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  • : The blog of Frank Beswick. It deals with my interests in religious, philosophical spiritual matters and horticulture/self-reliance
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December 31 2011 7 31 /12 /December /2011 19:47



Vegetables can be grown indoors, but you must choose the correct conditions and vegetables. The main condition is light, which must be maximised for vegetable growth. If you have a conservatory, all the better, as this is  small greenhouse attached to the house, but you can use window ledges. These should be south facing to maximise sunlight. They should also be free of draughts, as cold draughts can damage sensitive plants.


Containers need to be properly watered, as they dry out easily. But you should not overwater them, as this can drown the plants. The growing medium should be kept moist, but not soaking.


You also need to ensure that the medium contains enough nutrients. Soil in containers will soon run out of nutrients, so you need to add fertilser at a regular rate, every two or three weeks. But you must not over-fertilise, as doing so can damage or even kill the roots. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the fertiliser packet. You must also ensure that the medium is suitable for the plants that you want to grow. Most plants grow happily at pH 6.5-7, but some plants need a higher or lowe pH. pH is the ratio of hydrogen ions in the soil and measures acidity. A low pH is a highly acid soil, and a high pH is high alkaline. You can measure the pH with a special measuring kit easily purchased from a garden centre. If you are growing annual plants that last for only a year, then the soil can be changed every year, but if you are growing herbs that you want to ensure for more than a year, you may need to repot them yearly. This means taking them out of a container and potting in another, possibly larger one.


Do not allow plants to sit in still air. They need a flow of air around them. This is to provide the carbon dioxide that they need. It is also to prevent a build up of humiditiy that can cause fungal diseases to set in.


Select your plants carefully. I have seen a banana plant growing in a corner of a room, but no bananas came from it. The problem was that this plant has a high light demand, and a corner could not therefore provide enough light. Tomatoes and peppers are excellent for indoor growing. They grow well on south facing window ledges, even in cold climates. You might also be able to produce aubergines in similar conditions, as these are plants that grow better in protected conditions in the British climate.


Herbs make great indoor plants, as they are small and can easily grow on window ledges. Basil, thyme and sage grow well in containers. They can grow on the kitchen window ledge, if it receives enough light.


Mushrooms can also be part of your indoor garden. Contrary to common belief they do not require darkness, but they do not like over-much light. Unlike plants they are air breathers, so they need a flow of air around them, though ideally not a cold breeze. Mushroom kits cna be purchased from some garden centres and a number of suppliers on the internet. A cellar or the space under the stairs can be an ideal mushroom cultivation site.



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December 31 2011 7 31 /12 /December /2011 17:35



The question of whether tomato is a fruit or a vegetable is a non-question. In the broad sense of the word all plant material available to be eaten is a vegetable. However, we subdivide the vegetable fruits that we eat into different kinds, and this division has given rise to the question of whether or not tomato is vegetable or fuit.


In looser usage we group certain foods together as vegetables. These include those that grow underground, such as roots and tubers. Potatoes are tubers and carrots are swollen tap roots. We eat the leaves of other plants, such as lettuce. Some other plants can have edible flowers, such as cucumbers. All these we class loosely as vegetables as oposed to fruits. However, this loose usage finds many people classifying cucumbers and marrows as vegetables, even though they are actually the fruit of the plant. This mistake probably arises because they are green, like the bulk of what we call vegetables.


This loose colloquial usage has the word fruit reserved for the seed bearing organs of the plant, such as apples and berries. Tomato certainly belongs to the category of fruits, as it is a seed bearing organ of the plant. Yet it is eaten as a vegetable in salads. But so also apple can be included in a salad, even though it is a seed bearer.


So you see the division between vegetables and fruits is a false one depending upon the loose usage of terminology. Tomato is both fruit and vegetable.

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December 29 2011 5 29 /12 /December /2011 13:36



Modern educational philosophy speaks about skills, knowledge and attitudes. Even religious education has fallen into this pattern. Now there is nothing wrong with these criteria. We need skills, knowledge and the right attitudes. But we are overlooking one ancient concept that was at the heart of education for millenia, the concept of wisdom.


All ancent cultures knew wisdom. The Confucians of China offered a path to wisdom. The Bible speaks of Hokhmah, wisdom personified as the feminine side of God, emanating from the deity to enlighten the minds of those who receive her. There is a substantial corpus of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, in Proverbs,  Wisdom and Ecclasiasticus. The term Philosophy means the love of wisdom, showing that for the ancient Greeks who coined the term,  the path of Philsophy led to a higher kind of knowledge. In some societies wise people were known as sages, whereas in Greece they were known as philosophers. The Anglo-Saxonsand mediaveal English spoke of a wise woman or cunning woman. Cunning does not have its modern meaning of craft, but denotes knowing. The wise woman was one who knew herbal cures and could apply them for human benefit.


So what is wisdom? To answer this we must examine what its practitioners do. The Confucian thought of a wise person as one who understood the cosmic order and could harmonise with it. It was an internalisation of the manner of things. The key idea is that wisdom implied knowing the good and living by it. This idea is implicit in the Hebrew Hokhmah. The Hebrew sage studied the law of God and the Jewish faith, and attempted to live his life by it. So we have the idea that wisdom is knowing the good and living by it. The Greek idea has much in common with these other views. For Plato the philosopher's mind ascended beyond the illusory reality of the everyday world and reached the forms, the ideas of justice, truth, mercy and so on, culminating in the ultimate, Form of the Good. But none would be called wise if he knew the forms and ignored them, so we would expect the philosopher to have internalised his principles and live by them.


Wisdom, I suggest, is the knowledge and love of what is true, good, and beautiful. The wise person has sought the truth, loves the good, and appreciates the other element in that trilogy, the beautiful. This trilogy is found in the ideals of Indian sages of the Hindu faith. Thus wisdom can be distinguished from practical knowledge, phronesis in Aristotle's terminology, as the latter is not knowledge of the good, but of the practical means to attain it in life. This is not to downplay practical knowledge, without which we cannot live, but to assert that in contrast to the claims of many in the mdoern educational world it is not the whole of knowledge. Jesus, as we know, was a wise person, in that he knew the good and lived by it, but he was by trade a carpenter, so he allied wisdom with phronesis.


Yet if we saw a scholar or religious minister,  who presumably knows the good according to the lights of their own belief system, getting drunk or committing various acts in opposition to what they purport to believe, would we think of them as wise? I suggest not. So merely knowing what is good is not enough, it is vital to conduct one's life by it. It is vital to make elarning part of oneself rather than a mere possession. It is possible to be a trained barbarian. When we see greedy bankers, who often are selected from well-trained university graduates, ruining the economy with their greed, we are not looking at wise people. We are seeing people with unwise minds armed with some skill and training, skill grafted onto an unwise heart and mind. So a wise person must have internalised the good that he/she knows to the degree that it governs behaviour.The wise person then is one whose life is governed by the true, the good and the beautiful. He/she loves them, seeks them and internalises them. A wise person is one whose life is permeated and governed by their wisdom


Would we think a person wise if that person did not use their wisdom to benefit others? I think not. The good is not merely a  private possession. It is to be shared among humans. A wise person may teach or give advice when asked. But it is also possible for their wisdom to shine through in all their relationships and to enrich the lives of people around them. A hermit may be wise, but would we think of an antisocial recluse as a wise person. I think not, as rejecting others is not good.


Science alone is not wisdom. If pursuded out of love it enables us to come to one aspect of the truth, but other aspects, such as religious, philosophical, aesthetic and moral truths are not part of science. The person who thinks that science is the sum of wisdom is intellectually impoverished, though what he has is beneficial as far as it goes. A wise person needs a balanced coverage of all aspects of the truth. Such is the span of modern knowledge, no one can drink fully of its depths, but it is important to have a balanced view of all areas of it.


The ideal of wisdom needs to be reintroduced to education. Too often in my teaching career I have encountered the victoms of a narrow view of education who say that they only want to learn what gets them a job. We need to promote the view that education is for the wise life, the life governed by the love of the true, the good and the beautiful. Religious education has a vital role in this process, for wisdom and religion are close compnaions, historically and philosophically.


Wisdom is not an either/or affair. We must grow in it. Maybe it is like seed that grows in our hearts and minds. As we internalise the good more and more we become more wise. It is probably a lifelong process. Am I there yet? Am I wise? Not yet, though I am trying.





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December 26 2011 2 26 /12 /December /2011 15:34



Today I read a letter in a newspaper which asserted that religious faith rests on the second hand testimony of people in the distant past. I do wish that atheists would adequately study religion before they make assertions about it. There may indeed be people whose faith rests on the second testimony of people in the distant past, but this is not how faith works for man or most. 


The essence of Christian faith is that the Spirit of God is active in the community of the church, guiding, inspiriing and strengthening, giving wisdom and spiritual charismata. The church has always recognized that the Spirit is the product of Jesus' ongoing presence in the heart of his community, which is a particular case of his presence in the world. John's gospel describes Jesus as the Word incarnate among humankind, and the church has susceptible to his influence acting through the risen Christ present in the world


What does this mean in practice. It means that at the heart of any Christian faith there are charismata, the divine influences in a person's life. There may be some people who occasionally or more often enjoy a sense of presence, but Buber, the Jewish thinker, probably has it right when he speaks of presence/power. For most Christians the root of their faith is the spiritual strength that they draw from their membership of the Christian community and from prayer, both private and collective.


Thus the statment that faith rests on acceptance of testimony from the distant past is wrong. It is far more dependent on influences in the present. But what then is the role of such testimony. As humans we rely on knowledge passed on from others. We discover few , if any new ideas ourselves and have to be educated through contact with the human community and by sharing in its culture. Thus the experience of God or the reception of charismata do not depend upon a human community, but as humans we depend upon others for the ideas by which we understand and interpret our experiences. Put simply, I would not understand Christianity without the human community of the Catholic Church in which I was raised and of which I am happily a member.


Faith is a plant that needs constant nourishment by a prayerful life. Without prayer and the reception of divine influences therein it will soon fade. I have so far not met an atheist account of faith that even recognizes this fundamental fact of religious living. This is a testimony to the poverty of thought in modern atheism.


The church provides the story of Jesus which gives me the narrative tradition that explains the identity of the community whose prayer-life strengthens me. It provides the theology which enables me to interpret my religious life. This is not to say that I am uncritical or believe everything said to me, far from it. I am in constant dialogue with my spiritual tradition and develop my own critical thoughts therein. The church also provides the language of worship. Without this language I would have to have made all the spiritual discoveries myself, and that would have meant that little progress would have been made.


The cultural community is the locus in which the first steps in faith are made, and its stories are the vehicle through which divine influences operate. I have a great deal to thank my parents  for, as they gave me the religious background in which faith could grow. My thoughts on theology have outgrown theirs over the years, but they provides the home in which spiritual influences could flourish and in which I could be sensitive to them.


A weak faith rests on second hand testimony, but it is the kind of faith that will probably fade quickly under pressure, like the seed that fell on the path or the seed that fell among thorns. But a deep religious faith is an ongoing process of discovery, thought and growth that is rooted in the divine influence in life, but nourished by the linguistic/ conceptual culture of the community in which its holder grows



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December 23 2011 6 23 /12 /December /2011 10:59





Today I read a letter in a  newspaper that referred to the Bible as a collection of fairy tales. This is characteristic of much secularist thinking: it is critical from a poor basis of understanding.


The Christian Bible is two separate anthologies compiled over a period from about nine hundred BC to the second century AD. It is composed of a variety of literary genres. The first five books of the Old Testament , known as the Pentateuch, were originally compiled from the Hebrew folk tradition  and are known as the Yahwist source,  the Elohist source, the Priestly source and the Deuteronomic history. These  were blended into one strand and then subdivided into the five books that we know now. They are composed of the following literary genres. The first eleven chapters of the first book, Genesis, are myth intended to deal with the origins of the universe and the human condition. The genre changes in chapter 12 to become folk history, a coillection of anecdotes about ancestors. Folk history is the content of much of the rest of the Pentateuch, which covers the story of Moses and the period in the wilderness.The Pentateuch contains detailed tracts of law dealing with daily matters and with ritua concerns. The food laws are contained in this section. So even a casual study of the Pentateuch would reveal that dismissing the book as fairy tales is a simplisytic statement based on limited knowledge.


The history of the Hebrews covers a large part of the text. As they settled and developed their civilisation  the dating becomes more accurate, as the history follows the annals of the various kings of Judah and Israel, the two kingdoms into which the Hebrews were divided. There are also works of prophecy. This is not primarily about foretelling the futture, but about warning people of the consequences of their lifestyle. Prophetic works are not fairy tales, they are poetic material with a moral message based on profound religious experiences.They comprise much of the Old Testament.


There are also the wisdom books. These are collections of sayings and the advice of wise men. They contain a variety of works, including the book of Psalms, a collection of ancient hymns. The fairy tale genre does not even remotely describe what is present in these books.


The New Testament deals with the story of Jesus and his implications. The gospels are the testimonies of the early church based on those who knew Jesus and they recount his great works and spiritual impact. Much of the rest of the New Testament consists of letters from apostles such as Paul to various churches giving religious advice. Little tale telling is contained therein. There is also the Acts of the Apostles, which deals with the spread of the early church through the activities of first Peter and then Paul. This is very factual, as it deals with the course of missionary journeys round the Mediterranean. The final book is the Book of Revelations, the Apocalypse, which is an extended religious vision in which religious messages are given through rich and dramatic symbolism.


Thus simply dismissing a book as fairy tales is unjustified. It is a rich collection of religious worlks of various genres written over a period of more than a thousand years. I would like to finish with a plea to  critics. Before you criticize a book, why don't you take the trouble to read it?



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December 23 2011 6 23 /12 /December /2011 09:25



One simple fact about history is that there is no certainty. There can be near certainty, especially about recent events, but technically nothing can be known. As we go further into the past there is less certainty. The ancient world recorded little, so we can at best reconstruct the events as well as we can with limited data.


Two gospels, Matthew and Luke, tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but they have differing stories, focusing on Jospeph and Mary respectively. In recent years Scholars have tended to hold the opinion that Jesus was born at the family home in Nazareth. However, certain factors have been overlooked, and these lead me to think that the gospel tale is correct.


In the Middle East extended families lived close to each other. It is very much a clan society. Joseph came from the family of David, who were a clan based at Bethlehem in ancient times. Although they were exiled by the Babylonians in 587 BC along with other Jews, Cyrus the Persian king, allowed all Jews back in 527 BC and let them reclaim their lost lands. The family of David would have reclaimed the lands in Bethlehem. It is likely then that they lived there, tending their lands as they had done for centuries.


This is significant because it indicates that Joseph came from Bethlehem rather than Nazareth.So what was he doing in Nazareth? Easy. He is reported to have been a tecton. While this is translated as carpenter, it can also mean builder. A fundamental principle of the building trade is that builders have to go to where the buildings are being erected. As Herod the Great was conducting a massive building programme in Galilee, it is likely that Joseph went where the money was and found work in Galilee. There he met Mary.


In those days the woman was taken to live in the man's house, possibly the clan home with other membvers of the extended family. Joseph would have expected Mary to do this and she would have seen it as normal.It is likely then that Jospeh took Mary to Bethlehem.


The stable is a historical mistake. The word denoted the manger on the lower level of a Jewish house. The houses were split level, with the lower one being where the animals were housed. It is likely that Jospeh's family home was small and cramped with members of the extended family present, so the manger may have been the most comfortable place to place a baby.


Also erroneous is the image of Joseph being present at the birth. Even up to modern times the presence of males in a house at childbirth was considered unluckly, so the family women, who attended a birth, would have sent the men outside. It is also erroneous to think of the wise men attendeding the stable. If they existed at all, the Bible says that they came to the house where Jesus was living.


Nothing is certain in history. We can at best reconstruct the past on the basis of what we know. Our reconstructions are always tentative and we should not become too attached to them.


















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December 20 2011 3 20 /12 /December /2011 15:58



The Latin word mediato means I think, so strictly speaking meditation is thinking, but in the religious context it denotes thinking in a reflective way about religion. All religions have their own meditation tradition, but in recent years the image of meditation common in the West has been drawn from Eastern faiths. Hinduism and Zen Buddhism have been a major source of this Eastern image. Hindusim has given us the idea of a person contemplating the sacred slyllable om, whereas Zen Buddhism has given us the koan, the practice of reflecting on a question with no rational anwer, such as what is the sound of one hand clapping. It is clear that each religion has its own meditation tradition tradition that distinguishes it from other religions. I intend to outline the Christian meditation tradition tradition here.


In Christianity meditation involves finding a quiet place, but it does not end there. It is a way of drawing closer to God by thinking on him [I use the masculine pronoun here by necessity not because I think that God is male.] Meditation is a way of approaching communion with God. The Christian ideal is to enter into this communion, which is a union of distinct beings in love, as opposed to some Eastern ideals where you attempt to lose your individuality in unity with the divine.


The Jesus prayer originating in the Orthodox church but now used across Christianity is the practice of repeating the name Jesus until he completely fills your mind and and heart. This has proved popualr and successful with orthodox monks, and many find it a useful means of prayer.


In the Western, Catholic tradition there are several methods.One that is found useful is to take a prayer, such as the Lord's prayer, and reflect on it line by line. Sometimes people do this with a hymn. Having a prayer with a set text takes the strain off an individual's imagination, which is useful because you can dry up when praying. Others take a scene from the Scriptures and reflect on it.This may be the crucifixion or the resurrection, or one of Jesus' healing miracles. Using a picture to support this is found useful by some worshippers. Others may read a Bible passage and then reflect on it.


Yet there are higher states of prayer than meditation. The higher state is contemplative prayer. This is an attempt to focus on the divine presence and communicate with God. The contemplative is aware of the divine presence, to varying degrees of intensity, and enters into close communion with him. Contemplation is a profound means of prayer. It cannot be easily accessed and it is something to which a worshipper must rise over time. It is linked to the prayer of silence, when a person ignores words and simply focuses on the presence or idea of God. Those who enter these higher realms sometimes require spiritual support from experienced spiritual guides, as there can be ups and downs and spiritual difficulties that are better not faced alone.


The christian meditation tradition has not been as well proclaimed as it might have been and has been overlooked in the last few years for more fashionable eastern ways, but my aim here is to help readers become familiar with its outlines






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December 18 2011 1 18 /12 /December /2011 15:01




One queston that is seriously discussed by scholars is how the man Jesus came to be seen as divine. He was a prophet, as the Muslims think, but what is it that made him be seen as more than a prophet, but as the incarnation of the Son of God. I suggest that one overlooked factor in this process has been that Jesus was a source and occasion of religious experience. The basic religious experience is a sense of presence, as Beardsmore calls it, or of presence/power, in Buber's terminology. The presence that he possessed, I suggest, was disclosed not all the time, but in certain key moments and in encounter with him.Those who engaged with Jesus would, I believe, have sensed that there was something more about him.


How is this claim to be backed up? tTere are hints in Scripture that suggest that this might be the case. At the heart of it is Jesus' voice had impact on those whom he healed. In Mark chapter 2 we find the case of paralysed man. It seems likely that this man was suffering from hysterical paralysis generated by guilt. This condition is often caused by stress, and if he felt guilty then he might well have suffered psychosomatic consequences. Jesus not only knew the origin of the condition, but declared that the man's sins were forgiven. The voice of Jesus seemed to penetrate deep into the man's psyche and release the psychological chains. Similarly in the cure of Jairus' daughter, the girl, who was not dead but only  sleeping, had appeared clinically dead. Jesus' voice seemed to penetrate into the heart of her mind and effect the transformation.


After the disciples whom he met on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24] realized who he was they declared "Did not our hearts burn within us when he explained the Scripture." They seem to have regarded this ability to religiously inspire people was a characteristic of Jesus. He seemed to be a source of charismatic inspiration that gave an intense spiritual joy to those who listened to him


One important element in this suggestion is the transfiguration, Mark 9,2-20. Jesus was with three disciples on a  mountain when he they saw him transfigured by a brilliant light. This is a classic quasi-sensory experience, and a non-physical light seems to be very common in religious experiences. Interestingly, it seemed to emanate from Jesus, making him the source of light. There were other characteristics of this experience, the presence of Moses and Elijah and the cloud, which was always seen as a sign of divine presence. The voice of God designating Jesus as his Son is also very significant. The totality of the occasion marks Jesus as someone above the normal and of peculiar holiness and favour with God.


John's Gospel, which is not always totally historical when facts are concerned, hints that believers saw Jesus' glory, and this is common throughout the text. The glory of God is the Shekinah, God's presence, so the hint is that Jesus is the means by which God's glorious preence was known to humans. This is not the glory of the blazing theophany on Sinai, with thunder and lightning, but of the gentle breeze in the Elijah story, in which God is not present in the earthquake or the wind and fire, but in a quiet whispering breeze.[1 Kings 19,9-14.]


The religious experience that was Jesus carried on in the early church through the coming of the spirit, and believers sensed that in the shared eucharistic meal the Lord's presence was still there.It is this ongoing sense of presence power and the charismatic inspiration that Jesus brought that drove Christians to the realization of his unique status and has driven Christian theology forward from that time onwards



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December 7 2011 4 07 /12 /December /2011 09:16




According to secular epistemology religious experience should not happen. We are supposed to experience only the phytsical world through the five senses. This creates a problem, as there are people who claim to experience realities beyond the physical world. Here a thinker comes to a fork in the road: does he say that as his theory does not allow for such realities, the experience is not genuine; or does he accept that there are realities and modes of experience that are not covered by his theory, and expand the theory to cope with them. The former places theory first, the latter experience first. Those who take the first path are akin to the people who looked at the moon through Galileo's telescope and declared that the mountains there must be cracks on the lens, so desperate were they to retain their theory.


Religious experiecne has a number of characteristics. However, the root of it seems to be a sense of presence. Beardsmore writing in A Sense of Presence [published by the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford] argues that this sense of being in the presence of a holy being is the root of all genuine religious experience. Buber, a Jewish thinker, writing in I and Thou, argued that this experience is a sense of presence/power. It might be experienced as either power or presence or both. For many people the sense of presence is an ennobling and stimulating experience, which deeply enhances their lives.


Writing religious expereicne  off as hallucination is not good enough. David Hay, a  psychologist of religion writing in Religious Experiecne, correlates religious experience positively with mental health, as those who claim it tend to score higher on mental health ratings than non-experiencers.It is also noteworty that hallucinations are quite grotesque and individual, whereas religious expereicnes have a shared form outlined here and are never grotesque. The proponents of halluicnation are exercising the ignoble art of explaining away the embarrassing experiecnes that don't fit in with their theories


Religious experience has various forms beyond a sense of presence. There are what is known as quasi-sensory phenomena. These are visions of varous kinds, auditory and olfactory phenomena. The churches often take these carefully, as they can be problematic. True visons are quite rare, but there are people who claim to have experienced bright non-physical light in association with religious experience. If you look at the picture above you see the Transfiguration of Jesus when the apostles saw him radiating light. This seems to be an example of this kind of experience. It is associated with a sense of presence and there is also a sense of extreme goodness involved. We can draw parallels with the near death experience, where light and personal presence seem to be strong characteristics of the experience. Auditory phenomena are known. Rolle, the fourteenth century Engish mystic, experienced the divine presence as incredibly beautiful music. Occasionally scents are experienced, but these are rare.


Mystical experiences are known. these are high level experiences in which the subject feels merged with the One. However, not all mysical experiences are religious, as it is possible to have a non-religious sense of merging with the all. Many people have doubts about mystical experiences. However, William James argued that the reliable ones met the following characterstics: transient [they [pass quickly]  unitive [the subject feels merged with the ultimate reality] inefffable [cannot be fully expressed in words] and noetic[ they have the feel that accompanies all experiences of the Real.


Supporters of religious experience accept that there are false experiences, but they argue that the key to distinguishing true and false is their personal benefits. As God is good, any contact with God is beneficial. Just as we feel enhanced by the presence of a good person and diminished by the presence of a bad one, so in God's presence we must blossom and grow. One with a bad feel or which leads a person to evil is not to be accepted as genuine. It is wise to take advice if there are any problem experiences.


Those studying religious experiences should avoid these twin faults: there is the Scylla of rejecting in a biased way, trying to explain away what does not fit into one's world-view and which challenges one to change; there is the Charybdis of uncritical acceptance, which can seriously mislead. An open and critical mind is essential. What is the case is that many people are deeply moved and have their lives enhanced by these experiences. William James, who adopted the pragmatic theory of truth, which argues that truth always produces good results, saw this fact as being in favour of religious experience. However, the pragmatic theory is controversial and not universally accepted, though there is certainly something in it.

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December 4 2011 1 04 /12 /December /2011 21:16








The Christian monastic garden is an attempt to provide a space which is both sacred and useful. It must be sacred so as to be conducive to prayer, but it is to be useful because human needs must be served. The design arose in the first millenium at the monastery of St Gall in Swirtzerland, but it derives from the monastic spirit. St Gall was established by Irish monks led by St Columbanus, but it was taken over by the Benedictine rule, which became the monastic norm for Western Christianity.


At the centre was a cloister garth, which we can see in the picture above. This was a large square or rectangular garden surrounded by cloisters on all four sides. Cloisters are covered walkways where monks can walk abd meditate, or where they can sit and read overlooking a pleasant view. The cloister garth was a lawn, but this was not always the modern lawn. Mediaeval lawns often allowed the grass to be longer than modern lawns and sometimes there were bulbs planted in the ground so that they would be studded with flowers.At times there was statuary present.


There was also a paradise garden. This was at the head of the abbey church and would be filled with beautiful flowers. The aim was to recreate the garden of Eden, and it was a place which was intended to stimulate the spirit to appreciate the glories of God as revealed in nature and therefore lead the viewers to prayer. The paradise sometimes doubled as the sacristan's garden, though the bigger monasteries had a dedicated sacristan's garden. The sacristan was the official responsible for the upkeep of the church and the arrangement of services. It was his job to grow the flowers which were picked for the altar. Catholic services use colour coded vestments, for example red for martyrs' feast days and white for other saints, so the flowers would be grown and chosen accordingly. The sacristan would have to ensure a year long supply of flowers.


Many of us have all seen Cadfae on television or read the stories of this fictional monk-healer. There used to be a herbal garden in all monasteries growing medicinal herbs for the healer. These herbal gardens have long since died out as modern medicine has taken over. However, they were a major part of the life of the mediaveal monastery, even up to the nineteenth century. Some monasteries used a dedicated brewers' garden, where the herbs used in brewing were grown.  These were not just hops, as ale was flavoured with a variety of flavourants, such as alecost, meadowsweet  and mugwort. It may surpise many people that monks drank ale, but Catholicism has never been a teetotal faith. It merely opposes drunkenness and dependence on alcohol, though there have been teetotal Catholics.


The productive gardens were the heart of the monastery. Here the monastic gardener grew the vegetables for the monastery throughout the whole year, vital at a time when food supplies could not easily be imported and when people needed to provide food security for themselves. Bees were an important part of these walled gardens, and they were kept in little recesses in the monastery gadren walls. The monks used beeswax for the candles used in services. Even today Catholc ism sues beeswax candles in religious ceremonies. The chief gardener was known as the gardinarius or the hortulan, but in the middle ages there was  special assistant called a mustardarius, whose job was to provide the mustard plants that the monks felt that they needed.It seems that mustard was considered a must-have by monks.The productive garden often had a nursery section known as the impgarth, an imp being  a term for a small person or creature.



Other minor gardens included the abbot's garden, only found in the larger monasteries, where the abbot, an important figure in mediaeval times who might have received important visitors, entertained dignitaries. This would be mainly flowers. The guest house garden was a small garden that was for the entertainment of guests, again focusing mainly on flowers. Monastic gardens were an important part of the tradition of this country until Henry the Eighth's  vast act of vandalism and theft destroyed the monasteries and depived England of so much beauty and culture. It is worth remembering the contribution that these  monasteries made to our national life, and when we see their ruins we might think of the gardens that once flourished there and the sacred music that once floated over their grounds.

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