Ever since my last post, I’ve had Meister Eckhart on my mind; he who was bound by the rules of his Catholic order and the state of 13th century European civilization, and yet cut through them cleanly, just escaping being tagged a heretic. He also cut through all the Popish & theological encumbrances of the time to reach a timeless essence, wherein lies freedom and an ecstatic way of being. Most of his writings are in the form of sermons, challenging but exciting. Then as now, you would have had to decide whether the price was worth paying for the great adventure that his words inspire. Not everyone could follow. Can I? It is probably easier today, for more people, to achieve the kind of detachment he advocates, to discover deep within ourselves that great connecting principle which unites the whole of creation, which he orthodoxly calls God. (I believe that the path and goal he delineates is identical to those pointed to by the god-free discipline known as Zen. For while there may be innumerable contradictory notions dreamed up by our fecund minds, when you approach the essence, you reach a dimensionless point where truth must surely be singular.)
I’m in no position to add further preaching to that of Meister Eckhart OP, that most eminent member of the Dominican Order of Preachers. But I carried him in my mind, through Downley and Naphill. In that web of footpaths it is easy to have no agenda—that’s my modern expression for “detachment”. No desire, no regret, no guilt, no indebtedness, no resentment, no fear. I am not pure in these matters, but the shortfall gives me no care or anxiety. It is enough to feel blessed and give thanks for one’s life, one’s work in progress.
I pass a parked not-very-modern tractor with attachments for digging and bulldozing, painted in brown livery and emblazoned “Downley Common Preservation Society”. I note the absence of licence plates, reflecting its domicile in these hallowed Commons, which lack public roads. In this spot, I’m surrounded by paddocks, orchards, the sound of cocks crowing, dilapidated sheds, aromas of horse-dung and creosote. I reach the end of this short drivable length of rough track, almost blocked by a small horsebox, parked with a wheel-lock, and continue on a narrower path through the woods.
I haven’t consciously renounced anything. Advancing age achieves that for you naturally. Knowing what to expect in the future, you embrace gladly that which still remains. I was given a few months’ work to do at home. After some research I worked out I could do it with the aid of Microsoft Visual Studio 2013. I visualized clearly how to proceed, saw the end result in my mind’s eye. But—as I ruefully wrote to my client—“I felt like a passenger trying to take over the controls in an airliner cockpit, after the sudden death of the pilot. One hopes to learn by repetition but I could never manage to retrace my own footsteps. The screen never looked the same twice. It must be a combination of age and never having had enough aptitude even when young.” Realizations like this are salutary and bracing, healthier for the soul than ambition.
As I proceed from Downley to Naphill, aromas from verdure warmed in the sun evoke memories of long summers between ’48 and ’54, boarding at a small prep school in rural Sussex. I was already then what I am now, drawn to reading, day-dreaming, aloof wanderings in the countryside. I rediscover that child. I accept being the result of that combination of nature and nurture, or whatever it is that shakes the dice on our behalf, deals out our particular hand from the deck of cards. You play with what you’re given. Now, what shall I do with the time I’ve saved by not taking on that project?
Visual Studio 2013 is a fine and versatile toolbox, but then so are the words and grammar of the English language, wherein each sentence can be a handcrafted original; each paragraph an intricate construction, potentially capable of conveying “What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest”. I am content to return to the same topics, year after year, till I’ve managed to say the thing I feel, and point to the thing which cannot be said. Dipping into Eckhart, I see how useful is the word “God”, so long as it’s trimmed of unworthy usages, dogmas and assertions we don’t actually know from experience. If there is to be religion, if it is not to be trampled by ignorance and extremism, let it at least remain a shelter and refuge wherein a person may stay safe, and find God, and others of like mind. Ditch the rest by all means, and I’ll be grateful, but not that.
I was just wondering whether Downley Common merges into Naphill Common, and if so where, when a display hove into view, with a map and accompanying text (click on the illustration at right for an enlargement):
Near this point Naphill and Downley Commons run into one another and both reward exploration. While much of Downley Common is still grassland with shrubs and heathland flowers, Naphill Common has an abundance of ancient trees, glades and ponds, the mysterious ‘Clumps’, a Romano-British farmstead and many historic banks and ditches interlaced by a network of footpaths and bridleways.
These Commons are ancient. Queen Elizabeth I crossed them in 1566 on her way to Hughenden. Drovers grazed and watered their stock on their way from the West to London. Pits show where clay has been dug for brick-making. There are 18th and 19th century sawpits. There are tank tracks from World War II.
In short, these Commons, like all of creation, are a palimpsest repeatedly inscribed by time. I pay homage to those who acknowledge and preserve these marks from the past, as a minor dissent from the tyranny of consumerism that makes modern life such a strenuous race, merely to stand still.
I came back in the early evening to take some photos, and found that the local youth were congregating there, boys and girls with bicycles and dogs. A small fire was lit, and the greenwoods rang with barking and merry laughter as in the mythical Sherwood Forest. To those who labour to preserve these commons, Robin of Loxley wasn’t so long ago, just a few centuries before Good Queen Bess.
The best moment for me that day is hard to describe: a moment when I didn’t know where I was. When you don’t take a map along, and there’s nowhere else you have to be, that is Utopia, the middle of nowhere. And it’s good enough. More than. Your presence turns “Nowhere” into somewhere, because you are truly “someone” when you are mainly occupied just being.
Eckhart puts it better, not because he uses the word God a great deal, but because he is a Meister, & I’m a beginner.