in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Fourth Sunday of Lent - St Vincent de Paul and Seeing as God sees...

The Lord said to Samuel: ‘Take no notice of his appearance or his height for I have rejected him; God does not see as people see; they look at appearances but the Lord looks at the heart.... (1 Sam 16: 6-7)

I was asked last week to write a paper for St Mary’s University that reflected its status as an institution founded in the spirit of St Vincent de Paul. Knowing not so much about the 17th century French saint I not only read what I could of his conferences, letters and addresses but also managed to visit the man himself in Paris last week. St Vincent’s Common Rules for the Congregation of the Mission (CM) offers three priorities for the lives of those priests and laity he was seeking to develop:

1. ‘To live a genuine commitment to grow in holiness’, especially by the ancient spiritual practice of ‘imitating Christ’.

2. ‘To preach to the poor – especially in rural areas’ and

3. ‘To help seminarians and priests grow in knowledge and virtue so that they can be more effective in their ministry.’

Unlike other spiritual masters such St Ignatius Loyola, St Dominic or St Benedict there is no one set of instructions or rules that can be ascribed to St Vincent. However, the voice expressed in the Common Rules, backed up by readings from his letters and addresses, seems to give us an authentic flavour of what we may term ‘Vincentian spirituality’.

In the light of today’s readings for mass and the theme of ‘seeing as God sees’, St Vincent’s approach to Christian life seems particularly apt. For him, as with Samuel, we are not to be taken in by appearances but to ‘see into the heart’ and for him the privileged place that this takes place is in our encounter with what he terms ‘the poor’. This can be those who materially less well-off but also anyone who is marginalised and weakened by our society. In particular, Vincent placed particular emphasis on the training and development of women’s ministry especially with his collaboration with St Louise de Marillac. Expanding on these three themes, then, we can tease out the following lessons from St Vincent’s approach to the Christian life:

First , the Genuine Commitment to Grow in Holiness

Although St Vincent had a particular care for priestly formation the root of his instructions lies in a call to holiness for all people. This, for St Vincent, following the emphasis of the post-Reformation church, must be based on growing familiarity with Christ through the scriptures and meditations on His life and practices. From the later Middle Ages onwards, Western Christianity (following in the footsteps of medieval masters such as St Thomas Aquinas) had placed increasing emphasis on the need to ‘imitate Christ’. Or, as St Thomas would put it, the development of the habitus – literally, ‘habit’ – of Christ. St Vincent is proud to be heir to this tradition and throughout his writings and life there are numerous examples of how we ‘put on the mind of Christ’. Study of scriptures, the practice of humility, living harmoniously with each other (Common Rules, Chs 2, 8) will all promote this practice. St Vincent is very clear that we all have an obligation to engage in these practices and they are not an optional choice for Christians. From these practices arise everything in the Vincentian life, especially:

Secondly, Commitment to the Poor

Vincentian spirituality is clearly a mission-orientated spirituality. Whilst contemplation is essential, this, for St Vincent, must be the springboard from which Christian action arises. St Vincent is rightly remembered for his commitment to ‘the poor’. This term, often deeply misunderstood, meant not just those who are materially poor (important though that group is) but the marginalised, what he calls ‘the country people’ (Address to the Sisters of Charity, January 25th 1643), youth and especially women. Again, one of the striking elements of St Vincent’s ministry is his close collaboration with, and promotion of the work of, St Louise de Marillac. It is clear from reading St Vincent’s work on this area that is was no ‘one way traffic’ – the ‘poor’ would be the means of transformation of Christians and society in general. Catechism, collaboration between the sexes, loving kindness, charity and sensitivity are all hallmarks of how St Vincent envisaged this particular form of Christian community would come into being.

Third, Ministerial Formation

To effect this change in society, St Vincent envisaged a carefully trained team of ministers who would promote this form of Christian spirituality through preaching, catechism, mission and the liturgy. Again, reflecting his times, St Vincent anticipated that this formation would take place in as skilful and mindful atmosphere as possible, preferably using all the knowledge of the sciences and the humanities at the disposal of the church. St Vincent was particularly concerned that the mission of his ministers should be a global one and in his own lifetime went to great lengths to establish a missionary presence in China, North Africa and Madagascar, amongst other countries. At the root of this formation lay the desire to ‘fan the flames of cooling Vocations’ - passionate belief in one’s ministry lay at the heart of St Vincent’s vision for Christian life.

St Vincent and Christian Life Today

If the spiritual growth of all Christ’s community is essential, it must go hand in hand with St Vincent’s commitment to realising Christian vocation through the poor and marginalised. The economically and socially marginal must remain at the centre of all our activities. At a time when the gates of ‘Fortress Europe’ appear to grow thicker we must strive to offer the gifts and wisdom of the first world to those in the developing world. Not in a patronising or post-colonial fashion but in the sense of accepting the wisdom and gifts of these countries as we give what we can to help them.

Thus, as with Christ’s encounter with the blind man in the Gospels today we can rejoice in the loving kindness of the Lord as we engage in our acts of healing ministry to the world. Today is traditionally called ‘Laetare Sunday’ after the first words of the antiphon: ‘Rejoice Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her, rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts!’

As we move ever closer to Easter let us rejoice in the consoling presence of our Lord, especially in our work and encounters with the poorest and most marginalised in our society.





Friday, 28 March 2014

Fr Canisius Thekkekara CMI - Servant of God

Saturday 29th March marks a significant event in the history of the Church, Christianity and human spiritual understanding. The Keralan priest, Fr Canisius Thekkekara CMI, will be declared a ‘Servant of God’ by Mar Pauly Kannookadan, Bishop of Irinjalakuda in St. Teresa’s Monastery Church, Ampazhakkad as advised by Pope Francis earlier this month. Why is this so important? Well, as the second Indian Carmelite of Mary Immaculate to be declared a ‘servant of God’ – the first step on the road to canonisation (the other is Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara) – the event illustrates how the spiritual axis of the world is now slowly moving away from Europe. The election of Pope Francis himself was but one dramatic manifestation of this, the slow raising to the altars of these devout Christians from India is another. Earlier this year I was honoured and privileged to give the memorial lectures at Bangalore founded in honour of Fr Canisius. I was touched by all the many stories of kindness and humility that this Servant of God had inspired. Accordingly I am sharing below an account of the life Fr Canisius from Fr Jose Nandhikkara CMI, Dean of Philosophy at Christ University, Bangalore who has kindly given his permission for me to post it here. I also share his photograph I took as I visited one of the Buddhist monasteries of Bangalore on my visit. The account will form the preface to my lectures which will be published as ‘Picturing the Soul: Revisioning Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction’ by Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore and publicly launched at the ceremony tomorrow.

Fr. Canisius Thekkekara – Pray for Us!








1. Introduction

Rev Fr Canisius Thekkekara CMI, the first Indian to have the degree of Doctor in Sacred Scripture (DSS) from the prestigious Biblical Institute, Rome in 1952, was a committed religious who led a Christ Centred life in the service of the Word of God in the Church for the Glory of God and well being of all. With unparalleled devotion and dedication, he served the CMI congregation and Church at large as Professor of Sacred Scripture and Spiritual Father at Sacred Heart Seminary Chethipuzha (1953-57), Professor of Sacred Scripture and Spiritual Father at Dharmaram College Bangalore (1957-60), Rector of Dharmaram College for two terms (1960-1966), CMI Prior General (1966-1972) and Provincial of Devamatha Province (1972-1975), Superior of Dharmaram College (1975-1978) and Vicar General of the CMI Congregation (1978-1982).

All through his life Fr Canisius was convinced of the fundamental principle that one should lead a life according to the Will of God expressed through the legitimate superiors. His motto was always: “God’s Will: All of That and That alone!” and he lived this ideal wholeheartedly and faithfully. This humble and noble religious could give this testament in My Life Experience (Ente Jeevithanaubhavangal): “As all the decisions pertaining to my higher studies and appointments to several posts of authority were all fully in God’s will for me, so insignificant and weak as I am, I approached the Lord in person and in all confidence for some solace and inner strength, without wavering amidst the vagaries of life situations. As I kept on experiencing His faithfulness in His promises, I had the good fortune to grow in personal relationship with him.” Fr Canisius who taught Pauline Writings has mastered not only the scholarship in Pauline theology but also St Paul’s ideal: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13).

2. Early Life and Vocation

Fr Canisius was born on 12 May, 1914 as the seventh and the youngest child of Thekkekara Pothaparambil Lonappan and Mariam in Anandapuram, Kerala. According to Fr Canisius he learned the ideal of his life, “God’s Will: All of That and That alone,” from his parents. With gratitude he testified: “The most important grace that the Lord had bestowed on me is my father and mother. Their law of life was this: God’s Will: All of That and That Alone.”

As early as a boy, before starting his High School studies, Ouseph had the longing to become a priest and had his state of life chosen with clear vision and firm conviction. As per the account of his sister, Rev. Sr. Sarseela F.C.C. young Ouseph once experienced the apparition of the Mother of Carmel holding a scapular in her hand, while he was praying for discernment of his vocation. He felt then in his heart a strong inner attraction for the CMI Congregation. Without any hesitation he uttered his fiat to the divine will and told his parents: “I want to become a priest, and I want to become a religious priest in the Carmelite Order.” He joined the CMI congregation as an Aspirant at Pavaratty. After the Novitiate at Ampazhakkad he made his First Profession on 24 November 1935. He was given the name Canisius of St. Theresa. He completed his philosophical and theological studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Mangalore, and was ordained a Priest on 21 December 1942.

3. A Bible Scholar and Writer

After the Priestly Ordination, Fr. Canisius took his Doctor of Divinity degree at Kandy, Sri Lanka in 1945 and in 1952 he secured D.S.S. (Doctor in Sacred Scripture) from the Biblical Institute in Rome. His doctoral thesis was Cardinal   Seripando: an Exegete and Biblical Theologian. Thus he became the first ever Indian and second Asian who was awarded with doctorate in Sacred Scripture. Fr. Canisius has authored a few books, rich in content and theological insights and a four volume short biographical sketches on Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara and prayer books.

4. In the Service of the Word of God: His entry into the official life was as a Professor of Sacred Scripture and Spiritual Director. He loved teaching the Word of God and as a teacher he was held in high esteem and respect in the Sacred Heart seminary at Chethipuzha and Dharmaram College, Bangalore. Even after his retirement he taught Bible with zeal and devotion in private and semi-official institutions. Above all, the Holy Bible became invariable part of his life. His exhortations, speeches and conversations were all ‘Word based.’ He was devoted to the Word of God and committed himself in the service of the Word of God until he breathed his last.

5. Apostolate of Administration: Rev. Fr. Canisius, though considered himself not an able leader or administrator, was elected to and entrusted with many administrative posts in the CMI Congregation. His services as Seminary Rector (1960-1966), Prior General (1966-1972), Provincial (1972-1975), Dharmaram Superior (1975-1978), CMI Vicar General (1978-1981) were glorious and praiseworthy. He devoted himself for the renewal and adaptation of the CMI congregation after the charism of the founding fathers in the light of the II Vatican Council. He was successful in guiding the congregation and to make it relevant in its life and ministries for the Glory of God and the well being of all.  

6. Apostolic Delegate: Recognising the effective religious leadership of Fr Canisius, he was appointed as the Apostolic Delegate in 1972 to the Society of Catholic Medical Mission (MMS) sisters and in 1974 as Delegate of the Oriental Congregation to the Congregation of Sacred Heart. Relying on divine assistance, Fr Canisius could help both congregations in their growth and development. He took great pains to visit all the convents of sisters, discussed the issues with them and submitted reports with suggestions for their growth.

7. Twilight Years

On 4 April, 1975, Fr Canisius wrote to the then CMI Prior General, Rev Fr Theobald with the request to allow him to spend at least one year ‘in prayer, penance and humble service in an atmosphere that give witness to the simplicity  of life and poverty of Christ.’ Though the Prior General admired the ideal, appointed him as Superior, Professor and Spiritual master at Dharmaram College (1975-1978).  Fr Canisius later wrote: “I have accepted as the divine will the decision of the major superior.”

In 1978, he was elected to the post of the Vicar General of the Congregation. After three years as Vicar General, Rev Fr Thomas Aykara CMI, the then Prior General, granted permission for Fr Canisius to spend time in prayer and recollection at the newly established Sakshatkara, Centre for Spiritual Realisation at Pariyaram, Chalakudy. Fr Canisius was deeply involved in the vision, mission and establishment of this Centre. From 1981-1996, Fr Canisius spend time in prayer, preaching retreats, and in giving spiritual guidance. Besides his Eucharistic Celebration, Canonical prayers and other spiritual exercises required by the CMI constitution, he spent at least five hours in silent prayer daily before the Blessed Sacrament, during those fifteen years.

Besides ailments typical of age, since 1984 he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. As the pain of the disease grew excruciating, to make matters worse, he caught Spondylitis as well. Consequently he was unable to walk, sit, eat, write and even bathe on his own. He was transferred to St Theresa’s Monastery, Ampazhakad, in 1996.

During the last days of his life at Amala Hospital, sisters frequently visited him, and according to his desire they used to sing “come, come Lord Jesus”. Even on the last evening of his life on earth the sisters sang that song in the company of Fr. Canisius. Later he told to one of his spiritual sons: “The time has come for my departure; my end has come.” On 29 January, 1998 he moved his residence to the heavenly mansion prepared for him by his Master, Jesus the Lord in His Father’s house.

He wrote in his Testament in 1990 “...despite our insignificance, foolishness, ignorance and immaturity, when one is resolutely committed to do it, it is quite possible with God’s help, to lead a life with a pure heart, cheerful face and innocence in God’s presence, closely observing the values of religious life. This I pass on to my brethren in all joy.”  Indeed Fr Canisius lead a heroic life with pure heart, cheerful face and innocence in God’s presence, fulfilling ‘God’s Will: All of That and That Alone.’

8. A Life of Holiness

Fr Canisius was convinced that his vocation is to be a saint and his only desire was to fulfil the ‘Will of God: All of That and That Alone.’  CMI religious life was his chosen path for the realisation of his vocation. He had steadfast confidence in the loving providence of God. He testified in his will: “God is faithful in His promises. It’s my heart’s desire to keep proclaiming the supreme truth always and everywhere in the world that in accordance with the new covenant, God, our true Father in His characteristic paternal loving care, has made all arrangements in place so as to facilitate the growth of each of His children quite proper to His plan and perfection.”

9. Ardent Seeker of God’s Will

Holiness, as we all know, is manifested through a life of prayer and service. Fr. Canisius, a man of payer, did everything guided by and in conformity and compliance with God’s will, as given by his ecclesiastical and religious superiors. He always suggested to people, especially to the priests and religious who sought his advice, the following means to discern the Will of God: a) Prayer, b) Meditation on the Word of God found in the Bible, c) the Constitutional rules and directives and decisions of the Congregational authorities. Often he would tell them that he would give his advice after praying over it. What he wanted to make sure and insisted upon is that the decision should be in accordance with the ‘Will of God: All of That and That Alone.’

10. Love for the Poor

Fr. Canisius is known for his simple life and consideration and care for the poor. He wrote: “It engenders in me sympathy and concern beyond measure to see brethren put to various sufferings. What I would immediately do then is to offer them to the Divine Lord and persistently pray to Him to give a hand with their problems. But I must confess that I do not possess the necessary knack, ingenuity and the divine charism to make me rush to their help by giving them solace and counselling…It is not my presence that is essential to them, but the presence of the divine Master. Therefore I will compel him to bless them by his helping presence…” During his tenure of office as Prior General and Provincial he led the way in chalking out special plans and programmes  for the uplift of the marginalized.

11. An Exemplary Priest and Committed CMI Religious

According to him “every member of the religious community has accepted the divine will, all of it, and that alone as the only enthusiasm of his life” (Notes on Religious Obedience). In his notes Ente Jeevithanubhavangal   he wrote the following towards the close of the part with the subtitle ‘Praise of God’: “The legacy our Congregation has passed on to us is a beautiful one. The kind of formation it has imparted to us is also precious. It is not that we do not have limitations. We have to make self-criticism and then make brave decisions for renewal taking into account the new challenges we face.”

12. A Man of Prayer

Fr. Canisius used to be called ‘a praying priest’ and even the ‘personification of prayer.’ He really took great delight in prayer. Besides saying the community prayers without fail, Fr. Canisius would spend long hours in prayer before the tabernacle, especially on days when he was to officially take major and serious decisions. Prayer was for him delight, rest and duty. It was also his ministry all through his life, especially during his retired life at CSR.

Fr. Canisius had prepared and delivered a detailed paper on the Governing Ministry and Prayer Life, in which he stressed the need for the superiors to become guides and models of prayer life for the community.

He was a spiritual guide and teacher, who guided people to God rather to himself. Regarding his prayer life he has testified: “What I am capable of and what is delightful for me is a life of prayer.” Even after the night prayers he would continue to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. He used to pray long hours in company of those who were there in prayer. If someone suggests him, taking note of his physical exhaustion and discomfort, ‘Father, why not go and have rest for a while’ he would say in reply, ‘Prayer is my rest.’

13. Salvific Suffering

God provided Fr. Canisius an in-depth experience and sense of the mystery of suffering. Hence he wholeheartedly welcomed the sufferings as his beloved friend. The son of St. Teresa of Avila seemed to make his own her motto, aut pati aut mori   (either suffer or die). He used to tell thus his spiritual daughters who came to him with their problems: “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fulfil it.” One may find in him a living and loving portrait of the suffering ebed of Is.52:13-53:1-12. The logic of suffering for this suffering servant of the Lord is clear: “The one who suffers may feel that everything is lost. In fact the person is actually harvesting a lot of blessings. There is only apparent loss; even if there is a loss, it is merely temporal ... it is a loss only here in this world. The gain is hundred times. ”

During his last years he had a lot of physical sufferings which he bore willingly. Besides ailments typical of age, he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease, characterised by stiffness and inflammation of the joints, loss of mobility, weakness and deformity and tremendous pain. He could not stretch out his hands and legs as well as bend them. This saintly soul suffered all the pains without any trace of impatience and murmur, and told the bystanders with a smile, “let the divine will be fulfilled.” Once he told the sisters who promised him their prayers, “please pray, but not for the cure, but for the strength to suffer the pains.” At the insistence of Fr Joseph Elias, he gave his reasons: “It is the will of God that I should suffer. You are going to pray that God should take away the chalice of suffering from me. I cannot agree with it. If you pray, God may though unwillingly relent. However, it is not the divine plan concerning my sanctification. I want that the divine will be fully accomplished.” As Paul the Apostle he also rejoiced in what he was suffering. He wrote: “Let us with patience and joy accept the suffering and thank God for it.” “Whatever God the Father gives, is the gift of his paternal love.” In his great suffering he could say: “What a great joy! When we are fully poured out as an offering, the objective of our life is accomplished. Praise to Him!”

14. Conclusion: In his final years he wrote on his decision in My Life Experiences “Briefly speaking this was my firm decision – to be only there, where the Lord demands me to be; to do fully whatever He asks me to do, without any further worries. I have tried my best to firmly persevere in that determination, without caring what the flesh and blood were saying. This was also my attitude towards accepting responsibilities and their execution.”


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Third Sunday of Lent - The Blue Virgin of Chartres

Jesus came to a town of Samaria called Sychar,
near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
Jacob’s well was there.
Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well.
It was about noon.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water.
Jesus said to her,
“Give me a drink.”
His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.
The Samaritan woman said to him,
“How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”
—For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.—
Jesus answered and said to her,
“If you knew the gift of God
and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink, ‘
you would have asked him
and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep;
where then can you get this living water?
Are you greater than our father Jacob,
who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself
with his children and his flocks?”
Jesus answered and said to her,
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;
but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Yesterday I had the joy of visiting Chartres Cathedral for the first time. It was well worth waiting nearly fifty years for the experience and it certainly didn't disappoint! - the extraordinary labyrinth upon entering - reflecting the great West Window above, the stunning location in the centre of France, the outstanding sculpture and of course the stained glass - all combine to produce an almost overwhelming effect on the pilgrim. But as I reflect on today's beautiful readings one image stays in my mind - the woman to whom the whole edifice is dedicated and whose presence pervades the shrine - the Blessed Virgin Mary. We are reminded in today's Gospel reading of the special role that women played in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ - the woman taken in adultery (we shall meet her later in Lent), the Magdalene and of course Christ's mother and the Samaritan woman at the well. What is striking about today's encounter is the way that the woman challenges preconceptions and prejudices as she draws from Christ his first full admission of his true nature. Similarly Mary is able to bring out the depth of Christ's ministry beginning with the first miracle at Cana. The great cycle of sculptures at Chartres, as with most medieval conceptions of the world, begins with the Annunciation to the Virgin: God speaks in the depths of unknowing and brings to birth the  Divine Word. This moment traditionally happens on 25th March (which is why our tax year to this day begins at the end of March) so we celebrate today the renewal of all Creation through the return of the Spirit to the feminine within. This is symbolised in Chartres by the haunting image of the Blue Virgin - my poor photograph of which I attach . Like our Samaritan woman, she arises from the blue depths of the water and unconscious to initiate the process that will culminate, as at Chartres, with not only our salvation but the salvation of all Creation. Happy Lent and if you have never visited Chartres start saving up now! Love Peter

Friday, 14 March 2014

Book Review: 'A Silent Melody: An Experience of Contemporary Spiritual Life' Shirley du Boulay

As promised here is the third of my trilogy of reviews - another great take on the contemporary spirituality scene from Shirley du Boulay. I must admit to having known Shirley for some years and always having been impressed by her candour, intellect and charm. I really didn't know what to expect when I started reading and was wonderfully surprised by the insights of the book. Having finished it a week ago I am still pondering some of its messages. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did...

best wishes




A Silent Melody: An Experience of Contemporary Spiritual Life

Author: Shirley du Boulay

Date: 2014


Publisher: Darton, Longman and Todd

ISBN: 978-0-232-53074-2

pp 228  hbk


It is not every day that a well-known writer on Christian themes declares that they are no longer a Christian. So we approach Shirley du Boulay’s autobiography in the spirit with which she has lived her life – with brave adventure and open tolerance. What we receive from her pithy, wry and moving account is, in her own words, ‘the confused wanderings that characterize the spiritual lives of so many of us, living as we do when the comfort of certainty is rarely part of our religious ambience’. For those wanting comforts and securities this little book will offer none, however for those prepared to journey, like Shirley, into the unknown preoccupations of the contemporary ‘spirituality scene’ the journey will be fascinating and with rewards of its own. And what a journey it is! Starting from a ‘Presbyterian/Anglican’ background in the mid-twentieth century, Shirley travels through Shamanism, the Maharishi movement of the sixties (with memorable cameos from the Beatles), Roman Catholicism (the faith of her late husband, John Harriott) and Mindfulness meditation (to mention but a few staging posts) before ending up in a sort of Zen-like calm in North Oxford. As with any such autobiography there is the vicarious pleasure of peering into the inner and unexpected lives of people we may have heard about through the media or books. And on this level the book does not disappoint. Yet, in Shirley’s own striving and seeking the final reading transcends such incidental detail. There are pockets and nuggets of wisdom here, pithy quotes and fascinating observations that had me running back to my reference sources to follow up. Yet, within this spiritual kaleidoscope there seemed, to this reader at least, one theme that bound all the others – Shirley’s love of India and Indian spirituality, especially as manifested in the person and life of Dom Bede Griffiths. As his first (and best) biographer, Shirley seems to have fallen in love with this great man (although as she pithily remarks, on learning ‘that Bede had never been sexually attracted to a woman’ – ‘Oh dear. Bede would never have fancied me!’). Like Bede, Shirley has a gentle and open soul that enables her to embrace this greatest of spiritual cultures with compassion. We live, as we are so often told, in the era of the ‘spiritual revolution’. For a ringside account of that revolution in the words of a witty and enquiring guide I would commend this book alone. I salute this brave autobiography and give my own personal salute to Shirley in the words of Walt Whitman:

Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!

O farther farther sail!

O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God!

O farther, farther, farther sail!



Sunday, 9 March 2014

First Sunday of Lent - The Triumph of Orthodoxy

This year we are blessed that Orthodox and Catholic Lents/Easters are at the same time so we can enjoy each others’ celebrations simultaneously. Today I was at the Syrian Melkite church of St Barnabas in Belgravia. Canon Robin Gibbons presided over a beautiful celebration of the first Sunday of Orthodox Lent... the Triumph of Orthodoxy. In his sermon (part of which I attach), Fr Robin emphasised how this feast, and Lent in general, is a call to return to the ‘original face of ourselves’ – that is to the IKON of Christ. Hence this is the feast day of the return of the Ikon and the veneration of the picture of Christ within us.

Abbot Mark Patrick Hedermann, in my ‘Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality’, summed up the origins of the feast very succinctly:

Iconoclasm means in Greek 'the smashing of images'. A general council of the church that met in Elvira in 306 stated in its thirty-sixth canon that ‘the hanging of paintings in churches shall be forbidden, since the object of veneration and worship does not belong on a wall.’7 

We first hear of the church’s use of images in the sixth century, the imperial family playing an important role in this development. An image of the Virgin Mary, said to have been painted by St Luke, was moved from Jerusalem to Constantinople. The cult of images could no longer be ignored. Theologians on both sides began to articulate their positions. John of Damascus [680-749] was one of the first champions of images, issuing the important distinction that ‘the image is a likeness that expresses the archetype in such a way that there is always a difference between the two.’8 Jesus Christ was the archetype from whom all ‘types’ [as the icons were referred to] derived their venerability.

Any person who prayed before an icon, which was usually of Christ, His Mother, or certain saints, nearly always looking out at you, was encountering the presence of whomsoever was depicted there. Devotees were not venerating the icon itself. The eyes of the icon were the vortex through which the eyes of the beholder were suctioned to meet the presence of the original, beyond the depiction, in eternity.  The Damascene’s subtlety and enthusiasm were not shared by the opposing movement of iconoclasts, whose reform gathered momentum around 725. In this phase of the battle, icons were destroyed as pagan idols, incompatible with Christian belief as well as being a scandal to both Jews and Muslims.

          The Emperor Leo III embraced the iconoclastic movement in about 726. He had political reasons for doing so, but it seems that his basic motivation was to institute a religious reform which would bring Christianity back to its roots of worship in spirit and in truth. Leo III had a number of remarkable military successes against the hitherto irresistible advance of Islam. These he took as confirmation from the Almighty of the direction he had initiated. So, his son, in turn, the Emperor Constantine V, something of an amateur theologian, decided to copperfasten his father's endeavours by calling a Church Council which would endorse the principles of iconoclasm.

It was this Constantine V who best expressed the difficulty of icon painting: 'We ask you how is it possible to depict our Lord Jesus Christ who is only one person of two natures, immaterial and material, through their union without confusion?'[1] In other words, he was posing the dilemma for the defenders of icons that if they said the icon was depicting Christ as man only, they were guilty of Nestorianism, the great heresy which separated the human element from the divine; if they said the icon represented Christ as both God and man, they were guilty of the monophysite heresy which refused to separate the incomprehensible divinity from the humanity.

There were 338 bishops at the council which met in Constantinople from 2 February to 8 August 754. Afterwards, it was suggested that the emperor put undue pressure on those bishops present, but whether he did or not, the council ratified the iconoclastic charter.

          Later, iconoclasm was defeated, the above Council declared heretical, and icons, images, and representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and angels, were not just allowed back into Christian churches and dwelling-places, but were declared to be an essential part of the Christian heritage.

          This war was not won without a great deal of struggle, time, argument and even bloodshed. It took centre stage as the most important battle in Byzantium for nearly a century. Two Councils of the Church were devoted to it entirely until eventually in 787 the movement of iconoclasm was definitively defeated and icons were restored to their rightful place in the Christian scheme of things at the Second Council of Nicea.9 So great a victory was hailed by the Church as a new feastday: the feast of Orthodoxy, which to this day is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of every season of Lent.

          And most denominations of Christianity are involved in this declaration, including Roman Catholicism, because it was pronounced by what was the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea from 24 September to 23 October in 787 and gained recognition from the five great patriarchates of the time: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome:


We retain, without introducing anything new . . . the representation of painted images . . . because of the belief in the true and non-illusory Incarnation of God the Word, for our benefit. For things which presuppose each other are mutually revelatory.

  Since this is the case, following the royal path and teaching divinely inspired by our Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church - for we know that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who lives in it - we decide in all correctness and after a thorough examination, that, just as the holy and vivifying cross, similarly the holy and precious icons painted with colours . . . should be placed in the holy churches . . . on walls, on boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are icons of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, or our Spotless and Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or the holy angels and holy and venerable saints.10


This milestone in the evolution of Christianity links the icons to the incarnation. If Jesus Christ actually became man and lived an historical life on earth then it must be possible to depict that life and represent his features in pictorial form.’

So on this first Sunday of Lent we rejoice in the Ikon of God that is Christ and our own individual destinies to become Ikons of the Lord in our Divinity and Humanity....

Happy Lent!





7 Hans Belting, Likeness and Image, A History of the Image before the Era of Art, The University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 145.
8 Patrologiae cursus, series Græca, ed. J.P. Migne, Paris 1857, Vol. 94, col. 1337 [De imaginibus oratio, 3, 16]. St. John Damascene, On Holy Images, (Mary H.Allies, trans.) Thomas Baker, London, 1898, ps 92 & 114.
[1] The emperor drew up a series of questions for the bishops meeting at the Council of Constantinople from 2nd February to 8th August 754. These questions can be found in Textus byzantinos ad Iconomachiam pertinentes in usum academicum, edited by H. Hennephof, Leiden, 1969. This particular question is on page 52. Cf. Christoph Schönborn, ‘Theological Presuppositions of the Image Controversy’ in Icons, Windows on Eternity, Theology and Spirituality in Colour, compiled by Gennadios Limouris, WCC Publications, Geneva, 1990, Pp 86-92.
9 Nicée II, 787-1987: Douze siècles d’images religieuses, ed F. Boespflug & N. Losskey, Paris, Les editions du Cerf, 1987.
10 Vittorio Peri, 'The Church of Rome and the Ecclesiastical Problems Raised by Iconoclasm' Icons, Windows on Eternity, Theology and Spirituality in Colour, compiled by Gennadios Limouris, WCC Publications, Geneva, 1990,  p.28-29.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Book Review: 'Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction' by Philip Sheldrake

This is book review week!

I have just been asked to write a few words of commendation for Philip Sheldrake's latest book, 'Spirituality - A Guide for the Perplexed', which I was very happy to do. As excellent and scholarly as ever. However when I had finished I thought it might be worth posting here the review I did of his last book 'Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction', which I also enjoyed (as you can see). With so many students at all levels working on topics to do with spirituality I think that Philip's guides make a difficult topic accessible and understandable.
I have just finished a review of Shirley du Boulay's new autobiography which I will post in the next few days... happy Lenten reading!

best wishes,

Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction

Author: Philip Sheldrake

Date: 2012


Publisher: Oxford University Press

ISBN: 978-0-19-958875-6

pp 133 pbk


Anyone who has ever puzzled over the myriad contemporary uses of that oddly weasel word ‘spirituality’ will find much to enjoy in this latest addition to the excellent OUP ‘very short introduction’ series. Its author, Professor Philip Sheldrake, will be already known to many readers for his lifetime contributions to the development of Christian spirituality as a subject of critically detailed academic study. He does not leave these credentials behind in writing this book, however this is clearly a book also aimed (as the rest of the series) to the general reader so much technical discussion is jettisoned – which is probably just as well. The other development of Sheldrake’s style from his earlier works is the focus in this volume on ‘spirituality’ tout court rather than simply Christian spirituality. The explosion of interest in the field over the past couple of decades makes a comprehensive and coherent survey of the whole field well-nigh impossible at the current time. It is to Sheldrake’s credit that he neither trivialises or excessively dilutes the meaning and reference of the term as he gives a magisterial overview of its manifestations in world culture: past, present and future. To have achieved this in just over a hundred (small) pages is no mean feat.

            The first section looking at ‘What is spirituality?’, addresses all the usual misgivings that arise when this term is employed in everyday discourse. Sheldrake, perhaps wisely, decides to concentrate on the manifestations of spirituality within specific world religions (‘Hindu spirituality’, ‘Islamic spirituality’ etc.) before turning to wider deployments of the term such as in ‘secular spiritualities’, the relationship of spirituality to philosophy, psychology, the arts and so on. This will form the template of the rest of the book as he addresses questions such as the relationship of spirituality to experience, way of life, society and religion. Each chapter contains a neat summary of differing faith and non-faith views to these questions and will be a welcome asset to my students who will no doubt find it a very useful introduction to the field before embarking upon deeper study. To aid this Sheldrake provides a helpful bibliography which will help the reader to pursue their own researches into the areas he indicates. It is a pleasant surprise to find a good index in a book this size, and having reviewed several more substantial books recently without an index this little volume puts many larger contemporaries to shame in its comprehensive and elegant critical apparatus.

             I hope that this book will help to de-mystify some of the clutter attached to the word ‘spirituality’ and advance further its critical acceptance as a legitimate field of discourse. By concentrating on the practical as well as the theoretical aspects of the term Sheldrake is to be congratulated in producing an eminently readable but critically thorough guide to an often perplexing field.


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Book Review: 'Counselling and Spiritual Accompaniment: Bridging Faith and Person-centred Therapy' by Brian Thorne

I mentioned this book and review I had written to my students today and promised I would put it here. It is destined for 'The Pastoral Review' at the end of the month but there is no harm in singing Prof Thorne's praises here. I had the pleasure of hosting him at dinner at Salisbury some years ago and his gentle humanity has stayed with me. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did:

Book Review: 'Counselling and Spiritual Accompaniment: Bridging Faith and Person-centred Therapy' by Brian Thorne

  • Paperback: 366 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (21 Sep 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1119950813
  • ISBN-13: 978-1119950813

  • It was a great joy once again to make the acquaintance of the wise and eminently readable Professor Brian Thorne in this generous compendium of his ‘greatest hits’ from the past few decades. Prof. Thorne, until recently Professor of Counselling at the University of East Anglia, has made it his lifelong task to integrate Person-Centred (Rogerian or Humanistic) Counselling with his own humane corner of Christianity. Carl Rogers, the founder of the school and a person whom Thorne met on several occasions, is a key motivating figure behind the thoughts and attitudes of Thorne and it is no surprise to learn that Rogers himself had originally wanted to train as a minister before ‘defecting’ to psychology. Thorne, from his High Church Anglicanism, is able to recover the lost soul of Rogers and present work that is highly integrative and instructive to the Christian pastor. Having used his work for several years with my students I have noticed how he always elicits surprise, joy and familiarity (not bred with contempt) when students encounter his writings. This collected volume will do nothing to lessen that effect. You will find all the ‘essential Thorne’ in this volume as well as a few recent essays and sermons never published before… perhaps most provocatively the recent ‘Collision of Worlds’ which argues against professionalization and state-regulation of therapy in the UK. A somewhat surprising position that is so well argued one finds it hard to resist Thorne’s conclusions. His earlier classic, ‘ Person-Centred Counselling and Christian Spirituality’ (1998) is well represented as are his other classic texts on this intersection of two worlds, too often, sadly, estranged from each other. Thorne’s is not just an optimistic thesis about psychology and its necessary relationship to religious practice, but an optimistic view of human nature. Lovers of the doctrine of Original Sin will find little to amuse themselves here as Thorne’s bright Anglicanism extols the beauty of the human form in relationships, sexuality, love, charity and faith. In a dark world his writing has always been a tonic and this volume does not in this respect disappoint. In his long career he has tackled numerous areas on the interface between psychology and religion: professional ethics, the interaction of faith and personality type, personality disorder and clinical intervention. In doing so he has, in his own words, often been seen as a ‘maverick heretic who threatened the model of the Christian family and the fabric of Christian morality’. Yet despite ‘throwing caution to the winds’ on several occasions Thorne has, I believe, managed to reconcile much that is seemingly irreconcilable and has formulated a world-view that integrates contemporary psychology and traditional Christian doctrine and spirituality in an attractive and important fashion. ‘Humanistic’ he may be by label, but ‘humane’ is the word that occurred to me time and again as I read these enlightened scripts. Not only Christians but psychologists will be challenged anew by these writings. As mentioned, the 2009 essay ‘A Collision of Worlds’  presents a forensic analysis of the ‘medical paradigm’ that many psychologists today fetishize as the only available model for psychological intervention. Thorne may be a heretic but the profession desperately needs such heretics today if it is avoid making desperate mistakes in the future. So then, this is a collection of essays to savour and enjoy – the clear fruits of a life spent in the service of the Holy Spirit, the alleviation of suffering and first and foremost, the Truth.





    Monday, 3 March 2014

    Psychotherapy and Counselling: Pseudo-Science or Pseudo-Myth?

    I have just received this link from the Bangalore Review for an article I wrote for them last month:

    The abstract reads:

    In this article Dr Tyler reviews how psychology takes its understanding from its conception of psyche, especially in the relationship between mind and body. Drawing on the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951), he argues that it is more fruitful to see psychology as a means of ‘seeing the foundation of possible buildings’ rather than appealing to the pseudo-objectivity of science.

    Although I have already posted parts of this article on here if you would like to read the whole thing then do please
    go to the link above.

    best for now