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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

The Fatal Flaw in Human Nature, Castles in the Air, and Dreams and Visions

My recent visit to an English Heritage castle, Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire, stirred up some reflections on life.20170501_124937-1

A visit to a medieval castle cannot help remind you that this great pile represents in stone the major themes in human nature: war, power, wealth, moral and economic hierarchies, social injustice and religion.

Of course what we choose to focus on when we visit a castle is conditioned by the story we attach to it; and when I visit my nearest EH castle at Kenilworth my mind is usually full of the intriguing romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, because that’s the angle English Heritage love to take.

However at Goodrich Castle, several different images whirled around my mind: a chapel in a gatehouse with arrow slits in it, murder holes, double portcullis, double gates, two drawbridges, luxury accommodation and all the contemporary mod cons for the aristocratic family and their friends, and the reminder that the 200 servants would have just dossed down anywhere they could find that was as warm and comfortable as possible.20170501_112727

I found myself thinking about three things:

First, social justice.

We’re very conscious of it now in our society, only because our eyes have been opened to it; perceptions have changed. To modern Christian eyes social justice has always been at the heart of the gospel. But has it? For many centuries the most dedicated Christians were oblivious to it. So has it always been there, and they were just wilfully blind? Or is it only there because we’ve formed a political agenda for it?

Second, religion and violence.

They were pious Christians with rich Chapels and they had all the arrangements in place to hurl boiling oil on people and shoot arrows at them through slits in the walls of their chapel even as they were worshipping. But can we ever judge those who lived in a different age by our own values and standards in very different times? Many who oppose the Christian faith now cite its history as evidence that it is sheer folly. To what extent can we judge the truth of a system of thought/ a religion/philosophy/worldview by its human history?

Third, human nature.

In church recently someone said to me, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed. My view is that human nature is fatally flawed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there could be some improvement.” This reminded me that the teachings of Jesus go against human nature. You cannot actually follow through the logical implications of Jesus’ teaching without battling human nature.

What is human nature anyway? With the benefit of hindsight we see the behaviour of medieval castle inhabitants as folly, and it all seems very black and white to us. Future generations looking back will see and think exactly the same about our behaviour now, in 2017, down in our very own microcosm.

Many of our own “dreams” are foolish, vain things – “wishful thinking, ” “pipe dreams”, “castles in the air”. They are not worthy of being fulfilled and are not designed to be fulfilled, but are destined to dissipate in the desert air.

All we can do is take little steps forward according to what seems right, or helpful, or appropriate to us at the time.

We always have to see our “dreams” in this context, of failed, fatally flawed, human nature. And to realise that we’re down here in the microcosm and can only see through a glass darkly, notwithstanding all our little dreams and visions.

 

 

Joan of Arc: Mystical Experiences and Empowerment

The other day I saw an encore screening of George Bernard Shaw’s play “St Joan” from National Theatre Live.St Joan National Theatre Live I studied this play at university. Then, as in my recent viewing, I was entranced by the character of Joan herself, and by the words Shaw puts into her mouth.

Joan has  special resonance for me because when I was young, as a member of a children’s choir, I sang in a performance of Honneger’s “Joan of Arc at the Stake” – an oratorio with words by Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet. The performance was at the Royal Albert Hall; Mia Farrow played Joan, and Andre Previn conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. We sang the part of the children of Lorraine.

The character of Joan had a strong impact upon me. I remember several words from “Joan of Arc at the Stake” and they are largely from Joan herself, in which she described her visions and her mystical inspiration, in terms that totally encompassed their reality.

To me the central thing about Joan of Arc was “empowerment”.

Joan was an illiterate peasant girl who claimed she heard a trio of saints speaking to her; and on the basis of this she believed God wanted her to lead the French army to fight and defeat the English, and place Charles II on the throne of France. In 1431, when she was nineteen years old, the English led by the Earl of Warwick tried her on numerous charges, one of which was blasphemy, and sentenced her to be burnt at the stake. The part of the saints were sung by soloists in the music drama; and I felt that Paul Claudel  handled the whole work from the viewpoint that Joan’s experiences were real.  The work has been accused by critics of being several things, including weird, bizarre, sentimental and heavily Roman Catholic, but I loved it, just as I love Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”, another musical work which has in the past had the same accusations levelled against it.

When I reflect upon Joan and the fascination she holds for me, I see her as someone who was marginalised, who had religious experiences which empowered her, and who refused to be controlled by her circumstances:

  1. Whether or not a postmodern assessment concludes that her ‘voices’ may be accounted for by mental illness – perhaps schizophrenia, or psychosis –  she definitely had profound religious experiences.
  2. She acted upon these experiences.
  3. She derived from them courage, strength and vision to prevail again huge male-dominated interests in Church, State and Army. Both Shaw and Claudel show her as clear sighted, strong and single minded against her powerful interrogators.

I think of similar cases of young girls and women who have had profound religious experiences which then impact the future course of their lives and the lives of many others:  Bernadette of Lourdes, St Therese of Lisieux and Julian of Norwich.

Part of the fascination of these individuals to me is that between them they usually demonstrate one of a number of recurring features, which tend to marginalise: these elements include being young, female, poor / of peasant background or illiterate; and suffering from serious illness, whether bodily or mental. Another element that often appears is the gift of healing. There are many other examples, of whom a good proportion have had visions or extraordinary powers of insight, on the basis of which they have gained enormous influence, and have captured the imagination of future generations.

What do you think? Can you offer other examples of young female visionaries who have had a big impact on the world and may have captured your imagination?

 

Angels and Supernatural Experiences: Book Review

Angel on My Shoulder: Inspiring True Stories from the Other SideAngel on My Shoulder: Inspiring True Stories from the Other Side

by Theresa Cheung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where you feel the title and cover image give a misleading idea of the contents. An Angel on My Shoulder was passed on to me and I admit from the cover I thought it was going to be rather sentimental. Instead I found it totally rivetting and full of authentic stories. Several things fascinated me about these:

1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I have tended to think of them as synchronicity;
2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural;
3) Far than being sentimental, they had a strength and simplicity which was compelling.

Many described sudden and shocking bereavement, which most of us dread. Yet the authors of the accounts had experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which totally changed their attitude to the tragedy, to death itself, and to the meaning of life, and lasted for decades afterwards – providing the sort of comfort and reassurance that some might only achieve, if at all, with years of counselling or psychotherapy.

The author’s stance in relating these stories is very measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.

I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many stories told by different people unknown to each other who had all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed called Miracles.

In her summing up, the author refers to “organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to” and I found myself thinking that although the church does indeed offer structure and certainty, more and more people feel unable to identify with it, because it doesn’t seem to meet their needs and appears irrelevant to their lives. But the stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that God is finding other ways to connect with people totally outside the confines of “church”, finding ways to communicate his love to them – through angels.

Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

New Puppeteers at the Children’s Christmas Party at St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa

On the third Sunday of Advent, I became, along with two others – Jamie and Sidney – a new puppeteer.puppet-show-3

That morning, after the Nativity Service led by St Mark’s Church Beaver colony, the children poured into the hall for their Christmas Party – and the centrepiece of the party was a puppet show.

To the sounds of Mary’s Boy Child by Boney M., a group of us, hastily recruited, became puppeteers. I operated a child angel plus the baby Jesus, Sidney took charge of the adult angel, Jamie manipulated, at different times, Mary, Joseph and  a sheep. Abigail and John held up the backdrop of the stable at the end. puppet-show-2 And Sidney and I held up No Vacancies signs at the appropriate time while Jamie and Sidney held up The Bible sign.

Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible said,
Mary’s boy child Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas Day.
Our trainer and director was master puppeteer Fiona Stutton from Thrive Youth Ministries who with great patience and good humour took two evenings to train us to become puppeteers. Fiona operated a singing puppet at the beginning, and followed this with a short session for the children about the true meaning of Christmas, using magic tricks with silk handkerchieves and a bag that mysteriously changed colour. Then it was time for our puppets to perform Mary’s Boy Child.puppet-show-1

We all had great fun and learned new skills, Fiona was pleased to have trained some new puppeteers, Ros who organised the party was delighted……..
puppet-show-4

 

and, most importantly of all –  the children loved it!

A Passionate Spirit and The Cult That Stole Children

A couple of years after I left university, whilst on a spiritual search, I went to a lecture at the Royal Overseas League in London, met, chatted to and  became captivated by an inspirational speaker: a Physics professor who wrote spiritual books. His name was Dr Raynor Johnson.

a-pool-of-reflections-by-dr-raynor-johnsonSubsequently I read and loved all his books, beginning with his latest: “A Pool of Reflection”. I later wrote him a letter, to which he responded with a very kind and encouraging reply from his home at Santiniketan, Ferny Creek, Melbourne Australia.

Santiniketan later became notorious as the first premises Raynor Johnson made available for the use of the then beautiful and charismatic  Anne Hamilton-Byrne, the cult leader, and where she gave her spiritual talks, and started to gather her followers.  At the time, of course, I had no knowledge of this.

I wrote about him and about the cult with which his name has now become ineradicably linked in this blog post: The Curious Case of the Kindly Professor and the Cunning Cult Leader. I also used the story of the cult in my novel  A Passionate Spirit (pub. Matador 2015).

This cult is particularly relevant to my interests in writing A Passionate Spirit, because of the way in which the cult leader uses beauty and charisma to win devoted followers, whom she then indoctrinates with her teachings; and the cult preys upon the young and the vulnerable.  In addition the cult won the support of many intellectuals and people occupying high professional positions. It is a case which is of vital fascination to a writer of psychological thrillers and suspense.

Later I was contacted by journalist Chris Johnston, who has published articles about the cult in  The Age, Melbourne and in the Sydney Morning Herald. He wanted to make reference to my experiences, and to quote from my blog post, in a book he was writing about the cult.

You can watch the story of this cult on BBC TV tonight Tuesday 29 November 2016 in a documentary called:  “Storyville: The Cult That Stole Children.” It is being broadcast at 9pm.

M paranormal thriller novel A Passionate Spirit inspired these remarks from a Net Galley reviewer, CE Gray:  “as Natasha and James started to take hold of both the centre, and the people within it, the story picked up pace and for me became a page turner. I needed to know, were there supernatural forces at work? Was Zoe imagining it? Were Natasha and James just fraudsters? Was this a story about a cult?

I was pulled in, hook, line and sinker, picking up my kindle at every opportunity to find out what happened next and the end was not disappointing.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in cults, the supernatural and thrillers in general.

What I especially loved were the author’s notes at the end, talking about her inspirations for the novel, including the Australian cult, The Family, which sent me scurrying off to the google for an hour after I’d finished the book. A great read.

A Passionate Spirit is available to buy online and in bookshops.

A Poet’s View of Life – Shakespeare, the Jesuit Priest and the ex-Archbishop

What did Shakespeare believe?  20161107_092917-1He lived and created his work during a period of religious turmoil; and scholars are left to guess at his true spiritual worldview, despite his association with Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fact that he was baptized and buried there.

And so it was appropriate that Holy Trinity Church, the location of Shakespeare’s grave, should be the venue for the first performance in England of the play Shakeshafte by Rowan Williams which I went to see a few days ago. During the course of the play, a teenage Shakespeare debates with the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and I found this portrayal by the Trinity Players thought-provoking, poignant and inspiring.

The only reason why we think Shakeshafte may be our William Shakespeare is because a young man of that name is referred to as an in-house entertainer in the will of Alexander Hoghton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, in 1581. And it is known  that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, John Cottam, an ardent Catholic, recommended his pupil Will Shakeshafte and another boy, Fulk Gillom, to Alexander, for employment as tutors in his house and to provide entertainment. Alexander and his family were strong Catholics in Lancashire, a county renowned for being faithful to the “old religion” in a dangerous time of persecution against Catholics (and a county which was to see the infamous Pendle Witch trials in 1612, just 4 years before Shakespeare’s death).

So former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams works with the theory that this young Shakeshafte was indeed our William Shakespeare, during what scholars call one of the two “lost periods” of Shakespeare’s life. And that he met, talked and maybe even argued with Edmund Campion, the Jesuit priest who returned to England in 1580, spent time undercover at Hoghton Hall, was eventually betrayed, tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1581.

Scholars cannot tell what Shakespeare truly believed. Some think he was a closet Catholic and others that he was an atheist. The latter can cite quotes like:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven.

And thus I clothe my naked villany
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

and

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

So in this play, the young poet – who is portrayed by actor Louis Osborne as wild, passionate and unruly – and the devout priest, played by Tim Raistrick, come face to face, and swap their views of life. And the poet’s view of life is clearly one that Rowan Williams shares, despite having been Archbishop of Canterbury: he as a poet wants to experience life in all its richness and diversity. He ‘holds a mirror up to nature’, listening to  a variety of voices in his head and heart, unable to reduce them all to just one interpretation of the truth. And the play asks the question: Should we understand the truth as one grand central narrative to be imposed on life, or something that emerges in the dialogue between tradition and experience?(programme note by Anthony Woollard). 

I think that Rowan Williams himself holds that view of life in tension with ‘the grand narrative’ of evangelical Christian belief. And this to me is a beautiful expression of what Shakespeare himself would have believed; a world view with which I too can empathise.  And Shakespeare the poet would have held this view in amongst the dangerous religious turmoil of Elizabethan England, and it would be one that could only be hinted at in his poetry and plays, but never explicitly stated.

Which is probably the reason for the veiled remark to Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 

Beatles Shine with Passion and Energy in New Documentary “8 Days a Week: the Touring Years”

How young, innocent, and naive they were, aged in their early twenties: cheeky and endearing. As Paul McCartney puts it, “At the beginning it was all very simple. By the end it had become very complicated.”the-beatles-8-days-a-week-poster-bb23-2016-billboard-1240

And in the Beatles new documentary “8 Days a Week: The Touring Years” we saw a transformation rather similar to the one which we witnessed in Diana, Princess of Wales – a transition from youth and innocence to another state of being harder, more cynical and worldly-wise, more knowing and more guarded, more self-protective. It is an inevitable transition in many ways, one we all make, and yet we never see our own transition writ large upon the screen, projected before the public gaze, as with those who become famous.

In this respect it is their story, but our story too. There were many moments when the whole cinema audience burst out laughing at John’s humour. There was a wonderful little scene when John told a US reporter that his name was Eric, and the reporter took him seriously, and then kept calling him Eric, and John said, “No, John” and the reporter said, “I thought you were Eric,” and John said to him in a low voice, “I was joking”, as if he’d finally taken pity on the reporter.

The one thing that shines out of the new Beatles documentary 8 Days a Week is the fact that with the creative partnership that was the Beatles, we didn’t get just 100% passion and energy; instead, we got 400%. Their love of what they were doing was paramount; at the beginning they were just a “great little band who loved writing songs and playing music, and having a laugh.” The documentary was inspirational, joyous, funny, moving, thought-provoking, emotional, touching, heart-warming.

There are so many different wonderful things about this documentary. As a former Beatles fan myself (who was never, alas, allowed to go to a live Beatles concert, and so was never one of those screaming fans), I watched it with a big smile on my face, laughing often, delighted in being reminded how funny John was, touched by the poignant moments, and the way each corroborated the others in superbly-cut-in interviews which were recorded individually and at different times. George’s interview was particularly moving; there was so much depth to him.  He made the most thought-provoking remark when he said, “We were torn out of our youth, and force-grown like rhubarb.”

The other thing that struck me was how vulnerable they were at their live concerts – no effective protection at all.  At the end of the concert at Shea Stadium they ran to a limo and sped off. But if they’d had to run from the stage to the dressing room area, they would have been torn to pieces by fans breaking through the barriers, and being chased by fleet-footed policemen (who must have got the most exercise in their career, being on guard at a Beatles concert).

As we watched the footage of the Shea Stadium concert, digitally remastered, so we could hear the music the Beatles made (which they never heard at the time, as the music was drowned out by the screams), we saw many wonderful cameos of audience behaviour.  There were girl screaming in hysterics, overwhelmed by emotion, to a point where they seemed to be in distress; others screaming just as loud, but in ecstacy; every so often there was an indifferent looking male, standing there  with immobile face in the midst of mass fervour ; other men just smiling quietly; there was a mother handing out tissues to her overwhelmed daughters; girls just listening with smiles of joy on their faces; others gazing in rapture, in a state of absolute bliss. And standing at the side, quiet, restrained, appraising, watchful: Brian Epstein, of whom Paul said, “The thing about Brian was – he was Class. Liverpool Class. That was what Brian was. Well-spoken, well dressed.”

And in the middle of this, John’s humour into the microphone: “oooh, look at her.” And Paul’s charm, ever-present then, exactly as it is now 50 years later, when he performs to mass audiences: “I want everybody over there, and everybody over there – yes, you, all of you, and all of you over there, to clap along.”  When we saw him at Cardiff Millennium Stadium a few years ago, he said, “How are you all getting along up there at the back?”

And the fabulous cheeky, innocent humour at press conferences. When the boys were asked, “Why do you think you are so popular and successful?” John replied, “we really haven’t got the slightest idea. If we knew, we’d start another group, and become managers.”

And then there was the bizarre period when John caused an international incident by saying the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. At the press conference where he knew he would have to apologise, we listened to what he said, and had that terrible feeling that John was trying to dig himself out of a hole by digging himself further into it. As Paul said, “You could tell he wanted to finish with a joke but knew he couldn’t… we were all scared, and we all knew it was very serious. We had all been bought up with a religious background.”

When the boys were asked to account for their fans’ reaction to them, and the screaming, they appeared bemused. They observed that the screams grew louder when they shook their heads. In fact, body language was how Ringo managed to know whereabouts in a song they were, in the huge concerts: he couldn’t hear the music at all. He said, “I watched Paul’s arse, and John’s arse, and when they shook their heads and when they tapped their feet,” and that was how I worked out whereabouts in the song we were.” And astonishingly, when listening to the digitally remastered recording, we can see that despite not being able to hear each other, they were all in tune, and together. Paul observed how instinctive they were with each other, musically, because of their close relationships, and the fact that they knew each other so well. They were good at what they did he said, simply because they did it so much.

There was such a poignant contrast between the first concerts the Beatles did, and the concert at Shea Stadium, and the very last public performance ever on the rooftop of the Apple offices in Savile Row.  As people gathered in the street down below and watched, curious, bemused, and silent, it was sobering to reflect that they had no idea they were witnessing the very last pubic performance ever, of what history would judge to be the best pop group ever, and the most astonishing social phenomenon of the twentieth century. What a huge historical moment that was – and all were unconscious of it at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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