Light, Love, Logos, Life – How to speak about God

An MP3 version of this talk as at Dante’s Divine Comedy, on you podcast feed.

John Vervaeke, Paul VanderKlay and Paul Anleitner asked what “God” means, with John challenging the Pauls to talk about God via Light, Love, Logos and Life, so as not to hide behind the “g” word.

Drawing on Dante, I offer some thoughts…

The original conversation is here – https://youtu.be/UGq34dLXrFI
More about Dante and my work – https://www.markvernon.com

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Prisoner of Fortune, or Boethius on the inconstant

The new Idler magazine is out. Here’s my January 2022 thought…

New Years are much associated with luck. It’s why midnight is marked by rituals, from the explosive, such as igniting fireworks, to the convivial, in exchanges of good wishes. “Have a prosperous and healthy New Year!” Whether it’s with a bang or a blessing, the aim is to scare off the demons of misfortune and hope that haplessness is eclipsed by happiness in the months ahead.

It’s natural to do. The year is clearly turning. The days start perceptibly to grow longer. Time itself seems palpably to lean to the future. The impulse is to catalyse or impart momentum, energy, a fresh start.

Little wonder that the ancients felt the presence of gods at this time of year. Fortuna was one. A goddess of fertility, she was typically depicted blindfolded because she was felt to act randomly. Associated with whimsy and fickleness, she delivers “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, as Shakespeare noted.

She also has a wheel, which she turns like time. We are to imagine ourselves strapped to it. When the going is good, we are on the upward swing, a rise. It’s a season when the cyclical nature of providence is easily forgotten. The foolish may even presume that their wealth or serendipity is deserved. They become entitled.

But if pride comes before a fall, so does privilege. The wheel has not stopped turning, any more than the sun stands still in the sky. It’s merely a high point and the way down is next. Fortuna’s wheel can as easily crush spirits as raise them, as effectively remove goods as bestow them.

The philosopher of late antiquity, Boethius (c480-524), called Fortuna deceitful and monstrous, and he had good reason to curse and despair. His book, The Consolation of Philosophy, addresses the ups and downs of life. It is a brilliant mix of dialogue, prose and poetry, and was hugely influential in the medieval period. If you seek a New Year’s resolution, reading it would be a good one.

Born into an aristocratic Roman family, he had a very good start. Even when his father died, leaving the young boy an orphan, his luck seemed plentiful. He was adopted by the leading Roman of the day, Symmachus, who had been a consul.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire, another event in Boethius’s infancy, only produced more opportunities. He had a brilliant education, which included being able to speak fluent Greek. This made him invaluable as the various factions around the Mediterranean jostled for power. In his late twenties, Boethius was made a consul, and it didn’t stop there. Fortuna then seemed ready to pass the success onto his sons. By the time he was forty, they were invested with the consulship when barely out of their teens.

However, the wheel of fortune had not stopped turning and Boethius’s fall was shocking and sudden. In 523, still in his early forties, he found himself on the wrong side of a treason trial and was linked to the conspiracy. He was arrested, imprisoned, and a senatorial court condemned him to death.

Having had almost everything, he spent the last months of his life with nothing, in confinement, awaiting the day of his execution. According to one chronicler, this was carried out by a cord being twisted around his head, tightening until his eyes popped out. Then, the life was beaten from him with a club.

“I who with zest penned songs in happier days, Must now with grief embark on sombre lays,” he writes at the beginning of The Consolation of Philosophy (as translated by P.G. Walsh for Oxford World’s Classics). Fortuna’s presence no longer feels bright, but bitter. “Now she’s put on her clouded, treacherous gaze, My impious life spins out unwanted days,” he continues.

But all is not lost. Whilst in prison, Boethius is visited by another divine being, Lady Philosophy. During the course of his book, Boethius explains how she freed him from the slough of despond.

She administers medicine for the mind and, although kindly, the truths she imparts are potent and hard to swallow. She tells Boethius that she is used to life’s vicissitudes. They don’t affect her and needn’t worry him. Storms and human corruption may destroy all tawdry possessions, she explains, but there is a deeper realisation to have. What lasts and counts can never be removed. Fortune, favour and luck have nothing to do with the bestowal of what’s good, beautiful and true. Further, she adds, they are yours, they are everyone’s, from eternity.

At first, Boethius is resistant. He complains that he served what is good, beautiful and true in his life, so why must all he valued be so violently taken from him?

It takes him a long time to understand what Lady Philosophy seeks to impart. She is not offering shallow words of comfort or easy platitudes. Rather, she wants him to see through the changes and chances of this fleeting world to the calm centre within all things. She wants him to understand that, contrary to the old myths, Fortuna is not a random goddess. She is actually a shepherdess, drawing people back to the divine fold. This is why her greatest blessing can found in the midst of his apparently greatest loss.

He is facing death, yes. But he is also in a position to perceive that there are riches, glories and dignities that are not an accomplishment or asset, and so can never be diminished or damaged. “Whoever once shall see this shining light, will say the sun’s own rays are not so bright.” This is Lady Philosophy’s promise.

The Consolation of Philosophy was a bestseller because people recognised what he was talking about. In an age of insecurity, it’s acknowledged that life can turn sour in an hour. But such an age is also one in which to want more.

It will be nice if the New Year brings luck. It would be delightful if it enables the recollection of the boundless.

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The Darkness That Is Light. Thoughts from an exhibition

An MP3 version of this talk is at my podcast feed, Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Dante exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, for the 700th anniversary year of 2021, brought together some of the Divine Comedy’s greatest illustrators, living and dead, from Monika Beisner to William Blake and Sandro Botticelli. Here are my reflections on these studies in line and light depicting darkness and life.

The images still in copyright are by Monika Beisner, Dante and Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise (2001, copyright the artist) and Dante and Beatrice and the Mystic Rose of Paradise (2001, copyright the artist); by Rachel Owen, The Fraudsters (2010-16, Estate of Rachel Owen); and by Geoff MacEwan, The Earthly Paradise (2010, Ashmolean Museum). They are reproduced with permission for press use in conjunction with the exhibition.

For more on my book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey, and other vlogs see www.markvernon.com

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Release of the audiobook of Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey!

Audible have released the audiobook of Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey. I hope you enjoy the first chapter, Inferno 1.

For more information go to Audible.

The sample chapter can also be heard by finding my podcast feed, Dante’s Divine Comedy.

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Jesus. A difficult child – a Christmas thought

“Was Jesus gentle?” William Blake asks in his poem, The Everlasting Gospel. “Was Jesus chaste?” he adds.

The prophet of south London is turning his ire against the image of the Christ Child that dominates at Christmas. No crying he makes? “Wake up,” Blake cries! Read the Bible. “The Vision of Christ that thou dost see, Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy.”

He is right. If you read the Biblical stories that are associated with the infant Jesus, a clear conclusion follows. It’s not quite what Brian’s mother says in Monty Python’s, Life of Brian: “He’s a very naughty boy!” But it’s close. Jesus was the kind of kid about whom people would whisper. He is odd and awkward. A difficult child.

His very birth was pretty inconvenient, what with Mary and Joseph unmarried and her due date coinciding with the Roman census.

Then, there was the attention the baby drew from others. Curious shepherds. Pious magi. At least the wise men brought gifts that made him a trust-fund baby. The gold enabled the family to travel safely to Egypt and escape the clutches of another inquirer, the paranoid local ruler, King Herod. This baby smelled devilish to the demonically inclined.

He must have been a pain to his anxious parents as well, given the handful of stories that survive from his youth. There are tales in the gnostic gospels that look like witchery. Apparently, as a boy, he would make model birds out of clay and bring them to life, an ability that mirrors a trick of his adulthood, recorded in the Biblical gospels, that involved cursing fig trees.

The trouble seems to have come to a head when, on the cusp of his maturity, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple in Jerusalem. William Blake takes up the story, saying: “When twelve years old he ran away, And left his Parents in dismay.” Three days later, Jesus shows up, impressing the Temple leaders with his erudition. He then rubs salt into the wound, as Blake continues: “No Earthly Parents I confess, I am doing my Father’s business.” Precocious or just a high achiever?

It’s not surprising that candlelit services and dreamy carols suppress the details under a haze of sentiment. Christmas is supposed to be a weapon in the parental arsenal, not an excuse for bad behaviour. You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, Michael Bublé sings in the supermarket.

The aura of disturbance and disquiet followed Jesus into his adult life. He was not a child who grew out of early troubles. He remained an accident waiting to happen.

He became a teacher and spoke in parables that confused rather than illuminated. When his inner circle, the twelve disciples, asked him to explain, he said he spoke so that people “might see but not perceive, might hear but not understand.”

Finally, the inevitable happened. Jesus upset so many people that he was hauled before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, a man with the power to kill him. He reached the terminus known by other historic figures who were misunderstood, and so fled or died, and yet somehow changed everything. Zarathustra, Socrates, Mohammed, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, the Buddha. So what was it about him?

The word “gospel” is a clue. The Greek, euangelion, means “good message”. An euangelion was proclaimed by ancient authorities as a public announcement. “Caesar has conquered Gaul, so there will be a reduction in taxes!” That kind of thing. The writers of what became the Christian gospels co-opted the word, implying that Jesus’ ticklish life spoke about the existence of a different type of power.

It was displayed when, at the last, he stood before Pilate. Instead of defending himself, he remained silent. He resisted cooperating with the law. He refused to act. He let it be, you might say.

The same approach is found in other axial figures. Socrates was declared guilty by the Athenian democrats, who followed the custom of asking him what he regarded as a just punishment. This was the moment to apologize, beg or go into exile. But Socrates told them that what he offered the city was invaluable. Therefore, the citizens should provide him with meals for life. The suggestion was not warmly received.

The Taoist sage, Chuang Tzu, was repeatedly invited to fulfil his civic duty and become an administrator. He repeatedly spurned the offer, saying he did more good in the world by staying to fish at the riverside.

Not that this was a modest rebuff. “You can’t bear to watch the sufferings of the age, and so you go and make trouble for ten thousand ages to come!” he retorted. “Are you just naturally a boor? Or don’t you have the sense to understand the situation? You take pride in practicing charity and making people happy – the shame of it will follow you all your days! These are the actions, the progress of the mediocre … But what good are these actions of yours? They end in nothing but a boast!”

I bet Chuang Tzu was no gentle, meek child either.

The good message to do less and listen more is even more objectionable nowadays. Technology and bureaucracy have joined forces with ideals of justice and material wellbeing to power an insatiable demand: work to exhaustion in order to secure life for ourselves and others.

Modern axial figures, like William Blake, see through it. They know that moralizing becomes demoralising. “The Moral Christian is the cause, of the Unbeliever & his Laws,” he concludes in The Everlasting Gospel. It’s time for a reset. So what did he teach?

“The cistern contains, the fountain overflows,” Blake observed. What he means, I think, is that we have assumed the purpose of living is to build cisterns to store, preserve and possess life, when in truth, life is like a fountain that overflows. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus advised. “Give no thought for the morrow.”

Blake said he once met Ezekiel and asked the prophet what lay behind his strange way of life, which included lying still on his side for 430 days. “The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite,” the Hebrew replied.

It’s a confusing message. It seems unliveable, for all that it insists it will bring life in all its fullness. But maybe a provocation that promises an alternative, and a child who prompts frustration that might bring change, is precisely what we need.

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Dante’s Inferno, Part 2, dangers in spiritual seeking, with Rupert Sheldrake

An MP3 of the conversation is on my podcast feed, Dante’s Divine Comedy.

This episode of the Sheldrake-Vernon Dialogues is the second part of a conversation between Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon on the Inferno of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Deeper regions of hell are explored, in which individuals aren’t just confused about life but have become wedded to their confusions and the seeming power they bring. The deep ramifications of the worship of Mammon and worlds built on money is part of that addiction, as are the huge risks of spiritual seeking that arise directly from the tremendous goal of the spiritual quest, which is conscious participation in divine life.

The conversation draws on Mark’s book, Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey. Future talks will consider the path Dante charts next, through Purgatory and Paradise!

For other conversations between Rupert and Mark see https://www.sheldrake.org/audios/shel… and https://www.markvernon.com/talks.

The first conversation on the Inferno is online here – https://youtu.be/hKIOxEvqKTo.

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Living In Awareness – a conversation with Rupert Spira & Mark Vernon

An MP3 version of this conversation is on my podcast feed, Talks and Thoughts.

Rupert Spira and I met for a second conversation, beginning with one of William Blake’s great exclamations of nondual awareness:

“Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine
I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend;
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:
Lo! we are One”

We discussed the meanings of suffering and death that feel so needed and neglected in our times; different possibilities for the experience of time and the value of disagreement, similarly overlooked; the role of the erotic, play and the imagination on this path; and the reality of angels and the guidance of myths.

1:39 The presence of nondualism today
3:30 The meaning of suffering
16:59 The true nature of death
23:39 A different experience of time: Chronos, Kairos, Eternity
36:06 The drivers of consumption and desiring heaven on earth
42:29 The value of disagreement
45:59 The erotic, play and standing in love
53:43 The expansive value of the imagination
1:02:54 Messages, angels and hierarchies
1:14:36 Myths and crafts as guides

For more about Rupert Spira see – https://rupertspira.com

For more about Mark Vernon see – https://www.markvernon.com

Our first conversation is online here – https://youtu.be/x0SfOFPCPgk

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Christmas according to William Blake – a warning

An MP3 of the talk can be found at my podcast feed, Talks and Thoughts.

An article on Blake’s view of the Christ Child, viewed through his infernal method, can be found here.

Here I discuss how William Blake used his infernal methods subtly to critique Christmas via his illustrations to Milton’s ode, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. He sought to reveal how its message of eternity is distorted by worldly vision.

Blake objected to the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, of the stable. He pushed against the humble child, pointing out that Jesus disobeyed and dismayed his parents, not in rebellion, but because his vision was divine.

Blake writes in The Everlasting Gospel:
“If Moral Virtue was Christianity
Christs Pretensions were all Vanity
The Moral Christian is the Cause
Of the Unbeliever & his Laws
For what is Antichrist but those
Who against Sinners Heaven close.”

This meditation with images ponders what Blake objected to, how it applies now, and the nature of his inspired sense of Jesus the divine imagination.

In Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, he implores:
““Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine
I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend;
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:
Lo! we are One.”

1:16 Why is Blake wary of Christmas
3:35 Nativity traps: Jesus is born and instantly forgotten
10:05 Shepherds see: the place for divine vision
12:32 How the infinite is enclosed
15:10 How the passions are lost
17:02 How the overthrow of darkness is missed
19:28 The illusory peace of repressed Christianity
21:41 Blake’s Christmas: Was Jesus gentle?
23:35 Blake’s Christianity: overcoming sin or opening paradise?
25:30 Blake’s imperative: rejecting the distant God, separated by sin
26:05 Blake’s Antichrist: Christianity and the wastes of moral law
27:00 “I am not a God afar off. Within your bosoms I reside”
28:50 Knowing Eden/Eternity, transcending Beulah
32:45 Knowing fourfold vision: “realities of intellect, passions emanate, eternal glory”

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Dante on living in riven times. A thought

Our times are marked by divides that will remain, possibly deepen. Has the Divine Comedy anything meaningful to offer a riven state?

An MP3 version of the thought can be found via your podcast feed at my channel, Talks and Thoughts.

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Angelology with Lorna Byrne. A conversation and inquiry with thoughts from Dante and Blake

An MP3 version of the conversation is on my podcast stream, Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Dante and Otherworld Journeys was an online conference organised with the Scientific and Medical Network.

This is the conversation, with extra thoughts, that I had with Lorna Byrne.

I was particularly glad to compare her experience with those of other angel seers, from Socrates to Dante and William Blake. We heard something of her story, and explored the nature of spiritual perception, as well as what she sees of our now and the future.

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