Summer Solstice ceremony Firle Beacon June 2023 – Photo: Heather Buckley @buckleyheather
TRAVELLING FROM LONDON to Firle to meet the Reverend Peter Owen Jones and talk about his new book, Conversations with Nature, has the character of a pilgrimage for me, short as the journey may be. I rattle out of Victoria Station, just glad to have got my bike through the press of commuters and safely on board. It wouldn’t be good to visit a hippy vicar by car – this journey is going to be as sustainable as possible – and I’m very happy to embrace eco-consciousness as a form of practical spirituality. My first train takes me south for an hour as far as Lewes, making frequent stops though tightly packed countryside, full of small fields, hedges and tall trees. When I change onto the train to Glynde, the Sussex landscape suddenly opens up and we are in chalk country, downland – with great bare sweeping hills, flocks of sheep, and hardly a tree or a house in sight. Suddenly my mind feels clearer.
Glynde is a cheerful place, its station full of exhibits about local history – both natural and human. I mount my bike and press on south, along a lane lined with cow parsley towards Peter Owen Jones’ home parish – Firle. A skylark sings. This place is an English time warp, all part of one family estate, and unlike so many villages today still containing everything needed for life within a few self-sufficient acres – pub, school, church, shop. There is even a small brewery, where I get directions to the vicarage.
The Green Man – Image: Brunel James
Peter seems to have mastered the art of ‘flow’. He takes various pastoral phone calls as we talk – and when I pop over to look round the church, I come back to find him screwdriver in hand, fixing some old furniture. His house is full of ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the useful’ and Sussex definitely seems like a good place to be …
Firle Beacon – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
BJ: Peter, this is a wonderful part of the world.
POJ: Yeah, it’s a sweet land, it’s still a sweet land, despite all of the pressures. Every village has its issues, but this is a sweet, sweet land.
BJ: I went into the pub, and they have a picture of you on the wall.
BJ: But the pub is called The Ram, and you’re stood up against the hills, and it all seemed to be part of the ‘this place is all about the sheep’ thing, which is obviously a big part of the identity here.
POJ: I think that’s still there, but we’re just a tiny little nest, surrounded by wilderness really, the Armageddon of what’s happening on the land.
BJ: The intensification of farming out there? So, this village is different because it’s part of an old estate, a traditional farming enterprise?
POJ: Yeah – it’s feudal – the big house owns 90% of the village and everyone rents. And it’s at the mercy of the estate manager who has real power locally. But I don’t believe in ownership, it’s a complete illusion.
BJ: So, you’re living in this beautiful countryside, and right next to Glyndebourne! So, how do you feel about opera and all that?
POJ: I would rather stick needles in my eyes! I appreciate it is a musical form, but give me Bill Evans, give me Led Zeppelin …
BJ: OK – you’ve got an aesthetic sense, just not that one!
POJ: It sounds to me like people are in pain!
BJ: I love opera, but anyway … Do you connect it negatively with class and money?
POJ: I connect it with golf – there’s a dress code. It’s not the money thing – if you want to see a big band, you’d probably pay the same money – it’s the culture around it. There’s not a lot about that culture which excites me.
Summer Solstice ceremony Firle Beacon June 2023 – Photo: Heather Buckley @buckleyheather
BJ: I also noticed that this area was patronised by the Bloomsbury Group. How do you get on with them?
POJ: I get on really well with them! I do. On one side of the river there is ‘The Operatic Contingent’ – and on the other side of the river there is ‘The Long-haired-Other Contingent’.
BJ: So, is this the ‘left bank’ of the river, then?
POJ: This is the left bank! (we laugh)
(Peter is interrupted by a phone call relating to his health)
POJ: I’m adopted, so I phoned my mother in Canada, and I said to her: ‘Do you have high blood pressure?’ She said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve had it since my late thirties, been on medication ever since.’ I thought, ‘You might have said something …’
BJ: But in my parishes, everyone over sixty is on something. That’s why we’re living so long – they spot something is wrong, put you on some medication, and then you’re good for another twenty years …
POJ: But you’re on a yellow card!
BJ: But that can help, you don’t take it for granted.
POJ: Certainly not, when you’re taking medication which essentially is keeping you upright and breathing, then there’s a big shift in your mental state, once you’ve got over the shock. You start to go: ‘OK, this really is impermanent. It really is so fucking beautiful, and I’ve got to start to know this.’
BJ: Well, that’s a great starting point, because I wanted to say ‘thank you’ for your new book. It feels like an offering to everything that’s beyond the merely human – but at the same time it’s a compelling reminder that we’re part of nature – and I guess people need both of those things. They need to acknowledge something beyond them, but at the same time they need to feel part of it too.
POJ: Yes, it’s holy, it’s beyond us – yet within us. And there is that lovely ‘frisson’ … I watched this incredible film the other night called The New World – it’s a narrative around Pocahontas. The young woman, Pocahontas, is just in a state of continual enchantment. I recognise that state. I think as a society we are both constantly mourning for ‘paradise lost’ and on the other hand also reaching for it. The book looks at both of those aspects.
BJ: That ‘Edenic state’ is something that we do encounter in people, especially the young …
POJ: Children, it is the inner child. As Christ said, and he put the child on his knee, ‘They can see the Kingdom.’ They can engage with this reality of enchantment much better, and I get that, I really get that.
BJ: Peter, in your recent book, Conversations with Nature, the prologue has strong echoes of Genesis and the Creation Story – and the way St John echoes that language at the start of his Gospel to proclaim the Incarnation. Is that deliberate?
POJ: That was a deliberate engagement, to take the temptation, and take ‘the subjugation of the snake’, and to place the snake within the myriad of life forms that speak to us all the time about what it is to be human, what it is to be alive. It was a conscious step into trying to heal that perspective.
Summer Solstice ceremony Firle Beacon June 2023 – Photo: Heather Buckley @buckleyheather
BJ: So, what’s your take on all those themes, as they’ve been handed down to us? Where are you trying to get us to?
POJ: I’m trying to say ‘look, we’re in the garden’. You can either enjoy it, or you can go off and chase whatever’s at the end of the rainbow, but whatever happens, you’re in the garden. If we saw ourselves as living within the garden, if we saw what the character of Pocahontas sees, then that would change everything.
BJ: So, are you saying that for us, the story of Eden and the ideas associated with it are in the ‘eternal now’? That that story is about choices that we can all make now – we can fall now, or we can stay in a paradisiacal state now? It’s not history, we don’t trap it in the past, it’s myth and it speaks to us now in our lives?
POJ: Yes, otherwise it’s dead. But, if it’s living, if scripture has anything to teach us, then it has to live within us and be living in all that we behold.
BJ: It’s the same with St John’s Gospel – the Incarnation is happening now, the Word is here right now, in our lives today.
POJ: Yes, right now. Otherwise, it’s dead. Let’s not bury it in theology. Thomas Traherne, he was saying that this can teach what all the books cannot. It’s a different way of beholding, a different way of seeing, and I think that with our rational, empirical delusions of grandeur, what we surrender is that childlike state of enchantment. That’s what gets sacrificed on the altar of progress. But without that we are dry, we are without wine, we are mechanistic.
Summer Solstice ceremony Firle Beacon June 2023 – Photo: Heather Buckley @buckleyheather
BJ: Peter, I think that Conversations has a wonderfully concentrated quality, dense and distilled and tangled. I wondered if there was any underlying structure behind the chapters and themes, or is it more intuitive than that?
POJ: Imogen Lycett Green kindly edited it. It was just in the order I had written it. She then re-ordered it and she did an incredible job. She saw something I didn’t see because I was in the wood. I would never have begun Conversations with ‘The Storm’, but she just went straight in. This is the story of every life. Every life encounters storm and there’s no way round it. I think that’s a good place to begin. We are born, and we come into a storm, this life is a storm.
BJ: There is a big theme running through the book about suffering and being reconciled to suffering. Have you suffered for your art, going through the years?
POJ: I wouldn’t say I’ve suffered for my art! I’m phenomenally lazy! But I hope I’ve been honest about suffering. I do know what it is to crave the warm room of death. That is something that suffering offers us. Extreme suffering offers us the warm room of death. I know what that feels like.
BJ: That desire to just ‘opt out’ – that it’s all too much?
View from Mount Caburn – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
POJ: Yes, that the pain is just too much to bear. We look at suicide and people who very tragically take their own lives. People say it’s an incredibly selfish act, but I know that when you get to that point, everyone else is out of sight, there is no one else in that room apart from you.
BJ: But when you said that phrase ‘the warm room of death’, it made me think of wanting to go ‘back to the womb’. Is it ‘I’ve been given this life as a human adult, but it’s all too much, and I just want to go back to where I came from’?
POJ: Yes, ‘I just want to be held and to be out of this pain’. I really understand that.
BJ: And yet we’ve got to carry on.
POJ: Well – it’s that story of the ants. They’re climbing a tree, and right at the end of a branch, on the slenderest twig, there’s a couple of drops of honey. So, this young ant goes right out, and the elders are all saying, ‘Don’t, don’t! You’re in danger, the whole thing could come tumbling down.’ And he turns round and says, ‘But I just want one more taste of honey.’ And then of course the twig breaks. But it’s that ‘one more taste of honey’ that continually calls us on. It’s that promise that there’s gold at the end of the rainbow, ‘I will find love’, there is the dance, there is Arcadia, it’s somewhere. And yet searching for it will undoubtedly take us into the storm.
BJ: Phrases like that, atmospheres, themes in the book, have echoes for me of Middle Eastern mysticism. You’ve touched on English mysticism, but there’s a lot of desert references in Conversations with Nature. Are writers from that region an inspiration for you? Or is it more the journeys you have made, the travel?
POJ: It’s the journeys I’ve made. But of course, there is Jalal al-Din Rumi. Just the pure, pure essence of hedonistic poetry! Everyone bows at his altar, but to me this man is full of wine, and women, the hills, and the river, and the desert – he is in a state of enchantment … In the Western tradition we don’t really have anything that loose – or that louche! But for a Protestant boy living in the south of England, it’s completely intoxicating! But then, the desert for me, the moment I left the last blade of grass and got onto the sand, I could feel every cell in my body just going ‘Yes! – you’ve arrived, here you are, here it is – Breathe! Dance!’
BJ: I love that bit in Extreme Pilgrim (one of POJ’s BBC TV series) where you are desperate for a coffee, and you’re in the desert, a million miles from anywhere, experiencing moments of anguish, wanting your little consumer comforts …
POJ: Of course, comfort is the killer. When you get that beaten out of you, when you finally put it down, the weight lifts off your shoulders and you go ‘OK – what is this dark little worm called comfort?’ It’s fucking fear.
BJ: I went to Durdle Door in Dorset, and from the beach it looked like some kind of ‘cosmic portal’ that I could just swim through, if I had the guts. I went into the water just so far and then I stopped, because it was so cold, and I didn’t want to go any further. It took me ten minutes just to get my courage up! But I knew I was going to feel so good if I did swim to it and overcome that desire to be just warm and comfortable.
POJ: I think we are held horribly in the grip of the warrior cult, but when you take courage, when you face your fear, then there is undoubtedly this high, when you scramble up the peak that can kill you, when you stand and face the lion, there is a high. You have taken on life force; you have acknowledged your life force.
The Long Man of Firle – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
BJ: That phrase ‘warrior cult’ – what do you mean by that?
POJ: It’s oblique within our society, but the Western culture we have, the one we have exported, is the society of the warrior. It’s being played out in Ukraine – to enforce your will you use violence. We’re in trouble when we celebrate that. Something like the coronation of King Charles – all the militaristic overtones.
BJ: Are you differentiating between the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ that we see in all the dumb movies and the ‘redemptive myth’ of the crucified king? I know that as England we can be that imperialistic nation and go down the dark side of the warrior track – but as Anglo-Saxons we also have that experience of being a warrior culture that was then transformed by Christianity and Celtic monks. Your book finishes with a call to ‘the reconciliation of the Cross, the reconciliation of the priest and the warrior’. Isn’t that hope of reconciling the priest side and the warrior side the foundation of an idea of ‘England’, that goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, but was visible in the Coronation? Charles, as King, in the traditions of our monarchy has done his military service, and his sons have too – but in that service he was sacralised, almost ordained by the church, surrounded by clergy – and again, that goes right back to King Alfred. Isn’t England all about the warriors working with the priests and ‘keeping it all together’? Even if that’s not widely understood today?
POJ: At its root I think that’s absolutely right, and I think there was a vision there. I’m comfortable with the notion of the reconciliation of the warrior and the priest. But, when that vision becomes tradition, then it loses all its vitality. It just becomes tokenistic, wooden. When it turns into fable it’s empty, it’s hollow. My concern with what we saw on that day was that it was like watching a re-enactment society.
‘Ok – what is this dark little worm called comfort?’ It’s fucking fear
BJ: I see, so I’m getting excited about it, and seeing it as myth, and therefore powerful, but you’re saying ‘no – this is diminished, this is fable, it doesn’t have that mythic power’?
POJ: It is diminished, it’s tokenistic. And I would also say, Christ did not pick up a sword, and I don’t want to balance that action with those who do. And I don’t think the early Celtic monks, or indeed the Desert Fathers, or indeed the Poor Sisters would see themselves as a balance for the warrior cult.
BJ: And that was their mission field. The Celtic kings were just as bloodthirsty as any Anglo-Saxon kings …
POJ: Yeah! The warrior cult has been a curse … I’ll just finish by saying that every year we have these Remembrance Services up and down the country, but no wreath is ever laid for the innocents. There were more civilians who lost their lives in World War 2 than servicemen, but not one wreath is laid for them. We’re going to lay one here. I think it ought to be laid by a child. Surrounded by all these kings and generals, I want a child to come up.
St Peter’s chapel and altar, Firle – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
BJ: So, Peter, you’ve had a really rich and varied career, you’ve done this great TV work, and lived out your priestly vocation in your own individual way. Would you say Conversations with Nature is now your ‘mature work’, a distillation and integration of all those different themes and experiences you’ve lived through?
POJ: No, I would say I’m not sure there’s anything mature about it! I think it’s probably the most childlike piece of writing that I’ve done.
BJ: But it’s so distilled and that speaks to me of great restraint. Your first book is passionate and loquacious, full of long sentences, whereas this is really focussed.
POJ: I was focussed. I don’t see the whole environmental issue, and the Armageddon we face, as a matter of logistics and numbers. I see it as utterly relational – ultimately that it is about love. At the base, our whole relationship with the natural world is about love. If we reduce it to tons of carbon dioxide or milligrams of pesticides going into rivers, then we’re almost in a worse place.
BJ: But obviously, vast resources are going into that accountancy mentality. General Synod has promised that the Church of England will be carbon neutral by 2030 and we’re all auditing ourselves to death!
POJ: This is the time to weep, the time to put on ashes.
Are we really going to have another Church Harvest Festival where we celebrate the fruits of the earth, and how they have been ripped and plundered and cut from the very soil, without looking at how that is done? Are we going to continue to do that in the name of Tradition and getting a few people into church on a Sunday?
POJ: This is what it is. If the church is to have any ‘salt’ left within it, then it is to speak these words: Where are we? What kind of church are we? What kind of men and women of God are we?
BJ: So how do you think (as a prophetic voice) we should go on? What should we focus on?
POJ: Justice. We need to look at where anthropocentrism has brought us. What it’s brought us to. Are we really going to have another Harvest Festival where we celebrate the fruits of the earth, and how they have been ripped and plundered and cut from the very soil, without looking at how that is done? Are we going to continue to do that in the name of Tradition and getting a few people into church on a Sunday? Or are we going to say that we have to stop poisoning the land in the name of progress? I am going to say that we have to stop poisoning the land, the sea and the earth in the name of progress and human survival – I mean, how obscene is that?
BJ: So, do you think we could achieve a practical transition to a spiritually satisfying and sustainable way of living that’s based on sustainability and valuing human interaction above possessions? Could that be what we model, what we teach, what we glorify?
I mean – a fucking diamond – it’s ridiculous…
POJ: Yes – to nurture and to know the gift, not just of human life, but of all life – the life of a swallow, the life of a fox. It’s not just us, here, now – but as long as we perceive it as being just us, we will kill everything, because we will be dead to the beauty and the integrity of all other forms of life. And that is what has happened and that is why we have ended up where we are.
BJ: So, I was saying about valuing people and seeing that as our wealth – saying ‘I know all these people and that is my wealth – not all these things’ – but you’re saying ‘these other consciousnesses’ are what counts – that we value these as our wealth?
POJ: I mean – a fucking diamond – it’s ridiculous …
BJ: Yeah – and then you think about the carbon footprint of getting it out of the ground and processing it, then fighting a war for it …
John Piper window – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
POJ: Our whole value system, we need to look at what we’re valuing, why we’re valuing it and what it’s brought us to, this point, now. Is one shell more valuable than another? Is gold really worth more than tin? It’s nuts! I say it in Conversations with Nature – is a swallow greater than a raven? Is a tree greater than a blade of grass? No! Not one life form is greater than another, and that fundamentally includes us. Does Christianity teach that human beings are the ‘golden children of life’? (the church bell starts ringing in the background) – there I get muddy … that’s an unresolved tension.
BJ: Suffering is inherent to the natural world. Do Christian debates about ‘the problem of pain’ arise from a failure to understand that humans are part of nature?
POJ: Yeah. And our lack of courage in facing impermanence and suffering.
I think the church had the exoticism beaten out of it by empirical theology
BJ: There’s a big theme in Conversations around facing up to the fact that we could just be ‘prey’ to some predator, and that you have to reconcile yourself to that reality to live in this world.
POJ: The bear just wants to kill us, and our children, kill our wives, kill our husbands. It just wants to eat us. And so does coronavirus. With no shame and no remorse. But that’s OK, that’s raw ferocity. Our ancestors would put bear skulls on their heads, and what they were saying was ‘I am this fierce’ – and I get that. I can stand there and yell and go ‘Yes!’ But I am no different to the bear.
BJ: Does that feed into the warrior thing? Is that side of us not like the bear, a part that we can affirm and understand?
POJ: Yes – I would call it ‘life force’ and the need, the ‘hard wiring’ to survive, and knowing that at some point I will have to fight for my survival, I will have to fight the bear. Not because the bear is evil, but because that’s just how it is – we live on a carnivorous planet.
BJ: So, Peter – your voice is distinctive and this book is unique – do you have any allies or peers within the church – or elsewhere? I’m struggling to think of any …
I don’t see Anglicanism as less exotic than Jainism
POJ: I don’t know any in the church, sadly. I’m tolerated, and I’m grateful for that. But it works both ways. I try not to be too disparaging about what I see as the denuding of the parish priest in favour of the enclave of the bishop, and they don’t get too cross with me, and that’s OK. I’m a great supporter of Protestantism in that it is consciously ‘broad’ and there are Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics and Liberals, and that’s pretty healthy, as long as we are prepared to learn from each other.
BJ: There are writers like Paul Kingsnorth and Martin Shaw.
POJ: These are my brothers.
BJ: So, you’re good with them?
POJ: I’m good with them. They’re reaching, they’re putting their hands in the earth. And both of them have become Christians, which is extraordinary. And Martin especially had a ‘Damascene experience’. So, what’s happening is here – here the Spirit is Stirred. When you take your ordination vows part of it is to ‘Stir up the Spirit’, to keep it moving, and see that it doesn’t fall into the comfort of Tradition.
John Piper window detail and in mirror – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
BJ: Paul Kingsnorth and Martin Shaw have become converts and settled in Orthodox Christianity. So, do their stories give you any hope for the Church of England? Or do they indict the Church of England as too compromised and soft to win radical converts in 2023?
POJ: I don’t think it was that conscious. I just think they felt drawn towards Orthodoxy. I want to celebrate and respect that as one of the Christian paths. I’m completely relaxed about that. I will invite Martin to come and preach here. I’ll call him later today. I won’t talk to the bishops about it and we’ll just carry on from there.
BJ: One of the things that I really liked about the Extreme Pilgrim series was that you still took the spirituality of your English villages very seriously, even though you were accessing what to us are really exotic ‘far off’ experiences. Do you still feel that same kind of loyalty and hope for ‘Village Christianity’?
I would have just withered.
I would have ended up like ‘Withnail and I’
POJ: I do! And I also see it as essentially ‘exotic’. I think it’s had the exoticism beaten out of it by empirical theology, but I still see this seed of the mystic. And if we lose that seed, then we’re done for. I don’t see Anglicanism as less exotic than Jainism.
POJ: I just don’t think many people would agree with me.
BJ: Well, on the other side of the world, watching the coronation of King Charles, that must have seemed pretty exotic to them! Will you just keep on going as a parish priest until you drop, or will you retire one day?
POJ: That’s another conundrum. As we get older our energy levels undoubtedly begin to subside. At the moment I’m keeping going, but if I feel I’m becoming a burden then I will go and live in a small shed by the sea and shout at the gulls. If your identity becomes completely consumed by the fact that you’re a parish priest, then that’s not right either. I’ve seen several parish priests who’ve not been able to give up that identity.
You look at the ads in the Church Times for new priests and they’re all saying, ‘we’re drowning – save us’. I’d say that isn’t going to change until we look at why we’re drowning.
BJ: You’ll still be just as much of a priest shouting at the gulls!
POJ: Yeah, I will!
BJ: Even more like St Francis …
POJ: I think the gulls would be a lot kinder to St Francis, and rightly so.
BJ: So, Peter – Christianity at its best – is it ‘the true myth’? – does it somehow unite rationality and the imagination?
POJ: I think Christianity is at its best when it embodies love. I know that could be seen as a ‘cop-out’ answer, but when it embraces love – and that has nothing to do with ‘keeping the show on the road’ – it’s about the question: ‘Are we being vulnerable enough to speak the voice of love?’ At the moment I don’t think we are. We’re too tied up with survival. We’re drowning. I understand it. You look at the ads in the Church Times for new priests and they’re all saying, ‘We’re drowning – save us!’ I’d say that isn’t going to change until we look at why we’re drowning.
BJ: Can you answer that question?
POJ: We’re drowning because of a profound lack of imagination and a profound lack of courage.
BJ: We really just need to remember who we are and stick to our guns?
POJ: Yeah – and not be swayed by the secular agenda. And there I would support Catholicism, which resolutely is not swayed by the secular agenda.
BJ: By that do you mean consumerism?
POJ: Yeah, the consumer culture and the great pulling of teeth which is going on around sexuality within the Protestant world. We’re constantly knocked off balance by the pressures of the consumer secular culture, and we’re falling down as a result of that.
BJ: So, when you mention sexuality are you saying that we should not worry about that stuff, not tell people what to do and how to live?
POJ: Yeah, come on, absolutely!
BJ: So that’s part of the ‘imperialism’ within Christian tradition? We’re trying to tell everyone how to live and to have an answer to every possible question, when we can’t?
POJ: Of course, we can’t, and I would resolutely stand behind my gay friends and bear witness to the fact that they are held in the highest esteem, as is all life, by God. And it’s not an issue for me. If it is an issue for others then I am happy to sit down and listen and learn, but that needs to work both ways, and there are much more important things now to attend to in terms of authentic Christianity than to get knocked off balance by that.
View from Firle Rabbit Track – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
BJ: I guess what you’re saying there almost takes us ‘full circle’ because the people who get really upset about stretching our idea of what marriage means are attached to the Adam and Eve ‘image’ in the wrong way? They can only think of a man and a woman in that garden, and no variations on that theme can be imagined. But that’s misunderstanding what that story is there for? It’s not there to establish a ‘binary’?
POJ: I would go back to St Peter’s dream, when the tablecloth is dropped from heaven and the voice says, ‘to not call unclean what I have called clean’.
BJ: Peter, back in 1996 in your first book, Bed of Nails, you said that ‘we are suffering from a creativity crisis as Christians, a crisis of the imagination’. Obviously, your latest book seems like a worthy response to that crisis. Are you the only ploughman in the field right now? Are there any other writers, artists, musicians you admire, whose work helps you, feeds you?
POJ: I recently discovered Thomas Traherne who seems to be wonderful. As I’ve got older, I’ve become much more loving of jazz and that ‘free form’. I did hear that when the Scottish bagpipers get together, there’s a special class where nothing is written down and the man or the woman just stands there and plays. A lot of the modern classical composers I love, and writers – I will read anything! I think Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, the Sufi writer, is absolutely extraordinary. I think the same of Joanna Macy. I say to children ‘always have a book on the go’ – even if it takes two years to read it. I read nothing until I was 27, then a friend turned up at the door with One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Lord of the Rings. He said, ‘I think it’s about time you read something.’ Since then I’ve been insatiable.
BJ: Peter, you dropped out of school at sixteen, did agricultural work, then just started reading and reading. Then you obviously re-engaged with education at Theological College – in your first book, written about those days, you’re passionate about every essay you study for. Do you think that break in your education helped you have a more individual perspective, a more ‘liminal’ viewpoint, as you weren’t just stuffed though A levels and degree? You had that ‘break’ to connect with the land?
‘I will find love’ – there is the dance, there is Arcadia… And yet searching for it will undoubtedly take us into the storm
POJ: For me it was the right thing. I would have just withered. I would have ended up like ‘Withnail and I’.
BJ: I can see that – a narrow escape! (we laugh)
POJ: I would have done! But I had that kind of sleeping in the woods actual period ‘in the wilderness’. Robert Bly talks about that in his seminal book Iron John. If you want to be formed by the divine, there comes a point where you have to let everything else go. That’s either done by choice, or it’s something that just happens – in periods of loss and grief when we lose people we love, or when we become sick. These are processes of deconstruction at the ages of 16 or 24/25. I was what people conventionally call ‘a mess’ – but it was that mess which made me.
BJ: Because you were processing childhood stuff?
POJ: I was without an anchor. There was always prayer, but that was not disciplined. I was speaking to the founder of Burning Man (the festival). He must have been in his seventies, and he was chain-smoking, and he said, ‘My God – I look back on my younger years and they’re just silver, they’re shining.’ And I look back on those years for myself and they’re just shining. Christianity needs a bit of that.
BJ: Was it your mid-twenties when you found faith?
POJ: No, it was always there. And there was this sense of calling. It was very insistent and never went away, and I thought I was going nuts because I was not a good person. I was a bad young man – or at least I was labelled a bad young man – and it just didn’t make any sense. And here I am now … Integration is a beautiful word. It’s like ‘interdependence’. It’s that that we’re being called to. Humanity is being called into an understanding of our interdependence and to integrate itself with the notion of intimacy. We’re terrified of intimacy because it requires vulnerability, but if we can know that as a reality within us and beyond us, who knows, the universe might welcome us at some point, and we won’t be lost and alone on this hunk of rock, going round this beautiful star …
Peter Owen Jones – Photo: William Parsons @willwalking
BJ: Just one more thing – in Bed of Nails you talked about the loss of your father, and you talked about God as ‘the Father I did not know’. I wonder, do you relate to God most as ‘Father’ or ‘Son’ or ‘Holy Spirit’ now? Or maybe a different word?
POJ: I think it was St Augustine who said ‘God is closer to me than myself’. There is this extraordinarily intimate force that holds all life in being. And it is intimate, and it is loving – that’s my experience of it. Whether it’s masculine or feminine – I think it’s probably both. I did think having been ordained, that the ‘stardust’ would probably wane, but for me it has increased, and as I’ve got older I’ve become more amazed and more grateful for what I can only describe as very present, loving, reality. I trust it more and more; I trust that reality more and more as I’ve got older – and with increasing levels of trust come increasing experiences of wonder.
BJ: Well, maybe we’ll pull stumps there. Thank you. In your book it says, ‘Sanctuary is within, find the room within’, and I think that’s a wonderful invitation for people to take hold of.
POJ: But it’s also ‘without’ – it’s quantum. We need to break out of the binary – let’s go quantum! … Yeah! What a feast! It’s incredible – just look out of this window – what a feast!
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William Parsons: www.wayfaringbritain.com
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JULY 2023 Brunel James MONK