Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of the most compelling and powerful books I’ve ever read. I wrote about it in this way on my website as part of a blog post about an exhibition at the British Museum, Living With the Gods.
When I first read the book, several years ago, I think one of the most remarkable things about it is that the reader can see both sides and even have some understanding both of the Japanese and the Jesuit priest, despite the extreme cruelty of the torture to which the Christian converts are subjected.
I personally thought the priest Roderigues should apostatise and that it wouldn’t detract from the integrity of his faith at all, because how can we ever eradicate what is in the heart of another, especially in the face of words and actions forced out of them under torture?
But I admired the priest’s determination to stay true to his faith, as he understood it. I also felt I could make sense of the position of the Japanese, utterly determined to stop a foreign religion from adultering and diluting their own culture, from stealing hearts and minds in their own country devoted to their own religions. I saw both sides.
And in the film directed by Martin Scorsese which was released in 2010, I felt the same. Basically the Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield would be wisest, I considered, to recognise that the Japanese culture and mindset was utterly alien from his own cultural formulations of religion and utterly set on protecting their own cultural and religious identity.
I feel the same when I read about the Jesuit priests who came to England clandestinely in the sixteenth century to try and turn England back to Catholicism again: God’s Secret Agents, an excellent book by Alice Hogge. And also when I visit historical properties which were once strong Catholic houses whose occupants practised their faith against the direct orders of their government, and where persecution of priests is part of the house’s history.
No matter the rightness or the wrongness of their position, when viewed in hindsight, I still admire the priests’ passionate conviction in the face of fierce persecution and the prospect of being hanged drawn and quartered.
England ultimately became Protestant, and I don’t myself believe that the spiritual stakes as they saw them ever existed; or that the fate of anyone’s eternal soul ever stood in jeopardy according to whether they were Catholic or Protestant.
But they believed it. And that’s all that matters.
Were they wrong? This is the big question that hangs over all these heartrending, dramatic stories. And the same question hangs over all our lives, as we struggle for whatever cause or goal or dream we passionately believe in. We’re probably wrong, too. Or at least there’s a high probability we are.
But does that invalidate our passion, conviction, courage and persistence and fierce unrelenting resilience?
No. Because if it does invalidate it, then shall we all just give up now?
I know as a writer I will never give up, whatever the outcome may be.
Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
Coming soon: Spirit of Warwickshire
I loved this book – attracted to it originally in the shop of the Royal Naval College Visitor Centre, Greenwich, by its delightful, playful cover design.
London: A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert begins by telling the history of London from well before the Roman invasion, and then bringing us through to the present day, interspersed with plenty of personal observations from the author who spent several years as a TV repairman travelling the London streets and working in many different people’s homes.
Albert’s survey of London history is fascinating, and further enlivened by his own personal take on famous characters like Thomas Cromwell, (Henry VIII’s right-hand man), and William Blake, the visionary.
Then the author moves into his own personal spiritual search over many years, which interweaves with London and its multi-faceted character, from Catholicism through atheism and then onto the various magical and mystical groups with which London abounds.
I identified with so much of this, having lived in central London during my twenties, and having tried out many of these groups myself throughout the capital, such as the Theosophical Society and the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain – not to mention a passing flirtation with the Rosicrucians. though I can’t claim to have applied for membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn!
Albert’s final “epiphany” comes with such disarming simplicity it is genuinely moving. A highly recommended book.
psychological, paranormal mystery fiction
Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path
This is a thorough, vivid and enlightening book about Paul the Apostle, otherwise known as St Paul. Tom Wright opens up for us the amazing personality of Paul: formidable, intellectual, resilient, passionate, determined, lyrical, energetic and utterly committed – a former Pharisee and a zealous Jew.
At the age of 23, Paul had his revelation on the road to Damascus. And what we often fail to realise is that after his period of blindness, he went off to Arabia for a couple of years to reflect. Then he spent about 2 weeks with Jesus’ disciple Peter. And after that he returned to his hometown Tarsus for ten years during which we know nothing of him.
It was only then that he began his extraordinary mission of travelling throughout the Mediterranean world, teaching and arguing and persuading first Jews, then Gentiles, that Israel’s God had fulfilled the Jews’ greatest hope, and come to the world as a crucified Messiah – a message many Jews found utterly abhorrent.
Reading this book made me reflect once again how much Christendom owes to Paul. I remember from my schooldays how my imagination was caught by the story of Paul and the riot of the silversmiths – when Paul showed up in town and started to draw people away from their belief in the cult of Diana, goddess of the Ephesians – thus causing uproar among the silversmiths whose livelihood depended on the cult.
As we read this biography we see before us a man powerful in intellect and vision, often vulnerable, who suffers from depression and comes very close to being broken in spirit, yet remains inspired in his actions and in his writing. In those letters, he encompasses his over-arching vision of Christ’s supremacy whilst fully acknowledging the reality of our individual lives and experience in this world.
Many of the passages Tom Wright quotes from Paul are his very greatest; and the strength and power of Paul’s words captivate you – words which have given comfort and strength and courage and renewal of faith to millions over the centuries since they were first dictated to the long-suffering scribe in that prison. The psychological astuteness of Paul’s great paradoxes shine out: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness and When I am weak, then I am strong. And Wright makes the point that throughout Paul’s journeys and his incredibly demanding series of lectures and talks, his imprisonments and his floggings, the one thing that cannot be eclipsed is his deep inner coherence.
Throughout his narrative, Tom Wright insists on the fact that the story of the Christian faith is not and never can be a story cut loose from the story of Israel. Towards the end of the book, when we reach Paul’s arrival in Rome, Wright refers to “the end of the world” which, to the Jews of the time, meant the destruction of the Temple (which was carried out by Rome in AD70).
Paul knew, better perhaps than any of his contemporaries, what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Jesus-followers would say that God had finally cut off those Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted to something called ‘Judaism’. Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile colleagues of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus would be in no doubt at all. All this had happened because of the false prophet Jesus and his wicked followers, especially Paul who had led Israel astray.
I feel this is a very cogent summary of what, sadly, did indeed happen. But then Tom Wright goes on to examine the reasons for Paul’s ultimate success – firstly from a theological point of view, then humanly speaking, and then from the impact of his letters. Humanly speaking, Paul’s success may be partially accounted for by his phenomenal energy, his blunt, upfront way of telling it as he sees it, no matter who is confronting him. Also, there is his vulnerability: he loved people and they loved him.
Finally – there are his letters: small, bright, challenging documents. Within them, he draws upon all the philosophies and worldviews around him, sharply aware of and encompassing not simply religion or theology but also politics, ancient history, economics and/or philosophy. And his letters cover so many moods and situations. They take our arm and whisper a word of encouragement when we face a new task, they warn us of snakes in the grass, they unveil again and again the faithful, powerful love of the creator God. And all this with 70 or 80 pages of text to his name in the Bible. He succeeded, says Wright, far beyond the other great letter-writers of antiquity such as Cicero and Seneca.
Wright points out that many of the acknowledged great moments in church history – Augustine, Luther, Barth – have come about through fresh engagement with Paul’s work. His legacy has continually generated fresh dividends.
The Stoics, the Epicureans and the Middle Platonists had serious, articulate and in many ways attractive spokespeople… but Paul’s Jesus-focused vision of the one God, creator of all, was able to take on all these philosophies and beat them at their own game.
Finally, as we reach the end of this book, with Paul under house-arrest in Rome, ready to confront Caesar, knowing that he will before too long face death at the hands of the tyrant, Wright makes a chilling observation:
we have seen the electronic revolution produce a global situation just as dramatically new, in its way, as the one the first-century world had experienced with the rise of Rome.
I think we would do well to reflect upon this, and also consider how long the power and might of the Roman Empire lasted – until it fell.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
Here’s a book which should appeal to those of you who feel as if you’ve reached a point in your lives where all that you hoped for has not been achieved; maybe it seems you have to let go of your dreams; and perhaps you simply don’t know where to go from here.
The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey is the story of a pilgrimage on foot from the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. It’s also a Christian-inspired self-help book enabling readers to reflect upon their own life journeys. Following the rhythm of the two pilgrims, (the author Sheridan Voysey and his friend DJ), we can visualise the landscape they travel, and feel the spiritual highs and the physical and emotional lows of the journey.
I met Sheridan at an author’s conference a couple of years ago. He told us his story, and spoke about his books and his broadcasting work, and then, having shared his own writing journey, he offered inspiration and guidance to the writers in the audience.
During the day he also offered his expertise as an experienced broadcaster, and asked for volunteers among us, to come up so he could interview us about ourselves and our books. I was one of those who volunteered, and it was a very helpful and enlightening exercise in the art of introducing yourself to a radio audience within a limited time-frame, in the most succinct and engaging way!
Sheridan is originally from Brisbane in Australia, though he now lives in Oxford in the UK. I find his observations about Brisbane and Sydney particularly poignant as I lived in Brisbane myself for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK.
I have another personal connection with the subject of Sheridan’s book: I visited Lindisfarne (Holy Island) myself three years ago. This island is a very special place, and I felt a strong spiritual presence there; a retreat on the island offers several ways to reflect upon your life and your place in the world and in the universe. During his promotional videos for the release of this book, Sheridan has included videos of Holy Island and of him walking across to the island from the mainland during low tide.
Through the medium of this physical journey between Lindisfarne and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Sheridan teaches us much deeper values which may apply to our own lives, especially those of us who may define ourselves by any of the following:
- who we know
- our possessions
- our status
- our dreams and ambitions
- our job titles.
Do you, perhaps, suffer from imposter syndrome? This is an affliction that often applies to writers – even those whom the world might consider “successful”. Or, do you find that when people ask what you “do”, you respond with what you used to do?
These two pilgrims’ journey through the woods and fields and paths and roads of Northumberland then starts to parallel our own life journeys. During Sheridan’s description of the walk, he reflects upon periods in his own past life story. Places he and DJ visit give rise to memories of people he has known whom he now sees in a new light.
In all this, Sheridan’s purpose seems to be to shift our value systems, our vision of what really matters about our lives here on this earth. He interweaves biographical information about the Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert into his pilgrimage, giving us the opportunity to relate aspects of their journeys to our own.
One of the most striking sentences in the book is:
“Maybe when identity is lost we can discover who we really are.”
And the most challenging question:
“Could you be content having your contribution to the world left unknown or forgotten, yet known by God and pleasing to him?”
At the end of the book, Sheridan gives a series of questions to reflect on for each chapter, and several blank journalling pages if you wish to use the book as the basis for a much more in-depth project of self-knowledge. The book could be used as a group resource as well as an individual one; but if you were to study and work with the book as part of a group, that group would need to be one in which you felt safe and secure.
He also offers his own contemporary Creed which you may download from his website sheridanvoysey.com.
I give this book the highest possible rating, 5 stars, and I recommend it to all those of you who resonate with what I’ve written in this review.
I received a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path
A great garden is an image of paradise, in more than one religious outlook. Perhaps this is because within such a garden, all the very best of the natural world is taken by human ingenuity, and then gifted and skilled gardeners weave their own design and creativity into it. Our dreams become realised through a beautiful garden.
Hidcote Manor Gardens in the Cotswolds is one of the National Trust’s greatest gardens.
I remember once taking a tour with the Head Gardener here and he pointed out that the garden is defined by borders and obeys a structure closer to the house, and yet the further you wander from the house, the more you feel the garden becoming fluid and serpentine in its design, less structured, as if it is flowing into the land beyond.
And I remember him saying that they have protection rights over the view here, for the vistas are some of the garden’s most prized elements.
When I visited a few days ago (February 2019) the garden was of course still at the end of winter, beginning to move towards the opening-up time of spring.
Even so, its beauty is still apparent.
Enjoy the photos here and reflect upon how much we owe to those visionaries and dreamers who are able to bring what they imagine into reality, for the enrichment of the spirits of others.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path
All Hallows by the Tower – even the very name is evocative.
And so it should be, for it is the oldest church in the City of London, and the church nearest to the Tower of London.
And although two queens and three dukes, among others, lie buried beneath the altar pavement of St Peter ad Vincula, the chapel within the walls of the Tower and conveniently close to the gallows on Tower Green, it was All Hallows which had the care of a number of other beheaded bodies – including, most notably, those of Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher, and Archbishop Laud.
All Hallows by the Tower is a beautiful and fascinating church to visit, as I discovered when I attended the Sung Eucharist at 11am there on Sunday 6th January 2019.
The service, for Epiphany (the coming of the Magi) was presided over by the Revd. Prebendiary Rose Hudson-Wilkin.
She made a great impression upon us with her sermon against the divisions that arise between Christians of different denominations: “for we all have the same message”.
She said she felt so sad when a member of the congregation said to a visitor: “Don’t worry, we’re not Catholic, we’re Christian.” The visitor then walked away. She longed to run after the visitor and replace that false message with her assurance of welcome and acceptance for all, regardless of any artificial divisions.
The undercroft of the church houses precious historical relics; beneath the present nave is the undercroft of the Saxon church containing three chapels: the Undercroft Chapel, the Chapel of St Francis of Assisi and the Chapel of St Clare. An exhibition of Roman and Saxon artefacts, may be found in the Undercroft Museum, and at the far end you will find a rare example of a Roman tessellated pavement, perfectly preserved.
The pavement was discovered in 1926 and represents evidence of city life on this site for nearly two thousand years.
Do include a visit to All Hallows by the Tower when you visit the Tower of London.
Few things in this world can be more heartbreaking than a lost, abandoned or mortally-endangered child, in a world where there is precious little compassion or social justice.
Some of our most well-known archetypal stories play into this fear: Babes in the Wood is one, and Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl come to mind, along with many others.
And this fear is summed up in the word ‘foundling‘ which means ‘an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.’
In London at the height of the gin craze, as this famous Hogarth print shows, many babies, infants and young children were hugely vulnerable.
And it took a influential philanthropist, Thomas Coram, to set in motion the events that led to a solution – of sorts.
For even the solution, though it led to the physical care and nurture of such children, was limited by the psychological insight of the well-meaning people who operated the system. The noble intention of the philanthropists was to rescue these abandoned children and tend to their physical and moral well being in a safe environment and to eventually enable them to become “useful members of society“. Nowadays we might, instead, aim to help them “fulfill their true potential.” But such a concept was alien to the minds of many people in those times.
It took the wealthy and powerful to exert enough pressure to make the even wealthier and more powerful – i.e. the King – to agree that action should be taken. Thomas Coram asked twenty-one ladies of Quality and Distinction (see the exhibition at the Foundling Museum) to sign a petition to get something done.
The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 and the first babies were admitted in 1741; it was originally sited where the museum now stands, and later moved out to a country location. And in 1954 the last residential pupil was placed in foster care. But on that original London site now stands the Foundling Museum, incorporating some of the features of the original Hospital. A fascinating exhibition may be found there, detailing the story of the Foundling Hospital. And on the top floor is the Handel Museum, a tribute to the contribution of the great composer George Frederic Handel who was a great patron of the work of the hospital and who ultimately donated one of the original scores of The Messiah to the museum.
When I visited the Museum recently I found a very moving display of the tokens destitute mothers left with their babies when they gave them to the Foundling Hospital, in the hope of claiming their children again some time in the future: scraps of fabric, buttons, coins, keys, a hairpin…….
Only a small percentage of all the children who passed through the Hospital were ever claimed, and because they were given new names when they entered the Hospital, and their only chance of discovering their true identity was by being claimed by their mothers, many were robbed of what some might consider a birthright – the right to know who you are.
Nowadays I hope we may be moving towards a situation in the not too distant future where not a single child in that situation need be institutionalized – although it’s still far from being achieved. Instead they may be found new homes with loving families. And that of course is the vision which inspires the work undertaken by Lumos, the charity set up by JK Rowling.
This Museum is a treasury of the memories of ordinary people – not the rich and powerful and renowned, but the many souls who pass by the attention of the Historians, each one of whom, even when lost to time, represents a story of immense value.
As you disembark from the Thames clipper at Greenwich you will enter a grand building in which is housed the excellent Visitor Centre for the Royal Naval College – built above the foundations of King Henry VIII’s favourite palace, Greenwich Palace.
Magnificent and imposing as the college buildings are, they were used as a hospital to house ex-sailors from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The sailors were all invalided out from the navy, some sick, others disabled, and their ages ranged from twelve years old upwards.
When you go on the tour of the Royal Naval College buildings and listen to stories of those sailors’ lives, you realise that the system under which they lived was highly regimented and that by our own standards they lived very restricted and controlled lives, under the iron heel of authoritarians.
Their daily routine was full of seemingly (to our ears) harsh compulsory elements, and they were given what we might consider now to be rather mean ale rations and slept in narrow confined spaces, which of course may well have been far better than the accommodation they had formerly had on board ship.
Regardless of their various disabilities or physical constraints, they were all required on a regular basis to climb the steps which led up to the grand Chapel, to attend services thee.Once again the tentacles of rigid authoritarian control reaching into and distorting the Christian faith… And yet, we always have to consider the times and the culture in which people lived and made these decisions.
The tour is to be highly recommended, and I do urge you to include Greenwich on your list of places to be visited, when you spend a holiday in London. You will need a full day to do justice to all that Greenwich has to offer. The Queen’s House too is now open and full of fascinating historical exhibitions. And from the upper floor you may obtain the most beautiful view towards the brave new world of the revitalised London docklands….
The International Slave Trade was in force between the mid seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries. Although it was abolished in 1838 it didn’t magically stop on that date.
And in that time millions of men, women and children from Africa were treated as if they were subhuman, disposable objects, moving parts of a machine, whose sole purpose was to make even more money for the wealthy European traders.
Every great English country house I visit has a history to tell; and when I look into that history I look for the words “business interests in the West Indies“, and then I know that the grandeur of this house rests upon the exploitation of those enslaved Africans.
So complex is the tapestry of wealth and advancement and progress and exploitation of human lives in the International Slave Trade, that we cannot ever extricate ourselves from the fact that many of the institutions upon which we rely for the comfort and privilege of our lives here in this Western consumer society, are founded upon the misery and pain of millions.
In William Walton’s choral work Belshazzar’s Feast there is a powerful bass aria in which the singer enumerates all the wealth and magnificence of Babylon, over which King Belshazzar reigned. The once-mighty city of Babylon in Iraq has been described as “a microcosm of human history.” The bass sings:
“Babylon was a great city,
Her merchandise was of gold and silver,
of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,
of purple, silk and scarlet,
All manner vessels of ivory,
All manner vessels of most precious wood,
of brass, iron and marble,
Cinnamon, odours and ointments,
Of frankincense, wine and oil,
Fine flour, wheat and beasts,
Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves
And the souls of men.”
Just so during any economy which relies upon the labour of enslaved people. And I must admit the words of that aria flashed into my mind while I was walking round the Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.
If you visit this gallery, you’ll find yourself totally absorbed and caught up in an imaginative, interactive experience, in which you examine and reflect upon and enter into the heart of that slavery experience. You’ll consider all the facets of racism, both during those times, and up to the present day; and quite possibly, during the time you’re walking through the gallery, you’ll be drawn to identify with those who suffered, and will feel personally responsible and involved in that massive crime against humanity.
If you’re in London, I urge you to include the Museum of London Docklands on your list of places to visit; it has many other galleries, too, telling you of London’s history, and you will find it a thoroughly engrossing experience.
Free will means that even in the most totalitarian regime, individuals keep within their hearts and minds their secret thoughts and views: but with ingenuity they will find a way of expressing it.
When Private Eye editor and TV personality Ian Hislop stepped out of his Private Eye offices – as shown on video at the entrance to this brilliant exhibition – he went round the corner to see if he could find signs of dissent within the hallowed portals of the museum.
As he says at the beginning of the exhibition, he had set out to answer these questions: “Have people always shown signs of dissent? Are there artefacts in the British Museum relating to people forming views against the government?” Fortunately, the answer was YES.
As you wander through the exhibition examining the artefacts, one thing becomes clear: the fiercer and more authoritarian the government under which the artists or creators lived, the more subtle and more clever the signs of dissent. And of course sometimes it can be done unconsciously, or can be just what the paranoid authorities choose to see as dissent.
Throughout the ages, through ceramic vases, badges, banknotes, coins, rugs, engravings, paintings, individuals have expressed their dissent against the established order and the powers that be.
A winking owl was taken by Chairman Mao to be a statement that his health was failing – and won the artist arrest and imprisonment. An ancient Egyptian craftsman fed up with constantly producing artefacts for the Pharaoh which were going to go in the tombs carved his own face in place of the Pharaoh’s; another added his own name where only the name of someone high and mighty should be.
In Afghanistan, a traditional rug had helicopters woven into it instead of flowers, to protest against Soviet invasion.
Soviet invaders were show with devil’s horn on another rug; and those being invaded were shown in the same position as an avenging god.
Later we saw that people have also dissented against the British Museum itself. The famous artist Banksy had done a cave painting of a man pushing a shopping trolley. It was placed in the British Museum with a very authentic looking cheeky label – and stayed there for three days before it was noticed.
Cleverly defaced banknotes and engraved coins were intended to stay in circulation with their dissenting message for as long as possible.
The ring worn by a Royalist during the rule of Cromwell opened up to reveal a portrait of King Charles I who had been beheaded.
A copy of the Bible opened up to the Ten Commandments revealed that the printer had printed “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Ironical typo…… or expression of dissent?
The exhibition was wonderfully diverse and didn’t just represent one ideological stance on the part of its curator Ian Hislop. There was no biassed view, for instance, of leftist dissenter against totalitarian regime. All views were represented, even those of a Russian who objected to Gorbachev’s attempts at control of alcohol; and someone who opposed Barak Obama. And there was before us an object which consisted of elaborate Catholic items, heavy with Catholic symbolism, turned into a supposedly inoffensive salt cellar to use in Reformation England.
George IV apparently wasted a huge amount of public money trying to suppress insulting images of himself.
And an English cartoon of William Pitt’s and George’s III’s decapitated heads followed shortly after news from France of Louis IV’s beheading.
And how about the right wing Brexiteers wearing yellow jackets? In Hong Kong those dissenting from China’s plans for political change all carried yellow umbrellas as a sign of their protest.
In one part of the exhibition Ian Hislop had written, “I was disappointed to discover that Spitting Images was not new.”
And of course – in former times the Turks had got there first with their own puppets lampooning those in authority over them.
I felt that the exhibition was a bit like “Have I got news for you?”applied to ancient artefacts – and I loved it.