The art of seeing salvation

Each summer those beginning or continuing their ordination training at Sarum College gather for a week of fellowship, exploration and reflection.  This year’s ‘Summer School’ focused on the use of art to help us ‘see salvation’: in the stones that have been calved and placed to gather amongst; in the sculptures formed by hands and machines to walk around; and in the paint applied to paper, canvas and plaster to gaze upon.  Although much of the art looked at during the week was formed with a clear religious intentionality behind it, an expression of faith and worship by an artist, not all of it did.  Indeed it was one of these latter pieces that provoked the greatest reaction and insight into ‘seeing salvation’.  The piece was Zak Ové’s “Black and Blue: The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness”, seen during a visit to the New Art Centre at Roche Court, near Salisbury. 

The piece presented 40 figures to communicate the strength and resilience of the African diaspora, and contained no religious meaning (a description of the sculpture’s meaning is available on LACMA‘s website).  Each figure was identical, their faces all with the same resolute expression, their hands all held up, their feet fixed in place.  The figures did not speak but the art  called me to listen with my eyes; what they saw perplexed me.  Were their hands held aloft in a show of defiance or fear?  Were they putting up a barrier to keep me away or showing empty palms to welcome me in?  The nature of sculpture, each figure placed on the ground and open to all angles of inquisitiveness, served to to the latter: to draw me into the midst of the figures and deeper into a silent dialogue with the sculpture.

Upon examining the sculpture from within I was struck by the trauma of the figures’ uniformity.  They contained an identity but not of an individual.  Their identity was corporate, they were a group, a history, an issue.  Medallions on the base each figure suggested who, when and what  they were.  Their faces, modelled on African ceremonial masks, suggested the past.  The medallions, with their technological symbols, linked them into the present.  They were both those who had been taken and those who were fleeing, those who found enslavement and those who sought freedom.  They were those packed on boats crossing the Atlantic to the hell of the Caribbean slave plantations, and those packing themselves on boats crossing the Mediterranean to the ‘salvation’ of Europe.  But they were not individuals.  They were not Alan Kurdi, the three year-old Syrian refugee found dead on a Turkish Beach (see Katy Fallon’s piece in The Independent), they were the hundreds and thousands who drowned with no name.  

By stripping the figures of their individual identity Zak Ové reminded me of how each person is known to God, but to us they are often no more than a statistic.  Yet each ‘statistic’ was made in God’s image like all are, and all are loved by God.  That we can allow them to die unreported and unknown speaks to a dereliction of duty in playing our part as God’s servants of salvation.  That I made a link with faith and salvation demonstrates that what a piece of art means to us is as much down to what we bring to it as to what the artist intended.  This is good, not least because much art comes without explanation, whether due to the meaning being lost in time or the artist purposely withholding it – this means that any piece of art may help us see salvation if we open ourselves up to it without. 

Art that can connect with our imagination and experience can overcome our apathy or dislike for it.  Zac Ové’s sculpture spoke to me not from its form – it was not aesthetically pleasing to me.  The sculpture spoke to me because it connected with my experience of, and heart for, refugees.  Where such a link does exist we need more if we are to be drawn into a dialogue with salvation.  I similarly did not like several pieces of art presented to us during the week, yet they contained explicit meanings that engaged my thoughts and imagination.  As such, art can provoke us to contemplate our faith in and relationship with God.  

A simple visual clue, such as a snail placed to signify a strangeness that is not what it might at first seem, can unlock an avenue of thought that a book or sermon cannot.  The visual has the power to circumvent our understanding of the written word and tap into the knowledge we have been building up since our eyes first opened.  What it is less able to do is help us understand intellectual concepts, although whether the written word can help us grasp doctrines of salvation, for example, is dependent as much on the writer as it does on the reader!

Art has the power to awaken our imagination and make room for change to be perceived, change that can bring clarity, hope and even salvation.  In doing so art becomes more than a pretty picture or an ascetically pleasing sculpture, it becomes a communication tool, one which God can use to interact with us.  This is perhaps best seen in our cathedrals, and other churches, through the artistry of the stone mason and architect whose work is an act of worship that continues as perforMative art centuries after their passing.  The structure and materials of Salisbury Cathedral, for example, demonstrate this by the way they lift our eyes, hearts and souls up towards the heavens and help us be receptive to God’s redeeming love.

Contemplating art and salvation has the ability to be self-indulgent.  It can enrich and nurture our individual faith, but unless our thoughts are communicated to others it becomes limited and confined.  The ‘so what?’ of Summer School that I frequently returned to was how I can help people to ‘see salvation’ through art.  How do I help people to open themselves up to be drawn in by what they see?  How do I enable people to go down avenues of thought that might deepen their faith?  It is not, perhaps, best done in sharing the art which I love but in sharing perspectives on it that they might not have considered.  The latter has the capacity to overcome the barrier of dislike – it can help people look upon things with a fresh perspective, one that they can apply to whatever comes before their eyes as they proceed through life.

What piece of art has surprised you with where it took you?

This time now

Nervous excitement woke me up early.  I put on my glad-rags and left for the cathedral before my neighbours had begun to emerge into the daylight.  I didn’t want to be late.

I descended the Mendip Hills into Wells over an hour before the service began.  The Cathedral greeted me as I emerged from my car, and the Bishop of Taunton waved as she walked past.  As long as I kept both in sight I was going to make it in time. Continue reading

I belong because I don’t

Sunrising behind 3 crosses on a hill

Sunrise in Easter Day 2019 from an ecumenical service on The Roundhill, Bath

I am over half-way through my Ordination Training and thoughts are starting to turn to curacy.  When my diocese asked me to indicate which type of church I would and wouldn’t work with my reaction surprised me.  The question saddened me.  It was asking me where I belonged.  At once I realised that I belonged everywhere and nowhere. Continue reading

Silently Speaking

Sunset over the island of Coll

Listening to the silence

Growing up as the youngest of three, opportunities to talk were few and far between.  Each one had to be seized upon in case it would be a year before another would come again.  Silence was my chance to speak. 

Whatever the truth of my memory, the impact was that silence became an entity that I needed to fill; if I didn’t, and it continued, I would become increasingly uncomfortable.  And so I filled them.  I would jump into the silence with whatever opinion, facts or half-baked humour I could muster.  It wasn’t always the best idea. 

Filling the silence risks not hearing the very thing that needs to be heard.  Increasingly I’ve realised that isn’t me.  

Continue reading

Testing the limits

2384200Geraint Thomas riding to victory in the 2018 Tour de France (Source: Eurosport)

Over the course of 3 long-read blog posts I am reviewing my first year as an Ordinand, each post focused on 1 of the 3 words that sum up my first year: tea, testing and transformation.  This, the second post in the series, is all about testing, and no, they haven’t brought in doping tests for prospective priests in the Church of England.  

One section of life where tests for performance enhancing drugs is common place is sport, and in particular cycling.  Each July athletes race in the most famous cycling race in the world, the Tour de France.  For 3 weeks cyclists mix sprinting for glory with climbs up some of the highest and toughest mountains that Europe have to offer.  It is a tremendous feat of endurance just for a person to make it to the end on the Champs Élysées in Paris.  This first year of training has similarly felt like a feat of endurance.

Continue reading

Mr Tea

IMG_7743

More tea, Ordinand?

Tea.  Testing.  Transformational.  Three words which capture the essence of my first year of Ordination Training.  This post, the first of 3 blog posts reviewing the year, is all about the power of a cup of tea.  Well, partly.  It’s also about self-awareness and mental health.

A travelling tea set I found in the French town of Périgueux seemed just the thing for a trainee vicar who would often be away from home at a theological college.  Contained within hinged cylindrical metal case, held closed by 2 leather straps, were a trinity of tea caddies and an infuser.  It played up to the stereotype of “More Tea Vicar”, but did so on my terms: the blends of tea inside were drinkable.  Just as I don’t like instant coffee but love coffee brewed from the bean, I love lots of varieties of tea but can’t stand the crowds’ favourite of English Breakfast Tea or ‘Builder’s Tea’.  This, I know, is potentially problematic for someone who may be doing pastoral visits in England, but there is always the simplicity of a glass of water!

What was brought as a piece of amusement proved to teach me an important lessons that carried me through the year: the need for solitude and reflection, and to care for my mental health.   Continue reading

Now, what was I here for?

A4745AD1-40A8-4FA0-96DB-A9AC3FD9F529

The Night Before Christmas (Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat)

Transforming something unknown into something known lies in the future. We can use our imagination and other people’s knowledge to paint a picture of what it might look like but it is only when we catch up with it, when the future becomes the present, that we begin to know the unknown. And so it has turned out with my Ordination Training.

As the training reached full-speed in early October (my studies in September were fairly light) the impact on my daily life quickly became clear: each day would be filled from rising to sleeping. My wife and I both needed to continue with our full-time jobs, my children still needed to be taken to school and clubs, household chores still needed to be done, and occasionally we even needed to eat. The only space for study was my ‘spare-time’, something I enjoyed using to spend time simply being with my family and friends. The study mean that this time would be limited, I would not be able to socialise quite as much as I did and this blog would not be added to quite as often as before. As such this post is as much an account of what it is like to train for ordination whilst working full-time as it is a reflection upon it. Continue reading

An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part One

IMG_8012

Starting my Ordination Training has once again made me examine my pattern of prayer.  Over the years I have used lots of different patterns and sources in my attempt to take my focus off myself and onto God and others.  I have had times when it has worked, when I have tapped into a rich seem of inspirational liturgy but such times have ebbed and flowed with an unhelpful inconsistency.  This inconsistency has meant that the focusing and calming effect of prayer became vulnerable to be lost, drowned out or shut out by the distractions and pace of everyday life. Continue reading

Top 10 Tips for Starting Ordination Training

image1

Sarum College in Salisbury

For some, September and October marks the beginning of their ordination training. My training at Sarum College in Salisbury began a little earlier with a week-long Summer School in August. It was a welcomed opportunity to build a sense of community with the tutors and other students, and gave me a chance to pick up some tips for theological study that may be helpful; so here are my Top 10 Tips for Starting ordination training. Continue reading