Algorithms and Magical Thinking – at St Mary’s Church Warwick and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

How do we deal with the unpredictabilty of the world we find ourselves in?spellbound-website-banner

Recently I’ve been challenged at two quite separate events to consider the ways in which we look at the world and handle the unpredictability and unaccountability of our lives.

One event was held in St Mary’s Church Warwick where I heard a lecture by Revd. Professor Bernard Silverman, formerly Scientific Adviser to the Home Office.

Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician
Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician

And the other event was an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, called Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

At first glance, it seems our choice between the two is clear. After all, we are rational twenty-first century beings. We’ve had the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we know all about logic and philosophy and psychology and the laws of cause and effect. We have modern medicine. We know about viruses and bacteria. We have innoculations. We live in a much more civilised, controlled, functional world, don’t we, than our predecessors?

Or do we? Take your choice:

Do we trust mathematical predictions through algorithms?

or do we rely on the magical thinking in which humankind has engaged for centuries?

or… do we hold both of these in our consciousness as we proceed through this world, along with other outlooks as well?

Do you ever wonder where those politicans get their statistics from that they throw at us during media interviews, to underline or prove or disprove certain policies?politicians and statistics As a statistician, Prof Silverman has advised the government on many vital issues, including the numbers of people involved in modern slavery, and those taking certain classes of illegal drugs and those involved in drug-dealing, and how to handle a massive influx of migrants into the country. He employs his expertise to predict and manage probabilities and to anticipate situations on a scientific basis, and thus to provide solutions to the best way of handling problems.

Once someone said to him incredulously, “You mean, you found that out by…. using algebra?”

To which he replied, “…as opposed to just guessing? Yes.”

He researches data and then fits a mathematical model to it, and then gives impartial expert advice to support government. He did say it’s up to science not to overplay the evidence; and it’s incumbent on scientists to explain what they’ve found in terms people can understand; findings should be informed by expertise and not solely by the scientists’ personal opinions.

He was asked about the ethical challenges to scientists and he said the only real danger is when the Chief Scientific Adviser gets captured by the agenda.

In order to guard against that, he or she must:

a) make sure advice is in the public domain

b) have several people to whom he or she is accountable

c) listen and observe – after all, that encapsulates the scientific method.

Having listened to Professor Silvermen I felt heartened and encouraged,  and left the church with a much more  positive view of our country and our system of government and indeed our politicians.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I felt that with the Chief Scientific Advisers behind them, we have good reason to trust our politicans, perhaps, much more than we do.

Then I went to the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

Here we found displayed many objects which testify to the reliance our forbears placed upon the idea of changing the external world and their circumstances by manipulation of objects through magic.

I found the exhibition aroused many different emotions; it was at different points, creepy, sad, disturbing, distressing, moving, thought-provoking. And as I went round the exhibition, I thought Humans are not essentially rational creatures – they are kaleidoscopic creatures.

George Iles quote on superstition

When we look at English history we may consider the following paradoxes:

Henry VIII chopped off people’s heads and condemned them to be hanged drawn and quartered,  and was in many ways a monster… and yet he was the first monarch to ensure an English translation of the Bible should be in every church, so the people could read in their own language the Gospels he himself clearly had not read (because the message of love, mercy and compassion had evidently not got through to him).

Elizabeth I fought to stop the idolatry and superstition of Catholic practices, and to institute her new Church, enlightened, rational, flower of the Reformation… and she also employed John Dee, Court Magician ( some of whose magical objects were in this exhibition). And women were persecuted and executed as witches right up until 1680 – 22 years into her reign.

James I has given his name to first much-revered King James translation of the Bible, and no more women were executed for witchcraft during his reign, and he fought to maintain Protestantism….except that he was obsessed with witchcraft, he wrote a book on it, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please James I, and took the witches’ (genuine) spells directly out of James I’s book.

Yes, here in the twenty-first century we are rational beings… but we still have within us black spots of what has been called wilful self-deception.

People for centuries have ostensibly followed Christianity yet believed in magical objects and rituals and spells. Clergymen have fought a losing battle against superstition, and caches of magical objects – used everyday items imbued with magical spells – have been found even in the twentieth century, secreted in hiding places in old houses. Some of these caches were on display in the museum; a pair of man’s breeches; a child’s shoe; several teeth; a number of small medicine bottles, and all sorts of items, almost like a curious time capsule, stashed away up the chimney or under the floorboards to somehow magically influence the lives of their owners.

As I moved through the exhibition I found myself thinking that in the past centuries, the powerlessness and brutality of life would have often led people to magical thinking, when Christian prayer seemed not to work.

17th century woodcut - poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft
17th century woodcut – poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft

But are we so civilised and enlightened that we can look down on all that with incredulous disdain?

Do we cross our fingers, or avoid walking under ladders, or feel uneasy with the number 13? Do we have a dream catcher in our bedroom, or a lucky duck from Whitby sitting on the shelf? Do we pass on Irish blessings over social media with a threat that if you don’t forward it to 7 others something bad will happen to you? do you believe in house blessings, or keep crosses or icons around the house? Do you buy guardian angels on chains to wear as a pendant, or take a St Christopher on a journey with you? If we write, do we always use a special pen, or follow a certain ritual before beginning?

These and many other little rituals show that we still use magical thinking.

Certainly we can understand where JK Rowling got her ideas from and why her books have such a powerful hold on us…

 

 

 

Joyful Atmosphere at the Leamington Spa Peace Festival June 2018

Each year in June the Peace Festival is held in the Royal Pump Room Gardens in Leamington Spa. Leamington Spa Peace Festival viewA colourful and eclectic mix of stallholders, different religious and activist and local community groups, musicians, street food vendors, and sellers of vibrant gypsy, bohemian and ethnic clothes, hats, bag and jewellery all converge on the gardens.

Kate's Story Tree at Leamington Spa Peace Festival

The result is a vibrant, joyful festival lasting two days, spreading goodwill and the message of peaceful co-existence, mutual understanding and acceptance of our fellow human beings in all our diversity.

Einstein quote at Leamington Spa Peace Festival

The local community choir Songlines conducted by our enthusiastic maestro Bruce Knight sang a cross-cultural set of songs which included fantastic gospel songs Egalile, I’m on My Way to Canaan Land, and Done Made My Vow to the Lord, along with community choir arrangements of I’m Still Standing by Elton John, Like a Hurricane by Neil Young, and the uplifting and moving song Hey Brother by Avicii.

The Leamington Spa Peace Festival is run, amazingly, by volunteers, and they do a brilliant job of organising this event. Long may the Peace Festival return to Leamington Spa each year.

Save the Pixies at Leamington Spa Peace Festival

 

Inspiring Archbishop Justin Welby in Brilliant Celebrations at Coventry Cathedral for #Cov100

Between 3rd and 5th May 2018 Coventry Diocese celebrated their 100th anniversary – and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby played a key role at the centre of the celebrations.

Archbishop Justin Welby at Coventry Cathedral 5 May 2018
Archbishop Justin Welby at Coventry Cathedral 5 May 2018

Over the course of the three days I attended three events – the first in a Warwickshire farm, the second in the Nuneaton church where Justin was curate 1992-1995, and finally the Centenary Festival at Coventry Cathedral on Saturday 3rd May.

During all these events I was enormously impressed by Archbishop Justin. He engaged his audience with warmth and self-deprecating humour, telling several funny anecdotes; he answered questions with compassion, humility and wisdom; he told some astonishing stories about dangerous situations he has entered into around the world, during his reconciliation work.

Bishop of Coventry and Archbishop of Canterbury at Coventry Cathedral 5 May 2018
Bishop of Coventry and Archbishop of Canterbury at Coventry Cathedral 5 May 2018

He has visited some of the most dangerous places in the world and put his own life at risk (incuding an occasion when he was kidnapped). Above all, throughout these three days, he has been inspiring, encouraging and uplifting.

During the event on Friday 4th May Justin answered questions from people in their 20s and 30s and the first event of the day at the Cathedral was a Q and A session with teenagers.

It is so difficult to pick out any one thing among all the things I’ve heard him say during those three days, but one answer struck me in particular on Saturday morning. He had been describing his travels in countries torn by brutal conflict, who are in desperate need of the reconciliation work for which Coventry’s Cross of Nails ministry is famous. He was asked, “What is the greatest spiritual threat you’ve ever faced?”

Motionhouse dancers at Coventy Cathedral 5 May 2018
Motionhouse dancers at Coventy Cathedral 5 May 2018

He replied, “Sometimes I have met bad people – deeply evil people. And I have found that often these people can also be deeply charming, delightful and interesting. The danger then is that you might find yourself sucked into a collusive relationship. That’s why you need to be in a team, to guard against that – to ensure compromise doesn’t go too far.”

He said risk is essential to reconciliation. And certainly he has often taken extreme risks in his own reconciliation work. He also said that sometimes he is overwhelmed by the sorrow of the situations he encounters. His wisest word on the subject of reconciliation work?   “You must start by reconciling yourself to God.”

Drama at Coventry Cathedral 5 May 2018
Drama at Coventry Cathedral 5 May 2018

 

A Diversity of Spiritual Outlooks Through Time at the British Museum in London

The Great Court, British Museum, London
The Great Court, British Museum, London

On Saturday 23rd December 2017  I went to see the exhibition “Living with Gods:  peoples, places and worlds beyond” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition curator Jill Cook had set out to show the development of religious symbols through physical objects which people in widely diverse cultures and historical periods have used to denote their relationships with a spiritual reality beyond nature.

 

The exhibition ranged from a 40,000 year old sculpture of a lion man, through a Buddhist wheel of life held in the claws of the god of death, via a Japanese Shinto household shrine, to a Soviet communist poster of an astronaut with a rather inane grin on his face floating in space and declaring “There is no God.” On the Buddhist wheel of life the artist had depicted instances of human and animal suffering and wickedness of all types, which I must confess reminded me of Dan Brown’s description of Dante’s Inferno…

I was also interested to learn that the image of the many-armed creator/destroyer god Lord Shiva is on display outside CERN in Switzerland, as a symbol of the atom.

However, inevitably much was missing from the exhibition. For instance, I found no reference to the aboriginal image of the Rainbow Serpent said to be one of earliest of religious symbols, in this case symbolising Creation. Neither did I find the spirituality of the North American Indians, nor the mystical system of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.

The whole tapestry and landscape of humankind’s attempts to build and sustain a relationship with spiritual reality beyond the observed world is so vast and complex, this exhibition inevitably could give just a small representative taste alongside a dispassionate commentary. In reality each religious outlook and philosophical system deserves its own special in-depth study in order to do anything like justice to it – and the curious investigator can find many books to help.

But one of the most moving parts of the exhibition for me was the display about the Japanese persecution of Christianity in the 17th century, during the time of the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, a story told in the brilliant novel Silence by Shusako Endo, upon which was based the 2016 film starring Andrew Garfield.

I remember the impact the book made on me, when those being persecuted were ordered to trample the fumi-e – a bronze plaque showing Christ on the cross. I found myself gazing in awe at an authentic  fumi-e and thought again of the powerful end to the novel Silence.

One of the most interesting things about that novel was the way it showed how Christianity may be introduced into what may seem an alien culture and how those within that culture may take on the Christian faith and understand it within their own cultural terms. I remember a scene in the novel where Japanese Christians were being tortured by being tied to stakes on a beach while the tide rolled in and out around them. They gained the stength to endure by continually singing, We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God.

If there is any lesson at all to be learned from an exhibition of this type, perhaps it is that we have the challenge ahead of us to communicate what we believe to be the truth, whilst also respecting other human beings and where they are in terms of their own worldview.

 

 

A Deep Spirituality and Wisdom That Touches the Heart, from Some of the World’s Greatest Mystics

Imagine you could step into the Monastery right now – perhaps like the one which we saw in the 2005 TV series, or even the one in this image – and move apart from all the frantic busyness and stress and tension of your life, and receive some deep wisdom from the heart of the mystics.Annaya Monastery

Yesterday I received something very similar at a Quiet Day in St Mark’s Church Leamington Spa where I heard three talks from Bishop John Stroyan, Bishop of Warwick – a man imbued in the literature of some of the world’s greatest mystics. Bishop John is someone who speaks in a lowkey way and yet treasures of spiritual wisdom emerge almost as asides.  There is no stridency, nothing is declaimed; but those listening cannot but be aware that he speaks of the true underlying structure which drives our behaviour, our motivation and our attitudes and the way we react to events and circumstances in our lives.

During his talk he referred to the Martin Luther Memorial Church in Berlin –  which he described as “the most shocking church” he had been into. Figures of Nazi soldiers and members of the Hitler Youth are interspersed with figures from the Nativity, and an Aryan family of the type Hitler wanted in his Master Race also adorn the church. In addition, a strong, muscular, Aryan Christ is seen on the cross. It’s one of  the hundred churches Hitler built, the only one that has survived, intentionally as a chilling reminder of how evil systems can recruit the Christian faith to their cause. Apparently, the Bishop said, both the Nazis and the apartheid regime used Christian clothing for their causes – making God in their images, recruiting Him to serve their agendas.

This is a very strong warning to us, as the Bishop said: “Beware of what we think we know.”

Some of the wisdom the Bishop shared with us included  the observation that “you’ve faced the darkness and come through it, and God will use that as a gift to help others who struggle.”

How often do we see that those who have suffered the most are in the best position to support and comfort those who now suffer in the same way?

He said that pearls are tears shed around grit that irritates the oyster. Some people, as we know, become hard and embittered and resentful around that grit in their lives.

But the Bishop spoke about the weaving of God’s good purposes through events in our lives that we would never choose to happen. “Crises can be the bearers of grace.”

Julian of Norwich said, “In falling and rising again we are always held close in one love.”

An image the Bishop likes to use in his talks is one taken from his life as a dog-lover. He may be taking his two dogs for a walk and when they get the smell of an exciting rabbit, they rush off away from him after the rabbit. He calls loudly for them to come back. They know his voice. And yet they practice what we all do:  “selective deafness”.

Another image comes from the bird world. The mother eagle puts sharp pointed uncomfortable things in the nest to make the eaglets fly..  Otherwise they would stay cosy in the nest. This is the only thing that makes them leave the nest, take wing and soar on the thermals.

Inspiration, Motivation and Keeping To The Path

On 7th September 2017 on the seventh day  of my Mystical Circles blog tour,Blog tour ad as at 26 August 2017 MJ Mallon published an article by me on her blog which has the wonderful title of  Kyrosmagica.

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts in which I re-publish the articles on that blog tour.

So with my thanks to Marje, here’s the article she first published on her blog on 7th September:

Inspiration, Motivation and Keeping to the Path

Being an author in today’s world is a much tougher journey than one might ever believe, when one first conceives the desire to write stories.

I was inspired at the age of seven by the adventure stories of Enid Blyton and wanted to write exciting stories like hers. Essentially my desire was to write about girls my own age doing thrilling and dangerous and intrepid things quite out of my own daily experience. I created two girls called Marilyn and Sylvia and wrote many stories about them. They were good, brave, beautiful, clever and talented, everything I wanted to be. In other words, the desire was for transformation.

And this is why I believe we read fiction. Our longing is to be transported from out of our own lives, our own minds, into the mind and heart of someone else, to enter into a different world, to be inside someone else’s skin, to share his or her joys and sorrow and hopes and dreams.

Listening to conversations and observing people and the interaction of their personalities has long fascinated me and is a large part of my desire to write. I wrote a detailed daily journal throughout my teens and twenties, which ran to many volumes, and in it I would often record conversations I had been a part of or had overheard, and observations about people I knew, including family relationships.

The changes in the publishing scene over the past couple of decades have held out a seductive allure to independent authors, offering power and autonomy. Yet the snares along the path are even greater. We have all these opportunities, but also there are many people pursuing the same dream, and recording their success and offering their advice on social media. This can prove overwhelming for sensitive, introverted creative people – which is the case with many writers.

So it can prove a lifeline when we find inspiring quotes to strengthen and uplift us. Here’s one, from St Paul: But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize. And he also encouraged his readers with these words: Only let us live up to all we have attained.

Knowing that others have struggled for years and eventually, with persistence, won through, is a very helpful reminder for us when we start to doubt the value of our past achievements and allow it to weaken our faith in what we are capable of achieving in the future. My non-fiction book Perilous Path, an inspirational writers’ guide, contains several chapters which help authors to overcome obstacles in their path, and suggest how to use art and music as therapy as well as a source of fresh inspiration.

So, finally, what makes us carry on? We need to draw the water of inspiration and motivation from a reliable well. I found one particular saying of Sir Winston Churchill very powerful. When invited to speak to an audience of school pupils, who were all waiting to hear wise words from the great man, he said, I only have five words to give you. Never, never, never give up.

 

SC Skillman Author photo WEB

SC SKILLMAN AUTHOR
I was born and brought up in Orpington, near south London. As a child I was inspired by Enid Blyton. I started writing adventure stories at the age of seven; the love of writing that her stories first instilled into me has strengthened over the years.

I studied English Literature at Lancaster University, and my first permanent job was as a production secretary with the BBC. Later I lived for nearly five years in Australia before returning to live in the UK. I now live in Warwickshire with my husband David, son Jamie and daughter Abigail. Nearby are three of England’s most famous destinations: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon Avon and the two great castles at Kenilworth and Warwick.

My two thriller suspense novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit are set in the beautiful Cotswolds hills, not far from my present home. I’ve also written Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, a book of encouraging advice, tips and reminders for authors.

I am currently working on the second draft of my new novel, Director’s Cut. I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction of different complex personalities, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for a writer!

And my advice to anyone who wants to be a writer? Read a lot, listen to people’s conversations, be observant about the details of your world, and especially about human behaviour and interaction, and persist in your writing, being single-minded to the point of obsession… never give up, always believe in yourself despite all evidence to the contrary, and hold out for what you first dreamed of.

 

 

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?

 

The Laborious Art of Book Writing

I love this post by Lucy Mills and it echoes my own thoughts about the process of writing a book. Lucy is writing an inspirational book, not a novel, but she describes an experience common to all those who throw themselves heart and soul into writing a full-length work for publication. Lucy refers to the revision process; but I can testify that even getting that first draft written presents the same challenges. It can be compared to an artist, covering the canvas before they can begin to work on the details. Do read and comment on Lucy’s post.

Lucy Mills

“Reading through…I think it’s OK…so hard to tell when have seen it so much…but it might be OK, after all…If I can fix a few things and fill a few holes, I might even be pleased, in the end…”

I wrote those words on a recent Instagram post.

I’m still writing the book, balancing it with other editing work, which is proving an exercise in drawing lines, even more so than I already do.  Deadlines do have a tendency to congregate and with every new demand in my editing job, I have to take a deep breath and not panic.

Panic is the worst thing for creativity, for me, at least.

Undivided Heart is developing its personality and it won’t be taken lightly, taking me into deep questions of identity and meaning. I only hope it manages to balance the ‘depth’ with readability.  I continue to plug away at it…

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Rummaging For Reality at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick

Here I am, a psychological suspense writer,  at a conference for psychotherapists, healers, counsellors and creative people – and together with them  I am rummaging for reality.

This is  very brief post in a spare hour before I go off to a workshop this afternoon. But already I feel I am working my way towards a new clarity and insight both into this life and into my new novel.  One came this morning. It was very simple: only these words: “We are exploring different parts of the same reality at different stages of our lives.”

A few days before coming on this conference I was doing some of my own rummaging, through a file of newspaper clips which I’ve kept for about 3 decades now – just to see what jumped out at me in my current situation, a new work-in-progress before me.

 

And it was an article from the Sunday Times 10/5/92 written by the novelist Wendy Perriam called ‘Heaven Can Wait’. It was subtitled Do bad Catholics make good writers? And considered the fact that many great writers – e.g. Greene, Joyce, Spark, Waugh, O’Brien and Lodge – either lapsed, or struggling with their faith, poured out words as once they poured out prayers.

In this article Wendy Perriam says many things which touch me profoundly, despite the fact that I am not a Catholic, present or lapsed. I’ll quote just one point here, which I resonate with, and which shone out at me from my ‘rummaging’:

 

‘A sense of religion does give a depth and resonance to fiction, and if our characters have immortal souls, they’re surely more important, more valuable to their creator, than if they’re regarded as mere accumulations of vibrating molecules.’

Hopefully I may have some more insights from my rummaging to share with you in next week’s post!