Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Art of Ai Weiwei and Edith Cavell

High in the Troödos Montains on the beautiful island of Cyprus nestles the Kykkos monastery. The monastery is famous because the first President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III started his ecclesiastical career there as a monk in 1926, and his tomb lies reasonably close by.

But the other reason that the monastery is famous is because it is custodian of an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The icon is rarely looked at, and the majority of the time it is hidden away behind a solid silver covering which in turn is an accurate representation (it is said) of what lies beneath.  The icon is worth a mention today because tradition says was written by St Luke.

St Luke, who many know as a doctor from what little we know of him in the New Testament, tradition says was also the first icon writer. In both what he wrote in the Gospel that bears his name and his second book, Acts, and in the icons he traditionally has attributed to him, Luke’s purpose is clearly to paint picture of what God has done in and through Jesus.

Art is a very subjective thing. Many of us like this or that picture because it is beautiful, but for many of the greatest artists, art is not about beauty but about stirring something within us, eliciting a response, drawing us into a conversation about ourselves, our culture, our world and it’s values. I was at the Royal Academy of Friday to see the Ai Weiwei exhibition there. One piece, simply called ‘Straight’ commemorates an earthquake in his native China where 5000 women, men and children all died because of the flimsy nature of many buildings. The artwork is a 90 tonne carpet of steel rods of varying heights made of the buildings that were destroyed plus the names of the dead written in Cantonese on large panels. Some might argue that it’s not traditionally beautiful, but it is deeply moving and even though steel is strong, it reminds us of life’s fragility.


Jesus said, ‘…Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you…’ Since His birth, the ministry of Jesus has been about bringing the authority, power, presence and love of God near to the unlikely and to the often supposedly undeserving, and seeing lives transformed, reordered, and healed.  But what is clear from what we hear this morning - that task was never destined to be his alone, but something he called others to share in too.

Last week the church and our nation remembered the life of Edith Cavell a British nurse and committed Anglican Christian, who during WW1 helped care for both German and Allied casualties alike, but who was ultimately shot for aiding nearly 200 Allied troops to escape occupied Belgium. She understood the duel call in this morning’s Gospel to heal the sick but also to see the nearness of the kingdom of God to all when she said, ‘…Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone…’ - a rejection of patriotic hatred which so often can fuel war, instead her compassionate faith shining through.  She was given a State funeral and was subsequently buried outside Norwich Cathedral in 1919.

As we remember St Luke today, and seek healing in our own lives, how do we share that which we have received with others and our wider community?  How are we to record, write and paint the life of Christ in our own lives so that others, as Luke says, ‘… may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed…’?

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Stop. Look. Listen.

So I am away on retreat. In my head at least these days are supposed to full of stillness, holiness and engagement with Scripture. In reality, my experience over the last couple of days is that that couldn't be further from the truth.

One of my friends posted on Twitter that they thought I was at a spa. In fairness I am surrounded by beautiful countryside, there is a jacuzzi on site and I did have a massage and I have been filled with an array of homegrown and home cooked produce. But there is no champagne or spray tan in sight.

I am at a Christian retreat centre - there is opportunity to pray should I wish to several times a day. I have been invited to partake in workshops on focussing and dreams, using words and simple massage, and I have had 1:1 sessions with a member of the community.

I have largely avoided prayer so far. My life is bounded by the rhythm and formality of it every day. I came, in these days, minded just to be. To see how it felt to opt out, to take a back seat, to slowly disappear. This is quite a novelty. Taking a back seat and disappearing are not phrases in the ordinal used to describe both the deaconal and priestly ministry I have been called to. But I came to retreat from it all. And it feels weird, and I feel guilty. I should be praying shouldn't I! Shouldn't it?

Instead I have eaten and been satisfied, walked in the verdant countryside, listened to the drama of the rain, and watched the best part of a whole TV series. I have engaged in conversation sparingly and lightly. But I haven't slept well or found any sense of peace. In fact the opposite - I feel anxious.

Is the anxiety me unhappy about my time wisdom whilst here thus far? Have I used this gift well? Or is there something more? The experienced retreatant would suggest that perhaps this me settling into new rhythms and letting go whilst I am here and that I will feel better tomorrow.

But I just don't know.

I came with some questions to ask myself and to ask God whilst was here and it is these that, reflecting on them, that are causing my sense of uncertainty and unease. They are 'where', 'when', 'who' and 'how' type questions. They don't just affect me but others. Like so many questions' answers - their impact will ripple across lives, communities and time. That makes these questions sound very dramatic and quite final. In a way they are and in many ways they aren't. I just could do with some peace to try to listen to the questions and to listen to myself and to God in seeking the answers.

I've walked. Just me and the countryside. I've realised a few things as I traversed twinkling streams and passed velvet moss covered trees - all this around me was here before I arrived and will be here after I leave. What impact will my presence here make? How will things flourish (or not) because of my feet and the route I have chosen to take? I am just part of the landscape today and the next day. I'm just passing through.

Similarly, life at home goes on without me - school runs, meals, homework but also life in the parish. Am I just passing through those landscapes too? What footprint am I leaving? What impact is my presence, and the presence of God, making?

I have realised though that my anxiety is probably centred in the realisation that, whilst disappearing is perhaps desirable, I have left a footprint where I have been - on lives, loves and communities - to which  I am accountable and for which I am responsible. Disappearing is all too easy in a way - slipping out, letting go of responsibilities, walking away.

The other source of my anxiety is reflected in my walking whilst here. When I arrived in my current post I had clear ideas and a very definite direction of travel, but now a few years in, we have travelled well and made good time and distance but I'm not sure where we are to go next. This may seem to be an odd thing for a church leader to admit, but I don't. I haven't lost the plot or stopped believing in God or any of that sort of stuff. But from here, I can't see the road and I do not know where the next path is. This is made all the more hard when people are looking to you to provide that lead - well you are the Vicar after all...

Seeking new direction and fresh vision is hard. It's something I'm constantly striving to do & some time was spent with others discerning some of that last weekend. Consciously putting stuff down is hard. This is something that I have not done yet whilst I am have been away yet.

Holding on to much, especially parish based stuff, I think is part of what's made me anxious. It's the emotional residue of a costly few weeks, months and years. I need to consciously place all of it - people and places - into the hands of God.

So how am I going to live differently after I return from this week? I have loved the silence and solitude I have created whilst here. I walked locally today in a copse - there were no others people there, just trees & foliage, wildlife and me. As I walked I became aware of myself and of how I was feeling. That self awareness in that landscape where I had to concentrate on my footsteps for my own safety, led me ultimately to prayer which was simultaneously a gift and a surprise. 'You should not be surprised by this! Prayer is not a new thing for you!' I hear you cry. And indeed it's not. What was new though was the context and how it welled up in me as a response to my inner and outer landscapes. I need to make more opportunities to self-reflect like that.

I also need to make time to meet me and my spiritual director. Meeting me will be allowing time to recreate - music and art especially do need to feature more often. They are life affirming for me. As I journey on, I need also to sit and talk and listen with my spiritual director more as I discern paths.

All of this means that there is less time to 'do'. But in so doing, maybe I will discover more about how to be, to be me, and to me with thee under God.