Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The highest calling available to a human being

When I returned to Cape Town from the country after going through a divorce, a friend of my ex-wife introduced me to the Emissaries of Divine Light. I attended Sunday morning services at which there were no prayers or hymns, only spontaneous expressions of personal truth by the leader of the group and anyone else in it who felt moved to speak. At one of these meetings I picked up a little booklet called Seven Steps to the Temple of Light written in 1936 by Lloyd Arthur Meeker. Among many other spiritual readings, this little book inspired and guided me for 20 years in the city before returning to the country, and my ex-wife, as it still does. As a newspaper sub-editor, the frequent use of capitalisation in the text worried me, but never enough to detract from the basic message that within us is the Wonderful One, which is the same thing as the Holy Spirit, the Higher Self or the Soul. The joy of the freedom I felt reading those words during sometimes difficult circumstances has never left me.

Below are powerful words which also come from the Emissaries:

At the core of each of us there is a being of almost inconceivable majesty and light. This is the reality of who we are. Most of us, however, show only short glimpses of that reality to our world. Many people harbour a deep sense of doubt and an underlying discontent about the direction of their lives. Those feelings can persist through any pleasure and success that may be enjoyed.

Is it possible for the reality of who we truly are to emerge in the world? Is there a way to use every relationship, every job—in fact, everything we do—as a means to let our inner being become more real to us and to those around us? Many would consider this possibility fantastic. Our culture and upbringing try to convince us that we are anything but radiant beings of light. Prevailing thought suggests that the future depends on technology, and that faster, bigger and stronger makes for progress. Meanwhile, what is most precious—the experience of what it means to be all that we truly are—is largely forgotten. People find themselves out of touch with their own power to move past the bonds of culture and hereditary influence.

For each of us, the future depends on how we respond to this essential question: In what do we have the most faith? The potential we have touched to express our highest and finest in every facet of life, or our attachment to factors based in culture and upbringing that hold us back from that? In the end, it won’t matter so much for us what our friends’ answers may be, or what answer is given by the political or spiritual leaders of the day.
Our own answer will be what brings either fulfilment or futility. And while our response in words may be important, our thoughts and feelings in every moment of our living are the ultimate answer that will set the course for our future.

All of the world’s great religions and spiritual teachings point to the potential for the transcendent reality of being to come forth in oneself. The actual experience of this—beyond belief or religious tradition—is the highest calling available to a human being. Our world’s greatest need is the spiritual leadership of people who answer this call.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beyond the Flames courtroom drama

Hit and run: The Camdeboo region of the Great Karoo where
Boer guerrillas hid from British columns during the Anglo Boer War.
Below is an extract from the courtroom drama in my screenplay Beyond the Flames, loosely based on actual Boer War history (see picture below). It is on option with a producer in New York.


Anton sits at the front of the table as Simon addresses the court.


Your Honor, Mr. Potgieter was born in the Cape Colony before his family moved to the Orange Free State, where he became a citizen. He has worked as a journalist in Johannesburg and was employed at the Cape Town Chronicle at the time hostilities began. He was sent to the Free State to cover the rebellion there. He met and interviewed De Waal and then joined a British column to see the war from the British side, as a disciplined, professional journalist wanting to give the public a balanced view of events. We have brought his hearing forward in order that his suitability as a state witness in the case against Hermanus de Waal may be tested by the court. I submit that his evidence will be pivotal to the case.


Mr Watson?


I have no objection, sir, if it advances the case against the accused, but the evidence led by my learned colleague should be watertight. All we have at this stage are the assertions of a man found under arms with De Waal, for all intents and purposes just another rebel who is now trying to get himself off the hook.


Very well Your Honor, I would like to call Mr. Fred Hutchings, editor of the Cape Town Chronicle.

Hutchings is shown into the court and Anton stares at him, completely astonished. Hutchings looks around the room and catches Anton's eye. He takes the oath.


Mr Hutchings, is the man at the table your war correspondent sent to the Orange Free State?


He is.


How long was he in your employ?


He was transferred from a sister newspaper in Johannesburg at about the time of the outbreak of the war.


As his editor, how did you find him?


I found him independent-minded and capable, but I didn't like what I considered his pro-Boer sentiments and I didn't trust him. However, when the publisher decided he should go to the Free State, there was nothing I could do about it.


Mr. Simon, is this testimony for or against the prisoner?


Apologies, Your Honour, we are getting to the point... Mr. Hutchings, were his dispatches from the front credible?


Oh yes, they made good reading and sold many newspapers, especially the one alleging the imminent invasion of the Colony.


(Aside) Which turned out to be accurate. Mr. Hutchings, are you aware that Potgieter's brother was in the same unit?


Yes, I am.


Do you think that had anything to do with his actions?


I doubt it. Potgieter was never influenced by other people's opinions, I venture even his brother's.


So, sir, you confirm that Potgieter was an excellent journalist, but that you continued to harbor distrust of him?




So why are you here?


His fiancée came to see me to plead for my support. At first I dismissed the idea with contempt, but then, with some consideration, I realized I had been mistaken - that this was a young man of great courage who was able to see both sides and put his principles before politics and prejudice, and was, after all, probably the type of person we will badly need in a newly unified South Africa when the war ends and Boer and Brit will have to work together. (Pause) Take his evidence seriously, he will tell you the truth.

Hutchings and Anton stare at one another.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A touch of Karoo, a taste of olives

Magnificent: The Swartberg Pass.
Finding oneself at 1500m above sea level in swirling mist, in a small car on a slippery, narrow gravel road with a sheer drop into the rocky unknown on the passenger side is not easy on the stomach, even after a hearty Oudtshoorn ostrich burger for lunch. I had driven over the historical Swartberg Pass before in good weather, but this was a little different.

In spite of our slow speed, before too long we passed Die Top, the crest of the pass, and were on our way down through the clouds to late afternoon sun-drenched sheer mountainsides of bright reds and oranges, greens and greys. The danger now past – and my partner Estelle’s grip on the ejector seat lever released - we pulled over to admire the stunning vista, allowing a few 4x4s with smiling, waving drivers to go past before making the final descent into the Great Karoo and Prince Albert.

The Swartberg Pass, a National Monument, with its steep zigzags and sudden switchbacks, is another masterpiece by Thomas Charles John Bain, the road engineer who built no fewer than 24 mountain roads and passes in South Africa during the 1800s. Begun in 1887, this one took six years to build with convict labour and is supported in many places by substantial hand-packed stone walls. No wonder the mortality rate among the workers was high.

Charming is too trite a word to describe the town of Prince Albert, named after Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort, Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg and Gotha. Unlike other such villages, it has not become overly commercialised or overtly fashionable. It’s too small and thoroughly historical for that. The supermarket is basic and the guesthouses, shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants are almost all too unusual to categorise.

Among the informal eateries, for example, are Café Albert, The Lazy Lizzard, La-di-Da farm stall, the Prince Albert Country Store and the Gallery Café, as well as the well-known Karoo Kombuis and the heartwarmingly old-fashioned Swartberg Hotel, where we enjoyed a tasty, well-presented lunch on the patio.

The town represents everything I find attractive about the Karoo, especially in spring when everything is fresh and green and blooming. The constant supply from the mountain gives residents apparently inexhaustible water via the leiwater system of streetside furrows which provide individual properties with a flowing, glittering stream of life for their plants in the rich soil.

Tranquil: Olive House on the outskirts of Prince Albert.
 What makes Prince Albert remarkable is its high content of beautifully preserved architecture - Cape Dutch, Victorian, Cape Cottage and Karoo buildings, 13 of them listed National Monuments. There is a set route one can follow to take in the beauty and historical interest of the built town, as well as other walks into the country.

Estelle and I were lucky enough find the perfect place to stay in order to get the full impact of this quaint semi-rural environment which is loaded with history: a 150-year-old cottage called Olive House, on the edge of the town. It belongs to resident Elaine Hurford, a freelance writer, communications consultant and estate agent with a passion for the beauty and vibrancy of her country and her town.

The house is spacious and comfortable, sleeping six, with two bathrooms, while at the same time providing an old world ambience, including a wood burning stove (as well as the electric equivalent and a microwave oven, if you prefer) and comfortable, down-to-earth furnishing. Sitting in the little dining room transported me to the days when one would have sheltered from the sun for a midday meal after a morning in the fields.

When I awoke on the first morning there I had a view of the real thing as I drew the curtains in the bedroom. As the sun rose, the next door farmer went about selecting some vegetables from the long rows flourishing near his house, tucked away in some trees, with the mountain backdrop as beautiful in the morning sun as in the evening.

Down on the farm: An Angora goat with newborn twin kids.
 Down a path along the edge of the farmer’s land we found a green camp full of female Angora goats – all heavily pregnant. One was in labour, with much agonised bleating. We watched as she gave birth, the little kid trying to stand up almost immediately. Within a short time others began to bear down and by that afternoon the camp was alive with newborn kids, mostly twins. Prince Albert is the centre of the mohair producing region of South Africa and is home to some champion Angora breeders. These animals were probably owned by one, judging by the quick and efficient matched marking and tagging of the kids and their mothers.

By mid-morning on Saturday Church Street was busy, with locals and visitors in and out of the shops, cafés and the Saturday market which offered plenty of local produce, including olives and olive oil, dried fruit, fresh fruit and other homemade delights.

Nearby is the Fransie Pienaar Museum which, like other small town museums, only more so, is packed with fascinating relics. It is named after the woman who started her collection on a farm in the district and later relocated it six times to accommodate its growth. It is now presented in the prominent house built by Jan Haak in 1906.

Being a Boer War history enthusiast, in the museum I soon found references to Gideon Scheepers, Deneys Reitz and Jan Smuts, all prominent Boer fighters who operated in the area. The story of the exploits of Scheepers has long fascinated me, and in a glass case below the photographic portrait of him taken in the prison at Graaff Reinet, is one of his stirrups. He was known for his dashing style of military dress and the stirrup appears to be of above average quality!

While operating against the British, Scheepers fell ill in the Prince Albert district with what is believed to have been appendicitis. Unable to continue on commando, he was left to his fate by his grieving men in a small house on a farm, where he was captured with alacrity by the British, nursed partially back to health, put on trial and later executed as a criminal at Graaff Reinet for trainwrecking, murder, arson and other charges. One of the protected houses in Prince Albert, the Doktershuis, was used at the time by a Dr Mearns who was summoned by Scheepers’ men to come and help him, but failed to treat his condition successfully.

In a separate room off the stoep of the museum is a fibreglass exhibition of the tracks left by a Bradysaurus – an animal about the size of a rhino - about 240 million years ago. The footprints were discovered in the Prince Albert district accidentally by Vivienne Muller in 1989 and confirmed by palaeontologists shorly afterwards.

 A highlight of our visit was being hosted to dinner in the restaurant at African Relish recreational cooking school by one of the partners, Jeremy Freemantle and his wife Di. The well-equipped school and restaurant, in central Prince Albert, offers a fun way to learn to cook in the true South African culinary tradition. It has an open-plan working kitchen which is designed for hands-on training and is easily accessible by visitors who can see the chefs at work. We loved the original fresh tastes of the dishes served, which are influenced particularly by the “heritage cooking” of the Khoi-Khoi veldkos from the area, as well as Malay, Dutch, English, French and Indian traditions. African Relish offers regular courses, and accommodation is available. It caters specifically for specialist groups, small functions and corporate team building – an ideal diversion for jaded city-dwellers.

Charming: The town has a high content of historical houses.
We took the easier, and equally scenic route back to the N2 via Meiringspoort with its spectacular cliffs and twisted rock formations (Vincent van Gogh would have flipped out in this place) via the beautifully maintained tarred road which winds along the floor of the gorge, crossing the Groot River 25 times in this gateway between the Little and Great Karoo. After emerging from the gorge you are welcomed by another lovely little historical village, De Rust, a recommended destination in itself, on the way back to Oudsthoorn which offers a whole world of Little Karoo attractions and places of interest.

Call Prince Albert Tourism on 023 541 1366.

This story appeared in Saturday Star Travel.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Seeking the free expression of ideas

In June 2010 Eric Francis wrote of Aquarius (my star-sign) on the Omega Institute website:

"For a person who loves ideas as much as you do, this is a great time to be alive. You are in territory where you can surpass all limits, yet to get there you need to embrace an idea that is rarely spoken of: intellectual freedom. You understand this intuitively, of that I am certain. Yet because we live in a society that so desperately tries to repress anything it does not understand or that does not follow today’s economic rules, we’re all a little hobbled here.

Yet you have a special advantage: you seek yourself in the free expression of ideas. They may belong to you; they may belong to someone else—but you know a free idea when you see one, and you are gathering the momentum to bring something you love and value to fruition.

You’ve spent a lot of time, perhaps years, thinking about how much you love and value this concept—whatever it is. Now you have an opportunity to do something about it. I am sure you sense the potential: to help people, to establish a new kind of beauty within planetary consciousness.

The ingredient you must work with is a form of discipline called focus. Yes, odd synchronicities will guide you on your way, but you need the full strength of your mind on this. And I suggest you be aware of a factor that feels like living two lifetimes at once. Through this endeavour, you will finally integrate them."

What I think
Baby boomer who likes new ideas.
I have quite often thought of myself as living more than one lifetime in one, but not simultaneously. Perhaps this is where the confusion and frustration comes in. Why is it that my so-called talents in the world have brought so little self-actualisation? Why did I not persevere and become an accomplished painter or movie director? They have always been right there - passions ready to be developed - but to no avail. On the other hand, it is true that I have always “sought myself” in the free expression of ideas.

I remember quite clearly sitting on a bus as a schoolboy, quite confident and comfortable with the idea that one day religion (spirituality) and science would meet – as I saw it, at an imaginary apex in the sky. That is happening today and being clearly articulated by the likes of Deepak Chopra, whose books are among my favourites, not because of this idea necessarily, but because of the stimulating and liberating ideas he has brought to my understanding, not least of all concerning the life and role of Jesus. At the time I sat on that bus I sought myself in Christianity, yet not as a religion, but as a beautiful and mystical way of understanding through free ideas!

So where to from here? I will always be warmed and inspired by visual beauty of any kind. I will always recognise the dramatic in any set of circumstances, and enjoy the images that this conjures in my mind. But behind all that is something that does not necessarily bring worldly recognition and financial reward. It is the intellectual serendipity that comes from really wanting to understand. I now accept that bringing something I love and value to fruition is likely to come through the medium of the written word, and I am comfortable with that, whatever form it may take. Perhaps, as always, the gathering momentum is more than one thing happening simultaneously. I think it is true that focus is needed, that the time has come to realise intellectual freedom, which I do understand intuitively. The time has come to let a society that so desperately tries to repress anything it does not understand and that does not follow today’s economic rules, simply be. I have my own path to follow.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cruising Europe along the Danube

Fascinating: The village of Durnstein on the Danube.
As the Iberia Airbus A320 swooped low on its approach to Munich airport, and banked steeply over the impossibly neat and colourful Bavarian farmlands in the bright summer sunlight, rousing Spanish guitar music played over the sound system. I felt a surge of excitement. I had not been to central Europe for many years and felt sure I would not be disappointed after the long break. My partner and I were on our way to Passau, a pleasant German town just inside the border with Austria, and departure and arrival point for Peter Deilmann riverboat cruises up and down the Danube.

The trip by train from Munich to Passau was demanding after the long flight from Cape Town via Johannesburg and Madrid. Our pre-booked train tickets took us the long route around via Regensburg with much battling up and down flights of train station stairs, changing from Metro to local train and eventually to the comfortable mainline ICE train. On the return journey, however, we discovered a short-cut by coach which takes you directly to Terminal 2 at Munich International. But our struggles were over when we arrived at Passau station to be met by personnel from Peter Deilmann with a trailer for our luggage and a waiting coach to take us and other passengers to the boat.

I had never seen the Danube before, and hadn’t realised what a huge river it is, averaging about 300 to 400m across and five to six metres deep, the strong current taking it effortlessly on its long journey to the Black Sea. It flows through eight countries - Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Ukraine. At 2850km it is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga.

River cruising is obviously big business on all the major rivers of Europe, and enormous barges carrying all manner of freight pass by regularly, a major means of transport on these routes. But these freighters are never offensive in any way, the crew often waving as they sail past, national flag fluttering astern, always neat and tidy, with just a grumble of engine noise as they go by. Apart from a couple of floating plastic bottles we spotted at the far end of our cruise, entering Budapest, I did not see one scrap of litter along the entire route.

As they say, the advantage of cruising, on river or sea, is that you unpack only once and then relax. Not only that, your accommodation and three meals a day for the entire trip are assured.

Our first, and in some ways best stop along the river was the village of Durnstein, population 931, in the Wachau wine-producing area, enclosing the Danube with rocky tree-clad hills and terraced vineyards. Historically, it is well known as the place where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned by Duke Leopold V of Babenberg who had clashed with Richard during a crusade to Jarusalem. Leopold had reason to feel cheated and insulted by Richard and when Richard tried to sneak back to England via Germany after being shipwrecked off the Italian coast, he was apprehended and jailed, later released only after a huge ransom had been paid.

The highlight of the visit to Durnstein was the Monastery Church. Originally built in 1410, the “new” Baroque building was erected in the 1730s. It is magnificent, and one could spend a whole day getting to know it. The sculptures on the outside and inside, the breathtaking nave and the six murals were our first taste of the magnificence of European art along the Danube. On this trip I was particularly enchanted by the beautiful sculptures wherever we went. The depth of Christian devotion is remarkable – everywhere you go there are beautiful images of Christ on the cross, and the churches everywhere are adorned lavishly.

We strolled through the charming village, bathed in bright morning sunlight, with its quaint cafes, taverns and little shops. There is a hotel called the Hotel Richard L(o)wenherz. Some of the historical buildings are literally built into the rockface of the hill behind it. We took the “donkey track” trail up towards the ancient castle ruin right on top of the hill. Along the trail you get beautiful views through the trees of the river below and the buildings on the other side of it.

That afternoon we reached Vienna, to collect crew, but had to wait for the return voyage to go into town. Across the river from the old city are Vienna’s ultra-modern silver and white skyscrapers.

The next morning we awoke to Budapest, a grand city bisected by the Danube, with seven stately bridges crossing the river and magnificent buildings on both sides, dominated by the Castle District up on the heights and the stunning parliament buildings down at the river’s edge - a city with many dramatic stories to tell.

Life aboard the boat is a large part of the fun of a European river cruise. With breathtaking scenery often no more than a couple of hundred metres away, you can relax and take it easy, especially on the sun deck, which provides the best location for sightseeing. There are a number of locks along the Danube, and guests aboard the Danube Princess were always keen to watch proceedings at these large concrete installations, each with a control bridge and huge steel gates that open and close, allowing water to be pumped in or out. The whole operation always went very smoothly and within 20 or 30 minutes we were on our way again.

Budapest: One of the many bridges across the Danube.
Budapest is an impressive city and you need to study the tourist brochure to get an idea of how much it has to offer. Unfortunately the advantages of river cruising have to be balanced by the disadvantage of limited time in the various ports of call, although we had a full day and a half in the city. My partner and I decided to do our own tour on foot and started with a walk in the general direction of the Royal Palace. While Budapest is obviously emerging as a world-class destination, the effects of years of Nazi and then Communist oppression still hangs over the city, it seemed to us, and is reflected in the faces of some of the people. Some historical buildings are boarded up and graffiti is widespread. Many other buildings look as though they haven’t had a coat of paint since the 1930s. It appears there is a lack of funds to rectify these problems.

The woman serving in the ticket office for the funicular to go up the hill to the Palace displayed Communist-style abruptness and simply signalled with her finger when I asked where we might change euros into the local currency - but then language was probably the problem. The local tourist guide we met on the funicular with a couple of her clients wasn’t parting with any free secrets either.

But the Buda Castle District made up for it all with its magnificent Royal Palace and more of the wonderful sculptures that I so enjoyed on this trip. After a long and turbulent history, including complete destruction during World War II, the Palace has been completely restored and offers a dramatic view of the river and the rest of the city. There are a number of museums housed here, but access seemed limited that day. The rest of the district is dominated by the breathtaking Matthias Church, named after one of Hungary’s greatest monarchs, King Matthias, who presides from horseback in the form a beautiful statue nearby. This is part of modern tourist Budapest with cafes, curio shops and restaurants, with friendly service.

The next morning we crossed the bridge and took a walk half way up Gell(e)rt Hill towards the summit, known as the Citadel - the scene of the last stand of the Nazi occupation, marked by the Liberation Monument. While most of the once-revered (and feared) gigantic Soviet-inspired statuary has been transferred to Statue Park outside the city (a tourist attraction in itself, apparently), this figure of a woman holding aloft a palm frond remains a landmark. In a little church in a cave at the base of the hill a service was in progress, and the plaque outside indicates that it is a place of thanksgiving for the fall of Communism.

At sunset, a floodlit Budapest viewed from the Danube Princess’ sundeck dispelled any doubt about the grandeur of this fascinating city.

The Slovakian city of Bratislava is charming. They call it the Little Big City, which is apt. On the sunny morning we spent there the place seemed oddly under-populated and everywhere there is a feeling of colour and brightness. If you don’t feel like walking you can catch one of the veteran bright red tourist taxis which are a common sight around the city. There are many beautiful architectural landmarks and a human-scale feel to everything. We slipped into a beautiful church and watched for a while as congregants attended mass on a Tuesday morning. It is a cultural city full of museums, theatres and galleries. The opera and ballet at the impressive Slovak National Theatre enjoy great popularity, we were informed.
That evening we arrived in Vienna and took a walk with friends around the neighbourhood not far from where the boat was moored. Here we came across the famous fun fair with its enormous big wheel. We watched in fascination as people subjected themselves to some of the scariest rides imaginable, making a Cobra-style roller coaster a tame experience.

At the beginning of the trip my partner Estelle proclaimed that on short visits to all these wonderful places it was more important to get the “essence and spirit” rather than follow a tour guide around like sheep, and I think she was right. We did take an organised tour of Vienna with a very interesting and knowledgeable guide. But to try to get your head around the history and art of Vienna in a morning is, of course, impossible. It is a breathtaking city and would need months to get to know it at all well. It is known as the “comfortable city” (it is 50% green) and one needs the comfort of time to enjoy it. Everywhere you look are stunning buildings and artworks.

We started at Belvedere Palace, where prince Eugene of Savoy once spent his summers. And how he must have enjoyed them on days like the one on which we visited. We drove past the residences of Mozart, Stauss and Freud and disembarked next to St Stephens Cathedral, known as Austria’s most important Gothic building and most conspicuous icon of the imperial capital. It was undergoing a clean-up at the time, revealing its true beauty under the black coat of pollution. Of course we saw the famous Sachers hotel and chocolate shop and Café Mozart (the real original). It was a religious holiday and perhaps the most colourful experience of the morning was the procession that came past as we strolled in the sunshine. Smart young men, four-abreast, in many different historical uniforms and knee-high boots, a military band (not playing at the time), city dignitaries, politicians, monks and the archbishop all went by. It was a magnificent human spectacle.

Halfway back to Passau we moored at Melk, to visit the famous Abbey. For 900 years its monks have lived and worked here following the rules laid down by Saint Benedict. It is known as Europe’s “great cultural ensemble”, which is in no way an exaggeration. The Abbey Museum, the Marble Hall, Library and Abbey Church are almost beyond description in their artistic riches. The Abbey is responsible for 23 parishes and runs a secondary school. Modern monks in neatly ironed black cassocks stride across the courtyard with briefcases and cell phones. They would tell you that Melk Abbey exists “so that God is glorified in everything”. I would not argue with them.

This story appeared in Weekend Argus Travel.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In search of the Way of Mastery

“If you become wholly committed to awakening from the dream you have dreamt since the stars first began to appear in the heavens and if your one desire is to be only what God created, then lay at the altar of your heart with every breath, everything you think you know, everything you think you need, and look lovingly upon every place that fear has made a home in your mind, and allow correction to come. It will come. Regardless of how you experience it, it will come.”

These are the opening lines of The Promise at the beginning of The Way of Mastery, the three-volume book channeled from Jeshua ben Joseph (Jesus) to Jon Marc Hammer (or Jayem), an ordinary spiritual teacher in the US during the years 1994 to 1997. His experience is chronicled in the book The Jeshua Letters.

Jeshua is the same source who inspired academics Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford to channel the now internationally known A Course in Miracles during the 1960s and 70s. In both cases it seems the chosen “conduits” were taken totally by surprise and even resistant, but saw the work through unstintingly.

The Way of Mastery is a remarkable book, with a depth and authority that would be difficult to challenge even by the most conservative Christian.

After many years as a Christian lay preacher who had become frustrated with the many interpretations of the story of Jesus Christ, and the dogma and self-serving of various Christian sects and interests groups, my father decided to write a book called simply The Sayings of Jesus, but, sadly, he died before he could complete it. Among his most trusted sources of interpretation and inspiration had been Imitation of Christ by the 14th century monk Thomas a Kempis and the Gospel commentaries of William Barclay which I also read avidly in my twenties. Thus, I think my father influenced my approach to spirituality and The Way of Mastery came as a unique opportunity for me.

When a friend of my partner introduced us to the original separate editions of the three volumes which the friend had been given in Australia, I was blown away and without hesitation I ordered the combined hard-cover version from the Shanti Christo Foundation via the internet. Had my father been alive today I am convinced he would have found The Way of Mastery as fascinating as I have.

The opening lines above are indicative of the incisiveness of the book which has an easy, even playful style which belies its subtlety and complexity, and there has been no attempt to edit the words received by Jayem. The language is often quaintly “traditional Judeo-Christian”, but the authenticity is unmistakable and the recurring themes reinforce themselves over and over throughout the book. The Way of Mastery contains 35 lessons over the three volumes - The Way of Love, The Way of Transformation and the Way of Knowing.

One of the most liberating of Jeshua’s teachings - although admittedly pretty tough for ordinary egos to adopt - is that events of the world are “neutral” and “innocent”. In other words, in any given scenario it is simply our decision to overlay interpretations on events, people and things - decisions which invariably bring us suffering in the form of judgments, anger, fear and frustration.

Even as horrendous a fate as crucifixion is open to interpretation! In the lesson entitled The Power of Forgiveness, Jeshua has this to say:

“The universe is literally helping you to have experiences that will bring things up for you so that you can choose to look differently; thereby discovering the great power within you – the freedom within you to choose what you want to perceive and to illicit only what you want to feel. So that even if nails are being driven through the hands, you finally are liberated in the power to choose Love and therefore to overcome this world…

“The result is that your ordinary daily life is the most perfect ashram you could ever be in. It is the holy city to which it is wise to make pilgrimage every day, which means to bring awareness and commitment to exactly what you are experiencing. To be thankful for it, to bless it, to embrace it, to be vigilant and mindful: What is this moment teaching me?”

Perhaps among the most important of Jeshua’s words, which are repeated over and over again, are these, which resonate with the Gospels of the New Testament: “I and my Father are one” – invariably meaning we are all one with and inseparable from the Father, Abba, the Creator and that we are co-creators of our own destiny and even the destiny of the universe. Jeshua emphasises that we are his brothers and sisters, again resonating with the Gospels.

It is the ego’s insistence that we are separate which disempowers us and causes us to suffer. This is another recurring theme: We are deluded by the ego’s notion that we can be separate from God, which is impossible. Jeshua points out that we can continue to believe that for as long as we like, but we will never succeed, and the reward we continue to receive for our efforts will be what the ego thrives on – the delusion that suffering is brought upon us by the world around us.

The Way of Mastery also resonates with other reputable modern spiritual literature and there are themes that come up which are not unlike Eckhart Tolle’s international best-seller A New Earth, for example, which, for me, makes it all the more irresistible.

See Shanti Christo Foundation.htm

Monday, May 17, 2010

Recalling my father's escape from Italy

Free at last: Pat, centre, with fellow officers after his escape.
When the Italians were finally preparing to pull out of the Second World War, my father Pat was near the gate at Modena prisoner of war (POW) camp in Italy where he had been held for many months. He heard a German officer asking an Italian officer: “How many pilots do you have here?” Pat realised there would be no general release of prisoners and that the Germans would absorb the POWs held by the Italians. He longed to escape and had prepared himself by making a jacket from a blanket and staining it with coffee.

One morning soon after this he noticed that there was a guard tower without a guard in it. Hastily he announced to his friends that he was going over the wall and one of them, Neville Blatt, shoved a tin of Red X biscuits into his pocket as he took off. He ran straight towards the empty tower, crossed the trip wire and jumped for the barbed wire on top, hauling himself over the wall. Not a shot was fired. On the other side was a barbed wire fence, and as he approached it he heard gunfire. A deserting Italian soldier was running past and dropped his rifle as he ran. Then he noticed Pat, ran back, picked up his rifle and came towards him.

“The war is over for you and me, my friend,” Pat implored, thinking the end had come. The soldier said nothing, put his rifle under the fence and lifted it up for Pat to crawl through. They both ran off. Pat ran as far as he could and then collapsed to rest in some grass. Before long a friend called Barnie Barnard came running along, having come over the wall himself. Pat let him get a few metres ahead of him and then called out in Italian: “Halt, who goes there?!” Barnie froze, then slowly turned around. When he saw who it was he swore at Pat for a prolonged period of time. After a rest, and seeing that nobody else was approaching, they strode off together on what would be a very difficult journey on foot that would take them 400km to the Adriatic coast in search of freedom.

With the help of Italian peasants, Pat was eventually picked up on a stony beach after signalling out to sea with a candle in a box. He was rescued by men from an Italian torpedo boat manned by the Royal Navy. He was ill with diphtheria and was first transported to a hospital ship and then to Tripoli in Libya before eventually arriving back home in SA on Christmas Eve 1943.

In 1984 my wife Estelle and I visited Modena. It reminded me of Stellenbosch, with pleasant tree-lined avenues. We went and had a drink at a café near the station and then found a taxi. My “uncle” Neville Blatt, the man who had stuffed the tin of biscuits into my father’s jacket pocket as he prepared to run for the wall, had given me an artist’s impression of the bungalows in the POW camp and a rough description of where Pat had gone over the wall. I hoped to find the camp and go to the place at the wall where my father had pulled himself over and away to freedom. I also had some of the official postcards, partly censored, that my father had sent to my mother from the camp. I showed one to the taxi driver who spoke no English but understood immediately. “Ah, Inglise escapato! (Ah, English escaped!)

He took us to the site, but alas, the camp, for some time used as a school, had been demolished for redevelopment, with billboards all around the site. It was a crushing disappointment, and the taxi driver felt compassion for us. On the way back we asked him to recommend a restaurant and with alacrity he took us to one owned by friends. He explained to the proprietor who we were and presumably asked him to take good care of us. It was a Sunday and there were families enjoying lunch together. We were given a large carafe of white wine and placed our orders. Estelle was reading the postcards and began to weep. The mama of the restaurant came back with plates of pasta but exclaimed when she saw Estelle’s tears and retreated to give her time to recover. When she returned the plates were piled with an assortment of pastas, served with kind words of consolation.

Sitting in the train that afternoon, on the way back to the main line to Venice, we passed through pretty vineyards and I had visions of my father in his home-made cap and jacket, ducking and diving as he rushed away after his escape. I remembered the stories he had told, all the stories, and then I wept, uncontrollably, trying to conceal my tears from the passengers opposite me.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Getting to know the Russians in Greenland

Camaraderie: Dick Foster and his geological specimens.
“The motor, she’s OK?” I ask the first officer, only half jokingly.

“Oh yes,’’ he assures me, “they were running today morning.”

The Russian accent adds authenticity to our adventure as we inspect the life boats as part of our orientation around the the Grigoriy Mikheev, a 66 m ice-strengthened vessel, formerly a research ship of the Hydrographic Institute of St Petersburg. We are sailing down a big fjord called Sondre Stromfjord and will only reach the Davis Strait off west Greenland in the early hours of the morning.

It was at the town of Sondre Stromfjord, now called Kangerlussuaq, that our group of 13 South Africans landed after a four-hour flight from Copenhagen. Veteran polar traveller and tour leader Hans van Heukelum gathered his people there like a good shepherd. Not that this group is a flock of sheep. It consists of independent, well-heeled, seasoned travellers whose thirst for new places and experiences is never satisfied. And it was at Kangerlussuaq that we began to meet our fellow travellers from the US, Australia, Russia, the UK and Holland.

The Greenland ice cap or sheet covers most of the “island”, it is 3500m thick in the centre, and because of its enormous weight on the earth, the centre of Greenland is actually below sea level. But according to Stefan Lovgren, reporting for National Geographic News recently, Greenland’s massive ice sheet could begin to melt this century if global warming continues at its present rate. If it melted completely it could raise the oceans by seven metres.

But these projections do not affect our enjoyment in the present moment. By now three of the prominent people on the 12-day cruise from Kangerlussuaq, right around to Ammasilik on the east coast, have made themselves known: expedition leader and lecturer Steve Blamires, guide and lecturer Dennis Schmitt and South African geologist Dick Foster. Dick is one of us passengers, but his understanding of geology makes a big difference for everyone on the trip. Dennis is American, a multi-lingual anthropologist who is passionate about the far northern regions, and a highly intelligent and entertaining lecturer and guide. Steve, a heavily bearded Scott, is the serious one, keeping everything on track. He is a teacher and writer with a fascination for the legendary Eric the Red who first travelled to Greenland from Iceland. These men are characters ordinary suburbanites like us rarely meet and their personalities colour the whole experience.

The Grigoriy Mikheev is on a long term contract to Oceanwide Expeditions, the Dutch-based company which offers this and other polar cruises. It has been refitted to accommodate 46 passengers and the over-and-under twin I am sharing with Hans is comfortable. I like a cigarette in the evening and have to make my way to the heavy door at the end of the passage and out onto the freezing deck for a puff. Here I am joined by the ship’s doctor, a young German, and the only other smoker among us. Environmental regulations are strict and he shows me how to put my fag out in a film canister, which is then jammed back into a pocket for next time. Somehow the forbidden cigarettes and the freezing cold make the whole exercise quite exciting.

The Mikheev is now our symbol of home security in far-away icy places and on most evenings we meet like an extended family in the little bar-lounge for drinks before dinner. You sign for a bottle of wine and make it last as long as possible by replacing it in the fridge with your name on it, because it’s expensive and with my appetite for the stuff my credit card is going to take a knock by the end of the voyage. Dinners are plain, but tasty and nutritious, served in the rather cramped little dining room by Rosa, the big Russian chief stewardess.

I am fascinated by the quiet, orderly, unflappable Russian crew who seldom waste their breath on small talk, even among themselves, although there is clearly an impish sense humour lurking there. They are mostly silent on the bridge, to which we have free access. One evening in the dining room I sit next to two men I recognise as Russians, and ask one of them if they are crew members.

“No,” he replies.

“So what are you doing here?” I inquire naively, imagining that Russians would never do this for fun.

“Just keeping you company,” he shoots back.

It’s a faux pas because Nikolai and his colleague turn out to be executives of a similar polar cruise company and have an extremely impressive marketing DVD to prove it. They are here to see how the opposition works.

Days later it is early morning and the ship is ahead of schedule. I stroll onto the bridge, which offers the best (and warmest) views of the surrounding icebergs. I notice there is no engine vibration.

“Are we not under power?” I ask curiously.

“No,” replies the first officer.

“Why?” I press.

“Why? Because there is no hurry.”

I get the point. And I’m glad I was never in the Cold War.

Among the highlights of the voyage are visits to Inuit (Eskimo) villages and towns, the first being Kangamiut. The houses in these settlements are all of a similarly neat appearance, painted in various pastel colours. A group of us take the wooden steps to the top of the hill overlooking the harbour and then stroll over to the supermarket. Although Greenland is an independent country, the Danish government, while at pains to maintain the Inuit culture - including their place names - obviously sees that modern amenities and goods are provided for the locals.

Icy beauty: Sailing down Prins Christian Sund fjord.
The supermarket has virtually everything in it you find in a South African equivalent, including meat, fruit, toys, sweets, wine, pharmaceuticals, and one line you don’t find at Pick ’n Pay - firearms. Rifles stand on a rack like any other commodity. Greenlanders still live largely by hunting and their favourite food is seal meat, though unpalatable to visitors. They also hunt reindeer and muskoxen, and you come across drying ribs hanging from window sills, muskox skulls and reindeer antlers in villages and towns.

Landings are made using Zodiac rubber inflatables, and they are now part of our everyday experience. Manned by the Russian crewmen who wait patiently for us as we wander around the landing sites, these hardy rubber ducks ferry us back and forth on average twice a day. The military-style operation involves a briefing, getting one’s gear on - thermal vests and socks (depending on the temperature), waterproof pants, scarf, beanie, mittens, rubber boots, parka and lifejacket. It can get wet on the Zodiacs and staying dry is important if you don’t want to freeze. With a helping hand from the crewman you step aboard and shuffle into position, one by one. On the return trip of one of the outings it begins to rain, and I’m right at the front. The icy drops hit me like razors and I grip my face in my mittens. Now I understand why they were on the must-have list at Cape Union Mart.

Entering Sermilinguaq fjord, with its ice-capped mountains, we watch from the bridge and later board the Zodiacs for the glacier at the far end of a deep valley. This is a beautiful place, peaceful and dramatic, which fuels a feeling of camaraderie among us as we become more familiar with one another and our environment. Dick whips out his Swiss army knife with its little magnifying glass, and soon we are peering at his specimens with new understanding. We walk to the glacier edge where it’s crumbling into ice cubes you could pop into your whisky. Steve points out how the glacier has receded - the results of global warming in front of our eyes.

Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, is a busy harbour town with shops, offices, trucks and cars, apartment blocks, occasional trash in the streets and mothers and their babies in prams. We go ashore in small groups to explore. At the tiny university we wander about as usual, unchallenged and quite welcome. Our arrival interrupts a lesson being taken by a beautiful Danish teacher who comes to the door to answer our questions while her Icelandic students wait patiently in the classroom.

“Oh tourists!” she laughs with a devastating smile.

“What are you teaching,” someone asks.

“Film appreciation,” she grins.

The cultural centre at Nuuk is impressive, with a soaring foyer and modern concert hall. In the foyer there is an exhibition of wonderfully rich abstract paintings by artist Grethe Balle. Nuuk’s seaside museum is excellent. Its artefacts cover the history of Greenland and it is probably most famous for its mummified bodies from the 16th century Thule Inuit culture. Even the clothes of the female adults and two children are remarkably preserved. Most striking is the six-month-old child lying next to her mother, staring straight up at you with hollow eye-sockets, like a broken doll.

Rough seas pound the Mikheev on the way to Ikat fjord and Hvalsey Viking settlement. Pitching and rolling becomes extreme and some of us find the best place to be is on your bunk. Getting into the toilet across the passage is a mission. The ship is great in the fjords, but on the rough open sea we get the full drama. I let go and allow my body to bump from side to side and up and down in the bunk, eventually falling asleep.

The church at the Viking ruins at Hvalsey, built in about 1300, is still standing, without a roof. The stone walls were built without mortar and there is a remarkable “Gothic” arched window at one end. The last recorded wedding took place here in 1408 and one can imagine the congregation arriving in their boats for Sunday services. The Vikings only converted to Christianity in about 1000 AD – just as well for their salvation, considering some of their previous behaviour, like cruising down the River Shannon at Clonmacnoise in Ireland, plundering the monastery there. Near the church are the remains of dwellings built into the hillside for protection against the cold, and enclosures for livestock. It is peaceful here, and in fine weather the Vikings must have enjoyed an idyllic life next to the calm waters of the fjord.

Morning finds us sailing down Prins Christian Sund, with a cloudless sky behind high mountains and glaciers. We come across plenty of sparkling icebergs of all shapes and sizes, with the translucent turquoise tinge that makes them so beautiful. The Mikheev’s crew navigates a narrow section of the fjord, carefully pushing through the field of ice.

In the evening we gather on the stern deck, at zero degrees. It is calm and there are icebergs all around us - the perfect setting for a farewell barbecue prepared by the Russians chefs. Off-duty Rosa arrives at the party in a skimpy imitation leopard skin dress. Drinks are on the house, and as the party carries on down in the bar, one of the pretty young female kitchen staff makes the rounds among us boys, giving us each an opportunity to pretend we’re James Bond.

At midnight we are crossing the notorious Denmark Strait, living up to its name. Again we slide around in our bunks for most of the night, but the next morning early we step ashore at Keflavik, Iceland, happy to be back on land after the voyage of a lifetime.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quaint, simple and innocent

Looking back over only the past ten years of my life, I realise how little the events that have taken me from one situation to another have had to do with my own determination, in spite of my day-to-day interpretation of my reality. Everything has unfolded according to some unseen guide and I have responded creatively (with responsibility). That does not mean that it has all been easy; on the contrary, it has often been painful and difficult – but that pain and difficulty has always led to new understanding, new realisations and greater wisdom, particularly the realisation of how unimportant it all was in the bigger scheme of worldly things. For example, overwhelmingly powerful romantic love turning to gentle compassion and acceptance.

One of Eckhart Tolle’s most liberating teachings is that the answer, the strength, the right action, the resource will always be there, not before, not after. In other words, only in the present. This is not just wishful thinking, it is a miraculous universal truth and learning to trust it brings peace. The kind of answers and right actions depend on our circumstances, always remembering, however, that we are not our circumstances and right action happens through us - we do not live our lives, life lives us.

My fascination with history, particularly the history of my own family and country, has become keener with age. When I made a speech at my daughter’s wedding recently, I realised wryly that what I was recalling for the guests was simply a little bit of history that sounded, in hindsight, quaintly simple and innocent. And that is what it was, is, and always will be – quaint, simple and innocent. The ego misinterprets the present, bestowing on circumstances an importance beyond reality. And because we bestow on circumstances this importance, we desperately need to qualify them by constantly referring to the past and the future, instead of allowing life to be all it ever can be - the now. And when the now becomes history you realise you could have enjoyed it for what it was all along – quaint, simple and innocent.