Friday, 21 March 2014

On Holy Ground: A Personal Reflection on Lent

Today, I'm delighted to share a reflection on Lent written by the lovely Sr Judith, a member of the Benedictine community at Turvey Abbey. Here, Judith reflects on the meaning of Lent, its historical roots and the personal significance it has in her life and ministry. 

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Lent began in the early years of the Church as a preparation for the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. It seems originally to have lasted for the two or three days before Easter Sunday. Over time this period was extended to 40 days to imitate the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4: 1 -- 11). The first official mention of Lent as lasting 40 days is at the Council of Nicaea in CE 325. In many languages the word for "Lent" is related to the word forty (Italian: quaresima, Spanish: Cuaresma, French: Carême).

Lent is both a penitential season and a joyful one. It is penitential in requiring us to acknowledge our sin and to turn back to God asking forgiveness and seeking mercy. It is a joyful season because we know that God is compassionate and loving and welcomes us back with open arms. 

Lent is still a time of preparation for the great feast of the resurrection. I generally find that it is better to prepare for Easter by doing something extra during Lent than by giving something up. Each Lent I find myself faced with the same question. How can I best use this time to prepare to encounter the risen Lord at Easter? So I ask myself what spiritual practices, what ways of behaving will best open my heart to his life-transforming presence in my life? There are two "images" from our monastic prayer in Lent which helps me to focus on these questions.

 Image ©Turvey Abbey

O that today you would listen to his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Each Sunday in Lent we begin our morning prayer by singing this verse from Psalm 95, "O that today you would listen to his voice; harden not your hearts." This is always a bit of a wake-up call. Listening is at the centre of the Christian call. The first word of the rule of St Benedict is a call to listen to the voice of God. It's very easy to allow myself be distracted from that. In Lent I'm reminded to make a greater effort to turn away from distractions and to tune the ear of my heart to the voice of God in my life.

This verse also reminds me that if I want to spiritual renewal I need to look at the condition of my heart. I need to look at where it's become hard, stony and unresponsive to the word of God and to the needs of those around me. I need to allow my heart to become open and vulnerable again to God's presence in my life. I need to look at the parts of my heart that I have closed off from the touch of God and to allow God in to transform them.

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in the shape of a flame of fire.”

My second image is from the book of Exodus. Early in Lent we hear of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1 -- 20). This always strikes me forcefully and is an image I carry with me for the rest of Lent. There are several things in it that help me and challenge me as I prepare for Easter. The first is that Moses has no control over this encounter. God initiates it, breaking into the pattern of Moses’ daily routine, and God directs the whole encounter. God can also break into the pattern of my daily life, disrupting my plans and leading me in new and unexpected directions. Like Moses I am called to step aside from my daily activities, however important I think they are, to listen and respond to God's call.

“The place on which you stand is holy ground.”

"Take off your shoes" God tells Moses "for the place on which you stand is holy ground." Hearing this I am reminded that I, like Moses, stand on holy ground. Whatever I do, whatever relationship I'm involved in, whatever work I'm engaged in I stand in the presence of the living God at all times. Lent calls me to reflect on what it means to stand on holy ground in the 21st century. How does it affect, the way I live, the way I work and the way I relate to other people?

God offers Moses a promise and a challenge. God promises to be with him however difficult things get and however desperate he feels. God also promises to be with me. Lent gives me the Image opportunity to reconnect with that promise. It allows me to deepen my awareness of God's presence sustaining me in every situation.

God challenges Moses to go beyond his comfort zone in ways that he would never have dreamt of. Like Moses, I am challenged by God to move beyond my comfort zone. Lent is a time for me to examine my boundaries and to go beyond them in reaching out to others in love and service. I am challenged to put my own will and concerns aside for the good of others in big things and small. I am challenged to look around me to see where I can lighten the burdens of the people I meet.

“Choose life.”

The English word "Lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon for "to lengthen". It is a time for spiritual "lengthening", a time to allow myself to be stretched by God, a time for new growth and new life. Each year my hope for Lent is that it will stretch and challenge me, drawing me into new life so that I will be able to embrace the presence of the Risen Christ in the great feast of Easter.

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Sr Judith has been a member of the Benedictine community at Turvey Abbey for 20 years. She leads retreats and offers spiritual direction. She is interested in Benedictine spirituality, praying with scripture, creativity and prayer, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. She enjoys cycling and messing around with a camera

Her community follow the Rule of St Benedict and has a particular interest in Liturgy and Ecumenism.“The focus of our life is to seek God in all things,” Judith explains, “We live Gospel values in love and service, open always to the needs of the world. Our lives are based on prayer and this affects every aspect of our lives and work. By developing an awareness of the presence of God in daily life we seek to radiate God’s life and peace to all those we encounter. People of every faith and spiritual tradition, all who “truly seek God” (Rule of St Benedict), are warmly welcome to join us in prayer.”

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Reading Injuries and Getting Intimate

What could be a better way to spend a sleepy-eyed Sunday morning than a cosy chitchat about books? So curl up, get comfy, and join in! 

We all have a certain writer that we find ourselves inexpricably drawn to - a writer we connect with on an intellectual, emotional, or even spiritual level. Being able to form a truly personal connection with a person we've never met is one of the most beautiful aspects of reading. 

We're often worlds apart from the writers we love. We occupy different spaces in terms of gender, race, socio-economic background, or even state of consciousness, with many of our favourite writers having been dead for years! 

Yet, the relationship between writer and reader is one of the most intimate there is. The writer pours part of themselves onto the page and the reader brings their words to life, infusing them with their own shades of meaning. 

The act of reading is a partnership. The author builds a house, but the reader makes it a home.” Judi Picoult, Between the Lines

But it's not only the words which weave themselves into our consciousness, but the physical memories of where we were when we read them become precious memories too. 

I remember thorny branches poking my side as I pored over Harry Potter from the heights of a pink-tinged Magnolia tree. I remember the sting of sharp-edged pages crashing onto the bridge of my nose as the hot sun melted the glue binding my flimsy copy of The Lord of the Rings. And then there was the time I sustained inumerable bruises from crashing into display stands as I shuffled nose-deep in Roald Dahl's Esio Trot during a overly long shopping trip. 

Reading always leaves a physical impression on us: a crank in the neck from lying down horizontally, a twinge in the wrist after reading into the early hours, and pins and needles from propping oneself up on spindly elbows.

So why do we put ourselves through the discomfort? 

Because the act of reading is never wasted. The times we've spent absorbed in books have been weaving us into the people we are today and their influence, whether discernable or not, continues to shape us long after we've put the book down to rest our aching limbs.  

So over to you! 
What are your cherished memories of reading? 
Who are the writers or bloggers who you connect with most? And why?

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Keep an eye out for new articles and upcoming guest posts for LoveInshallah and MuslimGirl

Sunday, 19 January 2014

TV Interview on Rai 3

A fortnight ago, I was delighted to be invited to do an interview on Rai 3 with journalist Nelson Bova. I spoke about my interest in Interfaith dialogue and my experiences in Italy as a teacher and Muslim woman. 

Here is the full interview with English subtitles and footage of Bologna:

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Attraversando Le Barriere di Lingua, Cultura e Religione

Mentre si prepara per una recente intervista tv, mi chiedevo come avrei potuto riassumere le mie attività. Ciò che accomuna i diversi soggetti che parlo in merito? Sono arrivato a questa conclusione:  

In tutto quello che faccio: nell'insegnamento, nella scrittura, nel parlare, la cosa più importante per me è la comunicazione. Il linguaggio non riguarda solo, per così dire, un piano accademico. Si tratta di un modo di comunicare - che ci consente di parlare, ascoltare e capire.

Quando insegno, ovviamente insegno la grammatica e la pronuncia. Ma questi sono solo strumenti. Il linguaggio è molto più profondo. Ci permette di conoscere un altro mondo - un altro modo di vivere.

Per esempio, prima di venire in italia, la mia mente era piena di stereotipi conoscevo solo la pizza, la mozzerella e la Gioconda. Solo quando ho cominciato a imparare l'italiano, ho cominciato a capire le persone. come pensano, quello che sentono. È stato incredibile. La mia vita è più ricca grazie alle mie esperienze in Italia.

Nel rispetto del insegnamento, è incredibile vedere gli italiani diventare più sicuri quando imparano l'inglese. Dà loro un senso di controllo. Permette loro di ricordare che sono capaci. 

è finalmente, mi sono impegnata al dialogo interreligioso. Il dialogo interreligioso è basato sul presupposto che tutte le parti coinvolte accettino e operino per la tolleranza e il rispetto reciproco. Non è importante che siamo d'accordo, invece, dobbiamo affrontarci con rispetto reciproco e una mente aperta. In questo modo possiamo attraversare le barriere che ci impediscono di parlare gli uni agli altri. Possiamo parlare tra di noi come persone, non per etichette, a un livello personale.

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Articoli correlati per gli italiani che vogliono imparare l'inglese:

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Radio Interview on Interfaith and Expat Life

Following a recent TV appearance, I was delighted to be contacted by local station Radio Città Del Capo and asked to do an interview regarding my involvement in Interfaith Activism and my experience as an Expat in Italy.

You can tune in to Audio Fixation, a weekly show for English speakers and expats in Bologna, with the lovely host Laurell Boyers-Bastiani every Wednesday from 10:00 - 10:30 (CET - Central European Time / GMT+1).

You can listen to the full interview here or click above

If you're not from the Bologna area you can also access Audio Fixation online here. Radio Città Del Capo is also a great station for those of you who want to listen to Italian programmes and improve your Italian skills at the same time. 

You can also follow Audio Fixation on Facebook and Twitter.

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So, over to you! 
What can communities do to overcome religious and cultural divisions? 
What is your advice for expats moving abroad if they want to feel part of the local community? 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Negating My Britishness (During an Awkward Taxi Ride)

“Where are you from?”

“I'm from this area, I'm visiting family.”

“No, where are you from?”

I was confused by this seemingly unnecessary question. But not wishing to stand in the way of polite small talk, I thought I'd better oblige and give the taxi driver some more information. I opened my mouth but only got as far as aspiration. I suddenly became conscious of the scarf draped around my face, a new addition since my last visit home. With a withering realization, I began to regret getting into this particular taxi.

The driver continued to squint at me through the rear view mirror, waiting for an answer. Unfortunately, what tumbled out of my mouth was the cringeworthy and instantly regrettable reply, “I'm English-English.” I didn't have time to reflect on the problems with that statement and I just had to leave it hovering ambiguously in the air between me and the taxi driver.

”But you're one of them Muslims, aren't you?”

There was nothing else to do but give an affirmative nod and face the backlash that would surely follow. The driver needed no further encouragement and began a passionate rant, peppered with the usual suspects of, 'coming over 'ere,' 'violent danger to society' and 'taking over.' The fluidity of his delivery suggested that he'd recited this spiel to many an unfortunate backseat passenger. Meanwhile, I just fiddled with my luggage tag, hoping that if I rubbed it hard enough, I might magically find myself at Grandma's house.

A natural pause for breath was signalled by a red traffic light. The driver's arm stretched out to hug the passenger seat and he turned to face me, expectantly.

I smiled. The same awkward, toothy smile one might give a passport control officer to reassure them your face and the decade-old photo are one and the same. The driver clearly wasn't satisifed with my reserved politeness in the face of conflict:

“Look, you seem like a nice lady, why on earth would you become Muslim?”

Realizing I couldn't avoid the topic any longer, I gave a paint by numbers runthrough of my story. Along the way, I gently corrected some of the more outrageous generalisations he'd made, but when his interested 'um's' turned into disgruntled 'hmph's,' I let my sentence tail off with a clumsy 'so, yeah...'

After a drawn-out shrug of the shoulders, the driver continued,

“I don't get it. You're British but you don't drink beer or eat bacon? There's something not right there.”

Being defined by what we eat isn't a new concept for Brits. Historically, we've been known as 'le roast beef,' 'limeys,' and 'poms.' Even in my capacity as a teacher, students feel strangely assured of my professional “Englishness” by the tea tin nestled under my arm and the mug constantly cradled in my hands.

But these stereotypes, whether outdated or reflecting a singular aspect of British culture, do not define what it is to be British. The idea that a teetotal lifestyle somehow negates my Britishness is as absurd as claiming an Italian who doesn't drink espresso is an imposter. In fact, aside from a brief flirt with Italian wine during my year abroad, I hadn't drunk alcohol as a Christian either. Although sometimes I'd received raised eyebrows or a barrage of questions, my “Britishness” had never been in doubt.

The concept of “Britishness” is entirely relative and can't be reduced to a simple check list. Yes, cultural markers are useful. They give us familiar reference points which can reinforce our sense of belonging. Understanding the emotional significance of the last Rolo and being able to quote Monty Python's Parrot sketch verbatim can bring us closer together, but you wouldn't disown someone for not having seen Only Fools and Horses (however shocking we may find that confession at the time!).

The concept of “Britishness” is constantly shifting, squeezed into whatever form gives the greatest advantage to opportunist politicians, the media or the far-right. And contrary to what they might have you believe, being British doesn't make you an automatic Royalist. It doesn't oblige you to wear a poppy if the support-the-armed-forces-at-all-costs mentality makes you uneasy. If you were feeling really bold, you could even try tea without milk. Although I can't vouch for your safety on that one!

Integration within a society doesn't mean assimilation, being stripped of what makes us individuals. We don't all have to think in the same way to be part of the same nation. Assimilation would only lead to a band of British Borg with bowler hats and brollies!

Being comfortable with our own pluralism, accepting our contraditions and complexities, makes us better equipped to deal with those who try to pigeonhole us for their convinience.

Of course, sidestepping simple categorization can lead to confusion. Not least for my poor taxi driver! He became increasingly frustrated when my answers didn't fit the mould of the fantastical Daily Mail Muslims he'd read so much about. He began to sway between pronouns, muddling 'me and you lot' with 'us and them.' Spiky accusations became inquisitive questions and as the taxi drove up to its final stop, the transparent screen was the only barrier remaining between us.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Nativity Scene Through Art History

Christmas is a time when we allow ourselves to indulge in nostalgia and memories of Christmasses past. After writing, On Being Mary, I was reminded of a History of Art talk I was invited to do one chilly Christmas morning several years back. The presentation centred around the Nativity Scene through time, exposing the fib of Mary's iconic blue veil and giving a voice to poor Joseph, woefully neglected through the ages. After a little tweaking, here it is for you! 

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It took several hundred years after the birth of Jesus/Isa for Christianity to be adopted as the main religion within the Roman Empire. In the meantime, Christians were persecuted for their faith and any form of worship or use of Christian imagery had to be completely hush-hush. As a result, the main form of art tended to be on secret sarcophagi and in catacombs where the walls were covered in murals and paintings.

The artists commissioned to paint these artworks weren’t necessarily Christian themselves. And for that reason, they didn’t see any problem in just recycling or adapting Roman imagery so sometimes you’d even find bizarre images of Jesus looking like a Roman Emperor. Due to the secretive nature of Christian worship at the time, the artists could rest assured that their controversial fusion of Roman and emerging Christian symbols would remain hidden from those who might seek to arrest them for their efforts.

The paintings and friezes in the catacombs were usually very simple. Typically, they just showed Jesus in a cave, wrapped up inside a wicker basket. While nowadays we think of Mary as a crucial element in the Nativity, in the centuries before Christianity became mainstream, Mary was only ever included in scenes which featured the Wise Men. Poor Joseph was pretty much a no-show for the whole period. And just to make matters worse, Tim Winter (in an incredibly interesting and informative podcast with Vicky Beeching) stated that Joseph was also airbrushed out of the Nativity narrative in the Quran

The baby Jesus wasn't left all on his own though. He was always accompanied by an ox and a donkey. Their presence was based on a Biblical verse: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib" (Isaiah 1 verse 3). By the 5th century, Mary had become a fixed figure in the nativity scene following a decision by a council of church officials and the Nativity as we know it today was beginning to take shape. Joseph, as always, relied on the kindness of individual artists as to whether or not he got a look in.

Once Christianity reached the West, the depictions of the nativity began to change. Western artists preferred to place Jesus in the setting of a wooden stable rather than a stone cave. Although to this day, Italian nativities (presepi) choose to create ornate caves for the delicately carved figurines of the Holy family

Fast forward to the Early Renaissance and most artworks were commisioned by wealthy patrons to be housed in churches. The rich patrons wanted to show off their wealth with elaborate alterpieces (above) and so the artists would use real gold for the halos and expensive dyes to create dazzling colours.

If you were ridiculously well-off then you could afford blue dye which came from a crushed up gemstone called Lapis Lazuli. As a consequence, artists began to paint Mary in this expensive blue even though realistically she wouldn't have been able to afford the pigment required to dye her clothes that vibrant colour (below). The general population only wore browns and earthy colours which were naturally available to them.

These patrons also showed their importance by having themselves painted into the picture as figures being blessed by the baby Jesus. In The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling (below), the central panel shows Sir John Donne kneeling in adoration to the Virgin Mary and Child with Saint Catherine, while Lady Donne and their daughter are accompanied by Saint Barbara. The triptych has shutters on the left and right which show Sir John Donne's name saints, Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Of course, normal peasant folk weren’t allowed to see the inner designs of these triptychs so they would be closed when not in use.

During the Renaissance the Nativity scene went through another transformation. The catalyst for the change in direction was Saint Bridget of Sweden who, in the 14th century, was said to have had a vision of Jesus lying on ground. She wrote:
‘I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty…’

Artists really took to the idea of Jesus radiating light because it fitted incredibly well with the style of painting that was in fashion at the time. Artists at the time were showcasing chiaroscuro, the technique of contrasting light and shadow, and even began to paint nativity scenes at night in order to emphasise the stark contrast in shading. In Correggio's painting (below) Jesus is so bright that he lights up Mary’s face and so dazzling that his radiance is blinding the woman near him.

We mark the end of the Renaissance with Caravaggio who was known for causing a stir (to put it mildly!). Even after death, Caravaggio's works continue to be involved in scandal. The painting below is currently the most expensive painting that has been stolen and never recovered (with most accusatory fingers pointing at Mafia involvement). 

When it was created, the painting was rejected by the Church because they opposed the fact that Mary was modelled on a suspected prostitute and most of Caravaggio's models were rather dodgy characters. They also weren't all that keen on Caravaggio's realism which meant that all of the figures had wrinkles and dirty feet. No one wants to see filthy feet in church. Caravaggio liked to make everything look realistic so he set the scenes in contemporary settings with figures dressed in plain brown clothes, shunning costly dyes such as Lapiz Lazuli and omitting the golden halos. 

But the reason Caravaggio painted in that way because he wanted to make paintings that actually meant something to the ordinary people looking at it. He wanted paintings to resonate with the people and so he tried new ways to make the nativity story come to life.

Charles Le Brun - Adoration of the Shepherds (17th century)

From the 16th century, we enter the Roccoco phase where frivolous embellishment became the art world's obsession. Plain Nativities with just the Holy Family went out of fashion and instead the canvases were plastered with people. Chaotic and colourful crowds fill every nook and cranny of the image like a Christmassy Where's Wally. The scenes from this period depict frantic movement as the excited worshippers rush to see the newborn child. 

The abundance of Nativity scenes through history mean that we're able to have a glimpse into how different ages interpreted the Christmas story and reflect on how we view it in a modern setting. It is a powerful image, regardless of whether we're Christian, Muslim, or from a non-faith background. Whether we consider it the beginning of Jesus's life on earth, just a warm and fuzzy story, or a narrative about parents struggling to bring a child into the world in the harshest of situations - the Nativity scene has stood the test of time and continues to have the ability to resonate with us on a very personal level.  

Which featured paintings resonated with you most?
What are your favourite Nativity paintings or images and why?

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Related Articles: 
A Muslim Celebrating Christmas? 
Rachel Pieh Jones Rethinks the Nativity
The Story of Jesus' Birth Told by the Inhabitants of Bethlehem 

Upcoming post: Christmas Through Alternative Eyes

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Being Mary & Embarrassing Nativity Memories

For most Sunday school age girls, there is one honour which is much sought after and incredibly hard to come by. Taking on the role of Mary in the Christmas play is the church equivalent of acheiving Primadonna status in Swan Lake. It's the Holy Grail of the Nativity. A young girl can enjoy being a shining star dressed all in white or an angel adorned with a tinsel halo but really, we all want to be Mary.

I had the distinction of portraying Mary not only once, but three times. I concede that being a ministers' daughter no doubt helped the casting process along, but I'd like to think that it was my earnest portrayal of a cow the previous year that boosted my profile and earnt me the role of Mary. 

I was swathed in a blue sheet and tried to look sufficiently meek and mild while the mischievous shepherds played with their tamagotchies behind the cardboard stable. At fifteen, I returned to a previous church for an encore as Mary. To the surprise of the back row, I produced a pregnancy bump so convincing that one could hear audible gasps as I made my entrance! And finally, when I was eighteen, I acted alongside my brother (as my husband Joseph) and I don't think either of us particulary want to dwell on this awkward event. So, moving on swiftly...

Minimalist Nativity: credit

Any smugness that I may harbour about being Mary is soon expunged by the recollection of a particularly embarrassing Nativity. What happened in that church hall eighteen years ago still haunts me to this day. And it is a fear we all share. 

But first, a little context to set the scene. 

At the age of seven, I was already quite an awkward-looking child. I was a combination of spindly legs and unkempt hair, all bundled into an overly large uniform that I'd been told I would 'grow into.' Despite this, I was a confident youngster and so, as part of the church singing group, I was often a soloist on Sundays and for special events. 

In this particular year, I'd been asked to sing a solo for the Children's carol concert. Halfway through the service, I climbed onto the stage in front of a full hall of children and parents. Thankfully, their faces melted into a big blur once I was under the bright spot light and so I wasn't particularly nervous. I'd done it before so it wasn't a big deal. 

The music started and I began to sing a popular Sunday school song from back in the day called , 'I'm Special.' I was halfway through the rendition when suddenly my eyes began to bulge and my nostrils flared at the horrific realization that I had no idea which words were coming next! After what felt like an eternity of being frozen on stage, the kind pianist began to sing along with me and eventually I found my way back to something half resembling a melody. Red-faced and traumatised, I scuttled off the stage as soon as it was over and buried my head into my tambourine ribbons!  

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Having shared my Nativity ups and downs and, I might add, feeling much better for doing so, I'd love to hear about your Nativity Experiences, both the good and the disastrous! 

Which characters did you portray and who did you secretly want to portray? 
Were there any embarrassing moments during your school or church productions? 

Upcoming post: 'The Nativity Through Art History' - An investigation into the paradoxical blue of Mary's iconic veil and a revelation about Art History's unjust treatment of Joseph.

Updated Post: A Muslim Celebrating Christmas? 

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