The Burden of Being Heaven
Strange hymns on the road, a livestream tonight & how to get signed copies
Go wander, Dear Ones. May dialects diverge
Go and find a margin in the forgotten places of the earth
And listen to her poetry – her unmanaged words
And pray deep in rivers of finitude and circles of rebirth.
— ‘Home’, David Benjamin Blower
May God bless you with forests of wrath.
May God bless you with valleys of rage.
May God bless you with skies of grief.
May God bless you with patience.
I’ve been travelling on trains down through the North East: the wild Northumbrian coastline slipping by outside the window, a hazy sun emerging over Durham Cathedral. This is the landscape of my growing up. In my teens, I sang in churches and busked on street corners all over this corner of England.
There’s music in my ears now as I travel. Five days after the book came out and already there is an At Work in the Ruins playlist on Spotify, put together by the artist Lydia Catterall. It’s a beautifully curated stream of songs. Lydia had a head start, as she got an advance copy of the book ahead of the public conversation the two of us will be having tonight in Leeds. As she told me, the playlist is made up of ‘the music that took me through reading your book, or that’s come to me through having conversations with others about it.’
Listening to it reminds me of being a teenager in the 1990s, when a friend would make you a mix-tape that had tracks you’d sung together at the top of your lungs alongside bands you’d never heard before. There are plenty of the latter on Lydia’s playlist, which I’m hugely touched by. It truly is an evocation of the moods of the book.
Among the mix, two artists stood out to me in particular: the British apocalyptic folk poet David Benjamin Blower and the Swedish singer and fiddle player Sara Parkman, both of whom I’ve had the good luck to cross paths with over the years. Their tracks caught my attention as I listened on the train down from Edinburgh on Sunday, but it was only later in the evening that I was struck by what connects their music. Both of them are writing hymns – and that’s not a loose metaphor, but a literal description, as true of Sara’s majestic album Vesper as it is of David’s Hymns for Nomads and Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues.
Something is happening on this tour.
I wish I’d taken a picture from the stage at the Glasgow gig, when a crowd of a hundred packed the unheated space of the GalGael boatyard on a Saturday night in February. On stage in the first half, sitting alongside dear friends Alastair McIntosh, Caroline Ross and Dougie Strang, it felt as though we succeeded in opening up the spirit of a school called HOME and inviting everyone in. As Anna and I have always said, it’s a school that starts from the conversations that take place around our kitchen table. And though I feel the absence of Anna and Alfie keenly, after ten days away from home, at GalGael it felt as though we were able to invite the audience into the conversations that would be happening if the four of us were gathered in someone’s kitchen.
I remember going to see John Berger speak in London, fifteen years ago now. Here was a writer whose words had moved me to the edge of myself. One of the handful where I can truly say that I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t found their books. It was marvellous to see him in the flesh and to hear him answer people’s questions, yet I remember a sense of missed opportunity, because I was in a room with hundreds of others, many of whom must also have been moved to the edge by Berger’s words, and I wished there was a way to meet each other, rather than only sitting in our theatre seats, absorbing the words from the stage, then scattering into the night.
That’s why, a few years later, when I had the chance to create an event in London to mark the fortieth anniversary of Berger’s best-known works, what we put on was a week-long ‘free school’ where anyone who had been moved by his work could offer a session.And it’s why, at the end of the first half of Saturday’s event, I invited members of the audience to get talking to someone they hadn’t met yet, during the interval, as the GalGael volunteers served bowls of rice pudding and cups of tea.
In the second half, it was just Dougie and me on stage, taking questions. The event was filmed by the Centre for Human Ecology, so there will be a recording online soon.
What I remember is near the end, when I almost lost the thread of my response to a fascinating question about activism, death and hope, and then found myself speaking about a talk I’d watched a couple of weeks ago by the philosopher Mohamed Amer Meziane.
In the book, I suggest that climate change asks us questions that climate science cannot answer, the key question being, how did we find ourselves in this trouble? Is it the result of a piece of bad luck with the atmospheric chemistry? Or is it a consequence of a way of approaching the world – a way of seeing and treating everyone and everything – that would always have brought us to such a pass, even if the atmospheric chemistry had been less sensitive to our industrial emissions?
Meziane has a story to tell about the way of approaching the world that led to the trouble we are in. He speaks of ‘the secularocene’, the new metaphysical conditions which lie at the deep root of the climate crisis. In the process of ‘secularisation’ which shaped the modern world:
Heaven was not abolished, it was transferred to Earth – with the assumption that it was possible to achieve Heaven, absolute salvation, absolute freedom, on Earth. But the problem is that the Earth never asked to carry the burden of Heaven.
The Earth never asked to carry the burden of being Heaven, yet this is what the project of modernity amounted to. The Earth is groaning under the weight that modernity has put on it. And – here’s the thought that came to me, on stage at GalGael – if this is so, then the work that lies ahead will include finding other ways of bringing Heaven and Earth into relation.
Two books changed my life when I was twenty-five. Each of them felt as though it could have been addressed to me, a letter from the older, wiser friend I badly needed at that time in my life. One of them was Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul, the other was John Berger’s essay collection The Shape of a Pocket.
The second essay in that collection is called ‘Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible’. It opens with words that are unexpected, coming from one of the great Marxist intellectuals of the late twentieth century:
When I say the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our father who art in heaven...’ I imagine this heaven as invisible, unenterable but intimately close. There is nothing baroque about it, no swirling infinite space or stunning foreshortening. To find it – if one had the grace – it would only be necessary to lift up something as small and at hand as a pebble or a salt-cellar on the table.
I didn’t expect to be talking about heaven in the conversations that I’m finding myself in on this tour; it’s not a comfortable language to be speaking in. It doesn’t make for polite conversation and it is liable to unsettle some of my friends. So I find companionship in Berger’s unexpected words, and also in these wild hymns that wove their way into Lydia’s playlist.
Last night in Newcastle, I was in conversation with Martyn Hudson, who knew Berger. This time the trail led us elsewhere, into the threads within the book that tangle with modernity and its endings. The conversation felt more heady than it had in Glasgow.
Tonight in Leeds, we’re in an actual church – Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel – as guests of the minister, Jo James, who took part in one of the Homeward Bound series I taught during the pandemic. So who knows where this latest conversation will lead?
If you’re not able to make it along to one of these public conversations around the UK, then it’s possible to join tonight’s event from afar, as it will be live-streamed on YouTube:
Finally, I had a note from someone yesterday who couldn’t make it to any of the events, but wanted to get hold of some signed copies of the book. If anyone else would like to do this, get in touch in the next couple of days, as I have some copies that you can order directly from me.
Rage, open up a tear,
Help us to change something,
Then hand it on
To someone who can use it.
Sew up the tear again,
Heal the wound, give it tenderness.
Remember the power that rage gave you.
The anniversary was of the TV series of Ways of Seeing and the novel G. for which Berger won the Booker prize, famously splitting his prize money with the Black Panthers as a response to the source of Booker-McConnell’s wealth. Though they are still his best-known works, it is the books that Berger wrote later – A Seventh Man, the Into Their Labours trilogy, The White Bird, To the Wedding, Keeping a Rendezvous, The Shape of a Pocket, Here is Where We Meet and Hold Everything Dear – that made me who I am. The fortieth-anniversary event I co-organised in 2012 was Redrawing the Maps at Kings’ Cultural Institute.
I’m almost finished reading your book, can hardly leave it down. It feels a relief to find your way of articulating the current world situation. I didn’t know I was waiting for this book, but it seems I was. I know I will need to reread it.
...." other ways to bring Heaven and Earth into relation". I was very struck by what Meziane, at the Black Elephant lecture, had to say about what he called the "secularocene". Does it not seem to chime with what David Cayley tells us about Illich's narrative of the Great Inversion "Corruptio optimi quae est pessima". Also, as suggested this evening at Mill Hill Chapel, perhaps midwifery among the ruins is another form the work may take, in addition to hospicing. Stephen Faller's 2015 book The Art of Spiritual Midwifery: Dialogues and Dialectic in the Classical Tradition comes to mind. (Btw, It was Raimon Pannikar, who was the brilliant Spanish Hindu priest, and collaborator with Illich at the "Real" Earth Summit in Orford, Quebec,1992.)