The Madonna of the Cross (1996)

During the recent school half-term holiday, we visited Mount Grace Priory (owned by the National Trust and run by English Heritage). It’s the most complete surviving Carthusian monastery in Britain.

Founded in the late 14th century, you can visit the ruins of all the priory buildings, along with a small church and its surviving tower, explore the great cloister and enter a reconstructed monk’s cell. The strict Carthusian lifestyle made the layout of Mount Grace Priory unique, as the layout was created so that each monk could live in solitude. You can see all my photos here.

The church contains a sculpture by Malcolm Brocklesby (pictured above). I offer the on-site description of the work as a reflection for this week’s Sunday devotional:

This Madonna is not the meek and subservient figure portrayed in so many paintings, but a determined and intelligent young woman who understands the wonder and the importance of her calling as she dedicates her Child to the purpose of the Creator.

She is also aware of the suffering that this will entail. The figure of the Madonna is integral with that of the Cross, the stark and terrible symbol at the heart of Christianity, which is an inescapable part of her existence.

Her expression, however, is more of serenity than anguish. She is looking beyond Calvary to the Resurrection, and the way in which she holds the Christ Child high suggests the subsequent Ascension rather than the immediate prospect of a sacrificial death.

The statue combines the three facets of Christianity which establish the Atonement of Mankind, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Ascension.

The Fallas of Valencia

The Fallas of Valencia is a unique festival celebrated every year in the Mediterranean city of Valencia in Eastern Spain. The celebration lasts over two weeks with different festivities including parades and fireworks, but it culminates on March 19 when big and colourful fallas (monuments made from cardboard, wood, and paper) are displayed throughout the city. The monuments, often satirical in nature, can be very tall and consist of various parts.

Throughout the event, there are competitions to elect the top prize. The celebrations end around midnight on March 19, at which time the beautiful fallas are set ablaze in a spectacular display known as La Cremà (“the burning” in Valencian). The origin of the celebration goes back to the Middle Ages when carpenters would burn pieces of wood to mark the beginning of Spring.

Note: Information is from my ‘Living Language 2022’ Spanish Calendar and the photo is one I took at a similar event in Alicante in 2009.

An Unexamined Life (Adam Howie)

The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates

The Disintegration of God (from the “Atheism for Lent” studies)

I’m pleased to share a guest post by my online friend Adam Howie.

Adam’s Bio: Gamer of many a genre, geek of various forms, bordering on nerd, oft a wannabe thinker and ponderer, but mainly trying the journey of a digital and traditional media artist.

Over the last ten or so years, although to be honest this probably has its roots much further back, I have been going through a self-critical journey of examination and periods of reflection on what it means when I say, “this is what I believe”. This goes from the smallest seemingly insignificant parts, to the largest and perhaps core concepts of my beliefs system, and not just what many would call “religious” either.

Partly this evolved from the root of the idea behind the quote attributed to Socrates above, although probably when I started this process, I really wasn’t aware of that quote. It was also born from my experiences in university of being challenged over my beliefs and being confronted with the beliefs of others who could articulate their reasons. This was when I came to firmly embrace the idea that “just because” was rarely, if ever, a valid response as to the “why do you believe X?”.

A number of years later I encountered the work of Peter Rollins (“Idolatry of God”, “The Divine Magician”) which among other elements further exposed me to new facets and concepts, such as the work of the mystics, Lacan, Hagel, “dialectics”, “the lack”, and a whole swathe of other fascinating ideas that I had not been exposed to before, but at the heart, I guess, of it was embracing the unknowability, the uncertainty of reality. His work and exploration of belief/doubt/etc have been instrumental in this journey, along with of course a myriad of other thinkers etc.

One key element throughout this journey was a “creed” that I started as a way to codify my beliefs into a more logical way but has become much more of a “living document”, a way to reflect upon my journey, that I revisit, reword, and even completely rethink parts of as I continue this journey. This creed details everything from my understanding of the divine, to the nature of community, to my positions on societal and political issues, at least at a high concept level. Through the years I have went back, tweaked small parts, and rewrote entire swathes of text, reread, and reaffirmed some elements, while wholesale removed some parts.

While doubts and questioning all things of faith and belief is good, I do hold, do not find any contradiction with this process in this, that when it comes to the realms of the scientific, those parts where peer review, examination, testing, experimentation, etc can provide to varying degree of certainty answer we must acknowledge the limitations of our own understandings and trust those things where science provides such answers. This isn’t a contradiction or invalidation of accepting doubt, or questioning beliefs, rather confirming our belief in the processes and rigours tools behind the answers they seek to provide, yet even they admit that science is journey too, where they delve ever deeper into the mysteries created by those very answers.

The Baptism of Christ

Today in the Christian calendar we celebrate The Baptism of Christ, here depicted in the wonderful painting by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery, London.

You can read the story in the Bible here: Luke 3:15-22

I’m reading Dave Grohl‘s book The Storyteller that Naomi bought me for Christmas. In it, he describes when his eight-year-old daughter Harper asked him to teach her to play the drums. His response was one of fatherly pride and humility, the latter because he was self-taught and didn’t have a clue where to start.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism, we are told that God was well pleased with his Son. By implication, God is pleased with us when we walk and live in the footsteps of Jesus. May we live like that in the coming days, not judging people but coming alongside them and loving them with the parental love of God.

Piero was the first artist to write a treatise on perspective – that is, creating an illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface. Here, he has painted objects in proportion, so that they appear as we see them in real life. This emphasises the depth of the landscape, but also the harmony of the figures and natural features within it. Christ stands in a shallow, winding stream as John the Baptist pours a small bowl of water over his head. Three angels in colourful robes witness the event. At this very moment, the voice of God was heard – ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:16) – and the Holy Ghost, shown here as a dove flying over Christ’s head and towards us, descended upon him. This painting was made for the small chapel dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in the Camaldolese abbey of Piero’s hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro. Source

Aqualung (Jethro Tull)

The classic and influential Aqualung album by Jethro Tull is 50 years old today (19 March 2021). I bought it on vinyl soon after its release in 1971 and have listened to it countless times since. It impressed me then, and continues to inspire me today. It’s a very thought provoking and challenging album using language in ways that may offend, but to powerful effect.

With its iconic cover and distinctive opening, it’s a concept album focusing on the differences between organised religion and God. It’s been described as musical musings on faith and religion.

The album also links in the themes of homelessness and poverty, with the title track perfectly describing the life of a homeless man, ‘you snatch your rattling last breaths, with deep-sea-diver sounds’. The Salvation Army even gets a mention, ‘Feeling alone, the Army’s up the road, Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea’.

The album covers many genres, with some great guitar work, and the distinctive flute sound of Ian Anderson (an instrument not common on rock albums, but central to the sound of Jethro Tull). This is an album unlike any other, and the best way to appreciate it is to simply give it a listen.

Here are some lyric tasters:

People, what have you done?
Locked him in his golden cage, golden cage,
Made him bend to your religion,
Him resurrected from the grave, from the grave.

He is the God of nothing,
If that’s all that you can see.
You are the God of everything,
He’s inside you and me.

And the bloody church of England,
In chains of history,
Requests your earthly presence,
At the vicarage for tea.

Well, the lush separation enfolds you,
And the products of wealth,
Push you along on the bow wave,
Of their spiritless undying selves.
And you press on God’s waiter your last dime,
As he hands you the bill,
And you spin in the slipstream,
Timeless, unreasoning,
Paddle right out of the mess,
And you paddle right out of the mess.

And I asked this God a question,
And by way of firm reply,
He said: “I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”.

Well, you can excommunicate me on my way to Sunday school,
And have all the bishops harmonise these lines.

Richard II (William Shakespeare)

On this day (7 February) in 1601, the day before the Earl of Essex‘s planned rebellion against Elizabeth I, his agents bribed the Chamberlain’s Men to stage a performance of Richard II. He believed that the deposition scene, where the unpopular king willingly abdicates his reign, would steel the rebels in their resolve. Essex was executed on 25 February 1601.

See: This Sceptred Isle

‘This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle’: so begins probably the most famous speech from Richard II, William Shakespeare’s 1590s history play about the fall of the Plantagenet king. These words are spoken by the dying John of Gaunt, and the phrases he uses – from ‘this royal throne of kings’ and ‘this sceptre isle’ to ‘this other Eden’ and many others – have become known in the popular consciousness. Source

I have a very fond memory of a performance of Richard II by the RSC in the Roundhouse, London, it was memorable for a dramatic deposition scene where sand poured onto the lone king from a great height for a prolonged period.

Feast of St Luke

Today (Sunday 18 October 2020) there’s a focus on anti-human trafficking and modern slavery in the Salvation Army, but I’m leaving that theme for others to cover, focusing instead on the Feast of St Luke.

If you’d like to know more about the work of the Salvation Army in supporting victims of modern slavery you can find out more here.

So, turning back to Luke (the patron saint of medicine and healing), Church of England cathedrals will today be praying for the healing of the nation, as well as for all those working in health and social care services.

Having said all that, I’m sure we can carry both emphases in our minds and find links between them, healing for victims of modern slavery and healing for our nation in a time of national crisis.

Luke is especially known as the gospel writer who focussed on the poor and the outcast, relating parables and incidents in the life of Jesus to illustrate this. He shared a faith that held truth to power, one that brought the values of God’s kingdom to people, the way of vulnerability and unconditional love.

In 2 Timothy 4:5-17 he’s referred to as one of the disciples who travelled beyond the Holy Land to share the story of Jesus. It’s thought that he was a companion of Paul, and in Colossians he’s called the beloved physician.

He’s the author of Luke’s Gospel along with its continuation, the book we know as the Acts of the Apostles. This latter book picks up the events after Jesus’ death and resurrection and tells how his story and message spread in the early days of the church. Luke is someone who has given us precious insights into the life and person of Jesus, and shaped our understanding of the spread of Christianity

Luke highlights parables which show Christ’s love for the poor and marginalised, women, children, the outcast, and the disabled. He also warns us about the dangers of wealth and encourages generosity. In Luke, the traditional order of things is upended, like the overturning of the tables in the temple. The tax collector is closer to God than the man of religion, and the wayward son is blessed by his father in what appears to be favouritism to his elder brother. In this upside-down world of Jesus, it’s the poor, lost and vulnerable who are welcomed and blessed.

Here’s the heart of the revolutionary message of Jesus; one which crosses boundaries, upsets established traditions, and disturbs the comfortable and complacent status quo.

Isaiah, in the Old Testament, offers us a glimpse into the heart of Jesus described in his gospel. Isaiah 35:3-6 gives us a vision of radical transformation, something that’s central to the Kingdom of God. 2 Timothy 4:5-17 (already mentioned) speaks of the courage and willingness needed to embrace these new values of Jesus.

Luke 10:1-9 describes Jesus sending out disciples to share his radical message, a message that may challenges our attitudes and values, suggesting they may need to be overturned.

The kingdom of God has come near to you.

Are we ready to be open-hearted? Are we ready to have our deepest assumptions challenged? Are we ready to embrace the values of Jesus?

Luke brings us, in his gospel, the timeless and up-to-date message of Jesus. One that demands courage, humility, and a willingness to change. One that calls for inclusion, an acceptance of all those unlike us. Jesus lifts everyone up and places them on the highest level where everyone is loved and valued.

A supreme vision of humanity that he was prepared to die for.

Dear God, we pray for victims of human trafficking, for those who have been dehumanized and held captive by the greed and violence of a broken world. For girls and boys, women, and men, who are bought and sold and abused by those who have forgotten the eternal value of a human soul. May they rediscover their worth in you. And may we affirm their worth as individuals who are made in your image.

Lord, reveal the way our choices may play a part in keeping others captives by creating demand for more slaves, and give us courage to make different choices. Give us eyes to see injustice and exploitation, and give us the courage to speak out against evil. Use us to bring light into the darkened corners of this world, that they may not remain dark forever.

May Your light expose the evil deeds of the captors, and may your love create a change of heart within those who are perpetrators of human trafficking. Use us to loosen the chains of injustice and let the oppressed go free.

We pray for an end to the evil that is human trafficking, and we pray that the victims of trafficking may find restoration and healing in you. Amen.

Note: the source of the above prayer can be found here.

77 Million Paintings (Brian Eno)

During the five years I lived in Wallsend I was looking for this, but could never find it. I finally found it after moving to Norton in July this year following my retirement. What is it, you ask?

Brian Eno is one of my heroes. He’s a creative, a musician, a thinker, an innovator, an artist, a music producer – someone with a finger in many pies, who always produces something new and meaningful.

What I was looking for was 77 Million Paintings (released in 2006) – a book, a digital art computer program and a DVD. It was an evolutionary work in Brian Eno’s exploration into light as an artist’s medium and the aesthetic possibilities of generative software. This piece utilises the computer’s unique capacity as a generating processor to produce original visual compounds out of a large quantity of hand-painted elements, along with similarly produced music. I’m pleased I finally found it.

The release consists of two discs, one containing the software that creates the randomised music and images that emulate a single screen of one of Eno’s video installation pieces. The other is a DVD containing interviews with the artist. The title is derived from the possible number of combinations of video and music which can be generated by the software, effectively ensuring that the same image/soundscape is never played twice. Wikipedia.

You can find me on Goodreads (click the link), and see all my 2020 books here.

Aeolian Motion (Phil Johnson)

This morning I took Freddy with me to do some jobs in Stockton-on-Tees town centre, but we also had some fun and did some sightseeing. Freddy got soaking wet in the fountains and had to walk back to the car in wet shorts and bare feet, fortunately there were some spare clothes in the car. You can see the photos here.

We also had a walk along the riverside, passing a striking piece of constantly moving public art entitled Aeolian Motion (Phil Johnson). It was erected in March 2001 as part of a regeneration plan for the area and was inspired by the endless flow of the river and its rich history (see plaque below).

Remembering Ian Curtis


On this day (18 May 1980) Joy Division lyricist and singer Ian Curtis took his own life, a tortured star whose influence both at the time and since has been immense. Actor Sam Riley brilliantly portrays Curtis in Control, Anton Corbijn‘s 2007 film of the Joy Division singer’s life and suicide.

Although there have been those who have sought to glamorise his death as a rock and roll suicide, in reality it was a consequence of his lack of control over many aspects of his personal life. The debilitating effects of epilepsy, the deception of having an affair, the almost inevitable breakdown of his marriage, and the prospect of separation from his year-old baby daughter. As he sang, “All the failures of the modern man”.

The classic and influential album Unknown Pleasures (released in 1979) revealed a profoundly dark poet and a starkly grim realist, a very different voice in music at the time, one who added deep insight and intelligence to the post-punk movement. It’s one of my influential albums.

The clues were there though. In the track Shadowplay, Ian Curtis sings, “In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more…” and in New Dawn Fades, there’s one in the very title as well as the words, “The strain is too much, can’t take much more”.


Once the truly shocking news broke that Ian Curtis had taken his own life, there came the full realisation that his writhing and twisted dancing on stage wasn’t simply performance art, he was genuinely wrestling with his emotional and physical demons, as well as reflecting how hopeless, meaningless and inhuman he felt our world had become.

Tragic as any death is, we’re often drawn to those in public life who take their own lives, and there are many examples. Listening to the album Closer (released soon after his death) was uncanny and slightly unnerving, a feeling that persists four decades after his death.


So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride
What once was innocence turned on it’s side
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move
Deep in the memory of what once was love

Oh, how I realized I wanted time
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find
Just for one moment I thought I’d got my way
Destiny unfolded, watched it slip away

Excessive flash points beyond all reach
Solitary demands for all I’d like to keep
Let’s take a ride out, see what we can find
Valueless collection of hopes and past desires

I never realized the lengths I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know
Just for one moment, hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all

Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong
Got to find some therapy, treatment takes too long
Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway
Got to find my destiny before it gets too late

Twenty Four Hours (from Closer)

I remember a survey from a few years back revealing that more people take their own lives in May than in any other month. Apparently, “the juxtaposition between a literally blooming world and the barren inner life of the clinically depressed is often too much for them to bear”.

We remember Ian Curtis because of his musical influence and legacy, but there’s also many thousands of young men who take their own lives each year, and I particularly remember one whose funeral I conducted a few years ago. A reminder to do all we can to reduce the stigma of mental illness in society, and to support those who are suffering. On this tragic anniversary, a fitting way to remember Ian Curtis.

See also: Transmission (Joy Division)

See also: Unknown Pleasures (Joy Division)