31 October 2007

Retreat 2007: Pluscarden Abbey

For my annual retreat this year, I went to Pluscarden Abbey in rural Morayshire a few miles inland from from Forres (and/or Elgin). I chose Pluscarden because I visited it briefly about fifteen years ago. Truth to tell, I couldn't remember much about the place beyond the fact that it seemed very peaceful.

It is certainly well hidden in the hills of Morayshire: a secret oasis of medieval monastic existence where the Benedictine monks still sing the hours.

I confess I didn’t make it to Vigils, Lauds or even Prime while I was there. The first three services of the day are all over by 7.00 a.m. (with Vigils starting at 4.45 a.m.). The daily conventual Mass (with Terce tacked on at the end) happens mid-morning. Sext is sung immediately before lunch with Nones in the early afternoon. Then Vespers is at 6.00 p.m. before supper. Compline at 8.00 p.m. completes the daily round of services.

It makes for a nice rhythm to the day: work/study punctuated by regular breaks for prayer. Apparently the monks grow a good deal of their own food. They also keep bees (I returned home with a pot of their honey). Relying on home-grown produce does tend to make the meals fairly simple. The diet at Pluscarden seems to be relatively meat free (more a matter of simplicity than vegetarianism). I can’t recall ever being offered porridge as a dessert anywhere else.

It is very much a male environment, with the guesthouse for women visitors being located just outside the entrance to the Abbey grounds. That segregation extends to meals, with male visitors to the Abbey being invited to eat lunch and supper with the monks in the refectory while the women cater for themselves in their guesthouse.

This year for my retreat I set myself the task of putting my thoughts on Church in some sort of order (with the help of Miroslav Volf’s study of ecclesiology). Volf sets out to develop a Free Church ecclesiology in dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. In the end, I found myself gravitating to a more episcopalian outlook than Volf would advocate. Having walked away from the Scottish Episcopal Church about a year ago, I have been trying (and failing) to make myself at home in the Church of Scotland. My real sticking point is the Eucharist, which as far as I am concerned is about the real presence of Christ in the congregation.

29 October 2007

Madrid highlights

I have recently returned from a very relaxing week in Madrid. The weather was wonderful – warm and sunny every day (once or twice reaching the upper twenties).

One of the main reasons for visiting Madrid must, of course, be the amazing accumulation of fine art in the city’s galleries. Of those galleries my favourite has to be the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: a complete history of Western art in a single gallery. Particularly striking among the early paintings was an almost surrealist portrayal of the risen Christ by Bramantino. It is an amazingly rich collection. My one reservation about it was that the strictly chronological layout left me with a sense of anti-climax; it created the impression that Western art had finally dissolved in the acids of high modernity. Or perhaps I was just suffering from an art overdose.

The Prado is compulsory viewing for anyone visiting Madrid. Lots of amazing paintings, but embedded in an even larger number of indifferent ones. Highlights included Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I hadn't realized that it was a triptych. Usually reproductions show the three panels separately. But taken together they become a morality tale beginning with Eden, depicting humankind's fall into sensuous pleasures in the central tableau, and culminating in his vision of hell. There were Goyas in profusion, including some of his most iconic works and some of his most horrific. Court painter and recorder of the darker recesses of the human imagination, Goya seems to use such different styles that he might have been two people. And is it my imagination or could Picasso have taken some inspiration from some of Goya's later works?

Of the big three, the one I enjoyed least was the Reina Sofia. I’m not a great fan of contemporary art and I hated the external glass lift, which seemed to be the only way in and out of the building, but the visit was worth just to see Picasso’s Guernica in the flesh.

Another gallery I enjoyed was the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (which was conveniently just round the corner from our hotel). The downside is that the layout is confusing and there is no detailed English guide. The gallery includes some excellent Goyas – including one of his madhouse paintings and his painting of the inquisition (placed side by side so the structural similarity of the two is unmistakable). But perhaps the most interesting was a sequence of little paintings of children playing.

Apart from the galleries we just wandered about, relaxing and absorbing the atmosphere. There was the compulsory visit to the Royal Palace (for me the highlights of that were the armoury and the reconstructed alchemist’s laboratory), plenty of parks (including one containing an entire Egyptian temple) and interesting shops. The food was generally good (though I didn’t get used to the Spanish habit of eating late in the evening) and I really enjoyed the Madrileno tradition of chocolat con churros. Last but not least, the holiday benefited from a really nice hotel (the Maria Elena Palace).

16 October 2007

Bizarre quote of the week

The Health Secretary Alan Johnson is reported to have said that obesity in the UK is a ‘potential crisis on the scale of climate change’. I imagine he used the analogy as a way of underlining how seriously the government takes the problem of obesity. However, given Labour’s rather dubious green credentials, it merely serves to underline their lack of seriousness about climate change.

Praise where praise is due

I am no great fan of the American goverment and its policies, so it is only fair to acknowledge when a branch of that government actually gets something right. In this case, a congressional committee has voted to recognize that the massacre of about a million Armenians by the Ottomans during the First World War was an act of genocide. Better late than never!

05 October 2007

Infinity Plus, R.I.P.

Infinity Plus was ten years old in August. Over the past decade it has become probably the best website devoted to science fiction and fantasy. There you can find hundreds of original short stories, extracts from novels, interviews with authors and thousands of book reviews (to which I have had the pleasure of contributing).

Sadly Keith Brooke has decided that the time has come to stop maintaining the site. Instead he will be spending more time on his own writing.

But the website will remain online. And Keith has signed off with a flourish: a 70,000-word update of the site and the publication of the Infinity Plus anthology by Solaris. (The anthology is a really good read. I should know: I copy-edited it.)