Jonathan Stedall

Sample chapter

Chapter 16

Free to Love

I have always regretted that I didn’t travel to South Africa by ship, on the old Cunard Line to Cape Town, as Laurens van der Post suggested. Now the service no longer exists. Then, because of our absurd tendency to cram far too much into our lives, I found myself without enough time. Instead I went by plane and just saw a few clouds. Nevertheless once there, I was able to slow down and enjoy the magnificent sights and sounds of the African bush, and in the company of someone who knew it intimately.

Our task in the autumn of 1973 was to make a film about the mythology of the bushmen, a people about whom Laurens had written so lovingly in Venture into the Interior, The Lost World of the Kalahari and Heart of the Hunter. His own childhood was spent on a farm in the Transvaal and although he now lived in Britain, he returned at least once a year to breathe the African air and, incidentally, to help chip away at the pernicious system of apartheid.

Laurens Van der Post with bushman.

Laurens Van der Post with bushman.

Our film was for the long-running BBC2 series The World About Us. In those days there were many such regular and thoughtful series, very few of which have survived. Yesterday’s Witness tapped into the memories of old people; Man Alive probed at the sharp end of contemporary life; Omnibus and Arena looked at the arts, Horizon and Tomorrow’s World at science and technology, Everyman at religion and Chronicle at history and archaeology; One Pair of Eyes was a slot for interesting and often eccentric people to explore a theme about which they cared passionately; and then there was Forty Minutes, a wonderful space for idiosyncratic and quirky documentaries that celebrated life in all its manifold garb. On top of all this was The Tuesday Documentary on BBC1 that attracted large audiences and which is a sad reminder that once upon a time the BBC respected to a far greater extent the intelligence of its television audience and their wish to be educated and informed as well as entertained.

In relating some of the bushman stories, Laurens wanted to show how for the bushmen – and indeed, once upon a time, for all of us – nature was like a mirror in which we learned to recognise aspects of our own make-up, both physical and psychological: a lesson that is, I believe, far from over. Above all, it was through the diversity of animal life and behaviour that these insights were experienced by the bushmen. Indeed we still talk about someone being as cunning as a fox, as wise as an owl, as strong as a lion or as obstinate as a mule. It is, in one way, an obvious example of the microcosm/macrocosm theme that I am exploring in this book – a theme that throws significant light on the polarity that exists between what we call ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’. All that surrounds us, at whatever distance, exists also in each one of us. In his opening commentary to the film Laurens quotes the Elizabethan physician, Sir Thomas Browne: ‘We carry with us the wonders we seek without: there is all Africa and her prodigies within us.’ We called our film All Africa Within Us.

Our first base was a camp on the banks of the Limpopo river, near South Africa’s border with Mozambique. Two rangers accompanied us to make sure we didn’t get bitten, stung, squashed or eaten by the many the creatures that roared, crept, splashed and flew around us day and night. These creatures also watched us, some secretly, some – like the giraffes – with unashamed curiosity. A black mamba slithered silently past as we picnicked on the first day. Later I was told that after one bite you had about thirty seconds to say your goodbyes.

One story that Laurens related in the film, variations of which crop up in many cultures, is about the moon and the hare. In the early days of the earth’s existence, the moon looked down and saw that human beings were afraid of dying. It then said to the hare, which was the fastest animal it could find: ‘Go tell the people on earth that as I in dying am renewed again, so they in dying will be renewed again.’ But the hare, being in too great a hurry, got the message wrong and told the people on earth that unlike the moon, which in dying is renewed again, they in dying would not be renewed again. And the moon was so angry at the hare for getting such a vital message wrong that it struck it on the lip to mark it forever with a split in order to show that it had borne false testimony.

There are endless bushman stories about the huge variety of animals we observed in that peaceful, far-away place at the northernmost corner of the Kruger Park – stories inspired by an original sense of wonder we may often feel as children, and which Jung experienced so strongly on his visit to Kenya in 1925. There are stories, for example, about the elephant – stories that usually emphasise the danger of excessive size, and the importance of proportion; about the baboons, whose behaviour for the bushmen was a warning about our tendency to over-analyse and intellectualise our experiences; and about the hyena, with its sinister limp, who represented for them the dark, satanic forces in life. The bushmen had a phrase, ‘the time of the hyena’, which represented a moment in life when the human spirit is invaded by a sense of utter darkness and despair.

Above all, it was the lion that the bushmen held in awe. His formidable array of talents – power, courage, intelligence, tenacity and speed – are never abused. He kills only for food; and although devoted to family, he is ultimately the cat that walks alone. It was an intimation, said Laurens, of our potential to stand on our own two feet and not just be members of a herd, ‘to live individually and not collectively’.

The stories that most interested Laurens, however, were those about Mantis, ‘a mere stick insect’ who presided over the bushmen’s whole mythology. Perhaps it is not surprising that a people who were themselves so small in stature should have chosen a praying mantis as their God. ‘The bushmen picked on him’, said Laurens, as he lay sprawled on the ground at the feet, as it were, of one such bemused insect,

because he learned from nature that there was nothing so important as the small, and that it was only by giving the utmost reverence to what was apparently insignificant and defenceless that one achieved spiritually what was great and meaningful.

Laurens Van der Post with a praying mantis.

Laurens Van der Post with a praying mantis.

I was reminded of John Betjeman’s life-long and touching affection for insects – the smaller the better; for like the bushmen, he knew that despite their size and seeming unimportance they mattered as much as any other living creature. He once wrote to his grandson David telling him why he liked spiders so much: ‘They are very good mothers, they have eight legs and are wingless and defenceless. They enjoy jokes and if you talk to them they smile.’

In the early days of the world, according to the bushmen’s mythology, it fell to Mantis to give every creature a name: ‘Your name shall be Tortoise, and you shall be utterly tortoise to the end of your days.’ Another story – a Hottentot legend that Laurens told us as we sat by a river early one morning, with the whole world waking up around us – was about their first great spirit, Heitsi’Eibib, who was killed again and again in the battle for life, but was always resurrected. The Hottentots recognised him as he returned in the reddest of dawns, bleeding from his victorious fight with the powers of darkness, so that all living things could have light on earth.

Towards the end of the film, and over images of old and solitary animals – an elephant, a wildebeest, a rhinoceros – Laurens spoke about Mantis’s final message to human beings. In the mythology of the bushmen this humble stick insect taught them not only how best to live in the here and now, but also how to face death and beyond:

I’ve always been deeply impressed how the animal towards the end of its life will separate itself from family and herd, not because it is forced to, as many believe, but as if out of some inner necessity – like the Hindu who traditionally in the last quarter of life feels compelled to take to the road alone in search of salvation.

Such a thought brings to mind Tolstoy’s tragic yet heroic flight to separate himself from all that he was soon to leave behind. And for the Bushmen, continued Laurens, it was as if Mantis’s command to live also as an individual had taught him that faced with death, the final reckoning, too, must be his own.

By now we had travelled several hundred miles west, to the southernmost region of the great Kalahari desert. Laurens called it ‘Cinderella Earth’ because, despite its arid yet beautiful appearance, it was home to an extraordinary variety of animal and plant life and, of course, to the bushmen themselves. And it was their wisdom and their simple way of life that had so touched him on the exploratory expeditions he made for the British government in the early years after World War II. He concluded his commentary with these words:

At the end of the African day the first man brought back from nature an answer as full as it was clear. There is living meaning not only in the brief here and now, but also in death and beyond. Outwardly poor and himself rejected by our technological world, he walked rich in his own experience, certain of his significance in the scheme of things; and with a sense of belonging so close that he even spoke of the vultures who presided over his end as ‘our sisters the vultures’.

These last words were spoken over a scene of those strangely sinister birds devouring an animal corpse, while in the background lurked a pack of hyenas, waiting restlessly for their turn:

Unaided, out of his long alliance with nature, man had made of his spirit a fortress of light wherein he lived unafraid of the forces of darkness that the hyena represented; certain that no matter how fiercely they attacked him, the hyena would always retire, defeated again and leaving intact his vision of creation as a process not just of birth, procreation and death, but of life infinitely renewed and renewing.

I will write later about Laurens himself in old age, about our continuing friendship and work together, and about what was written after his death by the hyenas and vultures that plague us still.

Laurens van der Post, it could be argued, had a somewhat idealised picture of the bushmen – a nostalgia, maybe, for humanity’s seemingly innocent past when we lived in harmony with all that surrounds us and knew our place. Such a sentiment is similar to the nostalgia that many of us experience for our childhood and for those moments of intense happiness that Tolstoy wrote about so evocatively in his autobiographical novel Childhood, describing a family picnic when even the fish in the pond were happy.

Although I share this nostalgia to a certain extent, as witnessed by my feelings about rural India and about the daily routine in Botton Village, I am not someone who believes that something has gone terribly wrong, either in our own growing up, or in the evolution of the human race. At one stage, I imagine, we all lived like the bushmen that Laurens van der Post met and wrote about. We told similar stories, used the same sort of spears, and knew instinctively that there was more to life than meets the eye.

Laurens Van der Post in the Kalahari desert.

Laurens Van der Post in the Kalahari desert.

I don’t want either to dismiss or to mock that phase of our evolution, any more than one would mock a baby because it cannot walk or a toddler unable to read or write. Yet whenever I reflect on our simple and primitive past, and the nostalgia that is increasingly and understandably felt for this so-called Golden Age, when human beings apparently lived at one with nature, I can’t help thinking of an old radio programme from that wonderful series Hancock’s Half Hour. Week after week the comedian Tony Hancock played out a tragic and hilarious character who epitomised all our sublime yet hopeless aspirations. In one particular episode Hancock decides to turn his back on the rat race and to go back to nature, to a simpler way of life. His plan is to go and live in nearby Cheam Woods, preferably in a cave. When he gets there he finds that his ridiculous and quirky side-kick, in the person of Kenneth Williams, has got there first and has set up home in a tree. Then it starts to rain; then come the coach-loads of tourists to gape at the Wild Man of the Woods – and so on! It isn’t long before Hancock is back in his bedsit.

I tell this story because whenever I contemplate a scenario in which we all still lived in the equivalent of Cheam Woods, in harmony with the rabbits and squirrels and chestnut trees, I realise that in such a situation there would probably be no Tony Hancock. And terrible and destructive as our modern state of alienation is, I nevertheless feel that the world would somehow be a duller and sadder place without the likes of Hancock, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen. We human beings, whether we like it or not, are essentially restless and inquisitive creatures who, despite our many sublime creations, inevitably cause a certain amount of havoc and misery. But our ability to laugh at ourselves along the way may be one of our most precious and redeeming gifts. Humour is, after all, a great healer. Ideas tend to divide us; laughter unites us.

Meanwhile we can no more remain in a mystical and largely unconscious participation with nature and the divine than we can, like Peter Pan, cling on to our childhoods. We have to grow up and inevitably lose, in the process, our instinctive sense of awe and wonder. But in doing so we have the profoundly important potential to make choices, including – paradoxically – that of rekindling those original sensibilities with the same consciousness that initially undermines them; hence my optimism about gradually reconnecting with a simpler way of life as envisaged by Gandhi and Tolstoy, and as practised in the Camphill communities. In other words we have freedom, albeit at a very basic stage; but this freedom gives us the possibility to either make a mess of things, or to progress and evolve – for otherwise it is not real freedom.

Some people argue that there is no such thing as altruism and that selfless love is an illusion. (Perhaps the nearest that most of us get to displaying any real altruism is as a parent.) It’s certainly true that what we call the Laws of Nature – as exemplified in the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ – seem to point in that direction, though it seems reasonable to ask the question: Fit for what? Is our obsession with physical survival a distraction? Could it be that quite other seeds – in which consciousness plays a central role – have been sown in our evolving universe?

Consciousness, however – by its very nature – involves a separation from that of which we are conscious. The first stage is self-awareness – the capacity to stand back from oneself, and thus the birth of what seems like a double life. One sees this process very clearly in the growing child. The problem is how then to move on from a situation where this sense of separation isolates us in an ultimately unhelpful way from everything and everyone else; what we call, quite simply, selfishness. For without a real effort on our part, above all by developing compassion, we are in danger of becoming merely grown-up children, and far more lethal as a result; not just selfish, but rational and intelligent with it.

‘It is the growth of consciousness which we must thank for the existence of problems; they are the dubious gift of civilisation’, wrote Jung in Modern Man in Search of a Soul; hence the significance, he points out, of the description of that first act of consciousness – the eating from ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ – as a curse. The conscious sense of self, or ego as it is sometimes termed, is a double-edged sword if ever there was one, for what liberates us as individuals can then imprison us not just within our own skins, but within our own hearts and minds. This, then, brings me back to the subject of altruism and love.

We are sometimes told that God is love. Perhaps God, or the gods, are unable not to love. Is that what it means when we say that they dwell in heaven? We, on the other hand, are certainly capable of not loving. But was it really ever any different? How golden was that Golden Age? From what we know and understand of the bushmen, or the Indians of North and South America, or the Aborigines of Australia, they lived with an instinctive respect and reverence for the natural world around them. They knew, for example, as animals do, which plants were harmful and which plants would heal. On the whole they took from nature only what they needed to sustain their simple way of life. They fiercely protected their own kind. But can we call this love? It wasn’t much fun if you stepped out of line, or if – one dark night – you suddenly bumped into a member of another tribe. I remember as a child when our pet canary Bing – named after Bing Crosby – flew out of the window one day and was immediately attacked by all the other birds, who clearly didn’t like the colour yellow. It’s a characteristic that we human beings are shedding only very slowly. In his book River out of Eden, Richard Dawkins writes: ‘Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent.’

I sometimes wonder if our notion of a Golden Age is not nostalgia but premonition – a state of harmony to which we aspire and towards which we have to struggle through our own efforts. In his autobiography Jung wrote: ‘As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.’ He tried to convey his sense of this journey with that word ‘individuation’ – an exhortation to stand on our own two feet.

But how are we to resolve the dilemma of this emerging individuality, and the fragmentation and alienation that results – alienation from each other, from nature and from any sense of our divine origins? Certainly if, from our ‘fallen’ and isolated state, we do succeed, ever so gradually and of our own free will, to put the other person (and not just family or friend) before ourselves, then maybe a quite new form of love will come into existence – indeed is coming into existence. There is no obligation – only the stirrings of that mysterious entity we call conscience. But it is a love that can only arise from a position of separateness. And if such a process does have any reality, then it certainly starts to give meaning to that otherwise ‘indifferent’ universe. Dawkins, I suspect, would not agree. In that same book he goes on to describe what he calls ‘one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.’ Fortunately not everyone shares this bleak outlook.

I’ve already referred to Gandhi as an example of someone who was unable to be at peace while others suffered. But there are, I feel certain, thousands if not millions of others who feel more or less the same and try, in their own tentative and humble way, to act and respond accordingly. Unlike Gandhi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta they don’t on the whole make it into the news, but they are working away as best they can – neither saints nor sinners. In a beautiful essay entitled ‘The Timeless World of the Play’, featured as an introduction to the Penguin edition of his play The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams writes: ‘Men pity and love each other more deeply than they permit themselves to know.’

This isn’t, therefore, just my own idealism projected onto the world; I have met many such people who truly care about others, and not only in countries like India. The nuns who looked after little Anne-Marie at that convent in Edinburgh loved the children in their care not just out of pity or because their religion demanded it. Mother Teresa once referred to a dying beggar on the streets of Calcutta as ‘Christ in distressing disguise’ – a label that could apply to all of us. But the love I am hinting at is not to do with just worshipping the so-called ‘divine essence’ in each person, but rather an acceptance of and compassion for our flawed and often bewildered state of being in the here and now. And we are able to recognise and empathise with such people because in truth we are all in the same boat. We live in a world that the rationalists and reductionists tell us has no meaning, and it hurts. It doesn’t correspond to what we believe and know in our hearts.

The gradual disenchantment of nature and the universe since the Copernican revolution is one of the themes that Richard Tarnas explores at length in his widely acclaimed book The Passion of the Western Mind. The story he tells is of two-and-a-half thousand years of largely masculine thought and endeavour; a journey that has culminated in this seemingly soulless cul-de-sac in which, to use the words of the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, ‘the heavens have become secularised and religion has lost its cosmology’. The way forward, in Tarnas’s view, is closely connected with the redemptive role of the feminine sensibility and our capacity to look and listen more deeply; in other words a need for the more receptive, intuitive side of our nature to play a greater role in the future. The word ‘disenchantment’ in many ways sums up perfectly the essence of the modern world view. It is certainly what Dawkins, who has compared God to a computer virus, consciously encourages and promotes.

Yet Tarnas and those like him who sense, as I do, that there is purpose and meaning to life, recognise that this disenchantment is itself meaningful – or potentially so – and that huge gains have been achieved along the way. It has, for example, in many ways helped to wake us up and to bring us down to earth; for perhaps there are things that can only be learned and experienced through the consciousness we develop while on earth.

This sense that fallible human beings can create something that is both unique and meaningful is beautifully conveyed in Edwin Muir’s poem ‘One Foot in Eden’:

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world’s great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate …
Evil and good stand thick around
In the fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Muir goes on to point out that ‘Blossoms of grief and charity / Bloom in these darkened fields alone … Strange blessings never in Paradise / Fall from these beclouded skies.’

Yet the crucial question remains: Where do we go from here? What are these ‘strange blessings’ to which Muir refers? Our capacity to love seems to be the poet’s answer, for only ‘in these darkened fields’ does grief give birth to charity. Of one thing I am clear; there can be no going back. We can never be bushmen again. In his autobiography Jung writes:

We do not know how far this process of coming to consciousness can extend, or where it will lead. It is a new element in the story of creation, and there are no parallels we can look to. We therefore cannot know what potentialities are inherent in it.

This challenge presented by our expulsion from paradise, the growth of consciousness, and our potential for compassion is explored with great profundity in the medieval story of Parzifal. As a boy he is isolated and protected from the world by his mother, hidden away in the depths of a forest. He knows and understands nature, but not the intrigues and conflicts of human beings. At the start of his journey, therefore, he is both pure but also naïve; in his innocence he could be compared to the bushmen.

In his book Parzifal and the Stone from Heaven Lindsay Clarke describes how, as the story unfolds, Parzifal is made aware of the extent to which he is ‘a prisoner of his own ignorance’, but then how ‘the access of knowledge brings with it such pain and derangement that it seems as if consciousness is itself a kind of wound’. It is a wound, suggests Clarke, ‘for which the only cure is greater consciousness’.

Parzifal was on a quest, the nature of which he was barely aware of at the start. Quest and question arise from the same source. The question that Parzifal was destined finally to ask had to be kindled by his compassion for the suffering of another – the wounded King Amfortas; and not out of mere curiosity or good manners, but out of empathy. To do that he had first to suffer himself, and in the process to lose all faith in God. Only then was he ready, in full consciousness, to fulfil his destiny in relation to the mystery of the Grail and to assume his role as the new initiate king. The question that Parzifal finally asks is the same one that I believe we are all challenged to ask from that wilderness in which dwells the blinkered, solitary and self-conscious being that each one of us has become: ‘Friend, what ails thee?’

T.S. Eliot, in those lines I quoted earlier from Little Gidding, acknowledges our need to go forward and to explore as Parzifal did, and as thousands of others in different ways have always done; and suggests that the end of that exploration, ‘will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time’. But what does this really mean? It certainly implies a greater degree of consciousness. Maybe the type of clairvoyance that Steiner developed, encouraging us to do the same, is simply bringing to consciousness what, in the past, we knew instinctively but unconsciously. If so, this process of separation and alienation as we grow up – both individually and collectively – and the freedom that ensues, enable us not only to re-experience our inter-connectedness consciously, but also to further human evolution through our own efforts.

Yet without nurturing our capacity to love, we could easily end up in a world of every man for himself, as already foreseen in that thought by Thomas Hobbes: ‘the condition of man … is a condition of war of everyone against everyone’. Conscious and clever, but ultimately isolated creatures, free to cause havoc – the possibility is there. Individuation is, indeed, a precarious path. We live on a knife-edge.

In the last few hundred years our awakening has been above all in relation to the physical world around us, and only gradually to the conditions of our less fortunate neighbours, or to the chaotic and damaged state of our own inner life. Now, it seems, we increasingly sense the need to activate other, still dormant faculties in order to understand the paradoxical nature of reality itself, aspects of which we have explored so successfully with the telescope and microscope. And perhaps the most paradoxical and mysterious entity of all in need of elucidation is that lonely onlooker: the human being. Whence comes our capacity to put another person first? What is the real meaning of love in a world where powerful forces still conspire so effectively to encourage our basic egotism?

A beetle is a beetle, and will always be so unless we interfere or bring about its extinction. A buttercup will go on being a buttercup year in, year out. ‘Your name is tortoise’, said Mantis, ‘and you will be utterly tortoise to the end of your days.’ Not so the human being; and it is above all in the realm of consciousness that evolution still seems to be at work. No new species – just restless, creative and often destructive human beings. So what’s next? What are we challenged to become?

This further unfolding of the evolutionary process is most imaginatively conveyed in Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist – the story of a boy, Santiago, whose dream leads him to undertake a great journey to the desert in search of treasure. Finally he returns to find the treasure on his own doorstep, buried at the foot of a sycamore tree. Towards the end of his quest he has a dialogue about love, first with the wind and then with the sun. The sun expresses regret that there was a sixth day of creation, for until then all creation understood that all was one:

‘You are wise, because you observe everything from a distance’, the boy said. ‘But you don’t know about love. If there hadn’t been a sixth day, man would not exist; copper would always just be copper, and lead just lead.’

Santiago goes on to tell the sun that love is the force that transforms all creation and even ‘the soul of the world’ itself:

‘Lead will play its role until the world has no further need of lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold. That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.’

What I want to convey, therefore, is that the growing self-awareness of this increasingly solitary onlooker that each of us has become, despite creating great sorrow and destruction in its wake, including the loss of a certain child-like innocence, is potentially positive and meaningful. This is because we cannot be selfless, cannot truly love in the sense I have been talking about, unless there is a self to do the loving. I cannot put myself into the shoes of another person unless I have first experienced my own self in all its seeming isolation and loneliness. Only then am I ready to ask the question that Parzifal took so long to formulate: ‘Friend, what ails thee?’

The bushmen of the Kalahari experienced what Jung, as an old man, called ‘a kinship with all things’ – it was, indeed, a sort of Golden Age. But at that stage of our evolution we couldn’t, I suspect, do otherwise. Now our consciousness has severed that instinctive sense of an interconnectedness with nature and with the ‘gods’ that live in nature. Yet as onlookers – as television viewers, travellers and readers of books – we are increasingly aware of the needs and the suffering of others, and not just of those from our own family or tribe; and that, I believe, is new. (See colour plate 1.)

If, therefore, we now manage to look forward and not back – but unlike Faust, avoid selling our soul to the devil on the way – and if we can gradually transcend our egotism, pay greater attention to our daemon and to our nobler and more idealistic instincts, we will perhaps not only one day ‘know the place for the first time’, but also give birth to something unique in the universe that maybe not even the gods possess. Both Steiner and Jung had this sense that the divine world, the hierarchies, depend on us human beings for their own further evolution. Jung goes so far as to suggest in Memories, Dreams, Reflections that ‘if the Creator were conscious of Himself, He would not need conscious creatures’. In the diaries of Teilhard de Chardin, written during the last ten years of his life, we read: ‘God is not dead – but HE CHANGES.’

In his book Christianity as Mystical Fact Rudolf Steiner uses a phrase ‘the spellbound God’. It is a humbling and awe-inspiring thought. God is not dead, but perhaps the next move is up to us. Hence the silence that Karen Armstrong identifies – ‘the silence that is necessary before God can become meaningful again’. Her thought, and that phrase from Steiner, give added meaning to those prophetic words in the Book of Revelation: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away …’. A new heaven, and not just a new earth, is the message that is so radical and profound; and herein lies my sense that the new heaven and the new earth may essentially be one.

But like all trials and quests, the journey will, I am sure, involve pain and sorrow, and will demand great courage and endurance. Nor do I think that the successful outcome is guaranteed. Parzifal was described as ‘a brave man, slowly wise’. How long have we got? I have heard our task described as ‘the redemption of the world’. Yet seemingly it is we who messed things up in the first place. Or was it? Is there something to the age old notion of a war in heaven? And are we somehow the battleground on which this war is being waged? Or, if we consider again those profound words: ‘As above, so below’, then perhaps we are not just the stage upon which this conflict unfolds, but rather each one of us lives out this battle between good and evil within ourselves.

Love in freedom is the goal; and what is central to that task is developing a maturity and sensitivity that prompts us to have compassion for everyone who suffers, as Parzival eventually felt for the wounded King Amfortas. It is a task in which we can only hope for the kind of help and inspiration that Gerard Manley Hopkins alludes to in his poem about the kingfisher:

… for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Where on Earth is Heaven? cover

All text and images © Jonathan Stedall