Crucified Love: a Good Friday Reflection

This Lent I have had two devotional projects which, I think, will continue far beyond Easter.

First, I have been painting the face of Jesus on the cross. I have attempted different media which have brought their various technical challenges, but in each case the concentration required has drawn me back into giving attention to Jesus Christ. Sustained attentiveness is rarely easy, but painting his face has drawn me in.

The face of Christ: a study in acrylics

I have used various icons and paintings from the past as inspiration for my artistic

endeavours. These prototypes have provided a starting point for prayer as well as painting. The painting (right) is a study in acrylics (a medium new to me) inspired by a crucifix painted by Giunta Pisano in the middle of the thirteenth century.

Which brings me to my second Lenten project – a study of the historical development of how the crucifixion has been portrayed, both in Orthodox iconography and early Western art. I have been particularly intrigued by the transition in thirteenth century Italy from Byzantine iconic influence to the more naturalistic renditions of Western art.

There is, of course, an important difference between Orthodox iconography, with its almost sacramental intention of offering a window into the spiritual realities represented, and western art which has tended to focus more on the humanity of the subject of the painting. Whereas the icon, painted with prayer, offers in visual form an invitation to relate to whoever is being represented, the West has been more concerned with drawing the viewer into the drama of a scene, often by touching the emotions and encouraging an identification with the subject.

Giunta Pisano: Crucifix of San Ranieri (c.1240-50)

I know this is an over-simplification (perhaps a theme for another blog on another day) but it provides me with a vantage point from which to be intrigued by the developments in thirteenth century Italy. As the century went on there was a move towards more naturalistic (I won’t say ‘more realistic’) painting from the relatively flat surface of the Byzantine icon to the three-dimensional humanity of Giotto’s paintings and beyond.

In the painting of crucifixes for churches this moved from the Romanesque representation of Christ alive and reigning from the cross – dressed, bearing his own weight and with eyes open and arms outstretched in blessing – to a dead Christ, slumped with eyes closed and bleeding side. (It is true that Byzantine icons of the crucifixion had begun to present Christ dead on the cross, but with more of a sense of regal repose than of human suffering.) It has been suggested that the compassionate influence of the Franciscans (Francis died in 1226) had a bearing in Italy on the devotional attention to the suffering of Christ and the increasing naturalism of its pictorial representation. Certainly, meditation on the cross has been fruitful for so many Christians as they have been led to respond to the appeal of God’s love to win their hearts.

It is not only in the visual arts, however, that this can take place. In the Reformed tradition word pictures have often replaced painted images as poets, hymn-writers and preachers have evoked powerful images in the mind’s eye. None more so than Isaac Watts who, early in the eighteenth century, invited his London congregation to visualise the cost of God’s love for us and our salvation. Firmly in the Western artistic tradition, those who sing his hymn ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ are invited to gaze on the crucified saviour and respond to his loving sacrifice:

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

A New Beginning

Scotney Flowers

Welcome to the new-look crammedwithheaven.org blog and website. If you have been here before, or if you are a follower and have wondered about the site’s inactivity, then I am happy to announce a new beginning.

Not only do we have a new and clearer appearance to the site, but the content has been revised and refocused. Most importantly, in its new era there will be regular blogs and an expanding fund of resources on some of the pages.

When I began the blog in 2011 I was on study leave in Italy and was reflecting on art and spirituality. You can still find my musings my Italian Journey page. Since then I have done a lot more painting and, I hope, a lot more praying. You can find some of my more recent art works through the GALLERY menu and there will still be a focus on the visual arts in this site. But I now want to both widen  the range and sharpen the focus of crammedwithheaven.org.

The range of my musings will continue to embrace art and spirituality but will now also include poetry. In the spirit of a reflective practitioner, I want to both practise these things and reflect upon them. The static web pages will offer resources for worship, together with some of my paintings, poems and prayers. There will also be a small number of pages dedicated to the academic study of these creative areas and their relationship to praying and doing theology. The now-to-be-regular blogs will offer a mix of reflection, study and artistic creations of one kind or another. So:

PRAYER, PAINTING AND POETRY

– REFLECTIONS, STUDIES AND RESOURCES

I hope you find this new era of crammedwithheaven.org both interesting and useful. If you do then please tell a friend!

In a country church

In this church all is still,
but for the clock’s tick;
the bell ropes hang
waiting for the ringers’ tug.
The pews wait for restless worshippers
or tired travellers;
the windows send threads of sun
along the pews’ edges
and silence waits to be filled.

Something coalesces –
is it the presence of God?
or is it my racing pulse
slowing to the pace of reflected memories?
In the space,
in the silence,
in the need,
in the waiting,
there is room for God.

Christopher J Ellis

 

Opening to God

David G. Benner Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer
Downers Grove IL, IVP 2010

It was one of those moments of delightful ‘accident’ or serendipity. I was browsing a small bookstall in a retreat centre recently and came across this little book by David G. Benner. It is a book about prayer but it is so much more: it offers practical guidance while also giving psychological insight and glimpses of profound theology.

Benner is a Canadian writer on spirituality with a professional background in clinical psychology and the teaching of spirituality. He argues that prayer is primarily an expression of our relationship with God. It is more than ‘saying prayers’, it is ‘being with the Beloved’, a relationship which spills out into the whole of life and leads to personal transformation. There are many practical suggestions about the ‘how’ of prayer in this book, but the author begins by arguing that prayer is not something we do but something God does in and through us. Prayer is the act of breathing in the love of God and then breathing this same love back out into the world.

The evangelical roots of this author are in evidence as he shows the importance of Scripture in nourishing the life of prayer.  The traditional method of  lectio divina (spiritual reading) is explained and then its four stages are used as a way of exploring the many dimensions of prayer. So lectio (reading) leads to ‘prayer as attending’, meditatio (meditation) leads to ‘prayer as pondering’, oratio (prayer or speaking) leads to ‘prayer as responding’ and contemplatio (contemplation) leads to ‘prayer as being’.

Along the way, Benner explores the importance of silence, honesty and imagination. He explains clearly such forms of prayer as the examen (the prayerful recollection of the day), the Jesus prayer, pondering art, journaling, conversational prayer and centering  prayer.

A key concern is that prayer should be holistic. In part, this means that, whatever our personality or spiritual tradition, we should broaden the repertoire of our praying. But holistic prayer also means that our prayer activity should move beyond our times of prayer to transform the whole of our lives.

Prayer that is reduced to technique or discipline seriously misses the fact that first and foremost, prayer expresses a relationship between us and God… [for] we are his friends, not his servants (John 15.15)… It is to this friend’s presence in our life and our world that we attune our self when we offer prayers of attending. It is with this friend that we offer prayers of pondering, responding and being. (p150)

This is quite simply the best book on prayer that I have read. It’s first reading will excite and encourage and re-reading will offer rich reflections and practical guidance. On a scale of one to five, I give this book six stars!

You can check our David Benner’s blog and some of his other books at http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca/blog/

New resource for studying spirituality

I didn’t hear the thud – but then it was too big for the letterbox as well as being a weighty tome. I was delighted to receive my contributor’s copy of the Zondervan Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (edited by Glen Scorgie, Zondervan 2011) which arrived this week.

With over 850 double-column pages it claims to be comprehensive and is certainly extensive. As you would expect with this publisher, the perspective is evangelical. However, the scope is catholic and presents information about a broad range of topics relating to spirituality and offers suggestions for further reading which are not limited to one part of world Christianity.

Contributors who may be known outside North America include Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard and Jim Packer, as well as the Baptists Clark Pinnock, Glen Hinson and Glen Stassen and the Pentecostal Simon Chan.

The first two hundred pages or so contain over thirty essays offering brief introductions to various themes and topics. These include approaches to the study of spirituality, biblical foundations, historical and  confessional traditions such as ‘Byzantium and the East’, together with topics such as mysticism, music and the arts, transformation, grace, ministry and spiritual formation. The dictionary entries cover the remaining six hundred pages.

I also have on my shelf a (contributor’s) copy of the New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2005), edited by Philip Sheldrake – whose contribution to the study of Christian spirituality I have greatly appreciated and from which I have richly benefited. The SCM book, like its predecessor edited by Gordon Wakefield, is a fine resource which offers authoritative introductions to a range of topics. However, I have, at times been frustrated by its silence with regard to some evangelical themes which are a part of the story and experience of Christian spirituality.

The new Zondervan dictionary offers guidance from a different perspective, both in its theological ethos and, more particularly, in the scope of subjects covered. Used together, these two books offer a rich and comprehensive dictionary treatment of Christian spirituality.

For example, in the Zondervan dictionary entries on Horatius Bonar and E M Bounds appear alongside entries for Bernadette of Lourdes, Bernard of Clairvaux, Anthony Bloom and Bonaventure. Zondervan entries which are not included in the SCM book include Conviction, Keswick, Revival, W J Seymour, Oswald Chambers and  Glossolalia.  The Zondervan selection also includes certain theologians who have influenced contemporary spirituality theology including Barth, Bonhoeffer, Gutiérrez, Rahner, Pannenberg, and Sobrino. Interestingly, there are also dedicated Zondervan entries (which are not to be found in the SCM book) on  Gregory of Nyssa, John of Damascus and Søren Kierkegaard. These entries suggest, with many others, a focus on prominent people which could well lead dictionary browsers to discover their respective writings for themselves – a good and accessible move!

Of course, many topics appear in both dictionaries such as, Hesychasm, Monasticism, and Prayer of the Heart. Even when the Zondervan  contributor is cautious or critical, the tone is never other than generous, as in the article on Yoga. There is provocative and fruitful reflection on such topics as Postmodernity, the Name of Jesus, Masculine Spirituality and Prayers for the Dead.

A further distinctive of the Zondervan dictionary is its attempt to encourage  its contributors to include reflections on how the topic in question has practical implications for living a spiritual life today. It’s academic rigour is clear but its pastoral application is also in evidence and this will make it attractive to church ministers and other Christians who want to delve further into aspects of Christian spirituality. The  reasonable price should also help it reach beyond academic circles and thus enrich the wider church and encourage Christian disciples in the life of faith.

The book carries commendations from various well-known writers including Richard Foster, Marva Dawn and Leighton Ford. Here, to close, is one by Christopher Cocksworth, Bishop of Coventry:

This dictionary, with its global interests and spiritual zeal, has an energy and breadth that lifts it into a new league

Well done Glen Scorgie and the team!

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