The Droste Effect (nearly) in the Domhnach Airgid

The Droste Effect is the name given to an image containing a smaller version of that image which contains therefore a smaller version of that image and so on , to theoretically ad infinitum. The name comes from an early 20th Century Dutch brand of cacao:

The Domhnach Airgid is an early Irish book shrine on display in the National Museum of Ireland. It housed a gospel given, supposedly, by St Patrick to St Mac Cartan:

In the lower left panel we see this specific scene:

At first I was hopeful that this could be a Droste Effect, and a pretty early one – with a mini Domhnach Airgid being passed from Saint to Saint, itself incorporating a mini Domhnach Airgid. It may be in intention but is a blank rectangle… but perhaps the Droste Effect concept was at play. Wikipedia (yes I know) gives the earliest Droste image as 1320 : while this shrine dates from the 8th century the panels were remodelled in the 14th so this may not be a precursor.

but anyway , an interesting little aspect of a beautiful work

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The Empathy of St. Francis

A wonderful essay by DeForest London on St Francis (of Assisi) and the power of empathy:

“When people were around St. Francis and his empathy, they felt this lightening of their burden because they knew (they felt deeply) that someone was sharing the load with them. They found rest for their world-weary souls in a similar way that the followers of Jesus found rest in his empathetic presence.

The beauty of this quality is that we do not have to be especially intelligent or wise or wealthy to cultivate it. In fact, according to the Gospel, this quality often eludes the wealthy and the wise. Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The Greek word for “infants” is nepios, which can also be translated as someone who does not speak or someone who needs training (which sounds kind of like our pets).

Empathy is a quality available to all and is often found among those from whom we least expect it (or don’t expect it at all). Empathy is available not only to humans, but to all sentient beings (Francis might even say to all of creation). Personally, one of my most profound experiences of empathy was not from a human. Several years ago, my cat, Frisky London, passed away at the ripe old age of 20 (which would be equivalent to about 96 in human years). Before she passed away, she comforted me. The last time I said goodbye to her at my parent’s house, I cried, knowing that I might not see her ever again. She was not really eating or drinking and was very unresponsive. But when I cried, I cried into her beautiful fur coat. And as I was oozing out my sadness onto her, she responded by licking my tears. And, I felt, very powerfully, that she knew she was going to die and she knew that I was going to miss her and she showed me empathy and she comforted me and she eased my sadness. Frisky was my St. Francis.”

DeForest London

There was a discussion in a First Grade religion class focused on St. Francis of Assisi. After school, a First Grader came home very excited about what he had learned and blurted out to his mother, “Guess what, Mommy? Today, I learned that St. Francis was a sissy!” Now one practical way to ensure that we don’t go home thinking that St. Francis was a sissy is to practice the proper pronunciation of the saint’s hometown: Not “Asisy” but “Aseesee.”

However, even with the proper pronunciation of his hometown, I wonder if many of us still do think of this saint as perhaps a little too kind and too gentle for his own good. He was known to have cried every day, he preached sermons to birds, he rubbed sticks together as if he were playing the violin, he called the sun his brother and the moon his sister, and…

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“Of Smelly Monks and Annoying Neighbours” – Hannah LeGrand in Comment Magazine

Hannah LeGrand has a review of Kyle David Bennet’s Practices of Love in Comment Magazine which is worth reading. I’ve posted before on the romanticisation of monasticism. Both those who romanticise and criticise the monastic life tend to have a misconception of it being a retreat from community into isolation. As LeGrand writes:

There is a common misconception of the monastic life, that it was an escape from human society, a retreat into a solitary life and the personal cultivation of one’s relationship with God. The monk, we tend to think, was turned inward and upward, a strange and almost mystical figure—barely of this world.

The reality of the monastic life, however, was often quite different. Indeed, far from being plagued by an excess of solitude, the aspect of medieval monasticism that would most likely horrify modern sensibilities is the oppressive lack of privacy many cloisters afforded. Monks slept together in one open dormitory. They worshiped together, ate together, and worked together. The monk or nun who committed their life to God was rarely afforded the luxury of being alone with God.

As Bennett notes, “Monks and nuns make vows not to a cloister but to a community. And they do so not to escape the world but to enact a different one.” The monastery was not a rejection of community. Rather, it represented a commitment to enacting a new sort of community, one in which all members strove, with the help of the spiritual disciplines, to not only love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds but also to truly love their neighbours as themselves in all the patterns of their working and resting, their sleeping and rising, their meals, chores, and worship. It is to this end that the spiritual disciplines were employed.

LeGrand discusses contemporary “self care”, into which this romanticised view of monasticism can be fitted. She is endearingly self-deprecating about her own attempts at “spiritual practice” and how this was a form of spiritual pride:

As a high school student, I went through a brief and rather misguided period of fascination with the spiritual disciplines. In practice, my discipline of choice was most often that of silence. Being naturally a quiet sort of student, holding my tongue was no great burden to me, and as I fancied myself following in the footsteps of ancient Christians, my shyness and tendency to retreat inside myself seemed to take on a weighty and pleasing spiritual significance.

Thinking back on this high school practice while reading Kyle Bennett’s Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, I realized with an embarrassed sort of horror that throughout all those stretches of pious silence I had never really paid any special attention to listening. If anything, the weightiness of my own discipline cultivated a disdain for the shallow conversation around me, and I’m sure I barely paid attention to the day’s petty lessons on differential equations and the Meech Lake Accord that had, no doubt, been carefully prepared. In this way, I think it is safe to say that I was doing the spiritual disciplines wrong.

Bennet’s book looks like it will join my ever-burgeoning to-read list – it sounds like a bracingly practical approach to what can often be an over romanticised practice.

Indeed, Bennett does not spend much time on grand ideas or theological arguments. Practices of Love reads—in some ways much like the original recommendations of Cassian himself—as a practical manual on the spiritual disciplines in modern life, full of concrete habits to incline every waking hour toward love of one’s neighbour. His suggestions are often unexciting, sometimes downright intrusive, and, in their own way, radical. He recommends inviting neighbours to join in our precious Sabbath rest even when all we want is a long nap and a movie. He recommends setting aside time to think positively about that co‐worker we really can’t stand, and using our own silence as an opportunity to listen very carefully to even shallow conversation.

In this way, Bennett’s take on the spiritual disciplines offers us none of the seductive charm of a minimalist wardrobe. Rather, in true monastic spirit, there is only the strange and uncomfortable, day in and day out enactment of a new sort of community, one in which love for one’s neighbour is not just a beautiful idea or even a political position, but something sunk deep into muscle memory, something that fills even the in‐between moments of ordinary days.

One of the many things I have enjoyed about Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace is a certain honesty about the curmudgeonliness that can go with the pilgrim spirit (especially in the modern world, where pilgrimage is more of a Great Event than the norm of previous times)

Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.

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It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies of so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …

Eleanor Parker on myths about the Middle Ages

An interesting piece that touches on anti-Catholic myths, historical myths, and science vs. religion myths.

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The medieval Church, let’s be clear, had no objection to scientific progress. Throughout the Middle Ages, scientists and scholars – many of them monks and friars – explored their curiosity about the natural world, debating, reasoning, theorising and delighting in learning of all kinds. Medieval scholars studied many varieties of science, including subjects we would now call astronomy, mathematics, engineering, geography, branches of physics (such as optics) and, yes, medicine.

They didn’t define these subjects precisely as we do today, and they didn’t approach them by the same methods or draw the same conclusions. Scientific knowledge and methods change and develop over time. But to suggest that because the various medieval ways of approaching these questions were different from ours they must be an obstacle to “progress”, a sign of “stagnation”, is to impose a kind of intellectual conformity which refuses to see value in any culture but our own. That’s a worrying attitude to teach to schoolchildren.

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Equally troubling is the sense of cultural superiority implicit in that term “superstition”. What value can there be, for teaching history, in using such a label unless you explain what you mean by it? The term is both inappropriately pejorative and far too broad, since people have different views of what qualifies as superstition.

What most people intend when they talk about medieval superstition is probably a vague reference to the devotional practices of medieval Catholicism – pilgrimage, a belief in miracles and saints’ relics, visits to holy wells, and so on. These practices were not confined to peasants in the Middle Ages, or to the uneducated. Social and intellectual elites engaged in them as enthusiastically as anyone, and for centuries they were an unchallenged aspect of learned as well as popular faith. To understand medieval religion, it is essential to try to explore why such practices held meaning for so many kinds of people – not just to dismiss them as superstitious.

Generally speaking (and bearing in mind the difficulties of generalising about a period of 1,000 years), the worldview which underpinned such practices was of a universe in which every created thing held the potential to be a vessel for God’s grace. There was nothing in the world so trivial that it could not be of importance to God. Everything had its purpose and place, from the planets to the tiniest herb. There were blessings to be said over the fruits of each harvest and the tools of everyday work, prayers for every hour of the day and every possible human need.

Medieval scientists calculated times and calendars, developing intricate theories about the interlocking cycles of the natural year, the movement of the stars and the Church’s calendar; and for ordinary people those cycles were woven into their daily lives, so that every day of the year belonged to a saint whose story might point one to God.

It is this worldview which lies behind the kind of miracle stories some people smile at today, where saints cure sick cattle, find lost property or alter the weather. No human concern was beneath God’s notice, or too small to be the occasion for a miracle. When faced with more serious difficulties, it was not fatalism which led people to seek God’s help in illness; it was faith, which believed God could and did intervene in the world.

Pilgrimage can provide genuine health benefits (if not quite in the way medieval Christians would have explained it), as well as being an opportunity to travel, meet new people and have profound spiritual experiences in places hallowed by centuries of devotion.

“Hell is where the damned stay, immobilized by their choices” – Rowan Williams on The Divine Comedy, TLS, September 12th 2017

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From this review

There is still a tendency among not very attentive readers – not to mention people who have read almost nothing of the work but have picked up the odd juicy morsel – to think of the Inferno as the really “interesting” section of the poem, the part where recognizable human emotion is most dramatically depicted and evoked: guilty love, transgression, punishment, tragic disaster and horror. It is salutary to remember that we as readers are not meant to linger in Hell and that, for all Dante’s obsessional score-settling in the Inferno, this is not what he intends to write about. The first part of the Commedia represents a terrifying descent towards complete stasis, the frozenness of Lucifer: the circles of Hell put before us a more and more total paralysis of energy and movement, and it is only by way of the extraordinary acrobatic feat that takes Virgil and Dante into Purgatory that the poem is enabled to continue. Hell is where the damned stay, immobilized by their choices; and for just that reason it cannot be where the poem stays. The choices of writer and reader alike have to be released, thawed out, if the poem is not itself to be silenced like the appalling figures of Satan and the three traitors in the Ninth Circle, who can neither move nor speak.

My Best of Tipperary Stained Glass (a personal selection of ten images)

My Best of Tipperary Stained Glass (a personal selection of ten images)

Since this post from January I have been blogging intermittently picture of stained glass from Churches in Tipperary. As I wrote in that original post:

Recently visiting various churches in Clonmel I was struck by how striking the stained glass windows were. None were particularly celebrated or well-recognised, yet were – quite apart from any religious consideration – beautiful, literally luminous works of art. It struck me that they deserve to be celebrated and recorded. Perhaps there is somewhere, online or in a book, which the stained glass windows of Tipperary are collected, but here is my humble effort in that line.

I have been opportunistically taking pictures of stained glass since. I have strayed beyond just one county. I have also been frequently mortified at my lack of photo skills. It is comforting to find from others that stained glass is tricky to take pictures of.

I tend to take these photos when I get the chance – ie between work, family life and other commitments. Therefore they very much reflect my own locality and routine with a definite South Tipp bias. I also have found that Church of Ireland churches tend to be locked when I have tried to go in. I don’t want to distract from services or people at prayer so I try to avoid the times of services/masses. So these images have all been from Catholic Churches – which was not my intention at all!

Anyhow, the posts on Tipperary stained glass are as follows:

Stained Glass of Augustinian Priory, Fethard

Stained Glass from Church of St John The Baptist, Kilcash, Tipperary

Stained Glass of Holycross Abbey, Holycross, Tipperary

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Grangemockler, Tipperary

Stained Glass from Church of the Visitation, Cloneen, Tipperary 

Stained Glass from Powerstown, Clonmel, Tipperary Part 1

Murphy Devitt Studios Stained Glass in Chapel of St Anthony, Franciscan Abbey, Clonmel

Murphy Devitt Stained Glass from Franciscan Abbey, Clonmel.

“A kind of gospel in glass”: stained glass from the Church of the Holy Trinity, Fethard, Tipperary.

Stained Glass from New Birmingham/Glengoole, Tipperary

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Killenaule 

 

A random image from a site already linked to above:

sunlight through stained glass – St Anthony’s Chapel, Franciscan Friary, Clonmel

From the above I have decided to make a personal selection of my ten favourite images gathered on this stained glass adventure. I don’t pretend to be an expert, a good photographer or a systematic researcher. I am learning more and more about stained glass as time goes by but don’t intend to turn this into another arena of excess striving.

Reviewing the pictures I am rather mortified at the out of focus and generally bad images… so I will strive (irony) to improve this (and may prune egregious examples) I have decided to choose, in so far as possible, purely on aesthetic grounds and purely on the images themselves, as opposed to the place or how the window looks in reality, or any other consideration.

 

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Harry Clarke window of Our Lady of Fatima, Augustinian Abbey, Fethard, Co Tipperary
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St Anthony’s Chapel, Franciscan Abbey, Clonmel (Murphy Devitt Studios)
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From Church of the Visitation, Cloneen

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From Church of the Visitation, Cloneen

 
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From St Mary’s Church, Killenaule

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From St Mary’s Church, Killenaule
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Detail of window of Our Lady of Fatima, Augustinian Abbey, Fethard
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From Church of the Holy Trinity, Fethard
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From Church of St John the Baptist, Powerstown
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From Church of St John the Baptist, Kilcash