I saw a t-shirt in Chania, Crete, yesterday that asked a perfectly reasonable question: ‘Three reasons for being a teacher? 1. June; 2. July; 3. August. It must be the Greek version of English jokes about teachers always being on holiday. Knowing teachers the way I do – I go into schools most weeks – they deserve every day of holiday they get… but they could do with having them spread out a bit more effectively (and getting away from the ridiculous summer pattern we have inherited from the times when the kids had to be released from the classroom to help bring in the harvest).

I had no idea that Crete gets rubbish weather for most of the year. I just assumed it would be permanently sunny – after all, I have only ever seen sunny photos of the island. No wonder they take June, July and August as school holidays, though: too hot, full of tourists and a winter of cold and rain to look forward to.

Crete is where the Apostle Paul got into sailing problems and ended up shipwrecked in Malta. No wonder he was suspicious of Cretans. He wrote to the first Bishop of Crete, Titus:

It was one of them, their very own prophets, who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’ That testimony is true…

Not in my experience so far, it isn’t. Not one for holding a grudge or a prejudice, old Paul, was he?

Knossos (ruins of the ancient Minoan culture) was excellent. Bit of a problem for those who think the world is only six thousand years old, though: people have lived here since c.7000BC…

Anyway, apart from the touring and swimming and other fun stuff, so far I have relaxed and read the following books:

  • Elie Wiesel, Night
  • Robert Harris, Lustrum
  • Robert Harris, The Ghost
  • Bernhard Schlink, The Reader
  • William Boyd, Ordinary Thunderstorms
  • Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

What unites these books – all considerations of the human condition under stress – is their treatment of guilt. The complexity of the human condition means that trite solutions to the haunting and debilitating destructiveness of guilt sound hollow. Bonhoeffer knew what he was talking about when, in his most famous book Discipleship (Nachfolge), he condemns what he calls ‘cheap grace’. With the Nazi jackboot soon to descend on him with violent vengeance he eschewed easy notions of forgiveness or bland resolutions to serious ethical dilemmas. (After all, not only was he a brave theologian and pastor, but he was also a double agent implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler.)

The shipwrecks of people’s lives provide the raw material for good novels and music. Another artist to grapple with the complexities of guilt and grace is Bruce Cockburn. In his great song Shipwrecked at the Stable Door, he writes – as only the poets can when the deep stuff of human living needs some expression in words:

 The man who twirled with rose in teeth
Has his tongue tied up in thorns
His once expanded sense of time and
Space all shot and torn
See him wander hat in hand –
“Look at me, I’m so forlorn –
Ask anyone who can recall
It’s horrible to be born!”

Big Circumstance comes looming
Like a darkly roaring train –
Rushes like a sucking wound
Across a winter plain
Recognizing neither polished shine
Nor spot nor stain –
And wherever you are on the compass rose
You’ll never be again

Left like a shadow on the step
Where the body was before –
Shipwrecked at the Stable Door

Big Circumstance has brought me here –
Wish it would send me home
Never was clear where home is
But it’s nothing you can own
It can’t be bought with cigarettes
Or nylons or perfume
And all the highest bidder gets
Is a voucher for a tomb

Blessed are the poor in spirit –
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth –
May their gene pool increase

Left like a shadow on the step
Where the body was before –
Shipwrecked at the Stable Door