Category Archives: Reviews

Books we have read and recommend; exhibitions, films …

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Easter, Mission, PLaces, Reviews

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under corona virus, Daily Reflections, Reviews

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent and Christmas, Christian Unity, Daily Reflections, Reviews

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.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Mission, Reviews

9 July: Oh dear!

After the Passion play at Oberammergau it was time for Jerome K Jerome to leave the village and make room for the next wave of visitors. He was driven down to the railway in a horse-drawn omnibus, along with other passengers, including a couple of Englishwomen. The word ‘omnibus’ means ‘for all’: but not quite, it seemed:

They were grumbling the whole of the way at having been put to ride in an omnibus.  It seemed that they had never been so insulted in their lives before, and they took care to let everybody in the vehicle know that they had paid for first-class, and that at home they kept their own carriage.  They were also very indignant because the people at the house where they had lodged had offered to shake hands with them at parting.  They did not come to Ober-Ammergau to be treated on terms of familiarity by German peasants, they said.

Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome.

Of course, they missed the point but so do we when we are anxious to maintain our good image, even if only in our own eyes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Mission, PLaces, Reviews

8 July: Reels from home

There’s a lot of it about; nostalgia that is, but we also want to go deeper than that; what has shaped us, or our parents, in the past, how will it work out for our children. What seemed like normal life back then is a source of fascination and indeed joy today, and not just the frocks and hairstyles!

The London Irish Centre has partnered with the Irish Film Institute to bring film heritage to Irish communities in London and across the UK. Under the headings ‘Ireland of Yesterday’, ‘Watch Irish History Unfold’, and ‘Rediscover Television Adverts’, the Reels from Home collection includes materials which date as far back as the early 1900s. It includes both professional and amateur films documenting all aspects of Irish life including tourism, industry, sport, entertainment, and much more.

The films have been selected to engage with the London Irish Centre’s objectives to promote and advance education in Irish art, language, culture and heritage.

Reels From Home contains materials from IFI Player collections including The Bord Fáilte Film Collection, The Irish Adverts Project, The Father Delaney Collection, The Loopline Collection Vol. 1, and The Irish Independence Film Collection.

Speaking about the collection’s release, Gary Dunne, Director of Culture at the London Irish Centre, said: ‘”The London Irish Centre is delighted to partner with the Irish Film Institute on the Reels From Home initiative. For over 65 years, the Centre has been a cultural bridge between London and Ireland, and strategic and programming partnerships like these play a key part in connecting our audiences with high quality Irish culture. The Reels From Home collection is bespoke, dynamic and engaging, and we look forward to sharing it with audiences in the UK through a series of co-watching screenings.”

At a time when many people are spending much of their time indoors due to the Covid-19 outbreak, Reels From Home brings a new channel of content to the Irish community that is free, entertaining, informative, and easy to access and navigate. The project follows in the footsteps of the 2018 Reel Memories initiative, presented by the IFI in partnership with Nursing Homes Ireland, which brought a selection of curated IFI Player material to nursing home residents across the country.

Commenting on the project, Kasandra O’Connell, Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive, added: “We are delighted to be able to bring the collections of the IFI Irish Film Archive to a new audience in the UK , particularly at a time where people may be feeling more isolated than usual. As someone who was born in London to Irish parents, the UK’s Irish community is one that I have been eager for the archive to work with, and partnering with the London Irish Centre gives us a wonderful opportunity to do so.”

Highlights of the collection include Alive Alive O: A Requiem for Dublin, which captures the colourful street traders of Dublin and their fight to maintain their merchant tradition in the face of aggressive economic development;

Ireland in Spring presents a celebration of all things Irish and a delightful window on 1950s Ireland;

and a 1970s advert for Bass ale featuring the legendary band The Dubliners performing in the iconic Dublin bar O’Donoghue’s.

Reels from Home is now available free-to-view on the IFI Player and via the IFI Player suite of apps developed by Irish tech company Axonista. More details will be on the London Irish Centre.

London Irish Centre

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, PLaces, Reviews

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent, Reviews

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

christina cover.jpg

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 .

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent, Reviews

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Reviews

September 20: Guests of the house.

footwash

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.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Reviews, Summer