//Views, Reviews and Previews

Views, Reviews and Previews

Art

 

EDvard Munch: 

Love and Angst

Rembrandt: 

Thinking on Paper

British Museum

Munch until 21 July 2019

Rembrandt until 4 August 2019

 

Edvard Munch was born into a prosperous family in Christiana, or Oslo as it became in 1925. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. His beloved sister Sophie died when he was thirteen. His father was a doctor who worked for the poor of the city. There was a history of mental illness in the family and Munch was afraid for his own mental health. Oppressed by his circumstances and despising the bourgeois society in which he lived, Munch joined Christiana’s bohemian set, became an alcoholic and had tempestuous affairs with women to whom he would not commit. In 1918, on the proceeds of his increasingly prosperous career, he bought a country house outside Christiana and died an internationally fêted artist at the age of 80. ‘Edvard Munch: Love and Angst’ contains some of his finest prints of human despair, anguish and separation. There are portraits of fellow artists such as Ibsen, and many women. When Munch’s women are not dying they are usually sexual vampires. There are also landscapes in a bleak Norwegian light. Book in advance for this show.

Rembrandt Van Rijn was the ninth child of a miller’s family. Like Munch he knew family illness. Both of his wives and all four of his children died before him. Like Munch he lived in a society where morals could be enforced by the church, though in Rembrandt’s day that enforcement could be very direct. Unlike Munch, Rembrandt’s career started brilliantly but ultimately crashed. He became unfashionable and he lost his money through a combination of improvidence and speculation. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. Rembrandt’s work, especially his pictures of old people, is characterized by a deep humanity. The British Museum is showing—for free—some of Rembrandt’s greatest prints as well as some his sketches. There is no need to queue. 

Both Munch and Rembrandt were highly accomplished printmakers, though working in very different circumstances. Munch’s best work is simplified and has a poster-like quality. It is often built up of great blocks of black or white or colour. He uses the grain of woodblocks to bind his images together and give them life. He experiments with etching, dry-point, mezzotint, woodcut and lithograph. And he repeats subjects and themes obsessively, often with a grim twist to them. So, the self-portrait which is the first work in the show is powerfully, darkly black. It looks conventional, until you see the skeleton arm on the bottom edge. Then there is the woman—Madonna—in sexual rapture. She looks scandalously just that, until you notice the odd sperm and foetus which make up the border and which take away some of the erotic charge. Just as striking as the sexy prints is the way Munch was an artist of overwhelming sadness, especially in ‘The Sick Child,’ and of psychic shock, especially in the famous ‘The Scream.’ Always his gaze is intense, and often self-centred. No wonder he struggled with sexual intimacy.   

The contrast with Rembrandt is epochal. The Dutchman works with a fine line, often a complex, repeated line. None of his prints are coloured. The metal used to make the prints was often reused for dramatic effect, notably in the three great workings of the crucifixion. But even as a young man, Rembrandt was a mellower human being than Munch. His beautiful, charming landscapes of the Amstel soothe and delight. They are the kind of landscapes, which at least in its imitators, Munch despised—and then went to live in. His female nudes, far from being the stuff of male fantasy or nightmare, are real women. In particular, the sketches which provide the preliminaries to his great paintings of Bathsheba are sympathetic both emotionally and physically to women. There is also a lurking naughtiness in Rembrandt. Not Munch’s decadent, bohemian, symbolist night club naughtiness, but a sly earthiness. The ‘Three Trees,’ surely one of his finest prints, has rustic goings on in dark corners, something not to be found in a townie like Munch. 

And Rembrandt was a religious artist, if a complexly religious man. By contrast, Munch was a follower of Nietzsche, whom he famously drew with a large head to emphasize his braininess. He was an artist of the human will and human loneliness. The British Museum has given us the chance to compare two world views as presented by two fine artists. The religious Rembrandt looks to have the greater humanity and integrity. 

Owen Higgs

 

books

 

St Augustine’s Confessions

Benignus O’Rourke OSA (Trans)

DLT 2013 Kindle £8.63 

ASIN: B00ELE1G6I 417pp

 

St Augustine’s Confessions has remained inaccessible to many because translators of his exquisite Latin lacked the expertise and daring found by Benignus O’Rourke OSA to render its substance and nuance into accessible English prose. His is a beautiful, powerful translation. It makes the text very readable in our vernacular and opens up this most godly and honest self-examinations that invites conversation with God on almost every page. It certainly helped me to engage afresh with a spiritual classic. What is remarkable is how the concerns of St Augustine are so contemporary: his struggle with careerism, misconceptions of Christianity, scriptural literalism and the damage done to us by false creeds. 

It becomes clear as you digest this book that Augustine’s struggles are with selfish ambition as much as lust. ‘From a distance you saw, Lord, how I slithered on this tricky ground’ he writes, ‘but how, amid all the haze, a glimmer of integrity shone out’. It is a compelling read, seeing this integrity fanned into flame through a ten year journey in which his mother Monica’s prayers, as well as his friendships, gently pull him from useless ambition into the Christian orbit.

Augustine had imbibed the dualism of the Manichees, which had blinded him to God’s presence within: ‘You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you’. The fashionable Platonic view of God was as a being like the sun, the world in shadows and darkeness. In discovering Christ Augustine felt in contrast he himself had  been discovered. The truth of God he had sought he found coming to him in humility. ‘Your wisdom is beyond reckoning, but your only begotten Son was given to us to be our wisdom, the one through whom we are made acceptable to you, through whom we are made holy… I was not humble enough to accept the humble Jesus as God, nor did I know what his weakness was meant to teach us’.

Throughout this readable volume the author tells his story in such a way as to chime in with our frailty whilst lifting the reader to God who, in retrospect, is his and our beginning and end. Without faith in this reality of God as unifying principle ‘we are restless’ writes Augustine. He provides a graphic instance of how this restlessness undermined his ambition to be the world’s best orator: ‘I remember one day when I was preparing to deliver a eulogy in praise of the Emperor. That meant telling many lies, and being applauded by an audience who well knew the falseness of what I said. So my heart was pounding with anxiety, my mind agitated with frantic thoughts. I was walking down a certain street in Milan when I noticed a poor beggar, half drunk, but laughing… He was full of contentment. I was full of anxiety. He was without a care in the world. I was troubled. If someone were to ask if I want to be happy or anxious, I would of course say ‘happy’. Were I asked further did I want to be like the beggar, or be as I was at that moment, I would have chosen to be as I was, full of worries and fears.’

In a remarkable twist to his story, Augustine’s desire to perfect his public speaking takes him to listen to Bishop Ambrose, a skilled orator. And, despite his intention to ignore the Christian teaching being communicated, he fails to block the Holy Spirit. ‘Within me I was hungry for the food which is you, my God’. That hunger took ten years to be fully fed, a remarkable story which is immensely topical. Many people dabble in religion and spirituality for years along their life’s path but a proportion get transformed as they allow their seeking for novelty to be turned on its head. Like Augustine they are themselves made new by seeing God smiling at their quest and enter the way he has prepared for them. This book in its new translation is invaluable as a challenge and a reminder to let God be God through ongoing surrender of our lives to him. 

John Twisleton 

 

Words That Listen

A Literary Companion to the Lectionary

  1. Barney Hawkins and Ian S. Markham, Eds.; Mark Oakley, Cons. Ed.

(Canterbury Press, 2018)

 

Face to Face

Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger

Samuel Wells

(Canterbury Press, 2019)

 

Preaching isn’t easy. The craft requires time and patience, a certain skill, and even flair. It must engage, not be too long, be doctrinally sound yet meet people ‘where they are’. Published collections of others’ sermons seem to have been on the rise in recent years too, giving an insight into how someone else might do it. This likewise acknowledges the homily form as something worth reading even if first delivered years ago. A major challenge is how to keep one’s style, well… challenging; how to avoid going stale or out of fashion. This is particularly so in the multimedia age when digital sources and the 24/7 rolling news have such a hold on life (and attention spans). At the same time, our congregations are arguably more literate than they have ever been, and preaching is truly under the spotlight as ‘the medium becomes the message’, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan.

Thanks be, then, to J. Barney Hawkins and Ian S. Markham who have produced a two-volume collection — Words That Listen, a Literary Companion to the Lectionary. It’s a handsome product from Canterbury Press and in its own slipcase. The premise is simple: it divides between Advent to Ascension, and Pentecost to Christ the King. On each Sunday (or feast), the gospel readings are presented for each year (A-C) and then some literary excerpts follow with a brief introduction to each. It’s almost too simple as an idea, but it works. A major factor is that this is produced on the Episcopalian church calendar and therefore has North American Anglicans chiefly in mind. But the differences from the Revised Common Lectionary are negligible, and for any preacher interested to read around a little, or find something for the text that is not concordance or straight-through commentary, then this book begins to pay rich dividends.

It must be said upfront that the sources might not always be classed as literature in the strict sense. A number of theologians feature, including Rowan Williams, Martin Percy, Frank Griswold, Nouwen, Coverdale, and Pope John Paul II. They’re unlikely to feature on any English course syllabus, although obvious writers who also ‘do’ theology are included, for example C.S. Lewis, Balzac, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. We have the Church Fathers too — Augustine, Gregory the Great — then ‘later voices’: Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux; all religious literature.

The scope is clearly beyond the Americas. Particularly British voices such as R.S Thomas and John Betjeman are here, along with Virginia Woolf, Swift, Housman, Evelyn Waugh, Kipling, Blake, also G.M. Hopkins, Francis Thompson and Malcolm Guite. Mark Oakley was the Consulting Editor (his own work gets an outing too) which may explain some of the selection.

Modern American writers one might expect to see are evident: Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Maya Angelou, Longfellow, Wendell Berry. Although it’s curiously Transatlantic in a way, even bypassing Ireland, to focus most on the US, England, and a clutch of Latin American names alongside the obvious literary greats already mentioned. 

Neither is it just the written word. Paintings such as Caravaggio’s Beheading of John the Baptist are present, and numerous references to films (Babette’s Feast, The Exorcist), also songs (Leonard Cohen, John Denver). There’s even something from a speech by JFK, another by Dag Hammarskjold, and rightly Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” is there.

The greatest failing of this book is the absence of any index: no list of authors, no first lines or themes. This is a crying shame because it limits its usefulness as a reference. But as an anthology it proves fascinating. True, it may not meet a stringent lit-crit test, but it breaks new ground and is a welcome, stimulating addition to the theological shelf.

*****

A consistent preacher, and one much in demand, is Samuel Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields.  His new book Face to Face, Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger is a beautiful work of hope, wonder and humility. He writes with disarming clarity and honesty about the wonder of being a priest through his pastoral encounters with specific people. They are types we have all seen: the lost, the angry, the addicted, the disappointed, the confused, the grateful. In all, 21 short chapters each give some insight into how we square whatever faith we have with life in the modern world and the blows it can deal. 

One of the most attractive aspects to this book is its gentleness with humility. Wells admits and illustrates the times he has got something a bit wrong or not understood the full picture. This only makes everything more touching and is a masterclass in how to conduct some theological reflection around ministry, including what it does and what it might be. As he says in the Preface ‘It’s intended as an encouragement to clergy, and to all who minister, as a reminder of why we do what we do, especially should we ever feel discouraged, underappreciated, or bewildered. But it’s also designed as a way for lay people to see through the eyes of a priest, to renew their own sense of ministry, and to gain fresh perspective on the humble and surprising ways God shows up’.

Wells writes with great fluency; the pithy chapters are short but well framed. An extended introduction occupies almost a third of the book and sets the scene at the outset. He takes the themes of silence, touch, and words, to explore the priestly experience and how they intersect with our pastoral care and spiritual development. It’s praxis, pure and simple. The Christian life must always be about the other and about God. It means helping people ‘to pray and come face to face with God in Christ. Because that’s ministry.’ It is a moving testament to the ordained life. ‘We need people who will believe in God’s gifts and remind us why we practise them. We need people who will inspire us and encourage us and teach us, and will clean up afterwards. We need priests.’

This is a perfect gift for a priest who has inspired, or one who is ready to inspire as he goes forward for the grace of orders. But neither is it a book about priests and for priests by another priest. Its core message is both universal and timely. Certainly it reminds us all what a privilege priesthood is, and how God brings the Church to life through the pastoral bond between his priests and people. 

Simon Walsh 

 

ANGELS

A Visible and Invisible History

Peter Stanford

ISBN 978 1 473 62208 1

Hodder & Stoughton £20, 344pp

 

The author of this book, a distinguished writer, journalist, and broadcaster and former editor of The Catholic Herald, is to be congratulated on producing a comprehensive study of angels as their wings flutter in and out of the history of all the great religions of the world. He starts from their earliest beginnings in Babylon and Zoroastrianism, through their appearance in the narratives of the books of the Old and New Testaments. He dedicates some important space to explaining the rôle of angels in Islam, and most notably the Qu’ran, and how they draw on their religious antecedents. 

Stanford is fluent but concise in his depiction of angels in the art, theology and literature of Christendom, giving (rightly) a major place to Aquinas in the formulation even today of our understanding of the place of angels in the divine plan. From the high noon of their place in the Summa, he traces their disappearance from the mainstream concerns of the Church in the Enlightenment and nineteenth century, although noting their survival in some of Karl Barth’s commentaries, and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II and Benedict. 

He is especially good in his description of the major part which angels play in the more exotic cosmologies of Swedenborg, Blake and Joseph Smith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who claimed to have been visited by the angel Moroni, whose golden image adorns the top of every Mormon Temple. 

Each chapter is separated by two letters with commentary of an Angelic Alphabet, an eclectic mix of references: “O is for Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel in Frank Capra’s evergreen 1946 classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, played by Henry Travers” or- more academically- “S is for Shalgiel, the angel ‘appointed over the snow’ in the fifth-century-CE rabbinical text the Hebrew Book of Enoch, also known as 3 Enoch.” It is an engaging device in a book of this kind, and which gives the attentive reader of Stanford’s chapters some relief from the very fulsome details of his chapter narratives. For it is important to appreciate that- although Stanford is expert at explaining the background and references to the figures and events he depicts- this is not a book necessarily for the academic theologian, some of whose knowledge in the subjects being written about may be assumed, but rather the general reader who may have a passing interest in the subject matter of his book. (A growing market, it would seem- Stanford mentions that the “Spiritual” sections of bookshops where they exist now often have an “Angels” section.)  

The readers of this magazine will-one hopes-not need to know that Samson was “a biblical colossus whose physical strength- and hair- was legendary”, or that the Gospels tell us Saint Peter had a wife. I myself was eager to find some analysis of the way in which biblical narrative sometimes seems to use the Angel of God as a surrogate for God, (the wrestling match with Jacob and the Angel at Peniel) in the same way that the celebrant using the Roman canon of the Mass asks for “these gifts” “to be borne by the hands of your holy Angel” in a reference to the Second Person of the Trinity. I did not find a great deal here to engage me in that enquiry. This is clearly not the market which Stanford is aiming for, and one is in any event prepared readily to forgive an author any sense of disappointment when he speculates that the angel who sustained Elijah  for forty days and forty nights on his journey to Mount Horeb was feeding him “my childhood treat of butterscotch Angel Delight.”

Where I think his book is of direct interest to those who may be said to have a professional axe to grind is in what is contained in the Prelude and Epilogue. Direct interest, because much of what he has to say about the survival of angels in public belief and consciousness is of direct relevance to the survival of religion in our country, despite the much-advertised decline in formal church going. In a 2016 poll of two thousand people, one in ten Britons say they have experienced the presence of an angel, while one in three remain convinced they have a guardian angel. 

He rightly quotes Jane Williams on angels: ”In what we think about angels, it is as though we allow ourselves access to needs that normally we would deny or suppress.  Angels give us a way of expressing our longing for beings who are more powerful than ourselves and who care for us.” There is surely opportunity for mission in those statistics and those needs.  Just as there is in the beauty of his tribute to the roof of angels that adorns his local parish church of South Creake, “an open invitation to contemplate being dwellers in time and space”. Its survival from the ravages of Reformers and the pot shots of jackdaw hunters maybe speaks more eloquently than any opinion poll for the enduring reverence we have, despite everything, for “God’s holy angels.”

Nigel Palmer 

 

Conformed to Christ Crucified, Vols. 1,2 and 3

Joseph Carola, SJ

2010 to 2018, Gregorian and Biblical Press 

ISBN 978-88-7839-152-9

ISBN 978-88-7839-310-3

ISBN 978-88-7839-380-6

 

On a recent holiday to Rome, I visited a friend of mine who has recently been ordained priest for the Archdiocese of Dublin. We had both begun our training at the same time, having worked together for the same company. It was only when we both sent round a message to colleagues to say that we were leaving for the priesthood that we discovered that shared vocation! 

He is currently studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University (‘the Greg’ as the students call it), a Jesuit run institution. I was privileged to be given a bit of a tour, in the course of which he showed me the various teaching rooms (aula) and introduced me to some of the teaching staff. It was intriguing to see the similarities and differences between our nominally Christian, but in fact largely secular ancient institutions, and this somewhat less ancient university run by the Jesuits. 

One of those members of the Society of Jesus is Father Joseph Carola, to whom I was introduced. Over an amaro in my friend’s rooms the evening before, I had been introduced to these books of homiletic meditations on the priestly life. Having just purchased them at the university bookshop, we ran into the author. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this man is a very popular supervisor amongst the masters and doctoral students: he was exceedingly generous with his time, and very clear in his manner of expression. Despite the fact he obviously had an extremely busy schedule he made time to sit down, sign his books and have a real conversation.

That generosity of spirit comes as no surprise now I have had an opportunity to read his work in more detail. His constant theme is the identification of the ministerial priest with Christ the priest and victim. He positively re-states time and again in various ways how the action of Christ the head of the body in the person of his priest must necessarily be the guiding principle of that man’s life and work. Many of these homilies were preached for the first time at masses of thanksgiving celebrated by newly ordained priests or at ordinations.

In my experience, some collections of sermons read very badly, but these, like those of Pope Benedict XVI (whom Father Carola references not infrequently, along with the Church Fathers and St Ignatius), work very well as written meditations too. Whilst of course some of his homilies are addressed on the subject of the vow of celibacy, Saint Paul’s counsel of perfection that is normally mandatory for Roman Catholic clergy, this by no means devalues the relevance of the collection to a priest of the Church of England who is married. 

And in a time when priests are asked to do more and more, when emails, administration, committees and so on are always pressing, having a tonic on hand is essential. This collection of accessible, learned and thoughtful homilies provides a resource of short correctives to the many and various ways in which a priest can lose his focus on what really matters. In each short address, Father Carola calls us back to the day of our ordination and the fundamentals of the office and work of a priest.

Guy Willis

2019-07-16T15:20:03+00:00 June 2019 Articles|