IN READING The Virgin Eye, it helps to know the story behind its publication. The book has appeared posthumously, edited by the author’s widow from material that he had been developing over 20 years. As she explains in an introductory note: “Editing this book has been — in a certain sense — a way of continuing a relationship beyond death, and of bringing forth, for Robin, progeny.”
For her, producing the book is a means of keeping alive the memory and gathered wisdom of one she loved and lost. For the impressive list of endorsers, the book is (among other things) “a fount of wisdom”, “a treasure house in which to linger”, “like being taken into a beautiful garden by a Renaissance man”, and “like having an amazingly wise old uncle showing you how to live”.
For me, after more than two decades as an editor, it read more like a compendium of ideas towards a whole series of books on what could be termed “mindful living”. At the same time, I was aware that my reaction was a result of the very focus-driven, sales-pitch, “sum it up in a sentence” mentality that Robin Daniels was, gently, challenging.
The Virgin Eye is not so much a tightly argued treatise as an invitation to loiter, to browse, to chance on a line of poetry or an essay quote that sends you to a search engine to find out more (Arnold . . . Cowper . . . Pope . . . Hazlitt). In my experience, writers in the general area of spirituality can end up employing a rather restricted range of literary sources by way of illustration (T. S. Eliot and R. S. Thomas, with the occasional daring use of Donne). The breadth of Daniels’s quotations — and other cultural references — was therefore a surprise and delight, although my fussy editorial eye queried the quantity at times.
I found the opening section, “Contemporary Challenges”, the least compelling part of the book. It overflowed with facts and figures to help the reader perceive the problems of our age, and yet such material is the commonplace of too many blogs and Facebook posts to need repeating at length. I would suggest, therefore, that readers skim the first three chapters, and head for the heart of the book, which, for me, was the second section, “Vision”.
The first chapter of that section, “Return”, examines the experience of returning from holiday and seeing the familiar as if for the first time, and draws imaginative spiritual insights from it. Seeing afresh, with the “virgin eyes” of the book’s title, is about what the author terms “eucharistic living”. He also speaks of “contemplative seeing”, which “lifts the veil of mystery; encounters the sacred in the familiar, and consecrates — makes gentle — every word, every action”. He warns, however, that “lifting of the veil is only partial: our vision will only become spiritually 20/20 in the kingdom of heaven where our eye will be eternally young.”
Having whetted the appetite for such experience, the book maps out a threefold path, beginning with “seeking and adoring God”. This leads to self-awareness, which in turn leads to loving and serving others. This threefold path constitutes the remainder of the text, encompassing issues of spirituality, personal development, and relationships.
Interestingly, although the author worked as a Jungian analyst for 30 years (besides running marriage-enrichment and bereavement groups for churches), the book’s emphasis is predominantly on spirituality rather than psychology. Insights from the decades of professional practice are slipped in with subtlety rather than used overtly as a lens for viewing scripture and matters of faith.
The style of the book — particularly the liberal use of quotations — lends itself to dipping in and out rather than reading from cover to cover. As such, it is ideal retreat reading. Once the overall structure has been absorbed, the comprehensive index offers a good way of targeting a particular topic. For example, “silence” links to “benefits of . . . challenge of . . . in conversation/with others . . . need for . . . prayer in”. “Friendship” provides “deepening . . . gift . . . God’s independence from friends . . . oneness . . . pace . . . test of true . . . widening”.
While there are occasional lists of questions for self-reflection (which could lead to discussion), reading groups could either use the index to choose topics, or simply see what emerges from individual response to the free-flowing narrative voice. While one person might vow to go away and read some Shelley, another might be led to try one of the spiritual classics cited. Yet another might find that he or she is drawn into crafting some kind of creative response, because, fundamentally, The Virgin Eye is an inspiring book.
Its generous encompassing of a wealth of material offers points of connection for a wide readership, and connection can, with prayer and patience, become a means of transformation — or at least taking a few more steps on the journey of faith.
The Revd Naomi Starkey is Assistant Curate Enlli ministry area, on the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales.
The Virgin Eye: Towards a contemplative view of life by Robin Daniels is published by Instant Apostle at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-1-909728-52-3.
THE VIRGIN EYE — SOME QUESTIONS
“The religious vocation”, Robin Daniels writes, “is to assist in the spiritualising of the life of the world.” What might Christians do, both individually and as a church, to accomplish this?
What influence does Daniels’s background in psychotherapy have on The Virgin Eye?
How far do you concur with Daniels’s diagnosis of our “age of novelty, diversity and transience”?
Daniels draws on many sources to illustrate his points, including scripture, poetry, music, devotional writing, and examples from the lives of saints and divines. Which did you find most helpful or compelling?
What did you think about the book’s emphasis on meditation?
Daniels states that “it is vital to know the difference between making and letting things happen.” Having read this book, what do you feel is the relationship between “doing” and “being” in spiritual life?
How useful did you find The Virgin Eye’s sections on relationships? How might we encourage “love’s ecology” of the liberation of one another’s humanity, both in romantic relationships and in our wider interactions with others?
How has The Virgin Eye developed your “quality of seeing”?
Where is the Holy Spirit in this book?
Daniels writes that prayer is “the language of faith”. What did you take away from The Virgin Eye’s discussion of prayer, and how will it change your prayer-life in the future?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 June, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good by Matthew Crawford. It is published by Penguin Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9); 978-0-141-04729-4.
Challenging the alienated modern world’s disconnection of “thinking” from “doing”, Crawford’s book promotes attentive physical work as a potential source of human flourishing. Employing the wisdom of philosophers from Aristotle to Iris Murdoch, besides his own experience as an electrician and motorcycle mechanic, Crawford emphasises the importance of skilled manual labour in promoting attentiveness, self-reliance, and well-being.
Francis Fukuyama described The Case for Working with your Hands as “a beautiful little book about human excellence”; it has been published worldwide, translated into seven languages.
Matthew Crawford majored in physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, before completing a Ph.D. in ancient political thought at the University of Chicago. Thereafter, he worked in policy and think tanks. before setting up Shockoe Moto, a workshop for custom motorcycles, in 2002. His second book, The World Beyond Your Head (2015), investigates the modern world’s constant demands on our attention and suggests methods for freeing ourselves from distraction. Crawford is currently a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and also works at the Reclaimed Vehicle Fabrication Laboratory.
Books for the next two months:
July: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
August: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë