Exhibitions in lockdown

There aren’t any, except virtual shows and they’re not the same thing. But if we can’t see art in exhibitions we can think about art in churches.

In the classic Ealing film, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets,’ Louis Mazzini murders his society relations so as to become the Duke of Chalfont. Amongst these relations is the Rev’d Henry D’Ascoyne who is polished off with poison in his after-dinner port. That is by way of revenge for the lengthy tour D’Ascoyne gives Mazzini of the rare and crumbling features of his parish church. Fresh expressions it isn’t, but the film captures the way clergy – and their people – love their church buildings. Works of art hallowed by time are often the focus of local pride and visitors’ curiosity, even amongst those who can’t tell their ogee from their narthex. Rather like Choral Evensong there are still, just, those who go to churches in the spirit of Philip Larkin or John Betjeman.

Is there any greater value in church art? It is often said that in the Middle Ages the paintings, carvings and glass in a church were aids to teach the illiterate. We have a record of this in practice in one of the sermons of St Bernard of Clairvaux. St Bernard taught his people that just as light passed through glass without destroying the glass, so Our Lady gave birth to Jesus without losing her state of virginity. 

Not everyone was so intellectual or poetic. Abbot Suger began the fashion for the fabulous gothic style which replaced the austere beauty of Bernard’s Cistercians. In his ‘Book On what was done in his administration’ Suger explains why he rebuilt the Basilica of St Denis. It was to help manage services for pilgrims, give honour to God (and Abbot Suger) through the magnificence of the materials and workmanship, and provide instruction. Since the glass and objects were often hard to see or understand, Suger had them labelled to help the clergy explain to the people what they were looking at.    

The contract between the Chartreuse at Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and the painter Enguerrand Quarton for the magnificent ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ (1452-3) shows in detail with its list of saints and angels and its mystic topography what an artist and patron might intend for a church. Even today the painting is a good resource for teaching that Jesus is both Mary’s son (He has her face) and one with the Father (He has His face too). That was a device frequently used in the later Middle Ages, though what it says about the relationship of Mary and the Father if they both have the same face shows the limits of art in the teaching of dogma. 

And, of course, art cannot replace faith and revelation. Like music it can be a means to faith and an expression of faith, but it is not the gracious relationship of Christ and His adopted family. Still, as an aid to faith art can do what words struggle with. This is expressed positively in Raniero Cantalamessa’s idea that the Spirit of God is best known in symbols and images. Negatively we see it in the way our culture is one which in many places no longer trusts reasoned argument. Postmodernist relativism and the politics of sectionalism find fewer and fewer points of contact between people. The stand-up TED talk has replaced the informed sermon. The word is no longer as powerful as it once was. Now is the age of the Image. 

That is where art can come into its own. Not that art should or can replace reason. But as a persuader and entertainer art is powerful. The Church has always known this. Her churches point to the overflowing greatness of God. Her statues are part of the cloud of witnesses. And the tradition of artworks which can barely be seen – think of Pisanello’s ‘St George and the Princess’ high up in Sant’ Anastasia in Verona – show that what matters most is what God sees. Rarely, though, has there been the possibility of art as a persuader and preacher in an educated society like our own. Today the picture in church convinces because it is in church, the viewer’s church. That pride in place is a seedbed for accepting the faith. And there is a validity in a faith which grows in the context of familiar spaces and objects. It is in this way our buildings and their contents are part of the texture in which faith has been woven. Throw away our churches and we throw away our people’s believing. 

Church art doesn’t have to be good art by any æsthetic standard. In recent times church art has usually been conservative, even when it was pretending to be being radical (go to any cathedral and see if you can find anything genuinely contemporary). Earlier times weren’t always better. The statue of the Virgin which meant so much St Theresa of Jesus is crude today and it was crude five hundred years ago. That doesn’t matter. An image of a saint or an icon is not just a teaching aid or a focus of our loyalties. Even when the heavenly taste makes the critics look foolish, there is a history of the Spirit of God using art to inspire the viewer to a new and heavenly way. And that we might ponder and celebrate in lockdown. 

  Owen Higgs


An astonishing secret:

The love story of creation and the wonder of you

Daniel O’Leary

Columba Books 2019 

Kindle Edition £12.99 

ISBN 978 1782183242 256pp

Lockdown brought me a blessing by giving me the opportunity to engage with this second to last book of the late Fr Daniel O’Leary, which had been awaiting my attention for a year. It was a timely impact on my thinking and praying, and hopefully my action. In a way there was nothing new in it – simply a reminder to see God in all things and all things in God. In another way it was full of newness, the perpetual newness of Jesus captured in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin as a bridge from Christianity towards the progress and evolution of the world. Yes, the book rattled my pride as an orthodox Christian with its calls for dismissing original sin, his charge of dualism in the historic faith and over prioritisation sexual ethics in moral teaching. Yet I felt compelled by its thesis of God’s invincible love being allied to the evolution of the world today. Daniel O’Leary has an infectious magnanimity, so this traditionalist was disarmed by his appeal – putting some issues on hold whilst reading it. Such putting on hold is aided by the book being constructed with an eye to Pope Francis’ own call for dialogue in his encyclical on the environment.

‘As we receive the gift of being in our birth, so we are called to receive the consummation of that gift in a future that transcends death. But the being which we receive, and the potential with which it is laden, awaken us to an active response. What we make of ourselves and of our world is crucial for the final, transforming self-gift of God by which God brings creation to its completion…. Are we, for instance, convinced that there is a spiritual power at work in our daily lives and in the evolution of our planet? Do we believe that here, at this stage of our evolution, is where God is most truly present?’ Such thinking is arresting, communicated with the passion of the author drawing from that of the Pope in the encyclical Laudato Si (2015). 

The contention is that thinking about the environment is inseparable from thinking about the doctrines of creation, incarnation and resurrection as a coherent whole. O’Leary like Teilhard sees the Big Bang at creation, the coming of Jesus into Mary’s womb and his resurrection as representing facets of one explosion of God’s love worked out in time. ‘Nature as a whole not only manifests God but is also a locus of his presence. The Spirit of life dwells in every living creature and calls us to enter into relationship with him.’ (National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil). ‘Each day in our world beauty is born anew … Human beings arise, time after time, from situations that seemed doomed … Resurrection is an irresistible force’ (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium). That force of resurrection is carried for ever into the material order by the risen Christ. The Pope speaks of his namesake St Francis preaching to the birds ‘just as if they were endowed with reason’. As the author writes, ‘and in some sense they are [so endowed], for each of them is indwelt with infinite intimacy by the Logos, who is ‘the risen Christ who embraces and illuminates all things’ (Pope)’. 

‘Astonishing Secret’ impacted my thinking and my prayer. It affirms the contemplative vocation building from Teilhard and contemporary authors like Richard Rohr who writes: ‘Everything is profane if you live on the surface of it; everything is sacred if you go to the depths of it, even your sin. So, the division for the mystic, is not between sacred and secular things, but between superficial things and things at their depth – what Karl Rahner called “the mysticism of life”.’ The prime spiritual challenge of this book is the immediacy of God and our need to wake up to this within us and within all things. 

As for Teilhard, the Eucharist is the spiritual eye opener to the revelatory power of the creation we are part of, matter and spirit not separated but ultimately linked in Jesus Christ. The book speaks of how taking creation for granted can be linked to taking people the same way, contemplating God in nature being a school for contemplating God in people, yearning for the healing and transformation of pain and brokenness. ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’ (Les Misérables). All such contemplation is a waking up to the book title: ‘An astonishing secret: The love story of creation and the wonder of you’. 

We are created to love and be loved, to know and be known. ‘Love people even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth … if you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.’ (Dostoyevsky). Inspiring thinking and spirituality flow through this book, but it is primarily a call to action. Yes, it raises theological questions, but it is also a powerful and graspable statement of the main Christian thesis of God’s irrevocable love to be engaged with in all things.

John Twisleton 

Pointers to heaven

John Twisleton

ISBN-13: 9798638091811. 97 pages

Fr John Twisleton is a communicator, he broadcasts on Premier Christian Radio, and has eighteen other books to his credit. He communicates passionately and personally. This book is ‘is an invitation to see earthly life as a preface to the fuller life of heaven.’ It is the fruit of reflecting on his own life experience in which he has identified ten pointers; goodness, truths, beauty holiness, love, suffering, visions and promises. It is a profoundly personal testimony and this, perhaps, is its strength and weakness. Some readers will find the openness with which Fr Twisleton writes as encouraging, consoling, even inspirational. Others will find it hard to relate to, and there maybe a touch of the ‘cringe factor’ for others.

This is a book where personal testimony opens out into a discursive exploration, at points historical, theological and philosophical. The sources Fr Twisleton draws on are truly catholic ranging from Aquinas to Tom Wright, from Richard Dawkins to John Newton. He touches on Islam, Hinduism, Genetics, Music and Art. Here indeed the teacher is drawing out of his treasury things both old and new. It is also contemporary and includes references to the experience of the pandemic. There is plenty to engage, to interest and to open up lines of thought and reflection, and all in ninety-seven pages.

It is, however, the personal testimony that is the distinctive element in this book. The reader is introduced to the good-hearted neigbour of childhood Mrs. Foster, Janet the churchwarden’s approach to terminal illness, the love story of his marriage to Anne and, perhaps most strikingly, the suicide of his brother Tony. There is a generosity of spirit here, an openness of heart that engages.

It is this personal experience that gives shape and purpose to the whole book, and yet there are some real chunks of sound, well-formed exposition of Christian thought and spirituality. This is clearly seen in Fr Twisleton’s approach to and use of Scripture. In the chapter titled ‘Promises’ he recounts how his reading and response to Scripture was moved from one of intellectual and academic questioning and analysis to one in which became a living and personal encounter with God. This transformation, he testifies, was brought about by an experience of ‘spiritual renewal’. In contrast to this, the chapter titled ‘Resurrection,’ Fr Twisleton provides a very concise summary of the scriptural evidence of the resurrection, with a very full list of references.

Two questions kept popping up in my mind as I read this book. What is its purpose and who is it for? I haven’t come to any simple answers to these questions. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that I can’t. It does mean I am not sure who I would give this book to. I could give it to an enquirer about the Faith and it has a very definite apologetic aspect to it. Perhaps it a book that could be given out in a mission, but it would need the reader to have some prior knowledge of the faith and church life to engage with a great amount of its content. It could be handed out to a study group as a starter for discussion and that might work well. But there is no escaping the fact that the personal testimony, which often has a genuine emotional power about it, steers the book towards a private and personal reading.

Fr Twisleton is to be thanked for sharing so much of his life experience, and his accumulated knowledge and insight. This is the fruit of a very rich ministry indeed. He is indeed a communicator with a message to communicate. This is he does with passion and a definite individual voice.

Andrew Hawes 

Why Medieval Philosophy  Matters

Stephen Boulter

The call “why on Earth are you studying medieval philosophy?” was a cruel and dismissive one that followed me around the corridors of King’s College London throughout those misspent years of my youth I spent studying metaphysics, when all the cool kids were going to parties and drinking and reading Wittgenstien. Of course, the person making this call was often writing their dissertation on whether tables were fake or not, and the pot is not so worried when the kettle calls him black. A lot of the things we do in philosophy are pretty silly, but we’ve all agreed that this isn’t really something that we should be talking about.

The real problem is when my mother would call me to ask how I was doing and would ask “why on Earth are you studying medieval philosophy?”. My mother is a piano teacher, and so her solemn duty is to introduce often unruly children to the beauty and subtlety of the musical art. Her job is obviously a good and useful thing, so when she asked me “why on Earth are you studying medieval philosophy?”, she did have a point. As a result of this not unjustified questioning, I have kept in the back of my mind a set of stock answers to this question. They’re none of them great, but they do let me go about my day in peace.

Now, it seems that I am not the only philosopher to be worrying about our mothers embarrassing us. There’s a whole host of beginners’ guides to Medieval Philosophy out there these days. I even reviewed what I still think to be the best of those guides in this esteemed publication; Medieval Philosophy: The History of Philosophy Without any Gaps by Peter Adamson. What works well in one of these books is that they spark the imagination. The value of philosophy is that it takes a lot of really hard thinking, but that hard thinking is good for you because it makes you better at thinking. For example, a lot of the things one does at the gym are silly taken out of context but they make you stronger, and strength is something worth getting. In books for laypeople, I can’t really suggest much more that trying to give people the tools to use all that clever logic and reason that people in real philosophy departments are wasting on proving whether time is real. What problems are being solved doesn’t matter, so much as learning how you go about solving them. 

An important part of what makes these books work is that I feel I could give them to my mother and she would get something out of it. Whenever I read any book that claims to be for a layperson, my mother is always the litmus.

Now, Boulter seems to have got some of this concern. Philosophy is weird and obscure and seems useless now we have science, and he pretty much says so in his introduction: “What is missing is a book which outlines a case for the importance of medieval thought to matters of general interest, and to the pressing matter of philosophy’s relation to the wider intellectual world. This is why I have tried to connect aspects of the medieval scholastic framework to issues of general concern, to things that clearly do matter, or ought to matter, to the general reader”. He wants to talk about real problems in a way that “the general reader” might also be worried about. And, the problems he discusses – problems in the methodology of science, in solving political problems, and whether God exists – are the sort of things that general readers might be interested in. Credit to Boulter for knowing his topics. 

Because Boulter is talking about the general reader, I went into this book assuming it was for my mother; he even talks about what ‘laypeople’ think about philosophy on page 15. Boulter sums up his project like this: “Therefore, this book should not be seen as an introduction to medieval philosophy… this book is more of an apology inasmuch as it is an attempt to explain why non-specialists should take an interest in medieval philosophy in the first place”. The job of his book seems to be to answer the question “why on Earth are you studying medieval philosophy?”, and to answer it for the mothers of philosophy students rather than their cynical compatriots. 

The problem is that this book doesn’t work as something you could give to a layperson; things are proved a fortiori, things supervene on other things, and Quine and Reid (neither thinker from the Middle Ages) are rolled out to justify a sort of philosophy that sits nicely with my epistemic notions, but probably would sail over the head of anyone normal. You see the problem on page 74, when Boulter says “Since the meta-philosophy of the scholastics gave way to that of Descartes, who sought to overcome scholasticism, and because readers are likely to be familiar with the main outlines of Cartesianism, contrasting the father of modern philosophy with Aristotle on points of method is particularly helpful”. Now, there’s a lot of jargon in there, but most of it has been explained in pervious pages, such that a layperson would now be familiar with it. The problem is what I have put in italics: the assumption that his readers are familiar without the outlines of Cartesianism. 

The thing is, if you haven’t done the first year of a philosophy undergraduate course, Cartesianism is likely not something you’re really about. A really keen hobbyist with a certain love for Descartes may well be, but even as a keen hobbyist going into my first year, I hadn’t read much more than The Meditations. Boulter does then go on to explain Descartes, but he has pretty much set out his table as being an explanation aimed at people with some grasp of philosophy, and not the average man in the street (as an aside, spending so much time explaining Descartes is also an odd choice for a book about the Middle Ages, since Descartes was the last nail in Scholasticism’s coffin, but there you go). 

And all this introduction brings us to my review of the book: this book is not written for the mothers of philosophy students, but for philosophy students who want to either better justify their position or hope to find some novel approach to classic philosophical worries. For philosophy students looking to justify putting effort into the Middle Ages it’s an ideal place to start, but it doesn’t really work as a book you can hand to a layperson to get them to see that what you are doing is exciting, because it assumes a certain level of knowledge. Now, if you have that base knowledge, there is a lot you can get out of this book, certainly in terms of seeing Medieval thought as something to inspire solutions to pressing modern problems, but if you don’t, then you won’t get much out of it. 

If you are a philosophy student, then you could do a lot worse than this book for helping you connect the 13th Century to the 21st, but if you’re not, then expect someone to make that face that my mother makes when I claim that we should all just read a little more Scotus. 

Jack Allen


The Gilded Life of Lord Rosebery’s Favourite Son

Martin Gibson

Arum Press 273pp £20.00+postage

ISBN 978 1 9162654 0 0

My History Tutor retired to Devon to garden. For some twenty years I visited him regularly. One New Year’s Day I helped him to chop down a tree, the remnant was named William’s Stump. Gardening is not in my small portfolio of skills, but I enjoyed seeing his garden develop and my interest in visiting gardens also developed. Over those years we visited every stately home and every garden within a day’s drive. One of our regular visits was to Lanhydroch. Both garden and House repaid these visits. Not least for one room in the House that was deeply moving.

Preserved as he had left it when he went to War, with the additions of the original grave cross from Flanders and his uniform, it had been kept as a Shrine to the youngest son of the family Thomas Agar-Robartes. He has more than a tangential part in this book. He and Neil Primrose met at Oxford and were close until their separation by death.

Of the Earl of Rosebery’s four children, Neil was the youngest and the younger son. His mother, a Rothschild, died when he was young, and his upbringing was by a grief-stricken father. Like many of his generation he was a social gadfly, much in demand on the social circuit. At Oxford he and Agar-Robartes were members of the Bullingdon Club. Although not unintelligent, he was admitted to New College by Warden Spooner more through influence than academic prospects and emerged with a gentleman’s Third. 

He was attracted to politics in the Liberal interest and became an MP. Although the son of a former Liberal Prime Minister, that was not an immediate recipe for political success. Rosebery, a loose cannon, charting his own singular and eccentric path, and increasing estranged from his party, had made several unhelpful interventions at crucial electoral times. Asquith did not warm to Primrose and did not advance his career. He eventually emerged from the shadow of his mercurial father, to hold a ministerial post in the Foreign Office, and had hopes of being Foreign Secretary. Not least when he chose wisely to support David Lloyd George when Asquith was deposed. It was not to be and he became Chief Whip.

He was of that pre-War generation that lived through the final flowering of Edwardian England, that seemingly endless high summer before the winter of war. The heady fragrance of summer flowering to be replaced by the stench of the trenches and the pallor of death. Primrose joined up, as did Agar-Robartes, but ferried from the front to the Front Bench in the Commons. It was, however, the pull of patriotic duty that took him back to his regiment to be killed, a few months after Agar-Robartes suffered the same fate. 

Martin Gibson has written a sympathetic biography and a micro-history where the particular and the personal illumine the wider political and social context. It is a miniature study that helps us to understand the wider canvas. The book is the outcome of assiduous research, impressive in its sources and in its discoveries. Many fragments contribute to the mosaic. Some fragments are tantalisingly missing. One substantial uncatalogued archive was unavailable. The inevitable conjecture where the picture is unclear or incomplete is always judicious and persuasively argued. 

In the interests of full disclosure, one of the social events in my diary that was cancelled in the early days of the pandemic was the launch of this book by a friend of mine. 

Were it not a book worth reading, I would not have reviewed it.

William Davage 

The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill

Robyn Wrigley-Carr

SPCK, £12.99. 978-0-281-08157-8

This book provides an excellent introduction to a Twentieth Century Anglican whose influence was considerable. Following her death in 1941 Evelyn Underhill’s name faded from view, and in the Nineteen-Sixties some writers dismissed her contemptuously and ignorantly, basically on the grounds that she and her lawyer husband lived in prosperous Holland Park. Now those critics are forgotten, her legacy is being re-examined, and she emerges as a teacher whose voice needs to be heard again.

What was the nature of her influence? In the first place, she made a major contribution to the revival of interest in the Christian mystics with her classic study Mysticism (never out of print since its publication in 1911), and in smaller volumes which followed. What made her approach distinctive was not detached analysis, but a conviction that the writings of the mystics have the power to give practical aid those seeking God today.

The second area of her influence was in reviving the practice of making a retreat. Most of her later writings were based on addresses she gave when leading retreats, something which it was unusual for a woman to do at the time. To this should be added her considerable work as a spiritual director, both in person and by correspondence. Toward the end of her life she wrote Worship, arguably her finest book. It was not an arid comparative examination of liturgies, but a study of “the nature and principles of Worship, and the chief forms in which they find expression in Christianity.”

The fact that she was a woman staking a claim in male-dominated territory has commended her work to a new audience, as has her demonstration that a deep spiritual life is possible to people in every circumstance. In addition, she gives reassurance by the fact that her inner life was no smooth path. Beneath her calm, highly intelligent and amusing exterior lay a frequently tormented spirit. Her temperament was vehement, and she was inclined to make excessively stern demands upon herself. Also, it comes as a surprise to learn that for many years she was not committed to any Christian denomination. As she said, she was not brought up to religion beyond a formal designation as “C of E”.

The first part of this book examines Evelyn Underhill’s spiritual growth, engaging chiefly with the time after World War I when, as the writer of Mysticism with a growing number of people seeking her guidance, she found herself in a spiritual crisis where her instinctively neo-Platonic outlook could not help her. She went for assistance to the lay Roman Catholic philosopher, Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925). It was the turning point of her life.

Von Hügel changed her in two vital ways. Firstly, he led her to a fully incarnational outlook. She stated that, unlike many, she came to Christ through God, not vice versa. Her shift of perspective led her to a Catholic sacramental faith, one which embraced the world while recognizing its dangers. She insisted that Christian faith must lead to practical results. For example, it could not properly be divorced from politics, as she showed when she embraced pacifism near the end of her life.

Secondly, von Hügel made clear to her the need for active denominational affiliation. He believed that a healthy Christian life must rest on the equal pillars of the spiritual or mystical, the intellectual and the institutional, and he quickly saw that she was committed to the first and second, but lacking appreciation of the third. This emphasis of his on the need for the institutional was no mere formality. He had every reason to know that when feeling threatened the institutional Church can wound and crush some of its most faithful souls, but he also knew that Christians must worship together, not just in private. She responded by becoming a committed Anglican.

Von Hügel also transformed her inner life by acquainting her with the school of French spirituality descending from the likes of Fénelon and Francis de Sales to de Caussade and the Abbé de Tourville. He had learned it first hand as a penitent of the remarkable Abbé Huvelin. (When is someone going to give us a thorough English language study of Henri Huvelin?) Its realism and humanity spoke strongly to Evelyn Underhill, and her comment on it says much about her own mind and spirit: “Nobody is to suppose that this apparently genial method of direction, this avoidance of severity and entire confidence in the divine generosity, will lead to a slackness and indifference of soul. On the contrary, it is of all methods the most exacting, because it can and must be applied at every moment to every incident of everyday life.”

The second part of the book looks at Evelyn Underhill’s own work as a spiritual director and retreat leader. Her letters to those she directed are clear, sympathetic, and when necessary, firm. Like von Hügel, she opposed anything narrow. She encouraged non-religious interests, and she was adamant that tension and over-taxing our resources are great spiritual enemies, because she knew them to be among her own chief temptations. Learning the lesson of French spiritual writers, she treated people as individuals, always looking for their particular attrait, their given spiritual nature, as the pointer to correct guidance.

Even those who are well informed about Evelyn Underhill will welcome the clarity with which her life and teaching are presented here, and gain a fresh appreciation of her continuing importance. Perhaps the book might encourage one of our Christian publishers to produce selections from her work. She is often best read today in extracts, and it is regrettable that the finest recent anthology from her writings, Delroy Oberg’s Given to God, is out of print.

This attractively-produced book packs a great deal into a short space, and should be to the fore on reading lists for ordinands. Not only will they learn about two of the most impressive spiritual guides this country saw in the Twentieth Century, they will also acquire understanding of their own lives with God, as well as instruction toward helping others spiritually in the course of their ministry.

Barry A. Orford 

(Evelyn Underhill’s grave in St John’s churchyard, Hampstead, has an inconspicuous stone which refers to her only as “daughter of Sir Arthur Underhill”. St John’s is raising money toward marking her grave more fittingly. Those wishing to contribute to this, or seeking more information, should contact vestry@hampsteadparishchurch