Monday, May 21, 2012

"History is a nightmare..."

The weather suddenly changes from midwinter to midsummer. To escape the heat, we go to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Sevilla. It is full of religious pictures. Room after room of them. It's an endless parade of suffering saints. We lose count of the number of beheaded heads of John the Baptist. Of poor mad St. Jerome about to smash his chest open with a stone. Of flagellations, stonings, crucifixions. All the Immaculate Conceptions would be a relief from it all, but because they are all about the denial of sex they are simply insipid. looked at like this, it is simply astonishing how Christian values limit the artistic imagination. The difficulty was that the conquest of Granada coincided with Columbus' journey to America; and so it all opened up a whole new period of aggressive imperialism, by sea and by land, with Sevilla as the base for the sea operation. This is where all the expeditions set off to South America; and this is where the treasure ships came in to land. So all the religious orders had their bases here: to co-ordinate the missionary expeditions out there, and grab the first share of the pickings on their return. And they all commissioned works of art. Mile after mile of them. It wasn't till the 19th century that artists at last began to be escape the clutches of the church; and not till the 1890's that we finally, after miles of suffering, saw a smiling face. It is profoundly upsetting to think of this city being the headquarters of this huge cultural attempt to export life denying misery; and then being the receiving house for the treasure in return. Most of which was squandered on useless luxury or used to pursue religious wars in Europe. Walking these endless halls is like walking through some gigantic cultural train smash. A huge cultural catastrophe. I think of the huge dead weight of life denying tradition hanging on these walls; and of the tiny, hopeful congregation of my church: working together as best we can to affirm life, in all its wonderful diversity, to learn how to love each other and work towards the creation of aa better world. And then I think of my book: The gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven., To which I must now return.

Friday, May 18, 2012

the cathedral and the mosque

As the journey goes on, I am astonished by how hostile I am becoming to Christian values.

While waiting for the queue at the Alhambra, we went in to see an exhibition by Sean Scully in the Palace of Carlos V. 

Beautiful blocks of colour and light. He spoke of the “generosity” of abstract painting.

I didn’t really understand until we got to the mosque in Córdoba.

It comes in two halves, utterly at cross purposes with each other: the mosque, mostly built in the 9th and 10th centuries, when Córdoba was the intellectual and cultural capital of the Western world, and the cathedral, built in the 1600 and 1700’s to demonstrate the triumph of the Christian world.

The mosque is an utterly open and generous abstract spiritual space that somehow calms the spirits, directs it to contemplation, but allows that contemplation to take its form without attempting to dictate how it should be.

The cathedral is the opposite: a highly figurative space, with all the usual death embracing hierarchies, that seeks to channel and direct and control the spiritual experience of the spectator.

The building of it, absolutely in the centre of the mosque, is a repulsive act of cultural arrogance and aggression.

Late that same evening, a series of weird chances directs us to the watching of Ken Loach’s profoundly powerful Iraq film, Route Irish.

It’s uncanny to see how that particular ongoing disaster so precisely reflects and repeats the disastrous arrogance of the cathedral inside the mosque.

We walk home, too shocked and upset to speak.

And maybe, I think a bit incoherently late that night, maybe that hideous and destructive split is not just about  a “conflict of civilisations”.

Maybe it’s also an image of a conflict within ourselves.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

life against death

When i was a student in Granada, my student identity card allowed me to get into the Alhambra for free.

And I could just turn up and do it.

That's impossible now: the few tickets sold at the gate are sold out the minute they go on sale.

There's an incredible demand to see the place: and that means getting in now is immensely difficult.

Online advance tickets were sold out,  and the only way to get them was through my hotel.

I managed to get a time slot for the afternoon of the day after following day. We were to turn up at the booking office at least an hour before the appointed time with credit card, the form from the hotel (with its official stamp) and my passport.

We went off clutching our tickets as if they were gold; and a bit nervous because they said so categorically we’d miss our slot if we weren’t at the entrance at the appointed time.

So there we were, in the huge queue, waiting our turn. 

There is clearly something these buildings have that our culture desperately needs.

Whatever it is, I couldn't even try to analyse it at the time. It was too overwhelming.

Just to be in these structures, in their delicacy, their grace, their exquisite lines, and share that with the person I love...

The next day it all began to fall into place in my mind.

I wanted to see the tomb of the so-called ‘Catholic Kings’, Fernando and Isabela, the Christian kings who took over granada and tried to suppress its Muslim culture for ever.

It was a duty call because a couple of days previously, giggling under an umbrella in the Huerta de San Vicente, I’d had the unexpected sense Isabela might be a character in the play, and i wanted to try to get closer to her.

Their tomb is a vile building.

Constructed to celebrate the so-called triumph of Christianity, and use art to do so, it absolutely vindicates Lorca’s words that “it was a disastrous event, even though they may say the opposite in schools. An admirable civilisation, and a poetry, astronomy, architecture and sensitivity unique in the world - all were lost, to give way to an impoverished, cowed city...”

The day before we had been in these beautiful spaces, open to the world, expressing its beauty.. and standing there in front of the massive altarpiece in this massive space designed to frighten, to cow, to terrify, it was hard to be filled with anything but dismay.

This is a place designed to celebrate death.

A place built to express hatred of the human body, and hatred of the natural world.

it’s devoted to the pornography of suffering - with its endless, horrible images, of Christ’s agony, of John the Baptist’s severed head, of John the Evangelist being boiled alive, all in a strict hierarchy of authority, with God the vile father at the very summit of it all.

The mass murderers, Fernando and Isabela, whose crimes are being celebrated here, have their immensely over elaborate tombs.

And down below you can peer through bars at their lead coffins: as if there to enclose the evil heart of the Christian world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Christian hatred

One of my favourite places in Granada was the Carmen de Los Mártires, a beautiful garden on the other side of the Alhambra valley. And it still is. It’s a place of extraordinary peace and beauty. It’s like the garden of Eden, with its heavy laden fruit trees.

We can’t resist the temptation. We pick an orange; but it’s sour.

It got its name from being the spot, allegedly, of the death of Christian captives in the days of the Muslim kings. More importantly for me, for a while San Juan de la Cruz was abbot of the monastery on this site.

It's exquisitely placed, with views of the Vega and the snow covered mountains, and the story goes that st. John of the Cross would instruct his monks to lose themselves in contemplation of the beauties of nature in order to reach an awareness of the love of god.

When we’re there all that is so easy to understand.

His poems describe the communication between god and the human soul in terms of profound intimacy; and that I have never been able to understand.

What touches me so deeply, always, is the love in the words, and their beautiful music, and the fact Juan always refers to herself in the feminine.

I was seventeen at the time I first read San Juan, completely starved of any representation of my experience, utterly filled with the deepest shame, and to stumble across a being in a man’s body who referred to herself as she, and who was revered as a saint...What she wrote completely blew my mind.

I thought of her in Toledo, because it was there she was imprisoned by monks of a rival order.

There was a ferocious dispute going on at the time between Carmelite monks who wore shoes and those who didn’t. San Juan was one of them, because he was an idealist who wanted his order to return to its original values. The ones with shoes, who were very happy to keep up their wealthy and influential lifestyle, thank you very much, wanted to silence Juan and his friends who wanted to return to prayer and austerity.

They kidnapped Juan, and she was imprisoned in vile conditions in a monastery in Toledo. The space where she was held was tiny, stinking, because the monks in the guesthouse next door used it as a lavatory, freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer.

Once a week Juan was taken to the refectory, where all the monks present took it in turn to beat her bare back with rods.
These were all people who had devoted their lives to the God of love; and in his name were systematically torturing a fellow follower of Christ.

Juan escaped, the barefoot monks won out in the struggle with the monks with shoes, and Juan became very much loved and respected in the order.

But then the barefoot monks became utterly obsessed by exactly the same hatreds and ambitions and power struggles, and at the end of her life Juan was shockingly mistreated, as she lay dying, by her fellow monks.

How strange, sitting in the dappled shade and listening to the fountains, to be reflecting on this story of Christian hatred.

It makes it hard to see how traditional religious practice can claim to offer any solution to human suffering, or offer any help or comfort to a suffering world.

Monday, May 07, 2012

More about rats; and a lovely encounter

Soon after I got back from my first trip to Granada, just over forty years ago, I had a recurring dream of a bar just off the Plaza Nueva. It was a beautiful traditional bar that served excellent tapas, always full, always bustling, a place of intense life and sociability. I found it a hard place to enter, in my solitary state of shyness, and rarely, if ever, did. But this time, walking past a similar place, I remembered how in my dream I was searching for this bar in the narrow, confusing streets, and how it was tremendously important for me to find it. Because it gave me a glimpse of paradise. So we did go in, obeying this impulse, and we stood at the car, and I ordered wine, and we were drinking it and nibbling at the somewhat indifferent something they had served us, talking of this and that. Have learnt over the years it is best to stay positive, not worry about "passing"or not, never think about how people are taking or tendering me, remain friendly and polite, hope for the best and assume it. So it was my dear comrade, more clear-sighted, more courageous than I, who first noted the commotion at the other end of the bar, the staff emerging from the kitchens, the hilarity, the remarks being flung about whose words I could not understand. But there was no mistaking their mockery or cruelty; nor the arrogant disdain of the waiter flinging down our change as we paid and left. I had intended to write this entry as a denunciation. In my imagination afterwards I think I was going to take revenge by comparing them to rats, these cowards and bullies, these heirs of the vile machismo that made it impossible for a single woman to walk unmolested down the street. The heirs of the disgusting hatred that destroyed their city's finest poet. But that would not be true to the moment, which left me so frightened and ashamed it took me all my courage to leave my hotel room that evening, nor especially useful. I prefer to stay with the sentiments of my JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN who blesses both those who suffer persecution and those who inflict it. To stay with the memory of something that happened the next day in one of the sunlit city squares. I was alone for a moment, and a man in his sixties came up to me, very shyly, and started to tell his story. Of how he came from the province of Granada but had had to leave in the time of the dictatorship because there were no jobs to be had. Him and how wife had settled in Grenoble, and he had prospered there. But his wife had died and his children had left him and he was lonely. He said he liked the look of me because I looked kind and happy and that I was the kind of woman he would like to settle down with again. I thanked him for his kindness and told him I was sorry for his suffering, and he was deeply touched by that and when we said goodbye kissed me on the lips. I gave him something, something that touched me very profoundly too. We went off together, me and my comrade ("friendship is so much easier for women", he had said, sadly) off to see the celebrations for the Cruz de Mayo, and me and that sad old man will never see each other again.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The rats in Granada part 1

I used to live in a very ordinary Granada street close to the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, where I was studying. It was called Lavadero de las Tablas, a dark ground floor with a bed and table and a chair and not much else. I spent most of the winter in bed, it being freezing cold, and had my cafe for breakfast and my cheap restaurant for the other meals, and grew fond of my landlady who reminded me of my long dead mother. Half way through my stay she moved house to a new apartment just the other side of the Camino de Ronda, and was anxious I moved with her. It was a hideous apartment block on a street called Santa Clotilde, ugly then and even uglier now. It's saving grace was that it was on the sixth floor and had a balcony. And the balcony overlooked the Vega, the fields around the Granada, and the mountains beyond. I used to go for long walks on this extraordinary fertile plain, so enjoying the fields for vegetables, and the long dark, slow flowing irrigation channels that followed an incredibly ancient system established in Roman times, expanded and improved by the Muslims, and somehow surviving the folly of the early seventeenth century expulsion of the Moors. I look back with such respect on that lonely young man, myself, reading in Spanish to be free to develop his own style, desperately needing love, desperately afraid of it, convinced he was so sick inside no-one ever could possibly love him, not knowing how to become a writer but knowing there was nothing else to do. And so writing, writing, writing. The ground floors of these flats were designed eventually to become shops, but no-one had let them, and because the local authority had no doubt been bribed to allow the flats to be built they had not got round to developing any system for removal of their rubbish. So everyone just threw it into the vacant shop units, which became breeding ground for rats. Rats that would scurry past me as I walked home at night, and which I took to be symbolic of the filth and corruption of the Franco regime and of society in general and which, somehow, made it seem quite logical to be living in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and yet having my lodging in its ugliest district.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The perils of sainthood

There was a man came to Granada in the 1550's, forty or so years old, an ex soldier, Fought in all the vicious wars of conquest. Not am especially good soldier, because instead of killing his enemies he tended to feel sorry for them. So when he left the army he set up in the book selling business, let's say with enough stock to fit on the back of a donkey. Religious books, mostly, it not being altogether safe to try to sell books of any other kind. He wandered here and there, not doing especially well as he was more inclined to help people than do business with them, until he ended up in Granada, where he set up his stall at the poor end of the Calle Elvira. He also had a bad habit of shutting up shop to go to listen to famous preachers, and there he was listening to an especially good one when he felt moved half way thought to call out he was a sinner, over and over again, until the audience got cross with him for spoiling the sermon And then when he continued to behave that way for the next few days they got crosser still; and then when he started to give away all his books and everything he possessed to help the poor they decided he was mad and locked him up in the asylum. It's true they were Christian and that's exactly what the man said, but he can't have meant it literally. And in the asylum, it being a Christian institution, he was kept in squalor and fed bad food and every day given a good whipping. Thats where the story might have ended, if the preacher hadn't come back 6 months later and happened to ask what had happened to his convert. "we locked Him up" the good citizens told him. He persuaded them to let him out, and the man, having learnt how badly the poor and sick and mad got treated, decided he could do better. So he set up a refuge for the poor and the sick and the mad which he funded through begging. The story goes that as his refuge grew he began to insist that the patients were kept clean, and put into beds, and that men and women and children were all housed separately, and the qualities he now possessed were such that people were inspired to give and also to join him in his work and he began to be known as Juan de Dios. John of God. One winter he saved a young man from drowning, after ten years of this work, and went down with pneumonia. A rich lady saw his illness and whether out of the goodness of her heart, or the desire to secure the death bed of a saint, who knows, took him into her house where a week later he died. There were surely miracles, and enough posthumous followers to put on the pressure for candidacy for sainthood. And then the body was dug up and reburied in a special basilica, losing most of its parts on the way, there being such a demand for relics. And now we can see his portrait encased in a huge and ornate frame made of gold. And his rib, just an inch or so, encased in a huge reliquary of rubies. As if the whole direction of his life of giving, giving, giving, was abruptly put into reverse. So the order founded in his name became obsessed with accumulating. So it could look after the sick all over the world. And his memory cherished in a huge church whose values contradicted everything he believed in and stood for.

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