Holy Week convergences

I do like it when calendars cooperate.


This year Palm Sunday was also the vernal equinox — the first day of spring. It might make sense to meditate on how Easter, a celebration of resurrection, has more to do with this point in the cycle of the year than does Palm Sunday. But why not take this year’s convergence as an opportunity to meditate on something different?

Palm Sunday, for me, is a deeply bittersweet day. I love a good procession with singing and waving and donkeys, but somehow I’m not capable of letting the joy of this day sweep me up enough so that I forget that this procession leads inevitably to crucifixion. And then on to resurrection, I know, but through quite a lot prior to that resurrection.

Likewise, the first day of spring never really seems like the first day of spring — at least not in west Michigan, where I’m from. More often than not it’s cold-ish with a likely frost or snow to follow. I wouldn’t put plants in the ground before late April or early May. The first day of spring always feels a bit arbitrary, a bit like cheating. The days don’t really feel longer than the nights.

Celebrating Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, in days where the daytime is longer than the nighttime seems wrong somehow, like cheating. In some of the darkest moments in the Christian story — the capture, torture, and murder of Christ — I want comforting darkness. I want to wrap the cold air around me in a vigil so, in the words of the epistle to the Philippians, I can better ‘know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participating in his sufferings, becoming like him in death’ and only then ‘attaining to resurrection from the dead.’

I don’t want this because it is pleasant, or because it is some kind of metaphysical promissory note. I want it because, to me, it is the only thing that makes sense of how wrong the world is: how many people are still tortured to death, how many people still languish in (or have been kicked out of) refugee camps, how much hurt we do to each other and this world.

The sharp contrast between the necessary comfort of the winter darkness and the vernal equinox left me in a bittersweet place indeed, moving into Holy Week with ambivalence, like someone who had been shouting ‘Hosanna’ and suddenly stopped to realise the depths of her own doubt and fear.


Holy Week also saw a full moon. I am not an overly enthusiastic watcher of moon-cycles or much related esoterica but I have observed enough human behaviour to know that the full moon does something to us gravity-dependent beings. Emergency Room nurses tell stories of absolutely mad night shifts; obs-and-gynie nurses and midwives tell of more women going into labor around the full moon; hospital chaplains and mental health professionals tell of particularly ‘interesting’ or extreme behaviour around that time of the month. A friend who is a yoga teacher always cautions her students to go easy on themselves — not to demand too much of their bodies, to stay grounded — during the full moon. The fringes of our health fray when the moon is full, it would seem.

The night of the full moon (Wednesday) I traveled down to Canterbury to spend my last Easter as a layperson in the cathedral. The services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are probably the best things that Anglicanism has to offer in the way of liturgy (maybe in addition to the funeral and baptism services, but that’s another blog post). They are stark and moving and elemental and dramatic, and cannot be undertaken lightly, even as a first-time punter. This was my third or fourth time participating in these services, the first time in which I had no role to play in them whatsoever. My role was just to show up and be shaken.

My partner always gets his weirdest dreams around the full moon. A person who dwells quite a lot in his head already, he reports feeling muddled and off, usually without realising that the full moon is on its way. On Wednesday I rang him after arriving in Canterbury and we spoke about the brightness of the night sky, and how it seemed that might brighter because we know Maundy Thursday was the next day. It was an odd calm before the storm, both liturgically and literally, for England was about to be battered by the remains of a hurricane.


Easter Eve (Holy Saturday) and the Easter Vigil in the Cathedral, 10 p.m. The hurricane was upon us and so instead of lighting the paschal candle outside and processing into the dark cathedral together, a brazier was lit at the west end, its red light casting dancing shadows of a thoroughly barbaric sort on the walls and vaulted ceilings. This is just one of my favourite parts of the Holy Week liturgy: the candle is lit, processed in, and the person holding the candle sings, ‘the light of Christ’, and is answered by the congregation with, ‘thanks be to God’. This call and response happens three times, at the end of which the congregation members have all lit their own candles from the light of the paschal candle. It is not until much later in the service, after many readings reminding us of God’s work in the history of the world through water, that the rest of the lights are flung on, bells are rung, instruments played, noise made, and the resurrection is declared with singing of hymns and many an ‘Alleluia!’.


Water and fire/light are old, old symbols of Divine presence at work. It is because of their age, and because of the reality they speak to almost preconsciously, that they lend so much to the Easter vigil. One of the readings of the vigil is the story of Jonah and the great fish, overcome by the sea because he has disobeyed a divine mandate to go minister in Ninevah; as the story’s storm raged, the hurricane lashed the cathedral walls. The scripture and the sounds of nature begged the question: where have we God-followers refused to go because we think it is a lost cause?

The uncomfortable ambivalence in which I began Holy Week was theologically emotional, given a sort of extra-personal form by the simultaneity of the vernal equinox and Palm Sunday. The heady, heavy lull of the full moon at the start of the triduum brought me out of my ambivalance into rawness. And then, there was the fiery jump forward of the Easter vigil, which ended after midnight on Easter Day.

After the vigil, coming out from under the shelter of the cloisters and running through the torrential rain, I remembered that this was the night when the clocks went forward an hour for Daylight Savings Time, changing into what is called in the UK, endearingly, ‘British Summer Time’. I have always wondered exactly when the clocks are meant to change. Which hour, each year, is lost? I have since discovered that this year, 2016, is the 100th year of British Summer Time, that horological shift which in its own modernist-enlightenment way connects with pagan equinoxes, signifying the turning of the seasons.


Buckling into our car, my friends and I drove past the front of the cathedral, where the a little ‘Easter Garden’, complete with tomb, had been built. The large stone which had been blocking the tomb-entrance had been rolled away during the vigil. I decided that that was as good a sign as any that the clocks had already completed their shuddering jump.


Images via Morguefile

Reasonable fear

In today’s Guardian, Archbishop Justin Welby, whom the Guardian calls ‘the most senior cleric in the Church of England’ has been quoted in response to questions about some of the most pressing social and political issues of current Britain: the refugee crisis and the upcoming EU referendum. Unfortunately the writer of this article has capitulated to the willing mislabeling of this crisis as a ‘migration’ crisis. Welby’s quotes are presented so that the word ‘refugee’ never appears in this article. Andy Walton’s more nuanced piece presents Welby’s words and attitudes in a more accurate light, one that isn’t afraid of the word ‘refugee.

What can be agreed upon: the archbishop takes a mostly middle line on issues of migration and the EU referendum, insisting that there is no ‘correct Christian view’ on these issues and that God would not tell Christians which way to vote in the referendum. He rightly criticises the hasty labelling of people as ‘racist’ — even if their actions do appear to fall in this category.

Regarding immigration and asylum-seekers, Welby suggested that fragile communities will naturally feel threatened by incomers who don’t look, talk, or think like them. About ‘one of the greatest movements of people in human history’, genuine anxiety and fear was to be expected, but also to be dealt with. This is where I think the title of the article, “AB of C: It is reasonable to fear ‘colossal’ migration crisis” is misrepresentative of what Welby has said.

Fear, a psychological category, and anxiety its lesser cousin, are so powerful precisely because they shout down or distort reason. Perfectly reasonable human beings do awful, cruel things when they are afraid. Insidious types of fear divide even the most closely knit of communities, poisoning relationships between people who are different. Therefore to call a fear of ‘migrants’ reasonable is to give in to the very ideology that says that human relationships are characterised by irreconcilable differences and that pulling up the drawbridge against those who are different is the safest option. It is this ideology which shows no openness towards the refugee or the stranger, and this ideology which leads to an isolationist, pro-Brexit standpoint. One does not need to support a policy of ‘let every last one of them in’ to refute such an ideology.

Fear may not be reasonable, but what I’d like to think Welby means is that it is inevitable and insidious. It is fair to expect fear. It was for fear that a first century Nazarene was publicly executed — which story of passion Christians are embarking on our observance of at this present moment. Although it is reasonable to expect fear, however, I would suggest that it is not reasonable to tolerate it without end — to let it shape our political discourse and policies, either with regard to refugees (not ‘migrants’) or with regards to the future British participant in the European Union.

Suggesting that the UK might be better off not as a part of the EU (not a position I share) does not make a person a racist or a xenophobe, as Welby has suggested, although the rhetoric in support of Brexit has often had racist or xenophobic elements. In order to figure out how to go forward together, to call out racism and xenophobia and move past them, it is important that Welby, Church of England Christians, and all those who would identify as neither C. of E. nor Christian recognise fear as the destroyer of good, loving, reasonable interaction between those who are not ‘like us’, to recognise this fear lives potentially in all of us, to meet it head on. I am reminded of the mantra from Frank Herbert’s (sometimes outright racist) novel Dune, which suggests:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Welby and other Christians may want to retain a more God-focused or theological dimension of such a mantra, but one does not need to be a Christian to recognise its deep truth and witness to the ultimate destruction and futility which fear can bring. Only by facing, naming, and overcoming this fear will Europeans be able to begin to deal with the refugee crisis.

Stanley Spencer’s selfies

Thought it might be a bit cliche to say it, my favourite painterly dude is Stanley Spencer. I love him, and not just because he is like a slightly artier version of Harry Potter.

All he needs is a lightning scar on his forehead, though.
All he needs is a lightning scar on his forehead, though.  (Spencer estate. 1939)

Spencer is my number one guy for lots of reasons. In one painting, he can fluctuate between full-on surrealism and utterly life-like places, figures, and themes. His work deals often with overtly religious themes (often revivified in his hometown of Cookham), reaching for images of ‘what might this religious/theological concept look like if it were true?’ He dares to imagine, in vivid colour, the potential truth of religious stories — which is obviously compelling for a theology-nerd and art-fan like myself. I also enjoy how his work never shies away from questioning where the limits of human community are stretched, where the boundaries of the erotic are, and how the shapes of people’s bodies have such a language! In that way, to me his work seems to share something with dance.

Yesterday I had the chance to wander over to the Fitzwilliam Museum here in Cambridge, where I have been a few times before, but never quite found the 19th/20th century room on the first floor — the one that has the Spencers in it. I was not disappointed. Besides the painting above, the museum shows a few other Spencers, ‘Love among the nations’, ‘Love on the moor’, ‘John Donne arriving in heaven’, and ‘Buildings of the Tower of Babel’, among others. Although I am always captivated by Spencer’s busy, huge paintings (like ‘Love among the nations’, ‘Love on the moor’), today what I found myself returning to were his self-portraits. Like a good film director Spencer never misses a chance to be an ‘extra’ in his own work, showing up in different paintings, at different ages, doing different things, sometimes multiple Stanley-doppelgängers in a painting.  He did paint a number of straightforward self-portraits as well. These help you recognise the doppelgängers.*

I find artists’ self-portraits endlessly fascinating, Spencer especially so because he shows up as a minor character so frequently in other paintings. Especially living in a culture where taking and sharing regular self-portraits (selfies!) is common, I find the artist’s practice of self-portraiture an interesting parallel. In this post I though I’d share some of my favourite Spencer selfies.

I admit, the first painting of Spencer’s I fell in love with was ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’ when it used to hang in the Tate Britain. Spencer has a cameo as the young man standing, almost reclining, on two gravestones in the centre of the painting.

The Resurrection, Cookham. 1924-27. (Spencer estate)

In the surreal chaos of the resurrection, Spencer’s hyper-realistic self is calm, almost aloof. How is he able to watch these freakish, miraculous events, and stay like he is? What is he saying about the unknowable shape of the future and how we can only imagine (or paint) such things?

I had never seen this painting before today: ‘Self portrait with Patricia Preece’. Preece was Spencer’s eventual second wife, though hers and Spencer’s short marriage was unconsummated and ended badly.

There are lots of things I noticed about this painting: the realism of Preece’s body compared to the thin, chicken-like, almost surreal proportion of Spencer’s; her dark eyebrows and his dark hair; the way that neither of them appears to be really looking at the other. This painting was followed by ‘Double nude portrait‘ which, after the demise of his second marriage, Spencer reportedly hid and it was not exhibited until after his death.

1936-7. (Spencer estate)

In the Fitzwilliam Museum, ‘Self portrait with Patricia Preece’ hangs in the opposite corner of the room to the following painting: ‘Love on the moor’. Spencer’s cameo here is as a devotee clinging to the legs the stone statue. The statue is a ‘Venus’ statue which also is meant to represent Hilda, Spencer’s first wife.

Love on the moor, 1949-1954
Love on the moor, 1949-1954 (Spencer estate)

This is only a part of a much larger painting (see the full painting here). There is no realism here, and Spencer is barely recognisable behind Venus/Hilda’s body. Hilda Spencer (née Carline) died in 1950, having divorced Stanley in 1937 (the year the above painting of Patricia Preece was completed). Death and grief making stone figures of human beings is an interesting metaphor, but in this painting, the statue is only a small part of the action. The human figures all around are living, eating, playing, arguing, wooing each other, bringing life into the world. The brick wall ripples, a wobbly timeline in a wobbly time in world (and British) history — the decade following the second world war.

Spencer painted quite a few other self-portraits (most of which you can look up here). Art scholars and critics have written plenty on the difference between the contemporary ‘selfie’ and the self-portrait of the artist, and I’ve absolutely no desire to rehash their good writing here. Personally I appreciate self- and double-portraits for their power and realistic storytelling, but will always prefer playing playing ‘Where’s Waldo?‘ with a Spencer painting. It adds another level of enjoyment to my, and probably many people’s, appreciation and consideration of his work.



* Apparently I write enough things in German now that my computer starts putting in umlauts to borrowed German words in English?

a few miscellaneous thoughts on ‘Andrei Rublev’

As is my lot in life, I accidentally wandered into an awesome thing last night: the end of the Watersprite Film Festival here in Cambridge and its showing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s long, beautiful, and inimitably rich film, Andrei Rublev. It was a good thing I had a companion with me because this is the sort of film you seriously need to debrief about for a long time afterwards.

In the last ten or fifteen years, there have been a swathe of films that have come to be known as ‘biopics’: for example, The Aviator, Frida, La vie en Rose, Walk the Line, The Imitation Game — even Erin Brockovich or A Beautiful Mind. Basing novels or films around the lives of famous people is nothing new. These biopics let their protagonists’ stories drive them almost elegiacally: ‘look what a shining genius this person was, through it all, despite their flaws’, these films often seem to say. The fact of the matter is people’s lives are fascinating and they have their own contained, if irregular, plotting and resolutions.

multiAndrei Rublev is not a biopic. For one thing, although Rublev is a main character, his life does not drive the plot. Rather, the historical, religious forces of which Rublev is a part serve as the film’s engine. It is set in Russia during the early 1400s: a brutal time, filled with war, plague, famine, and great conflict between Orthodox Christianity and pagan spirituality. Unlike, for example, the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, which introduces Griet (the Girl herself) as a window on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, this film uses Rublev as a window on Russia itself. This is entirely consistent with the iconographic tradition, which is very much about the icon-writer’s situated-ness within a theological, aesthetic tradition, rather than his/her artistic genius. It is also necessary for the time that Tarkovsky was making the film: the late 1960s. Russia, he says, has seen oppressive regimes before — so is twentieth-century Communism anything new? The film was censored for at least two decades in Russia, after all.

In this film, faith is a form of rebellion against the meaninglessness of violence, oppression, and cruelty; again, a message which would have hit a 1960s Russian audience (or its government) as dangerous or offensive. Andrei is tried multiply: by weather, war, temptation of various kinds, rivalry, artist’s block, and post-traumatic shock. He copes in different ways, but most by becoming more and more beaten, eventually taking a vow of silence. What finally frees him, gives him back his paintbrush and his voice, is owning up to his priestly, painterly, and pedagogic vocation to make things, teach things, and care for people.

This is a film with a significant number of main characters who are monks or otherwise devout orthodox Christians, so it was not surprising that so many long passages of scripture were quoted outright in the film. Scripture is sometimes a comfort, sometimes a challenge, sometime a clobbering presence in this film; always there is a sense that the use of scripture could go any of these ways at any time. Another Christian (and typically Russian) presence is the ‘holy fool’ character, ‘Durochka’. She – and other ‘foolish’ or ‘buffoon’ characters constantly undermine the somber piety of the monks, or of long passages of scripture, by their direct and bewildering (and often caustic) emotion.

At one point during the film, Andrei is gathering firewood and stumbles upon a village of pagan revellers, dancing nude in the moonlight. He is transfixed. When some of the villagers become convinced that he is there to stop their party, they tie him up in a hut, cruciform, with his hands outstretched on beams. A naked woman engages him in conversation about why his faith should forbid his taking part in the revelry, suggesting that love is a good thing to be celebrated, not forbidden. She kisses him and then lets him go. Later in the film, Andrei struggles with his fellow painter, Danila’s, desire to paint frescoes of The Last Judgment on the inside of a cathedral. He suggests that such a scene is too much, too real, too close to the horror of reality for most Russians who might worship in the cathedral. As the naked woman has asked, he asks, ‘What is wrong with love?’ What is wrong with depicting divine love?

The film goes back and forth, as does the whole of the Christian tradition, between emphasis on the transcendent love of God, and the absolute worst than humans do to one another (rape, murder, torture, etc). Andrei cannot decide where his art and his sin stop and start and where other people’s lives, sins, and attempts at beauty, begin. This is why the encounter with the naked woman is so foundational: in order to escape the cruciform shape of violence of his own religion, Andrei must trust this pagan woman, even as he fears what she is. It is this act, along with others in the film, that force Andrei’s focus beyond even the richness of his own orthodox iconographic tradition to find meaning and redemption.

I’m not completely sure of all the nuances of what Tarkovsky (the director) wants to say about Russia — certainly something about endurance being central to what it means to be Russian. There is an equine motif to the film which I think has something to do with this. At various points in the film, horses play, are injured or killed, gallop and frolic, and stand patiently in the rain. All of these actions directly echo or prefigure the journey of human characters in the film.  I need to watch it again (someday when I’ve got 3 and a half hours to spare) to pay closer attention, but this is my hypothesis for now.

The bell! The film is split into two halves, each of which has four distinct, titled episodes. The final episode is entitled ‘The Bell’ and is a sort of encapsulation of the whole of the film in a comparably short (!) 47-minute sequence about a young orphan who is tasked with casting a massive bronze bell for the Crown Prince. This is possibly the most accessible episode of the film and it is fitting that it comes almost at the end. The weight of Andrei’s silence is caught up with the bell’s silence — will it ring or not? Has the boy cast it properly? I found myself holding my breath, and thinking about how foreign to me the process of founding a bell is, and also how powerful and resonant. Much pondering is to come — its low sound rung in my ears long after I left the cinema.