until 23rd January, 2021
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was born in Rome to the painter Orazio Gentileschi and his wife Prudenzia. Orazio was one of the best painters to be trained by Caravaggio and this show has two of his works. Artemisia probably learnt from her father the Caravaggian use of light and shade, dramatic subjects and dramatic angles, and strong, limited palette, but she very rapidly outstripped Orazio as an artist.
In 1611 Artemisia was raped by a painter called Agostino Tassi. Tassi was eventually convicted of the assault, though Artemisia had to be tortured with the thumbscrew for her evidence to stand. The fact that the rape could only be prosecuted because Artemisia was a virgin throws a garish light on the unequalities of the then Roman legal system.
We have no direct knowledge of how the rape affected Artemisia, though the series of paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes have been taken as an indication of what Artemisia thought of doing to Tassi. That may be so, though it is worth noting that the first of the series of Susanna and the Elders, with its theme of male trespass on female decency, was painted two years before the rape.
Setting aside speculation, though that is not easy with the understandable desire to celebrate a woman artist who overcame much and had a successful career, we know Artemisia led a full life. After the rape trial she married a minor artist, Pierantonio Stiattessi and moved to Florence. Here she enjoyed the patronage of the Grand Ducal Court, became the first woman elected to the Accademia dele Arti del Disegno, gave birth to five children, educated herself and conducted a vigorous affair with a local aristocrat, Francesco Maria Maringhi (we have her letters to him). This affair, plus business problems, led her back to Rome (1620). She eventually settled in Naples having spent some time in Venice and then at the Court of St James just as the Civil War was beginning. Her work, very popular in its day, was forgotten after her death, only to be rediscovered in the twentieth century. It became a subject of feminist critics who hailed her as an heroic, exemplary woman. The recent discovery of a cache of her letters (some of which are on show at the National Gallery) has shed much light on her career and character.
The concentration of critical thought on Artemisia’s personal experience, and the well-documented way in which she promoted herself as a female artist who painted heroic women, has had two unfortunate side-effects. Firstly, attribution of her work has in some cases been based primarily on whether the work’s subject was an heroic women. This show is not short of strong women, many of whom are Artemisia herself. But works like the solidly attested ‘Annunciation’ from Naples (Mary’s ‘Fiat’ is, after all, problematic from some perspectives) suggest Artemisia was not limited to painting conventionally strong women. Likewise, the Roman picture of a (male) standard bearer is a shrewd character depiction – Artemisia didn’t have to paint women. So, while there are a lot of women in Artemisia’s paintings, our appreciation of her work is limited if we don’t recognise its range.
The second critical problem is that, again, understandably, the horror of her rape and the subsequent trial has become the lens for understanding her work This has led to important paintings being overlooked. It is a strength of the National Gallery’s show that it provides a fair selection of her admitted works and these are more varied than Artemisia’s the reputation for blood and violence suggests.
The first painting in the show is her earliest extant painting, one of the three ‘Susanna and the Elders’ we know she painted. It is a prodigious work for a fifteen year old. The composition is simple, ingenious and dramatic. The two elders are conspiratorial and seem to weigh down on Susanna. She twists away from them while covering herself. Her body is painted with great sensitivity. The two later versions of the story show Artemisia’s developing style though neither has the same impact. Indeed, the final version suggests a falling away of creativity.
Next in the show there are the Judith and Holofernes paintings. They are Carravaggiesque and more, since Artemisia added more arterial blood than was usual. It’s worth noting that the paintings aren’t realistic – the sword used to sever Holofernes’ head is too small and at the wrong angle to cut through the neck. But there’s no getting away from the grim determination on the women’s faces and the powerful tangle of arms which force the struggling man down.
Camille Paglia argued that Artemisia was forced to choose subjects for male patrons which reflected a male æsthetic. The show suggests that argument should be more nuanced. Artemisia had important female patrons such as Queen Henrietta Maria of England. Some of her most inspired later work are female conversation pieces, e.g., the ‘Bathsheba bathing’ and ‘Birth of St John the Baptist.’ And it’s not clear who some of the pictures of Mary Magdalen and Cleopatra are designed to appeal to with their very strong eroticism.
The final picture in the show comes from the Royal Collection. It is an ‘Allegory of Painting,’ based on Artemisia herself, though rather idealised – the figure is younger and slimmer than we know the painter to have been in 1638. It is characterful, lively, technically accomplished – proof, as Artemisia wrote, that women can paint.
Servants, Shepherds, Messengers, Sentinels & Stewards
Hodder & Stoughton 2020 £12.99
978 1 529 36098 1
The priest is God’s instrument and our servant. The priest is called by the Church from among us, from among the community of the faithful, to offer prayers and praise to God; and is called from among us by God to be his own, to be the icon of his Son in the world. The modern church in its understanding of priesthood is markedly uncomfortable with the language of a sacramental economy and would much prefer to employ the jargon of an indifferent episode of The Apprentice: enabler, facilitator, social worker, encourager, co-worker in mission, psychologist, plant manager, neo-Marxist moralist.
Based on his Ordination Addresses, some slightly reworked but retaining a spoken directness, this book is a valuable reflection on the nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders. His starting-point is the Ordinal of the BCP and the Declaration of Assent, bolstered by scriptural authority. He sets his remarks firmly within the Anglican context of catholic order and sacramentalism. Similarly, he sets the vocation of ministerial priesthood within the penumbra of the priesthood of all believers and the vocation of the whole people of God, with commendable clarity.
A priest is a “walking sacrament of God’s love and purposes.” So is a deacon. The book rightly highlights that the diaconate is the foundation stone of a priestly ministry. But it is also a distinct Holy Order that is grossly undervalued in the Church of England; seen as an apprentice year between theological college and priesthood. The Archbishop makes a reasoned and unanswerable case for a permanent and distinct diaconate.
Each of the priestly attributes of his sub-title is tackled thoroughly and with sensitivity. His insights are grounded in his personal experience, both successful and others less so. There is not an undue amount of autobiographical introspection. Priestly soul-searching, self-laceration or self-satisfied triumphalism are rarely edifying but these experiences, rather, illuminate the principles rather than the individual.
After two millennia of experience, much of the material in the book is familiar. A ministry of service, shepherding delivering God’s message and as a steward of the Holy Mysteries all benefit from his experience and fluent exposition. Where the book is particularly impressive is in the chapter which deals with the attribute of priest as sentinel. The Archbishop rightly says that this is a neglected aspect of the priesthood. The word has disappeared in the modern rites. The nearest they come is an exhortation that the priest must be watchful. But this scarcely does justice to the topic. Fortunately, the Archbishop remedies that thoroughly and effectively.
This chapter is the most impressive and the most challenging. A sentinel scans the horizon, a look-out. The task is to see what is coming, to interpret, guide, announce and warn. Given the parlous state of the Church’s polity, the sentinels must have been asleep on their watch. However, that should not detract from the Archbishops’ characterisation. The priest as sentinel is one that needs to be recovered, dusted-off and burnished. The chapter reads as a manifesto. It is an impressive excursus of the Old Testament references and, although the word does not appear in the New Testament, the Archbishop reflects on passages dealing with watching and listening. Nor does he neglect the witness of the Early Church Fathers. The result? “Driving church leaders from the precipice of their own ambitions.”
The reflection reaches its apotheosis (p. 104) in a fervent and eloquent paean on the joys of priesthood: essential reading. Enough, he suggests, to sway the “more managerial and target-driven models of leadership.” His “performance indicator” (used tongue-in-cheek) is of the contemplative and prophetic; to see things as they are and as they could be. It is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw’s words, “Some see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say “Why not?’” The book can be seen as a magisterial rebuke to those who see priesthood as something to do and something which can be measured by results. What is the matrix for souls saved? How will CofE plc, of which he is now co-managing director, respond?
Those who first heard these addresses were fortunate, not only for the quality of their content but the clarity of their expression. Archbishop Cottrell, for the most part, is mercifully free of management-speak: “reimagined” I could have done without. I cannot remember a word of the Ordination Addresses given at my pre-ordination Retreats, nor the sermons delivered on the days of my ordinations. However, I have vivid memories of the sermon preached at my First Mass. But then I had the advantage of Fr John Dudley (Vicar, S. John Baptist, Newcastle upon Tyne). He was the most consistently brilliant preacher that I ever heard. He related telling his formidable grandmother that he was going to be a priest. She sat bolt upright, with her hands folded on her cane and said, “A most unsuitable person.” Therein lies the unresolved tension between the exalted position of one whose template is Christ himself and the all-too fallible human person. Events this year have shown painfully that the exercise of ministerial priesthood in episcopal office too often shows that there is many a slip betwixt cup and lip. However, this book is well placed to navigate the neophyte ordinand as well as the seasoned priest, between Scylla and Charybdis, and, crucially, to inform the faithful laity of the nature and challenge of Holy Orders.
Essays on the History and Future of Ecumenical Theology
Paul Silas Peterson, Ed.
The phrase “Generous Orthodoxy” has been used by the Diocese of London for some years now as a catch phrase for speaking about the way in which it has sought to get over some of the more divisive theological clashes which can disrupt congregational growth and poison church life. It has been used in London as a short hand for a focus on the basics of the Christian faith which is faithful to the broad contours of the Tradition without being dogmatic or overly concerned with second order matters. The phrase has been particularly used to describe the theological underpinnings of the teaching that takes place at St Mellitus’ College, for example – supposedly inclusive but rooted in a clear notion that the Gospel is, amongst other things, about the communication of Christian truth
What I didn’t realise was that the phrase actually originated as a key concept in the realm of Ecumenical Theology decades ago. It came from the pen of a theologian called Hans Frei, and meant something very different from the way in which the Diocese of London spin doctors have tended to use it. For Frei it expressed a sense in which different theological traditions should be in conversation with each other in a dynamic way. The “generous’ bit of Frei’s phrase describes an openness to debate and dialogue, and the ”orthodoxy” part points to the way in which ecumenical interaction between theological traditions will always be doctrinal in character.
This thorough and detailed work edited by Peterson is a collection of essays by a wide range of very eminent scholars about key personalities who, over the past century, have made significant contributions to ecumenical theology in the spirit of Frei’s notion of “Generous Orthodoxy.”
It would be a work of particular use to an undergraduate working in the realm of ecumenical theology needing to synthesise the broad contours of some very significant thinkers. There are chapters on the great theological figures one might expect, such as Congar, Zizoulas, Pannenberg, and Hauerwas. However, there are also excellent summaries on continental figures less well known in English speaking Anglican circles, such as Edmund Schlink, Otto Pesch, and North Americans such as Stanley Grenz and David Tracey.
It is unquestionably the case that as an English Anglican reader, one feels a little like a fish out of water. The collection is clearly edited from a point of view whose heart lies in the perspectives and presuppositions of continental and American protestant theology. Frequent reference is made to Catholic writers, but remarkably little comment is made on the significant contribution Anglican thinkers have made to the ecumenical enterprise (despite Frei himself being an Episcopal priest). There is strangely nothing on Rowan Williams or Michael Ramsey, for example, yet, curiously, a whole chapter is dedicated to Marilyn McCord Adams, hardly the foremost Anglican representative of anything one might describe as “orthodox.”
The authors have a focussed understanding of ecumenical dialogue as a fundamentally confessional discourse about ideas and the deposit of faith. There is no historical or liturgical perspective to speak of, for example, in which Anglicanism would figure as a more significant phenomenon than it clearly does in Peterson’s mind.
Some of the most interesting essays are those found in the final section, looking towards the future of ecumenical theology. The contribution on Pentecostalism points helpfully to the way in which dialogue with that tradition is increasingly being seen as significant and raises a number of questions to do with how we define orthodoxy and the character of renewal and revival.
This is a worthy, helpful, and detailed academic survey of a number of key figures that may not be well known to many English readers. It introduces us to a range of complex doctrinal and philosophical debates with authority. The way in which it understands ecumenical theology principally from a confessional and doctrinal point of view rather than a historical or liturgical one will feel odd to many members of the Church of England, but reading outside one’s comfort zone to learn more about intellectual realms beyond that which one is used to is sometimes no bad thing.
Twenty Priests for Twenty Years
Michael Yelton, Ed.
234 pages, £12 (£20 for two)
This volume of essays has been produced to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Anglo-Catholic History Society. The society invited members to submit short biographies of Anglo-Catholic priests of which the editor (Michael Yelton) has selected twenty. The earliest of these priests by date of birth is William Bennett (1804) Vicar of Frome, who John Moisson argues was a trailblazer in making a connection between Tractarian principles and social care. The most recent of these priests (by date of death) is Christopher Neil-Smith who died in 1995. Fr Neil- Smith was for many years Vicar of St Saviour’s Hampstead and became widely known by his ministry as an Exorcist.
Michel Yelton has included priests from the United States and Australia as well as English priests who were involved in the ministry of the church overseas including Gerald Sharp, one time Vicar of St Mary Whitkirk on the outskirts of Leeds, who became the Missionary Bishop of New Guinea. The wide spectrum of characters presented in a variety of styles, exploring various themes and styles in ministry, make this a fascinating read.
The vast majority of the priests were through and through parish priests, but there are exceptions. The most notable of these is Eric Symes Abbott (1906 to 1883) whose ministry is described by William Davage. Fr Abbott’s ministry included Warden of Lincoln Theological College, Dean of King’s College London, Warden of Keble College and from 1959 to 1974 Dean of Westminster Abbey. Also included is Arthur Stuart Duncan-Jones, Dean of Chichester.
There are some vivid portraits of priests who were involved in radical left wing movements (e.g. William Corbett Roberts); Fr Roberts was also a campaigner for the ordination of women. This contrasts with Fr Alard C. De Bourbel who had French aristocratic roots and a vast fortune to spend on buildings and furnishings. There are priests who were in rural settings, market towns and on large council estates. This book describes priests who were at permanent war with the establishment and others who moved smoothly through the corridors of power, some who embraced poverty and others who belonged to more that one London club.
Out of this colourful jigsaw of lives the outline of some patterns begin to emerge which might describe the nature of ordained ministry in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and its place in the wider church. The first is that many of these ministries were a bright flame that flared for a while and then died away. So few of these ministries have left a lasting mark on the church. Fr John Patch (1873-1962) was parish priest of Ilsington in Devon 1908 -1932, he set about building on the ministry of his predecessor Fr Wise in establishing Catholic liturgy and practice but after his ministry the long standing opponents of his Anglo-Catholic principals had their way when Matins was reinstated as the main service. It is all a reminder that the Vicar is Pope in his own parish but that Calvin might follow. There are not many accounts of fantastic success in these pages but a consistent story of sacrificial hard work.
The second pattern to emerge from the collage of characters is the importance of the Prayer Book and English custom. There is a recurrent suspicion of the papal influence on Anglo–Catholicism in these biographies. On the other hand there is an appeal to Orthodoxy best expressed in Robin Davies essay on C.B Moss; (1888 -1964) at the time of the anniversary of 1549 Prayer Book Moss wrote, ‘We have no use for fellow travellers or quislings in the Church any more than in the State. The Prayer Book is the main channel of our Catholic heritage.’ The third pattern is the overall impression that for most of these priests believed that to be Anglican was to be Catholic. Many of them were happy in a surplice and stole and to call the main Sunday service ‘Parish Communion’. This contrasts strongly with our time when ‘Papal – Anglicanism’ is dominant in some parts of the country, and Anglican liturgical provision and patrimony largely ignored (despite the seal of approval of Pope Benedict!).
All but one these priests went to their heavenly reward before the 11th November 1992 – the fateful vote on the ordination of women. I kept wondering how many of them would have led their parishes ‘over the top’ as part of Forward in Faith, how many would be Society priests? It is a sad truth that orthodox Anglican priests in the catholic tradition are now denied many of the opportunities that these forerunners enjoyed. It would be almost impossible now for a card carrying Society or SSC priest to be appointed to the run of the mill parishes some of these priests served; but there is always the question ‘how many would be willing to give it a go?’
Now in the time of this mortal life
Simon Walsh looks at new titles published for Advent
With the bells of waiting Advent about to ring once again, some recommended reading for the season is in order. This year’s test is how any Advent material might work in the parish considering the constraints of Covid-19 in all their guises.
For anyone wanting to get the most out of a Netflix subscription, The Two Popes appeared on that platform in December 2019 and imagined a series of meetings and exchanges between Pope Benedict XVI and the man who would come to succeed him, Cardinal Bergoglio, played by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce respectively. It’s a lively film and clearly moved Liam Kelly to write The Glorious Journey: A reflection book based on The Two Popes. At six chapters it could feel more suited to Lent, but there’s a lot to be said for its here-and-now qualities. Once he gets over the rash of exclamation marks in early pages, Kelly (who works in the Abbot’s office at Ampleforth) proves an admirable fellow traveller. He doesn’t fall into either a Benedict or Francis camp and sets out common ground between the two pontiffs with care. Each themed chapter concludes with prayer and a quote for further reflection — often from one of the popes, but St JPII is included, as is Basil Hume (Kelly being his literary executor). It can be read individually or in a group setting. Scenes for viewing are suggested, although watching the film or knowing it is optional. Liam Kelly is a natural and interesting writer. This book will enrich the Advent experience for any reader, both now and in future.
The Irish Jesuits have been offering their wonderful ‘Sacred Space’ resources since 1999. The pocket-sized Lent books have been a firm and popular favourite, and the Advent & Christmas 2020-21 offering keeps to the winning formula. Using the framework of Ignatian spirituality, this is a daily companion which takes the reader through the four weeks of Advent to the second week of Christmas. Each week is introduced with a theme or idea, and the daily scripture readings come with points for gentle reflection. There are prayers, and the Ignatian exercise is consistent without being constraining. It’s certainly a personal resource, but can also be used for group discussion and checking-in. Particularly good is ‘An Advent Retreat’ in five sessions with conclusion, at the end; a short, autonomous section, it’s ideal for personal use or a Quiet Day (however experienced). The book is highly recommended and a worthwhile supplement to the Daily Office.
The spiritual life is also prominent in the standout book (for me) of this year’s crop. Frequencies of God — Walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas by Carys Walsh is everything you need an Advent book to be. It is simply beautiful. Thomas (1913-2000) is a neglected poet because he can come across as so strange and irascible. The God-bothering Welshman, ordained at 23, spent his whole life and ministry in Wales, and his poems detail the contours of that life: his unhappiness and frustration, his artistic development and temperament, his faith and vocation, and everything within the context of Wales — its people and terrain, the sounds and seasons. ‘Startlingly original, prophetic and devotional religious poetry,’ as Walsh describes it. Thomas’s poems are deceptively simple, drawing one in with a line or image. But there is great depth beneath the surface and she has clearly spent her time with this complex and unyielding man. Here, she gives us five weeks of daily poems and reflections through the Carmelite pattern of waiting, accepting, journeying, birthing — then seeing, for Christmas. But the chapters are more than riffs because consistently she makes a point about where Thomas was or what he was doing when something was written, or comments on the form of the poem and its ideas. Cogent links are made between the imagery and Advent. She writes with facility and sensitivity. The overall effect is to come away knowing more of yourself, and of God, in this time of redemption, and of Thomas too — ‘a writer who could draw us into the mystery of God, explore the subtleties of God’s revelation, and plumb the depths of religious experience, with its struggles and joys’. We need more books like this which help us to reconnect with the witness and artistry of those who have gone before, and particularly someone like R.S. Thomas who deserves both a wider audience and deeper understanding. Advent is a perfect time, and Carys Walsh a great guide. Let us pray for more.
The ever-reliable York Courses have turned this time to the novelist Catherine Fox for Living in Hope, an ecumenical course in 4 sessions and concerned with the Four Last Things. Essentially, it has three parts. The first two are in the booklet and comprise the course notes by Fox and a number of margin quotes by theologians and commentators. The third is the CD and transcript of a conversation moderated by York’s Canon Simon Stanley where external ‘voices’ consider key questions around death, judgment, heaven and hell, and Catherine Fox gives her views, expounding on the original booklet. Anyone familiar with her Lindchester Chronicles will know that she wears her Church of England experience both fondly and lightly. This Advent resource, however, takes us further and has something of the confessional tone to be found in her Church Times diary columns. She is undefended, courteous, and engaging. There is depth of faith in what she says. The voices in the CD-transcript display varying views, and the euthanasia section seems to go off-piste a little, but this is the reality of opinions held and lives changed. Written at the beginning of the pandemic, and the conversations recorded soon into it, there is a sense of how life is different at the moment, and how many things can change. Viewing them in the light of the Four Last Things is a welcome encouragement. It’s certainly stimulating, and the material will be helpful to any preacher. There are group questions too, however this resource might be deployed. The CD component might prove particularly helpful this year.
Other titles include:
The Celtic Year, David Cole (BRF)
At Home in Advent by Gordon Giles (BRF)
Into the Heart of Advent by Penelope Wilcock (SPCK)
Following grace, and gift
Simon Walsh speaks to Marie-Elsa Bragg about Sleeping Letters, her poetic memoir of grief and hope
Marie-Elsa Bragg and I connect on a phone call after a number of emails. She is in between online teaching commitments and describes it as ‘Life on Zoom’. Prior to the national lockdown in March this year she had a full diary – as part of the Speaker’s interim chaplaincy team in the House of Commons, at her local parish church in Golders Green, north London, and her speaking and writing commitments. When that all paused, she shifted seamlessly into the digital space and was immediately in demand for creative writing tutorials and spiritual direction. Her book, Sleeping Letters, published at the end of 2019, has been a part of this too.
She is warm and open; there’s an immediate rapport. Her book is undefended and honest, dealing with the suicide of her mother when she was just six years old. Sleeping Letters is a coming to terms with that life-changing event for her, and much, much more.
“I didn’t actually intend for it to be published,” she explains, when I ask how it came about. “I process things by writing about them, and I knew the time had come to write about my mother so went away on two silent retreats, both in the mountains – one in Wales and the other in Provence. At the same time, I was working on something else for my publisher, and when they asked how it was going I had to tell them I had been writing this. They asked to see it, and although very personal I agreed to send the manuscript through. Then they asked to meet, four of us around a table. Two of them were in tears, and carefully said they would like me to consider publishing it.”
She describes having come to the exercise with a “fresh and full heart” and immersed in ancient traditions of silence, contemplation, mysticism and pilgrimage. It was also a frank and courageous facing up to what had happened. “There is a temptation to turn everything into a pleasant fantasy. I didn’t want my mother or what she faced to become something simple just to avoid the pain and make everything better. I wanted to keep the love at all cost. We all have to face the difficulty of life with its lies, mistakes, corruptions. I needed to return to the truth – face more of it, talk to my mother’s friends, find her death certificate, remember the terrible night she died and search for something beyond the pain. It felt like a challenge, a risk. But, thankfully, I found once again that to come to the end, whatever that might be, or acceptance, is to find it is love, all about love. And grace, because that pulls us along as we enter into mystery, and then we can see that at the core all as gift. Even our breath is gift.”
Generosity is another hallmark of the story. “I wanted to give to my parents what I had found in my life so far by looking it all in the eye, as fiercely and honestly as I can,” she elaborates. “I poured every ounce of my soul and who I am into those pages and handed that over to them, to say thank you. It’s not about cost but real life, and is a bold letter to God as much as it is to them.”
Her father is the polymath writer and broadcaster Lord (Melvyn) Bragg. I asked if they had discussed the book, in which he is ‘Pa’, and when he first read it. Marie-Elsa responds with clarity: “He knew the book was happening, but not what it was like. When I agreed for it to be published, I handed it over and they felt it needed to be left close to how I had written it. As soon as a final proof copy came I gave it to my dad, in advance of publication. He asked for a couple of changes, but nothing more. He says he still reads it often, and describes it as a gift.”
“My mother was French and there is a lot of our native Provence and our family there in this work,” she continues. “But also my father’s family and those roots in Cumbria. Each place has a deep and different spirituality. Provence with its hermitages, mystical translation schools, traditions and Cistercians. Cumbria has those Celtic saints, a relationship with Ireland, God’s revelation in nature sung out by people like Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the Quaker movement too. There are mountains in both places, and to connect with the terrain means drawing close to our ancestors. We walk in their footsteps but also take in their traditions. I worry that the valuable sense of global community we have now through technology may overtake those connections, those moments – the quiet solace in a bowl of oil and a lit candle, the rituals we have around the dead and the dying. The importance of pilgrimage. There can be solace in going to a church that’s empty, or to a place loved and dear to the person you have lost, and being held in that place for a while. Or to take a stone from the bottom of a mountain, carry it up and place it on the cairn at the top, knowing as you breathe the air that it is for that person. There are all sorts of rites and rituals, and millions have walked these pilgrimages before. There is grace and blessing in them.”
Sleeping Letters contains both her own poetry and extended theological reflection on ritual and the Eucharist. Descriptions of handling a thurible or unfolding the corporal have an intimate, feminine quality and she has been asked to write and speak more on this, leaning into the established tradition of female mystics. A number can be discerned, such as Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich. But there are other voices which echo through her work too: Thomas Traherne, Thomas Merton, T.S. Eliot. She reads widely and says, being formed by the Mystics, she often sees the mystical journey in things. “At the moment I’m reading Carl Jung’s Red Book, and there is mysticism in that. For similar reasons I love Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, with their poetry and willingness to go into paradox, all the time through the Trinity. And Teilhard de Chardin too. So much about them is a river of grace.”
The book closes with a profound and stilling description of washing a dead body – the ritual of bringing together oil and water, candle and cloth, honouring a corpse in prayer and final touch. She had done this for her Cumbrian grandmother, she says, and this meditative, poetic reflection is part of that gift to her lamented mother, bringing it around and making things right. “It imagines washing and anointing my mother’s body, then letting her go into the sacred river – the old, deep Christian idea of a river of eternal life with Christ, a notion of deepening the baptism. I wept as I wrote it, as though my mother were finally moving on.”
I ask how it felt to take her first funeral. Instinctively she reaches again for the language of gift, grace and privilege – the honoured space and place that ministry gives. This too informs her approach to pastoral care (“we all have scars, and wounds can heal”) which also means humility and vulnerability, both so abundant in this book. “Know that you are not alone as a bereaved person,” she says. “Let ancient rituals hold you, as many have trusted in and been held before and still will in the future. Look for the support you need, knowing that some can do it and others cannot, and that’s normal because people have complicated lives, often out of sight. Follow what helps you grow; listen; know love again, even through pain and regret. Keep the love. As I get older, I see that in the long term, the gifts outweigh the difficulties.”
Coming up, Marie-Elsa has an online talk about Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and resurrection. She is participating in an online interfaith festival called Rays of Gold. She has new writing, including a project on Our Lady. Increasingly in demand for spiritual direction in our pandemic-panicked world, she holds grief with love – a vital and rooted message in anxious times.
Sleeping Letters by Marie-Elsa Bragg is published by Chatto & Windus (penguin.co.uk/vintage).
Madeleine Davies is a features editor on the Church Times. She was 12 when her mother died of cancer and Lights for the Path – A Guide Through Grief, Pain and Loss published earlier this year by SPCK is a powerful and practical guide to bereavement, particularly for adolescents. Looking at death in different contexts, it brings together personal testimony, Scripture, expert insight and a range of helpful sources.
I had thought for a while that I’d like to write the kind of book that might have been helpful for me as a young woman. Back then I had drawn a lot on fictional depictions of grief. Actually coming to write it was harder, emotionally, than I had anticipated. It meant remembering how I had felt at the time of my own bereavement, and exploring theological questions which really aren’t easy.
The people I talked to were so open, some of them I had never met before. It was amazing and really moved me. It also demonstrated that you may be completely unaware that somebody you know has experienced terrible grief too. The conversations likewise made me reflect on the many different ways in which we can be bereaved, and how differently we may react. I think after those conversations you can feel quite vulnerable so I just hope that people feel I’ve done their stories justice.
I think I’ve accepted that I will always feel a deep sorrow about my mother’s death and that it has shaped me as an adult. I am a worrier and I am very affected by hearing about someone’s loss. As I talk about in the book, I think an early loss can help you empathise with others, and to think through philosophical questions that perhaps don’t trouble other people until later in life.
There’s a lot to be said for practical help when supporting the bereaved. Grief is often exhausting and a loss can bring challenges around childcare or changes to the family dynamic and routine. There’s a tendency to say ‘let me know if I can help’ and of course people worry rightly about intruding but I think proactively offering to cook or give lifts, or even financial help, can be the right thing to do. Also let them know you’re thinking of them and praying for them, adding that there’s no need to reply, but that you’re there to talk if that’s what they want. Particularly as time goes on I think people really want the opportunity to talk about the person who died, to remember them in conversation.
Now that I’m a mother myself I find myself thinking more than ever about my mum, who lost her own mother as a teenager. The fact that she pressed on, despite her anxiety, in her faith and life – she was a fantastic mum – inspires me still today, and I’m sure she always will.
SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI
Snarford is a tiny settlement in the fields about 8 miles NE of Lincoln, though there is little to see except the church, and there’s not much of that. Snarford was once the home of the St Paul family, whose long-vanished house was a couple of hundred yards from the church. The St Pauls had the manor from c. 1400 but did not come to prominence until they made some big acquisitions after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and converted the chancel of the little church into their mausoleum. The six-posted tomb of Sir Thomas St. Paul (d. 1582) and his wife Faith is behind the altar; his son and heir Sir George has his monument against the north wall of the N chapel, along with his wife Frances as recumbent figures. Sir George died in 1613 so Frances remarried Sir Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, but he died in 1618; she carried on until 1634, and is shown with Warwick in profile on their memorial tablet, thus managing to appear on the monuments to both her husbands. Snarford Hall is long-demolished and today all is deserted stillness. All can be summed up in those four Latin words.
Background: Henry Thorold, Lincolnshire Churches Revisited, Michael Russell Publishing, 1989; Henry Thorold, Lincolnshire Houses, Michael Russell Publishing, 1999.