Tag Archives: grief

3 December: Preoccupied by good.

James Boswell published this letter from Samuel Johnson after the Doctor died. Both men had melancholy times; Johnson more severely than most.

“I never was so much pleased as now with your account of yourself; and sincerely hope, that between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance. Whatever philosophy may determine of material nature, it is certainly true of intellectual nature, that it abhors a vacuum: our minds cannot be empty; and evil will break in upon them, if they are not pre-occupied by good.

My dear Sir, mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian. After this, ‘tristitiam et metus Trades protervis in mare Creticum Portare ventis.’*

‘If we perform our duty, we shall be safe and steady.

Life of Johnson by James Boswell.

Jesus put it this way:

And when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation.

Luke 12: 43-45.

Be preoccupied by good’ sounds like a good Advent motto to me! Spelt out for Boswell quite clearly: mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian.


*While in the Muse’s friendship blest,
Nor fear, nor grief, shall break my rest;
Bear them, ye vagrant winds, away,
And drown them in the Cretan Sea.’
Horace, Odes, i. 26. I.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent and Christmas, Daily Reflections

25 November: Taken by Surprise, I.

Sister Johanna is back! With Advent just around the corner, we find Jesus and the disciples looking for peace and quiet to absorb the news about the prophet of Advent, John the Baptist.

Jesus and the disciples withdrew by boat to a lonely place…. But the crowds heard and went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick (Mt.14:13f.).

Jesus and the disciples are taken by surprise here – several surprises. The first surprise is a shattering piece of news: they had just heard of the death of John the Baptist – that’s why they wanted to go off by themselves. It’s easy to forget that Jesus and his disciples were like us, and the death of Jesus’ cousin John, who had been a profound spiritual force in their lives, was as traumatic for them as such a thing would be to us. Jesus knew that they all needed some space in order to come to terms with their grief – to some extent anyway. So Jesus organises a boat, and they go by sea to what they hoped would be a place of solitude. They needed to talk about John together, to weep, to pray.

But no solitude was given. Second surprise: a large crowd met them as they got out of the boat. Jesus was grief-stricken, but he saw the faith-filled, needy crowd, and was filled with pity. It’s possible, in fact, that their great faith strengthened Jesus, and enabled him to heal their sick. As I read this, however, I found myself thinking about the disciples, rather than the miraculous healing of the crowd. The disciples don’t seem able to draw energy from the crowd. What happens to them? The text doesn’t say, but during the time when Jesus is healing the crowd, the disciples seem to have disappeared. They are still overwhelmed by grief, surely; I imagine them creeping away, out of sight of all the people who are focused on Jesus. They try to watch the action from a safe distance maybe. As I read on, I realise that Jesus also remembers his disciples, even while he is taken up with the needs of the crowd. He knows that his sorrowing disciples need healing, too.

At length, a further situation develops. Evening comes. Those whom Jesus had healed need to eat. The disciples materialise now, finally, and suggest that Jesus draw the event to a close so that they can all find some food somewhere. Jesus has a different idea. ‘There is no need for the people to go,’ Jesus tells the disciples. ‘Give them something to eat yourselves.’ They must have groaned inwardly at Jesus’ words, and wondered what madness had possessed him. They only had the provisions they had brought with them: five loaves and two fish – barely enough for their own meal. There are over five thousand people to feed. Jesus, always good at registering unspoken words, reads the disciples’ stunned and tired faces and doesn’t even try to dialogue further with them, in Matthew’s account. Jesus simply tells the disciples to bring him their food. Jesus himself instructs the people to sit down on the grass. Then, quietly blessing the food and breaking the five loaves, he gives the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute to the five-thousand-plus people. We know how this story ends. Everybody eats – and well. Third surprise for them.

Why does Jesus do this? The people could probably have managed to get home without expiring, picking up some food as they went through different villages on the way. This miracle of feeding doesn’t seem to be one that addressed a desperate need, as did the physical healings Jesus had performed for them earlier in that day. But Jesus has a message here. He seems to be saying: “I do not fulfil only the minimum requirements of a needy situation, and I do not address only the most obvious and most desperate troubles of my people. I am willing to do more – so much more than you have asked or think you need. Or rather, I show you that you need more than you think. The healing that you sought from me is not complete without the food that I alone can give you.” That was perhaps Jesus’ primary message, and it was addressed both to the crowd and to the disciples. And now to us. But something more was involved here for the disciples. I would like to explore this tomorrow in a second reflection on this story.

SJC

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

25 September: Letter upon a mournful occasion.

Doctor Johnson

A letter from Doctor Johnson to a friend and publisher of his work, sent on this day, September 25, 1750.

To Mr. JAMES ELPHINSTON.

DEAR SIR,

You have, as I find by every kind of evidence, lost an excellent mother; and I hope you will not think me incapable of partaking of your grief. I read the letters in which you relate your mother’s death to Mrs. Strahan, and think I do myself honour, when I tell you that I read them with tears; but tears are neither to you nor to me of any further use, when once the tribute of nature has been paid. The business of life summons us away from useless grief, and calls us to the exercise of those virtues of which we are lamenting our deprivation. The greatest benefit which one friend can confer upon another, is to guard, and excite, and elevate his virtues. This your mother will still perform, if you diligently preserve the memory of her life, and of her death: a life, so far as I can learn, useful, wise, and innocent; and a death resigned, peaceful, and holy.

I cannot forbear to mention, that neither reason nor revelation denies you to hope, that you may increase her happiness by obeying her precepts; and that she may, in her present state, look with pleasure upon every act of virtue to which her instructions or example have contributed. Whether this be more than a pleasing dream, or a just opinion of separate spirits, is, indeed, of no great importance to us, when we consider ourselves as acting under the eye of GOD: yet, surely, there is something pleasing in the belief, that our separation from those whom we love is merely corporeal; and it may be a great incitement to virtuous friendship, if it can be made probable, that that union that has received the divine approbation shall continue to eternity.

There is one expedient by which you may, in some degree, continue her presence. If you write down minutely what you remember of her from your earliest years, you will read it with great pleasure, and receive from it many hints of soothing recollection, when time shall remove her yet farther from you, and your grief shall be matured to veneration. To this, however painful for the present, I cannot but advise you, as to a source of comfort and satisfaction in the time to come; for all comfort and all satisfaction is sincerely wished you by, dear Sir, ‘Your most obliged, most obedient, ‘And most humble servant, ‘SAM. JOHNSON.

from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, available on-line and on Kindle.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

12 August, Readings from Mary Webb XXIV: The Spirit of the Earth.

IMGP4576

 

Love me–and I will give into your hands
The rare, enamelled jewels of my lands,
Flowers red and blue,
Tender with air and dew.

From far green armouries of pools and meres
I’ll reach for you my lucent sheaves of spears–
The singing falls,
Where the lone ousel calls.

When, like a passing light upon the sea,
Your wood-bird soul shall clap her wings and flee,
She shall but nest
More closely in my breast.

speedwell

Jewells: ragged robin and speedwell.

 

Is it a pagan superstition to talk about the spirit of the earth, or to imagine that spirit speaking? We are made of atoms and hormones and genes and bones – remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

So get to know and love ‘Mother’ Earth: not just the dust and flowers but the wisdom that has been there since the beginning, sustaining it.  The Spirit of the Earth can be identified with Wisdom, sitting at the Creator’s side as he set about his work. Laudato Si!

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing, from the beginning.  I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived. neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out: The mountains with their huge bulk had not as yet been established: before the hills I was brought forth: He had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world.  When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law and compass he enclosed the depths: When he established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters:When he compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits: when be balanced the foundations of the earth;  I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men. 

Proverbs 8:22-31.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Laudato si', poetry

23 March. Before the Cross X: Christ crucified welcomes us.

 

 
christ acc2

As a teenager I visited the resort of Tignes in France on a family skiing holiday. On our way through the French Alps from the airport, our coach crossed a dam, and we could see a large reservoir stretching up the valley to our left. Our ski rep began to tell us a story. There had been a village known as Tignes, which had been flooded and destroyed with the creation of the reservoir in 1952, and its people had been relocated to a newly built village, Tignes Les Boisses. The church there, l’église Saint Jacques de Tarentaise, had been built to a design similar to that in “Old Tignes”. All this is verifiable history. The road wound uphill, away from the dam, and we entered the purpose-built village.

Our rep related how an elderly couple, objecting to the flooding of their valley, and ignoring all the remonstrances of the EDF and local authority negotiators, had refused steadfastly to leave their home. They had drowned as the waters rose to form the new reservoir. He told us to look to our right as we drove past the church, and to notice the crucifix in front of it. The arms of Jesus had originally been nailed to the crossbeam, he said, but over the years they had dropped down to their present position, as though Jesus himself were pleading on behalf of the drowned couple. There was no scientific explanation for this extraordinary phenomenon (great solemnity and wonderment in his voice at this point); not even in the natural warping properties of wood.

The image of this cross has remained with me through my adult life, and I have retold the story of it more than once, and with equal solemnity. But I recently discovered that it wasn’t true at all. At least, I have found no evidence that the elderly couple ever existed. The crucifix itself was crafted by Jean Touret for the new church, with the arms of Jesus extended downwards in an expression of grief for the loss of the old village. It was also to represent Jesus’s welcome of visitors. He named the work ” le Christ Accueillant ” – The Welcoming Christ.

I would rather our ski rep had told us the truth surrounding this remarkable crucifix. Perhaps he believed his story. Or perhaps venturing into the “religious” subject of Christ’s welcome made him feel uncomfortable. As in so many movies, here was an invented tale designed to make is feel indignant towards big-business callousness and government collusion. And our sense of moral outrage is validated by the direct involvement of God himself. No harm in that, surely?

Jean Touret had wanted to honour a community genuinely affected by trauma and loss. His purpose had not been to elicit indignation, but to recognise that Christ stands with the broken and dispossessed. And nobody is honoured by fabricated miracle stories, least of all Jesus. The Hollywood approach fundamentally misreads what is meant in the gospels by the Kingdom of God. It would direct our disdain towards world powers and social injustices over which we have very little control. It would have us “rage against the machine” much like the zealots in Jesus’s own day.

To the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” GK Chesterton’s famous answer was “I am”. The challenge of the gospel is to grasp our own need for a saviour, and in love (rather than self-righteous indignation), to consider the world’s need for a saviour too. “Le Christ Accueillant” does indeed signify a miracle: that Jesus welcomes us today into the presence of the Loving Father. Not from the cross, but as a resurrected, living Saviour, whose brutal crucifixion made our rescue and welcome possible.

Rupert Greville

   Thank you, Rupert, for another thought-provoking image and prayerful reflection. WT.

The story of the Church and Image 1:

Image 2:

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent

18 March. Before the Cross V: An Absent Presence.

'Still', a major work by Scottish artist Alison Watt, is installed in the Memorial Chapel

Psalm 46:10 ‘Be still and know that I am God.’

A mysterious and endearing quality of art and music is that they can open a door within us to a stillness in which we can inwardly sense the knowing of God. For ultimately this knowing is not a theory in our heads, but the kind of knowing that ripples through our being in a way in which we most probably don’t understand and yet we can say of it ‘I just know’.

‘Still’ is by the Scottish painter Alison Watt OBE (b. 1965), and is hung behind the altar in the Memorial chapel of Old St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Edinburgh. If ever you have a few moments free in the centre of Edinburgh, or arrive by train to the central Waverley Station it is conveniently just across the road from the back entrance to the station. The church is usually open for visitors, offering a respite from the vibrancy and noise of the city centre by the contrastingly silent and poignantly serene space which is this chapel – dedicated in memory of those fallen in World War 1. It is a dark space which holds both the sadness of the memory of those who gave their lives, and the light of hope through the risen Christ.

This unique work somehow expresses the sense of beauty and light and continuing movement of the spirit, through its enigmatic focus on folds of fabric. The work is a quadriptych (a work in four parts) 12 ft by 12 ft, and so naturally echoes the cross in its layout, a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice taken by Christ. The theme of the painting is hanging drapery. The implication is that the cloth is that of the shrouds of Jesus, though what hangs behind it is only alluded to. Certainly the subtle implication is of a body beneath, causing the shaping and the folds. Watt says of the work: ‘‘Although the body is not explicitly represented, it’s still echoed in the landscape of the cloth. The paintings are about an absent presence.’

An absent presence – something we can’t see or physically perceive and yet we know and sense is there. And so it was for those who experienced that first Easter morning – the confusion of a mysterious absent presence. It is that very quality which, without words or analysis, settles within me as I sit with this work of art.

When I first saw this painting I felt mesmerised by the beauty and the impact of the white simplicity of the hangings amidst the stark silence of the chapel. It stills me, and yet the stillness is not rigid but full of gentle movement and flow. The meaning is not obvious and yet in my unknowing it offers me opportunity to sit and just to absorb. It offers that doorway to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’

I often like to pop in when I am back in my home town; By stepping aside from all that energises the centre of town into the entrancing beauty and stillness of being in that place, I experience a way into the serenity of prayer which settles and recharges my inner resources through this beautiful work of art.

Janet McDonald

Alison Watt is the youngest artist to have had a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (2000) and to serve as an Associate Artist at the National Gallery, London (2006-8). For Still, she won the ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry) award for a Commissioned Artwork in Ecclesiastical Space in 2005. See:

 

Janet McDonald is a member of the L’Arche Kent Community.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, L'Arche, Lent

27 February. Brownings VI: Hair 1, For life and death. (Relic XIV)

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning
I came to editing this post soon after Mrs T had sheared my grey locks. I did not observe her hiding any of the trimmings away in a locket or a pocket. But we are not kept apart by the trapping of illness and an overbearing parent. Elizabeth has received a lock of Robert’s hair: a very personal gift in Victorian times, and surely what would have been called a first class relic! But not one for her father to be made aware of.
“May God bless you always.
I have put some of the hair into a little locket which was given to me when I was a child by my favourite uncle, Papa’s only brother, who used to tell me that he loved me better than my own father did, and was jealous when I was not glad.
It is through him in part, that I am richer than my sisters—through him and his mother—and a great grief it was and trial, when he died a few years ago in Jamaica, proving by his last act that I was unforgotten. And now I remember how he once said to me: ‘Do you beware of ever loving!—If you do, you will not do it half: it will be for life and death.’
So I put the hair into his locket, which I wear habitually, and which never had hair before—the natural use of it being for perfume:—and this is the best perfume for all hours, besides the completing of a prophecy.”
(from “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846” by Robert Browning)

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

2 February 2018: Good Grief!

SONY DSC

Simeon

Today we recall the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

Around Easter time in 2017 Princes William and Harry spoke about the time when their mother died. For Harry, just twelve at the time, it was a traumatic period, and had repercussions for many years to come.

The princes rightly called for less fear around mental illness; I’ve known plenty of young and older people who perceived themselves as rejected by friends and family on account of their mental illness.

Yet, talking this over with my daughter and son-in-law, we felt a bit uneasy. Emotions such as grief or anger or remorse may be totally appropriate reactions to events or the consequences of our own actions. They are not in themselves medical conditions. Simeon told Mary to expect a sword of sorrow through her heart (Luke 2:34); we would ask what was wrong if a mother did not feel great hurt when her child was killed.

She loved; she was hurt.

That is not mental illness, it is a question to ask of God and oneself, ‘Why?’

Mary’s ‘Fiat’ – ‘Let it be done according to your word’ – at least begins to answer it. Her words, of course, are echoed by her son at his life’s end: indeed at the Presentation she is like the parents and godparents of an infant at the baptismal font. We make the promises to believe in God and reject all sin, whatever the consequences, knowing the baby may be hurt on the way through life. And here is Jesus: Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. (Luke 22:42) It must all have felt meaningless: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46).

Grief happens because we love and because we are human.

MMB.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

2 April: Jesus Wept.

Chichester Cathedral is famed for its modern art – especially the prominent commissions of the artists Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Marc Chagall by Walter Hussey during his time as Dean (1955-1977). It is also home to some fine works of art from earlier periods, and there have been a number of important acquisitions since Hussey’s time as Dean.

 

During 2016, as part of my work as Bishop Otter Scholar for Theology and the Arts in the Diocese of Chichester, I was researching the art in the Cathedral, and leading a series of discussion groups through which I gathered some contemporary responses to the works.

 

 

Among the oldest treasures in the Cathedral are two reliefs, thought to date from the twelfth century, depicting scenes from the Lazarus narrative in John’s Gospel: Martha and Mary going to meet Jesus (John 11:30-32) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:33-44).

 

These are rare examples of Romanesque sculpture in Britain, and a remarkable survival. Resonating wonderfully with their subject-matter, the reliefs were hidden for centuries, and rediscovered, behind the choir stalls, in 1829. Other fragments of carvings were discovered along with the reliefs, and it is thought that they formed part of a larger scheme in a chancel screen. When rediscovered, the reliefs were moved to their present location in the south aisle, which saved them from another risk – the collapse of the Cathedral spire (into the quire, where the reliefs were found) in 1861.

 

One of the most striking features of the carvings is the emotional intensity in the faces of the figures, and this was the first thing that was commented on during the discussion session about the reliefs; as one participant put it simply: ‘they look so sad’. Jesus’ face in the raising of Lazarus is particularly powerful – a very striking rendering of the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, usually rendered ‘Jesus wept’.

 

There is a wonderful drawing of the face of Jesus by John Piper in the collection at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, where Dean Hussey bequeathed his personal art collection (further links between the Cathedral and the gallery will be mentioned in future posts). Piper is one of many artists inspired by the reliefs; another was Eric Gill, who grew up in Chichester, and enthused about the reliefs: he borrowed the composition of the sisters meeting Jesus for Jesus meeting the daughters of Jerusalem in his Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral.

 

Part of the appeal of the reliefs lies, as one participant highlighted, in the very human presentation of Jesus here. According to the contemporary custom, we are left in no doubt that Jesus is the most important figure in the reliefs by his exaggerated height. But at the same time, this is a figure who has friendships and emotions, and whose grief-stricken face inspires empathy from viewers many centuries after it was carved.

 

Indeed, for me, the fact that the reliefs were carved many centuries ago heightens their impact – partly because their very survival is so remarkable, but more so because their emotional immediacy speaks across the centuries. And because most of the ‘facts’ about these carvings are lost in the mists of time, the viewer is liberated from becoming bogged down in analysing details such as the artists’ intentions and instead is given, as one participant put it ‘a blank page’, inviting ‘an immediate, emotional reaction… [rather] than something which is more intellectual.’

 

On the other hand, Linda Brown highlighted that we can also view the reliefs as giving us an insight into twelfth century perceptions of the Lazarus narrative, and, in the architectural features in the sisters meeting Jesus, impressions of the Holy Land in this period. This thought prompted a discussion about travel and pilgrimage in this period, and in turn made me wonder if we might view these works like the mediaeval church labyrinths which allowed the faithful to make a surrogate pilgrimage. Perhaps the twelfth-century viewer of the reliefs (or indeed the twenty-first century one) could (and can) imagine him/herself standing at the gateway and the graveside in Bethany, with Jesus, Martha and Mary, and sharing in their anguish.

 

Thank you to Linda Brown, Margaret Baugier, Fran Box, Tessa Cox, Rebekah Hanson, Jennifer Sandys and the participants who asked to remain anonymous for their contributions on this topic.

 

Further reading

 

Trevor Brighton, ‘Art in the Cathedral from the Foundation to the Civil War’ in Chichester Cathedral: A Historical Survey, ed. Mary Hobbes (Chichester: Philimoe & Co. Ltd, 1994), 69-84: 72-73.

 

Chichester Cathedral, ‘Delve Deeper: The Chichester Reliefs’, Chichester Cathedral website, 2016. Accessed 27/12/2016.

 

Alan Saunders, The Chichester Reliefs (Chichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education, 1989).

 

 

A version of this post was published by Transpositions on 3 October 2016. 

 

NAIB.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

15 February: Officers and Civilians

army-recruits-ukc-640x321

During the same Freshers’ Week Fair, and only a few paces away from the Paintball Monster, a slightly (but not very) different kind of recruitment was going on. Promising safe, lucrative careers to those newcomers from secondary schools, a British Army Officers’ Training Corps Tenet had a team ready to win over students to lives of military domination. Officers are paid to be good at domination. Students who have brains sharpened by A level mental discipline are just sufficiently self-assured about their talent for drilling others and keeping the world in line. Some might feel relieved to have difficult decisions about a fruitful direction to pursue in life to be taken for them by the military.

Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl observes that “boredom exists so that we will do justice to the meaning of our life.” From a utilitarian point of view, grief and repentance “appear to be meaningless” but when told to take a sleeping pill, “the grief-stricken person commonly retorts that his sleeping better will not awaken the lost one whom he mourns.” Through love “the gates to the whole universe of values are thrown open.” Dan Berrigan says that “one of the largest tasks of all… [is] helping other people to live by other  means than their fear, whether it  is fear of one another, fear of the enemy, fear  of the authorities, fear of prison, fear of disgrace, or fear of separation from their families.” Such inflation of reality is what “government [is] able to play on” till people can’t recognise fear of what might happen as different from what is actually happening.

 

Chris D.

January 2017.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections