There has always been a tension in religion and spirituality between two impulses. These are 1) To affirm that the world is fundamentally good despite its imperfections, and therefore to embrace it. God, after all, is reported in Genesis 1:31 as follows: ‘And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day’ 2) To abhor the material world as evil and therefore to renounce it. In this view the world is a kind of entrapment for the soul, full as it is of temptation, the blood, the flesh and the Devil. Thus we find as early as the third century AD Christian ascetics known as the ‘desert fathers’ getting closer to their God by getting as far from the ‘world’ as they could manage. Later, a highly influential movement known as ‘Gnosticism’  ( ran parallel to Christianity and also firmly within it. It, too, is philosophically dualistic, and recommended shunning the material world. In the 12th and 13th centuries Gnostic ideas found expression in Christianity in the form of Catharism ( Obviously, too, there are many strands within the monastic tradition which advocate detachment from the world in favour of prayer, silence and abstinence. So what are we to make of this? Is it necessary to renounce the world in order to be spiritual? Can you have your spiritual biscuit AND eat it? For those who struggle with this tension Dag Hammarskjöld’s ‘Markings’ (1963) is the read for you. Hammarskjöld (29 July 1905 – 18 September 1961) was a Swedish diplomat and economist who became the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Universally known and admired as a peacemaker, Hammarskjöld concealed a remarkable intense inner life which he recorded over several decades in this journal of poems and spiritual meditations. A dramatic account of spiritual struggle, Markings has inspired hundreds of thousands of readers since it was first published.

The work is distinctive, as W.H. Auden remarks in his foreword, as a record of ‘the attempt by a professional man of action to unite in one life the ‘via activa’ and the ‘via contemplativa’. It reflects its author’s efforts to live his creed, his belief that all men are equally the children of God and that faith and love require of him a life of selfless service to others. For Hammarskjöld, ‘the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.’ Markings is not only a fascinating glimpse of the mind of a great man, but also a moving spiritual classic that has left its mark on generations of readers. Will it make its mark on you?

Hammarskjöld was the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Great Lives’ in August 2016 . Available here at the link


Enquire at your local library or consult further bibliographic detail.


222 pages in Vintage Press

ISBN 978-0307277428

First published 1963


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Dag Hammarskjöld

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