In Christ there is no male or female

•November 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Christie’s New York image of Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi

Media coverage of the sale of Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” has focussed on just that – the sale of the work, in other words, perceptions of its financial value, rather than its artistic value. Journalists have criticised its $450M price tag, its extensive restoration, and even the depiction of the refraction of light in the orb (which don’t forget represents the world which Christ is saving), but there has been precious little written about the work itself.

Is it now old fashioned to suggest that looking at a work of art can be a life changing experience? I can remember encounters with several works of art in my life: Dali’s crucifixion (when it was on loan at London’s National Gallery), and Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Man”, to name just two. Henri J.M. Nouwen wrote a book about his encounter with Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”.

Looking at this image I feel a profound sense of peace. The image is androgynous: writing in 2011 (six years ago), the Oxford scholar Martin Kemp noted both its uncanny, ethereal quality and its resemblance to the Mona Lisa. Some have called the painting the “male Mona Lisa”, an apposite comparison, but I am reminded more of St Paul’s letter to the Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. The message of the painting seems to be never more relevant than it is today.

If I had had $450M knocking around, I’d certainly have bid for this painting.


Loving kindness – O mercy

•February 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Google the term “loving kindness” and the first hits will take you to the Buddhist term ‘Mette’, one of the four Buddhist Brahma-vihara, high virtues, the practice of which is said to lead one to be more like the Buddha.

However a very similar term exists in Hebrew and is found throughout the Old Testament. Chesed חסד has two principal translations in the Old Testament: mercy (140 times) and lovingkindness (30 times) (references to the KJV). The word is used a lot in the Psalms, but the key text for me is this one in Micah:

This is what Yahweh asks of you:
that you act justly
that you love chesed
that you walk humbly with your God.
– Micha 6:8

One term, chesed חסד, covers what for us are two concepts: mercy, and loving-kindness. (In the latin Vulgate bible, Jerome chose misericordia, which means compassionate mercy: the pity, misereri, of the heart, cor). The quote from Micah juxtaposes mercy with justice. These two have always been balanced, something we see in the scales held by Lady Justice (Lustitia) who sits atop many court buildings in the Western world.

The scales of justice
The scales balance not only the two sides of the case, but also the requirements of justice and mercy. For whilst mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution, justice without mercy is cruelty (St Thomas Aquinas).

These words ring in my ears as we see the struggles of the Greek people. In a country of 11 million people, more than 300,000 children are now suffering from malnutrition (Unicef). Everyone knows the problems of the Greek nation: a corrupt oligarchy who pay little tax, whilst – not so well known – the ordinary people actually work the longest hours in Europe (OECD official figures). They have contributed to their own downfall. Nevertheless, when I hear German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble say: “Elections change nothing. Rules are rules”, my soul is pained and says: for pity’s sake.

Recollection = mindfulness? Yes and no

•July 18, 2013 • 1 Comment

I read on a Franciscan website that recollection is the attention to the presence of God in the soul. It is, in other words, the practice of the presence of God (which brings one straight to the 17th Century spiritual classic of the same name).
In Buddhism, mindfulness is attention to presence itself. It is the practice of presence.
Are these the same? Well, the intention appears to be different; but, once presence = Presence, pof! The difference disappears.

Christ enthroned between the Sun and Moon

•July 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The third largest church in Assisi, after the Basilicas of San Francesco and Santa Chiara, is the church of San Rufino, which is actually the Cathedral (the bishop’s seat). The present church is a Romanesque building, construction of which was begun in 1140. This is the church in which Saint Francis was baptised.

Unfortunately the interior was completely remodelled in the 16th century in late Renaissance style but the Romanesque façade remains. In the central portal, a relief above the main doors shows Christ enthroned between the sun and the moon. The best time to take a photograph of this is late on a summer afternoon at around 7pm, when the sun has come round far enough to illuminate the relief but not before the evening shadow starts creeping up the façade.

San Rufino - Christ enthroned between the sun and moon
This is nothing to do with Sir Brother Sun and Sister Moon of St Francis’s Canticle. In the relief, Christ holds a book. This is the book of judgement (Rev 5) and this tells us that this is a depiction of Christ in judgement over the world. When Christ opened the sixth seal of the book, the sun was darkened and the moon turned to blood – the same signs that took place at the crucifixion. Depictions of this verse in illuminated manuscripts show Christ enthroned above the sun and moon. Similarly, Orthodox icons of the crucifixion show the darkened sun and red moon on either side of Christ.

Despite this, the symbolism feels alchemical. Christ’s central position showing how he exists at the balance between the sun and moon. As scripture says, in Christ there is no male and female.

Praise him, sun and moon,
Priase him, shining stars
– Psalm 148:3

The Canticle of the Creatures

•July 4, 2013 • Leave a Comment

In an age desperately in need of an intelligent response to the environmental crisis, St Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures suddenly sounds very contemporary.

Piero Casentini - Francesco e il pettirossoMost High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours is the praise is Yours, the glory,
the honour and all blessing.
To you alone, Most High,
do they belong,
and no man is worthy
to mention you.

Canticle of the Creatures - Brother Fore - Piero CasentiniPraised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun.
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Canticle of the Creatures - Sister Moon - Piero CasentiniBe praised, my Lord,
through Sister Moon and the stars,
in the heavens you have made them bright,
precious and fair.

Canticle of the Creatures - Brother Wind - Piero CasentiniBe praised, my Lord,
through Brother Wind,
and through air and clouds
and fine and every weather
through which You nourish
all your creatures.

Canticle of the Creatures - Sister Water - Piero CasentiniPraised be You, my Lord,
through Sister Water,
so useful, humble,
precious and pure.

Canticle of the Creatures - Brother Fire - Piero CasentiniBe praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night;
He is beautiful and playful
and robust and strong.

Canticle of the Creatures - Sister, Mother Earth - Piero CasentiniBe praised, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits
with coloured flowers and herbs

Canticle of the Creatures - Sister Death - Piero CasentiniBe praised, my Lord,
through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Blessed are they She finds doing Your Holy Will.
The second death can do them no harm.

I praise you and bless you my Lord
and thank you and serve you
with great humility.

Images © Piero Casentini, made for the Sanctuary of San Damiano at Assisi.

Becoming your true name

•June 16, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Aidan Hart - TransfigurationI think love of God is becoming your true self, becoming the name that God has given you, which means using all your gifts, your abilities, your character.
Sometimes life with God is seen as self denial in the sense of “do whatever you don’t want to do, so you end up just destroying yourself.
But life with God is becoming your true name.

Aidan Hart, icon painter, interviewed on Radio New Zealand.

The Tree of Life in Ancient Egypt

•June 15, 2013 • 4 Comments

This morning, at the 7th symposium of Margaret Barker’s Temple Studies Group,
I listened to a fascinating presentation by Professor John Hall about the Lady in the Temple in Ancient Egypt.

Ished treeOne of the Lady’s symbols is the Tree of Life and this is true in Ancient Egypt as well. Professor Hall says, these are not two ladies, but one lady venerated in two places.

In the Old Kingdom, this tree was the ished tree (right), which is an evergreen tree we call the persea (Mimusops Schimperi). The names of the ascended ones are written on its leaves.

For a description of this tree, one can turn to a 16th century French book of emblems, Hadrianus Junius’s Emblemata (1565). Junius quotes Pliny as describing the fruit as either oblong or amygdalaceus, almond shaped.

Hadrianus Junius - Emblemata (1565) EMBLEMA XXVII

The fruit of the persea symbolized the “Sacred Heart” of Horus, and eating it gave Eternal Life and knowledge of the Divine Plan.

Bast protects the persea, the Tree of Life from Apophis
In Egyptian mythology, the tree is threatened by the snake god Apophis, god of the underworld and symbol of the forces of chaos, but is protected by the lioness/cat goddess Bast, lower Egypt’s equivalent of upper Egypt’s Hathor. The name Bast means devouring lady, and in its later form Bastet, perfumed oil.

A related mother goddess is Mut, whose name refers to the primordial waters of the cosmos. In their 1899 book The Temple of Mut in Asher, the archeologists Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay give some of her titles as Lady of the Sacred Lake and Lady of Asher. Asheru/Isheru was the name for the sacred lakes of Mut such as the one in her temple at Karnak, and strongly reminiscent of the Hebrew mother goddess Asher.

Later, due to the desiccation of the land, the persea died out and its attributes were transferred to the Sycamore Tree (nehet) – not to be confused with the sycomore tree mentioned in the bible, which is a kind of fig tree. Hathor was called “Lady of the Sycamore” and the dead were buried in coffins of sycamore wood, returning them to the womb of the mother goddess. Tomb paintings show Hathor sprouting from the trunk, offering water and the fruit of the tree.

The Lady offers fruit and water from the Tree of Life

The Lady offers fruit and water from the Tree of Life

Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
happy are those who hold her tightly.
– Proverbs 3:18

In Egypt today, sycamore trees are associated with the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family. An article by the Egyptian Tourist Board, In the Shade of Trees says that the oldest sycamore tree in Egypt is in Mataria and is known as Virgin Mary Tree.

The Mary Tree from Heliopolis
Mataria may take its name from this tree, as it is thought to be named after the latin mater, mother. According to legend, the Holy Family sheltered under this tree during the flight to Egypt. (Some versions of the story say that the tree opened up and hid the holy family inside itself). Mataria was a popular pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages and there is a chapel to the Virgin Mary nearby. The tree was thought to have healing properties. Pilgrims took its leaves and even stripped its bark. The present tree was planted in 1672 from a shoot of the older one and may be the third generation tree on this site. There is also a sweet-water spring which the infant Jesus is said to have caused to appear.

Mataria itself is near Cairo, in the district of ancient Heliopolis. The legend of the Virgin’s tree links to an older cult; for the ancient Egyptians venerated a tree in Heliopolis beneath which Isis was believed to have suckled the infant Horus. Note too that in the Old Testament, Joseph’s wife was a priestess of Heliopolis [Hebrew “On”] [Gen 41:45].