From Drab To Fab


 Catherine Cookson, author of more than one hundred books, described her mother, Kate, with characteristic frankness as "sick to the depths of her soul." Which someone might say is 'no way to talk about your mother!' - except that, by clearly seeing and naming her mother's dismal state - brought on by alcohol abuse - Catherine was sufficiently shocked into awareness to determine to live her life in an entirely different way. 

 Through her autobiography, Our Kate, which took twelve years to write, rewriting it four times along the way, Catherine faced down the demons in her life, the chief of which was her own mother. In her words: "The greatest disgrace in life was to have a ma who drank. It didn't matter so much if your da drank, most da's did, but to have a ma who drank made people talk about you."  

 Now, any of us may find ourselves in some situation that feels bleak and hopeless, as Catherine Cookson felt - living a drab existence of some kind. And yet, as hard as it may be to look at it - we have to see it for what it is. We must not cover it over with sugar and spice when there's something terrible going on!

 We have to see and understand clearly what's wrong - what the problems are - to then be able wisely to determine to do a better job, to make things right, as best we can. 

 We have to look and see - and look long, hard and unflinchingly at the drabness, to finally determine to break out into some other way - a better way, even a fabulous way!

 We have first to see that there is a problem - a fact acknowledged by every religious tradition worth its salt, that no progress is possible on the spiritual path until there is first a recognition that something is wrong, which may be that 'I am in the wrong groove. With the wrong people. Wasting time. Doing stupid things. Acting against myself in this way or that.'

 Another way beckons. Another possibility exists. And then comes the determination to pull oneself out of the drabness, the dullness and the limitations.

 A parallel is that in every AA meeting the alcoholic has first to acknowledge his condition - 'I am an alcoholic.' 

 In contrast to that kind of honesty, openness and humility is a worldly self-sufficiency that refuses to acknowledge that anything's wrong by a sort of 'I'm okay, you're okay' superficiality.

 The 'I'm okay, you're okay people' will predictably and perhaps scornfully say: 'What are you fussing and going on and on about? Why so critical?! Accept your fate. Have a drink. Take a pill. Get busy. Distract yourself. Find a way to forget about it!  

 But the starting point for any possible spiritual revolution always is the readiness to admit that 'Yes, something needs to change here' and 'I need help' or, let's put this positively: 'I have a dream of what life could be, and it's time I took steps to put it into action!' I've had enough of the drabness. I'm going to replace it with something fabulous!

 For Catherine Cookson, there was a steely determination to break out of what she called "the drabness of my early existence." (p. 492 Kindle book)

 And therefore to bolster her spirits she used to carry a poem around with her called Believe This.

 "The word impossible is black.

  I can is a flame of gold.

 No whining heart; eyes look not back;

 Be strong, Oh Will, and bold;

 You're winning though the journey's slow,

 You're gaining steadily each day.

 Oh Courage, what a warmth and flow

 You shed along the way!

 The word impossible is black.

 I can is like a flame of gold."

 Catherine Cookson is a huge inspiration in light of the fact that she had everything against her. She was born into poverty and lived with the devastating feeling that she was an illigitimate child, an experience especially trying in the early twentieth century. As she says: "I was illegitimate and it is only if you were in the early part of this century (the twentieth) that you can really understand what shame meant." She lived in as drab an existence as could be imagined, but sought to overcome it. 

 So instead of allowing her circumstances to take her down, she took what she could from them, including the influence of a grandfather who, though pathetic, was nevertheless, instrumental in altering the course of her life.

 About him she says: "He was a staunch Catholic, he was a fighting defender of the faith, for every Sunday of my young life when I went to mass and Sunday school I thought I was going to church to save me granda's soul." 

 "Every Sunday I prayed for his soul and that he die a happy death; and he did die a happy death, if you can go by externals. He passed away peacefully, Kate (her mother) attending him to the last and breaking her heart when he went, whereas no-one could have blamed her if she had celebrated with a brass band, for she'd had her bellyful of the fathar and no mistake." 

 But it was "this ignorant man who first told me I was a writer. He didn't exactly say I was a writer, not in so many words, what he actually said was, 'It's a stinking liar you are, Katie McMullen, a stinking liar."

 'I remember the day he said that to me. I was very small, and I can see myself running up the backyard and into the kitchen and going straight for him where he sat in his chair, crying, 'Granda! You know that little man you tell me about, the one that sits on the wall in Ireland no bigger than your hand, you know him? With the green jacket and the red trousers and the buckles on his shoes, and the high-hat and a shillelagh as big as himself, you remember, Granda?'

 'Aye, what about him?'

 'Well, I've seen him, Granda.'

 'Ya have?'

 'Aye, Granda. He was round the top corner.'

 'He was, was he? And I suppose he spoke to you?'

 'Aye, Granda, he did.'

 'And what did he say?'

 'Well, he said "Hello, Katie."

 'He said "Hello Katie", did he? And what did you say?'

 'I said "Hello Mister, me granda knows you."

 He wiped his 'tache with his hand while raising his white eyebrows, then he said, 'You know what you are, Katie McMullen, don't ya? You're a stinking liar. But go on, go on, don't stop, for begod, it will get you some place!… either into the clink or into the money.' 

 Catherine's grandfather had enough sense to recognize that an imagination like hers was a key that could open many a locked door! 

 Which of course, is what happened. Katie marched out of her drab existence into the life of a writer whose books have been a source of inspiration for so many people!

 Now, just as Catherine Cookson fought against the drabness of her early existence, so too did the inspired prophets of the Old Testament rail against the forms of drab spirituality that pervailed in their times. What's a drab spirituality according to an Old Testament prophet? "To a man," says Peter Watson, "the prophets were opposed to three things." These were, first of all - their opposition to empty, superficial, rituals of sacrifice, that is, to external religious performances made without the engagement of heart.

 Then as now, as the Orthodox prayer book makes plain - God has no desire for external sacrifices and burnt offerings that bear no relation to the condition of a man's heart. A real sacrifice is something that happens inside of us, when our hearts are receptive by being contrite and broken.  (Glory to God, The Coptic Orthodox Prayer Book

 The second component of the drab spirituality that the prophets railed against was idolatry. Now, the essence of idolatry is the effort to bring God near, which is to make Him smaller and more manageable, predictable and controllable. This is the sort of concept of God who is sickeningly portrayed as 'there to meet your every need' and who exists especially to cater to one's desire to be healthy, wealthy and successful. Such a concept of god is not hard to find these days. This is a cozy god, no longer mysterious, incomprehensible and transcendent, but there as your buddy - at your beck and call. 

 The third protest made by the prophets against a drab spirituality had to do with the priests who they felt were "going through the motions of formally honouring God" while ignoring Him in their everyday lives and actions.

 What's dull and drab therefore both then and now, is a form of spirituality that leans towards these three things - perfectly performed, but heartless, external rituals, idolatry (the near and manageable god) and hypocrisy.

 In the place of these three characteristics of a drab spirituality the prophets pointed to the interior spirit of religion. "The aim of the prophets was to turn Yahweh-spirituality away from idolatry (the idol in the ark), so that the faithful would reflect instead on their own behaviour, their feelings and failings - for their concentration to be upon the inner life." As Watson states: "The central-dominating role in Israelite prophecy was an insistence on the 'interior spirit' of religion." (Peter Watson, Ideas - A History From Fire To Freud, p. 179 of 1343)  

 In the thirteenth century, similarly, Meister Eckhart, in his efforts to inspire his listeners, shocked the sensibilities of the drab establishment of his day. He was loved by those under his spiritual care and hated by those who watched from afar. It was ever thus! 

 It has been explained that the conflict between Eckhart and the authorities was a 'missing of minds' and I think this says a lot. For how often do you hear of drab, dull, pedantic, uncreative and reactionary minds coming up against a mind on fire, like Eckhart's? In this, his experience was not unlike his Lord's who, throughout the pages of the New Testament was watched by spiritually drab officials who spent their time watching Jesus, hoping they would see him trip up in some way, as in this case: "And it chanced that he went into the house of one of the chief pharises to eat bread, on a saboth day: and they watched him." (Luke 14:1) 

 "It was the poetry (Eckhart's) they could not appreciate," explains Richard J. Woods, "the daring excesses of speech and flights of imagination by which the great scholar transcended the arid limitations of the learned disquisition and dispute, seeking to move his listeners by the art of preaching. For Eckhart was an artist and they were bureaucrats." (Richard J. Woods Eckhart's Way) Yes indeed - a missing of minds!

 One of the things Eckhart was chiefly on about was the conviction that we have to go beyond God to God, by which he meant that you've got to go beyond your limited concept of God to the mystery of God. You've got to make a break from idolatry into the mystery.

 Concepts are valuable and some are better than others. But the concept cannot be preferred in place of the mystery. Both concept and mystery have to be held in a creative tension. 

 A god too small (no mystery) inoculates us from the experience of the mystery of being. Such a deity blocks off transcendency. One's theology can be a pathology.

 What this boils down to is a choice to be on the journey from drab to fab as a way of life, which is a movement from drab, dull and barren to a creative, flourishing fabulousness. (Check out the video below which wonderfully makes the point)