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?

Now, what was I here for?

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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 Two 

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In my previous post I wrote about my determination to find a pattern of daily prayer that suited being a working parent.  The combination of the school run, a days work, family life and church had made if difficult to find enough space and time to connect with God through dwelling on liturgy and scripture.

I decided to take 3 different sources of the Daily Office available in multiple formats and focus on each for a week: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the Northumbria Community’s Daily Office and the Church of England’s Time to Pray. which together combine a mixture of books, the internet, smart-phones and music.

This post is part reflection and part review of these and the impact focusing on applying them to an inconsistent and complicated schedule had on me.  As I found out when trying to do Morning, Midday and Night Prayer, not each format is necessarily suited to each part of the day. Continue reading

An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part One

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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

Tears for Fears

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

I am now, officially and undeniably (even to myself) an Ordinand.  This week I have begin my training at Sarum College in Salisbury, a place which echoes from my past and which will be embedded in my future, for the next 3 years at least.  Although it is largely a non-residential course it has started with a weeklong Summer School: a chance to build community and get used to the fact that I really am an Ordinand.

Part of the week’s programme has included a mini-silent retreat: from Midday Prayer to Evening Prayer we have been silent.  Having been on a silent retreat before my BAP I was looking forward to this part of the week with eager anticipation.  And as I did during my pre-BAP retreat I gave control of my fingers to God and let Him reveal to me what might be on His heart and to help me articulate what was on mine.

What you will read is the result of the writing.  Normally I type away on an computer with a large screen but this time I used a phone, with interesting results: I could only see a limited amount of what I had typed and only saw the full picture when I read it on my iPad later.  It isn’t polished but it is, with a few spelling corrections, what was the silence revealed to me as I sat in Salisbury Cathedral on the afternoon of 23rd August 2017. Continue reading

A Rescue Plan for Humanity

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Celebrating the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017

Did you hear about the sheep who got his head stuck in a traffic cone and had to be rescued? The RSPCA said he was fine afterwards, although he did look a little sheepish! And did you hear about the Swan that was stuck on the roof of a restaurant? Apparently the bill was too much! Thankfully some firefighters rescued it and returned it to a nearby river. And finally, did you hear about a man and his dog who stopped a cyclist from disaster with some bread? It was a Matter of Loaf and Death! Three ‘strange but true’ rescue stories, okay two of them: Wallace & Grommit used buns not bread to stop the bike.

There is another true but far more dramatic and important rescue, one that really is a ‘Matter of Life and Death’: Jesus’s resurrection. Within Chapter 2 of the Book of Acts Peter helps people to see God’s rescue plan for humanity that the resurrection unlocked.

Acts is a book full of eyewitness accounts and pioneering ministry, and where church as we know it began. It starts 40 days after Jesus’s resurrection with an account of Jesus ascending into Heaven having spent the time in between visiting and being seen by a whole host of people (Acts 1).  10 days later the Disciples spoke in languages they didn’t know but those who witnessed it did.  They had received the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised.  It was the first Pentecost.

Peter stood up to explain what had happened and help make the connections that gave birth to the church we know today (Acts 2). Continue reading

Climbing up to Cloud 9


I keep being asked “have you come off Cloud 9 yet?” and it’s made me question myself why I’ve not been on it.

It isn’t surprising that people expect someone to be ecstatic when they have been recommended to train for ordination (see Going to a BAP, again!), and it has been humbling to see the reaction to my recommendation.  When we see someone work hard for something and then achieve their aim we are generally excited and pleased for them (that doesn’t mean it cannot also be painful for us, especially if we hoped for the very same thing). But being recommended for ordination is not an achievement to be gained, it is a decision to be discerned.

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Going to a BAP, again!

My retreat from social media is over. My return to a Bishop’s Advisory Panel (BAP) has been completed. The results are in and a chapter of my life that begun back in January 2013 is over. It has involved 1 Vocations Chaplain, 5 Examining Chaplains, 3 Diocesan Directors of Ordinands (DDOs), 2 Bishops’ Advisory Panels, 2 Panel Secretaries, 6 Bishops’ Advisors and 2 Bishops; with far greater numbers of people that have accompanied me on my journey with encouragement, wisdom and prayers.

But what happened? As often is the case there is a before, during and after to this extended blog post of going to my second BAP. Whilst my blog post Strange Days (aka Going to a BAP) covered what goes on at a BAP in detail this post aims to illustrate the value of finding peace and living in the moment with God through challenging times, because returning to a second BAP was truly a challenge. As for the result? Well, it wouldn’t be right to write the ending before the beginning! Continue reading

The Lord’s Prayer at the School Gate

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Waiting at the school gate in Wellow, Somerset

Each school day morning I arrive in a village with my children before any other family. We park, we chat, we pass around the tic-tacs (another story), then walk down to the school gate where we watch the traffic pass by and the rest of the families arrive.  It is a time I cherish, a time to share and a time to pray, and so I do.

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Silent Thoughts

Warning: this post contains plot details and spoilers from the film Silence by Martin Scorsese.

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Martin Scorsese is not one afraid to ask challenging questions about the nature of man and faith, questions that some find simply the mention of a step too far, even heretical. Faith is something that has been a subject of exploration in his life and films. Having once sought to become a priest he famously adapted and filmed Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, exploring the idea that Jesus may have struggled with his contrasting human and divine nature.

In his latest movie Silence he has taken more challenging areas to explore by taking Shusako Endo’s novel about 2 Jesuit priests who travel to 17th Century Japan in search of their former mentor who, according to rumours, had renounced his faith. At that time Christians in Japan were suffering under a brutal regime seeking to wipe out the faith. They were forced to renounce their faith, an act known as apostasy, by stepping on an image of Christ known as a fumie. Those that refused to apostatise were tortured, often to a slow and excruciating death.

The title alludes to Gods seeming silence or absence whilst people suffer for their belief in Him, and as the priests watch the persecution unforced around them their faith is severely tested. Whilst believers’ faith gives them strength, the priests struggle to maintain their own faith as the silence breeds doubts.

The film illustrates some of the challenges the persecuted church went through then, and still does today. One of those challenges is the decision whether to profess and practice a faith in public and risk the consequences or to hide their faith away, even publicly renounce or denounce it, and consciously act against the God they privately believe in.

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