Category Archives: Reviews

Books we have read and recommend; exhibitions, films …

24 May: Going viral CVI: A pilgrim feeling very, very exposed.

These pilgrims are somewhat exposed. The woman in the middle at least has long sleeves against the nettles and brambles; the lads behind? Well, they lived to tell the tale. If it’s not nettles or brambles, it will be neck pain or blisters or soakings or sunburn. But pilgrimage can also lead us to friendship, hospitality, service; the discovery of who we are and where we are – eventually – hoping to be.

There seems to be a growing interest in pilgrimage these days, perhaps enhanced by the experience of confinement under covid regulations. Let’s get out of here! i’ll come to Mrs Turnstone’s and my visit to Bury Saint Edmund’s in another post. Here we share a reflection by the designer and tv presenter, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one of a group of ‘celebrities’ who travelled across Ireland and the Irish Sea as pilgrims to Iona, for the BBC, and following journey of Saint Columba.

He tells Peter Stanford, “I am of a generation that has been war-free, plague-free, difficulty-free for most of our privileged lives, and suddenly here we are facing a plague [Covid], nuclear war [Ukraine] and gas prices going through the roof. We are literally touching cloth for the first time and we are feeling very, very exposed. We have nothing to believe in and yet we have to make some decisions quite quickly because we are running out of time.” (The well-tailored pilgrim, in The Tablet, 6 April, 2022).

Privileged we have been, but this blog does not accept that we have nothing to believe in.

The well-tailored pilgrim

by Peter Stanford

Pilgrimage: The Road to the Scottish Isles is available on BBC iPlayer for ten months.

https://wordpress.com/post/agnellusmirror.wordpress.com/30684 johnson

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12 February, Review: The Lenten Cookbook

The Lenten Cookbook book cover

The Lenten Cookbook, Recipes by David Geisser, with Essays by Scott Hahn

Manchester, New Hampshire, Sophia Institute, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-64413-469-6 

Here is a book of two halves: a series of essays by Scott Hahn on the practice of fasting, especially during Lent, followed by a collection of chef David Geisser’s recipes, mostly meat free but none the worse for that.

Hahn’s essays provide a clear justification for fasting and abstinence: ‘Fasting, and prayerful self-restraint in food choices generally, doesn’t have to be either monastic or a few-times-a-year imposition, but part of the everyday arsenal for spiritual growth (and warfare) available to every Christian.’  (p2) Setting limits on what we eat and drink can help us discern our real bodily needs and improve our physical health, but Hahn sees it primarily as sacrificial: giving up the comfort of abundant good food. Such comfort can delude us into self-sufficiency, leaving little room for our Creator. It needs to be challenged.

Modern life does not lend itself so readily to communal fasting as did mediaeval Christian society, with its shared rhythm of fasts and feasts. I regret that Hahn did not acknowledge how we might learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters observe Ramadan, even when it falls in midwinter or high summer. A young neighbour told me she was going to ‘do the whole thing’ though she was too young to be obliged to do so. She succeeded!

The Western Church has eased its fasting laws since the time of Pius XII, partly in response to present day pressures, partly to address the legalism that had crept in and the dispensations that were often claimed. 2022 may be the time to revisit fasting but we must beware of causing more harm than good, a danger especially of self-designed and self-imposed regimes: one’s own health may suffer and dear ones feel the edge of the penitent’s grumpiness! (p13-15) 

Hahn cites a prayer from the Byzantine rite of Vespers which sums up Lenten fasting:

 While fasting with the body, brothers and sisters, 

let us also fast in spirit. 

Let us loosen every bond of iniquity; 

let us undo the knots of every contact made by violence; 

let us tear up all unjust agreements;

let us give bread to the hungry

 and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, 

that we may receive mercy from Christ our God. (P33)

Hahn commends Lenten “frugality for almsgiving, repentance, preparation [for Easter] and imitation of Christ” (p8) but could have developed further his reflection that frugality should be our attitude when choosing food, even a snack or a drink. (p41) Eating less meat is in itself an act of repentance, of turning away from using too many scarce gifts of Creation. 

And so to David Geisser’s recipes. He begins with a list of dishes fulfilling traditional fasting norms, some free from meat, dairy and alcohol, others with recommended substitutes for them; some of the alternatives are fuss-free and inexpensive, but is it frugal to replace butter with puréed avocado when the fruit is flown from abroad? Is out of season asparagus in any way penitential?

There are dishes we can enjoy with a clear conscience. The baked muesli could be cooking while the oven is on for one of the excellent breads. The ingredients for the potato bread in my review copy do not include potatoes, which is disappointing, I would certainly have tried this! The flatbreads and spice bread would reconcile any carnivore to a bread and soup lunch. Hot cross buns in England, at least, start to appear in the supermarkets around January 1st, and are still on sale well after Easter. They originated as a Good Friday celebratory collation; a spiced, fruited bun with a cross on the top, more recently made of flour paste or marzipan and glazed on turning out of the oven. Geisser’s Swiss versions are quite different and include  one with Rosemary. Rosemary is for remembrance, appropriate for Good Friday, but this particular bun could be served at any time of year.

Carrot  soup with orange is a fine variation; I would reserve a tablespoonful of carrot batons to garnish each bowl. Pink peppercorns are a condiment that would forever hide away at the back of our kitchen cupboard. Coarsely ground black pepper will do. The other soups are worth trying, especially the cream of corn, while the cold tomato soup is one for summertime.

Tomatoes evoke salads and there are tasty salads here but exotic ingredients would have to be replaced. The bread salad with plenty of tomatoes will be tried in this household.

From the collations, or light meals, I will surely be trying the potato pancakes, perhaps using cornmeal instead of semolina; also the bread pudding Carthusian style. The baked vegetables recipe is like one of my wife’s tasty standards, so it is recommended. More of her specialities are mirrored among the main meals: Lentil and Eggplant Moussaka and Eggplant au Gratin. My own favourites include leek quiche – though I have not used saffron – and spinach quiche, which gladly accepts bacon strips out of the Lenten season. Best of the curries I feel would be the butternut squash variety.

I am glad to have seen this book. It is informative and well presented, with colour reproductions of old master paintings and the prepared dishes. Quantities are given in metric units as well as US cups and spoonfuls, so no need to flick back to a conversion chart. I hope readers find inspiration joyfully to fast from Hahn’s essays and to cook frugally but joyfully from Geisser’s recipes.

MMB

Preview

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28 October, Laudato Si’ XVIII: The Story of Plastic: a review by Natasha Viegas.


Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash
Provided by NV.
We are sharing a column from Saint Thomas’ Canterbury Newsletter by their environment correspondent, Natasha Viegas.

We are at a point in time where we have to start making efforts to reduce the number of plastics we use. The plastic problem is so bad right now, that global warming is getting exponentially worse.Like with every problem we face in life, it is very important to look at the beginning, so that we can reflect upon our mistakes and take important steps towards a better future. 

The Story of Plastic is an excellent documentary that outlines the entire process of plastic production, plastic consumption, and plastic recycling. You can use the link provided, or watch it on the Discovery Channel.This documentary is very informative on every problem that arises from plastics, as well as providing suggestions on how we can reduce usage and help the environment. We need to start now to safeguard our futures and protect this beautiful home that God created for us.

Natasha Viegas

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25 October: Looking ahead with hope.

Not long ago I met a fellow parishioner, now retired, whose view of the world was decidedly pessimistic. The conjunction of climate emergency, introverted nationalism, individualism and any number of other evils had really hit home to this man whose working life had been full of selfless service. Perhaps covid-19 finished off any optimism he might have felt towards his fellow humans.

Another fellow parishioner, whose own working life has been as full of selfless service, is Eddie Gilmore; regular readers of this blog will agree that his outlook is hope-full, so it’s a joy to find some of his writings from the Irish Chaplaincy website in a new book, Looking ahead with hope, soon to be published by DLT.

Eddie does not gloss over the difficulties of the time we are living through but he subtitles his work Stories of Humanity, Wonder and Gratitude in a Time of Uncertainty’, thereby nailing his colours to the mast. This is a beautiful world and we should be thankful for the privilege of living in a time when, for most of us in Western Europe at least, we have plenty. 

We can eat, we can share food in fellowship. In fellowship we can sing and sing together, pray and pray together, walk and make a pilgrimage together. Togetherness and fellowship is a theme of this book, and for Eddie that means being and singing with prisoners and lonely Irish exiles, with friends from his time in L’Arche, with a group of pilgrims brought together as if by chance. It means cycle rides with friends, walking through Kent, or through France and Spain on the way to Santiago.

Eddie’s style is conversational, friendly and respectful to the reader. This is a book to enjoy and to give to family and friends. Happy, hopeful reading!

The Book is released on October 29th and can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher, DLT: https://www.dartonlongmantodd.co.uk/titles/2342-9781913657420-looking-ahead-with-hope

Or from any bookshop (ISBN: 978-1-913657-42-0)

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14 October. Letters of Note: War

A Christmas Meeting

Have we not had enough of war? But it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t stop hurting. We are reviewing this book now to allow you to buy it before November begins. There are thirty mini chapters, hence you could choose to read one per day through the month.

Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: War is a small collection of letters written during various conflicts from ancient times to 2016 and the Iraq war. There is heartbreak here, to know that many of the fighters, willing or reluctant, never returned to friends and family, or went home changed and traumatised by what they had seen and done. ‘Instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs.’ (p24) ‘All the wounded were killed in a most horrible way … you will see all sorts of accounts in the papers and no end of lies.’ p102.

These letters bring home the reality in a different way to television news. There are always no end of lies, always men who get mean in order to survive but cannot live with themselves later; fighters who endure shell shock and post-traumatic stress.

There’s a special poignancy about the first Christmas of the Great War, when men from England and Germany came together between the front lines, in all friendship, ‘but of course it will start and tomorrow we shall be at it hard killing one another’. (p80)

Go and buy this little book, read and pay attention. The human beings, the animals, the environment devastated by war are depicted truthfully, for these letters were written not for publication but to friends and family, sons and daughters, mothers, wives and partners, friends on the same or opposite sides; officials to officials.

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

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7 October, Our Lady of the Rosary: Review of The World of Marian Apparitions by Wincenty Laszewski

My Catholic primary school taught us stories from the Bible, one between two at a shared desk. We also heard about miracles outside Scripture, including visitations of Our Lady, especially at Lourdes and Fatima. I came to feel the emphasis on these ‘private revelations’ was excessive, but visiting England’s Walsingham, a shrine for almost 1000 years, set me thinking about the role of Mary ever since.

We’d been told that only Catholics honour Mary, yet Walsingham has beautiful Anglican and Orthodox Shrines as well as the Catholic one. Each one made us welcome. We learned that icons like the Mother of Perpetual Succour came from the East. Later, joining  ecumenical pilgrimages meant walking and talking, eating and praying together.

This book may inspire the reader to go on pilgrimage to one of the featured shrines, or to turn the pages while voyaging in imagination, beads in your hand, a candle and pilgrim’s shell beside you. The many well-chosen pictures will help you to be there. 

Doctor Samuel Johnson, a devout 18th Century Anglican philosopher, had this to say regarding pilgrimage: ‘To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible’. In other words, there is room to be led by feelings as well as by intellectual theology when visiting shrines.

The book may set you thinking about Mary and her place in the life of the Church. When it first opened Walsingham’s Anglican shrine attracted charges of ‘Mariolatry’ – idolising Mary. Less stridently, others judge the honour given to Mary to be obscuring her Son. But on the Feast of the Assumption this year, Pope Francis pointed out that Mary was and remains humble, so that God was able to beget his Son through her and pour out blessings through her, down to today. So it is in humility that we should set out on pilgrimage, on foot, by transport, or through the imagination. 

Whoever receives an apparition can expect grief from a naturally sceptical world and a deliberately sceptical Church which has to discern the spirits at work in these incidents. But once the Church has accepted an apparition as genuine, we can follow Johnson’s advice: ‘Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.’

Wincenty Laszewski has limited his explorations to apparitions beginning from the late 19th Century, thus omitting Lourdes which still witnesses renewal of faith as well as physical and emotional healings. Renewal and healing occur at other shrines too, and Laszewski leads us to many across the world.

Fatima, whose Sister Lucia certainly suffered at the hands of the Church, is well known but most of these shrines were new to me. At Beauraing, Belgium, in the 1930s the children who saw and heard Mary came from families indifferent to religion; it was only after the Occupation ended that the local bishop could pronounce the supernatural nature of the events. The children faded into the background, later marrying and raising Christian families. Thus they lived out their response to Mary’s two questions: “Do you love my Son?” and “Do you love me?” 

Far from there, in Ngome, South Africa, a German Benedictine missionary received visions in the 1950s. Sister Reinolda heard from Mary that she should be addressed as ‘Tabernacle of the Most High’, as she had held Jesus, the Host, in her womb and in her arms. It was time for Christians to be ‘a sea of hosts’ to bring Christ’s salvation to the world; a poetic but doctrinally orthodox idea. We are the Body of Christ, as Saint Paul proclaims (1 Corinthians 12:27). Mary also asked for a shrine where seven springs come together.

In Egypt it was at a Coptic Orthodox Church dedicated to Mary that she was seen by thousands of Muslims and Christians on a number of occasions. As always there is scepticism from more than one side, theories of mass suggestion  or natural phenomena or fakery, as Laszewski makes plain. But in the spirit of ecumenism which characterises Egyptian Christianity, the Catholic Church accepts the judgement of the Orthodox Patriarch’s Commission that the apparitions, and subsequent individual healings, were God’s work. 

Scepticism is an honest position to adopt towards apparitions, and always the first stance of the Church which proclaims Christ Crucified, foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). But Mary makes the sign of the cross during many apparitions, indicating that the Cross is central to her message. Those who accept the divine origin of the apparitions should not disdain people who are indifferent or unmoved.

As time goes by, shrines may continue to flourish in ways that the original visionaries could not have expected. Who would have predicted today’s ecumenical scene in Walsingham? Mary was seen here before the Reformation, before even the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christianity; now it is a place where some of those wounds are being healed. What blessings will be made available to the faithful and the world as these modern shrines find their lasting mission?

A few points regarding Wincenty Laszewski’s labour of love. At p197 he wrongly portrays Frank Duff as seeking permission of St John Paul II to found the Legion of Mary. Duff had begun this work in 1921 in Dublin, more than half a century before meeting the Pope in Poland. Saint Pius X became Pope in 1903, not 1913. Laszewski relates how his predecessor, Leo XIII had a vision of the 20th Century and its evils. The Pope did not reveal details of this event, but Laszewski claims it as a Marian Apparition because Leo championed the Rosary. Pious suppositions are not history!

I would not be alone in scratching my head over Laszewski’s description of Ngome as  a place where natural realities came into contact with the supernatural. Springs of water have always been places where contact with the supernatural is a given, as at the Pool of Bethesda, or Lourdes, or many a holy well. In the words Chesterton put into the mouth of Mary, speaking to King Alfred:

The gates of Heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gain,
The heaviest hind may easily
Come silently and suddenly
Upon me in a lane.

Lord, grant us eyes to see with and to discern your presence in the people we meet.

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14 January: Outside the City, Nick Hamer’s film about the life of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey.

Outside the City is the result of a year spent with the community of Mount Saint Bernard’s Cistercian Abbey in Leicestershire, England. The monks speak about the monastic vocation which some of them have followed for half a century and more. We witness the decision-making process that resulted in the first English Trappist Beer, Tynt Meadow, being perfected, brewed and brought to sale, with the help of a Dutch beer consultant. He reiterated what I was told in a small brewery in Amsterdam: the brewing is the fun bit; cleaning, cleaning, cleaning is 95% of the task, and indispensable.

The brewery will be the main source of income for the community, but there are other forms of work, such as pottery, welcoming guests, housework, and care of the elderly and infirm monks. The main work of the monks – the Opus Dei, God’s work – is prayer: the Eucharist, the Divine Office, and personal prayer.

There were two parallel streams: the presence of God and the presence to oneself: monks spoke of God as unknowable, not within human understanding, but certainly knowing and loving each one of us; therefore there is a mission to pray on behalf those of those of us who do not have time for prayer, or even time for God at all.

Death was spoken of in a very matter-of-fact manner, a presence in the lives of older monks at least, and we witness the last rites of two of them. ‘My friends are all here in the monastery’, one of them had said, but the crowd that gathered for his funeral witnessed otherwise. The monastery may be outside the city, but the city makes its way there.

Near another city, Bamenda, on another continent, Africa, Mount Saint Bernard’s has a daughter house, built to the design of one of the Leicestershire monks. We follow Abbot Erik there on his official visitation. Here the dairy farm is thriving and we witness the birth of a heifer calf, an occasion of rejoicing. As at Mount St Bernard’s, the community is self-supporting.

The film ends at the  Easter Vigil. A tug at the throat to see the congregation receiving the chalice, and not a mask in sight! Let’s pray that we’ll see the return of the former and the discarding of the latter before this year is too old. In the meantime, with all these evenings when we cannot go to the cinema or anywhere else, follow the link above to buy the dvd or rent the film on-line.

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11 December. Book Review: ‘I am with you’ by John Wooley.

I Am With You

We have received, via Saint Thomas’s Church, a recommendation for ‘I am with You’ by Fr John Woolley which is a great companion for times of prayer and reflection.

A parishioner recommended this book: “Whenever, I pick up this book and flick through to a random page, I am always surprised at the peacefulness it brings. It is an inspiring little book and well worth a read”.

As well as opening at random, the reader can turn first to an index which recommends readings for different occasions: anxiety, bereavement, disappointment, the future, and so on. The texts are words that Fr Wooley received in prayer and are linked to Scripture Readings; indeed, the book is proposed as an aid to reading the Bible.

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27 November. Review: The Book in the Cathedral

The Book in the Cathedral: Christopher De Hamel

Those who have read Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts’ will attest that he is a delightful and informative guide to mediaeval thought and culture. This little book was produced for the postponed anniversary celebrations – Thomas was born in 1120, murdered in 1170, his remains translated into a new shrive in 1220. It is not a potboiler however, but a work of scholarly detection and a good read. It would be a perfect stocking-filler for anyone with more than a passing interest in Becket or Canterbury or mediæval art.

De Hamel loves manuscripts and tracking and tracing those who produced and owned them, with all their personal foibles, not to mention the scholars who study and care for them today. He brings a story teller’s art to an historical detective mystery, which includes two sainted martyrs and other archbishops of Canterbury, artists and scholars in Anglo-Saxon England and mediæval France – the Æ symbol is one of the clues – but I’ll spare the spoilers, except to pose the question, why is Thomas shown so often with book in hand, when he was not a writer like Dunstan or Anselm?

Not all will be revealed; Becket remains an enigma, was he a holy man, was he a scholar? Much of what remains of his library is in Cambridge, including manuscripts that de Hamel cared for. Of one he says, ‘I suspect that I handled it more often than Becket did. I used to show it to classes of students sometimes, and remarkably often one would furtively reach out a finger to touch the edge of a page, evidence that a sense of momentary encounter with Thomas Becket still carries a secret thrill.’ (p17) Yet for the mediæval monks, books were books, whosoever had owned them; they were not so personal as a lock of hair of a scrap of clothing. (My ‘reach out a finger’ moment came on a Cathedral Open Evening. Two ladies had a dish filled with sweepings of iron from the floor of a Saxon smithy in the precincts. From the time of Saint Dunstan, metal worker and one of the greatest of our Archbishops. Could it be metal he had worked? But that’s another tale.)

This little book should be bought in a touchable form, not an e-book. It is well presented, cloth-bound in martyr’s red, witness to the fascination of history. And it is eminently readable. You must know someone who would enjoy it!

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18 October, Review. Tomáš Halík: From the Underground Church to Freedom.

Tomáš Halík: From the Underground Church to Freedom, University of Notre Dame Press,Notre Dame, Indiana, 2019. Available through Waterstone’s or online.

Tomáš Halík is a Czech Catholic priest who has lived under repressive Communism, even coming to the Faith in an officially atheist country, a process he unfolds for the reader in one of the chapters of this autobiography. An interest in history, including the career of the ‘heretic’ Jan Huss; reading about psychoanalysis as a schoolboy, and a growing awareness of politics and that life under an oppressive regime was not the inevitable fate of his country; all these had him asking questions, and finding the ready-made answers of the atheist regime lacking.

But he had ‘absolutely no experience of the living church.’ How true is that of many of our neighbours? It was during a solitary pilgrimage he made one holiday that he assented to belief in God; from there to attending a church with good music, gradually moving closer to the altar, week by week; thence to a church frequented by students where the pastor’s homilies were challenging.

The journey to the priesthood had begun but had to continue underground, and his ordination was held behind closed doors in Erfurt, East Germany.

That sets the scene for a ministry conducted in secret but also in plain view as a psychotherapist and university teacher; often feeling the eye of the secret police upon him. Many of the generation of priests before him had been imprisoned; there were almost parallel churches; some priests ministering as best they might at the churches that were permitted to remain open, others, like Fr Halík, in closely guarded secrecy, until the regime collapsed like those in neighbouring countries.

It was time to unite the Catholic Church. The official church had been deprived of international links and scholarship; the priests were tired and ‘the onset of freedom caught them very much unawares.’ Thirty years have not healed all the wounds inflicted before 1990.

Openness to the universal Church, the re-establishment of church structures, the initial and ongoing formation of pastors and people, freedom from fear: these things take time, and hard work, and grace. At 70, Fr Halík feels he may not have much more time, but he has been the means of grace. This book will inspire the reader to believe in the action of the Holy Spirit. And perhaps nudge us to ask what we can share with those around us with ‘absolutely no experience of the living church.’

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