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.
So why is it that the book he created is so revered and has such a hold on our imagination now? – apart from its age and the wonderful fact of its survival?
I believe it’s because of the dedication, the patient concentration and the painstaking artistry that breathes out from the pages, and because of what inspired its creation: love and devotion.
Eadfrith created it “for the glory of God and St Cuthbert”.
St Cuthbert himself inspired so much reverence because he was a holy man, at one time bishop of Lindisfarne, who died as a hermit in 687 on Inner Farne (which I recently visited), and around whose body many miracles occurred.
The astonishing story of his body, which failed to decay for many years, records how he was carried for several decades by faithful monks around Northumberland, to escape Viking attack, before finally it was laid to rest in the spot over which Durham Cathedral was built. You can visit St Cuthbert’s Tomb in Durham Cathedral, a place which has a strong spiritual resonance and atmosphere of holiness.
The glorious book which is the Lindisfarne Gospels is a testament to patience, concentration, love and devotion.
For us now, to gaze at, or to work with, the patterns Eadfrith painted is a pathway to peace and joy – hence the popularity of Celtic colouring-in books for adults, partly because the act of colouring-in forces you to pay close attention and eliminate all distractions. Celtic designs based on the Lindisfarne gospels pop up everywhere – here’s an image of my lovely metal bookmark displaying Eadfrith’s designs – notice particularly his ornamental birds (Lindisfarne has long been a paradise for birds, so Eadfrith had plenty of them to model his designs on).
In creating the ornamental designs, Eadfrith needed to pay minute attention to the geometrical foundations and symmetry of the overall design – very little was left to chance or the “inspiration of the moment.”
The book he created is now revered not just for the beauty and skill within its pages, I believe, but because that beauty is a physical representation on this earth of a spiritual reality – goodness, peace, patience, holiness and love.
Eadfrith had to source, prepare, or make from scratch everything he used – the parchments of vellum; the pen from a thick reed or quill feather; the ink, from animal, vegetable and mineral raw materials, ground to a fine powder and then mixed with egg white. I have personal experience of something of this latter part of the process at least, because I did an icon-painting course a few years ago and we mixed artists’ pigment with egg-white to paint our own icons on pieces of wood we had ourselves prepared – see the photo here of my own icon of the Archangel Gabriel.
After Eadfrith had created the Gospels, he left the scriptorium and as far as we know he never painted or wrote anything else – not that I’m suggesting this is a model for creative writers of today!
I find his story awe-inspiring and uplifting because it gives me an image of a patient, devoted person sitting alone in a quiet place concentrating absolutely on a work of art, to the exclusion of all else. It makes me think of many others who have created great works in similar circumstances – those who have been perhaps in prison, like St Paul, or Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, two amongst several examples: or those who have deliberately chosen to go apart into an isolated place like Eadfrith in the scriptorium, free of distractions.
To be free of distractions and able to fully concentrate and devote yourself to the task in hand is such a luxury now, such an ideal for writers and artists to aspire to.
My upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit tells the story of a young woman who defies a sinister spiritual healer.
The novel is about a conflict between good and evil, and I am fascinated by the idea of great beauty used to mask malevolent spiritual power. But the story also deals with the subject of healing, and what part psychic and spiritual power can play in this.
Among many who inspired me during the course of research for this novel I may number the Rev Russ Parker, whom one may describe as “an unconventional priest” (along with one of the principal characters in my novel). He writes non-fiction books and poetry, he works in such areas as international listening and reconciliation, healing wounded histories, both of individuals and communities, and he explores the ways in which dreams and Celtic spirituality and a much freer attitude to spiritual matters may all open up our being and contribute to our healing.
I first heard Russ Parker speak at a local retreat centre several years ago, and he made a strong impact on me then. Since then I’ve heard him speak a number of times and have also attended a weekend retreat led by him about the Road to Emmaus. In addition I’ve read several of his books. Foremost among those which most impressed me are: Healing Dreams, Requiem Healing, Healing Death’s Wounds, and Wild Spirit of the Living God. So impressed was I by Russ, that I suggested a particular poem of his be read aloud at my father’s funeral, with a few personal biographical twists. This poem is called “The View From Here”. Afterwards some who were at the funeral service said, “That was the most uplifting funeral I have ever been to.” I believe this was in no small part due to the power of Russ’s poem.
Russ manages to be wise, vulnerable, poignant, down-to-earth, moving and funny during the sessions he leads. I don’t believe it’s possible to come out without having been entertained, inspired, uplifted, intellectually challenged or emotionally stirred – unless you’re in a coma at the time.
I listened to Russ speaking about Visions five years ago at a church in Derby. He spoke about how a vision takes an increasing grip on your life. Visions, he said, are something God brings that disturbs us. Sometimes they have their timetables. This is the way vision work, he said: it may be that God spoke to you two years ago, but has put you on pause. Maybe today – or at a time of His choosing in the future – he will press the unpause button.
We should learn to “hold our vision and wait with it until God fires the release gun.” I’ve held my vision for a long time, and I too am looking forward to the firing of that release gun!
Recently my sister in Australia sent me a set of DVDs – ironically made in England, containing a documentary series on Great British Ghosts narrated by Michaela Strachan for the BBC. The set also included a third documentary, narrated by Paul McGann in a balanced, neutral tone, called Ghosts of the London Underground, and this was by far the most compelling of the three.
Traditionally in England, sightings of ghosts such as grey ladies in sixteenth century properties can be attributed by sceptics to over sensitive or highly-imaginative people tuned in to the atmosphere whilst staying overnight in Tudor coaching inns.
But the ghosts of the London Underground have a different character. Each story in this documentary is told by a worker whom you would describe as ‘a totally down to earth, practical no-nonsense bloke’ whom many might consider diametrically opposite to the popular image of the type of person who claims to have ghostly encounters. Some of those who told their stories said “I don’t believe in ghosts… but I’ve had an experience I will remember for the rest of my life as something which happened to me which has no explanation.”
Beneath the ticket halls, walkways, escalators and tunnels through which so many people stream, carrying out their daily lives, there is another story: the lingering residue of the souls of people who died terrible and tragic deaths, and somehow imprinted a psychic recording into those tunnels; and not just the ones which have been abandoned.
One day I believe we will fully understand why and how these things happen, but right now, to my knowledge, we have no satisfactory over-arching philosophy to account for these experiences. I shrink from believing that the soul of a human being can possibly be condemned to wander for years close to the place where they had the worst experience of their life on earth. And I cannot fathom why the essence of a person should continue to walk in the place where their life ended, apparently unaware of the fact that they’re dead. Yet living people have had and continue to have experiences which would indicate this as an immediate explanation.
My new upcoming novel A Passionate Spirit contains several ghost stories and an element of the unexplained, and I admit to being fascinated by these phenomena. I used to love Tales of Mystery and Imagination on TV in the past, and not long ago read and reviewed Classic Tales of the Macabre by masters of the ghost story genre: a dazzling display of atmospheric writing from masters of the craft, that demonstrate the art of suspense, with the build-up of horror. The stories in this book are must-reads for anyone seeking to write in the genre nowadays; they range from supernatural to psychological subjects, and all of them are beautifully-written..
However there is another aspect of these experiences. If they are psychic recordings of energy, the fact that they draw the living to engage emotionally with certain tragic life events that happened to individuals in the past, is on one level a good thing.
Of all the millions of beings who’ve been through this world, ghosts are few and far between. And many pass through leaving no mark at all. Nevertheless, there are a few who do indeed leave a mark. And people who’d otherwise be ignorant of their existence are drawn not only to them and to their story but in such a way that they engage emotionally with it.
What we do with this idea depends on a number of factors, not least our worldview.
From a Christian point of view, the fact that every diocese of the Church of England has a “deliverance ministry” (no longer using the term “exorcism”) this presupposes that Christians do actually accept the idea of “earthbound spirits” who need to be released.
Christian theology asserts that each individual soul who has ever lived is loved by God.
In Revelation 21: 3-4 we read these words “One day I will wipe away every tear from your eyes and I’ll take away all the pain you have suffered on this earth.”
This is a promise to hold onto, for those of us who are drawn to investigating these ghostly encounters.
Metaxas is renowned as the author of a much-admired book on Dietrich Boenhoffer (published in 2011). In this new book, he turns his attention to a vitally important subject: our worldview and how it affects our perception of reality.
In the first half of the book Metaxas examines the rules by which we may determine that an event is “a miracle”.
One of his most compelling early chapters is about the miracle of life on earth. As a counterpoint to Stephen Hawking’s observation that We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average starMetaxas gives us a taster of the vast number of fine-tuned characteristics which are necessary to support life. As I read this chapter it put me in mind of one of my own favourite quotes, which comes from Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim:
This is Nature – the balance of colossal forces… the mighty Cosmos in perfect equilibrium produces – this.
Beyond this, Metaxas goes on to consider the picture of God breaking through into the natural world with miracles, like a great tree bursting through concrete. He examines the questions of God’s apparent “selectivity” – why do some people’s lives benefit from miraculous intervention, and others not?
In the second half of the book Metaxas gives accounts of miracles which happened to himself and to people he knows personally. These stories of miracles are robust and compelling. Some are disturbing, creepy and challenging. Near the end of the book he relates a 9/11 story which holds you transfixed. And he ends with a challenge both intellectual and spiritual.
I found this book thrilling, uplifting and enormously encouraging. Throughout my life there have been times when I’ve instinctively felt something to be true, without having the necessary resources of intellectual argument to lay it on the table before others. In this book, Metaxas encourages us to fully engage our minds on a subject which is far too easy to talk or think about in a “loose” or “woolly” way.
If you possibly can, find time to read this book and to consider what Metaxas says.
This fascinating book came into my hands because I belong to a Facebook group called Mystic Christ and heard about the publication of this collection of essays by authors with both Christian affiliation and a desire to express spirituality through nature connection.
This sounded like a book after my own heart. For many years I was greatly drawn to a spirituality very close to pantheism/nature mysticism; and one of my chief objections then to the Christian faith was what I saw as its “black and white” stance and its refusal to recognise the validity of this kind of spirituality. I remember years ago a certain Tory politician being asked if he was religious or a churchgoer, to which he replied, “No, I don’t go to church, I feel much closer to God walking in the Yorkshire Dales”.
In the view of the authors of “Earthed” this is a valid spiritual position to take.
The book, edited by Bruce Stanley and Steve Holllinghurst, brings together the views and experiences of several authors who have a range of different approaches and outlooks but all believe that Christianity’s relationship with nature matters.
The earlier essays provide an overview and then move on to more detailed accounts of personal experiences. I must admit I found some of these read a little like vicars seeking to justify to their evangelical colleagues why they are moved by pagan religious rituals in nature.
However, I was pleased to see a chapter by Annie Heppenstall, “Do I Not Fill Heaven and Earth?” Annie led the Celtic Christian celebrations I attended at Morton Bagot church in Warwickshire. There is also a very good article by Anne Hollinghurst about St Francis of Assisi. “A creation-centred spirituality,” she writes, “should also include St Francis’ rule of compassion for the poor, a rejection of the pursuit of wealth, status or reputation in favour of simplicity and poverty of spirit.”
To me there’s no problem in the idea of worshipping God in and through nature.This has always been a spirituality very close to my heart. But I do acknowledge that some people find the natural world wild, disorderly and threatening.
I enjoyed the chapter about The Green Man by Simon Cross, in which he draws a thread connecting the story of the Garden of Eden with the Legend of the Holy Rood, the Frankenstein story, North American Indian spirituality and its understanding of the Great Spirit, through the 1800’s resurgence of interest in occultism and onto fear of little green men from Mars, space research and exploration and the current fascination with wilderness survival skills (as demonstrated in various TV programmes).
The theme of this book was highlighted from a different source on Sun 16 November 2014: I was watching a BBC TV programme presented by Sue Perkins from a remote rural community in Cambodia, where she was spending time with people who have “a relationship with the natural world that many of us crave.”
Another outstanding chapter for me in this book is “Oceanic God” in which author Nick Thorpe writes about things he has learned from the power of the sea and from the people who earn their living by chancing their lives upon the sea.
“After my sea pilgrimage,” he says, “I resolved to allow myself a broader, more open-handed belief; less fretful about the details of doctrine, more willing to let complex realities clash, and mysteries remain.”
There is also a lovely piece by Paul Cudby on “Friendships Across the Divide: A Theology of Encounter” which I strongly identified with. I have myself felt the spiritual sense of nature connection which he describes, on several occasions throughout my life. The experiences he describes follow the principle that whatever you practice regularly becomes almost intuitive and then new possibilities spring up.
In conclusion I’d say that the premise of this book is correct: that in western forms of Christian worship many habitually cut themselves off from this kind of nature connection; and this is a totally unnecessary source of alienation from those who find themselves naturally drawn to pagan and mystical spirituality.Instead, we end up creating a division between those whose spiritual practices might otherwise find many points of similarity.
If any of this rings a bell with you, I highly recommend this book.
I’ve loved many TV sitcoms over the years and have attended sitcom writing workshops when I aspired to write sitcoms myself. I think it’s true to say that a few sitcom characters have influenced my own fiction. My current favourite is Rev (BBC 2 Monday 10pm). Our family has watched every episode of the 2 previous series and is now enjoying series 3 broadcast on BBC 1 on Mondays at 10pm.
There’s much in common between a novelist and a sitcom writer, and as a story-writer I like to ask myself why Rev is so compelling and so good on several levels.
Here’s a selection of characters who particularly appeal to me as archetypes:
In Rev we have an endearing main character (the Revd. Adam Smallbone, played by Tom Hollander) who is modest, self-effacing, well-intentioned but hapless: he’s supposed to be in a position of authority but often seems to be a bit of an underdog – the fall-guy. And yet there is an underlying message which tells a different story.
Then there’s Colin (played by Steve Evets), the unemployed alcoholic, who we often see sitting on the bench outside the church with the Rev. We love Colin so much because he’s an archetypal philosopher tramp. Words of wisdom and insight come from the most unlikely mouth, along with foul language, tales of drug-peddling and the low life.
Then we have the cunning Mick |(played by Jimmy Akingbola), an oddball drug addict and street loafer, cunning and opportunistic, always calling at the vicarage door and making contradictory claims and asking for – but never receiving – money. Until, that is, he hits on inspiration – by bringing back the child Rev left in the grocery store, insisting on exchanging the child for money, and threatening to tell “the nasty Mrs Vicar” what Adam has done.
We have the Archdeacon (played by Simon McBurney), sardonic, high-handed, revelling in his status higher up the church hierarchy than Adam, and sometimes rivalling the Spanish Inquisition in his interrogations and threats to Adam that his church might be closed down; he’s the authority figure who’s always on Adam’s case, ditches him unexpectedly out of taxis, and accepts offers of tea then ends up throwing it away. And yet again there’s another message; the moments when the Archdeacon relents, the revelation and the twist in the relationship when Adam unexpectedly meets him with his gay friend out of working hours…
Then there’s Roland Wise, the media vicar, (played by Hugh Bonneville). He answers his mobile during his “Transforming Church” course and tells Adam, “Oh it’s Michael Burke pestering me to do The Moral Maze again.” and accuses Adam of having “conflicting personality blocks” on his Myers Briggs personality type indicator test; to which Adam replies, “That’s because I filled it out as Jesus.”
And finally I might mention Nigel, Adam’s Lay Reader (played by Miles Jupp), whose main problem is that he’s a bit ‘anal’ and pedantic. He takes himself too seriously, he always tries to play by the rule-book, and would really like to be in Adam’s position. Occasionally his frustration causes him to break out, but usually when he does he ends up being reprimanded or overruled in some way.
One of the most effective elements of Rev is the voiceovers. We hear the thoughts in Adam’s head as he talks to God. “People like rules. If Christianity had as many rules as Islam, perhaps my church would be full too,” and “Why does the church want me to be a businessman rather than a vicar?” and “I bend over backwards to try and please everyone and I end up pleasing no-one… maybe that’s what You want, me in a lot of trouble. Jesus liked trouble.”
And the truth is that Adam is good-hearted, caring, unpretentious and real.
I hope you too enjoy this brilliant sitcom. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it!
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.
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.
I myself have also experienced healing through prayer at The Well. Truly God has ‘unstopped the ancient wells of healing here in Leamington Spa’ for many people testify not only to physical healing through prayer, but new peace, joy and a changed attitude which transforms situations.
Many people come in through the doors of the Royal Pump Rooms on Tuesdays and Wednesdays each week, to the prayer teams who are waiting to pray with and for them; these may be people who are Christian, or who have no faith at all; they may be adults or children.
The power of prayer in every life-situation has been testified to many times. If you are experiencing a problem which you believe is intractable, I recommend that you too consider asking for prayer.
What a privilege it is for me to play a small part in helping Anne take this vision forward into the future.
I’m a great admirer of JK Rowling both as an author, and on a personal level. So when I knew she’d published her first adult novel, I was keen to read it.
When I began to read The Casual Vacancy several months ago, I found it a struggle to get through the unrelenting nastiness of the characters, without finding any one individual I could identify or empathize with. And at that time I chose to put it down.
Nevertheless, I was determined to come back to the novel later when I felt ready to tackle it. And I’m glad I did. I very quickly began to recognize elements from the hometown of my childhood – local characters & social/political/economic issues.
When the author begins to fill in the backgrounds of the characters, giving them greater depth, I started to feel, at some level, empathy for Terri, and for Krystal, and for their terrible plight – and glimmers of humour also relieved the grimness of the characters’ behaviour.
JKR inspires both pity & anger with her waspish vignettes of mothers who betray their children with submissiveness, moral weakness & cowardice, & fathers/husbands who trample close relationships with arrogance, intolerance & cruelty, & teenagers full of hatred & resentment. She also penetrates right to the heart of class consciousness & snobbery, & those who live with an innate sense of ‘superiority’. These attitudes riddle our society, & our hearts & souls; they blight lives, destroy hope, & ensure injustice and inequality prevails. They lower people’s self-esteem and propagate lies that last a lifetime. All this JKR skilfully conveys in The Casual Vacancy.
I found many sharp portrayals: the conversation as a social worker visits a drug addict; the inner life of a bullied teenager as she self harms, her situation made worse by a harsh, unsympathetic mother; the fragile threads upon which a drug addict’s rehabilitation depends; the pressures at home which force teenagers into depraved company and behaviour. JKR accurately conveys the effect that going to a certain sort of school has on one’s sense of self-worth, and upon the choices one makes in one’s friendships and future life.
It’s clear to me that the characters in this novel are behaving ‘their’ way – in other words, the default setting of human nature. It would be pointless and disingenuous for any of us who live in contemporary English society to pretend that we cannot recognize something murky of ourselves somewhere in this novel: something that points up the ‘devices and desires’ of our own hearts.
However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses.
JKR may not have wished to commit herself to an explicit spiritual message in the novel. But I cannot help feeling there is clear potential for an authentic Christian witness in this story, pointing to a different attitude, a different way of life.
Jesus knew all about the default setting of human nature, and the untrustworthiness of the human heart.
In John’s Gospel we read these words : But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside & out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.
For The Casual Vacancy is, to me, essentially a story of ourselves as we are, now, in our communities, in our society today, just as we always have been; unredeemed, doing things ‘our way’ and not God’s way, and reaping the consequences. It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.