Sunday, 24 April 2011

Surrexit! Happy Easter!

Firstly, happy Easter to the followers of our blog. I trust the Triduum has been a richly blessed one for all of you.
I ended up seated right beneath the statue of the Sacred Heart for the Easter Vigil, not be design, and I did smile. It was a bit like the mosaic in Sacre Coeur. A nice touch.

I venture back to Palestine and Jordan tomorrow, first for the next course for the Bethlehem Icon School, and secondly to return to Anjara in northern Jordan to complete the Mysteries of Light. There are still places on the Icon School course, which runs from Friday to Friday, and I had a booking only yesterday! So if you feel an urge, then feel free to take it! I will blog about the adventures and the developments in Anjara, at David's request. Any comments, positive or otherwise about that, would be welcome. It does take a bit of time and so if it really isn't interesting or irritating, then it would be good to know.

There will be an exhibition of some photos and texts showing my work in Palestine, together with some of my icons, at the Catholic Church of Mary Immaculate, Ewell Rd, Tolworth, in south London from June 6th - 16th.

There will be a day icon workshop in Christ Church, Cheltenham on Saturday 18th, cost £35.

More details later but for those interested I thought I should post these events immediately.

Easter Day

In 1955 Teilhard was living in exile in New York. He was 73 years old and, as Mary and Ellen Lukas (Teilhard, : A biography, 1977) recount, by the April of that year he was becoming ‘ unusually restless’ and yearning for some kind of affirmation of his life’s work.

If only, he remarked to several people, God would put some seal of approbation on his life, even though he himself would never live to see his work published. How splendid if, for instance , he should die on Good Friday..or better still, on Easter Day. (Lukas and Lukas, 324)

On Easter day, ( April 10th ) 1955 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Easter Saturday

Ian and I met up for a chat over tea at the National Gallery yesterday, Good Friday morning. We had much to say to one another and as we explored ideas it became apparent what a challenge this commission is - for both of us. But I think we left to go to our respective services in different parts of London with the feeling that things are becoming clearer. The words of Benedict on both Teilhard and on icons was, we agreed a great help. We exchanged Easter cards. I gave Ian a few of the cards which I have had produced which tries to show what the card on Teilhard's desk might have looked like. (GO HERE) In return for my computer generated example of mass produced art (!!) Ian presented me with a beautiful Easter Card which he has drawn especially for this Easter. I have taken the liberty of putting it up on the blog. My family were very moved by it, and it now has pride of place in our home. Thank you Ian. We will light a candle at the Easter vigil for you - by the statue of the Sacred Heart, of course. Have a safe journey back to the Holy Land.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Mass and Art

David’s last post is most interesting, not least because it takes us back to some of the earliest posts. This response, or continuum of the dialogue, is written now after the Liturgy of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday night.

The Holy Father has some very interesting observations, and important points indicating the areas of concern in the situation of contemporary Christian art. Tellingly he identifies a lack of reception of the last of the great ecumenical councils by the Latin West, the council that treated the subject of images. The sweep of all of this is vast, and reflections on it could go on for pages.

I raised my eyebrows when he discussed the situation facing us in the contemporary use of imagery, in particular the predominance of the photographic image as definitive of ‘reality’ and the vacuum at the heart of much modern art. Both these point I took up last week in the lecture I gave at the start of the Cheltenham Exhibition. I have a video of the lecture, and will hope to have it posted to the blog so readers can take a look.

The ubiquity of photographic imagery in newspapers, magazines, online photo albums, on TV and in film has swamped our sensibilities about what is ‘real’ with not just the external, but with a dislocated moment and single viewpoint. If it looks like a frozen moment in time, a moment’s glance preserved in arsenic, it is presumed as ‘real’. But isn’t that naively superficial? Take a cup. If I photograph it I might not show its handle, or its base, or its interior. All of these aspects conspire to express its ‘cupness’. A photograph nudges me to remember those times I have held a cup, but it is a very brief, emasculated impression that in many ways does not itself touch into the cup’s essence.

Three points further about this. Firstly, the process towards ‘naturalism’ pre-dates the era of photography, and is rooted in the movement in the late Middle Ages away from the iconographic system of artistic representation. This movement, inspired I suspect by the Franciscan spirituality of identification with the material poverty of Jesus, for example in the ‘realism’ of the Christmas Crib, focused less on the reality of spiritual glory and more on what ‘we’ could directly identify with. Saints and the events of Christ’s life were increasingly moved into the natural sphere, with a vanishing point, a horizon, and the sense of looking through a window into a scene. In classic Christian art, in iconography, the reality is that we meet God in the icon, encounter Him as Living Truth, and everything in the image conspires to make us aware of this. But the later medieval movement made God the subject of our looking, thinking, feeling. This was further developed after the Black Death and the development of the sense of Christ suffering in His death like us. North European art in particular depicts Christ crucified with foul wounds, deep, bloodied lacerations and a contorted, dismembered body. The reality is the physical one. That Christ reigns from a heart at peace with God and filled with love for humanity, that transcends the physical reality of brutal suffering is lost.

Secondly, the ultimate expression of a photographic culture is celebrity, where manipulation of images via computer etc enables the publisher of images to manipulate perceptions so as to promote particular individuals and to demote others. Style, fashion, your weight etc all become dominant in our perception of ourselves and of our neighbour, and honour is given to those who are most caught on the camera. It is a culture of paparazzi, and the superficiality of celebrity culture. They are all of a piece.

Thirdly, the development of modern art was in many ways an attempt to move beyond the superficiality of naturalism, of the photograph as reality, and an attempt to look deeper. That we had a fragmenting, disbelieving culture emaciated the process so that instead of the spiritual beauty of humanity and indeed of creation, we find a primordial scream, a dismembering of the human figure and the brutalisation of creation. A genius such as Picasso wrestles simply with the void in humanity, the void which consumes creation in war, violence and dislocation for which the cubist movement gives ample expression. This is art which was born through the violence of international conflict and the carnage of industrialised warfare which burst upon the world in the first world war. Thus I would temper the Pope’s negative sideswipe at the movements of modern art with a sincere appreciation of their frustration with the naturalism they had be born into and a desire to find something deeper in reality with which to express in their art.

Some forms of this are positive explorations of reality as a whole. In particular I would highlight impressionism with its delight in light, colour and the appreciation of at least the flexibility of the exterior form. Light too has a divine quality; as the Pope reminds us later iconography, particularly inspired by hesychast movement, understands iconography as the art of the Light of Tabor. Certainly the impressionists’ fascination is with reflected light, but they also, I believe, explore luminosity.Nor should we forget the predominance of mosaic as the medium of choice during much of the Byzantine centuries, where and impression of image and light is not so far from the methods of impressionism.  I am no expert in this area but that at least is my perception. It is therefore an artistic movement resonant with Christian culture, and inspired by theology and grounded back into the fullness of the Christian artistic tradition could, conceivably, have much to offer that is as yet unexplored.

The deviance in the Latin Church of the West from the sense of art as the visualisation of the ultimate realities of the spiritual world to an art that appealed to the emotions, to sentiment among the observers, gave rise to a very different form of Christian religious art: devotional art. In time this displaced all other forms and came to dominate not just private homes but the public places of worship too. This was unfortunate as it individualised Christian art, focusing the viewer back into himself and fragmented the Body of Christ as a consciously corporate entity. It is just a thought, but maybe this lay the first steps towards the over-emphasised individualism of the Renaissance and beyond? Certainly art becomes less about the realities being portrayed and more about the skills of the artist, and brilliance accorded to those most able at expressing the richness of textiles, the flesh, and scenery perceived against a horizon – in other words the ability to capture a snapshot of what the eyes perceives externally. Religious themes were simply the excuse for an artist to show off his skills at capturing what the eye glimpsed of physical reality in a moment, or to glorify some very wealthy and worldly patron, be that merchant, doge or pope.

All of this invaded the public space of prayer, displacing liturgical art and individualising prayer as primarily devotion. The contrast between the very corporate – and I would say masculine – liturgy of the eastern churches with the very individualised and devotional – and I would say feminised – Mass of the western church is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the understanding and execution of sacred art. This takes us back to the early posts of January,  and you can see this in the icon of the Holy Prophet Elijah and the statue of St Teresa in ecstasy. The root cause of this I think the Pope has identified for us: the lack of an authentic reception of the Christian theology of the image, the reception of the last of the great ecumenical councils which brought the iconoclastic controversy to a close in the 9th century.

Sadly I guess few priests even know about this council, let alone have interiorised its teachings. The building, decoration and use of liturgical space is thus poorly understood not just by individuals but by the Latin community as a whole. While the West has had as a result a greater freedom to explore art, and the achievements of artistic endeavour in the West are magnificent technically speaking, nevertheless this theological poverty left the theological achievements of Latin art sorely lacking and prey to the degradation we have witnessed as secular culture has emasculated the arts from any spiritual perception, including  the profundity of Christian anthropology. This lack of sincere reception of the teachings of this council also left the Western church more open to the ravages of modernity after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The progressive theology of liturgy paid little or scant regard to the renewal of sacred art, often being little more than desecration and sacrilege. Sacred art was hacked out, sawn up, thrown out with the rubbish, left to rot, neglected, mocked. In its place we have had rather uninspiring symbolism at best, sometimes reasonable pieces of secular art with religious themes, but more often than not banal, sentimental, visually offensive rubbish. It is all so superficial, deeply meaningful in the most transient of ways, and lacking in inspiration either in its creation or perception. In this way we have become victims of our theological mediocrity.

Moving back to the church of the Sacred Heart in Naur, there was a statue there of the Sacred Heart. It was large, and intensely ugly, offensive. Mass produced statuary is hardly pushing out the artistic boat, but at least it can make art available to poor communities. But when it is painted in garish colours and in enamel paint, where the features of the Saviour’s Face are crudely done to the point that he looks as though he is not actually human, it is blasphemous. Yet that is what Catholics are too often used to, and many remain sentimentally attached to such statues. Christ’s Face must be beautiful, because He is truly beautiful not exteriorly but as the One true God, who is all perfection and truth, and so anything that is not at least physically beautiful and decently made is not worthy to be placed in the church. Weaning people off all of this is hard to do when the priests and catechists have no real understanding of the theology of the image and its profound place in the liturgy and the public place of worship.

Of course some very poor images and statues have a value of their own, through miracles or a continuum of devotion. Their beauty lies in the way in which they embody the Spirit in extraordinary ways. But as a norm, we should expect a certain basic level of beauty easily beheld in most people’s eyes.

Reflecting on a visit I made to another church in Jordan, I remember a very clean and nicely decorated sanctuary but which looked a bit too much like a plush sitting room in a wealthy man’s palace, and where the very good parish sister had set up a colourful display ‘for the children’ right around the altar. While it was tasteful, it reduced the altar and the sanctuary to the role of a stage. It was devotional, and emotionally appealing because it had some of the children’s work in it, but it wasn’t liturgical! It obscured the altar, and the standard of work was not good enough for the sacred realities which were celebrated there.  I suggested, after some explanation, that a much better place for such good displays was by the statue of the Virgin Mary, an area set apart for personal devotion.
Having said all of this, I do believe that the development of devotional art is not a bad thing in itself, but that its role is to compliment, not displace, liturgical art. Interestingly, eastern iconography has often included more devotional aspects, and purists describe such icons as debased. But the general faithful have a great love for these pieces, where the Byzantine norms are supplemented by more gentle, realistic faces. Interestingly, the iconography of late Medieval Russia, which evolved at the same time as devotional art emerged in the Latin West, went to the opposite extreme. It reduced the image to almost mere lines and muted colours, erasing almost all depth, shadow and facial detail. It became an extreme ascetic art to the same measure that devotional art became focused on Christ’s tangible humanity. Both brought great gifts of beauty to the Church, be that St Andre Rublev or the saint ‘Fra Angelico’.  In a reunified Christendom the heritage of both should hopefully find a renewed and renewing place.

On the road to Nineveh

A while back Nikki made a comment on Jonah (April 1st, 2011) which has been rolling around my head. As Nikki notes, in the Gospel of Mathew Jonah is mentioned as pre-figuring the resurrection of Jesus. So an icon of Jonah may be read as the Easter story. I must confess that the story has not meant very much to me, but prompted by Nikki’s comments I have spent some time exploring the story and its iconic representations. All very interesting stuff, but nothing really struck me. And then, as I awoke this morning I thought of Jonah. At first I recalled that, as child, I was very fond of the character ‘Jonah’ in the Beano comic. He was a sailor who, in every episode, ended up being responsible for sinking a ship – or ships. But then I realized that I have been a ‘bit of a Jonah’ myself. By that I do not mean I am a walking disaster area, but that, like Jonah, my life has so often been about running away to Tarshish. I have had a tendency to get on that boat to Tarshish whenever I had a feeling that God was asking me to go to anywhere near Ninevah. 'Sailing to Tarshish' could be the story of my life! And I could run, but of course, I knew that I could not hide. And then, from the deepest and darkest of places a diseased whale surfaced and swallowed me whole. Once inside that beast there was no escape: no ship to Tarshish. And it was in the belly of that illness that I, like Jonah, ‘sank into the underworld’ of my self and truly began to understand the depths of my own foolishness. I realized that my days of running were over: and in due course the whale vomited me up on dry land. I think my journey to the Sacred Heart -that I am making this year - is the trip to Nineveh I was always reluctant to make, even though I have been called to go many times. And for that reason this Easter – on the road to Nineveh - will be the most important Easter of my life. I gather than Tarshish is terribly over-rated anyway. Perhaps Ryan Air do a cheap flight?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Benedict, Teilhard and 'The question of images'

Following on from my blog about not being able to go to Ian’s event in Cheltenham, I set myself the task this Holy Week to reflect more on the icon as a form of sacred art. To that end I have been reading a number of books, one of which is Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. I have been meaning to read this for some time, and I thought it was appropriate given what has emerged thus far. When I opened it up the first thing I read was, remarkably, his thoughts on Teilhard. He says this in chapter two in relation to liturgy and the cosmos.

And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same – divinization, a world of freedom ad love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building , a stationary container in which history by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history…against the background of the modern evolutionary world view, Teilhard de Chardin depicted the cosmos as a process of ascent, a series of unions. From the very simple beginnings the path leads to ever greater and more complex unities, in which multiplicity is not abolished but merged into a growing synthesis, leading to the ‘Noosphere’, in which spirit and its understanding embrace the whole and are blended into a kind of living organism. Invoking the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, Teilhard looks on Christ as the energy that strives towards the Noosphere and finally incorporates everything in its ‘fullness’. From here Teilhard went to give a new meaning to Christian worship: the transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the Christological ‘fullness’. In his view, the Eucharist provides the movement of the cosmos with its direction: it anticipates its goal and at the same time urges it on. (pp 28-9)

I think that when reflecting on an icon of the Sacred Heart as 'Christ Omega', in Teilhard’s sense, we should not stray too far from this precise summary of Teilhard’s ideas by His Holiness. With this in mind I went on to read what Benedict has to say about ‘The Question of Images’. As with the rest of the book I found this chapter fascinating and profound. As this blog has progressed over the months I have realized that the ‘question of images’ is not a marginal question at all. Images are absolutely central to the formation of a religious and spiritual life. Benedict argues that the ‘true theology of icons’ has ‘bequeathed us a message that has profound relevance to us today in the iconographic crisis of the West.’ (p120) So, perhaps that is what this blog is charting : puzzling about an aspect of an ‘iconographic crisis’? That sounds right to me. Benedict goes on to say some important words on the role of icons:

In the icon it is not the facial features that count …. No, what matters is the new kind of seeing. The icon is supposed to originate from an opening up of the inner senses, from a facilitation of sight that gets beyond the surface of the empirical and perceives Christ, as the later theology of icons puts it, in the light of Tabor. It thus leads the man who contemplates it to the point where, through the interior vision that the icon embodies, he beholds in the sensible that which, though above the sensible, has entered into the sphere of the senses. As Evdokimov says so beautifully, the icon requires a "fast from the eyes". Icon painters, he says, must learn how to fast with their eyes and prepare themselves by a long path of prayerful asceticism. This is what marks the transition from art to sacred art. The icon comes from prayer and leads to prayer. It delivers a man from that closure of the senses that perceives only the externals, the material surface of things, and is blind to the transparency of the spirit, the transparency of the Logos. At the most fundamental level, what we are dealing with here is nothing other than the transcendence of faith. The whole problem of knowledge in the modern world is present. If an interior opening-up does not occur in man that enables him to see more than what can be measured and weighed, to perceive the reflection of divine glory in creation, then God remains excluded from our field of vision. The icon, rightly understood, leads us away from false questions about portraits, portraits comprehensible at the level of the senses, and thus enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in Him, of the Father. Thus in the icon we find the same spiritual orientations that we discovered when emphasizing the eastward direction of the liturgy. The icon is intended to draw us onto an inner path, the eastward path, toward the Christ who is to return. pp 121-2

Sacred art must therefore have a major place in the liturgy. And yet, this ‘new kind of seeing’ is not being fostered by ‘kitsch and unworthy art’. We are it seems in something of an artistic ‘void’. And to that I say, absolutely. Hence this exploration of one of the most Catholic of all images , the Sacred Heart. If we are to renew and refresh our devotion to the Sacred Heart, then we have to confront the ‘iconographic crisis’ which is identified by Benedict. I really believe that is what this icon project is about: promoting a new way of seeing the meaning of the Sacred Heart.

Benedict continues.

Where do we go from here? Today we are experiencing not just a crisis of sacred art, but a crisis of art in general of unprecedented proportions. The crisis of art for its part is a symptom of the crisis of man's very existence. The immense growth in man's mastery of the material world has left him blind to the questions of life's meaning that transcend the material world. We might almost call it a blindness of the spirit. The questions of how we ought to live, how we can overcome death, whether existence has a purpose and what it is -- to all these questions there is no longer a common answer. Positivism, formulated in the name of scientific seriousness, narrows the horizon to what is verifiable, to what can be proved by experiment; it renders the world opaque. True, it still contains mathematics, but the logos that is the presupposition of the mathematics and its applicability is no longer evident. Thus our world of images no longer surpasses the bounds of sense and appearance, and the flood of images that surrounds us really means the end of the image.
If something cannot be photographed, it cannot be seen. In this situation, the art of the icon, sacred art, depending as it does on a wider kind of seeing, becomes impossible. What is more, art itself, which in impressionism and expressionism explored the extreme possibilities of the sense of sight, becomes literally object-less. Art turns into experimenting with self-created worlds, empty "creativity", which no longer perceives the Creator Spiritus, the Creator Spirit. It attempts to take his place, and yet, in so doing, it manages to produce only what is arbitrary and vacuous, bringing home to man the absurdity of his role as creator. pp 130-1

He then sets out ‘the fundamental principles of an art ordered to divine worship’. These principles have, I believe, an immense importance for this project:

1. The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to Him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. … Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.
2. Sacred art finds its subjects in the images of salvation history, beginning with creation and continuing all the way from the first day to the eighth day, the day of the resurrection and Second Coming, in which the line of human history will come full circle.….
3. The images of the history of God in relation to man do not merely illustrate the succession of past events but display the inner unity of God's action. In this way they have a reference to the sacraments, above all, to Baptism and the Eucharist, and, in pointing to the sacraments, they are contained within them.
Images thus point to a presence; they are essentially connected with what happens in the Liturgy. Now history becomes sacrament in Christ, who is the source of the Sacraments. Therefore, the icon of Christ is the center of sacred iconography. The center of the icon of Christ is the Paschal Mystery: Christ is presented as the Crucified, the risen Lord, the One who will come again and who here and now, though hidden, reigns over all.
Every image of Christ must contain these three essential aspects of the mystery of Christ and, in this sense, must be an image of Easter. At the same time, it goes without saying that different emphases are possible. The image may give more prominence to the Cross, the Passion, and in the Passion to the anguish of our own life today, or again it may bring the Resurrection or the Second Coming to the fore. But whatever happens, one aspect can never be completely isolated from another, and in the different emphases the Paschal Mystery as a whole must be plainly evident. An image of the Crucifixion no longer transparent to Easter would be just as deficient as an Easter image forgetful of the wounds and the suffering of the present moment. And, centered as it is on the Paschal Mystery, the image of Christ is always an icon of the Eucharist, that is it points to the sacramental presence of the Easter Mystery.
4. The image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs. Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible. The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision. It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the risen Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord. The image is at the service of the Liturgy. The prayer and contemplation in which the images are formed must, therefore, be a praying and seeing undertaken in communion with the seeing faith of the Church. The ecclesial dimension is essential to sacred art and thus has an essential connection with the history of the faith, with Scripture and Tradition.
5. The Church in the West does not need to disown the specific path she has followed since about the thirteenth century. But she must achieve a real reception of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, which affirmed the fundamental importance and theological status of the image in the Church. The Western Church does not need to subject herself to all the individual norms concerning images that were developed at the councils and synods of the East…Nevertheless, she should regard the fundamental lines of this theology of the image in the Church as normative for her. There must, of course, be no rigid norms. Freshly received intuitions and the ever-new experiences of piety must find a place in the Church. But still there is a difference between sacred art (which is related to the liturgy and belongs to the ecclesial sphere) and religious art in general. There cannot be completely free expression in sacred art. Forms of art that deny the logos of things and imprison man within what appears to the senses are incompatible with the Church's understanding of the image. No sacred art can come from an isolated subjectivity. No, it presupposes that there is a subject who has been inwardly formed by the Church and opened up to the "we". Only thus does art make the Church's common faith visible and speak again to the believing heart. The freedom of art, which is also necessary in the more narrowly circumscribed realm of sacred art, is not a matter of do-as-you-please. It unfolds according to the measure indicated by the first four points in these concluding reflections, which are an attempt to sum up what is constant in the iconographic tradition of faith. Without faith there is no art commensurate with the liturgy. ….
But what does all this mean practically? Art cannot be "produced", as one contracts out and produces technical equipment. It is always a gift. Inspiration is not something one can choose for oneself. It has to be received, otherwise it is not there. One cannot bring about a renewal of art in faith by money or through commissions. Before all things it requires the gift of a new kind of seeing. And so it would be worth our while to regain a faith that sees. Wherever that exists, art finds its proper expressions. pp 131- 135

It is fitting that I have read these words in Holy Week. Benedict’s book has served to clarify much of what has happened thus far. It provides a good deal of food for thought. This week we must keep in mind what Benedict says: 'Every image of Christ .. must be an image of Easter.' The Sacred Heart is an icon of Lent. But above all, as Teilhard believed, Christ Omega is an icon of Easter.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Trust in the slow work of God

I have blogged about this before, (Wise words for us all: 2/18/11) but the more I reflect on the processes involved in writing an icon, the more do I return to a very famous quote from Teilhard – it is usually written out as a poem. (Above all trust in the slow work of God.) Of course this is NOT a poem, and I eventually tracked down his actual words to The Making of Mind: letters of a soldier priest 1914-19. These letters were written to his cousin, Marguerite Teillard-Chambon. (Left) His reflections on trusting in the slow work of God are contained in a letter from Zuydcoote, ( in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais) 4th July, 1915. He is replying to her letter in which she talks about the difficulties of ‘ living in the world as though not being of the world.’ And this is what he has to say.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that may take a very long time. Thus, we have been a whole years’s suspense, not knowing what the future holds for civilization. And so it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually – let them grow, let them shape themselves without due haste. Don’t try to ‘force’ them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you surely through the obscurity and ‘becoming’, and accept, for love of him, the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

In the ‘poem’ that is in circulation the text is messed up and bits added, which are not Teilhard at all! What Teilhard is saying here is so important: if we accept that evolution is indeed part of God’s design, and that the Sacred Heart is the end or focal point ( the Omega) of evolution, then when we pray ‘ O Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in you.’, we are expressing a faith in the slow work of God in the Cosmos and in US! Teilhard is saying that we have to trust in the evolutionary processes in our own lives, and in the direction of evolution of creation itself. Ian is the expert on this, of course, but it seems to me that an icon is very much an example of trusting in the slow work of God.

(Teilhard continues:

ways of living can be sanctified, and for each for individual the ideal way is that which our Lord leads him through the natural development of his tastes and the pressure of circumstances… begin by devoting yourself to the fulfillment of the task, often thankless, assigned to you by God. He himself will help you, he will give you..the firm base you need to work from. Allow yourself to be formed by God…)

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

On not being in Cheltenham

I confess I am rather envious of those people who will have been able to learn about icons with Ian down there in Cheltenham. I just wish I could get there, but alas, no. Instead I have taken time to read some of Ian’s writings. In this blog I just quote from a piece which can be read in full HERE I take so much from this piece and would encourage others to read it. Just a few thoughts : the idea that an icon requires the iconographer to interiorise a tradition and explore this tradition in a life of prayer and faith. It is a process which takes time. The iconographer has to take time to get into a living, ‘organic’ relationship with the subject. The resulting opus is a struggle to realize this interior spiritual process in terms of a visual image. I think that exploring my thoughts and feelings on the Sacred Heart in terms of an icon has also enabled me to go through a kind of parallel process involving a cultivation of silence and openness, but also at the same time a process of ‘hard graft , learning and sacrifice.’ And, related to this, is a sense of the importance of liturgical art in what Ian refers to ‘redeeming’ a culture so dominated by the ‘throw away’ mentality. I suppose what I take from this is that although we are a very visual culture – and especially so in the case of young people whose lives are intensely visual – we do not take enough time to reflect on the religious and other images that are all around us. Reflecting on an iconic representation of the Sacred Heart has I think enabled me to think and pray in a different way. Not sure what that means yet, but I have a sense that I am getting somewhere. Anyway , enough of me: a few extracts from Ian’s piece:

[a].. Tradition is not a simple matter of rules that can be written down and learnt, but something dynamic, even organic, a living entity of the Spirit which becomes embodied at various times, places and situations....And for iconographers that Tradition is not a code to be learnt by heart, a set of rules and regulations, but something which can only be interiorised over time and with dedication, as a living part of the life of faith, an attentive silence of the Word to be heard in the interior place of the heart. It is as it were a substance of Christian culture which must first be interiorised before it can be expressed....This is very important for us, because our culture is secular, highly transient, and deeply hostile to the material world and to the human person. It is a culture which has decayed into radical individualism (currently post-modernism) where the value of the human person is not objective but relativistic, not communal but the alienated self. It is a culture which consumes the material without thought to the value of it, resulting in gross inequalities between rich and poor, and with catastrophic consequences not just for the harmony of creation but for ecology as a whole. This ‘throw away’ culture, from wrapping paper to aborted babies, negates so much of what the Word is, and so not only is it not pregnant as a witness to the Word, in many ways it intrinsically opposes it. It is what the late Pope John Paul II called the ‘culture of death’.....Iconography struggles to breathe in such a climate or environment, just as it did under atheistic communism. Yet at the same time it is a means by which Christ seeks to redeem culture, to speak to it, to reveal itself to itself in its true form in the light of its true destiny: to sing the praises of the Creator in harmony and beauty and in Truth. .....Thus to be a real iconographer you need to be in tune with this wider life of Christ incarnate, organically linked to it, interiorising it. It is not about a self-conscious ‘every brush stroke is a prayer’ but about a deep interiorisation so that every brush stroke flows from that ‘prayer without ceasing’, because quite simply there is no other way you could paint. It is not about an obedient following of the rules but an application to a task which flows from an interior obedience and humility before the Word of God as He leads us in every moment of our life…
The answer? In essence a call to live deeply in Christ, and to make iconography a serious pursuit lived from within that reality, not simply a work of conscious prayer, but more a hard graft, learning, understanding, sacrificing in order to unite one’s small voice knowledgably with the wonderful stuff of creation in union with the heavenly choirs, echoed in every celebration of the Holy Mysteries and made known in the silent cavern of our hearts. It is a call to live humbly before the Word and all those who bear witness to Him, to cultivate a silence of the heart in which to hear that witness and to make it one’s own, and to apply all one’s energy, body, mind and soul, to mastering the tools necessary to join our own voices with the great Tradition of the Word which has taken flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and Truth .

Go HERE to read the piece as a whole.

Friday, 8 April 2011


I have an exhibition of some of my icons, and photos and text about some of my work in the Holy Land, this week at Christ Church, Malvern Rd, Cheltenham.

It opens tonight with a talk, 'Living with icons' at 7.30pm.
It concludes on Thursday evening with a more formal, and ground breaking lecture 'Palestine and the Origins of Iconography', again at 7.30pm.

Tomorrow, Saturday there will be an all day practical workshop from 9.00am - 5.00pm. All welcome. Bring brushes, a mixing palette and packed lunch. Cost: £35

I will be iconographer in residence Monday - Thursday, 9am - 3pm.

Please spread the word and it would be wonderful if any readers of this blog were able to come along!


Benedict and the Sacred Heart

Benedict XVI on the 50th Anniversary of the Encyclical Haurietis Aquas -2006

Ian reminded us a while ago of how he found inspiration for the Sacred Heart of Naur in Pius XII’s encylical Haurietis Acquas.(1956) Since then I have been thinking about what it says, and especially Pope Benedict's reflections on the encyclical in a letter to Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J.
Superior General of the Society of Jesus in 2006. In particular I have been focusing on a number of points that he makes in this letter and how Benedict shows why the devotion to the Sacred Heart should be as important for all Catholics today as in the past. I must admit that in 1956 I was too young to get it. In 2006 I still did not get it, but now, thankfully, I do. Here are a few extracts from his letter. I think they need no commentary from me.

By encouraging devotion to the Heart of Jesus, the Encyclical Haurietis Aquas exhorted believers to open themselves to the mystery of God and of his love and to allow themselves to be transformed by it. After 50 years, it is still a fitting task for Christians to continue to deepen their relationship with the Heart of Jesus, in such a way as to revive their faith in the saving love of God and to welcome him ever better into their lives.

… to take up a saying of my venerable Predecessor John Paul II, "In the Heart of Christ, man's heart learns to know the genuine and unique meaning of his life and of his destiny, to understand the value of an authentically Christian life, to keep himself from certain perversions of the human heart, and to unite the filial love for God and the love of neighbour".
Thus: "The true reparation asked by the Heart of the Saviour will come when the civilization of the Heart of Christ can be built upon the ruins heaped up by hatred and violence" (Letter to Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus for the Beatification of Bl. Claude de la Colombière, 5 October 1986; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 27 October 1986, p. 7).

When we practise this devotion, not only do we recognize God's love with gratitude but we continue to open ourselves to this love so that our lives are ever more closely patterned upon it. God, who poured out his love "into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (cf. Rom 5: 5), invites us tirelessly to accept his love. The main aim of the invitation to give ourselves entirely to the saving love of Christ and to consecrate ourselves to it (cf. Haurietis Aquas, n. 4) is, consequently, to bring about our relationship with God. This explains why the devotion, which is totally oriented to the love of God who sacrificed himself for us, has an irreplaceable importance for our faith and for our life in love.

..the adoration of God's love, whose historical and devotional expression is found in the symbol of the "pierced heart", remains indispensable for a living relationship with God (cf. Haurietis Aquas, n. 62).

'Indispensible' ....... And yet for so many of us - including me - it has become all too dispensible ! How come that happened?

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Sacred Heart of Lent

Just a brief little blog really. Following the making of the Sacred Heart of Naur over the period of Lent has served to illuminate an aspect of Lent which I had never really grasped before. And yet Lent is really and so obviously all about the heart. From the start to the finish it is all about the heart and how we have to change / open / soften our heart. Readings at mass draw extensively on passages from the Old and New Testament which explore our relationship to our heart, and how God sees us in terms of our heart. This Sunday, (4th Sunday of Lent) for example, I read this at Mass from the book of Samuel: ‘ God does not see as man sees: man looks at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart’. Lent is a season in which we try to purify our hearts. It is about being open to the transforming power of God’s love. The more I reflect on the message of Lent, the more do I understand Lent not as a period of gloom and darkness, but quite the opposite, it is actually a period of opening ourselves – our very core – to fire and light. As I contemplate Lent through the Sacred Heart then it seems to take me back to the Transfiguration. It reminds me that Teilhard saw the Sacred Heart in terms of the transfiguration. In Lent we have to open our hearts and let that light in, and our darkness out. We have to stop living by appearances and remind ourselves that God sees our heart. And we have to ask what does He see? A ‘golden glow’ or a dark, hard, cold place? Lent should be a time when we turn not to Mount Tabor, but to the Sacred Heart to find that fire and that light.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Back in Blighty

View of Naur from outside the Latin Church of the Sacred Heart
Arrived back in England safely, having added the final inscriptions, essential for any icon, on Friday. Abuna ('Father' in Arabic) Firas, the parish priest, invited me to give a short lecture on the meaning of the image after Mass and Stations on Friday evening, and we took a few photos afterwards of the congregation.

Naur is a small town on the outskirts of Amman. It was originally settled by Latin Christian tribes during the last century. Many of the Jordanian people originate from nomadic tribes, notably the Bedouin, and so most settled towns are relatively new especially in the south of the country. The church dates from the 1940s, and the previous decoration of the apse was done by an Italian lay missionary Michelini in the 1980s. He also did the wall paintings in the shrine at Anjara where I will continue working in May. The town is now greatly expanded and mostly Muslim but the small Christian community has a convent and school.

Jordanian Christians, numbering 2% of the population, are divided among Greek Orthodox (the largest group), Greek Catholics, and Latin Catholics. It is largely overshadowed by the Palestine and Israel but is still itself part of the Holy Land, containing important theological sites such as the place of Christ's baptism, Mt Nebo where Moses saw the Promised Land, the birth place of the prophet Elijah as well as cities from the Decapolis.

Some of the parishioners outside the church...

Friday, 1 April 2011

First Friday reflections

Ian, I continue to reflect on the Sacred Heart of Naur, and find that it is indeed proving a window - as an icon is usually understood. In particular my mind is drawn to the globe which contains the fire of the Sacred Heart. And a window is a wholly appropriate metaphor. In an earlier blog I talked about the role of a heuristics in the way in which human beings make sense of their world. And, the more I use this heuristic of the Sacred Heart in an active way – something which I found difficult with the traditional image – the more do I seem to see things for the first time. I am not sure what to say about an icon in this respect. I have deliberately NOT read very much about icons as I wanted to experience and learn the language by doing ( that is heuristic learning, after all) rather than just reading. So, what I say now may be complete nonsense: and I welcome your correction. It seems that as a window, an icon can serve to provide a way of looking OUT and IN at one and the same time. As I reflect on the image I seem to be deepening my understanding of the meaning of the Sacred Heart but also deepening my understanding of myself. It is as if it is less of a window than a mirror. What I see seems to reflect back at me. I have no idea if this is what an icon is supposed to do, or if that is generally held to be their role in the formation of a spiritual life. As I say, I have deliberately tried to read as little as possible, and just use this journey of ours as a way of finding out. But that is how I feel.

This morning provided a good example, which I am still trying to think through. It is a first Friday of the month. (April 1st!). On receiving communion this morning the image of that ball of fire was very much in my mind. As a walked back to my pew I realized that I had experienced two kinds of cancer. The first was in my body which had been treated by radio therapy, etc., but the other was in my heart and soul: the cancer of the self. And I also realized that the latter was far more destructive than the former. The prayer that Teilhard used came to mind as I knelt down:

Lord, lock me up in the deepest depths of your heart; and then, holding me there, burn me, purify me, set me on fire, sublimate me, till I become utterly what you would have me be, through the utter annihilation of my ego.

When we ask the Sacred Heart to unite with us we are, it seems to me, asking for the cancer of the self to be burnt away, for our hearts to be made whole and clean and free of ‘me, me, me’. The cancerous growth of the self is what, above all, threatens our relationships with other human beings ( and other life forms) and with God, the creator. Indeed, the cancerous growth of the self is the most dangerous of all problems which threatens the very existence of life on this planet. To receive the Sacred Heart in holy communion is like receiving an energy which is able to reduce, shrink, and ultimately ‘annihilate’ the dangerous and life threatening growth of the self and of self-love. But we have to open ourselves to this powerful energy of love. Heart calls to heart. We can take communion every Sunday, but if we do not open ourselves to this energy, self-love can continue to grow and ( as it were ) metastasise and damage and destroy us and all those we should love. I think that is what Teilhard is talking about when he says that harnessing the energy of love is akin to the discovery of fire. When we pray to be united with the Sacred Heart of Jesus we are, I now believe, praying for our self-love to be exposed to the consuming almighty power of God’s love. As our love of self shrinks, so our love of God and our love of our neighbour can grow. That is what the Sacred Heart is saying to us: if only we listen to that call.