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Posts tagged ‘Christian’

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.

 

 

Writing Stories That Grow Legs and Run Away From You

 

In my creative writing class at Lancaster University years ago, our tutor said to us:  Once written and completed, your work is A Thing on the Table.  The world can make what it likes of it.  It doesn’t belong to you any more.”creative writing

More recently, novelist Susan Hill, speaking at a local author event, mentioned her first great literary success, The Woman in Black. She said, I have never known a story grow legs and run away from me like that one did.

What a lovely image for the independent life a novel takes on, once completed and out in the world. The ultimate value of a novel lies in the responses of those who read it.  JK Rowling said that the whole “fairy tale” of what had happened to her was only because we had read her story and loved it.

My new novel, A Passionate Spirit, had many different sources of inspiration. But one of them was my conversation with a retired clergyman, John, who told me a story which I then used in my novel.

He described an incident which took place during his ministry as parish priest. A spiritual healer had risen to prominence in his parish.  She’d healed many in the local community and had attracted national media attention. Soon John’s church could no longer ignore this, as several in his congregation, including the churchwarden, claimed to have been healed by her, and believed in her miraculous powers. John recounted to me the tale of one dramatic afternoon, when he met and questioned this healer, along with his churchwarden, and another local clergyman. Later, I went back to the work-in-progress, and my character Natasha emerged, together with a key scene in the novel, based on John’s story.

A Passionate Spirit has some Christian characters (young priest Theo and his wife Zoe); and, to my mind, a strong Christian message. But there’s no guarantee my readers will choose to see that.

In my novel, eventually Zoe meets a huge spiritual challenge head-on, with her fledgling Christian faith; and I show her praying, using the Lord’s Prayer and the words of Psalm 23. She also cites the character of Jesus in her headlong confrontation with evil. Vital help for Zoe comes from her friend Alice, who isn’t Christian, and who was the first person to discern the menace represented by Natasha.

I don’t believe we can expect every Christian to have spiritual discernment. Having experienced a number of spiritual healers myself in the past I’ve become more alert to ‘false prophets’ and the ‘trees that do not bear good fruit’; and that has influenced my story.

A Passionate Spirit is now truly A Thing Upon the Table. I trust and respect that the readers will make what they like of it. And of course I only have the chance to find out if I get feedback from reviews…

Reflections on Crime, Wickedness, and Redemption from the Crime Museum Uncovered, Museum of London

On Thursday 31st March 2016 I read many stories at the Crime Museum Uncovered, an enthralling exhibition currently showing at the Museum of London, London Wall.  Crime cases from Victorian times to 1975, solved by the Metropolitan Police. Most of the criminals were hanged; some were miscarriages of justice; vulnerable people, who today would have received 10 years in jail and might then have turned their lives around and gone on to achieve great things.

Others were people we might think “deserved to die” because the crimes they had committed were so ruthless and wicked (for instance the woman who, under the guise of running a care service for children of the poor, murdered 15 babies).

In some cases, black and wicked hearts were exposed, hearts “as hard and merciless as rock”; and victims whose names we only know by the terrible manner of their deaths, and the disposal of their bodies by their murderers.  People, it seems, who we were to define by the way they died.  And yet, as a novelist, I am convinced that no-one is ever defined by the manner of their death.  We are all complex beings, mind, body and spirit, with our joys, sorrows, memories, dreams, passions and impulses. We don’t define the greatest by their deaths; neither Mozart, nor Shakespeare, nor any other. So why should we define the lives of anyone in that way, no matter how obscure, how ‘ordinary’ they were during their lives on this earth.  This exhibition set out to ‘give the victims a voice’ and yet I did feel it fell into the trap of defining the individual victims by the manner of their deaths.

I am fascinated by human wickedness and this will impact upon the theme and plot of my third novel, following on from “Mystical Circles” and “A Passionate Spirit”. I touched on an aspect of evil in “A Passionate Spirit” but will go much deeper in my next novel. I’m not sure yet whether the paranormal will be there, but psychological suspense certainly will, and so will crime, setting the characters a huge challenge.

The Christian faith teaches that no-one is beyond redemption.

This is just one Christian concept I, along with, I suspect, many others, struggle with.

Alexander Solzenitsyn in his great book The Gulag Archipelago , which I read in my teens, describes  what he calls “the threshold magnitude of evil”. Evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme danger or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.”

Every so often, over the years since reading that book, I have been brought back to Solzenitsyn’s observations.  Whenever I read books about the Nazi Holocaust, his words come to mind.

Yet have we ever considered that, when Jesus took upon his shoulders the sins of the world, as Christian theology teaches, he at that moment was the worst person in the world.

It is a mind-blowing thought.  We read of wicked acts in our news every day, and (unless we are suffering from compassion fatigue) we shudder.

Yet Jesus was the most wicked person in the world, at that time of darkness, before his resurrection.

It shows once again the huge paradox that is the Christian faith. “The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.”

 

 

 

 

Kairos Moments in Life – Broken Priests and More Insights from BBC TV sitcom ‘Rev’

As I think again about the BBC TV sitcom Rev the word wrecked  comes to my mind.

Steve Evets as Colin in Rev photo credit bbc.co.uk

Steve Evets as Colin in Rev photo credit bbc.co.uk

Probably my favourite character in Rev is Colin the local vagrant, brilliantly played by Steve Evets. I described him as a philosopher tramp in my previous post on Rev.

But there is a much darker side to Colin, than that of simply providing an amusing foil to the religious self-doubt of Adam. Colin is, in many ways wrecked. Alcoholic, drug addict, prone to outbreaks of violence when he’s ‘under the influence’, even against those who have previously helped and supported him, he has adopted an equally derelict dog called Bongo as his faithful companion.

In the final episode of the 3rd series we saw Adam in bed with depression, broken in spirit, having been betrayed by several people, Colin among them. Then Colin turns up at the door with Bongo in his arms. Bongo has died – because Colin himself ignored advice and fed him a chocolate Easter egg stolen from the local store.

At this lowest moment, Colin comes to the priest and finds only his wife Alex, not known for her own religious devotion.

You can do a Bongo funeral can’t you Mrs Vicarage?”

To me, this was the most heart-breaking moment of the entire series.

Alex finds herself put on the spot, helps Colin bury Bongo outside their house, and says a few kind words about Bongo. Then she offers that they say the Lord’s Prayer together.

To me, in Rev, this is a Kairos moment – a moment when the very highest shines through in the very lowest.

When in his most vulnerable, wrecked, broken state, this vagrant goes to the one person who can somehow bring some divine perspective into his pain – even though that person is himself broken.

I believe this is the heart of the Christian faith and what Christ was all about.

We all need some divine perspective in our very lowest moments. Thank you to all those who helped to create Rev, and give us this among many other insights.

 

 

Rocky Hillsides, Dark Valleys and the One Voice You Can Trust

In our lives we can often find that there seems to be one poem or a prayer which has been most helpful, most meaningful to us. For me this has been the 23rd Psalm: The Lord Is My Shepherd.

In times of strong negative emotion, the words though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil are the only ones which have the strength to meet the greatest spiritual and psychological challenges.

Last Monday I went to a Quiet Day led by Rev. Anne Hibbert of  the Well Christian Healing Centre.

The Rev Anne Hibbert, whose vision led to the creation of The Well Christian Healing Centre

The Rev Anne Hibbert, whose vision led to the creation of The Well Christian Healing Centre

Hampton Manor, Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire

Hampton Manor, Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire

It was held in the gracious surroundings of Hampton Manor in Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire. The theme was Following the Good Shepherd in 2014.

Anne is one of the most inspirational speakers I have ever listened to.  During the course of the day she opened up for us the reality of life as a shepherd in Israel, which the psalmist based his poem upon: nothing at all like our concept of sheep and shepherd in the enclosed fields of green fertile England.

The shepherd in Israel, I learned, is responsible for his sheep all the time, in a harsh, challenging environment, on brown, rocky, barren hillsides; he will build stones around caves to act as a sheep-fold; he will drive the sheep to fresh new pasture, going ahead to club the snakes and scatter salt to provide extra nutrients for the sheep. The voice of the shepherd is the one voice the sheep will respond to; ringing out over a great distance, to call in the sheep even from the furthest point to which they have wandered.

Additionally, the oil which the psalm uses as a metaphor, would be a concoction of olive oil, sulphur and spices, which would be daubed on the heads of the sheep to banish flies, gnats and parasites. Sheep, too, I learned, have a “butting order”; this disappears when the shepherd is present.  The hills of the Judaean terrain might be bright and sunny and scorching; the valleys fearful and cold; as you go under the overhang, the darkness can be overwhelming.

Several of these details of the shepherding life in Israel were previously unknown to me. Anne used each element as a metaphor for different stages of our life journeys. Now I know what inspired the psalmist to use the images he did, the meaning of the psalm is enriched enormously – as well as its application for my life.

Try having another look at the psalm here and forget about green velvety meadows, a romantic-looking figure with long flowing golden brown hair, and white fluffy sheep. Think instead of rocky hillsides, dark overhangs and snakes, and you’ll be getting closer to what the writer had in mind when he wrote those words.

In Search of Authenticity: Our True Selves and Our Essential Need for Community

How can we be true to ourselves?

And how can we live in ways  that are true to what  we believe?

And how can we mix up our inner and outer worlds, so we are not compartmentalised like a waffle, but rather, more like a bowl of spaghetti?

These were just three of the questions posed to us at a weekend conference I’ve just attended, as one of 80 from my church, St Mark’s in Leamington Spa, at the Hayes Conference  Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.

our group from St Mark's in the main conference hall at Hayes Conference Centre Swanwick 29 June 2013 (photo credit: PaulMileham www.st-marks.net)

our group from St Mark’s in the main conference hall at Hayes Conference Centre Swanwick 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham http://www.st-marks.net)

And in between enjoying the beautiful gardens in the sunshine, drinking in the bar, wandering by the lakes, going kayaking, cycling or walking, we listened to an excellent speaker, Annie Naish from the Lee Abbey Community.

The theme was Authenticity.

Annie invited us to consider how as members of a Christian community we can be “real” with each other,  our authentic selves, sharing our sorrows and troubles, recognizing we are all wounded people, and that we all need each other.

To illustrate our need for community, she played a video clip from the BBC TV documentary narrated by David Tennant, showing the solitary Emperor Penguin in the icy wilderness of Antarctica, who became separated from his community, but struggled on alone until he reached them again – and the life-saving comfort of their body warmth.

Annie Naish (photo credit Paul Mileham www.st-mark.net)

Annie Naish (photo credit Paul Mileham http://www.st-mark.net)

And just so, said Annie, should we live this out, through our relationships with each other in our community: by showing sincere and practical love; looking for the good in people; putting others first; being willing to be vulnerable; listening; and showing humility and practising forgiveness.

Anybody who ever seeks to understand this life and our place in it, will have to engage with this search for our true authentic selves.

This is the work of a lifetime, and it runs through many religions and faiths, through psychology and philosophy, through psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counselling.

Annie herself lives as part of the Lee Abbey Community, and every member has to work through their relationship with each other within the community. Churches, said Annie, should be full of wounded people, places where people can weep, and share the tough times they’re going through. The authentic Christian life is  “systematically unsafe”. It’s a risky business, and sometimes it’s like a bungee jump over white water rapids. And she showed us a breathtaking video clip to demonstrate this.

Annie suggested we should be intentional. An authentic Christian faith is a long obedience in the same direction.

And if we are to be authentic in relationships, we have to bring what is hidden into the light. It’s costly, because  we’re vulnerable.

The young people having fun at Swanwick (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

The young people having fun at Swanwick (photo credit: Jamie Robinson)

Annie gave us practical guidance. We have to listen and reflect before leaping to self-defence. This applies in many situations in life.

Annie called for us to think of everything we do as a task done through relationship.

And the goal for each of us, as Elrond said to Aragorn in “The Lord of the Rings” , is to “Become all that you were born to be.”

the lake at Hayes Conference Centre 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham www.st-marks.net)

the lake at Hayes Conference Centre 29 June 2013 (photo credit: Paul Mileham http://www.st-marks.net)

The Holocaust: Why the Stories of the Survivors and Their Descendents Must Be Told Again and Again – And Why Every New Generation Must Listen

Today – Sunday 27th January 2013 – is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Many will be writing and talking about it.

So why do I feel I must add my voice to theirs?

book cover image of "Auschwitz" by Laurence Rees

book cover image of “Auschwitz” by Laurence Rees

Because, over the years I’ve read many books on the Holocaust and by survivors and by survivors’ children. I’ve listened to their stories, and I’ve engaged emotionally with those stories.

The first book on the subject which I ever read was a novel,  “The Last of the Just” by Andre Schwartz-Bart. I remember, before I read that book (at the age of about 14), all I knew of the Holocaust was a vague knowledge gleaned from school history lessons. I must have mentally “sanitised” the information I received, because  I’d somehow got hold of the idea that only adults were killed, and that all babies and children were saved.

When I read “The Last of the Just”, I began to understand.

My journey of understanding has taken me through movies, TV programmes, books…

As the generations pass, there’s an ever-present temptation to put the Holocaust into the bin of “horrible things people have done to each other in the past” and to somehow shift off the responsibility to use it for self-examination.

This is why I believe that would be so dangerous: because the Holocaust gives us insights into our own nature as human beings: an inescapable truth that we all live with, in every generation.

The most compelling book I’ve ever read on this subject is “Auschwitz:  The Nazis and The ‘Final Solution'” by Laurence Rees (judged to be History Book of the Year in the British Book Awards 2006). The book was developed from a television series Rees wrote and produced.

Laurence Rees concludes with these words:

We must judge behaviour by the context of the times. And judged by the context of mid-twentieth-century, sophisticated European culture, Auschwitz and the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ represent the lowest act in all history….. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what the Nazis did must not be unlearnt. It lies there – ugly, inert, waiting to be rediscovered by each new generation.

For the TV series and the book, Rees gathered testimonies from bystanders, perpetrators and victims, including revealing interviews with SS men and sundry European Fascists. It’s in this broad range of testimonies that Rees offers us a profound insight into human nature.

On page 261, Rees considers why so many went along with the horrors of the regime, and speculates that human nature is “elemental” – the realisation came in the camps that human beings resemble elements that are changeable according to temperature. Just as water exists as water only within a certain temperature range and is steam or ice in others, so human beings can become different people according to extremes of circumstance.

Rees makes the point that this is more than just the seemingly banal comment that human beings alter their behaviour according to circumstance… it is less a change in behaviour… and more a change in essential character.

His presentation of this led me to examine my own thoughts on the subject, in relation to my experience of life.

Over the years, the Holocaust has stood for me as the benchmark of pure evil, and Anti-Life.

But the other aspect of the Holocaust which particularly interests me, as a Christian, is the recurrent miracle of faith in God.

It has long been a source of great wonderment and awe for me, that there are those (not all, of course, by any means) who were caught up in, came through, and were subsequently affected by the Holocaust, who have not only held onto but have renewed and strengthened their faith in that loving and sovereign God.

When we consider the people  drowned in that vast tidal wave of suffering, we may feel overwhelmed and ask What can we do? How should we respond?

The answer they themselves gave, when they were able to, was, “When the War is over, tell our story to others.”

What they most wanted was that their stories should be told.

What we then choose to do with the knowledge these stories give us, is another matter: it may profoundly affect our future lives, on every level: or of course, it may not – according to what we choose to do with that knowledge.

But from my own standpoint as a novelist, I believe this is the first essential: let us keep listening to, and hearing, and engaging with, their stories, as they wished. To me, that is our duty to those who suffered, and the least we can do as fellow human beings.

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