Two spiritual autobiographies


It took me a while to overcome a Kindle aversion. All sorts of reasons: Amazon exploiting the book market, inveigling its way into my mind through cookies, and so on and so forth. And then I thought ‘sod it’ and bought one. So far I haven’t spilt tea on it.

Good for stuffing in your pocket of course. Good for taking on holiday. Good for reading in bed: not as unwieldy as a book. Not good when SWMBO wants the light out and I want to continue reading, for mine is not one of the sexy back lit jobbies. I have a light on a clasp, but that seems to have a life of its own in that the light comes and goes, and so does the whole thing when the spring clasp decides to rearrange itself. Trouble is, though we’ve downloaded a fair number of free books, (for yes, dear reader, Susan acquired one too), most books I’d like to read are not free. So considerable, and where books are concerned rare, self-discipline is called for.

Before I fell asleep on the train yesterday I was reading (kindling?) the second volume of art critic Brian Sewell’s autobiography, Outsider: Always Almost: Never Quite. It covers, amongst other things, the Anthony Blunt saga. Whatever else Sewell may be, and some say snobbish, elitist, offensive, immoral, and much, much more (‘we pee on things and call it art’), he is uncompromisingly honest and without a shred of self-deception. He has the guts to tell it as it is about so-called works of art lauded by the chattering classes. He has taste and discernment, and for that he is pilloried by the luvvies. It’s not the sort of book you’d leave for your 10 year old to read, however. Sewell’s sexual activities are – what’s the word I’m looking for here? – ah yes, educational. He is utterly matter-of-fact about them. As I muse on them, and their significance, I’m reminded that we have no coherent theology of pleasure.

‘Uncompromisingly honest and without a shred of self-deception’ is a phrase that must be used to describe Ruth Burrows. Whether or not you pick up Brian Sewell’s book, I most strongly recommend anything, everything by Ruth Burrows. In her autobiography Before the Living God, this Carmelite nun unflinchingly dissects her human and emotional experiences, the battles that rage in her head, and her responses to them. She shows that prayer is, more than anything else, God’s work, not ours, enabling a journey into self, letting the onion skins fall off as one penetrates ever deeper, in order that the divine within can merge freely with the divine without, no more layers blocking the exchange. (Talk of onion skins puts me in mind of the donkey in Shrek and parfaits. Oh, never mind.) This requires courage and honesty to see ourselves as we really are. More than any other contemporary writer, I think, Ruth Burrows shows that to be holy is to be fully human, hiding nothing, accepting everything about ourselves in order to let the hell be loved out of us. Love your enemies, especially the enemies that live in us.

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Eyes that see shall never grow old

So, then, could Brian Sewell be called holy, or fully human? I suppose that depends on what he thinks of the battles that go on in his head, and only he can know that. We all have these battles. Some are more aware of them than others. When I take out my brain to look at the stuff that goes on in my head, I begin to glimpse what Ruth Burrows has known for a long time, that liberation means freedom from, not freedom to. We might ask ourselves: freedom from what?

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