Friday, 24 August 2007

Azam Ali

Here is Azam Ali of Vas, looking very Mirabai-esque, in a decent updating of traditional Persian music (which is absolutely amazing). She often sings Sufi poetry, in both Urdu and Farsi.

Two songs in one video - an Orthodox hymn from the Levant and another, medieval, song which appears on Ali's Portals of Grace, but the name of which I cannot recall.

Thursday, 23 August 2007


Having quoted Rowan Williams earlier, I reproduce this poem, which means a great deal to me. Its simplicity, as always with Williams' poetry, hides great learning and tremendous psychological and spiritual subtlety. I hope to write something more about it soon.

Rublev is, of course, the famous Andrei Rublev, the greatest master of Russian icon-painting, who was born in the late 14th century. The poem is deeply bound to Rublev's miraculous icon of the Trinity, which shows the persons of the Trinity as angels seated at a table. It is in the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow.

* * *

Rublev, Rowan Williams, from The Poems of Rowan Williams

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

I said Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

These (god) are chromatic pains of flesh.
I said, I trust I make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

For ever. I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth

to the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.


One of my own particular loves is sacred music, and the absence of any such tradition in Paganism was a constant disappointment. Accordingly, I'm going to try to post links to various traditions of sacred music that I particularly love on this blog.

The example gven above is of Hindu dhrupad chant, with demonstations of particular ornamental techniques. At first listening, it may sound like a collection of twangs and blips, but in fact it is an immensely subtle - and ancient - form of sacred music, with its origin in samavedic chant. Sir John Tavener has written that he listens to dhrupad more than any other form of sacred music, and the influence of dhrupad's microtones, sober ecstasy, and immensely long melodic lines is obvious in his own compositions. It's best listened to by candlelight, but be warned that at points the performer, a descendant of the famous Dagar brothers, interrupts himself. First he demonstrates a technique in which the voice is used to imitate the sound of a stringed instrument with uncanny accuracy, and later performs an ecstatic riff which sounds like a kettle boiling over.

I suspect the chant given here may be in honour of Krishna (if I am right in picking up the word Nand, a tender name used of Krishna) but wiser readers must enlighten me.

Mirabai ( c.1498-1573)

Mirabai is the most reknowned poet/saint of India. She was reluctantly married at eighteen to the Prince of Mewar. Her husband died soon into their marriage leaving her free to dedicate herself to Krishna; this for Mira was her life purpose. She spent time in public temples (usually only visted by those from lower castes) and sang, danced and embraced with untouchables. In order to escape from her murderous in-laws, Mira, now in her early thirties, renounced her title and fled. She spent the rest of her life living in places sacred to Krishna, dedicating her poetry to him. She spoke out on the injustices of religion, politics and the caste system and was clearly a formidable intellect. Her poetry is often humourous, erotic and ecstatic, reflecting the estatic union she achieved with her God. Mira would often dance with and for Krishna, like many transcendant mystics. She spent the last few years of her life attending the destitute near the Ranchorji temple.

The way Mira addresses Krishna is reminiscent of how many Sufi poets address Allah, with the tenderness and intimacy used to speak to a lover:

I Get Dizzy

I can't forget about love
for more than two seconds
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.

I Want You To Have This

I want you to have this,
all the beauty in my eyes,
and the grace of my mouth
all the splendour of my strength,
all the wonder of the musk parts of my body,
for are we not talking about real love,
real love?

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Simone Weil

A wise insight from the extraordinary French mystic Simone Weil. She died of anorexia, but that is a bald way to describe a death in which others have found, with whatever justification, deep meaning. Rowan Williams wrote, in a poem in her voice, 'at least I can be light and hungry, hollowing my guts / till I'm a bone the sentenced god can whistle through.'

I have always loved the following bleak, profound statement of hers: The extreme affliction which overtakes human beings does not create human misery, it merely reveals it.

But that is not the axiom which I intended to quote. Instead, it was this which caught my attention:

Each religion is alone true, that is to say, that at the moment we are thinking of it we must bring as much attention to bear on it as if there were nothing else...A "synthesis" of religion implies a lower quality of attention.

Grapes ripen smiling at each other

The tart and hearty grapes, destined to ripen,
will at last become one in heart
by the breath of the masters of heart.
They will grow steadily to grapehood,
shedding duality and malice and strife.
Till in maturity, they rend their skins,
and become the mellow wine of union.

- Rumi

I love this. I am a 'tart and hearty grape', but sufism has began to ripen me. I have studied sufism for about a year now, and though I don't think I'll convert, I have found my daily prayer and meditation becoming infused with sufi practice. I feel I am on dodgy ground here, because I don't want to find myself shopping in the New Age spiritual supermarket, you know that pick'n'mix attitude to religion where you chose the bits that suit you, ignore the bits that don't, and end up with something truly meaningless. In sufism I have found something that was never apparent for me in Druidry, and that is submission to God in Love; and I think now that is what I will continue to search for in my own practice and whatever I happen to be studying at the time. Kabir Helminski says "it is not necessary to replace one religion or no religion with another, but to purify ourselves and our religion with Love".

I want to enter the fire of Love and become one with the fire. For me, at the moment, I feel this has more depth of meaning than searching for a convenient hook on which to hang my spirituality. We shall see ...

To the Creator through the Creation

At some point I need to sit down and write about where I am spiritually, and where I feel I'm headed. This blog has been rather strong on Orthodoxy lately, and there are other strands, especially Buddhism, which I need to speak about.

But here is an essay by Bishop Kallistos Ware, the Orthodox Bishop of Britain, which Yvonne has drawn my attention to. It's called 'Through Creation to the Creator', and it is very beautiful.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Litanie a la Vierge Noire

Justine told me yesterday that she had visited the Cathedral at Canterbury with her son, my godson. It was somewhere I used to pray a lot when I was at school. I'll leave her to write about it if she wishes, but thinking about that wonderful place brought this prayer forth from me. It's not what I say every time I kneel before that beautiful statue of the Black Virgin in the darkened, underground crypt, but it is the kind of imagery I use. I used to spend hours there, and I miss it.

* * *

Blessed Lady
And hidden treasure,

Black brightness
And star-enwoven bower,

Fragrance of myrrh
and dew of the sea,

From all who suffer,
Hide not thy face.

Most holy Mother,
gentled by candles
and soft smoke of prayers,
Here in this darkness,

Hide not thy face.


Become All Flame - The Desert Fathers

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

* * *

Chant from a Georgian Monastery. Worth sticking with this...

And with female voices:

Monday, 20 August 2007


A deeply mysterious and mystical poem, this. Vaughan had a twin brother Thomas, an alchemist; both attended Jesus College, Oxford, where I write. I recently had the priviledge of handling some of Thomas Vaughan's own books.

Regeneration, Henry Vaughan (1622-1695).


Award, and still in bonds, one day
I stole abroad,
It was high-spring, and all the way
Primros'd, and hung with shade;
Yet, was it frost within,
And surly winds
Blasted my infant buds, and sin
Like clouds eclips'd my mind.


Storm'd thus; I straight perceiv'd my spring
Mere stage, and show,
My walk a monstrous, mountain's thing
Rough-cast with rocks, and snow;
And as a pilgrim's eye
Far from relief,
Measures the melancholy sky
Then drops, and rains for grief,


So sigh'd I upwards still, at last
'Twixt steps, and falls
I reach'd the pinnacle, where plac'd
I found a pair of scales,
I took them up and laid
In th'one late pains,
The other smoke, and pleasures weigh'd
But prov'd the heavier grains;


With that, some cried, Away; straight I
Obey'd, and led
Full east, a fair, fresh field could spy
Some call'd it Jacob's Bed;
A virgin-soil, which no
Rude feet ere trod,
Where (since he slept there,) only go
Prophets, and friends of God.


Here, I repos'd; but scarce well set,
A grove descried
Of stately height, whose branches met
And mixed on every side;
I entered, and once in
(Amaz'd to see't,)
Found all was chang'd, and a new spring
Did all my senses greet;


The unthrift sun shot vital gold
A thousand pieces,
And heaven its azure did unfold
Checker'd with snowy fleeces,
The air was all in spice
And every bush
A garland wore; thus fed my eyes
But all the ear lay hush.


Only a little fountain lent
Some use for ears,
And on the dumb shades language spent
The music of her tears;
I drew her near, and found
The cistern full
Of diverse stones, some bright, and round
Others ill'shap'd, and dull.


The first (pray mark,) as quick as light
Danc'd through the flood,
But, th'last more heavy than the night
Nail'd to the center stood;
I wonder'd much, but tir'd
At last with thought,
My restless eye that still desir'd
As strange an object brought;


It was a bank of flowers, where I descried
(Though 'twas mid'day,)
Some fast asleep, others broad-eyed
And taking in the ray,
Here musing long, I heard
A rushing wind
Which still increas'd, but whence it stirr'd
No where I could not find;


I turn'd me round, and to each shade
Dispatch'd an eye,
To see, if any leaf had made
Least motion, or reply,
But while I listening sought
My mind to ease
By knowing, where 'twas, or where not,
It whispered: Where I please.
Lord, then said I, On me one breath,
And let me die before my death!

Saturday, 18 August 2007


by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Die Sonette an Orpheus, translated by Don Patterson, Orpheus (Faber and , 2006).

Silent comrade of the distances,
Know that space dilates with your own breath;
ring out, as a bell into the Earth
from the dark rafters of its own high place -

then watch what feeds on you grown strong again.
Learn the transformations through and through:
what in your life has most tormented you?
If the water's sour, turn it into wine.

Our sense cannot fathom this night, so
be the meaning of their strange encounter;
at their crossing, be the radiant centre.

And should the world forget your name
say this to the still earth: I flow.
Say this to the quick stream: I am.

How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.

- Elaine Scarry


by Jacob Polley, from Little Gods (Picador, 2006)

Vessel of water, vessel of wind;
old yellow eye
lost in the fall, lost in the mind
where the other leaves lie
as leaf by leaf the trees go blind.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Andy Goldsworthy, Yellow elm leaves laid over a rock in low water (1991)


by Alice Oswald, from Woods, etc.

last night at the joint of dawn,
an owl’s call opened the darkness

miles away, more than a world beyond this room

and immediately I was in the woods again,
poised, seeing my eyes seen,
hearing my listening heard

under a huge tree improvised by fear

dead brush falling then a star
straight through to God
founded and fixed the wood

then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
an owl elsewhere swelled and questioned
twice, like you light lean and strike
two matches in the wind.