Monthly Archives: September 2010

Religious Art

Art has an extraordinary power to inspire us and of course, religious themes have been an extraordinary inspiration for artists down the centuries.

In Tate Britain there is a remarkable collection of pictures with a religious theme. Two very different, I like particularly. They are very different. J. F. Millais’ “Christ In The Home Of His Parents” is drawn meticulously. Every detail perfect down to the drop of blood on the wounded child’s hand falling on the foot to portend future trials. For me the very detail of this picture is analogous to those who view religion through what they see as the certainties of scripture.

But many people turn away from this approach.

Faith can or should just as easily be represented by JMW Turner’s “Christ and The Woman of Samaria”. Here everything is in a whirl, indistinctly drawn with atmospheric clouds signifying our own doubts. But the message is no less powerful.
We can not see every detail. We have to assume it.

Just as we have to assume a lot about the Angel Gabriel. But just because something cannot be proved and has to be assumed does not necessarily mean it is wrong.

Mary and I also went to a preview show in the Rosetti Studios, by Susie Bacon, of her bronze statues. I found this lovely text from Ovid about Philemon and Baucis accompanying her statues of the pair.

We ask to be your priests and guard your shrine
And since in concord we have spent our years
Grant that the selfsame hour may take us both
That I my consorts tomb may never see
Nor may it fall to her to bury me.

I don’t think I have ever read anything so moving!

Raphael in the V&A

In the V&A Museum are gathered together this September, for the first time in five hundred years, both the Raphael Cartoons and the Tapestries woven from their images to hang in the Sistine Chapel.

As I wandered around I was overwhelmed by the power and beauty of these images. To be honest, on previous visits, I had thought the colours of the cartoons insipid. Now here were the vibrant colours and rough texture of the Tapestries gathered together with the superb draughtmanship of the Drawings. The scene of the catching of the fish is magical.

The results of religious belief are in no way proof of the divinity of Christ pictured here talking to his followers. But where is the Raphael of atheism?

Today, I was the more overwhelmed by emotion in front of a medieval crucifix in another room of the gallery.

Although emotional attachment isn’t proof of anything, where is the emotion of atheism?

St Wenceslaus himself may have myths woven around him. Does that negate the fact of his existence?

A New Beginning

I am starting today, 27 September 2010, a new series of Another Country.

September, when people are starting new academic terms seems a good time to start a new series.

I have long felt that not enough is being written for people like me. People who struggle with belief in God but still seek him.

Of course there are some lucky people of rock like faith who have a conversion experience. But I suspect that for many of us in the modern world, while we value the role of religion, the nagging thought still returns. Are we alone in a pityless Universe, the creatures of mathematical formulas and no more? Or is there more?

I make no apology for the fact that these thoughts will be rolled out slowly in the light of daily experience. I get rather fed up with books telling me there is one particular right way of thinking or not thinking for oneself.

For me, scripture is a tool but not the only one. For instance, there is the accumulated wisdom of the last two thousand years and what we see with our own eyes.

As the days pass, I will look at the various lives of the Saints to tell us if they provide a clue.

Today is the Feast Day of St Vincent de Paul. A most attractive man, he was born in 1581 and died in 1660. The mere existence obviously of a good life proves nothing except the power of faith.

But what a life. He threw himself into caring for the most despised – namely the galley slaves – who lived in dreadful conditions and his work carries on to this day. Of course, there are many wonderful Atheists who work for the down-trodden, but is it their atheism per se which inspires them? Are there many famous charities named after their Atheist founders?

Religion has produced wars and hatreds, although little to compare to the Barbarism of Stalinism and Naziism. St Paul’s religious inspiration, however, is undeniable.

Even if Someone Should Rise from the Dead

The Gospel reading today always alarms me. It is about Lazarus. I often think that the last passage applies to our, and my, lack of belief. After the rich man begs Abraham to send someone to warn his living brothers of the fate that that awaits them if they do not conform, Abraham replies:

If they do not listen either to Moses or the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.

Luke 16:19-31)


Lying awake, I tried to do what I had read in my Carthusian book.

At the beginning of the fifth century, a privileged place begun to be given to the invocation of the Lord Jesus and his name. For a long time the form of prayer to Jesus was not fixed, but from the seventh or eighth century (the time of Hesychius of Sinai), the consolation began to take a fixed form, or a number of forms, that always centred on the name of Jesus (or, better, ‘Jesus’ by itself was the shortcut form and ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (or us), a saviour’ the most frequent form of the invocation). In addition, this invocation is coordinated in several ways with the breath; first in the sense that the resemblance of Jesus ought to be as constant as the moment of the breath.

I tried the technique and within moments my concentration failed and the world returns. How wonderful it would be, but how difficult to sustain such things out in the world. But then I suspect that even in the peace of the Carthusian’s cell, the lonely Monk may also lose his concentration as he moulds his pottery.

Today is our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. We are alone now in Lincolnshire with all six children scattered around at home or abroad. I have made many mistakes and achieved little of value, but the best thing I ever did was to marry Mary.


A busy day of surgeries – which I enjoy, as I am never alone. Person after person came with this problem or that, but in the train I caught a moment to read from the Carthusian Novice Confessions.

Hesychasm is a Greek word that conveys tranquillity, silence and stillness. In the monastic tradition it entails every aspect of Christian hermit life from the physical flight from human society to the very mystical ‘elimination of thoughts,’ regarded as a surpassing means towards the goal of union with God, prayer without ceasing.

Moored at Poole

We spent a night in the busy town quay marina at Poole, a meeting of several score bikers on the shore. But today we sailed past the glory of Handfast Point, the great chalk tower jutting out into the sea past Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, before wind and rain turned us back.

We moored in a quiet corner of Poole Harbour, South of Brownsea Island. Here the light, the rounded islands and the stillness are more like Scandanavia than Southern England.

Today’s psalm: Psalm 18.

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.
He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
and I am saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
consuming fire came from his mouth,
burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
dark clouds were under his feet.
He mounted the cherubim and flew;
he soared on the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
the dark rain clouds of the sky.
Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
The Lord thundered from heaven;
the voice of the Most High resounded.
He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies ,
great bolts of lightning and routed them.
The valleys of the sea were exposed
and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.

St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

The weather was warm, with a South Easterly wind.

I have been trying for three years to sail from Christchurch to Poole in my little boat, but wind and tide have always been against me on the few predetermined times I can get down. Now we sailed gently all the way there and I swam in the sea.

There is a beautiful passage in The Way of Silent Love (from Carthusian Novice confessions that I am reading).

God is so close to us, around us, in us. The wind that caresses our face, the bud that swings, the mountain touching the heavens, an exquisite flower among the rocks, the immense sky, silence that trembles in its fullness, a smile, a look of love – all speak of the creator.

The Lord Surrounds His People, Both Now and Forever

There is a feeling of deadness about today. I was talking to an Italian person who found it extraordinary that in this country he could turn on the television and there would be a Catholic mass. Well, now the Pope has gone. The Catholic Herald says – ‘It is four days that changed Britain.’ Perhaps that is an overstatement, but it is incredible that 80,000 people should turn out in Hyde Park while a similar number lined the route of the Mall.

Today’s Psalm: 125.

Those who put their trust in the Lord
are like Mount Zion, that cannot be shaken,
that stands forever.
Jerusalem! The mountains surround her,
so the Lord surrounds his people
both now and forever.
For the scepter of the wicked shall not rest
over the land of the just
for fear that the hands of the just
should turn to evil.
Do good, Lord, to those who are good,
to the upright of heart;
but the crooked and those who do evil,
drive them away!

Has our nation been delivered from the bondage of materialism and consumerism? Of course not, but a trickle has emerged from the Spring. Something has started.

Rosary at Walsingham

We processed, saying the Rosary, from Walsingham for a pilgrimage Mass at the National Shrine. After being so close to the Pope two days running, everything could seem like an anti-climax.

And in a sense it was. This was just another nice pilgrimage mass. All good things end, but the legacy that this papal visit was the encouragement for religious people to speak out.

Red Letter Day

A true red letter day. I went to the Pope’s mass at Westminster Cathedral. The service was magnificent and the music specifically composed for the Gospel Acclamation was overwhelming, but the liturgical diet was almost too rich to be absorbed.

That afternoon I drove myself to the Knights of Malta pilgrimage in Walsingham. I arrived in the dark at the Slipper Chapel, a mile from Little Walsingham. I was alone and everything was locked up, but I knelt at the cross outside the church and said a prayer in gratitude for the holy father’s visit and what he had said.

Somehow, in the very special atmosphere and place of Walsingham, where the Saxon noblewoman Richeldis de Faverches had a vision of the Virgin Mary in the eleventh century, the tumultuous events of these four days seemed to fall into place and I fell asleep as happy as one could be.

Benedict at Twickenham

The Pope’s address to Catholic school children at Twickenham was truly inspiring. He asked them all, in effect, to become saints. This impossible task is still possible if we learn to pray.

In the afternoon I went along to Westminster Hall to listen to his address to Parliament. His message was understated yet clear: religion has a right to be heard in a secular society. Not to dominate or rule, but merely to be heard – and that voice is of value.

Resounding Success

After all the talk of the Pope’s visit being a flop, it was clear from the television pictures of his visit to Scotland that it was a resounding success.

The mass was joyous and large; the streets well lined, and his message, that Britain remains a Christian country, was inspiring. And he asked us all to proclaim our faith.

Do not let people disregard you because you are young, but be an example to all believers in the way you speak and behave.

(First Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 4:12-16)

Nil Desperandum

I had a little prayer meeting with a friend. I was struck by a passage in one of our readings by Father Escriva – reading from his book The Way.

Never Despair – nil desperandum.

This is the title of the last Martin Gilbert biography of Winston Churchill. Here was the greatest Englishman of the century with a life of many achievements – and he often despaired. An example to us all.

The Triumph of the Cross

I went to Mass at the Brompton Oratory and I was curiously irritated that the Communion wafers ran out before I could receive one. Some people had arrived late and not placed one in the Ciborium at the back of the chapel.

What does it matter, in a sense, whether you receive communion? Isn’t a spiritual communion just as good? Maybe I am getting into the habit of receiving communion and find it difficult to do without it.

I was thinking back to last week’s Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I wonder if Mary ever had Communion on this earth. Presumably she did after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as the very earliest church developed its liturgy.

St. John Chrysostom

I went to an open evening at the Kensington Air Cadets, which my son had just joined. This is a marvelous organisation. All types, ages, classes and races between 13 & 17 rubbing along, learning and working together.

St. John had a rough life. Born in around 349, this extraordinarily gifted writer fell out with the emperor and died in banishment.

Each one of us, however, has been given his own share of grace. To some, his gift was that they should be apostles, to some, prophets, to some, evangelists, to some, pastors and teachers.
(Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians)


The statue of Our Lady is falling away from the wall in our local parish of the Holy Rood. As the statue is in marble and the wall in brick, the church is having to pay a staggering £1000 to stick it back on.

I looked at the statue and its stand in hoists. I had often prayed in front of it and thought it beautiful. Now it looked particularly forlorn.

The Width of the Channel

My sons swam 21 miles – the width of the channel – in the Serpentine with their friends in the 1st Kensington Scout Group to raise money for the World Scout Jamboree next Summer.

They managed some of the most incredible distances in the cold water (63°F), of the lake. I was exhausted after just 1,000 yards.

The Speck in Your Brother’s Eye

Mass today was in the Little Oratory at the Brompton Oratory, which I love.

Again the reading is suitable:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

(Luke 6:39-42)

I was training for my son’s charity swimathon. Swimming under water is a curiously spiritual experience. Afterwards I went to mass. We were preparing for the Pope’s visit in two weeks time and I said a prayer for it.

Judge Not

I was angry with someone and they were angry with me. Today’s gospel is appropriate.

Be compassionate as your father is compassionate. Do not judge as you would not be judged. Grant pardon and you will be pardoned.

(Luke 6: 27-38)

The Birthday of the Blessed Virgin

This is a lovely feast and the mass in the cathedral was beautiful. I suppose the long genealogy of Jesus Christ, with all the unpronounceable names in Matthew 1:1-16. 18-23, is boring – but it makes the point that his forebears were a pretty mixed bag.

Some were, frankly, bad. But at the end of it all we come to Joseph – a man so ordinary that his ordinariness is extraordinary.

Sacks on Hawking

The chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues in the Times today that Hawking’s hypothesis proves nothing because religion is about seeking interpretation of reality while science seeks to explain reality. Thus, religion is about the meaning of life and history. Religion doesn’t need to address how the conscience was created or started off, but this, I think, is to surrender an important piece of ground too readily. Science has still not explained who created matter out of nothing.

Apparently, the latest argument for why the Universe has chanced upon such perfect equilibrium is that there are many other universes. Ours was just lucky enough to hit the one-in-a-trillion jackpot of the perfectly combined balances that allow for life. This seems to me an even more unlikely explanation for the creation of a perfectly designed universe than the obvious possibility that there is a designer God.

A Redundant God?

We arrived back in England and the Times featured an article about Stephen Hawking’s new conclusion that physics had made God redundant and that there does not have to be a first mover. Somehow gravity or the String Theory can do the trick of making everything from nothing. I’m not sure.

I’m sure that this morning I went into Troyes cathedral. It was early morning and the vast nave was empty. The sight was awe inspiring. Magical. Here, faith had built up a mighty edifice of indescribable power and beauty. In this I had faith.

A Church in a Small Village

There was an interesting passage in Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews, describing a debate that took place in 1263 between Chrstians and Jews.

The Jewish Rabbi Nahmanides put his own case well. He said:

The doctrine in which you believe the foundation of your faith cannot be accepted by reason. Nature affords no grounds for it. Nor have the prophets ever expressed it.

He told the king that only life-long indoctrination could persuade a rational person that God was born from a human womb, lived on Earth, was executed and then returned to his original place. The argument is, sadly, rather convincing.

And then, by chance, I found a church open in a small village in the Provencal Drome, La Motte Chalancon. The decor was utterly simple, the features of this Romanesque church stark, the modern stained glass, made by Irudut (1963), was the best I had ever seen.

In this quiet place of prayer, decorated almost as if it were a Calvinist church, reason seemed unimportant; as if it could follow the debates one way or another. What was important here was feeling; a feeling of God which, in this place, was returned by a simple idea.

Joie, Paix

In the small town of Burdeaux in the Drome, the church was the only building open. We were tired and hungry. In contrast to the stark beauty of the romanesque church the day before, the interiour was fairly tacky. There were glass chandeliers, gaudy pictures of the Stations of the Cross and too many statues. Yet behind the altar was written, in huge letters: JOIE PAIX.

It was enough.