‘Noli me tangere’ Fra Angelico

fra-angelico_noli-me-tangere

11th March 2020

Finding, knowing or being with God can at times be difficult. However, I believe that perhaps we do not sufficiently use our own senses to find or discover a presence which is more apparent than we want to accept.

We can find God or God can connect with us in many different ways. He is accessible if we are open to meet him. Elijah met God not in a great and strong wind, an earthquake or a fire, but in a still small voice. That small voice would have been almost imperceptible, almost silent, but it was very much present for Elijah.

We generally associate the Passion of Christ, God’s own Son, with the violence and noise of execution, but I wonder whether this was the case throughout all of the Passion. Christ’s voice is hardly heard and once he arrived at the Cross, a certain calm may well have descended on Golgotha, as the crowds turned their backs on Christ and the crucifixion. Christ’s voice became like the voice of his Father in heaven: quiet and almost imperceptible as he suffered his Passion.

This quietness undoubtedly continued to the tomb and the Garden of Gethsemane, which brings me to the fresco entitled Noli Me Tangere painted by Fra Angelico which is to be found in the monastery of San Marco, in Florence.

This fresco, which I have seen twice in the monastery, strikes me as one which says so much about the gentle and silent presence of God in the silence and emptiness of the tomb, the peacefulness of the garden, and the soothing and miraculous actions and words of Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen. The fresco is full of that still small voice that Elijah had recognised.

During Lent and through Easter, perhaps we should recognise the “still small voice of God” in the hustle and bustle of London and the hurly-burly of our own lives. If we do, then will we not have discovered a trusted and loving companion at our side: someone who has promised always to be with us?

Howard Redgwell

Mikhail Vrubel

Veronica pic 1

10th March 2020

This Lenten season can be difficult for those with anxiety or those whose temptation is to self-criticize. As someone who struggles with these feelings, the painting that first came to mind for my contribution to the Lent blog was “The Demon Seated” by Mikhail Vrubel (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Vrubel). Vrubel’s masterpiece depicts the Demon from the famous Romantic poem by Lermontov: a lonely, tortured soul. The painting shows a seated, half naked figure whose ethereal face and melancholy pose are in contrast with his powerful body and clasped hands.

Veronica pic 2

Vrubel’s second full colour piece on the subject, “The Demon Downcast” (1902) was famously altered when the artist could not stop working on the painting, even as it stood on display. Critics claimed the eyes and face were ruined by his inability to stop seeking perfection.

This reminds me of God’s message for me during Lent—that picking at yourself and tearing your accomplishments apart out of fear, anxiety, or shame DOES NOT represent what Lent is all about. Lent is a time for self reflection, but not an excuse to wallow in one’s shortcomings. We cannot always see ourselves for the masterpieces we are, but God does. Standing back from these paintings one sees representations of lost love, a figure yearning for purity, and rich floral motifs—but Vrubel mainly saw his mistakes. We may look at ourselves this same way, but religion and God should not be our tools to do so. These paintings remind me to forgive myself and accept my imperfections as part of God’s plan.

Veronica Wilson

Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum’

Monday 9th March 2020

In the Peter Shaffer play (and then film) Amadeus, Mozart’s rival, the composer Salieri, talks enviously about Mozart’s music being ‘the voice of God’. Like many others who have enjoyed Mozart’s music down the years, I can see exactly what he meant. Albert Einstein (unsurprisingly!) described the feeling better than I can: ‘Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it – that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.’ Certainly there is something about the simplicity, the joy and the beauty of so much that Mozart wrote that speaks to me of the transcendent and lifts me into the presence of God.

Mozart is my favourite composer and I could have chosen so many pieces to post with this blog – music from the operas (many of which have strong Christian themes of fall, redemption and forgiveness); the astonishing Requiem; some of the symphonies and the piano music – but in the end I decided on the Laudate Dominum. This setting of the shortest of the psalms, Psalm 117, has an ethereal quality about it – first in the violins and then in a soaring soprano solo before the melody is gently echoed by the choir. It is simple and yet perfect – one can’t imagine a note being changed. It seems to me to express something of the beauty of God and of his love in creation, something that we reach towards but glimpse perhaps only occasionally. As listeners we cannot help being drawn in to ‘praise God, all you nations’ as we hear this wonderful piece.

Sophia Acland

Bach’s St Matthew Passion

Friday 6th March 2020

I was sitting on stage in the choir for a performance of St Matthew Passion in Barcelona. I have sung this piece many times since a child and the opening bars of the great double-choir, double-orchestra weaving and winding the beginning of the great story never fail to make my stomach feel hollow and tears start to prick at my eyes. I love this piece in all its enormous range and unwieldy size, the slow pace of the unfolding and the depth of emotion evoked and explored.

For some reason, on this particular occasion, in the opulent Palau de Musica, the scene of the Last Supper, where Jesus breaks the bread and passes round the wine, asking everyone gathered to share the basic stuff of life in memory of him, suddenly had a special atmosphere. I wasn’t just listening to the scene being described, I was there. The actions and the ramifications of their observance down the centuries had a vast timelessness and an eternal and immediate call.

Adey Grummet

 

Discworld

Tim Aldred blog pic

Thursday 5th March 2020

The Discworld novels of the late Sir Terry Pratchett may not seem like an obvious choice for this series. He is hilariously scathing about religion – for example, writing that the Great God Om “was handily silent, thereby enabling his priests to interpret his wishes how they chose”. Amazingly, Om’s wishes rarely translated into instructions like “Feed the poor” … but more along the lines of “You need a splendid residence”. His critique takes aim at the religious mindset which excuses inaction in the face of suffering, or worse, as a rationalisation of violent prejudice (“they were engaged in religion. You could tell by the knives”).

Meanwhile, the heroes of his works instinctively rally to the cause of the outcast and oppressed. Curmudgeonly Sam Vimes overcomes his own prejudice to allow despised species to join the ranks of his City Watch. We see Vimes’ feelings for goblins, for example, move over time from revulsion to friendship and trust.

“Magic” deserves a word. It acts as an elemental force in the Discworld, controllable like electricity, with two forms of practitioner owning the tools to wield it. First, the wizards of the Unseen University. At their fingertips – literally – lies phenomenal power, sufficient to reshape the world, through force if need be. But for the most part their use of it is either selfish, designed to win control, or is studied as academic abstraction, without connection to society.

It is clearly the witches that Pratchett wants us to emulate. Although capable of powerful magic, they are nervous of using it. Selfish use of magic, we find, quickly leads to trouble. Witches regularly visit each other, less from friendship, and more for mutual accountability, to protect against “cackling”. The main job of a witch, it seems, it more about clipping the toenails of housebound old men, delivering babies, tending to the dying, like a kind of vet, district nurse, and village social worker rolled into one. Staying grounded like this, they develop clear sight of right and wrong, and a sure-footed familiarity with the borderlands of life and death. Indeed, the person of Death, to Pratchett fans, has become an almost friendly face – arriving inconveniently, but not to be feared.

Tiffany Aching, the heroine of the Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s last ever book, exemplifies this vocation of service. Victory in her struggle (against a kingdom of malicious fairies) will require her to hold with all her being to goodness and justice. It is this, rather than magic, that reshapes the world around her. And then, Sir Terry writes, as the book reaches its climax, “Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself…”

Tim Aldred

‘Genesis’ by Joe Sheerin

Make more cats said Mrs God
Not toads rats spiders snakes.
Make more swans not vultures
Hawks buzzards eagles kites
But come in for your tea first.

At the bottom of Eden in a potting shed
He quickly kneaded a clay cat and swan
Blew on them and shut the door tight.

They ate ambrosia and honey from gold
Plates. Afterwards he helped with the washing up.

Finding a white neck speckled with blood
And a cat badly winged and given up
For dead she asked, is this your idea of a joke?

He went quiet and distant
The way gods do and wondered if they
Would ever make a go of it, she
Being such a perfectionist.

 

4th March 2020

I kind of like this poem because it talks of the imperfection of creation. God created free will, and free will does not always manifest itself in a good way. He gave volition to individuals from the humblest of beings to the species considered to occupy the top slot, humanity. Mrs God asks God to make more gentle, beautiful creatures.  We would all like to deal with gentle, beautiful creatures of our own kind but the reality is that we are often disappointed and get hurt.

God in his wisdom gave us the wit, the free will, to adapt and fall in with the mystery of life as best we can. This can manifest in many ways, one being tribal protectionism which often serves to stand in the way of good relations. Keeping God in our sight can be a trusted staff when needed as in the advice in Psalm 16:8:

I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

In the case of the cat and the swan, out of the sight of God they turn upon each other, doing themselves mortal harm. When we lose sight of God, his spiritual wisdom, we too can turn upon each other. The harm we do is not always mortal, but it can cut like a knife to our very soul. Looking to the Lord in our daily lives helps us deal better with our fellow humans.

Looking to God in Lent, and throughout our daily lives, keeping God on our side, is a way to strengthen our responses when challenged, to respond in more positive ways that do not lead to conflict. Perfection may not be achieved but resolution may mean we can all sit down and have ambrosia and honey for tea.

David Risley

Dolly’s jug

Kate Price pic

Tuesday 3rd March 2020

This is almost “people’s art”. As you can see, it is a simple , though for me at least, pleasingly crafted china jug. I like to fill it with daffodils at this time of year. The reason I have chosen it is because it was given to our family by a lovely lady called Dolly Watkins. Dolly was the fourth of seven children born in the area around Monmouth in the Wye Valley. I lived there as a child and Dolly used to come in once a week to help my mother with ironing and cleaning silver.

Our cleaning lady Mrs Wellington used to refer to Dolly as “prim and prompt” (!) – quite affectionately. And I saw what she meant. Dolly was quiet and studious. She had not had the benefit of much education but she had a good mind. She had never married because she had elected to stay at home and care for her ageing parents. Her siblings had all married. As a teenager, I thought this was a horrific fate and asked her about it. She looked at me tranquilly and replied: “Well, you know, your parents do so much for you. They look after you when you are small. This was the least I could do.” My fifteen year old self was impressed. And today during church, I reflected on Dolly (we all called her Miss Watkins of course); I reflected that in her way, in a small but significant way, her selflessness was Christ-like in that she put the needs of others before her own. She gave all she had. And not only that, she appears to have done so in an ungrudging way. There was no bitterness. Christ gave his life for us – totally undeserved. Dolly gave her time and her love to her parents, thereby also allowing her siblings to bring up their families. Through her example, I could see something of the love of God.

I will never forget her quiet self composure. And when she retired, she gave us this vase, which had been in her family for a long time. My parents treasured it. It was still in my parents’ house after the death of my mother. So now, every spring, I fill it with flowers and think of Dolly Watkins.

Kate Price

Delighting in God: Holy Spirit window

CathedraPetri-Gloria2 cropped

Friday 28th February 2020

I enjoyed a lovely holiday in Rome several years ago with a group of friends, exploring the city and surrounding areas. We visited all the usual sights and walked miles from place to place, trying to see as much as possible. Feeling hot and tired, but not wanting to miss out anything on our ‘must see’ list, we arrived at St Peter’s late one afternoon. Having waited in a long queue winding its way around the piazza outside, we finally made it inside the Basilica.

The church was bustling with tourists, and my friends made a beeline for Michelangelo’s Pieta – another item to tick off our checklist. Being rather footsore, I wandered off in search of a quiet place to rest and have a moment of quiet contemplation and found myself facing the Chair of St. Peter altar, above which was the most amazing golden stained glass window of a dove through which the sunlight was pouring.

I was deeply moved by the beautiful simplicity of the window, situated above Bernini’s incredibly ornate altar, and the wonderful warmth and light which radiated from it onto the visiting tourists below. The contrast between the different aspects of the altar was particularly striking – the marble and jasper base, the gilded bronze throne encasing the ancient wooden chair of St Peter, the huge bronze figures surrounding it, the host of gilded angels and billowing stucco clouds and, above all the elaborate decoration, the window of Bohemian glass with its gentle depiction of the Holy Spirit as a dove.

It reminded me of how easy it can be to lose sight of God in the midst of all the complex interactions of our everyday lives, and how overly complicated our faith can sometimes become. Sometimes it is important for us to look past all the symbolism and details, and take a moment to rediscover the peace and simplicity of just resting in the light of the Holy Spirit.

Angie Poppitt

Delighting in God: Haydn’s ‘Creation’

Thursday 27th February 2020

‘The Heavens are telling’

I don’t know whether it is true of not, but I was once told that the composer Joseph Haydn was inspired to write his great oratorio, The Creation, after a visit to his friend William Herschel on which he had seen his telescopes and used them to view the stars. Herschel was a musician as well as an astronomer, and both he and Haydn lived during the Enlightenment, a period of great flourishing in science and the arts. Unlike today when some people depict science and religion as being in conflict (see the writings of Richard Dawkins), science was seen as being a servant of religion during the Enlightenment, and there was much emphasis on God’s revelation in ‘two books’ – the Bible and the natural world.

I have chosen Haydn’s Creation for this reflection because it embodies an Enlightenment optimism in which the order and beauty of the universe speak to us of a God who is both good and generous. In the chorus ‘The Heavens are Telling’ Haydn sets verses from psalm 19 – to see the heavens is to see God’s handiwork, and they, and we, offer God praise in response.

The interweaving of the solo and choral voices, the shimmering violins and rich orchestration depict in music the awe we might feel when we look upwards on a dark, clear night and see the Moon, planets and stars arrayed above us – vast, inspiring and filling us with wonder.

Martin Carr

Delighting in God: Office Hymns

Ash Wednesday, 26th February 2020

Emlyns hymns

A way back before the flood, when I was recently arrived on this side of the pond, I started singing in the choir of St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow. In the 60s we sang Evensong twice a week on Sunday evenings and Wednesdays as well which was not bad for an all voluntary choir! For me one of the especial joys was the office hymns sung before the Magnificat. The year began with the great Advent hymn ‘Creator of the Stars of Night’ but petered out a bit by the time we had sung ‘O Blest Creator of the Night’ for the umpteenth time during Trinity to Advent. The Cathedral Provost did finally allow a major variant of ‘Three in One and One in Three’ as long as it wasn’t too often!

During the period leading up to Good Friday, one knew the importance of ‘the fast, as taught by holy lore’ which led to ‘the healing time decreed’ which itself pointed one toward ‘the royal banners’. There’s something about the archaic language that both John Mason Neale and Thomas Alexander Lacey used in their translations of the three office hymns shown above that took you out of this time to a different time and place: it let your mind go somewhere else, away from things normal. When Ralph Vaughan Williams, the editor of the English Hymnal, tied the first two to an old French tune and a 17th century German one, I believe he did something quite splendid, putting them into a more timeless place to be heard.

There is something so profound in managing to get to that place where we encounter the numinous, where we get a small glimpse of God. For me this is most often helped by music: it can be a simple old hymn, a bit of plainsong, or a Taizé chant that separates the self from ordinary life and goes beyond.

Tom Emlyn Williams