On empty talk about faith

‘How many have been driven into outer darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something “true”’.

– Dag Hammarskjöld

Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 3

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeIt is true that Dag Hammarskjöld was given an astonishing apprenticeship in life and early career in terms of both formal education and other opportunities through which he would gain valuable perspectives on the inner workings of international diplomacy. It was a start which prepared him well for the vocation in which he would eventually find his feet. But among the many things that made him extraordinary as a world leader was an energy turned towards things more elusive. His deep and hope-filled capacity to say ‘Yes’ to humanity (he was not naïve; the Congo crisis birthed in him a conviction that ‘there are really evil persons – evil right through – only evil’, p. 510), and his ‘moral stature and incorruptible justice, his integrity and whole-hearted commitment, and his never-failing sense of responsibility vis-à-vis the task’ (p. 51) – to recall a description provided by Hammarskjöld’s governmental colleague and later loyal friend Henrik Klackenberg (Hammarskjöld served as a member of the Swedish cabinet in the early 1950s) – grew not only out of the soil provided by a mother with a deep social conscience and spirituality, but also, as Roger Lipsey notes, by a ‘crushingly honest exploration of what it is to live; to have mind, heart, and body; to be thrown into this world; to decipher experience; to carry burdens and face weaknesses a little wisely; to find something approaching inner peace; to glimpse a larger pattern, and somehow serve the good’ (p. 53).

Anyone familiar with Markings could not but agree that this description is indicative of its author’s quest to live an examined life – ‘we are witnessing a gifted soul deeply engaged in its own education’ (p. 59) – a quest which more than any other single factor made Hammarskjöld lead out of a tributary that too few dare approach, but which Lipsey, appropriately, makes much of throughout this biography. As Hammarskjöld would write in Markings:

The road to self-knowledge does not pass through faith. But only through the insight we gain by pursuing the fleeting light in the depth of our being do we reach the point where we can grasp what faith is. How many have been driven into our darkness by empty talk about faith as something to be rationally comprehended, something ‘true’.

HammarskjöldIt is little wonder therefore that one of the most recurring themes in Lipsey’s study is loneliness, an indispensable burden (it seems) of a person given to take seriously the long wandering for home that the hungry soul risks, and of a leader given to undertake with unflinching gravity the risky service of humanity – the lonely burden of true leadership – and that while carrying the conviction that ‘the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation’ (Hammarskjöld, as cited on p. 502). Little wonder too that while not lacking in resources, Lipsey’s Hammarskjöld is ‘a tormented soul’ (p. 65).

He was not, however, without wonderful friends – his brother, Bo and Greta Beskow, W. H. Auden and John Steinbeck among them. Indeed, one of the persistent refrains throughout Lipsey’s account of Hammarskjöld’s life concerns the abiding value of true friends, particularly at those times when (such as in the midst of the Suez and Congo crises) ‘one’, in Hammarskjöld’s words, ‘happens to be standing in the middle of crossroads along which an abnormally high level of political traffic is pressing’ (p. 488), when hope is clouded in and lost to weariness, and when the music of reconciliation is drowned out by the Machiavellian drums of fear and mistrust. His friends, it seems, provided a sanctuary wherein his humour was most expressive, and where his kindness could be enjoyed without fear of suspicion. They also helped him to keep things in perspective – to ‘remember that there is more to reality than [the] chaos, menace, and slander’ (p. 492) which characterised so much of his day-to-day work as a political celibate (although he was not, by his own admission, a political virgin). As with prayer, his friends too were a gift from the God of hope, the One for whom chaos and human recalcitrance finally represent no obstacle to love reaching its goal – however long it may take, and however hard the arc of history must bend. His relationship with his friends represents too where the road to self-knowledge could be traversed, and where the repeatable journey from death to life passes though the experience of unworthiness, disappointment and incapability into the freedom of inexplicable relief and surprise, and even joy.

Commemorating 60 years since Dag Hammarskjöld took office as Secretary-General

A few weeks ago, the UN held an event to commemorate 60 years since Dag Hammarskjöld took office as Secretary-General. The event was opened by the current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and included a presentation by Roger Lipsey, author of Hammarskjöld: A Life. The event also included a debate between Brian Urquhart (who was one of Hammarskjöld’s main advisors in his role as Secretary-General), Andrew Gilmour (who serves as the Director of the Political, Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Human Rights Unit with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General), and Annika Söder (who is Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation). I thought that perhaps those few readers who have been interested in my recent posts on Hammarskjöld might appreciate watching some of the video from that event. Hammarskjöld’s address begins at around the 20 minute mark.

Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 2

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeJim Gordon’s recent post asks some good questions about the nature of leadership. He insightfully compares two figures – Steve Jobs and Dag Hammarskjöld – and asks which of these represents the brand of leadership most commensurate with the ministry of the viva vox dei of which the church is a creature. While words like ‘perseverance’, ‘attractive’, ‘impressive’, ‘innovative’ and ‘successful’ dominate airport bookshops’ literature on the subject of leadership, and go some way to describing Jobs’ own unique set of giftings, what is less apparent is a lexicon required to describe the manner of leadership modelled by Hammarskjöld, where the grammar of ‘servanthood’ and ‘trust’ and ‘relationships’ proves to be both indispensable and to be ends in themselves, and where the whole is motivated by a particular vision of reconciliatory being at the centre of all reality, the patient Thou apart from whom life makes no sense, and hope in the possibilities of human communities in which the many (and not the few) flourish is kept alive.

I am thus far only about half way through Lipsey’s gentle, spiritual and stimulating biography on Hammarskjöld, but already there has been hardly a page in which Jim’s assessment of the Swedish diplomat and economist is not confirmed, and that perhaps in no chapter more so than that which attends to tensions in late 1957 when the Maoist Chinese announced that they had sentenced to prison eleven American airmen, plus two CIA agents, shot down near the Korean border. The details of the so-called ‘Peking negotiation’ are carefully retold in Chapter 10 of Lispey’s book, ‘Un Chinois aux Yeux Bleus’ (pp. 210–36), and do not need to be rehashed here except to say, with some understatement, that the level of trust and understanding between the USA and mainland China was at sometime of a low ebb in the aftermath of the Korean War, the UN was still in many ways writing its own job description (something which was among Hammarskjöld’s greatest and most lasting contributions as Secretary General), and China was ardent about finding a seat as a UN member nation. What strikes me most about Hammarskjöld’s leadership in this environment fraught with cultural and political sensitivities (as was the case at other times too such as the tumultuous period of 1956-57 in the Middle East, a region ‘churning with anger and mistrust, conspiracy and threat, outside pressures and a partially concealed but grim arms race’ (p. 237)) was the risky and vulnerable shape of his commitment to practical reconciliation, his refusal to sacrifice deeply help principles on the altar of short-term political point scoring, his personal dedication to the possibility of a certain vision of the future in which international relations might be characterised not by a life-defeating defensiveness and abstraction but by patient and deeply personal trust and search for mutual understanding which for Hammarskjöld, at this particularly volatile point in twentieth century history, meant wading gently through a political, legal, historical and organisational morass. It was, to be sure, an act of careful diplomacy – and the favourable outcome was, in many ways, a triumph of such – but if by that we mean something like an act of a clever stuntman, we will have completely missed an astonishing achievement of an extraordinarily hopeful human being among us. To recall words he spoke in May 1955 at a press conference on nuclear disarmament, and which in many ways characterise his own leadership: ‘There have been no precedents or experiences which entitle us not to try again’.

That the church too is burdened with passionately-defended lines of demarcation that sponsor a silence towards and lies about those who hold to different positions on all manner of subjects, and with a widespread absence of porosity – and so a desire to grow with and vis-à-vis the other – means that she too is desperately in need of the kind of leadership that Hammarskjöld embodies.

Lipsey’s Dag Hammarskjöld: A Life – 1

Lipsey - Hammarskjold. A LifeI anticipate that it’s going to be a read as slow as it is formative. I recently began working my way through Roger Lipsey’s attentive and long-overdue biography on the remarkable Swedish diplomat and economist Dag Hammarskjöld. Hammarskjöld served as the second secretary-general of the United Nations (1953–61). He was, as Rowan Williams has observed, ‘one of the most significant moral influences in international politics in the decades immediately after the war’ and who almost single-handedly shaped the ‘vision for international co-operation and crisis management that we struggle to realise and, however reluctantly, take for granted across a great deal of the globe’. For better or ill, the international community today lives with Hammarskjöld’s inheritance. In a review of Lipsey’s book (published in the recently resurrected Cambridge Humanities Review), Williams properly reminds us that

If we largely assume that the United Nations, imperfect as it is, is the only viable forum for brokering international conventions and agreeing on responses to serious crises, it is Hammarskjöld we have to thank for this. And if we also feel intense frustration at the ineffectiveness of the UN as an active peacekeeping force, its failure to offer protection to those most at risk or to exert sanctions against tyrants, this book will help us understand the roots of this, both in Hammarskjöld’s own scrupulous attempts to prevent the UN becoming an intervening power in its own right and in the consistent refusal of major powers to collaborate on sustainable protocols about this and their blinkered loyalty to ‘bloc’ interests. If you want to know why the UN can’t and won’t sort out the nightmare of Syria, many of the answers lie here.

Hammarskjöld was a public figure dedicated to a life of serving the world through the fostering of imagination and policies that serve the interests of peace and reconciliation and hope in a world whose very structures so often pull in a counter direction. He was also a figure who carried an unwavering conviction that true service to the world means descending into the world to be of service, however humble, on terms that worldly people value.

He was one too who attended to the deep things of the spirit. His only book, Vägmärken (Markings), which was published posthumously in 1963, is a collection of his diary reflections from 1925 (when he was 20 years old) until his death (in suspicious circumstances) in 1961. More importantly, it is an astonishing testimony to what nourished him internally. Lipsey describes this nourishment in terms of a ‘sanctuary’, noting some of the ways that this ‘sense of sanctuary’ (p. 4) found expression – in the creation, for example, of a small meditation room on the ground floor of the UN headquarters, the Room of Quiet, for which Hammarskjöld wrote a short statement which reads:

This is a room devoted to peace
and those who are giving their
lives for peace. It is a room of quiet
where only thoughts should speak.

There is a real sense in which the room itself bears witness to something profoundly true about Hammarskjöld himself. As Rolf Edberg (the Swedish Ambassador to Norway) noted on the occasion of the posthumously awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1961, ‘No one who met [Hammarskjöld] could help noticing that he had a room of quiet within himself’. That sanctuary was nurtured and deepened and sustained by a life fed by the reading of Scripture, and by other spiritual writings by Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis, Blaise Pascal, Martin Buber, the fourteenth mystic who penned The Cloud of Unknowing and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, as well as Buddhist and Taoist and Tibetan writings, and by a life given to prayer.

Although I’ve only just begun to wade into its waters, what is already apparent about Lipsey’s remarkable study is the way that he resists the temptation, taken up by so many biographers, to divorce the inner and the outer, the public and the private, worlds of his subject. Lipsey is committed to presenting Hammarskjöld as one in whom the spirituality evident in Markings both informs and is informed by his very public life and the policies and practices that he was determined to encourage on the international stage. Such a commitment is not only honest scholarship but it also recalls the great personal cost associated with the manner and vision of leadership that Hammarskjöld himself demonstrated, and it offers a challenge to those of us who are called to public roles (albeit less public than Hammarskjöld’s) and to attendance to (with the manner of integrity required of the subject) an honest and thinking faith. It also raises questions, at least for me, about how one might serve within an institution like ‘the church’ when its practices and theological convictions may be significantly at odds with one’s own, and do so with integrity, humility, patience and hope. And about those whom we serve but whose service takes other forms and is primarily outwith the boundaries of the churchly institution. How might one atmosphere inform the other, and how might one stay grounded and whole?

So Lipsey:

Many know something of spirituality in the sanctuary of a spiritual community or in their privacy. But what becomes of it, how does it serve and find paths forward when it must return to the world – when it has duties? Does it enrich a man or woman’s dedication to work? Does it strike deep roots in plain things or is it aloof? Does it touch life and allow itself to be touched only because there is no practical alternative? Does it learn from troubled circumstances and difficult people or does it long for the close of business so that it can go off on its own? Is it denatured by stress or does it somehow thrive? Does it make one more clear-sighted and strategic when strategy is needed – or hamper mobility by draping it in holy vestments, in slow ideas? (p. 4)

For Hammarskjöld, it seems, such questions expose and heighten the necessity of attendance to the sanctuary, to prayer. It is not as if prayer ‘works’, or as if prayer helps us to ‘make sense’ of life, or even of prayer itself. There is nothing utilitarian about true prayer. But in the mystery of prayer, the church (and here she is not alone) believes we are gathered up into God’s own movement of love and shadows; we are gathered up into home.

There is something palpable too about what I understand to be a deep christological mooring in Hammarskjöld’s unharnessed dedication to service in and of the world all the while being rooted in the mysteries and service of God, and of seeing each as being indispensible to the other. Something of this is borne witness to in a prayer that Hammarskjöld penned in 1954, the opening four lines of which (as a translator and interpreter of Markings, Bernhard Erling, has shown) are intensely trinitarian:

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art
Also within us,
May all see Thee – in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee,
May I thank Thee for all that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others,
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldest that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand,
And in Thee is all power and goodness.

Give me a pure heart – that I may see Thee,
A humble heart – that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love – that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith – that I may abide in Thee. (Markings, 100)

Two little musings on irony …

There are a handful of titles that simply never abandon my desk – The Collected Poems: 1945–1990 of R.S. Thomas*, and Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, and The Book of Common Prayer, for example. And Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings. (I’m currently awaiting my copy of Roger Lipsey’s substantial biography (752 pages!) to arrive. I was in Cambridge last week and heard Rowan Williams giving a talk about it. ‘nough said.) While Markings was significantly more popular with a generation older that mine than it is with my own (perhaps Lipsey’s book might change that for some?), I have lived with Markings now for almost two decades. And even though it’s not part of my daily diet, this morning I ‘took up and read’ again a few of the opening pages (which is more than enough with this book), and these words spent some time with me:

Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I –.
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.

I’ll not post here my musings on these words, but the irony gestured to here reminded me of something else I saw in Cambridge and which spoke to me of the ironies of life, and of the playfulness of such. Here ’tis:

2013-03-14 09.41.40 (1)

* I just noticed that there are plans for the publication of some of Thomas’ Uncollected Poems due out mid year. This is very exciting.