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Remember

Remember

 ‘Remember in the dark what you learned in the light’

 

Darkness folds in and smothers hope:

directions disintegrate,

perspectives perversely shift,

space spins,

thought telescopes

character crumbles.

 

The fish limp in poacher’s bag,

gagged hostage, foetal-folded,

bundled in the boot;

the scanned patient stripped and still,

torn between truth and mercy;

the unsleeping sleeper staring

at the unfriendly ceiling.

 

When nothing can be seen,

but fears dance like shadows at the stairs’ turn,

when action melts into gearless stare

and plans dissolve into passivity.

 

Now is the time:

when there is no looking forward

and the present is ominously stalled.

 

Now is the time to look back:

to remember daylight,

shafts of light casting clear shadows,

sparkles of sun lighting dark textures,

the search of memory bringing echoes of faithfulness,

of wisdom explored,

promises kept,

love’s embrace.

 

To remember the light

and wait for the light;

when pathos becomes patience,

when terror becomes trust,

when darkness dazzles with wonder and grace.

                                                               Christopher Ellis

Photograph: Sunset in West Bridgford 15.1.12

Italian Journey Art Show

In early December I staged an exhibition of a dozen paintings  which I had completed since my Italian journey earlier this year, together with a handful of earlier works. The show was exhibited at West Bridgford Baptist Church, Nottingham.

As well as the oils and pen and wash paintings, I included a number of photographs, a display of the books I had read and the sketchbooks which I had used while travelling. This was an attempt to feed back to the church some of the work and benefits of my sabbatical study leave – someone even read my sabbatical report!

Here is a gallery of the paintings and few pics of the exhibition.Click on an image and use the arrow keys or a further click to take you around the show.

I will also have some paintings in an exhibition in Nottingham in January. Here are the details –

COLOUR

OF MONDAY

New oil paintings from

Nottingham Art Studio

14th – 20th January 2012 10am – 4.30pm

Nottingham Society of Artists Gallery Friar Lane, Nottingham, NG1 6DH

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!

To discover Amazon prices, click on the image below:

The I and the Eye

I had ordered it long before publication so I opened the book with relish and anticipation when it finally arrived. The old adage tells us that ‘Those who can’t, teach!’ I want to offer a variation: ‘Those who can’t, buy lot’s of how-to books instead’ and so spend their time reading about the activity rather than doing it and learning from their mistakes. Shelves full of books on how to pray compete with shelves of books on how to paint and draw!

Anyway, the book in question was Painting Light in Oils by Peter Wileman and Malcolm Allsop (Batsford 2011). Peter Wileman is currently president of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the book is stuffed full of his impressionistic, mainly landscape and people, paintings. He is a fine painter and has a lovely knack of using a narrow range of tones and colours to frame an area of bright light which sings (or zings) as a result.

In answer to the question ‘What shall I paint?’ he offers this observation:

Novice artists often feel that for a subject they must find something that is beautiful or dramatic in itself. The problem for many people is that they’re more experienced in taking a photograph than choosing a subject for painting. A photograph tends to be the classic ‘view’, whereas an interesting painting usually shows a much less obvious take on a location.

In fact, your subject may be completely mundane; it may just be a collection of interesting shapes, a certain light effect, or a pattern of colour and tones that has made you want to create a painting.

I write on the last day of my sabbatical study leave and I have been reviewing the last three months – both the long trip to Italy and the drawing, painting and reading I did both there and on my return. As I leaf through my sketch books, I seem to feel more satisfaction with the pen and ink studies than with the pen and watercolour paintings. This may of course have something to do with my relative (in)competence in each media. However, I think it’s more likely to do with subject matter.

The watercolours have tended to be less experimental and more concerned with grand views of well-known landmarks – like some of my photographs. The ink drawings tend to be on a smaller scale and capture some aspect of a street or building which has interested me. Pen, sketchpad and water-brush are, after all, more portable than the full watercolour kit and a drawing may only take ten or twenty minutes. As a result, the drawing is more responsive and less predictable. What oil painting I’ve managed since my return has also tended to be the grand view – and grand view in the middle of the day when  I took the reference photographs rather than a well-known scene transformed by dramatic morning light or stormy weather.

Two things follow for me. First, a practical agenda. I must continue to paint from my travel sketches and photographs, but must look for those views which reflect my personal impressions and experiences rather than  grand views – more chamber music than  grand opera! I achieved this in some of my photographs, now I need to move to a stage of synthesis in my painting.

The second thing is more a line of reflection. Wileman’s comment, about the mundane and less obvious ‘take’, chimes with other thoughts and readings. Frederick Franck, in his The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation (Wildwood House 1973) presents drawing as a way of seeing which apprehends the reality of what is before us. He suggests that drawing is

a way of focusing attention until it turns into contemplation, and from there to the inexpressible fullness, where the split between the seer and what is seen is obliterated. Eye, heart, hand become one with what is seen and drawn, things are seen as they are – in their ‘isness’.

This was a road travelled by Thomas Merton who in the photography of his later years gave attention to very ordinary things but in a way which showed their extraordinary wonder. John Lane, in his The Spirit of Silence: Making Space for Creativity (Green Books 2006), writes,

The beginning of seeing lies with the rapt attention of unpretentious, everyday things; things ignored, mundane, unexceptional, commonplace; things lying about in rooms, things like the wrinkled sheets of an unmade bed, the refracted stems of a bunch of tulips in a glass pot, the rust on a sheet of corrugated iron, the pattern of porridge left at the bottom of an unwashed pan.

Giving attention is akin to prayer. It is relating to the world in such a way that the ‘I’ doesn’t get in the way of the ‘eye’. It is an openness to God’s world in its infinite richness and variety – not just the big picture, but the  intricate detail – what we might call ‘the calligraphy of God’.

Eat this book!

…the self is the sovereign text for living, the Bible is neither ignored nor banned; it holds, in fact, an honoured place. But the three-person Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is replaced by a very individualized personal Trinity of my Holy Wants, my Holy Needs, and my Holy Feelings.

Eat This Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading

by Eugene H Peterson (Hodder & Stoughton 2006)

Surveys tell us that bible reading is on the decline in all parts of the Christian community. Eugene Peterson is not only concerned to encourage the reading of the bible, but of reading it on its own terms as God’s word to the reader.

This is the second book  in Peterson’s five-volume series on Spiritual Theology. It’s style clearly indicates Peterson’s approach to Spiritual Theology as being in the form of a conversation rather than  a tightly focused textbook. The material is wide-ranging, illuminative and entertaining. It is a highly personal approach which offers fruitful reading and, as usual for Peterson, a gold mine of quotable quotes.

The book is in three sections. The first offers a theological introduction which includes reflections on, for example, how the reading of scripture can mediate the presence of God, scripture as revelation, the importance of story in an incarnational religion and the connections between bible reading and Christian living.

The second section shares reflections on methodology of spiritual reading. However, while it is structured around the classic four stages of lectio divina, it does not offer a standard explanation of these stages. Instead, it shares a number of fertile reflections about the process of reading and praying. In fact, Peterson diverges from the usual treatment of the fourth stage, contemplation, as a mystical resting in God, by seeing this stage as a working out of the reading and praying scripture in daily living and the forming of a Christ-like life.

In the third section we are treated to some fascinating observations about the process of translating biblical languages into contemporary English – a veritable feast for enthusiastic readers of The Message.

There is, however, an overall thesis to the book – that healthy Christian spirituality requires an appropriate method of regular and meditative scripture reading in order to form Christ-like character and obedient living. This thesis is not developed in a linear way but  conversationally, through a series of reflections which focus on different aspect of spiritual reading and the best way to report this is through a series of quotations or summaries.

Reading scripture isn’t enough. How we read it is vitally important. The title Eat this Book expresses this and is based on the Revelation 10.9-10. Peterson suggests this phrase should be regarded as a key text alongside such injunctions as ‘Love the Lord you God with all your heart’, ‘Repent and believe’, ‘Give thanks at all times’ and ‘Follow me’. Why is ‘Eat this book’ so important? Well:

It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform. When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals; and revelation is always formative – we don’t know more, we become more. Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make – make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.

The authority of the Bible is derived from the authorial presence of God. This is not an impersonal authority, a collection of facts or truths, it is not a bookish authority like a textbook:

This is revelation, personally revealed – letting us in on something, telling us person to person what it means to live our lives as men and women created in the image of God.

This personal revelation means that the reader should approach scripture as one ready to be addressed by the personal God we meet when we read in the right way. Peterson describes this right reading as ‘participatory reading’. This participation is helped by much of scripture being in the form of ‘story’. After all, story is an incarnational genre. God’s revelation is incarnational – and his presence in our lives is to be incarnational as well. So,

Spiritual  theology, using Scripture as text, does not present us with a moral code and tell us ‘Live up to this’; nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this and you will live well.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and in the telling invite: ‘Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-rules world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.’…

When we submit our lives to what we read in Scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.

Each stage of my Italian journey was rich and rewarding. But I was glad I had planned to visit Assisi last of all. The visit to this place of pilgrimage was far more than I had anticipated, an experience which amply rewarded my preparation of reading a life of St Francis before I arrived in the Umbrian town.

There are so many memories of those places which are associated with Francis, either by his presence or by others commemorating his faithful discipleship.I found myself saving for my last day a return to the basilica of San Francesca. On my first day I come to the church as a pilgrim and spent time in the crypt which houses the tomb of Francis and viewing some of the works of art. The second time I visited the church I had downloaded a tour guide to the church on to my iPod and this made me go around slowly, thoughtfully and relatively comprehensively. But even this second time I kept being drawn back to a painting which had stopped me in my tracks on the first visit. There was strictly no photography in the church so this image is off the internet.

Situated in the left transept of the lower church, this is a representation of the deposition, the taking of Jesus’ body down from the cross, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti early in the fourteenth century. Art historians will tell you that it is significant because it is an example of those works which broke through the medieval conventions which had been  influenced by Byzantine iconography. Instead of stylized images we have figures who interact with one another, a precursor of the humanism of the Renaissance.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But this work hit me between the eyes – or, rather, touched me at a deep level of common humanity and spiritual devotion. Look at the people who crowd around the dead body of Jesus. Their grief is not just the ending of their dreams, but the loss of someone they love more than  they can say. Their grief is tactile, as they cling tenderly to what remains of their Friend and Master. In the foreground, in red, is Mary Magdalene, kissing the foot she had so recently anointed with oil and washed with her tears of repentance. Standing, in blue, is Mary the mother of Jesus gently caressing his cold cheek with her own, just as she may have done when he was a babe in arms. John, the beloved disciple, shares the weight of the corpse – but this is no mere burden to carry, but a beloved friend to be cared for. But the fresco is far more than ‘just’ a portrayal of human grief. It is a representation of human devotion and it drew me into its spiritual response to God’s love in Christ. Here are friends devoted to Jesus. They cradle him lovingly and respectfully. Their tactile affection invites us to respond to this Jesus not simply with the language of faith or the vocabulary of discipleship – but with a  movement of the heart, with an adoration born of love and longing.

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.

Isaac Watts

New book reviews  – just click on the books menu tab:

Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination (Equinox 2005) go to Books >Austin Explorations

Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949) go to Books > Merton Seeds

 

Geometry or Symbolism?

It was a mealtime conversation in Rome while I was staying at the Venerable English College, the Venerabile. I was sat opposite a young priest from Malta who had come to Rome for further theological studies and was particularly interested in art history. He had just written an essay on art and the liturgy, and – well – the conversation flowed from there.

Somehow we got on to the subject of baptistries – it wasn’t me, honest! He commented on how most of the early ones were octagonal. Now we are talking about the fourth century onwards when baptism was still usually administered to adults professing their faith. Often the baptismal tank would be housed in a separate building in the grounds of the church and this building, as well as the tank, is referred to as a ‘baptistry’.

Octagonal Baptistry, Ravenna

Anyway, back to shape. Often these buildings were square or octagonal with a circular dome above. It was a throw-away line from the young priest, muttered with something of the certainty of the young (or maybe the confidence of being a student of the Gregorian University in Rome): ‘Of course, these baptistries were eight-sided to symbolize the ‘eighth day’.’

Now another historical note: the ‘eighth day’ was a concept developed by early Christian writers and it means Sunday. The term focused the meaning of the move for worship on the seventh day to worship on the eighth day. Now I know that a fair number of us have sometimes wished there were eight days in a week, but I know and the early church knew that there are in fact only seven. It’s a kind of paradox or nonsense phrase.

Sunday is the Lord’s Day – the first day of the week – the day of resurrection. But the point is this – it is not just another day like the rest. Nor is it even just the first day of creation – it is the day of new creation when everything in heaven and on earth is changed because God has raised Christ from the dead. God’s future end, his eschaton, has broken into human and cosmic history and all the boundaries have been changed and expectations have been turned upside down.

The young priest didn’t need to make the connection for me. The symbolism was so rich. ‘When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world’ – ‘We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ In baptism we celebrate the life-giving, life-changing work of God who raised Jesus to life on the eighth day – the first day of a new world. And those just baptized clamber out of the water to walk in a new world, a world of the eighth day, living in the light of the resurrection.

All this is rich symbolism, great theology and inspiring sentiments. But… I wondered whether baptisteries were octagonal in order to express the eighth day – or because it was a nice shape which the architect thought would look good – or because an octagon is what you get when you put a dome on top of a square and do something artistic with the interior walls! Was it simply geometry or intentional symbolism? Or did  the symbolism suggest itself once baptisteries had eight sides and someone made an imaginative leap?

This conversation was a month ago but it was brought to mind by another geometry-symbolism bit of mulling this week. Between Venice and Assisi I took a two-day detour via Ravenna, courtesy of the slow train from Bologna to Rimini. Ravenna was, for a time, the capital of the western part of the Roman empire,  when it was being overrun by Goths and others. For a period it was rescued by the eastern part of the empire, based in Constantinople and in the fifth and sixth centuries a number of churches and, yes, baptisteries were built. The town boasts eight, UNESCO World Heritage sites – and on Tuesday I visited six, all within a mile of one another – and each with the most incredible mosaics.

Christ in Glory, St Vitale, Ravenna

St Vitale is one of the largest buildings and  – yes – it’s octagonal. Here is a photo I took of the image of Christ in glory which faces the congregation from above the altar. It is incredible that it was made in 548 – nearly fifteen hundred years ago. The mosaics in Ravenna are stunning and are claimed to be ‘the best Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople’ (Istanbul).

The Cosmic Cross, Ravenna

Back to my theme. In two of the church buildings I found domes decorated as starry heavens – blue background with gold stars and a central gold cross. I sat in one chapel and gazed at this beautiful image. As I looked I realized that all the stars were eight-pointed! Now I think I was brought up in the belief that stars had five points – if you know what I mean. Then I thought, well, that’s just four lines imposed on one another – how I would normally draw an asterisk – geometry again.

And then the geometry or the symbolism didn’t matter. For I was seeing not simply the stars but the cross. Here was the cosmic cross – the redemption  of all things through Christ.  Here was a claim about what kind of universe we inhabit – fallen, broken, but redeemed. Whether through geometry or intentional symbolism, here was an eighth-day realization that everything was different because of the cross and resurrection of Christ – all creation was to be seen in the light of the cross.

It is fitting that the heavens should rejoice:

and that the earth should be glad,

and that the whole world, both visible and invisible,

should keep the feast.

For Christ is risen, the everlasting joy.

Now all things are filled with light,

heaven, and earth, and all places under the earth.

All creation celebrates the resurrection of Christ.

Orthodox Easter sentences

Reprinted in Gathering for Worship p384

            © Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius