Category Archives: Reviews

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January 28, Review: Extreme Pilgrim

Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul

Does sitting in one place qualify as being a pilgrim? Perhaps it does if you are a Sussex vicar, and that sitting place is a grotto in the Egyptian desert, home to hermits, monks and nuns since the earliest days of the Church.

Peter Owen Jones borrowed the cave of Father Lazarus, forty-five minutes’ walk from the cell of Saint Anthony, first of the Desert Fathers, to ‘live a very strict life of prayer, eating only one full meal a day.’ (p. ix) And part of this life of prayer was the writing of letters to people who helped make him the man he is today.

These include our would-be master and prince of this world, Satan, who rules by fear. Owen Jones’s signing off with, ‘all my love, Peter’, suddenly makes sense if we remember that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1John4:19).

Many things seem to have made sense when seen from the perspective of the desert, though at times a sense beyond logical thought, a sense of wonder. What was it you went out to see? A memory of a hedge sparrow’s (or dunnock’s) nest, described in a letter to God.

As you know, for their nests they weave  grass and hair precisely into a small deep bowl, which they line with moss to the point where it shines. And there they were  four varnished blue eggs sitting in this deep smooth green … we were both in a state of wonder and whilst I was alone, I realised I wasn’t alone – you were there in that state of wonder, you were present.’  (p45)

To his adoptive father he writes, ‘It was only when your eldest granddaughter was about three years old that I realised that being a father was something separate: it is a love all of its own’ (p15)

What did you go out to see? A good deal of seeing, of realising, is recorded in this little book. Every chapter represents a challenge that Owen-Jones faced; a chance to realise how other people had influenced his life for better or worse, and to accept himself, his own mortality as well as the loss of family and friends.

My wife read Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim through and enjoyed it almost before I had brought it into the house. I know who I will pass it on to. She’ll have it in time for Lent, and so will you if you buy on line now.

WT

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9 January, Book Review: My book for Lent 2020, ‘It’s good to be here’.

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It’s Good To Be Here by Christina Chase

Review by Maurice Billingsley

Regular readers will remember the thought-provoking posts that our friend Christina Chase has allowed us to share from her own blog, which you can visit from the link. You will understand how I had been waiting to see this book, and I was by no means disappointed on reading it. Christina weaves autobiography and a profound incarnational theology with a love of language and clarity of expression. This will be my Lent book for 2020.

We were led, in my pre-Vatican II childhood, to look upon Jesus as the perfect human being: ‘Little children all must be / Mild, obedient, good as he.’ Our teachers apparently forgot that it was at his Transfiguration that the Apostles saw something more and Peter said, ‘It’s good to be here.’

There are those who would contradict Chase’s assertion that it is good for her to be here, since she is profoundly disabled – she readily uses the non-PC term ‘crippled’ – with a wasting disease that ought to have killed her years ago, and that renders her unable to feed, dress, or care for herself, depending on others for such needs.

But Christina has undergone her own transfiguration; this is her story. She had no need of a Franciscan stigmata, the wounded body was hers from birth, but she has had to come to terms with the human condition in her own self, with all the frustrations writ large. And so she can write: ‘The one astonishing fact of life is that suffering, like disease, war, murder, and abuse, cannot destroy the gift that God Almighty gives, because real love never fails.’ (p18) It’s good to be here; to be human here, as Christ was. After his Baptism, ‘He stood, rising to inhale deeply and shake the dripping wetness out of his hair and off of his drenched body.’ (p38)

And this from a woman who frequently finds breathing difficult, who cannot shake her head to dry her hair! This is not a book to buy out of pity for a ‘poor, disabled woman’, but for its deep insights into the divine light that wills to brighten our days. All our days. Christina’s vision is eternal: ‘What will life be like then?’ (p124) The glimmer of an answer is to be found in our earthly, earthy lives: it’s good to be here, breathing, getting wet, enjoying the sacrament of everyday in the wondrous life God has given us.

This will be my Lent book for 2020.

You can order it now from the publisher, Sophia Institute of New Hampshire, or  their UK agents, Gracewing, or via Amazon .

 

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15 November: Light on the Christian Way.

Luminaries: Rowan Williams (author)

Luminaries: twenty lives that illuminate the Christian way.

by Rowan Williams

Published by SPCK 2, London 2019

ISBN 10: 0281082952

A review.

 

 

How do you choose just twenty shining saints for a little book like this? Dr Williams offers us four of his predecessors as Archbishop of Canterbury – Augustine, Anselm, Cranmer and Michael Ramsey – in this selection of sermons and other extracts.

Williams is especially compassionate regarding his first predecessor, the reluctant and blundering Augustine in whom fear and humility grind together painfully. He never wanted to come to Kent, he tried to turn back; he was ‘almost endearingly nervous and  anxious’ (p23), but he stuck at it and made a difference. 

Doctor Williams himself is remembered in Canterbury with great affection too: ad multos annos!

An interesting juxtaposition occurs because the subjects are listed in chronological order, William Tyndale, whom we met yesterday, rubs shoulders with Saint Teresa of Avila. a man and a woman from very different backgrounds, both determined to bring about church reform.

it is possible to draw out similarities between them. Here is Tyndale: ‘Look, what thou owest to Christ, that thou owest to thy neighbour’s need. To thy neighbour owest thou thy heart, thyself and al that thou hast and canst do. The love that springest out of Christ, excludeth  no man, neither putteth difference between one and another.’ (p56-57)

Teresa was conscious that her Jewish ancestry put a difference between her and some others, but in the convent where she lived there were differences between sisters due to wealth and social standing of their families. This made her more and more uneasy: it was not true community life! True community life excluded no woman, but was based on friendship in shared poverty, which allowed Jesus to be present in friendship with each one. Friendship with Jesus is a big claim, but that friendship is to be cultivated in prayer; and Williams sketches out Teresa’s experience of the prayer of friendship with Jesus. A chapter to read and re-read.

Every subject is interesting and human, so the whole book is to be read and re-read. And since it is that time of year, a book to buy for a friend, since it may be some time before you get it back if you lend it out. Not that it will be gathering dust and forgotten: it will be read and re-read.

 

 

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September 20: Guests of the house.

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I took advantage of a family holiday in North Wales to read ‘The Summer of the Danes’ by Ellis Peters in the area where the action takes place. Here Brothers Cadfael and Mark arrive at Saint Asaph to be greeted and shown to a room.

‘I’ll send someone with water,’ said their guide … and he was gone.

‘Water?’ said Mark, pondering this first and apparently essential courtesy. ‘Is that by way of taking salt, here in Wales?’

‘No, lad. A people that goes mostly afoot knows the value of feet and the dust and aches of travel. They bring water for us to bathe our feet. It is a graceful way of asking: Are you meaning to bide overnight? If we refuse it, we intend only a brief visit in courtesy. If we accept it, we are guests of the house from that moment.’

Helleth, who comes to do this service, is almost the only woman but a central character in the story of power and piracy, secular and ecclesiastical. Ellis Peters uses 13th Century Wales to explore the role of women in society, love and marriage; war- and peace-making; marriage of the clergy; feudal authority and loyalty; and Welsh identity, all within a page-turning mystery. As so often the book is better than the TV programme. You’ll find it for sale on-line.

The Welsh did not initiate this rite, of course, but I believe it was a Welshman, Archbishop Rowan Williams, who reintroduced the Maundy Thursday ceremony to Canterbury Cathedral. You can read about a participant’s experience of the washing of feet in Canterbury here. and about an updated response to this tradition here. This is Rev Jo Richards’ reflection on Holy Week. This reflection links the Station of Veronica to Jesus washing Peter’s feet.

One evening on holiday I ended up giving Abel a bit more than a foot wash after he slipped on slimy mud at the seashore, a service gladly given! There are many such little occasions to provide for each others needs.

 

 

 

 

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24 May. Pilgrimage to Canterbury MMXIX, IV. Walking around Wales: a book review. (Relics XVI)

Before any planning for our walk, I read a book about pilgrimage. Anne Hayward’s A Pilgrimage Around Wales is subtitled in search of a significant conversation.1 Mrs Hayward set herself to have a significant conversation each day of her walk. In his foreword the Archbishop of Wales points out that the significant conversation can be a silent exchange with the people who made the place holy. He recalls a visit to Saint Peter’s in Rome, and being taken down to the niche holding the relics – beyond reasonable doubt those of the fisherman himself. ‘The presence of the Apostle, the witness of the Apostle, the courage of the Apostle, the love of the Apostle for the Lord, and much, much more were all around in an unspoken conversation.’(p7)

Measuring the significance of a conversation is surely impossible. Significant to me, or to the Other? At the end of her three months’ tramp, Mrs Hayward counted up more than 150 names of people she had such conversations with. That is not counting the conversations Archbishop Davies points us to, in the stones and windows of the churches she visited. (I wish she had identified some of the places, to let others find them.) She travelled alone, camping most nights; we will be in a group, with maybe 60 or 70 people walking anything from 100 metres to the full distance. A few people may camp out once or twice.

Tyndale the terrier will walk rather more than the rest of us. He may hold significant conversations with other dogs who leave messages for him, or who pick up his trail marks. We will hold conversations with each other, in words, in linked arms, or held hands, or a shared mint.

Mrs Hayward had conversations with bereaved people, worried mothers, campsite wardens, young hikers and churchwardens, among many others. We can expect significant conversations with the Lord that Peter loved, in song, in silence, in weariness, in landscape and seascape, in sky, tree, river and road. Even a ‘thank you’ to a bus driver may feel very significant at the end of a long walk!

She had but herself to consider when planning her walks, her rests, her meals, we must bear in mind the needs of all our walkers and riders in wheelchairs, buses, cars or trains. Different pilgrimages. Whether you want to walk around Wales or make for Rome or Canterbury, God speed! And any day’s journey can be a pilgrimage, if you remember to pray, ‘Stay with us, Lord.’ Anne Hayward’s book could help a would-be pilgrim to be clearer about the journey. A very human book, and a book for the armchair pilgrim as well as the footsore one. More about ours soon.

1Anne Hayward, A Pilgrimage Around Wales: in search of a significant conversation, Y Lolfa, Talybont, 2018.

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6 December: T is for Truro

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I’m sorry that the A-Z Tour of Britain has got a bit lost. Yesterday’s post about the local pilgrim must have scratched at the door of my conscience! I was looking for a photo for my piece on Truro in Cornwall when I came across this in a blog called ‘Ship of Fools’. It is part of a report by a mystery worshipper, describing the sermon s/he heard at Truro cathedral, given by the composer James Macmillan on 10/10/10. Forget my effort and read on! WT.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – James Macmillan is a Roman Catholic, a lay Dominican, a musician and composer of note, not a preacher by trade, but he spoke very well and he was talking about the subject that is his passion. It was a privilege to hear him (and his music!). He had been there to deliver a lecture the previous evening, but sadly I didn’t know that. He had, incidentally, composed some of the music used at services during the recent papal visit.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The gospel reading was Luke 17:11-19 (Jesus heals ten lepers, instructing them to show themselves to the priests). The ten lepers had to show themselves to the priests because the priest could authorise their readmission to the society from which they had been ostracised. But one (a Samaritan, no less) comes back and gives thanks and praise to Jesus on the surface a useless thing to do but Jesus lets him know that it was the right thing to do and wonders why the other nine didn’t bother. The one who gave thanks was more concerned with praising God than with following the prescribed ritual for readmission. Giving praise may baffle the contemporary world because it is perceived to be useless, but when we raise our voices in song it is not about the consequences. The parting of the Red Sea is the prime event in the Old Testament and Jewish history, and out of it comes the Song of Moses. The Song of Songs is the ultimate love song. Sometimes words are not enough. It is love that moves us to sing. The psalms were sung in Old Testament times and the psalter is the original prayer book. Pope Benedict has called music “the sober inebriation of faith”.

Image by Simon Lewis via wikipedia

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22 September: Saint Maurice, a book review.

Looking back, I realise that my teacher Miss ‘Killer’ was an ignorant woman. She ridiculed children who had not been baptised with what she considered to be appropriate saints’ names. ‘There’s never been a Saint June!’ she once spat, instead of saying, ‘You could stick with Saint Jane or Saint Joan.’ As for ‘Royston’! ‘What kind of a name is that?’ Life was miserable if you were on the wrong side of her, as a good 75% of us regularly were. I’m glad she did not pick up on the idea that Saint Maurice did not exist; it would have been another stick to beat me with. And I mean beat.

The theory was that since there were no contemporary accounts of Maurice and his companions, they were more likely a group of saints invented to make sense of a mass grave found in Switzerland in 383 AD, said to have been Christian legionaries executed for refusing an immoral order.

Donald O’Reilly in Lost Legion Rediscovered  settles the Question to his and my satisfaction: there was a Christian Theban legion – from the Egyptian Thebes, not the Greek one – and in the late 3rd Century civil war its members were killed in great numbers for disobeying an immoral order, and this happened not only in Switzerland’s town that bears his name but across North West Europe.

O’Reilly’s detective work is well worth reading, giving insight into Roman civil and military life of the time, and into Christian attitudes to military service. Yes, St Maurice did exist, an African in Europe, which is why his town is now the focus for the annual African pilgrimage to the saints of Africa every June.

Here is part of a speech attributed to Maurice by a later writer (p121 of O’Reilly’s book).

Our right hands know how to fight against wicked men and enemies; they do not know how to cut into pieces innocent men and fellow citizens. We remember we took up arms on behalf of citizens rather than against citizens. We have always fought on behalf of justice, on behalf of the safety of the innocent; up to the present time this has been the reward of our dangers. We have fought on behalf of the faith; and how are we to keep our faith towards you – the words are addressed to the emperor – if we do not show forth faith to God?

 

Donald O’Reilly, Lost Legion Rediscovered, Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2011.

MMB

 

 

 

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22 July: We cannot receive love in passive ways.

As I was editing Friar Austin’s posts on the Eucharist, my bedside book was The Revolving Door of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith.* The title suggests a degree of pessimism, but there is always hope in the characters’ lives.

Here Stuart, the father of two small boys, has been joined by his mother in the prolonged absence of his wife. His mother is in her room, unpacking; in the kitchen he is musing about love, for as Austin said in his last post, we cannot receive love in passive ways.

It is easy to revert to how it was before, to the time when you knew instinctively that your mother loved you and that her love was always there like the sun, constant, always available, never for a moment critical or conditional.

Love. He never thought of love. Did other people? Did other people go about their daily business thinking about love; about the people they loved and the people who loved them?

… Did he love anybody at all? Did he love his mother, as he knew she loved him? … Did he love his boys? … Did he love Irene, his wife?

Stuart is actively loving by thinking about love and his loved ones.

Lord, let me think and pray for my family and friends by thinking of them in your presence day by day. Amen.

  • Edinburgh, Polygon, 2015, pp95-96.

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June 30: Contrasts.

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A few thoughts scribbled down after a couple of days in the North West last July. The next picture is of Saddleworth in November, but it shows the stepping stones crossed to seek out the bilberries. On this occasion the stones were not passable… but how have your days been?

It took two hours to negotiate the roadworks and rush hour around Stockport on the way into Manchester. And they say the most disruptive roadworks have not yet started!

river.upmill.over.stones

Wandering around Saddleworth in the rain, to find a bilberry patch destroyed in favour of a park with lawns, when other parks are reverting to brambles, if not bilberry patches!

A fire in July, and very welcome too.

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Sunshine in Manchester, sipping beer in the open air in Albert Square with live music and interesting sandwiches.

A wren outside the window of a holiday cottage in nearby Derbyshire. But will the farmyard cock waken us in the morning?

O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. 

O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever. 

O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:

The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:

The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.

PS 136

30 June 2018:

Readers in the United Kingdom will know that Saddleworth Moor has been exceptionally dry this summer, with heath fires burning and people forced to leave their homes, ash falling around Manchester. Let us pray for all affected by the fire and for those fighting it, and pray that the lost moorland may be restored.

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Congratulations to Naomi!

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Naomi Billingsley, who writes for Agnellus Mirror sometimes as NAIB, has just had her book published. We haven’t yet had time to read it properly but thought we’d tell you about it at once, in case it sells out before you get chance to buy it.

Our friendly Jehovah’s Witnesses often point out to me what they see as ‘design’ in Creation. My reply has always been to say, yes, but designer is just too inadequate a word. It conjures up a drawing board and ruler  and compasses, whereas Blake, according to Naomi, sees God as an artist, a being bursting with loving imagination.

WT.

Here follows the review on the publisher’s website:

William Blake (1757-1827) is considered one of the most singular and brilliant talents that England has ever produced. Celebrated now for the originality of his thinking, painting and verse, he shocked contemporaries by rejecting all forms of organized worship even while adhering to the truth of the Bible.

But how did he come to equate Christianity with art? How did he use images and paint to express those radical and prophetic ideas about religion which he came in time to believe? And why did he conceive of Christ himself as an artist: in fact, as the artist, par excellence?

These are among the questions which Naomi Billingsley explores in her subtle and wide-ranging new study in art, religion and the history of ideas. Suggesting that Blake expresses through his representations of Jesus a truly distinctive theology of art, and offering detailed readings of Blake’s paintings and biblical commentary, she argues that her subject thought of Christ as an artist-archetype. Blake’s is thus a distinctively ‘Romantic’ vision of art in which both the artist and his saviour fundamentally change the way that the world is perceived.

From King’s College London, where Naomi completed her MA:

Naomi Billingsley is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester. Her research is at the intersection of the histories of Christianity and art in Britain, especially in the Romantic period. Her current project ‘The Formation and Reception of the Macklin Bible’ examines an important illustrated Bible, published between 1791 and 1800.

Naomi completed her PhD at the University of Manchester (2012-2015) on the figure of Christ in William Blake’s pictorial works. She was then Bishop Otter Scholar for Theology and the Arts in the Diocese of Chichester, and taught Art History at Birkbeck, University of London.

Naomi is a graduate of the MA in Christianity and the Arts (2011) and holds a BA in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge (Magdalene, 2010). 

The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination
Naomi Billingsley

I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2018.

 

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