Monday, December 17, 2012

God is in the detail

God is in the detail:
The twist of a ribbon on gifts, large to smallest
The clove-studded orangey warmth of mulled wine
The baubles, and tinsel, the marzipan-and-icing
The moss, pine and ivy entwined at the threshold
The pigs wrapped in blankets and cranberry sauce
The lights behind windows, welcoming home.

God is in the detail:
Mince pie for Santa and carrot for Rudolph
The carols and jingles and sleighbells and church bells
The tea-towels and glitter of children’s nativities
The waxy-skinned fruit as the stocking’s last treasure
The cards signed in haste lest someone gets forgotten
The wine drunk at midnight, to welcome the Day.

God is in the detail:
The planetary alignment that signalled his coming
The girl that said yes, even though that cost dearly
The census that drove them from homeland to birthplace
The everyday farmhands, now startled from slumber
The gifts borne by kings, to foretell death and glory
The straw in the feeding trough, the rags torn to clothe him -
The light of creation, now welcomed to earth.

TAW December 2012

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"...Are there any women here?"

I 've been taking part in a PhD student's research into the attitudes and identity of working mothers. The research involves detailed recorded interviews. The first interview lasted well over two hours, and generated a transcript that was well on its way to being a novella. it was interesting to see my patterns of speech written down verbatim. Whilst the ums and errs quota caused mo great surprise, I never realised how many times I start a sentence with the word 'so'.

So...yesterday's follow-up interview lasted around 1 1/2 hours. Mostly it picked up on threads from interview one. However,  the last question blindsided me somewhat. I was asked, what does the word feminism mean to me, now? And what does it mean, as a mother?

I recalled my DM-wearing days at university and in my twenties, when 'feminist' was a badge of honour. When I felt genuinely angry about the failure of society to create the conditions for equal pay and equal opportunities. When the mere notion that a working woman would regularly do far more housework than her working male partner incensed me. When the church's failure to fully embrace the ministry of women felt like a wound in the side. I felt distanced from that person, almost as if I had forgotten how being her felt.

Yet I don't believe these issues are less important now; I just seem to have lost the energising anger. I have become tired, and complacent. But on the plus side, my version of feminism has shifted its focus from the parochial white British middle-class angst towards a bigger picture. So here's what I told the researcher; and here, too, is what I want to pass on to my daughters.

I don't believe men are the enemy. I know and have known too many lovely men, gentle and respectful, to ever think that for a minute. Men who even call themselves feminists, too. But the centuries of malecentric society, coupled with our apathy and our stupidity have created the conditions we find ourselves with today.

We women should respect ourselves a lot more. Part of that respect means not investing so much energy, money and time spent in self-flagellation - do I look too fat? Too old? Too pasty? Too ugly? Each woman needs to decide where the line should be drawn, for herself - mine is after mascara, but well before Botox - and then forget it. Don't get dragged across it by a perception of other people's expectations. Be around those who love you as you are, and begin to see things from their perspective.

The continuing disparities between men and women in the workplace and in how jobs are allocated in the home are concerning, and ultimately something we need to solve. But that is as nothing compared with the utter contempt expressed through domestic violence. Whilst this is a male problem, we cannot wait for men to solve it - not those men. And those women who are already trapped in a cycle of violence are least able to make change happen. We need to foster a steely self-respect in girls and young women, teaching them zero tolerance for any behaviour that undermines, belittles and isolates them - whether it be actual or real psychological and physical abuse. Likewise boys and men need strong role models that vociferously reject all notion that women are weaker, and that jealous love leads to acceptably poor behaviour.

Girls in this country should be aware of the great legacy we have from the Suffragette movement, as well as more modern feminists. That women who speak out on such issues have always been made figures of fun, but that this should only make us more grateful. It is a right, not a concession, that we have good antenatal care, favourable divorce laws, that we can wear what we want, have a choice of career, and drive our own cars. All the more reason to be aware of so many places in the world where this is not the case. Girls need to be taught the links between attitudes, beliefs, actions and law in such places, so that they can fight for the global sisterhood as well as recognising the more insidious forms of these attitudes in their own place of birth.

It is feminism that has enabled me to get a University education; to decide when I wanted children, and how many; to take time out to look after them, and to return to work. Feminism protects my rights to earn money, spend money, borrow money and throw it all away on what I like. Feminism is front and centre every time I take my voting card to the polling booth; and when I sit on a jury. It stands beside me when I talk to those who have suffered abuse from men who should have been their allies. It screams with rage as I flick through the newspaper.

I want my girls to be proud to describe themselves as feminists, wearing that badge as they approach their world with all its complexities, all its light and shade. Just as their mother does: although I think, for a while, she forgot.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Take that, Beijing

I think I heard right. I did, didn't I? Please, God, let it be true...

Danny Boyle has planned to feature allotments as part of the Olympics opening ceremony.

Is there anything more British than the allotment? The creation of tiny pockets of ordered green chaos, where city folk get to play at being farmers? Once you hear that so-and-so has an allotment, your whole attitude towards them shifts, however badly you may have considered them before. No-one can ever be truly grumpy with an allotment owner. The very word - roll it around, now, on your tongue - is up there with pastry-brush, sock drawer and topiary.

Allotments suggest tradition, yet impermanence. A rugged coping sort of attitude, but in an organised, nit-picky kind of fashion. A stand-by-your-beds fingers-on-lips-no-talking approach, fuelled by an enormous sense of the absurd. In short, allotments are quintesentially British.

I hope there are allotments. But if there aren't, please can we have a silly red phone box, one with the sort of door than gives one a hernia to open and that always smells of loose change and wee? Or perhaps a series of mini-roundabouts, or a larger one with a pointless lump of mangled metal puporting to be modern art, that someone has hung a few hanging baskets from in order to cover the obscene graffiti? Could we have a long queue of disappointed people awaiting something greasy and rancid from a roadside burger van, washed down by a mug of scalding tea with the teabag still in it? (Sorry - 'in which the tea bag is still in' - no, wait - 'in which there is still a teabag')? Can we have a radio-phone-in about the pointlessness of the monarchy, followed immediately by a parade in their honour, involving the SAME PEOPLE??

And over it all can we please, please have, in fact this is so obvious now I come to think of it that I'm almost sure it's one of the aces up Danny Boyle's sleeve, if not, have this one for free mate - can we have, in a massive nod to Pink Floyd's glory days, a giant inflatable Stephen Fry floating gaily high above the fake clouds, then set free to drift above the London skyline until coming to an untimely end when punctured by The Shard.

Just in case you need any more ideas, Danny, here's a few I prepared earlier. See what you can do.

Iconography, UK

In this we trust:
Buses will arrive at any time
other than the one in the timetable.
The seating on all public transport will be rationed.
The weather will disappoint
or will appear on the front page of the tabloids
under the headline, ‘Phew, what a scorcher!’
The female newsreader will be both younger and more attractive
than her male counterpart,
unless she is on the radio.
Grammar pedants will wage war on incorrectly applied apostrophes
and any sentence at the end of which there is a preposition.
Parents will claim that certain dietary choices will cause pectoral hirsuitism;
and that turbulent air currents will create the conditions for facial paralysis.
At the Post Office, there will always be a queue of politely-spaced people
who will collectively require three forms, the dispatch of two parcels,
and several books of second-class stamps, which will be pushed under the plastic grill with no good grace by someone who always wanted to work
in a library.

In this we trust: Punch will never attend relationship counselling with Judy
Alice will forever fall tumbling down the rabbit-hole
The answer to all our pain and gnawing moments of self-doubt
will be a good strong cup of tea.
Telephone boxes will always be red, despite evidence to the contrary;
Similarly police constables will wear odd pointy hats, like the one in Noddy.

In this we trust: For St Patrick the Irish will wear the green, for St David the Welsh will wear a daffodil. Scots will fly the flag for St Andrew and raise a glass to Robbie Burns; whilst St George’s Day will be marked by a muted scout parade and a phone-in to radio 2 about the diffidence of the English.

In this we trust: at occasions of collective self-parody we will all join together in singing
‘And did those feet, in ancient times,’
As if we understood it
As if we believed it.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the Kingdom,
The Angel will stand with his rusted arms outstretched,
both revered and loathed in equal measure;
waiting for us to turn in his direction
to greet the New Jerusalem.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Witness Protection

There were two kinds of girls at my school: there were those who were good at P.E. – who could run a mile or 10, who could leap over any obstacle, who could catch a ball without that sweaty moment of self-doubt that accompanied its painfully slow trajectory towards – inevitably – the ground (perhaps via your nose), and who could hit flying objects with ridiculous implements – a hockey stick, a tennis racquet or (most dangerously of all) a lacrosse stick – with force and deadly accuracy.

And there were those who couldn’t. Guess which camp I fell into?

To be seen to be trying and yet still failing was a far worse crime, in teenage-girl land, that simply not bothering. So I didn’t bother, with panache. When we were told to run round the field, I developed a stitch and walked. When practicing netball passes with a couple of partners in crime, we would stand statue-like watching until the teacher turned, then furiously pass the ball between us, until she turned back to the far-more-hopefuls and we resumed our somnolent state. When swimming widths in time trials I would swim in such a way that I wasn’t stuck in another girl’s wake, thus ensuring that I didn’t get a mouthful of spray and that I always reached the far side last. Or one of the last. There was a group of us, all equally useless, all equally afraid of making fools of ourselves. Our main objective was to get through the torture of P.E. lessons, under the teacher’s radar and, more importantly, to escape without the attention of those girls who were in the netball / hockey / swimming teams. Not to be ridiculed, and not to be yelled at – that was our goal.

The weird thing is that, left to our own devices, even we sad team of underachievers could enjoy sports. Once we were in fourth form – year 10, in new money – the teacher twigged that we would be far happier, less inhibited, and therefore more likely to actually, you know, DO stuff, if she left us to our own devices, taking the girls who were good at games away to train separately. Of course, it may also be true that these girls benefited significantly without being hampered by our uselessness…still, we blossomed, albeit in an out-of-breath cack-handed sort of a way. No longer were we held back by pointless instructions about the correct grip for forehand or any notion of an off-side rule. We were free to run and attack and defend, to hit and to leap and to…well, almost to catch. But it didn’t matter, because no-one was watching, well, no-one that mattered, no-one who was GOOD at this stuff. We just picked the ball up, brushed away the grass, and threw it – in entirely the wrong direction.

And in the middle of all that lack of expectations and pressure-off, I even discovered that I was reasonably OK at one or two things.

In the letter written to the Hebrews the writer says this:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Hebrews 1:1-3 NIV

I have heard that passage preached upon many times. It is used to comfort and inspire its listeners. It is meant to make us focus, to redouble our efforts in the way that we live our lives.

But if I run, I don’t want to be watched. A great cloud of witnesses would paralyse me with fear.

Now, thirty years after the trauma of school P.E. lessons, I go to the gym, picking the time carefully to avoid most members. On the rare occasion my family persuade me to play a competitive game, I give up as soon as I realize that my poor attempts are making victory impossible and (to my mind) ‘spoiling’ the game for everyone else. I can’t help it: I am genetically and experientially programmed to want to crawl under a rock. If you ever want to precipitate my mental breakdown, put a rounders bat in my hand, gather round everyone I know – and a few strangers for good measure – start chanting ‘Hit it! Hit it!’ and then throw the ball towards me. But I warn you – it won’t be pretty.

If I am to be inspired and comforted, I need a different metaphor. I need a personal trainer, one who loves me exactly as I am but realises I could do with losing a couple of pounds, and improving my strength and stamina. I would enjoy training alongside those who are as rubbish as I am, and are open enough to admit it. Who think getting out of breath and going beetroot red are normal. Who want to play games, eclectically, not bound by rules and a sense of how things should be done. Who encourage one another in having fun, not breaking records. And who never ever throw spherical missiles near my head.

Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of underachieving but loving encouragers, let us run…

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Art in Lent: the washing of the feet

It is one of the more curious discrepancies of the gospels that John does not include an account of the Last Supper, in terms of the sharing of bread and wine as the act of remembrance. Instead the writer of the last gospel account to be put on paper tells the story of a man preparing his small anxious band of followers through words and actions that are not recorded in the other three gospels. Perhaps he thought the other three gospel writers had got the bread-and-wine bit covered; after all, this is clearly all happening at the same event written of by Matthew, Mark and Luke, at which the shared body and blood was central. Yet it was another demonstration of love that John recounted, one that was ignored by the other three: Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

I have difficulty understanding this passage. Jesus asks at the end, ‘Do you understand?’, as if the message is simple and straightforward; as if there is only one possible answer. But if this were a multiple choice question I would always be left with at least two plausible right answers. So let’s try that: did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet because
a) they were dirty and a bit smelly
b) he was demonstrating his humility, and wanted to teach them humility
c) he wanted them to do exactly that for one another – wash each other’s feet
d) he wanted them to learn that they would always need to be make clean in his presence?

The tradition in Jewish households of the time was that the feet would be washed by a servant on arrival. This was a necessary act; after tramping dusty roads in a hot country wearing sandals – and no socks – the feet were offensive to others; and in a culture where diners reclined at table, the feet would be clearly visible – and smellable! Yet the passage says Jesus got up from the meal to wash the feet. The feet should have been washed already; this was a symbolic act, just as the sharing of one cup is not meant to slake the thirst, but to symbolize our union into the death of Christ.

After he has washed the feet of all, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘you should wash one another’s feet,’ because ‘no servant is greater than his master’. The message is not one of dealing with dirt; it is of servanthood within the body of Christ. Jesus made himself the lowly footwasher – what will he require of us?

And there is another important lesson, in the exchange between Peter and Jesus.

‘Jesus answered, A person who has had a bath needs only
to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.’

The washing of the feet in this sense seems to symbolize our need for regular confession and forgiveness. We are washed clean completely when we come to Christ, in the first instance, on our knees; but we must have the humility and self-awareness to come regularly with the daily grime of our petty selfishness. And every time, our Lord kneels before us, to make us new.

So this is not one simple message; and in this way it does mimic the bread and wine, in its multi-faceted symbolism.

There are many pieces of art that depict the last supper, but far fewer that show Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In our Lent art group last week we looked at four images, three depicting the events as told by John and one a portrait of footwashing in a different context.

Ford Madox Brown was an English artist born in 1821 and closely linked to the pre-Raphaelites through his tutorage of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The scope of his worrk is huge, ranging from portraiture to landscapes, sacred to secular, historical to present day commentary. His ‘Jesus washing Peter’s Feet’ caused an outcry when first exhibited in 1856 as it depicted Jesus semi-clad – the artist had to go back and paint robes in later, as it remained unsold for several years.

Ghislane Howard painted the image at the head of this post. She is a British contemporary artist whose paintings focus on the human condition. She has worked as the artist-in-residence for a Manchester maternity hospital, painted children with cerebral palsy learning to walk, and been commissioned to paint her take on the Stations of the Cross by Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. Jesus washing Peter’s feet was commissioned for the Methodist art collection.

Sieger Koder is a retired Catholic priest living near Stuttgart. During the second world war he served Germany as a front line soldier in France, where he was captured and made a British prisoner of war. After the war he studied to be a teacher, then worked as an artist and art teacher. His art is predominantly paintings of gospel scenes, which invite the viewer into the scene depicted: the companion piece to the washing of Peter’s feet is his last supper, in which we see things from Christ’s angle, looking down at the cup in his hands in which we again see his reflected face.

We discussed these three images. Responses were varied, although Madox Brown was the least preferred - his Jesus is too far from the simple carpenter we imagine, and the painted-on robes were less appreciated by modern sensibilities. Peter seems too old, but suitably obstinate. His onlookers were appreciated, however - particularly the interpretation of the the beloved disciple as the watching blond man at the table, drinking in his Lord's actions in order to record them for us later. Howard's rough and ready Peter, engaged in a moment of private vulnerability before a friendly and unassuming Lord, appealed to most. Koder's Christ seems engaged in an act of contortion, and it is perhaps a pity that the face reflected in the water does not register more obvious emotion. But it is poignant to see the face of Jesus peering back from the grime of human feet, echoing the stench of Golgotha. Here he wears a scarf reminiscent of the garb of a Jewish priest: it is his cleansing that makes us clean, to walk into the courts of heaven.

 Our preferred image is this one, by Mary Cassatt who was an American-born painter of the later nineteenth century. Trained in Paris and a friend of Degas, she painted intimate portraits of domestic life such as this. There is something about its simple service and adoration that we loved. A mother does not see washing a child's feet as a chore, nor does she pause to consider her status. The feet are precious to her: beloved. Those of us whose children have now grown ache and long for one more chance to wash tiny toes, holding the child on our lap as we whisper songs into their ear. 

In the three images above we see Christ as servant, as priest, as carpenter-king, and as friend. But Jesus as parent - God as mother-father - gives us a fresh perspective on his intention.


Friday, March 30, 2012

More friends are waiting

I like Facebook. It appeals to both my desire for interaction, and my need to closely guard the borders. It's friendship on my terms. I decide who, when, how much. Whatever sort of day I've had, I can turn it into a flippant, chipper little sentence; and that's my social interaction done.

I realise that makes me sound like a grumpy old bugger. The truth is, just like almost everyone else on this planet, I crave friendship: real friendship, the sort that doesn't let you down, overlooks the shortcomings, and doesn't try to find fault. That doesn't laugh dutifully at your jokes, but genuinely delights in your sense of humour. That looks out for you, knowing you so well that it can predict what situations will send you spiralling into self-doubt, and swiftly move to stand alongside you. That tells you the truth, because it's good for you, not because it's what you want to hear. That anticipates the bad times, and celebrates the good. Facebook can help you keep up with distant friends, and even meet new ones; but it can never foster that sort of friendship.

And the truth is, I'm, rubbish at it. That sort of commitment takes time and effort. Oh, I've taken the time and made the effort with my nearest and dearest: almost 23 years of marriage surely bear that out. But human beings need more that one person in their lives, more than one who is allowed to get past the peripheral trivia of our daily conversations. So how many is enough? How many, to fulfill my needs? How many can I reasonably be expected to keep faith with, to that extent?

Tracey, more friends are waiting...

Facebook insists I should go trawling for more and more people to add to my collection, however tangential the link. It suggests family members of someone I once met; work colleagues of loose acquaintances. It is hungry for me to connect. The more I do, the more stretched I feel. I become thinly spread, my friendship like a devalued currency. I lose my grip on what friendship is. Is it telling the world what I am doing, where I am, who I am with? Does relationship deepen if I share that cartoon, those photos, this YouTube clip? More friends are waiting. But what are they waiting for? Should I entertain them? Reveal my innermost being to them? Or simply count them, clicking the abacus higher and higher until I reach some sort of Friendship Nirvana?

Tracey, have you found all of your friends?

No, I haven't. There are so many people in this world: surely more of them want to be my friend. Surely I would find a sense of well-being in befriending them. So far I have found some long-lost friends, from way-back when, and I am so grateful to Facebook for enabling this. And there are some dear friends that I interact with in this odd virtual houseparty on a regular basis. But most of my list either rarely use FB, or play a walk-on role in my life - as indeed do I in theirs. We cannot truly connect with so many people: it overwhelms us, and we pay lipservice to true friendship.

So, to all those people out there who are my friends: thank you. I'm a grumpy old bugger with flashes of humour, and I welcome your constant presence in my life. Please never assume that I keep you at arms length because I prefer it that way. The truth is - and there's been a lot of truth in this blog - I would love to learn how to be the sort of friend that doesn't do aloof and reserved. I'm learning: but it doesn't come naturally.

And to those out there who may become my friends, however tangentially: welcome. But please don't stretch me too much. I may break.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Art in Lent: The Baptism of Christ

War can produce some terrible, ear-shattering sounds. The noise of shelling, quite apart from its dreadful consequences, was and is enough to unnerve, leaving soldiers trembling and, at times, catatonic. Yet conversely war is a time of great silence: of whispers between those in the know; of hiding, and stealthy movements, breaths shallow and staccato with fear.  Of great cloaking hush, waiting in the darkness for the first drone of bombers overhead. Of paranoid looking over the shoulder, using the lowest voice possible because you never know who might be listening. Of partial scraps of information from loved ones, or worse, no news at all as they retreat into memory. The silence of war is a terrible, all-embracing and smothering blanket of unknowing.

When the bells rang out for the first time after the Great War was declared over, the sound they made symbolized so much that had been lost. They shouted out, joyfully: it’s done. At great cost, yes; but this is the time for shouting, and celebrating. No more whispers in corners; no more hiding in darkness. Now is the time for crying from the rooftops, it is here! It is here! The longed-for day is here!

The Baptism of Christ marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry; but also the end of the period of his anonymity.  God spoke from the heavens over his beloved Son. The bells rang out: the silence was broken. Yet the painting below, by Piero della Francesca, holds an immense stillness at its heart.

The Baptism of Christ: Piero della Francesca, 1450s

It stands alone in the National Gallery; although originally it was the central panel of several, with the side and bottom panels painted by another artist (Matteo di Giovanni). It is probably Piero’s oldest surviving work, and was hung as the altarpiece in his home town, Borgo Sansepolcro, in Tuscany.

We know little of Piero. He was born and died in Sansepolcro, but spent time working in Florence where presumably he met some of the great artists of the early renaissance, or at least was exposed to their work – such as Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia and Donatello. His heritage was mixed: whilst his father was a tradesman, his mother came from Florentine nobility. He was a keen mathematician and geometer, who brought his understanding of form and perspective to his painting. In Florence he worked under Domenico Veneziano, who painted frescoes with particular attention to colour and light; this influence is seen in Piero’s solo work. Apart from this small influence he kept himself to himself, working out his own distinct style.

Like his peers, Piero wanted to depict scenes that were rooted in modern domestic life, portraying the human form with as much realism as possible whilst still having an eye on the whims of his patrons. The Baptism scene is set in a Tuscan landscape, and the small town in the background is most likely his home town of Sansepolcro. The colours of a Tuscan spring day sing out; compare this with Bellini’s baptism, painted 50 years later. The composition is very similar; yet the feel is one of gathering gloom, as John the Baptist takes a bow and fades into darkness.

The moment of baptism is often cited as one of the most explicit indications in the gospels of the doctrine of the Trinity, since Jesus, the Father and the Spirit – in the form of the dove - are all active in that one moment. So let's look at the components of Piero’s Baptism.

Firstly, it pays meticulous attention to geometry. The tree is a third of the way from the left; the dove is a third of the way from the top. Both devices make the whole more pleasing to the eye. St John’s outstretched arm mirrors his elevated left leg, so that there is a clear diagonal line. Christ, and the dove, are central; it is probable that originally there was a roundel above depicting God the Father. The curve of the hills mimic that of the arch, as do the shape of the trees.

What figures are depicted? There is Christ and John; both serene and focused. There are also three angels; a man undressing – the next to be baptised – and a gaggle of onlookers. What is the significance of all these?

In depictions of Christ’s baptism angels are often shown watching, usually three, sometimes two or four. It is a reference to the angels that came to sustain Christ after his long period of fasting in the desert; before Jesus enters the wilderness the angels accompany him to the baptism, to stand and watch. 

Piero’s angels are a curious mixture of timeless heavenly being and present-day human. Usually the angels hold the cloak of Christ as he enters the water; here they hold hands in a stance that brings to mind that of the three graces, with only one actually watching the events.

There is some thought that the angels further represent the Trinity, as do the three angels that visited Abraham (depicted most famously in Rublev’s icon). Possibly there is a more complex explanation: around ten years prior to this painting there was a fierce debate between the Eastern and Western arms of the Church over the doctrine of the Trinity, that culminated in an agreement of sorts; peace between the factions. In the three angels we see God (the white angel) bringing both parties together, over the doctrine of the Trinity. Incidentally this harmony was broken soon after the painting was completed. If so, this is a far more complicated image than it first seems, with a deep respect for the doctrine of the Trinity at its heart.

The figure undressing deliberately disrupts the calm vertical lines, bringing both a diagonal that echoes that of John’s leg as well as a welcome messiness to an otherwise overly still and tidy picture. Christ is one of a number coming for baptism; humbly offering himself, in the same way as other penitents. In the crowd behind there may well have been familiar faces to those who saw the painting for the first time – that of his patron? His friends? Himself? Piero is thought to have placed self-portraits in other works, including ‘The Resurrection’ – perhaps his most famous painting. In casting himself as a Roman soldier he is not seeking to elevate himself, but to identify with those responsible for the death of Christ. It reminds me of the works of Stanley Spencer, often set in his Berkshire village of Cookham. 

Spencer’s ‘Crucifixion’ shows Golgotha as a rubbish pile in the high street, with all the locals leaning out of windows to watch. The implication is clear: Golgotha is now. And we are all implicated. In Piero’s painting, God comes to his patch of Earth; both the joy of revelation and the tragedy of the human sin that necessitated Christ’s sacrifice are on our watch. And are that line of people, richly dressed, actually walking away without offering themselves for baptism?

The dove is foreshortened, an artifice in order to make it appear like one of the clouds. There is perhaps a suggestion of uncertainty – is it real? Did it happen? Did we see it, or was it a trick of the light? This seems such a quiet moment – not even the angels are giving their full attention, much less those standing behind. Yet in the gospels we are not told if the voice from heaven is loud or soft – a mighty declaration or a gentle kiss upon the brow. So many times in the gospels there is a hush-hush moment – seen in the nativity, a baby born not in a palace but a stable; in the many admonishments ‘not to tell anyone about me’; even to his own mother, Jesus said ‘my time has not come’. Yet to me this moment – along with that of the Transfiguration – expresses a noisy joy, disregarding any need for propriety or caution. ‘This is my beloved Son’, shouts the Father, ‘in whom I am well pleased’. It’s the bells ringing out at the end of war time; it’s the letter home from the long-lost soldier. And this comes at the start; all Jesus had done was grow up. Later, at the Transfiguration, when God again spoke from heaven calling Jesus his beloved Son, the words may be seen to be celebrating all that has been done; or readying Christ for the final push, the equivalent of the pep talk before going over the top. But here, at the beginning of his ministry, God is delighting in who Jesus is, not in what he has done.

Of course, the missing figure in this panel is that of God the Father, although his presence is hinted at in the three angels and may have been depicted in a separate panel above. Renaissance art did not shy away from imagining the Father, usually depicting a strong but stern bearded man floating on a cloud; or sometimes a pair of disembodied hands, as if the picture has been cut off, like a badly framed photograph. Such images may look rather antiquated to us, and alien to our understanding of the God who is neither male nor female, despite imagery of a father. 

I like this modern baptism of Christ, by Daniel Bonnell, in which the father seems absent – until you realize he is in the colour and radiance all around Jesus. Christ is baptized in the very essence of God, infused with his being. Is this something that is on offer to all of humanity?


Monday, March 19, 2012

'And, snap! The job's a game!'

A friend of mine just commented on Facebook that changing wet beds at 3am was no fun. Presumably this was a grumble about her small child's nocturnal habits, this being the least unpleasant assumption. It struck me that most of the stuff I do every day does not come under the category of 'fun'; certainly the balance is in favour of tedium, with washing, ironing, shopping, hoovering etc on one side of the balance well, actually there isn't much every day stuff on the other side. I mean, I spend some time relaxing - reading, listening to music, writing, watching TV. But I'm not sure that counts as fun. For most of us fun is the more occasional treat, once you're out of your teens or twenties. If you're lucky it comes round every weekend, when you have the opportunity to go out, meet friends, laugh at nonsense.

SO, in an effort to redress the balance - and given that the dull stuff still needs to be done, and there aren't any more hours in the day - the only way to redress the balance is to recategorise what is fun. In the spirit of Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar, and in this Olympic year I present to you...the Household Olympics. Yes, I know that top athletes go through all sorts of blood sweat and tears that are definitely NOT fun, in order to get to the Olympics. But once there - it does look kinda fun, doesn't it? So arm yourself with a stopwatch and your courage. Wear those skimpy track shorts with pride. Don't forget to warm up. And begin...

Event 1: Diving
Stand, teetering on the brink for several tension-building seconds. Then, grasping 2 corners of the duvet, execute a perfect 2 1/2 somersaults in the pike position, into the far end of the duvet cover. 8.5!

Event 2: Curling
Team up with a friend to mop the kitchen floor. Push something heavy - a bag of potatoes, say, or a well-fed cat - across the greasy floor, then mop furiously around it in order to coax it towards the cat flap (note: if using potatoes, they usually need help using the cat flap as an exit strategy).

Event 3: Table Tennis
'Hello, is that Mr / Mrs____? I want to speak to the person responsible for the gas / electricity/ telephone bill.' 'That would be _______. They're out.' 'Well, may I speak with you anyway? We have an offer that I am sure you will be interested...' Click. Brrr. Points please. The only way to deal with cold callers - bat those calls away.

Event 4: Rhythmic Gymnastics
Time to don your leotard. Perform a  three-minute routine to music of your choice, holding a feather duster. 

Event 5: Archery
Arm yourself with a quiverfull of dry cat food pellets, take aim, and fill the cat's bowl pellet by pellet. Points deducted for hitting the cat, even if he is eating the 'arrows'.

Event 6: Cycling
Get on your bike (remember to fit panniers), start the clock and...go! How fast can you be back home with a full complement of shopping?

Event 7: Dressage
Steer your hoover carefuly around various obstacles. Canter down the main carpet. Painstakingly manouvre around children's artwork. Leap nimbly up the stairs. Use all attachments, however finickerty, to impress the judges.

Event 8: Judo
Wearing a dressing gown, wrestle those shirts and trousers into submission using only your wits and strength. Oh, and an iron.

Event 9: Shot put
Pick up object. Test it in your hand: is it heavy? Is it useful? Is it yours? Is it IN THE WRONG PLACE??? If the answers to these questions are 'only a little bit; no; no; yes!!!', then cheerfully FLING that object away. Best to do that twirly thing on the spot first, to build the momentum and the required amount of fling.

Event 10: Hurdles
As the day draws to a close and you realise that there is still a long list of jobs to do, set that clock again, speed up, and joyfully LEAP over anything and anyone that gets in your way. The finishing tape is the sofa, where a champion's glass of wine awaits you. Wrap yourself in your national flag, if it helps, and bask in your wonderfulness. Job well done.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Take Cover

I've held off; I've bitten my tongue, for the last two weeks; but I just can't do it any longer. After being subjected to this cover version in the gym every time I go, I just HAVE to have a rant. Brace yourselves...

To be fair: I'm not anti-cover versions per se. For one thing, it introduces the next generation to some excellent tunes, allowing those of us getting a bit long in the tooth to smile indulgently with the hope that they'll also find the original. Sometimes the original really isn't worth finding, and the cover improves markedly. Sometimes, even if the original is good, the cover version becomes definitive - such as Jeff Buckley's version of Leornard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'; or Hurt by Johnny Cash, which trumps the original by Nine Inch Nails, and gives me goose bumps Every. Single. Time.

Then there are those covers by the original artists themselves, often with the 'it's for charidee' tag. They should quit while they're ahead. Why couldn't The Police leave 'Don't stand so close to me' alone - could it be the m-o-n-e-y? And why did Dead or Alive feel it necessary to reboot their only hit single - oh, wait. I see...I suppose 'You spin me round (Like a record)' has its charms: any song title with brackets does it for me, I'm partial to well-placed punctuation. Although one cover leads to another; in which case they are indirectly responsible for this, this, and indeed this. For which there is clearly no excuse. As for Bono teaming up with Mary J Blige to RUIN one of my favourite tracks EVER...words fail me. Respect your own, Bono. Leave 'One' alone. Dierks Bentley did a far better cover of a U2 track, coming over all bluegrassy on 'Pride'.

Then there's the 'Could do better' category of covers; the ones that leave you wondering what exactly they were meant to have contributed. Such as the (usually reliable- but he should probably stick to being creative: this was a film tie-in) Rufus Wainwright cover of 'Across the Universe'. Pretty, but...meh. I mean, if you're going to do a cover, bring something new to the table! Surprise me! For example: I seem to be making a collection of covers of 'Love will tear us Apart. I adored the original, the angry relentless eighties Joy Division track. But I also love the sweet whimsy of Nouvelle Vague's version; and the slow bleeding anguish of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. All feel necessary to me; they are facets of the same jewel.

So WHAT, in the name of ALL that is SACRED, is this TRAVESTY of a cover version that has got me so SHOUTY and NEEDING TO TYPE IN CAPITAL LETTERS, I hear you ask?

The White Stripes burst onto the music scene all minimalism and tight bass and drum riffs. Seven Nation Army was their definitive single, raw and perfect. Even a version I saw performed by 11-year-olds in a school hall couldn't disguise its brilliance. And it's this that X-factor runner-up - RUNNER-UP on a TALENT SHOW - Marcus Collins thought he'd have a crack at.

The video has (*shudders*) girls. Dancing girls. Dancing girls, standing behind him, waving their arms in a parody of a Hindu goddess.

Don't say I didn't warn you. But in case you need to wash your ears out, here's the original. And kids - accept no substitutes. Cover versions - Just Say No. At least when it comes to X-factor fodder.

Friday, March 02, 2012

This Charming Man

The last Safe Space session saw us gathered together to share stories, some half-remembered, others branded onto our spirits: all of the God-man who walked upon the Earth so many years ago.

We retold those encounters that resonated with us most, that we could imagine our way inside. Zacchaeus, climbing a tree in order to watch as Jesus passed by, elevating himself to a place where he could see and not be seen; yet made the centre of attention when called upon to host supper for a weary Messiah. The Samaritan woman at the well, drawing water for a man that should have rejected her, and indeed knew many reasons why he should; yet finding herself inside his grace. The centurion, another outsider by race and religion and part of the oppressing nation, yet having such kindness towards his servant and such faith in the ability of Christ to heal that Jesus smiled to see him. The haemorraging woman, who had withdrawn from human touch many years before lest she contaminate with her supposed uncleanliness; yet reaching out to touch the hem of the healer.

So many thought themselves unworthy - of salvation, of healing, of notice. So many tried to duck in under the radar. Time and again the story is of Jesus stopping to notice, and then to raise them up.

We also talked of the story of the nativity, imagining ourselves first as the shepherds and then as wise men. Two groups of people approaching and becoming aware of the person of Jesus through totally different routes - sudden revelation, versus slow intellectual journey. How do we see both at work within our own pilgrimages?

We then shared communion together. Sharing bread and wine is not a solitary experience; we come together, and in that togetherness we share our faith and our doubting. If faith feels like an uphill struggle we may find in the celebration of  God's feast a special solace, when all the words and the worries fall away and we are left with simple images of the love of God for us and between us. However, it may also provoke further anxieties: do I believe enough 'stuff'? Can I tick all the points of the creed? Am I worthy to receive, or am I letting the side down?

Our faith is personal, but it is also communal. In sharing bread and wine we demonstrate our connectedness. We become the face of Jesus for one another, sharing his life between us as we do. And in that act we celebrate the extraordinary love of this man who willingly gave his life, despite his sorrow and fear in Gethsemane; and despite his sense of loss and abandonment at Golgotha.

The Hesitant Eucharist

We approach
Quietly, softly, tiptoeing our way through familiar words

Or on our knees, fingers interlaced, knuckles white
Willing faith out from our tired hands.

We come, tripping over obstacles strewn in our way
Many of our making, some not:

Still we advance, inevitably, drawn
Towards the light that comprehends our darkness
But is not extinguished.

We open our mouths to speak: but what words
Would usher in your kingdom?
What words
Would excuse our meager offering,

Our comfortable grumblings?
Our pace slows
at this realization: that we have nothing to say,
nothing but the Nothing that throbs and aches
at our centre. We stop, and stand,
bowing our heads in frustration.

And you are there, waiting, as always:
The one who searches in the garden, whilst we
tried in vain to hide our naked forms.
The words that come are your words:
‘Why did you abandon me?’
and ‘take this suffering from me’…
We forgot, alone in grief, that the pain was first and foremost
yours to bear:
Yours to be alone, Yours to ache and grieve and mourn,
Yours the encounter with the Nothing that eats at human hearts.

You answered with hands that uncurled to be impaled
You approached with feet that bore the scars
You spoke the words of desolation

So now, we come.
Quietly, softly, tripping and stumbling; but we come,
Wanting to understand how the abandoned God
The God in human flesh, divorced from his sense of belonging
Desires to share with us his body and his blood.

TAW 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012

My own personal Jesus

Another week, another Safe Space session. This time we gathered to talk about what or some of us has become a tricky notion: that of 'a personal relationship with Jesus'.

Think about it for a moment. The very notion of a relationship with God is strange, but one that implies intimacy is bizarre. The Bible is clear that God does indeed know us intimately - from the time that we are in the womb, he knows each cell and even before, he imagines us into being. The gospels remind us that God is a loving Father, the one who numbers the hairs on our head and holds us carefully and gently; Isaiah describes him inscribing our names on the palms of his hands. And this God is revealed in Jesus, born of a teenage nobody, the one who walked alongside ordinary men and women, eating their food, sleeping in their beds or in ditches along the way, washing their feet and allowing his own body to be anointed at their hands. What does Jesus have to tell us about the intimacy of relationship sought by God?

And is not an equal relationship. When we say we love, we do not love like him. When we say we know, we know nothing of what he knows.

The very phrase 'a personal relationship with Jesus' is extremely recent. There seems to be no such expression before the renewal movements of the 1960s - and indeed, it does smack somewhat of the  seismic shifts in social norms of that era. In many churches that notion is now the norm, such that it is central in our prayers and songs. And that's fine; for many many believers, that is a very genuine expression of their experience. But for some, it's not, and it can leave people feeling that there is something wrong with their version of faith. Is it personal enough, if I don't have a 'very real sense' of God all of the time? Is it 'relationshippy' enough, if I don't consider Jesus to be my 'best friend ever'? Is it Jesus-focussed enough, if I tend to pray through Jesus to God my Father, or if I have a more Trinitarian approach?

The notion of Jesus as my best friend is one that holds considerable bear traps. Is he a best friend like other, human best friends? Because they let me down, yes; but they are also off to a good start, in that they are, intrinsically, like me. Not just human, but holding much in common - probably similar age, background and interests. God is Other. How can we compare our relationship with the Great Other to that of the mate we meet down the pub?

Of course, people use the phrase intending to communicate something of the joy in relationship with God. The relief of being able to approach God knowing that he cares about all of our stuff, and doesn't care if we're not all sorted out to start with. But feelings are unreliable markers of progress; we need to let ourselves off the hook if we don't feel it.

We spent some time thinking about the Biblical images of Jesus, as the Good Shepherd; part of the Trinity; the heart of the Church; the prophetic challenger; liberator; Lord; Teacher; the revelation of God's nature; role model for life;  and Lamb of God. How does that affect how we approach him - as dependant, awe-filled worshipper, looking for Jesus in our common life, speaking out and seeking to deal with injustice, as followers and learners, looking to see God through Jesus, basing our lives upon his example, and establishing an economy of grace. The image we could not fully see in the Bible was that of Best Friend, in an exclusive sense or in a Jesus-is-my-buddy fashion; yet Jesus does call us his friends, establishing the notion that we are not grovelling sinners but followers who mess up, yes, but seek to walk in his footsteps. He is the one that meets us on the beach and offers breakfast - one of the most gentle and real acts of reconciliation, grace in the ordinary fish and charcoal fire after resurrection as much as in the bread and wine of Gethsemane.

The icon at the top is called 'Jesu et son ami' - Jesus and his friend.  Jesus calls us his friends, us all of us, together. Yet each of separately finds a way to make that a reality in our daily lives. We discussed prayer: does it feel too much like R S Thomas's description?

Folk Tale
Prayers like gravel
Flung at the sky's 
window, hoping to attract
the loved one's 
attention, But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
that far casement?
I would
have refrained long since
but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
The movement of a curtain.

 The goal is surely to interweave our spiritual lives with our earthly patterns, developing an awareness of the God whose essence is community in the everyday; and seeking to follow the Lord who calls us his friends.