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.