Essay
Culture
5 min read

CajMaj’s search for the unseen

A coffee shop queue encounter inspires Daniel Kim to consider the small moments of magic in the trivia of life.

Daniel is an advertising strategist turned vicar-in-training.

On the edge of  wintery meadow a couple and a stranger stand apart.
Searching for something.
Daniel Kim.

I was standing in a coffee shop queue one morning when I fell into a conversation with a student behind me. I won’t bore you with the small-talk pleasantries, because one way or another, we happened upon the topic of Magic. As one does. Apparently, he was increasingly, and very sincerely, becoming more open to the possibility of supernatural magic in the world. Weird. He then proceeded to tell me that he’s been practicing Casual Magic. Naturally, and with internal eyebrows raised, I asked him what Casual Magic was. According to my new friend, it’s when you see small moments of magic in the trivial moments of life - little flashes of enchantment that lift your spirits and points you to ‘something more’. He was saying how he’s increasingly found it more important to find things to be grateful for in the mundane moments of the day. It seemed to me a strangely Christian thing to say. I also thought it was a very mature thing to say and a lovely thing to hear on a Tuesday morning. But then he proceeded to tell me that you can shorten it to ‘CajMaj’ which might be the most Gen Z thing I have ever heard. That broke me.  

You might be feeling underwhelmed, like I was. I was slightly hoping to get an insight into some strange micro-culture of contemporary pagans muttering incantations under their breath throughout the day, or a crew of David Blaine mega-fans practicing Casual Magic on unsuspecting pedestrians. Turns out, CajMaj is a very familiar concept dressed up in new clothes. We all know what this is referring to.  

A swim in the river on a summer’s day; a foggy night turning streetlights into mystical balls of fire; a worn-out family at a funfair sitting on the ground looking tired but content; or even a stray sunbeam cast on a 1970s wood-chip wall while you’re lamenting on the loo about the lack of toilet paper. Yes, even that last one. In a previous life, I was a photographer and still fancy myself as a competent amateur nowadays. These are all my favourite CajMaj moments I’ve captured in the last year. For what it’s worth, my favourite kind of photography is the art of capturing #CajMaj. 

#CajMaj moments

Author's own pictures.

four images arranged 2 by 2

Instagram aside, writers, poets, mystics, and philosophers have all written about this experience in different ways.  

We have Mac Davis’ song Stop and Smell the Roses, or travel writer Cheryl Strayed's ‘Put yourself in the way of beauty’. If you’re the corporate type, I’m sure you’ve seen The Habit of Gratitude lying around on team building days (although I can’t help but think this is a barely veiled threat to stop complaining about your boss). If you want to get slightly pretentious, German philosopher, Dietrich Von Hilderbrand enjoyed writing about the ‘Poetry of Life’ while James Joyce wrote about the Epiphanies of the everyday.  

Recently, in the 21st-century streams of psychology and neuroscience,  Dacher Keltner has written about the 'quiet profundity of everyday life' in his book AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it can Transform your Life. For Keltner, these moments of ‘being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding’ are essential to our happiness and even our cardiovascular system. They also make us more selfless, relaxed and more creatively inspired. So wherever you are on the romantic-cynic spectrum, a healthy dose of awe in your life is probably a good idea.  

Fun and brave 

But there’s just something I love about the new packaging of ‘CajMaj’. I think that’s for two specific reasons. The first is that the phrase is fun. We like to make things serious and overcomplicated but these moments often confront us in little flashes of joy, warmth, and whimsy and the language we use to express that should be equally joyful, warm, and whimsical. The ‘epiphany of the everyday’ doesn’t quite do it for me. Secondly, I like ‘CajMaj’ because it’s brave enough to recognise that these moments might be something outside of ourselves and our normal experience breaking into our world. Now, I’m sure most CajMaj-ers aren’t using the word ‘Magic’ seriously, but my friend in the cafe was, at the very least, using it to express something spiritual and real going on.  

This matters.  

Because if we drilled down to it - what exactly is going on when we experience these moments? Perhaps some of us, when push comes to shove, would want to interiorise and psychologise it. It’s all happening inside our minds and we’re simply projecting deeper meaning onto the world around us. We might think we’re observing something mystical and transcendent out there, but that’s ultimately an illusion. ‘CajMaj’, however, says that maybe, there really is something going on out there, an Unseen Realm, and we’re getting a taste of it. It’s not just happening inside our brains, we are encountering something real but just out of reach. Ultimately, we have the ask this question: “Is all of this just sentimental romanticism, or is it a profound moment of clarity?”  

Christians see CajMaj moments as flashes of the beauty and character of God. They are moments of spiritual encounter. But for the Christian, these moments are not just warm fuzzies or general, vague senses of awe and romantic transcendence. They tell us something real about the world. The Bible and Christian history is full of CajMaj, but they are seen as specific moments of clarity and knowledge. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” claims the songwriter in Psalm 19. Jesus himself appealed to these moments to say something specific about God:  

“Look at the birds in the air: they don’t sow or reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”.  

Tim Kallistos Ware, the English bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who died last year, wrote that: 

 “the whole universe is one vast burning bush permeated by the fire of divine power and glory”.  

I want to live in that universe. And I believe that I do.  

Through a glass 

These moments can tell us something about our identity, our value, and our purpose. But they need someone to make sense of it for us – something personal. We all have these moments of transcendence (twice-a-week on average according to Keltner) but more often than not it’s like a light shining through frosted glass. We might know and feel there’s something beyond it but it's blurry and out of focus. Don’t you want to pierce through that frosted glass and see what might lay beyond? That’s the promise of Christianity - and most other religions for that matter.  

Today, we tend to be turned off by institutional and formal expressions of religious faith. We generally prefer a more personal, spiritual connection than committing ourselves to external doctrines or religious systems. But these so-called systems, which are often characterised as dry  and straight-jacketing, are, in fact, vibrant paintings of what lies beyond that glass, painted by hundreds of generations of theologians, mystics, and artists far smarter and deeper than you or me. You might question if they’re right or not, but they certainly demand engagement. After all, what would be more tragic that spending the rest of your life catching odd glimpses of out-of-focus landscapes when the possibility of bright, illuminating, spiritual sunlight might just be around the corner? 

Casual Magic, CajMaj, is just another manifestation of a very human experience, but this experience comes with a promise. The promise of seeing the unseen, of unravelling the mystery of life, of experiencing the presence of God himself. It may be casual, but it ain’t trivial.  

#CajMaj

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.