Category Archives: Reviews

Books we have read and recommend; exhibitions, films …

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!

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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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October 6: The Lady of the Woods

 

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I trust that readers who also visit the Will Turnstone blog will forgive my recycling this  piece from there.It fits in well with Saint Francis this week, and with our theme of Laudato Si’!

One summer’s day Mrs Turnstone and I took Abel to the woods where we found this invitation to look at Betula, the Lady of the Woods. Isn’t she lovely? Find one of her sisters near you and enjoy the sight.

And now something I’ve been saving till the right picture turned up! This passage from Nan Shepherd’sThe Living Mountain’. A writer may reveal what the reader more than half knows, awakening joyful recognition in her audience.  I was reading Shepherd to learn about the Scottish Highlands, but I discovered something all-but known about the birch I see as I open the curtains. Here is Shepherd on p53:

Birch … that grows on the lower mountain slopes, needs rain to release its odour. It is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day, one can be as good as drunk with it. Acting through the sensory nerves, it confuses the higher centres; one is excited, with no cause that the wit can define.

It’s always good to return home even from a quick walk to the shops. There is magic in fingering the keys as I approach under the lime trees – trees that may not flourish on Cairngorm but here share their bee-sung, scented glory every summer. Birch is wind-pollinated, needing no nectar, but its fresh-air scent, which I barely register even in wet weather, is part of coming home. I never realised till Nan Shepherd told me! And the blackbirds sing louder in the rain.

We occasionally berate the birch for its scattered seedlings, which occupy any bare earth and even take root in garden walls. As Rome fell away from Britain no-one removed the young trees, and the towns crumbled.

Not far from here at the derelict mine, a birch forest has sprung up on the spoil. Silver birch, I called it as a child – but it is pure gold in Autumn.

Do seek out Nan Shepherd’s book and see, hear, smell, feel with her.

And Laudato Si’!

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Review: The Methodist Art Collection comes to town.

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When we were first married we worshipped in a village Methodist Church near Margate; an austere little chapel it was, whitewashed walls and uncomfortable benches. Thank God we did not have to sit under hour long nineteenth century non-conformist sermons, but were fed with wise words from Fr Martin Symonds, of Ramsgate Abbey.

That was more than a few years ago, but the austere image of Methodism is fixed in my mind, which expects churches to be bathed in coloured light from stained glass windows and peopled by statues of the saints who have gone before us.

Not all windows or statues in English Catholic churches would merit inclusion in a travelling art exhibition.

The Methodist Church has built up a collection of modern art, largely looking at Jesus, in one way or another. You can view the works here: http://www.methodist.org.uk/prayer-and-worship/mmac/index . The website will lead you to videos and other resources around these images.

Instead of hanging on church walls, the collection is sent out to proclaim the Good News in its own way; through exhibitions around the UK and in the future to Dublin, Rome and beyond. Until Saint George’s Day 2017 it is in Canterbury’s Beaney Museum.

Not all the images inspire me to ‘prayer and worship’, but I am hard-wired to David Jones, represented here by a delicate woodblock of The Three Kings, passing a David Jones signature passion-resurrection image: a war-blasted tree-cum-cross, sprouting new growth. The Magi approach a starlit Bethlehem amid Welsh hills that bring to mind a woman’s torso and raised knees at the moment of childbirth: the star’s rays beam down like a searchlight upon the haven where the Child lies, under the hill within his Mother’s womb.

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Next to Jones’s tiny, monochrome image hangs The Dalit Madonna, a big, bright work by Jyoti Sahi. While this glorious work picks up themes from Eastern and Western European tradition, such as the sun and moon in the sky, and the Babe blessing from the womb, the artist integrates these with his own Indian culture. The sun is represented by a marigold; the moon by a crescent, including Hinduism and Islam in this birth. Then the Infant is seated within an oval reminiscent of the traditional mandala of Eastern icons, yet despite his foetal position and naturalistic drawing, he is clearly blessing the viewer; he is strong but clearly dependent on his mother, who bends her body in worship and protection, her breast ready to comfort and nurture. Many Catholic preachers would tell you that Mary, who conceived Jesus before her marriage, would have been considered an outcast; an untouchable like this Dalit mother, a radiant human being who clearly loves her son, the centre of her world and being. And how many unwed mothers were condemned by the Catholic Church in recent times?

The one Old Testament story on view here is that of Cain and Abel. We could be among Jones’s Welsh hills, or the Lake District, or even the Downs of the Isle of Wight where John Reilly lived and worked. Cain is a stocky, almost Calibanesque figure, at work within the pale he has set around his neat, well-ordered, smallholding. He pauses in his digging to stare up at his brother, a slim, radiant type of the Good Shepherd, who like Abel would be killed by his own. Suddenly that spade looks menacing: a ploughshare about to become a sword. And yet one cannot help a twinge of sympathy for one who wants his world to be under control, without any disturbing incursions from his brother’s nomadic flocks; that brother who stands nearby with eyes for the far horizon, not for him.

The Lord’s eyes, too, are on a far horizon in Christ writes in the dust – the woman taken in adultery by Clive Hicks Jenkins. In a nightmare of blues, Jesus is almost cartwheeling as, with arms outstretched as on the Cross, he looks away from the scene, away from the woman and her accusers, away from us bystanders looking on. The woman, with her Magdalenesque red hair, high heels and little black dress, is bound, as Christ soon would be, a halter around her throat.The light that glows upon her skin is reflected from Christ, apart from the tiny white triangle of her underwear, visible beneath her skirt which she cannot pull down with her hands tied behind her back. It takes a few moments to see that her accusers already have rocks in their hands, awaiting the moment when Christ’s assent to her killing is given. A moment that never comes. Would we back these men up, if we were there? Were these the men who stoned Stephen? Was Paul among them? Was this the first step on the road to Damascus?

Go and sin no more, Jesus told that woman. A good motto for the Christian life.

Even in the first two pictures reviewed here, the effects of sin creep in: the tree from Flanders, the outcast mother. We see the sin in Cain’s illusory self-sufficiency and his inherent jealousy; loud and clear in those shadowy, self-righteous stones, poised for murder. But like Jones’s three kings, each of us can follow the star, which leads us to a fleshly, humble place. The damage of our sinfulness will not prevent the Cross from being the tree of Life.

If you get the chance to see this exhibition on its travels, do spend some time with a few of the works. Others among them may speak to you louder than these four have done to me. Stop, look, listen.

MMB

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23 February: Detective Stories for a Post-Truth Age

We are told that we are living in a ‘post-truth age’. The President of the United States has his staff put out alternative facts – or lies – when the verifiable truth is uncomfortable. Climate change is a conspiracy theory. The Muslims (en masse) are out to get us. A referendum is held, lies are told, 37% of people vote to leave the EU – but the people have spoken, although those living overseas could not vote, any more than Scots living in England were able to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

1968, Czechoslovakia. The half-million strong, Russian-led Warsaw pact armies invaded to put down the Prague Spring. 18 months ago we briefly remembered that event and the Velvet Revolution that followed, before 1968 was forgotten, bringing freedom to millions. Click on  Wenceslas .

1968 – 1989 was an era of post-truth in Czechoslovakia following the “Entry of the Fraternal Armies Rendering Brotherly Help to the Czechs and Slovaks”. Jews are Zionists who want to turn the clock back and have no regard for the historical role of the working class. It is a crime to leave the country: if you do so, your family will suffer. A professor may find himself swinging a pickaxe for revisionist crimes. Others might be executed as political criminals. A policeman almost imperceptibly sinks into the grey, sad world of a class warfare he has never really believed in. Crimes his team have solved go unpunished because they are committed by people with connections.

I had never read any of Josef Skvorecky’s books till I picked up The End of Lieutenant Boruvka in a charity shop. I will be seeking out more of them. The short stories flow gently on, leading us into ever greater collusion with evil, crises of conscience sliding past as dear ones are protected, blackmail is applied.

Is there redemption? It often looks bleak for Lieutenant Boruvka, who is often hemmed in, with little choice over what to do with the results of his investigations. Find this book and read it, and pray for perseverance in seeking out and telling the truth, and in forming and following your conscience.

MMB.

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10 February: From Canterbury to Dallas

From Canterbury to Dallas (event)

As I left the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral today, I was drawn into the treasury room. Often there is one precious, ancient object to gaze upon. Today it was something old, something new.

The Church of the Incarnation in Dallas has commissioned from the Canterbury Cathedral glaziers, new windows taken from old – eight hundred years  old – windows in Canterbury. A selection is now on display including this panel of the sacrifice of Isaac, the angel risking his hand and wing to withstand the blow Abraham is about to deliver.

The new windows, made using mediaeval techniques, are vibrant and unmarked by the centuries of weather and pollution that have damaged the originals. Unlike the old monks of Canterbury, the ministers at Dallas will be able to bring every detail of the windows to the scrutiny of viewers using modern IT. The monks would have embraced IT, of course, as an aid to spreading the Good News – as Agnellus Mirror does in our own small way.

I shall return more than once before the windows are parcelled up and dispatched to Texas: they are on display here until 22 February, closing at 16.00 each day.

MMB.

 

Read and watch more at these links:

Canterbury to Dallas 1

Canterbury to Dallas 2

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8 January: Open Heart, Open Mind, I: Judging according to God.

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A reflection from Fr Andrew SDC 1869-1946. Fr Andrew was a pioneering Anglican Franciscan in the East End of London; more of his reflections will appear during the year.

Whereas the world judges people by their actions, and on the  whole is right to do so, God judges the actions by the people who do them. The world would have said of the widow, ‘She only gave two mites’; Our Lord said of the two mites, ‘They were given by a widow who had nothing else, they are worth millions.’ The world was shocked when Mary Magdalene kissed our Lord’s feet. The world said, ‘He let a woman kiss him.’ Our Lord said, ‘The kiss came from a penitent, and had more love in it than all the banquets of the rich Pharisees put together.’

Saint Luke records Jesus’ words:

All these have of their abundance cast into the offerings of God: but she of her want, hath cast in all the living that she had.  Luke 21:4

Thou gavest me no kiss; but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but she with ointment hath anointed my feet. Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much. But to whom less is forgiven, he loveth less. And he said to her: Thy sins are forgiven thee.                Luke 7:45-48

Mary Magdalene Washing Christ’s Feet, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Image released for non-commercial use. 

WT

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Heavenly Lights

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Book Review: David Jones in the Great War, by Thomas Dilworth.

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David Jones in the Great War, by Thomas Dilworth. Enitharmon Press.

Born in South London, the artist and poet David Jones nevertheless grew up a fervent Welsh patriot, absorbing the romantic epics of Welsh history with its battles and brave warriors. Hardly surprising then, that he should volunteer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers when the Great War broke out.

Thomas Dilworth takes us through Jones’s wartime life as if inviting the reader to be a third party to a conversation between friends, and indeed the book is largely the fruit of interviews with David Jones and his friends. Like other poets and former soldiers Jones never got the Great War out of his system and he suffered depression and breakdowns in the years that followed.

He had spent the war as a private, unlike university educated poets Sassoon, Brooke and Owen, who were seen as natural officers. Jones resisted promotion, preferring the company of the Welshmen and Cockneys in the ranks. An officer once encouraged him to apply for a commission, saying, ‘You’re an educated man. Where were you educated?’ At Jones’s reply, ‘Camberwell School of Art and Craft’, he fell silent and never again would Jones be considered for promotion.

Jones was not alone in becoming aware of the iniquities of the class system through his wartime experiences. He had chance to contrast British public school officers with the French alongside, where there was greater camaraderie and an officer could encourage his troops with ‘mes enfants’. He also served in Ireland after the Easter Rising, and became acutely aware of the contrast between Britain’s defence of ‘poor little Belgium’ and the oppressing of Irish aspirations.

Above all Jones was an artist and one who took opportunities to exercise his gift while at war. At times he was detailed to draw maps of battlefields for his superiors; of those that survive, few can be clearly reproduced, but Dilworth gives us many pencil sketches of broken buildings, battlefields, equipment and men. There were months when drawing his companions became too painful, knowing he might soon lose sight of them forever. There is a sketch of a robed and stoled priest, about to distribute Communion. Dilworth links this to a moment of epiphany for Jones, when he came across a Catholic celebration of Mass in a battered barn. Seeing his Irish companions transformed at their devotions was a step towards his conversion.

Just as that experience would have been impossible to explain back home, so too the privations of mud, rats, lice, noise, explosions, shells, smells, death that remained with Jones the rest of his life.

Thomas Dilworth is a warm companion to bring us to Jones and his subsequent poetry and art. Read this book, make friends with Jones, turn to his poetry, and let it speak.

 

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