Chester Cathedral

This little piece was handwritten originally on 2 August 2006, after visiting Chester, Cheshire, England the day before. Back then I would write daily, fountain pen in hand, on the pages of an acid-free paper bound journal, about whatever crossed my mind. Most of these daily reflections probably didn’t need the formality of being “inscribed for the ages”, but this one in particular has been again in my mind over the past few days. Here’s why: I wrote this while following the advice of Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way to write three pages first thing in the morning — about anything. I had tried this five times earlier since reading the book, and always my writing fell off after a few days. This was written after the sixth attempt was three weeks old, and the habit of writing daily was starting to settle in. It’s also the first piece that just, literally, flowed out of the pen and onto the pages of my journal. My blogging history has also been a spate of starts and stops. Oddly enough, what tends to grind it to a halt is too many ideas and an inability to choose one, focus on it, and just write it up! This blog right now is rolling along, sort of, but my idea spike is growing. I’ve also reread all my writing in the past few days, and realise that my better efforts are thematic, as opposed to simply responding to the news of the day. So solving my own writing lacunae is pressing. To that end, a trip down memory lane, for this little piece flowed smoothly out of the pen in one easy motion…

A Visit to Chester

Chester Cathedral, with its High Mediaeval design, its cloisters and monks’ choir, its windows and central square in the town (yet not a relic restored — Kandinsky-style new stained glass adorns one long wall of the nave, a gift of the Duke of Westminster [cum Earl of Cheshire in Chester] in 1992 actually suited the place, as did the child-like saints in their primitif motif) is beautiful, and untouched by the Baroque period. There is little gilt or flowering adornment thanks to the Anglican takeover of what is so obviously a Catholic, i.e. Western, house of worship. Sitting there, I found the truth of Lawrence R. Brown’s thesis in The Might of the West made concrete in stone. Too, the Spenglerian reflection in Der Untergang des Abendländes on the structure and physiognomic of the West was clearly visible – I could not help but take my eyes upward to the infinite, the trunks of the forest of the night (in the columns) leading me to the roof (and are not the knots at the intersections of the great arches there not a motif of the stars in heaven above?).

Yes, despite my occasional Taoist moments, I remain a Westerner through and through. The unbounded vertical (the artistic thrust of the West) is me — I could not hold my gaze horizontally for long (at first unaware of what was going on, I then tried to stare through the iconostatis to the abbey choir and my attention, despite my efforts, would almost immediately be carried up), although looking upward was effortless and natural.

Yet not a thing in this cathedral spoke to me of a shred of spirit or of the divine, and, of course, it has long — in conscious memory, “for ever” — been thus. Even whilst earning Religion in Life awards as a Cub and a Scout I was doing rote work, as sterile and empty as reading Beowulf would be: a work of historical literature, but dead to me. This dead feeling is the sense of “so what?”, as empty as the names of people unknown, dying threescore and ten years old, more or less, and being placed in the 19th century in the churchyard of Rainow we visited. The headstones have become aesthetic, but the emotional connection is absent entirely.

I was taken, coming to the Cathedral, with the comment thrown out in Conversations at the End of the Apocalypse, that even the great Jewish prophets were not calling for a return to religion but a return to practice (or how you live your life, parallelling Walter Kaufmann’s reflections in The Faith of a Heretic). That the prophets, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and so on were overturning traditional religion (that of the people of Yahweh, classical Hinduism and Confucianism). This self-same claim is made, of course, for Jesus and Mohammed, although these two Levantine reformers do not make as clear-cut a case to my historical way of thinking, for all the millions that follow the religions that sprang up in their wake. But, in any event, I am drawn to the vision of a high path, one on which often both sides fall away, and a mis-step to either side could lead to a tumble. Down one side fall those who cannot live without organised, communal practice (reli-gare, “to bind oneself”; again this makes me think of Walter Kaufmann and decidophobia [from Without Guilt or Justice]). Some would cheerfully demand that all join them “or else”; others on this slope take the path few follow, and hie themselves off into isolation (and disturb such at your peril!). Down the other side of the path, on its slope, however, lies the realm of the anti-religious, those who would tear it all down.

I am neither (although, to be fair, I am not “tolerant” of the religious; I want them to leave me alone both directly and in the way society goes). To sit for an hour, the only “penitent” in this great building (for, of the few other tourists here, how many others stop to reflect on matters of faith and religion and civilisation and culture in any way?), I am left as always to wonder why I can think these thoughts yet find nothing for me in any of what I see.

The frozen body of Chester Cathedral, relative to Baroque embellishment, does show the overall impoverishment of Protestantism versus the broken body of Latin Catholicism — the Roman Catholics understood the continuing need for ritual and theatre, something even High Anglicanism, with its own beauty, failed to produce. Gilt and glitter do not speak to me: alone from the High Baroque, only the music can. Nothing here in Chester awakens any credence for me. But then, neither should such theatre as it provides be banished from this world. Yet — as fundamentalists and evangelicals of all stripes show — tolerance in its true sense of “it is not affecting me” is not enough; tolerance actually requires an active rebuttal, or else the day will be lost. One must be careful, though: it is far too easy to slide down the second slope in trying to leave open a space for those who want to be spiritual yet religionless.

My path is to be “on the path”. (This, and only this, comprises such moments as I think of as “Taoist”. I am not even a student of the Tao, though a wanderer I be.) For whatever reasons, my inheritance and my challenge is to be selbst-ständig, reliant on my inner resources rather than an outer community (of faith or of practice), to walk without expectation, in a world without guilt or justice, crutchless. But I am also a child of my corner of the Earth and its history. While I walk, ever still my eyes sail upward to the infinite, as do the eyes and soul of the children of the West even today.

And since?

Since writing these words, as I’ve reflected upon the coming end of the finance-drenched globalised industrial behemoth we have built — too many structures are too lacking in resilience and future prospects (for those without cannot generate demand, but only demands) for it to continue as it is, even if techno-magic is weaved (something I also give no credence to). The great liberality experiment of the West — the “perfectibility of Mankind” — also closes. Societies of democratic impulse need not, but we have come to accept that we are not perfectible under our own power, just capable of some changes. We will need not to — as we have been — celebrate the “group” (as does nationalism and sub-nationalisms, and indeed much of multiculturalism as it has been implemented around the world) or the individual, but to return to that deeply small-t tory notion of “community” as we reinvent our world. Whether we must — as with the collapse of the Latin Orthodox successor to Classical Civilisation — pass through the (not so, yet, by comparison) Dark Ages again or whether we can keep enough order and tradition alive to bridge the transition remains to be seen.

In this, a “religion of practice” will be a part of the community, of that I have little doubt. Whether this — as with the teachings of Gautama the Buddha — will also acquire a transcendental focus (the Buddha’s teachings are immanentist and god-free to the core) or whether it can be brought about as pure practice I do not know. It is, after all, a work of centuries. I have spent much time of late following the arguments and speeches of The Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, for what is diasporic Judaism but practice, practice designed to aid the chances of survival and prosperity as a remnant in the world. (Will we need a new St. Benedict to create, here and there, little isolated communities of light and care? — I hope we do not need to go so far, although I would urge we protect our knowledge including such nuclei, non-dependent upon electronic tools, “just in case”. Resilience matters.) I study the East as well: the Tao, Zen, the core of the Buddha’s words.

Unlike the Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens-etc. axis, I am not interested in shouting from the rooftops. I am aware that the Second Religiousness of a dying society (thank you, Spengler, for the image) is intolerant to the core — but then, so is that shouting. But we will need something, and I am prepared to learn and integrate from all who have something of it to offer.

And still, for all that, my eyes will not be on the ground. Perhaps this is why the ways of submission or atonement for original sin have never appealed. For I have my Pelagian core. I am — to the end — a Child of the West.


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