Messages of Hope

Month: May 2020


Published / by Sandy

Originally posted on ArtWay, Visual Meditation
(Since we’re ‘grounded’ and can’t travel to Italy, this post highlights an amazing art work from Venice)

This week is the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day or Ascension Thursday (May 21st), as recounted in Acts 1:1-11. As John van de Laar says, ‘The Ascension is one of those significant days in the Liturgical Calendar that is also really difficult. There is so much meaning, so many ways of approaching the readings, and yet so many questions that can potentially bog the day down in controversy, theological debate or heavy academic discourse. Yet it remains a day of celebration and an invitation to deeper encounter with God”. Ascension Day marks the end of 40 days when the risen Christ was present with the disciples. When those mysterious angels show up again after the Ascension and speak to the disciples they are almost reproachful of them; why are you looking to heaven your work is here on earth? The apostles return to Jerusalem to watch and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (which we will celebrate on May 31st). The writer of Acts tells us that the apostles, the women, and Jesus’ own family gathered together frequently to pray, waiting and anticipating.

Meryl Doney, an art curator in the UK, has written about an impressive art installation called Ascension.

Ascension by Anish Kapoor

Set centrally below the impressive dome of the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice is a white drum-like pedestal. There is silence. Then, suddenly, a rushing sound and a turbulent blast of air. Smoke begins to pour from the centre of the drum, twisting as it goes, ascending towards a cone-shape high in the dome. The feeling is of an overwhelming upward thrust. The piece is called Ascension by British sculptor Anish Kapoor.

Kapoor is well known for Cloud Gate (2006, colloquially known as ‘the Bean’) in Chicago. In 2006, he installed arguably his best-known work, Sky Mirror, a three-story stainless-steel sculpture for the Rockefeller Center, reflecting the New York skyline. He described it as a “non-object” because its reflective surface allowed it to disappear.

With Ascension, the immaterial becomes concrete. He says of it, “In my work, what is and what seems to be often become blurred. In Ascension, for example, what interests me is the idea of immateriality becoming an object, which is exactly what happens in Ascension: the smoke becomes a column. Also present in this work is the idea of Moses following a column of smoke, a column of light, in the desert …”, to guide the Israelites tthrough the wilderness. The column of smoke was the powerful, material evidence of God’s presence with them.

In naming the work Ascension, Kapoor is also making reference to the ascension itself – Jesus’ last moments on earth, when as Luke’s gospel describes, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Luke 23:51)  

This pivotal moment has been a perennial subject for artists. The earliest direct depictions date to around the beginning of the 5th century. One of the earliest, an ivory generally dated 400AD, shows Christ climbing a mountain towards the outstretched hand of God. Later images, particularly in northern Europe, show Jesus’ feet ascending into the clouds, while some include his two footprints left on the earth.

Kapoor’s Ascension is different. Wholly abstract, yet uniquely challenging in conveying something of the experience of the Ascension. The images of the piece can convey something of its power, but in the absence of the work itself, it is even better to experience the sound and moving image captured in videos made at the time.

Visitors gaze upwards, as Jesus’ disciples would have stood. In the cathedral, as on the Mount of Olives, something strange and unprecedented is being witnessed. Immaterial smoke has become a twisting, rising column. Because of its very size and materiality the piece evokes a powerful sense of upward movement and force, capturing for the individual onlooker something of the sense of awe and mystery that must have overwhelmed those first disciples.


And what do we do after we’ve been transfixed by this installation?

If the Ascension has led us to faith in a disembodied, removed God who is watching us “from a distance”, we have missed its message. Whatever the disciples actually saw happen that day, the facts of the experience are far less important than the meaning. The Ascension certainly does not mean that heaven is “up”, hell is “down” and God is looking down on us from some far removed place. Rather, the Ascension offers us crucial truths that, in this world of injustice and inequality, we desperately need to reclaim. Jesus did not die, but was seen to “return” to the Godhead physically is a continuation of the story of incarnation. God does not despise the human body – rather God embraces it, inhabits it and glorifies it, making human flesh part of the Godhead! This means that the needs of the body – for food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, and loving, intimate touch – are all part of the Gospel and are included in God’s gift of salvation. The Ascension comes with the promise of the Holy Spirit’s power which tells us that God is not absent and removed from us, but continues to be completely immersed in the world and in the lives of human beings. The gift of the Spirit also assures us of God’s resources and God’s inspiration and God’s guidance to strengthen and enable us as we seek to live as faithful followers of Christ. It may be tempting to make this celebration about Christian triumphalism, but that would be to deny the meaning of Christ’s earthly life. Rather, the Ascension is the necessary next step in that life, ensuring that God remains involved with human beings, that God’s presence continues to be available to us, and that we know that everything that makes us human – including our physicality – has been embraced and welcomed into God. It’s less about “Christianity” defeating all, and more about Christ drawing all things into the life of God. (John van de Laar, Sacredise)

How coronavirus is leading to a religious revival

Published / by Greg Elsdon

By Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington

As Covid-19 reminds us of life’s fragility, an increasing number of people are turning to faith and spirituality.

Corinna Camilleri was five years old when she began attending church in her hometown of Mdina, Malta. She remembers learning to recite prayers word for word from the Bible, many of which she still remembers today. “I always believed in a God,” says the London-based artist. “But looking at the coronavirus situation, I’m questioning his agenda. What kind of twisted entity would allow such suffering?”

While Corinna may be experiencing a crisis of faith, recent data shows that others may be engaging more with religion since lockdown. The fact that Bible app downloads shot up in March globally is one indication of this. The top English-language Bible on Google Play and App Store was installed almost two million times, the highest amount ever recorded for March, according to Appfigures. Similarly, one of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, has seen physical Bible sales rise by 55 per cent in April, while Google searches for “prayer” and “Christianity” have skyrocketed.

The pandemic has triggered a “historic spiritual moment”, says Dr Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who is unsurprised by the growth in Bible-reading. He notes that engagement with online church services is also booming, and that it is a response to feelings of disorientation, fragility and fear caused by the crisis.

“Online, one can preserve a measure of anonymity. You can tune into something without committing yourself, and expose yourself to something fresh,” he adds.

Since lockdown began, one of the UK’s largest churches, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), has seen turnout double for its online Alpha course, a space for non-believers to ask questions about faith and Christianity. 

“I’ve never known a time in my life when people are more open to [God’s word] than they are now,” said HTB’s vicar, Nicky Gumbel, in an online Easter conference. “There are no other distractions. There’s no football, there’s no sport. There’s no entertainment. People have time to hear the Gospel.” Indeed, never in modern history have so many people been sanctioned to their homes, in what the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, Stephen Lake, calls “an enforced period of reflection.” 

Islam has also seen increased engagement. Google Play’s most popular Quran app saw record high downloads in March, doubling February’s numbers, according to Appfigures.

“People are reaching out for help. All holy books talk about suffering, and that it leads people back to faith,” says Sayyid Fadhil Bahrululoom, an Islamic scholar at London’s Alridha Foundation.

During his time in war-torn Iraq, Bahrululoom saw many people turn to God – a reaction to crises that he says is “instinctive in human beings”. 

The world’s major religions are not the only ones witnessing increased engagement. Reiki, an alternative medicine involving energy healing, has become more sought after than ever since the lockdown. The UK’s largest reiki group on Facebook – home to thousands of members – has seen rising demand for online healing and reiki-teaching since lockdown began, as well as a spike in fraudsters offering scam services and “spells”, according to the group’s admin. 

Reiki practitioner Hilary Kingston says that people are looking to a “higher source” for comfort and explanation during the crisis – much in the same way as an ill person prays for their return to health. For others, reiki carries political significance. Katrina Kiritharan is an energy healer and intuitive life coach says that it symbolises an “inclusive and [alternative] beacon of hope” for marginalised people who feel that their governments have failed to support them during the crisis.

With healthcare being so unaffordable in many countries, and psychotherapy carrying a stigma in certain communities, spiritual healing presents a cheaper and safer option, Katrina explains. Inexpensive self-help is growing in the form of meditation too, with popular apps such as Calm and Headspace booming since global lockdown began. 

Rowan Williams says the pandemic highlights other important issues in our world, describing it as a “remarkable moment of truth.”

“It occurs at a time when the international global economy was more overheated and feverish than ever before. Covid-19 shows us that we live in a world with limitations, [something] we so badly need to remember in respect to the environment,” he explains.

Others spy a wholly different meaning behind the pandemic. Bahrululoom says that in Islamic communities in Iran, Iraq and the Gulf most scholars believe the coronavirus to be caused by mankind’s sin, which is why many leaders are urging people to be “closer to God”. A small minority of Muslims and Christians believe that Covid-19 heralds the apocalypse.

Equating suffering with God’s will is nothing new. From Noah’s flood to the Aids outbreak, some individuals see nothing but divine punishment. Others, such as Williams, see free will. Coronavirus was caused by human actions, or lack thereof, he argues. Meanwhile, the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral says suffering is part of human life: Jesus suffered pain on the cross, as we suffer pain.

It is easy to forget, however, the extent of worldwide suffering. “The limitations of human empathy are profoundly sad. We need a face on the statistics of suffering to speak to us directly,” says Williams. “I remember when asked about the horrors of 9/11. It was dreadful, yes of course, but it’s a dreadfulness that quite a lot people live with almost routinely, and we’ve simply just not noticed,” he adds. 

Indeed, approximately 3.1 million children die from malnutrition each year, a tragedy without a global lockdown that is, therefore, more easily forgotten or ignored.

“We are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding animals. Today, we’ve crafted a world in which we can tune out when things get hard. With the coronavirus, this discomfort is omnipresent. We turn on our devices and it’s there,” says Katrina. The universe will keep bringing the lesson until we wake up, she adds. 

Lessons are already being learnt. For example, many people do not want a full return to pre-lockdown life, due to cleaner air and a stronger sense of community, highlights one YouGov poll. “We need a real rediscovery of a moral and spiritual politics – one that has a sense of public good, accountability and service. One that creates trust,” concludes Williams. Will politicians and business leaders hear these prayers? 

Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington are freelance journalists.

This article was originally published on 27 April 2020 in NewStatesman, a British political and cultural magazine published in London.  See:

Distractions – and the inner life

Published / by Sandy

An article by Charlotte Wood, published in The Age, April 24, 2020

The garden is in disrepair. In fact it seems to me, peering through the glass kitchen doors on this third Saturday morning of the lockdown, that our pocket courtyard garden has never been in such urgent need of restoration. The sight of it fills me with gloom. Plants overburdened with woody growth sag into displeasing shapes, oppressing the more delicate, undernourished plants beneath. The leaves of others are shrivelled with disease and there’s a puddle of mucky sludge in the bird bath. Junk clutters the pavers: tangles of hose, the wheelie bin with its lid flung back, a pair of running shoes tossed out, soles up, for the sunshine to disinfect.

I have a powerful feeling that this disarray isn’t just cosmetic, but symptomatic of some deeper malaise. The sense of spacious, considered serenity – the reason to have a garden in the first place – has died, along with half the plants. There’s no order, no cohesion, no beauty. I pull on my work boots, take up the secateurs, the gloves and spade.

Of course, it’s not just the garden that’s in desperate need of repair; it’s me. Or my spirit. What might be called my inner life is, like the space before me, half dead, fragmented, mouldy in some parts, dried out in others. Unbalanced, undernourished, filled with dispiriting mess.

What is an ‘‘inner life’’, though, really? Is it the same place we’re supposed to find our ‘‘inner resources’’? Does everybody have one? Does it matter if we don’t? I think about these things through the day as I work in the garden, ripping out dead stuff, forking compost through the powdery old soil.

What I do know is that for artists and writers, the inner life is inseparable from our creative work. My writing mind is a kind of home I can return to, apart from and beyond the limits of my physical world. And as the latter has shrunk and grown a lot more frightening, escape to the former seems more essential than ever.

I wonder if artists have easier access than most to the interior, at a time like this? We habitually spend a lot of time there, after all. When we have a work in progress on the page or the canvas or the piano, we’re carrying on two lives at once – one in the physical world, another in the imagination. Quite often the inner world has a largeness, an excitement and sense of possibility the outer world lacks. Right now that difference is a stark one.

The mind is a place of great freedom, a place that with effort can be made – like a garden – peaceful yet full of movement, wild but safe at the same time.

But of course it’s not only artists who live rich inner lives. If you attend thoughtfully to your personal domain – your interests and surroundings, the people you love, your work – you will quite naturally have a substantial interior world. And while your inner life and mine might be very different, I’d posit that when they’re at their best, they might share some common elements.

First, perhaps, is a purposeful attentiveness to the concept of the mind itself as something of value, to be cared for and exercised, fed and challenged. The mind is a place of great freedom, not to be damaged or filled with rubbish; a place that with effort can be made – like a garden – peaceful yet full of movement, wild but safe at the same time.

I think the inner life needs structure and clarity, as well as moments of unruliness, to truly flourish. A beautiful garden takes planning, good boundaries, patience. It needs protection from invasive destroyers and, at the same time, acceptance of constant change. It knows that beauty takes time to develop, that some cherished elements will die while other gifts appear as ‘‘volunteers’’, those self-seeded surprises that just arrive and put down roots. A magnificent garden, though, like any work of art, is bolder – it takes risks, is prepared to sacrifice, to fail and begin again. It’s visionary, introducing new ideas, making unlikely connections. When I’m immersed in my writing mind, time expands and everything else drops away – the neediness and strain, fear, the depletion and fragmentation that pervade so much of contemporary life.

The trouble is that ordinary contemporary existence seems purposely designed to kill every aspect of the inner life. Modern capitalism depends on relentless productivity and expansion, twinned with its opposite: unceasing, completely passive consumption.

When I consider the possibility of stopping all this – of simply going still – I’m drenched in relief.

Even now, as we seem to be suddenly valuing ‘‘things that matter’’ more than ever – meditation and books and cooking and yoga and music and art – for lots of us, it’s really just a posher form of indiscriminate consumption. In our anxiety we shovel the stuff in, grabbing and discarding, mindlessly cramming one ‘‘meaningful thing’’ then another into every available space in ourselves and our days, in the same rampantly acquisitive way we’ve always done. At least, I know I have. Lately I’ve watched myself seizing up books and songs and yoga tutorials and recipes, gorging on them, then forcing them on others, pointing and urging, scarfing down all the ‘‘mindfulness’’ I can before marching on, voracious as a locust. What I’ve been doing might look like reading or meditating or cooking or ‘‘connecting’’, but much of it has been the manifestation of sheer panic.

When I consider the possibility of stopping all this – of simply going still – I’m drenched in relief.

Productivity and consumption demand constant movement, constant noise. It’s why, when first learning to meditate, we’re sent into a state of terror. For most of us, stillness gives rise to dread. Yet, at those times my imaginative world has been most alive, I’ve learned something that feels important – that stillness is not a void, it’s a well. If I let it, it will fill itself. I can return to it again and again, and it will offer me something to draw upon in moments of crisis. I think this paradoxical fear and need of ‘‘emptiness’’ is why artists have always been such enthusiastic walkers. It’s a useful trick: silent walking allows the mind to empty without the paralysing fear of stillness. A letting-go takes place. An easy, featherweight attention must be paid to the material world of the kerb, the footpath, the pedestrian crossing, which then allows the ethereal, invented world to expand inside the mind. This imaginative growth – without hope, without fear, without despair – is the precious fruit of the inner life.

Of course there are other threats to a flourishing mental state – such as distraction and fear, those eternal enemies of art-making. One of my favourite teaching tools is a study I came across some time ago, a meta-analysis of 25 years of research into the most creative mood state. The researchers found three main elements were common to experiences of profound creativity. These were a positive affect; a slightly elevated ‘‘activation’’ or energy level; and a ‘‘promotion focus’’, in which the creator works with intent to seek gain rather than avoid pain. No surprise, then, that severe agitation, fear, anxiety and anger were associated with the least creative state.

When I began consciously trying to alter my mood before I began a writing day, practising transforming my customary bleak, nervy fear into a state of quietly excited, curious optimism, my whole writing life changed. Even if I somehow forget these things every single day and must constantly work my way back to them (why? why do I revert, always, to fear?), it’s still this state of curious optimism that brings me riches. It’s this state that allows me to sink into silence, and the profound peace of creative attention to open up inside me. It’s this that allows time to expand.

It makes space, too, for bravery and risk. The necessity of risk is why too much time online is the greatest menace to my own inner world. I feel my courage seeping away with each anxious scroll through other people’s confident thoughts and assertions. Every emphatic opinion delivered by someone I respect reveals my own awkwardly forming ideas as incorrect, flimsy, even destructive. This is the signal to shut the garden gates and return to the work of composting and watering, at least until my growing creation reaches adolescence. Then will be time to let the light in, to shape and prune, to weed out imprudence or vanity or simple untruth. But until then, in this muddy germination phase when obscurity and unknowing are nourishment, sovereignty over the inner world must be absolute.

But enough of threats. What might be the things that feed a prosperous inner life?

Quite a lot from the outer, it turns out. For me, anyway, it’s best when there’s a level of tranquillity in my surroundings. A clean(ish) house. Fresh food in the fridge, exercise, frequent contact with nature. A lot of sleep. I’ve always loved that command attributed to Flaubert: ‘‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeoise, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’’ If I can maintain even a shred of bourgeois order, it helps.

Paradoxically, the one essential that should be most available right now – unfilled time – seems in shortest supply. Our current hypervigilance, our terror of the uncertainty ahead and phobia of stillness, has thrown us into a frenzy of overscheduling. I am that Italian guy in the meme, trying to cram in yet another appointment between the online yoga and pilates, the Zoom drinks and meetings, the chat rooms and podcasts and classes, the virtual festivals, the endless talking, talking, talking.

But now I’ve calmed down enough to recognise all this, I have the choice to step back, go inward. Of course this means I’m lucky. I have a safe home, no children to school nor elderly parents to worry about. I have good health and people to love. Despite all the cancellations, my own job is really no more precarious than it’s ever been. I have the resources for basic good citizenship – obeying safety rules, the various small economic and political acts incumbent upon the haves for care of the have-nots – and still some left over to devote to my inner world, my work.

Which brings me to one last precious nutrient for the life of the mind: joy.

So much of our world is in unspeakable pain right now. As individuals we have no way of easing most of it. But it feels important to say that despite all this we’re allowed, when it doesn’t hurt others, to protect and nurture that which helps each of us to live fully. We have a right to joy.

It’s sunset now. The garden’s pruned and fed and mulched, the pavers swept, new seedlings in the ground. All that’s needed from here is everything we already have: the autumn sunshine, some rain, and time to let it grow.

Charlotte Wood takes part in the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, a day of live streamed talks, conversations and performances, on May 9.