Archive for April, 2010


Spiritual Temperaments (7of9): Enthusiasts (dancing, singing, rejoicing)

April 27, 2010

‘Excitement and mystery in worship is the spiritual lifeblood of enthusiasts…(They) are inspired by joyful celebration…Let them clap their hands, shout “Amen!” and dance in their excitement…’ 

Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways (page 28) 

Photo by Andy Ross, used with permission from istock photo

Much of Gary Thomas’s book is about opening peoples’ minds to discovering God in different aspects of life other than the traditional evangelical habits of daily Bible study, Sunday church attendance and perhaps small group mid-week meetings. His insights are revolutionary if you come from that kind of religious tradition and you suddenly realise that God can be found and indeed God finds us in the great variety and wonders of the world we live in. 

Thomas’ seventh spiritual temperament is the Enthusiast. People with this kind of personality tend to throw themselves whole-heartedly into their devotion – body, soul, heart, mind, spirit. Their response to the sublime is powerfully expressed in physical movement and emotional outpourings. Perhaps, a good example from the Bible of this kind of temperament is the ancient Hebrew King David. In the book of the Hebrew scriptures 2 Samuel 6, a story is told where the potent young King David with his mighty warriors defeats the Philistine army and re-captures the Ark of the Covenant. At that time the Ark represented for the Hebrew people the centre piece of their cultic worship. It was on the Ark that the very Presence of God resided. That is to say, God was considered present in the Ark similar to the way light is present around an ignited light-bulb. 

The story relates the return of the Ark to Jerusalem, the Hebrew capital under King David, and various incidents both bad and good during this somewhat uneasy process. For our interest though, is the behaviour of King David as recorded in 2 Samuel 6: 14 as the Ark was brought back into the capital. The Bible author writes: 

‘David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.’ 

‘David…danced before the Lord with all his might…’ 

Perhaps, in our twenty-first century modern world view it is difficult for us to imagine the spectacular visual scene and noise this religious event must have evoked – dancing, shouting, trumpets sounding. Perhaps, few of us have experienced such vibrant life in Church, although some churches do encourage exuberant worship times. Perhaps, the closest comparisons for us would be major sporting events, music festivals or carnivals. It’s worth us remembering though that for some religious devotees the whole, multi-coloured spectrum of human qualities can and should be used in the celebration and praise of the Divine. 

It’s a bit of a golden-oldey now (1995!), but it still rocks, especially compared to most of what goes on in Church or  even disco. Here’s Matt Redman re-interpretating King David’s words in 2 Samuel 6: 16-22, after David’s wife scorns the King for getting carried away stripping down to his linen ephod and dancing before God in front of the crowds.


16 As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.

 17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings [f] before the LORD. 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.

 20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”

 21 David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”

2 Samuel 6:16-22 (NIV)

Copyright Amer Kapetanović (Used with permission Zooad, istock photo)

I found the above image of some of the so-called, whirling dervishes – Sufi Muslims who follow the teachings of the poet mystic Rumi. I have seen the dervishes dancing like this on TV they rotate at amazing speeds. I include it, simply as another example of how passionate physical and emotional expressions of love and devotion to God are considered normal in many different religious traditions across the globe, even if they are not the kinds of behaviour we normally expect of religious devotees.


Listening to the quiet, burning desire to be authentic

April 24, 2010

I found this poem at the beginning of a book on aesthetics (the study of beauty). It struck me as a very modern poem and yet I have discovered it was written in the mid-eighteen hundreds. Still, it speaks to me deeply of the importance and discipline of listening to and paying careful attention to one’s inner feelings and thoughts. Both of which can easily be suffocated and suppressed by a relentless, unseen pressure to conform to what we perceive to be the standards of our culture and society.

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,                        10
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved                                     20
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves–and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

But we, my love!–doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?–must we too be dumb?

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

Fate, which foresaw                                                    30
How frivolous a baby man would be–
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity–
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;                        40
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;                        50
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us–to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves–            60
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well–but ’tis not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;                                                70
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.

Only–but this is rare–
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,                                               80
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d–
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.            90

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Matthew Arnold, The buried life, (1852)


‘We simply went out looking for the lost and the dying’ – Spiritual Temperaments (6 of 9): Caring for the poor and marginalised

April 23, 2010

“Caregivers serve God by serving others. They often claim to see Christ in the poor and needy, and their faith is built up by interacting with other people. Such (people) may find the devotional lives of contemplatives and enthusiasts as selfish. Whereas caring for others might wear many of us down, this recharges a caregiver’s batteries.”

Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas, Page 27

I have been wondering about how to write this section on spiritual temperaments as I personally struggle with giving physical care to others in need, although I find prayer, contemplation, sensuous worship and being out in nature, natural, spiritual responses for me. I do care about the poor and needy though and when I can, I attempt to chat and listen to homeless people who are selling magazines such as The Big Issue ( a magazine started in the late 80s/early 90s in Britain to help homeless people provide for themselves). Still such random, small acts of humanity seem like crumbs compared to the banquets real care-givers provide for the weak, poor and marginalised.

Since being a teenager, I have always liked the earthy, salty and fiery common sense teachings of the writer of the Book of James in the New Testament. I always love the following phrase which is set in the context of not just listening to the ‘word’ (or new teaching of Jesus), but doing it. James seems to encapsulate the heart of the Christian message, as do so many caregivers:

26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. 27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:26-27

Those words inspire me:

27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…

Oh yes, let it be so!

Thomas uses the example of Mother Teresa in his book – a supreme model of self-giving and caring for the oppressed and poverty-stricken ordinary people of India, whose example has led to the setting up of convents and missionary works to minister to the poor across the globe. An extraordinary woman and an extraordinary Christian, whose work today is carried out by many more beautiful and humble servants of God and of suffering people.


However, the people who come to my mind are still alive today and have established an amazing ministry in Mozambique, with influence across the world. They have experienced many signs, wonders, visions and miracles while working with some of the poorest most unfortunate and weakest of society – abandoned children and orphans – in a country which was and still is, I believe, one of the poorest in the whole world.

How have they done it? Well, to be honest I really don’t know how to describe their work adequately in words, but you can read more about their mission and work in Mozambique at the following web-address:

I also wholeheartedly commend the book There is Always Enough The Story of Rolland and Heidi Baker’s miraculous ministry among the poor by Rolland and Heidi Baker, Sovereign World Ltd. I think it may have been republished simply as Always Enough.

The Bakers’ story is heartbreaking and awe inspiring in the wonderful progress they have made and continue to make with the poor children and people of Mozambique. A lot of it is difficult to believe that such good things could be done by ‘ordinary’ human beings with the help of God. The testimonies, however, are breathtaking and heart warming as the weak are touched in the kindest ways by the  love of God, are healed and transformed. It’s a wonderful read and a wonderful example of what practical caring for the poor, as well as powerful intimacy and worship of God through Jesus can do in this broken, but beautiful world.

I would like to finish with just a few quotations from Always Enough :

‘There still wasn’t much at Chihango (this was the state orphanage taken over temporarily by the Bakers on arriving in Mozambique) for the children. Their rooms were bare, picked clean by thieves. They slept on the cement floor with no sheets, pillows or even mats. There was absolutely nothing in their rooms. They had no extra clothes other than those on their backs. They had no possessions of any kind. Many of them needed medical attention. Some were missing limbs from land mine explosions.

I bought the children their first cups and plates. For years they had eaten out of troughs and drunk under faucets. we brought toothbrushes. We repaired a bakery that had been built years ago at Chihango and started baking seven hundred loaves a day, for us and for sale in town. We cleaned the septic tanks, installed wiring and painted walls. We hauled beans and rice from South Africa in a used army trailer. We assumed total responsibility for the centre’s administration and funding. It had been treated as a correctional institution for problem street children, but we turned it into a gospel centre for desperate and unwanted children of any kind. We simply went out looking for the lost and the dying.’

There is Always Enough, Rolland and Heidi Baker, page 41


Keeping Quiet

April 23, 2010
Keeping Quiet
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth,
let’s not speak any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.

What I want shouldn’t be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.

If we weren’t unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,

If we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I’ll go.

From Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon
Translated by Stephen Mitchell 


I was just riding again in the woods this afternoon and these words of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda came to mind, about stillness and quiet…
‘If we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.’


As I began my ride, I tried to ride quietly softly through the woods. There was such calm and peace in the woods. My bike gently rolled along the mulchy, sandy paths. The tires make a reassuring soft hum as they traverse the gravel. My ears register the strange quiet in the woods. It is of course, broken from time to time by the distant sound of cars passing on a ring road outside the park, or the frightened rustling of a startled squirrel, or the sweet, chirps and whistles of birds singing above. But above all I am struck by the silence. It is so quiet that I feel that I can actually hear the wood speaking to me. Speaking not through words, but through silence, quiet, peace, the breathing of the forest as I gently rumble through it, a visitor, who comes from outside the wood. Yet, a human who feels at home in the woods fresh air, forest aromas, fragmented light and peaceful green foliage.
I feel that the woods welcome me. They welcome me into their world of natural growth, not forced, not planned or deliberate, simply the response of living things to an environment of water, warmth, wind, soil and light. Here in the woods things grow, live and die, They don’t try to influence you to be something else, something better or more worthy, or more correct than you are…they are simply quiet – the fresh air and clean fragrances, the silence simply welcomes you. The woods invite you to take part in the rest from plans or agendas, projects and sales, shopping and winning, competing to beat our neighbour, colleague or friend. There is no competition, just the ebb and flow of death and life. We all will die, the question is will we actually live.
I am embraced by the wood – first and foremost, it’s simple, pure silence. I die for a moment to myself. For a few seconds I return the embrace and breath in and out the quiet and fresh air. I am nobody. I am nobody special. Simply, a very lucky man…who gets to ride his bike in the woods on a sunny afternoon. Yet, it is a welcome relief. Here in the woods there is nobody to impress or convince of my worthiness. I need be absolutely no one. I am no one important and yet…the silence of the wood seems to welcome me. She welcomes me …as me…as David…as the wounded young man with a history, that I am. A man with a history…yet, all that which the world and society weighs and measures…seems to mean nothing in the forest. Here is just me and the woods. Nothing else matters…just be quiet, David.
Just be quiet … still … listen … to the silence.  

Spiritual Temperaments – Activists energised by struggling for justice (5 of 9)

April 20, 2010
“Activists serve a God of justice, and their favourite Scripture is often the account of Jesus cleansing the temple…Activists may adopt either social or evangelistic causes, but they find their home in the rough-and-tumble world of confrontation. They are energised more by interaction with others, even in conflict, than by being alone or in small groups.”
Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas, Page 26 


When I think of activists, I think of the charities and social campaign groups, such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, The Children’s Society, Christian Aid, (C.A.P.) Christians Against Poverty, Amnesty International etc. The people who work for these organisations are tireless in campaigning for social and/or environmental justice in our country, but also in other nations across the globe.

Greenpeace is one charitable organisation that often makes me think and question the selfishness of my  21st Century consumer-driven lifestyle. These environmental activists campaign for ordinary people, politicians and big-businesses to stop abusing the natural world and to take better care of the living organisms of the earth’s bio-sphere.

Deforestation in Amazon rainforest

Recently they campaigned against Nestle using palm oil in their chocolate bars, such as Kit Kat. It took the careful attention, boundless energy and concerted efforts of activists at Greenpeace to highlight for the public the devastatingly negative consequences of a large chocolate manufacturer purchasing palm oil from South East Asia, where rainforests are being torn down to grow featureless miles upon miles of palm oil plants. As a consequence, the natural inhabitants of the rainforests such as Orangutans are being slaughtered through the deforestation process. It’s a chilling connection, which few of us would make where it not for the efforts of Greenpeace and other environmentalists’ activism.

Environmental activism is just one form of campaigning which those people who have an activist spiritual temperament might participate in. For me, although organisations such as Greenpeace have no particular religious affiliation, their dedicated work to alerting peoples’ attentions to the cruelty of modern exploitative, ‘developmental’ processes towards many animals, fish, sea mammals, birds, plants and other natural creatures is part of God’s mandate to humanity, as recorded at the beginning of the Bible:

Genesis 1 (The Message)

Heaven and Earth

 1-2First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

 3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
      And light appeared.
   God saw that light was good
      and separated light from dark.
   God named the light Day,
      he named the dark Night.
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day One.

 6-8 God spoke: “Sky! In the middle of the waters;
      separate water from water!”
   God made sky.
   He separated the water under sky
      from the water above sky.
   And there it was:
      he named sky the Heavens;
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Two.

 9-10 God spoke: “Separate!
      Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place;
   Land, appear!”
      And there it was.
   God named the land Earth.
      He named the pooled water Ocean.
   God saw that it was good.



 11-13 God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties
      of seed-bearing plants,
   Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.”
      And there it was.
   Earth produced green seed-bearing plants,
      all varieties,
   And fruit-bearing trees of all sorts.
      God saw that it was good.
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Three.

 14-15 God spoke: “Lights! Come out!
      Shine in Heaven’s sky!
   Separate Day from Night.
      Mark seasons and days and years,
   Lights in Heaven’s sky to give light to Earth.”
      And there it was.

 16-19 God made two big lights, the larger
      to take charge of Day,
   The smaller to be in charge of Night;
      and he made the stars.
   God placed them in the heavenly sky
      to light up Earth
   And oversee Day and Night,
      to separate light and dark.
   God saw that it was good.
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Four.

 20-23 God spoke: “Swarm, Ocean, with fish and all sea life!
      Birds, fly through the sky over Earth!”
   God created the huge whales,
      all the swarm of life in the waters,
   And every kind and species of flying birds.
      God saw that it was good.
   God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Ocean!
      Birds, reproduce on Earth!”
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Five.

 24-25 God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind:
      cattle and reptiles and wild animals—all kinds.”
   And there it was:
      wild animals of every kind,
   Cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug.
      God saw that it was good.

 26-28 God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them
      reflecting our nature
   So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea,
      the birds in the air, the cattle,
   And, yes, Earth itself,
      and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”
   God created human beings;
      he created them godlike,
   Reflecting God’s nature.
      He created them male and female.
   God blessed them:
      “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
      for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”

 29-30 Then God said, “I’ve given you
      every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth
   And every kind of fruit-bearing tree,
      given them to you for food.
   To all animals and all birds,
      everything that moves and breathes,
   I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.”
      And there it was.

 31 God looked over everything he had made;
      it was so good, so very good!
   It was evening, it was morning—
   Day Six.

I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of this ancient, ancient passage of the Bible from the beginnings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peterson channels something of the creative energy and joy that Jews, Christians, Muslims especially believe took place at the beginnings of the Universe and formation of the Earth, so many eons ago.

Peterson is also careful to translate the word which for hundreds of years was translated as ‘have dominion over’ in the King James Version of the Bible, as ‘be responsible for’. Some may argue over the linguistic accuracy, yet from what we know now from science and environmental studies that humanity has used the mandate to have dominion over nature purely to exploit and capitalise upon it, bringing the planet ever closer to complete destruction that surely God’s intention was for human beings to care and steward for nature, not rape it for personal profit.

Activists may often make us feel unease in our comfortable lifestyles, when they draw our attentions off material gain and succeeding according to society’s materialistic goals, and instead point to the needless suffering and agony in the world due to humanity’s inherent selfishness and greed. However, they are some of the prophets of our generation and their sobering message is a very much-needed in a culture of ‘me’ orientated hedonism.


Designing Banner Art: Creativity + Collaboration

April 19, 2010
How does one create web-banner art?
By having a go. Jumping in at the deep end. Getting imaginative and visionary ideas out in rough on paper. That is creatively.
Then finding someone who really knows their craft and is willing to work with you to put your designs into a finished product. That is collaboratively.

The banner displayed on the Dark Nights White Soul weblog took shape over various stages and was finally completed through the artistic work of Manchester based illustrator, Jim Boswell. 

The design first took shape in my mind with certain features being representative of key values or ideas that I wanted to discuss in the blog. Although I can draw rather amateurishly, I decided to search the internet for images that could be icons of the ideas in my mind and to try to make a make-shift composite with a little bit of help from my computer. The first draft looked like this:

The first draft of ideas together


After finding these images and putting them together in a cut and paste composite with no more tools than those available on my Windows Vista Word programme. The image had to be adjusted in Adobe Photoshop to fit the 200 x 700 pixel size of the blog banner’s space in the theme. The result was this: 

The original draft design reduced to 200x 700 pixel dimensions

I was pretty happy with this design, but felt something was definitely missing. A good friend with an artistic eye told me that the picture needed colour, not just monochrome black and white. My own mind sensed that although the image conveyed the bleakness of the wilderness it failed to suggest the bright lights and vibrancy of the city. I made another draft: 

A further draft design this time with a greater emphasis on colour and city lights

 The above design was created with all the high-tech components of scissors, glue, laptop, and a computer printer and scanner! It is a real photo-montage, where the cutting and pasting was done by hand. Still I felt happy with the results. The image conveyed for me something of the brightness and life of the night, as well as the concealment, shadows and foreboding sense of darkness. It also mixed medieval ancient iconography with contemporary photography. A mixture that spoke deeply to my inner being as a post-modern Western Christian, who lived in multiple cultural worlds. I inhabit the countryside of my home village, but also the night lights of my city Sheffield. I am also a man who claims to follow a deeply historical religious faith with ancient rituals and practices. Yet who finds the arena for living out this faith to be the fast-paced, technological and digital global society of the 21st Century. I sent this image to Jim who had generously agreed to work on composing a drawn and ‘painted’ (in Photoshop) image of the final design. 

The next stage was to reduce the dimensions of the above design to the blog banner specs. 

Draft 3 of my webpage banner design in 200x700 pixels - Night, city, dark, light, ancient, modern

At this point in the process artist and graphic novel, comic book illustrator, Jim Boswell took over the process. Within the space of a week or two, I recieved the following pencil drawings of his interpretation of the design. 

J Boswell's pencils for Dark Nights White Soul banner

I was thrilled with Jim’s interpretation and design. The next stage, as is customary in comic book illustration, was to finish the pencils and complete them in ink. 

J Boswell's Dark Nights White Soul banner inks

Ultimately, the final result can be seen above on the webpage banner. There are different figures in the picture. St John of the Cross is in the left-hand corner of the design. His book The Dark Night of the Soul is a very important inspiration for me in putting together this blog.

In the right hand corner is the skull. In ancient iconography the skull and crossbones represented death and were often portrayed beneath the feet of Christ at the bottom of the cross. Christ’s death on the cross Christians believe defeated the powers of death over human kind. It is also a fact that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was described in the written documents of the Gospels to have taken place outside the city of Jerusalem on a hill called – Golgotha, which means the place of the skull. 

The skull in the picture also represents the fact that in nature and life, death and dying, especially dying to selfish desires and behaviour, can often lead to the release of the natural world and the spiritual world into New Life. Death therefore, is not so much an enemy, but an ally. For example, as the season of summer ends, the  green, vibrant leaves begin to decay, crumple and turn yellow, brown in colour at the approach of autumn. Autumn tenderly invites us to transition from the warmth and light of summer to the ultimate deathly dark and cold season of winter. So, during the icy chills of winter nature experiences a time of dying back, grief and loss prepares the way for a new burst of life in Spring. Seen in this light death to self can be experienced as a friend, not wanting to destroy us, but to free us from attachments to objects, people, relationships, substances and ideas that actually entrap and imprison us. 

Depicted on the crucifix is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth, the founder and central figure of the Christian faith. The historical persona Christian’s believe to be the Son of God or Christ. 

Next to the cross, are the calming and reflective figures of Mary the mother of Jesus, John the disciple and two other women friends of the Palestinian Jewish man Jesus (perhaps Mary Magdalene and another). They mourn the loss of their son, friend and teacher in the darkness. Their faces and lives are illuminated only by the flickering of candles. Jim has captured the Eastern features and dark hair of these figures perfectly in his drawing. The figures quietly worshipping in brown cloaks remind me of so many women and the occassional younga man, I have met over the years who grieve silently for lost sons and daughters, husbands, brothers, sisters, parents, family or friends by lighting a candle in a peaceful and dark temple, synagogue or church. 

The moon represents the primeval symbolism of night in the human subconscious. Night, a place and time of shadows and hauntings, quiet and cool, darkness and reflection – the time nuns and monks pray. The moon of course is  a light with the partial reflected light of the sun, which has disappeared from sight.

Are there parallels today with the eclipsing of the Christian religion in public life by the religious ‘darkness’ of the Enlightenment?

Is God still shining light on us by reflected rays of sunshine from the moon and stars?

Are we having to learn how to walk in the darkness of faith as God seems to have at least become concealed, if not disappeared from ordinary life? 

I hope you like it. 

Thanks to Jim Boswell for his artistry, efficient work and time while cooperating on this project. For more information on Jim’s services and art, please see: 

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Spiritual Temperaments – The Ascetic (4 of 9)

April 18, 2010

Saint Anthony the Great (c.251-356)

Asceticism has usually been associated with the harsh discipline of religious monks from various traditions or denominations, and also with pioneering religious figures such as John the Baptist or Elijah the Prophet (often portrayed together in Eastern Orthodoxy iconography). Of course, ascetic practice – that is the practice of denying the body pleasures and comforts – is not just limited to the religious domain, many athletes and military personnel also practice self-denial to aid them in the achievement of their goals. Perhaps, where religious asceticism differs is that the physical denial is intended to go hand-in-hand with a growing spiritual development, away from the love of self toward the love of others be they God or one’s neighbour or even one’s enemy.

A wonderful, if sometimes eccentric compendium of stories about human beings taking upon themselves extreme asceticism can be found  in the Penguin Classic book translated and introduced by Sister Benedicta Ward – The Desert Fathers – Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. The work collects many tales, sayings and anecdotes about the lives of the Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert in the third, fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era.

The stories of the Desert Fathers are sources of inspiration, humour and awe. The men (and women) who practiced such extreme asceticism, living lives of incredible simplicity and purity in the harsh conditions of the Egyptian desert offers us written verbal icons of what the human spirit and body is capable of in devotion to God and to one another. The monks often ate very little, limiting their diet to simple soup, bread and salt water. In one story a monk overcomes his desire to eat a cucumber by hanging it above him in his cell! At the same time, the monks often practiced night prayer  and vigils by staying awake most of the night in worship and prayer to God. Most of us today would find such practices unbearable and yet, if we are to believe the ancient stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, these people developed a whole new ascetic form of life and community through making routine such behaviour.

Perhaps, for me as someone who admittedly struggles with asceticism, there are wonderful tales within the compendium that talk of the older monks helping the younger monks to gain an insight into the importance of not judging one another, mercy and grace. In such examples, the extreme austerity of the desert disciples’ lives is mixed with a deep awareness of their own shortcomings and struggles with sin, and therefore an attitude of great compassion with those who also battle with personal failings, spiritual attacks and worldly temptation.

One such story follows:


A brother who was hurt by another brother went to the Theban Sisois and said, “I want to get back at a brother who has hurt me.”

The hermit begged him, “Don’t do that, my son, leave vengeance in the hands of God.”

But he said, ” I can’t rest till I get my own back.”

 The hermit said, “My brother, let us pray.” He stood and said, “O God, we have no further need of you, for we can  take vengeance by ourselves.”

The brother heard it and fell at the hermit’s feet, saying, “I won’t quarrel with my brother any longer; I beg you to forgive me.”

Page 173, The Desert Fathers – Sayings of the Early Christian Monks 

Asceticism attracts and empowers many people to simplify their lives and set aside time and energy to worship God in a life without external distractions. For most of us a degree of asceticism will help us to overcome selfish habits and free us to make the most of the good gifts we have received in life, often which we can overlook when we become deeply involved with worldly fashions, trends and pressures to conform to society’s (and Church’s) expectations of the ‘good life’. Aceticism offers a pathway to liberation through simplicity and  physical self-denial. Bishop Kalistos Ware wrote in his book The Orthodox Way, that the ancient Christians talked about denying the ‘flesh’ – that is the fallen, selfish, inward directed craving of the soul out of harmony with God – in order to win a ‘body’ the good, wonderful, created, physical gift to people, which God always intended us to be free to enjoy.

The ascetic’s mantra might well be  – “Deny the flesh, to gain a body.”