice is different as, having moved from London to Wiltshire, I find myself for the first time within easy driving distance of the Great Henge. Will I join the heaving crowds for the night of the 20th/21st?

I don’t think so. As Amy Willis points out in this article, there are plenty of other places to mark the first high point of the British summer. I may tootle over to the stone circle she doesn’t
mention at Avebury, and see whether it’s possible to see the dawn in amid all the parking and health and safety restrictions.

Kitchen Window Henge
Kitchen Window Henge

If not, I think I’ll be happy to see this year’s summer sun stand still amid my own strawberry patch, inherited from the
previous owner of my new-to-me garden. Or perhaps I can just hold my own micro-solstice by looking at the small stones standing on the wall behind the kitchen window. For stone worship, as no one ever actually said, begins at home …

The New British Druids is available on Amazon.

To pray or not pray? The Richard Dawkins Prayer Affair

richard dawkins prayer
The latest row involving Richard Dawkins has set me wondering about the ethics of prayer. In case you missed this particular storm in a theological teacup, Richard Dawkins had a stroke. The Church of England prayed for his recovery. In the ensuing Twitterstorm, someone suggested that – given Dawkins’ famed atheism – the CoE was trolling RD.

I’m not concerned here with the question of the efficacy of prayer, an issue often punched out in the Theism vs Atheism ring, except to say it’s important to remember the act of praying assumes there’s some point to it. What I’m concerned with is a question neglected in mainstream western thinking about religion: under what conditions is it right to pray for others?

First, some context. The Church of England has a long tradition of praying for others, whether they’ve asked for it or not. Attend any parish service and you’ll find a portion dedicated to praying for particular people – generally members of that same parish – who are sick, recently bereaved or otherwise in need. Then, in descending order of proxmity, prayers are offered for those who are going through difficulties in wider society and those in the world’s trouble spots. While couched in general terms, prayers name particular people and places and, in asking for healing and peace, seek divine help in bringing about a particular outcome.

The Christian practice of prayer requests extends across denominations. Most, including the Catholic church, respond to prayer cards in the church or requests sent by email, asking that a priest intercede on their behalf or that of someone else. In Lebanon, it’s common to find shrines hung with petitions in physical form such as baby’s romper suit, soliciting the saint’s help in healing a child or bringing about a pregnancy.

Praying for others is an important part of faith-in-action in the evangelical tradition, both in the form of healing prayers performed with the person and remote, non-consensual prayers that those who are not, in the petitioner’s opinion, on the right path, find ‘salvation’. It is perhaps this particular approach that points up the issue of about consent most clearly. Does prayer in these instances ‘do no harm’ as Peter Omerod, writing on the Dawkins prayer affair in The Guardian, argues? Or, in seeking to impose the will of the petitioner on the object of prayer, do they overstep an important boundary?

The pagan tradition – by which I mean nature-based faiths and the ancient spirituality of shamanism – has a very clear answer to this question. Healing work (the shamanic cognate of prayer) which aims at bringing about a particular outcome for someone without having gained their consent, even for the betterment of their health – is unethical. Susan Mokelke, president of the Foundation For Shamanic Studies, explains: ‘It is unethical because each person has the right and the responsibility to decide what to do in matters of his or her own soul. Each person has the right to choose their path without interference or undue influence.’

‘Permission means the express, informed consent of the client for a specific individual or group to perform shamanic healing or divination – including the consent to disclose any information about the client,’ she continues.

The stringency of Mokelke’s stipulations derives from the very strong sense, in shamanism, that such work has a real effect on the world. It’s a spiritual practice with a practical focus. I’m struck by how close this insistence on informed consent comes to best practice in contemporary healthcare, and also by how common sense the advice is; as anyone who has experienced misguided meddling knows only too well, human understanding of the needs of a particular person or situation is limited, and interfering can have unintended consequences.

The shamanic code of ethics also highlights the spiritual aspect of the injunction against non-consensual prayer/healing: the recognition that we don’t have access to the bigger picture in which the prospective object of our prayers lives – a recognition that can also be known as spiritual humility.

In this piece, Caitlin Matthews, a long-established shamanic practitioner, writing as a former leader of the Order of Bards and Druids, lays out a way to provide support without interference. It involves ‘holding the object of your prayer in your heart … and wishing them well’ that anyone can practise, whether spiritually motivated or not. But, she advises, resist taking a step further and asking for a specific outcome: It’s only when we interfere and interpose our own hopes and fears upon people and situations that things get ethically tangled. If someone is dying, praying for their recovery may be a curse, not a blessing.’

On the Dawkins Prayer Affair, my jury’s still havering. As an ethnic Anglican, I’ve always found it comforting to hear the names of those around me remembered in prayer, and like the idea of being prayed for myself. It’s not as if the typical Anglican vicar is asking for much; in the broad, compromise church that emerged out of Britain’s religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, what’s expressed is a vague benevolence which seems to me not that much different from sending someone your best wishes.

And yet, in the case of Richard Dawkins, to publicly pray for someone who, the sender well knows, does not want or welcome it – isn’t that just a bit provocative?

Imbolc, the festival of pre-Spring

The Secret Life of God
Hakan Dahkstrom

It’s pre-spring, the second half of winter, the season of nothing-happening, when it’s mostly grey and rainy or cold.

For me, this was always a blank time of the year until I discovered, through researching British neo-paganism, Imbolc, the festival that lies halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and is celebrated at the beginning of February.

Imbolc, which – depending on your etymology – means ‘in the
belly’, ‘to wash oneself’ (in the sense of ritual cleansing) or ‘ewes’ milk’, marks the beginning of the growing and breeding season. It comes at the time when the first lambs are born or gestating in the womb, prompting the flow of milk in the ewes.

One of the four Celtic seasonal festivals, it is traditionally celebrated with fire to represent the return of the sun to the northern half of the earth and – in the manner of many ancient religions – to symbolise purification.

Like all the old festivals, Imbolc is rich in myth and story. Celtic tradition tells of Brigid, multi-faceted goddess of healing, light, poetry and smithing – the ‘bright goddess’ associated with the element of fire. Contemporary Wicca and the modern goddess movement dramatise this as the transformation of the Hag or Crone into the Maiden or goddess of spring. It’s the personification of the epic struggle which had life-and-death implications for our ancestors – would Spring conquer Winter before the food ran out?

Some say that Brigid becomes Christianised as a saint, part of the wider appropriation of Imbolc as Candelmas which marks the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus.

But, in a useful reminder of how little we know about the origins of religious festivals and what our ancestors did and thought, Jason Mankey denies this as Candlemas goes back to Ancient Greece, where Imbolc was not celebrated.

Personally I think that, while it’s important not to make false historical claims particularly if they form the basis for present theological arguments, the details of what and how the people of the past marked the transition of winter-into-spring don’t much matter. Amidst all the overlapping myths and customs of Imbolc, there’s one thing we can be sure of: until recently, life – and survival – was closely linked to the changing of the seasons, making the arrival of February significant.

And even for us modern humans, reassurance that winter is on its way out still comes as a blessed relief.