Sunday, 27 December 2009

To go down into the depths you don't need to travel far; you can do it in your own back garden . . . (or above Tintern Abbey)

On Christmas day, with the help of a note made by Wittgenstein in 1947 in which he observed: "How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life", we reflected on how the journey of the Magi and that of a modern astronomer seem to share a common shape, figure and form summed up in the German loan word 'Gestalt'. I concluded by noting - if you generally agreed with me that is - that:

'The encounter with the Christ-child or the new scientific paradigm is not where the human journey stops - they are both simply the beginning of a new kind of looking - a new attitude to reality. [. . .] after greeting the Christ-child or the new scientific paradigm we are in a new country and, although it is tempting for a time to think that there will be 'nothing outside it' it, too, will eventually 'reveal' to us its limitations and 'narrow border regions'. One day another unknown star will rise above its skies, a small thought will enter someone's mind, and another journey of discovery and measurement will begin.

To be faithful to the Christmas story and science is simply to keep looking for the new star and to be prepared to follow it *wherever* it leads, despite the profound challenges it will always bring to old ways of being and thinking.'

I think this call to keep looking for better and more nuanced understandings of reality is vital but it can, when misunderstood, present to some people a dark side. Why? Well, if the *meaning* of our lives were to depend wholly upon the truth of our present knowledge of the world then the recognition that some new star will always be rising to encourage us into new ways of thinking and being shows us, rather disturbingly, that what we know *now* will almost certainly be shown to be wrong in significant ways and, so utterly inadequate to the task. This small thought can easily turn into a fear of living fully even under the sky we know at present because a person can become acutely aware that some wretched new phenomenon will appear in it and will change the human view of everything again! Our present "sky" (no matter how beautiful) comes to be seen, therefore, to be wrong or, better, utterly misunderstood by us.

But the truth of the matter is that the *meaning* of any human life has never been found only in the knowledge or ignorance of the facts of the world no matter how useful and interesting those facts may be. That this is so can be seen in that it was clearly possible for people to lead meaningful lives before Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Mohammed, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Descartes, Spinoza, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo and before Gassendi, Boyle, Newton and Einstein.

It seems to me that it should be of considerable comfort to us to know that we do not need to know the latest theories about the nature of the world to lead meaningful - and therefore what we would call good - lives.

That is not to say, of course, that we should hide our heads in the sand about new scientific knowledge; to do that would be the modern equivalent of wilfully refusing to follow the star of Bethlehem, but it is to say we have to do something more.

On the same day in 1947 that Wittgenstein jotted down the note that lay in the background of my Christmas Day address he wrote a second which roots today's: "To go down into the depths you don't need to travel far; you can do it in your own back garden" (CV p. 57e).

The initial something more we need to do is to meditate upon the world and our knowledge of the world and see what sort of response it brings forth from us and that can alway be done right where we are, whether in our back gardens or, as in the address which follows, above Tintern Abbey.

I first offered this to you last year on Christmas Day but it seems worth a re-visit.

Happy Christmas and New Year to you all.


For those of us who have become profoundly sceptical about the historicity and ultimate worth of the Christmas stories one of the simplest ways to enter fully and creatively into the spirit of the day is to remember that they (and indeed most religious stories) were not written to tell us anything factual about the world. It really is important to realise this and to understand that they are, in no way, pseudo-scientific in their aims. Instead they were written because their authors had experienced 'certain conditions in which their minds were set in motion' (Michael McGhee: Transformations of the Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice CUP 2000, p. 124) which, to quote William James from his 'Varieties of Religious Experience', allowed 'something [to] well up in the inner reaches of their consciousness' (William James quoted by McGhee p. 17). The authors then tried to communicate this whole experience to us through means of 'aesthetic ideas and images'; in other words they 'gave us an approximation of this experience and, in so doing, gave it the semblance of objective reality' (McGhee p. 119).

The trouble is that it is has always been so easy to lose the sense of semblance and to allow one's thinking and pondering about these aesthetic ideas and images to degenerate into a form of naive theological realism. A necessary element of our spiritual practice must be, then, to renew and cultivate our 'sense of semblance' by trying to recover, through quiet reflection and meditation, something of the conditions in which the minds of stories' writers were set 'in motion towards the idea of a corresponding inner state' (McGhee p.126). I'm aware that this might sound a little obscure so, very briefly, I'll turn to a well known poetic example from the beginning of Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey':

. . . once again
do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
that on a wild secluded scene impress
thoughts of a more deep seclusion.

Michael McGhee insightfully observes that the point:

. . . is not that the steep and lofty cliffs should stimulate the idea of a more deep seclusion than the greatest that can be imagined' but that 'the scenery speaks for, is correspondent with, the possibility of a state of mind and it is that which, if it achieves reality, becomes the object of further comparison . . . It beckons towards deeper experience which in turn resonates with the words: indeed we discover the source of the resonance that beckoned' (p. 126 - his emphasis)

We may use McGhee's train of thought in a similar way in relation to the Christmas story. What presents itself to us and what the authors hope will set our minds in motion are, not secluded 'steep and lofty cliffs', but a new-born child. What stimulates them is not a deeper seclusion than that which they have hitherto known or imagined but a deeper and infinitely larger life present before them in the life of a human being.

The question that always remains, for the reader of Wordsworth's poem as much as for the reader of the Christmas stories, is whether or not the words continue to resonate in similar fashion with us, remain capable of setting our minds in motion and stimulating such an idea and which, in turn, can help us in some way move towards an ever deeper experience of the source of that resonance?

Now I simply cannot answer this question for you - just as I cannot answer the question of whether the steep and lofty cliffs around Tintern Abbey will do as Wordsworth hoped.

But, because both my personal experience and that of the Christian tradition as a whole (that is when and wherever it has not descended into a naive theological literalism) continues to find it helpful to the deepening and fulfilling of human life, what I can do is encourage you of the value of attending to these stories meditatively simply seeing what possible, but previously unimaginable, enlarged states of mind come into view. In our reading from Luke 2 we heard that, after all her experiences surrounding the birth of her son Jesus, Mary simply keeps them all and ponders them in her heart (Lu 2:19). I think Mary's response is key and if we wish to enter the story appropriately we need to understand that we, too, must simply keep these things and and ponder them ourselves.

What this will mean for you will only be answerable to the extent that you allow your own mind to resonate with it as you seek - not any formal institutional religious answers - but the very source of that resonance itself which is nothing less than the deepest experience of life any of us can hope to achieve.

Friday, 25 December 2009

How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life! - On Magi and modern astronomers

(Note - in my mind as I wrote this address was the new European Space Agency's Herschel Telescope which has been revealing some amazing new things . . .) The "swirling patterns of gas in the image at the top of this blog came as a complete surprise to astronomers. They are located thousands of light years away from Earth in the constellation Crux, the Southern Cross. Crux is such a prominent constellation in the southern sky that it features on the flags of seven countries, including Australia and New Zealand."

Readings: Matthew 2: 1-12 and from Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein:

How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!

Just as someone may travel around the same little country throughout his whole life, and think there is nothing outside it! 
You see everything in a queer perspective (or projection): the country that you ceaselessly keep covering strikes you as enormously big: the surrounding countries seem to you like narrow border regions.

(CV p. 57e - written on 2.9.1946)


In 1946 Wittgenstein made two short entries in a notebook. The second of these we'll explore on Sunday but today I'll very briefly look at the first. He began by noting 'How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!' and we'll take one example relevant to today's celebration, the Magi - the astrologer priests of the Christmas story.

One day a new star appeared in the sky and the divinely ordered and, therefore, predictable movements of the stars and planets - a certain interpretation of which lay at the centre of an astrologer's life - were suddenly disrupted. I imagine that most of use here today would respond to such an event with a small thought in the form of a question along the lines of 'WHAT is it that is there'? The Magi, believing in a divine, rather than natural ordering of the world, would almost certainly have asked 'WHY is it that it is there?' Although these are very different thoughts and questions today I wish simply to point briefly to two things. One, that despite the difference between these questions a surprising connection between them can be seen and, two, how both of these small thoughts expand to fill a whole life.

As Matthew tells it the astrologer's small thought expanded to become a motive to begin a journey out of their own familiar country and into 'narrow border regions' - strange and unknown lands - and thence onto the encounter with the Christ-child and to the beginnings of, what for them, became a new conception of in what consisted reality. For them a certain new kind of light had come into the world.

Now you might think that a modern astronomer's small thought would take them on a wholly different journey but is that entirely true? What does seem to be true, of course, is that the appearance of a new star (any new celestial phenomenon in fact) would not be read as literally a sign from God directing them to a certain place and time in the physical landscape. But even though this is the case I think it is possible to see that the Magis' and a modern astronomer's journey share a certain shape, figure and form which is summed up in the German loan word 'Gestalt'.

Here's what I mean. The appearance (or discovery) of a new astronomical phenomenon in the sky makes the astronomer have a small thought 'WHAT is it that is there'? This has, many times, expanded to become a motive to begin a journey out of their current patterns of thinking, that is to say out of their present paradigm (which we may take to be a kind of familiar "country") and thence into vague 'narrow border regions' which, in relationship to their previous understanding of the world, can look appear as a very strange and unknown land. Assuming that this "journey" forces them to develop ("arrive") at some new theory about the new phenomenon (the new theory being a kind of naturalistic "Christ-child") then they, too, can be said to have developed a new conception of in what consists reality. This new knowledge is for them, as it was for the Magi,  also a certain new kind of light which has "come" into the world.

Both the Magis' small thought and that of the modern astronomer have filled many lives - entire cultures in fact. Maybe I'm wrong but it does seems to me that there is a shared Gestalt here - a shared shape, figure and form - and that may be worth a small thought today.

What is particularly striking to me is that both the astrologer and the astronomer respond to something NOT of their own making and that they seek, to the best of their abilities given the limits of their own time and culture, to let the star speak its *own* truth to us. It was and is not sufficient for either the Magi or the astronomer merely to conjour up an easy answer that suited their present way of thinking or prejudices but to be prepared to let their small thought take them way, way beyond the comfortable confines of their present country and knowledge to a new and fuller conception of in what reality consists. They were both attempting to measure themselves against something far greater and secure than their own opinions - that is to say, to measure themselves against God or Nature.

Herod - you remember the bad guy of the Christmas story - is symbolic of someone who most certainly doesn't want to be measured by anything other than their own power and opinion because their power is vested in the unchallenged status quo. Why would he want to upset the apple cart? Little has changed and just as Herod later tried to kill the Christ-child there are some today who would like to kill new scientific insights - esepcially those that challenge many religious staus quos. Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose.

Anyway, this morning, it seems to me that the shape, figure and form of the Christmas journey of the Magi, even though it has for many in our culture become a potent symbol of something reactionary - an unchanging point in a changing world - when considered as I have done it is a story which points in precisely the opposite direction. It is an encouragement always to be open to new and more nuanced, enlarged conceptions of both ourselves and the natural world and, therefore, it is a story encouraging a radically open-ended and open-hearted way of being in the world.

The encounter with the Christ-child or the new scientific paradigm is not where the human journey stops - they are both simply the beginning of a new kind of looking - a new attitude to reality. To return to Wittgenstein's note, after greeting the Christ-child or the new scientific paradigm we are in a new country and, although it is tempting for a time to think that there will be 'nothing outside it' it, too, will eventually 'reveal' to us its limitations and 'narrow border regions'. One day another unknown  star will rise above its skies, a small thought will enter someone's mind, and another journey of discovery and measurement will begin.

To be faithful to the Christmas story and science is simply to keep looking for the new star and to be prepared to follow it *wherever* it leads, despite the profound challenges it will always bring to old ways of being and thinking. And that which vouchsafes the constant appearance of such stars and against which we measure oursleves (which some people call God, others Nature, and still others with a Spinozistic frame of mind call Deus-sive-Nature) it is that which brings us here today in celebration to give thanks for the astonishing gift of Life itself symbolised for us in the joyous birth of Christ, born THIS happy morn.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

"Follow the child. And if you look you'll find the child" - an Advent meditation on the Gospel of Mary

Whatever else Advent is about it surely concerns humanity's search for Divinity dwelling in the world. To use one of my favourite thoughts - it is about discovering the commingling of God and Nature - symbolised for us in the vulnerable Christ-child.

Depending on the basic attitude of any given church the commingling will be understood to range from the minimal (divinity dwelling only in Jesus) to a maximal pantheism or panentheism (divinity being encountered in - or as - every aspect of Nature). Naturally the  Unitarian church tradition to which I belong leans decidedly towards the latter end of this spectrum. But, as I noted earlier this season if God is already and always here the thought that God comes to us is problematic - such a present, immanent God doesn't go or come anywhere. Given this I suggested that Advent might better be understood as being more about us doing the 'coming', about ways we might seek the Divine amongst or within us and thereby to experience a certain kind of revelation - a revelation that does 'feel' like God has come to us.

Today's address looks at a second-century Christian text concerned with the idea of Divinity dwelling amongst us but, before I get to it, it is worth noting why I was thinking about this during the week. It has nothing to do with the season and everything to do with the very contingent fact that Susanna (my wife) went away to visit her mum and I took the opportunity to watch a couple of films I knew she would have absolutely no interest in - The Comancheros (a 1961 western starring John Wayne) and the Da Vinci Code based on Dan Brown's best-selling novel. You'll be pleased (possibly) that I am going to refer to the Da Vinci Code and not The Comancheros . . .

For those of you who know nothing about the story of the Da Vinci Code here is Wikipedia's two sentence summary:

"The Da Vinci Code is a 2003 mystery-detective fiction novel written by American author Dan Brown. It follows symbologist Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu as they investigate a murder in Paris's Louvre Museum and discovers a battle between the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei over the possibility of Jesus Christ of Nazareth having been married to and fathering a child with Mary Magdalene."

One might say many uncomplimentary things about the book and film (I have and still could) but the immediate reason for finally taking a look at the film - I tried to read the book again but found it harder to digest than Spinoza - is that since it was published and the film was made I have had a number of people say to me that, putting aside the many ludicrous elements of the plot, the book and film enabled them radically to rethink their relationship with the Christian tradition and also, therefore, the person of Jesus.

At the heart of the reflections I have been told about is the general thought - often made publicly available to them for the first time - that Jesus was a MAN born naturally of a woman who also led a thoroughly human life which included a profound friendship and possible sexual relationship with a woman - Mary Magdalene. The key thing I want you to note with regard to Dan Brown is the fact that his novel and film (for all their many faults) made the idea of Jesus' humanity PUBLICLY AVAILABLE to many people for the first time - and that thought was exciting.

As a Unitarian church (a church which, at considerable cost, has proclaimed the humanity of Christ for some four-and-a-half centuries) I think that we sometimes underestimate this great and powerful gift we have inherited from our forebears and the film showed, if nothing else, that there remains a deep inherited interest in Jesus of Nazareth that we could be more alert to.

Additionally the film and book awakened popular interest in the plethora of early Christian texts which for complicated contingent reasons didn't make it into what came to be called New Testament - a text whose modern form dates from only around 367CE. Jackie looked at one of those texts (the Didache) and the lessons we might learn from it a few weeks ago.

Although this interest in the so-called 'apocryphal' texts has had many healthy outplayings one unhealthy side-effect is that rather too many people naively thought that the Truth (capital 'T' truth) of Christianity would be found in them - a Truth which many felt the early Catholic church, the church of the Roman Empire, tried to suppress in the creation of an authorized New Testament. But the reality is, thankfully, somewhat more prosaic. What we have discovered through good historical scholarship is simply that Christianity was never one thing - rather it was always several, always radically plural. There never was Christianity, there were only Christianities. That is the truth (lower case 't') of the matter.

It is important to realise that one will not, in any absolute sense, find any more truth in an apocryphal, excluded text than in a canonical, included text. All we can say is that the discoveries of these early Christian texts have brought before us a wider spectrum of early Christian ideas and truth claims than we once knew about and, almost inevitably, some of the rediscovered ideas have resonated strongly with us as twenty-first century humans. The sizeable emotional hit we get when we encounter such resonant and once lost (mislaid) ideas is in great part simply due to the fact that for centuries we have been told Christianity only said X and never Y, and now we can see clearly that there were Christianities which did said Y.

Anyway, as the credits of the Da Vinci Code film rolled, I made a cup of tea and pulled off my shelves the translation I have of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene made by Willis Barnstone. (An online version of a different translation can be found here.) I remember liking this second-century text the first time I read it because it contained themes very congenial to my own philosophical position but reading it in Advent, and with the idea of the commingling of God and Nature very much in my mind, I found two passages that seem worthy of reflection during Advent - I share them with you here.

At the beginning of the extant text (probably about half-way through the original document) Jesus says the following words:

'Each nature and shaped thing and every creature
Lives in and with each other, and will dissolve 
Into distinctive roots, but the nature of matter
Will dissolve into the root of nature.
Whoever has ears to hear should hear.'

Well, we all have ears to hear and, even though we will hear slightly different things to each other and almost certainly different things to a second-century hearer of the Gospel, surely this text is encouraging us all to think about the idea that all things commingle and somehow subsist in the 'root of nature.'

In a week during which world leaders are contemplating humankind's fraught relationship with Nature in Copenhagen this thought surely has additional resonance.

The second passage I wish to draw your attention to occurs shortly after the first. Before he leaves the disciples - Jesus says to them:

'Peace be with you, receive my peace. Take care that no one sends you lost into the wrong, saying, "Look over here," or "Look over there." The human child [Son of Man] exists in you. Follow the child. And if you look you'll find the child. Go out and preach the good news about the kingdom. Don't seek any rules other than what I give you. Establish no law as lawgivers have done, or by those laws each one of you will end up bound.'

Again we seem to be pointed to a Divine presence in the midst of things. The kingdom is within and amongst us like a child. Jesus seems to be encouraging us simply to preach - that is to say live in - this present kingdom and not to go on to make complicated rules about it. This request I take to mean that we should avoid engaging in any kind of dogmatic theology. What we seem to be being shown here is a way of being in the world and not a theory about the world. As you know this is a theme I return to regularly.

The wonderful promise Jesus is making is that if we look we will find the child - what could be a more appropriate Advent theme than this?


In a way I should, perhaps, end here but the briefest of appendices is in order because to stop here would be to ignore the profound context in which the suggestive words of Jesus you have heard are offered to us. Remember they are found in a Gospel ascribed to a woman; but not just any woman rather one whom, in the words of Levi (one of Jesus' disciples), 'the saviour made worthy'. Startling to ears attuned only to the canonical New Testament, Levi goes on to say that 'the saviour knows her well. That is why he has loved her more than we are loved.'

We are, I fervently hope, at the tail end of the male dominance of Christianity and in this early Christian text we catch an uplifting glimpse that this dominance was not always the case. In this text we see that in certain communities women held valuable and honoured places and here in this Gospel we encounter Mary not simply as a disciple but as *the* 'beloved disciple.'

It may be incomplete and fragmentary but her Gospel bears contemplation and I recommend it to you - especially this Advent: 'Follow the child. And if you look you'll find the child.'

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Intuition of the Universe

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. 

Luke 2:8-19


There are many surprising and extraordinary aspects of pictures but the one I want to point you towards today is that the element of choice present when you encounter, say, a book, where you have to choose to open and read it is, in the case of a picture, wholly bypassed. (Something of this could also be said about music of course . . .)  Something of the image is in your head before you know it and can do anything about it. True, you may choose to cover your eyes if what you are experiencing is felt by you to be disturbing but you can only make that choice after the fact; you are by then cutting out a sight you are currently experiencing. Likewise, if one experiences a positive response to the picture then this, too, is felt without choice.

In a moment I'm going to relate this thought to our Advent journey via Geertgen tot Sint Jans' painting of c. 1490 called 'Nativity at Night'

But, first, holding this particular kind of lack of choice in mind, we can make a few reflections on the general nature of faith. Tolstoy thought that true faith was not something concerned with factual beliefs which related to what some person thinks are empirical or quasi-empirical states of affairs but, instead, faith is something that springs quite naturally from that person's particular 'position in the world'. In his essay 'What is Religion, Of What Does its Essence Consist?' Tolstoy says:

A person acts according to his faith, not as the catechism says because he believes in things unseen, nor because he works to achieve things hoped for, but simply because having defined his position in the world, it is natural for him to act according to it (p. 97).

What Tolstoy means by a person 'having defined his position in the world' is the state of affairs which is the totality of a person's upbringing, cultural context, education and natural inclination. That may be a changing thing but one can only ever encounter the world from that totality. Remember we don't choose most of the things that make up this totality but without them we would not be enabled to reflect upon the world and make any meaningful choices at all.

As far as each individual is concerned this 'position in the world' is the only 'place' in the world and all that they see and feel about the world naturally flows from it.

All these contingent aspects which make us what we are and enable us to act in the first place form the 'thing' Tolstoy calls 'faith'. Without this unchosen givenness we all experience even the empirically based natural sciences could not have developed. As Tolstoy notes:

"Neither philosophy nor science is able to establish man's relationship to the universe, because this relationship must be established before any kind of philosophy or science can begin" (p. 39).

The point I am trying to make very present to us is that this basic FACT of existence - our only relationship with the universe - is what Tolstoy (and also Wittgenstein who echoes Tolstoy in this) thinks should be called 'faith.'

Now what might all this have to do with our reading about Mary and Geertgen's painting of the Nativity at Night?

Well, if we look at Mary's response to the things she experienced (and it matters not whether they were actually the self-same things mentioned by Luke) it was to 'ponder them'. Although it is clear that Luke in his Gospel is busy making many theological points - ones with which we may agree or not - Mary does not do this. Rather she is reported simply as looking at all these things and pondering. Despite Luke's, and later instituionalised Christianity's, best efforts to the contrary, he captures for us a moment of pre-reflexive faith or religion.

As the well-spring of liberal Protestant thought, Friedrich Schleiermacher, put it in his On Religion - Speeches to its cultured despisers:

[Religion] does not wish to determine and explain that the universe according to its nature as does metaphysics; it does not design to continue the universe’s development and affect it by the power of freedom and the divine free choice of a human being as does morals. Religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling. It wishes to intuit the universe, wishes devoutly to overhear the universe’s own manifestation and actions, longs to be grasped and filled by the universe’s own manifestation and actions, longs to be grasped and filled by the universe’s immediate influences in childlike passivity (p. 22).

Later he memorably states that:

. . . intuition of the universe . . . is the highest and most universal formula of religion on the basis of which you should be able to find every place in religion, from which you may determine its essence and its limits (p. 24).

Geertgen's genius is to put this moment of pre-reflexive intuition in Mary's life before us in such a way that we, too, are invited to engage in a similar activity.

We are not, and this is important to realise, being invited by Geertgen to look at his painting and to ponder *that* as an object d'art. Nor are we being invited to accept any of the dogmas of the late-medieval Catholic church. NO! Geertgen is inviting us to visit the Christ-child ourselves. Notice that in the foreground of the picture there is only black space - there are no characters present. He did this, of course, quite deliberately in order to make a place for each of us by the crib.

Such a meditation of the nativity is NOT to engage in theology, philosophy or science but only to be brought to a keen awareness of the necessary pre-reflexive primary encounter with the world that constitutes Being itself and upon which, for us, everything else 'stands'. The contents of the painting which, when said by Luke (and Matthew) become theological, are shown by Geertgen and we are enabled to see 'behind', as it were, the later theology to a basic fact of human existence - that in such pre-reflexive encounters with the world our relationship to the universe is established.

My job as a minister of religion at this season is, like Geertgen, simply to encourage you to the edge of the crib and to get you to start in the right place - that is to say at the beginning before there was theology, philosophy and science and on the basis of this encounter begin to ponder and wonder yourself upon all these things as Mary did; but I hope it is clear that 'standing by the cribside' stands here as a metaphor for being prepared to stand where you are and genuinely open yourself to Nature herself so as to 'overhear the universe’s own manifestation and actions.'