The difference between Islamic and Muslim art

A depiction of the Zodiac at the Turkish & Islamic Art Museum

In the New Year I often sign up for a course (or two) and learn something new. This year I am combing my interest in religion and art by attending a course entitled Mosques, Palaces and Gardens in the Muslim World.  It is fascinating. The course is lecture based with colour slides and hand out sheets with glossaries, further reading and course notes. For me it is filling in certain gaps. I have read a fair few books on Islam, including it’s history. Some of those books have been rather academic but some of what I’ve read has stayed.

The course has ironed out some misconceptions that a lot of people have, including me, about what is allowed in art from a culture coming out of Western Arabia.  As our tutor tells us, the term Islamic art is a false one.  Like any other art there is a difference between religious art and secular art and should be defined as such. Our tutor (who is Muslim, but says she is not a good one!) explained that within Islam many people do not understand this because they have never been told. So the myth that you cannot have figures – human or animal – in art is both confusing and wrong.

It was interesting to see that in the early days even Muhammad was represented in art form. Later it was thought that his face should be veiled  and finally it was not thought right to have any images of the Prophet. This then has been a gradual process. Not only that but there is no problem with animals and people being featured in secular Muslim art. Only religious art (Islamic) is devoid of those images. But certainly there was a crossover and also a borrowing of art techniques from neighbouring Kingdoms including using Christian artists from Byzantium who were experts in mosaics.

This course is a real eye-opener to how Islam progressed and how like Christianity there was a lot of store set by power and wealth. It seems both these strands of the Abrahamic faith  had much in common as they began to amass a following and saw personal benefits. Each seems to get away from the roots of their religion.  If we look at Christianity, it was seen as a good thing when Constantine made  it the official religion but with it came the wealth, the power and the individual.  Constantine wasn’t even baptised until he was on his death bed. He didn’t want to give up his life to God until he had too!

I am looking forward to more weeks of learning about the art and architecture of the Muslim World, including a visit to the V&A Museum in London to see their collection of, ahem, Islamic art!

Laughing at religion

Is it okay to make fun of religion? Last night I watching a programme about the life of Irish comedian Dave Allen. I grew up watching his shows and loved his humour. Dave was brought up a Catholic, moved to the UK where he began life as a comic, initially starting as a Red Coat at Butlins where he performed with others on stage.

Dave’s home life in Ireland seemed very free but the Catholic Church dominated at school. Dave was a free-thinker, something the church didn’t approve of! His comedy shows were littered with jokes, monologues and sketches about religion, particularly the Catholic Church.  Some of these jokes got him into trouble with the viewing public but I never found them offensive.

The Catholic Church has come under fire a lot over the last few years due to abuses to children. The ‘old’ Church was narrow minded and far from being what I would call Christian. Their views and teaching were dogmatic and cruel. I think they messed up the minds of many children who were taught to obey without question or go to hell. I have never had a lot of time for the Catholic Church. They seemed blinkered and not ‘of this world’ at all. Latin American Catholics saw their religion differently. That has been a stumbling block for the Church of Rome but the new Pope seems different.  I like what I see and I think he will be good for the Catholic Church. He seems far more in touch with ordinary people and says some profound things.

I’ve got a little away from my earlier question but I needed a background to work against.  Humour can be quite liberating. In Dave Allen’s case he used his experiences to show some of the hypocrisy of the Church  as well as to see the funny side of life. I don’t believe he was out to insult anyone.  It was all done in great fun and I was never aware that he crossed any lines.  I guess for the times he was active on TV (60-80’s) times were different and perhaps it was a step too far for a few but I also remember watching TV comedy that was racially prejudice using negative language that would be censored today. When I look back on that I am appalled I ever found those programmes funny. These days I cringe at them.

I am not suggesting that we should make derogatory comments about any religion but we should be able to laugh at ourselves and come off our high horse by looking at the world, including religion, from a lighter side. Of course there  is always a line you shouldn’t cross.  Then again, people have different views on where that line is!

I was walking up our high street yesterday and there were two men spouting off, trying to get attention for their views. I didn’t hear all they said but one thing stuck….Jesus was not a member of the Church of England. There was something about Jesus not having anything to do with religion. I think they had a good point! Religion is man made – we made the rules, the hierarchy and much else. Yes, we formed it from the teachings of Jesus but I wonder….if Jesus returned today what would he think? What would he say about what man has done in his name, how the Church has abused their position, gone to war supposedly in his name. Much is done using the name of Jesus/God. Maybe that is religion but it’s not faith – it’s not what Jesus meant.

Back to humour. I cannot speak for other religions.  There have been controversial issues over things said about Islam in humour.  I often think that Muslims find Christians a bit airy-fairy and uncommitted in their faith. They may have a point at times. There seem few Muslim comedians, though the Jewish are quite happy to laugh at themselves and are quite happy to debate faith. They are free-thinkers too. That’s what we should be. Anyone who tells you that this is the way to do it, that is what you think or are not willing to share with you their belief system unless you are a member is not worth listening to. People need to search for themselves, read, learn, observe,  experience and come to their own conclusion.

Sorry, this is a bit of ramble and only my view which has been rolling around in my head. Hopefully some of you will get where I’m coming from!

Christmas

HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Advent

Today is the first day of the Advent season. We light the Advent candle. We wait.

Reflection
(after spending a day in Southwark Cathedral
with prayer, worship and workshops)

I think too much
I take you apart, analyse,
pore over you bit by bit,
search for the magic words,
strain to hear your voice
but all I hear is mine.

A cathedral day of spirituality
meeting places –
would I meet you?

So I switched off my brain,
let all thought go.
I slowed into stillness
and several hundred people
could not get in.

I wandered the Prayer Station,
away from the crowd,
paused by each picture,
prayer stone warming
in my hand.

And I didn’t try, I didn’t question,
I just accepted.
I was here with you
and you were here with me.
That’s enough.

I’ve brought my prayer stone home,
it sits in my jacket pocket
ready to hold, ready for prayer
and as it rests in my palm
there is a heat exchange
as thoughts pass between us.

(c) 2013

The Church you inherit

A tapestry containing the history of St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire, UK

A tapestry containing the history of St Albans Cathedral, Hertfordshire, UK

A lot of people I’ve met inherit their church from their parents, well those whose parents attend church.  They go to Sunday School and seem to give their life to God when they are quite young.  Even though they may have a period when they drift they drift back to church and probably attend a church similar to the one they grew up in.

For me it wasn’t like this (and I apologise if I’m about the repeat something I’ve said in the past).  As a young child I didn’t go to church or Sunday School. However, at school we began each morning with an assembly with prayers and hymns and we ended each day with a prayer.  This was not a church school but in those days all school functioned this way in the UK – the period I’m talking about is the 1960’s and 1970’s.  We had religious education in primary school but all I remember from those days is being confused between who Jesus was and who God was.  For me they were separate people and it was Jesus who mattered. I also remember the pictures we had of Jesus on the wall – white, serene, nice looking but I had no feeling either way about him.

In secondary school religious education was more about people like Martin Luther King and I actually enjoyed learning in RE classes, though our unruly class made if difficult to learn anything as the poor teacher could not keep control.

When I was probably somewhere in my pre-teens my parents suddenly decided to attend church.  Pre-teens, the rebellious period!  We went to several churches as my mother began looking for a church she felt at home in.  I didn’t really feel at home in any and went to great lengths to let her know this!  Some of this  was pure defiance and I purposely switched off in services and longed for it to end so I could go.  I remember we once attended the United Reform Church (then called the Congregational Church) but my mother considered it too low church. I preferred it because we did lots of singing and the liturgy was minimal!  But for some time we went to an Anglican church and this was where boredom set in big time.  Eventually she chose a church – Anglican and very high.  I was then older and stopped going to church altogether except for the Nine Lessons and Carols at Christmas which I loved and still do.

I should pause here and say that when growing up and again this would have been pre-teens, I remember my brother and I had a Christmas story book with the lessons and carols in it and each year we would read it all out.  I even remember playing at being a vicar, which seems a strange occupation for a child! Anyway, you can see that some things are handed down and remembered and stick with you in life.  My mother in fact had a very strong faith and my father had been a choir boy.

As an adult my mother ‘feared for my soul’ because I wasn’t confirmed.  I think she despaired of me.  She’d always try to get me to services on Sunday mornings saying I’d like the sermon because the vicar spoke about nature and things I’d like!  Actually the sermons were usually the best part, she wasn’t wrong on that. But I wasn’t interested so my Sunday mornings were washing up the breakfast things while everyone else went to church.

I always said I’d never marry in church and be hypocritical – ah famous last words!  Of course I married in church and in my mother’s church.  In the end I knew it was right.  My husband and I even attended some Evensong services after we married but it all tailed off but after the birth of our first child we began going again because we wanted him baptised.  It was also during this time that I was really lonely and was recovering from post natal depression.  My mother suggested I attend a pram service at church. For once I listened to her I did go and from that time on I became a regular at my church and gradually joined in with things and to my mother’s great delight I was confirmed! I had found God for myself.

My church in those days was more vibrant – there were lots of groups you could join, outings and Bible Study.  My kids went to Sunday School until my eldest was about eleven and then he stopped so the younger one stopped too (because Daddy doesn’t go so why should I!) Ah! things coming back to haunt me!  I felt very alone for a while without my kids but there was still a lot going for church and I was involved in various things at there.

But over the years things have changed.  The older ones in the congregations are unable to do what they used to, many have died and there aren’t any people willing to take things on.  We have got set in our ways and are stuck in the past. Virtually all the groups have faded out.  There is nothing for children apart from Sunday School and hasn’t been really since I’ve been going and there are no Bible study groups. Technology has passed us by.  I used to feel great when I left church – I don’t anymore.  I don’t know whether it’s due to the way my church seems to be crumbling or whether it is my faith.  I can’t seem to separate them from one another.

Most of my friends go to my church.  That’s where a lot of my social life has been. Leaving seems unthinkable which is why I have this huge dilemma. Writing about it helps me to see the background to my faith even if I can’t yet see a way forward.  I still run a group which has nearly 30 members, which when I think about it is huge considering we are almost the last group to survive, but only ever a maximum of five members ever come to meetings, though I can call on others for help when I am planning the lunches at our church fairs.  I have two more years of leadership in that group and then I must stand down. I fear for that group as I don’t think at the moment there is anyone able or willing to take it on.

Over the last couple of years I have had moments of energy in my faith/church and moments of despair with faith and church.  I even considered whether to just bow out and forget God but I can’t.  The idea of abandoning it all is a dark tunnel I don’t want to enter.  I can’t imagine giving it all up.  Even when I’m fed up with everything I find myself visiting churches when I’m up in London or away on holiday.  I am drawn to learning and studying about religion and other faiths and I read many books about both.  I’m still drawn to the Celtic way of life which if I look at my past should be no surprise as nature and being good to the earth and all in it – humans, animals and everything else – has always been very strong in me since I was a child.

But what I actually believe has become confused.  At the very least my instinct to help others, my strong feelings for the earth are still there.  If I take everything else away those feelings remain.

I would be interested to hear from others on what I have said. Meanwhile, having seen what other churches offer I may have to split my time between churches. I still think of my church as home but it is not enough.  It was once but now as I read what I have just written I feel my church has just lost it’s direction and though I like our vicar and his sermons are brilliant I don’t think he is the one who will lead us out of the hole I think we are in.  I know I am not the only one who has doubts about our church  but I’m not sure anyone has the strength to change things.

Struggles……

For a long time now I have been struggling with my church and my faith.  After a particularly stressful summer (nothing to do with church!) I attended a weekend retreat on The Celtic Christ.  Maybe I wasn’t in the best of moods but I didn’t really integrate with the group very well.  I am sometimes a loner and need to be on my own at times but the weekend didn’t turn out quite how I imagined it.  I did enjoy the worship, being Celtic in nature.  I find it very much to my liking. I guess what struck me was that everyone seemed to have such a strong faith and their churches were doing so much.  I mulled this over and (this is me getting paranoid) I felt a bit of an outsider.  My faith flounders and my church doesn’t help.  I did speak to a couple of people about this (about my church rather than my faith) including the leader of the retreat.  He said was just having friends at church enough? !

I had a lot on my mind coming away from that retreat and I let it sit there.  I felt really unhappy at the prospect of changing churches but I realised something had to change.  The following Sunday I attended another church which is a bus ride away (I wanted to go somewhere where no one would know me and I’d looked at their website many times and thought it would suit me).

My feelings on attending the church were very mixed.  It certainly began to open my eyes to what is out there.  I enjoyed their style of worship very much.  Though Anglican, the liturgy was simple and they sang some worship songs.  That particularly week was schools week.  They have links with two schools and being the start of the new academic year they invite children and parents to the service.  So the church was full and very lively.  I loved it that the children were so involved in the service.  It was a nice service.  On the other hand I felt totally alone (though I reminded myself that God was there so I wasn’t totally alone!).  No one spoke to me but then I didn’t really want anyone to (told you I was in a weird mood).  I didn’t feel I belonged there.  It didn’t feel right.  I argued with myself that of course I wouldn’t feel at home as I was new and all my friends were sitting in my own church.  That didn’t help!

I spoke to a friend about it later that day.  She asked if I felt better.  I said ‘a bit’ but actually I didn’t.  I felt dreadfully unsettled and guilty.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do now but I attended my own church the following week and of course it felt like home even if the service was staid.  I was still in a quandary.

The following week I was due to attend another church for a commissioning service of a deanery leader of an organisation I belong to.  This was her local church.  I’d been there before when she was commissioned the first time round, three years ago and I had enjoyed the service a lot.  This time we were warned that this would be like ‘no other service they did’.  It was, but refreshing.  Totally geared to families, no communion and the vicar played keyboard, sang and all the songs were worship songs and very lively!  Indeed during the final song the children were given bells, tambourines and other shakey things to accompany the song.

I was told by the vicar that since they introduced the service they were getting Dad’s attend and numbers had risen 30%.  It was a once a month service but it was working.  They have so much going for them.  It’s a much smaller church than mine but very friendly.  They had vision in that church.  Something sadly lacking in my own.

During all these unsettling feelings something happened.  Suddenly it was as if God was giving me permission to go and enjoy myself, attend other churches, see for myself.  Immediately after that I felt so much calmer.  I haven’t made any huge decision still.  There is much I need to ponder on. Sadly this is where I must end for now – I have to go out!  But I’ll be back!

Sunrise

My youngest son rolled home at 3am this morning and then I was wide awake.  Soon it was getting light and the birds began to sing.  Sometime after 4am I got up, made a cup of tea and watched the sun rise.  What a gorgeous morning which has turned into a gorgeous day.  It’s now 6pm and I’m still awake though I’m not sure the brain is quite functioning!

God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars (Gen 1:16)

God’s whispers and an art exhibition

Recently I read The Power of a Whisper by Bill Hybels.  Some of the chapters really make me think.  The first one pointed out that God has always spoken to people the The Bible both in  the Old Testament and the New and then there was a chapter with testaments from Hybels congregation  of their  ‘whispers ‘ from God and the way they were described made me realise that I had experienced instances too, which I had either acted on or not, but had never considered them as being from God.  I always thought this was just my conscience or intuition telling me what to do and  giving me little nudges and that they were from me.  All this time I have been waiting for whispers from God and it looks like I’d been hearing from him all the time (well, now and then).  Perhaps now I will take more notice.  It occurred to me that I have been trying too hard and missing the obvious!

While this book was an eye opener I did struggle with some of the  chapters.  There were parts I felt were maybe a bit too overindulgent and palley  and being from the UK the Americanisms grated.  But  then the Americans might find us  rather staid  and prim!  I do think that churches in the US are a lot different to the UK.

*********

After lunch today I went along to the retreat house where I spent a day in April.  The Sisters had organised an art exhibition by contemplative artists entitled Windows into the Heart and I very much wanted to see it.  On display was visual art, glass icons, poetry, paintings, clay sculpture and photography.  Each room had a different art.  Trying to pick a favourite isn’t easy.  I loved the paintings, so simple and peaceful.  The clay sculptures represented a different station of the cross.  The glass icons were so beautiful set up against the large windows so the light could shine through them and the photography was great too.  There were some books of poetry and a book of photos with a line from a Psalm.  Upstairs there was a very moving display of photos and poems about dying.

Going there today also gave me the opportunity to see the downstairs of the building which I didn’t really see on my first visit.  There is a lovely library, several rooms for meetings and a conservatory.  The gardens looked beautiful and as it was a hot day I sat in the shade for a little while before going back to the bus stop.  These are very talented ladies and the house was quiet and peaceful. It gave me a chance to unwind before tackling the hot and noisy journey home.

God Hunting – conclusion

Window - Guildford Cathedral

Window – Guildford Cathedral

It has been six long months since I began reading and following the book God Hunting by Jo Swinney.  In that time I have tried new ideas, re-visited old ones and continued things I am already doing.  I thought before I leave this book I would draw everything together to see what has stuck, what I might re-visit and my final thoughts on what I have learned or tried. I will deal with each chapter briefly in order of the book.

Prayer – I still use arrow prayers.  They are a great way to connect with God quickly when on the go about a situation or a worry and about something that has happen. For example when I was in London a few weeks ago the paramedics were working on a gentleman lying on the pavement opposite.  It was obvious that it was serious as they were trying to get his heart going again.  I offered up a prayer for him.  I will never know what happened but there appeared to be no person other than the paramedics with the man and he looked so alone.

My intercessory prayers need working on.  I pray for family, friends and others I know who I feel need prayers but I often forgot the wider community and sometimes the wider world.  The ‘offices’ of morning and evening prayer which I tried didn’t really work for me – I think it is the language but the regularity of it helped.  However, I have since bought A Holy Island Prayer Book by Ray Simpson which contains prayers and readings for morning, midday and evening prayer for five weeks and I have been using this book for five weeks!  I haven’t managed midday prayer more than twice but I have kept to the morning and evening prayer times and I feel more comfortable with this Celtic style and aim to continue.

Fasting – the only thing that remains from this is that I have one day a week when I don’t use my computer. though it’s not the same day every week as it depends what’s going on.  Fasting is something I’d like to revisit again and perhaps read more about.

Bible – meditating daily isn’t going to happen right now!  However, I have bought a book which uses The Message Bible version and uses the method of lectio divina for Bible study.  I will use this from time to time and see how it goes.  I think ‘now and again’ is more my style than trying to fit it into everyday which I know I will soon find a chore and lose interest.  Studying the Bible in community isn’t happening and I still don’t know what to do about that but whatever I do it will be outside of my church.  This is still a big issue and maybe I will talk about this again some time but right now there are a lot of thoughts spinning around inside my head which I need to try and sort out.  The memorising Bible verses I enjoyed but I couldn’t seem to make them stick and eventually gave in.  I might try to see if there is another way to learn them that would suit me better because I can see the benefit of doing it.  Another one to return to at some time.

Worship – recently I attended a women’s conference at the Christian Resources Exhibition at Sandown Race Course.  It has became an annual pilgrimage, the exhibition, and in this will be the third year I have attended one of their conferences.  I tried to get some of the ladies from my group at church to come but no one was interested.  A friend, not from my church, was unable to get a ticket as this year the conference was sold out, 300 women!  So I went on my own.  I had a lovely day and the speakers were really good and varied. The talks covered getting the most from our devotional, journalling,  finding our personal style (clothes and make up) and living out our identity as a daughter of God. It ended with a choice of two brief workshops on either flower arranging or messy crafts but I opted out of these so I had time to visit the main exhibition stands.  One of the speakers, Jennifer Rees Larcombe, I found so inspiring and it was as if her talk was just for me as she spoke about growing up so shy.  I found her talk really moving and she is the most wonderful and funny speaker, very genuine.  The worship (two brief times) was very different from what I am used to (my church is High Anglican).  There was a screen with words and worship songs.  People raised their arms.  It felt very odd to me and out of my comfort zone but I had a go!  I like worship songs and I would like to experience something different from time to time and this is another thing I struggle about with my church.  It was good to experience something else but as an introvert it takes a bit of courage!

Solitude – I do intend to find times for quiet days and retreats as they are most helpful. I only plucked up courage a few years ago to go on a retreat and now love them.  I hope to book a retreat for later in the year as I missed out on one last year.

Simplicity – this means a lot to me, how I live and what difference I can make.  There were aspects that the chapter didn’t touch on like money – where we spend it and our giving.  This is something on my mind right now.  Time management  is still something I’d love to pin down for some areas of my life and who knows maybe I will….one day!

All in all I found the book a great way to explore new ideas to connect with God and on the whole a lot of the exercises were worth considering but finding ways in which these could work for me is still an ongoing thing, though I feel I have have made a lot of progress.  If I’d just read the book without doing the exercises as I went I don’t think I’d have got round to it.  However, I may re-read the book again without having the thought that I have to do this again!  I’ve seen where I am falling short and I have some resources to help me move on.  Obviously this book will be different for each individual due to personality types and what you have been used to in your journey and worship style.  It does us all good to try things because we can get very staid and think our way is better.  We cannot dismiss what others find helpful in connecting to God just because it feels odd to us. I hope you have enjoyed reading about my journey through the book and it has encouraged you to try something yourself for the first time.