Readings from the Book of Exile by Pádraig O Tuama

(Canterbury Press Norwich; London, 2012)

It may seem out of order to write about Readings from the Book of Exile after promoting events with Pádraig in Melbourne for the last month, but Pádraig is best as a performance poet, so listening to the poems brings them to life in a way that reading perhaps cannot and I now have more to say! Having said that, I still think you should go out and buy this little book, together with a new release of poems which is due out in August called Sorry for your Troubles, which is birthed out of his reconciliation work.

One of my favourite poems of all times is in this collection: ‘Dominic and Jenny’s Sex Life’.  When I first heard it, I felt like I’d been hit by a hot wind.  When I last heard it, I cried from longing to become one with the poem.  Dominic and Jenny are dancing together at a party: not slow dancing, but fun, romp-a-stomp, full-of-life dancing!  The rhythm of the words pulsates under my skin like the loud thud-thud of way-too-loud party music.  Here’s a snippet from the middle of the poem:

With rhythm in his tender boots

and she exulting in the love that she is living

the life that she is loving.

Oh, I give you all my rage and my affection

my love and resurrection dreams.

I fling my hands up in the air

I have no cares upon me now

I dance around your body

and we are made here in this space,

born again to our own worlds,

hurled upon this

Dance Floor Centre Stage.

I recently heard Les Murry suggest that there were three elements to poetic communication: daylight consciousness, dreaming, and the body (it’s breath, rhythm and dance).  If this is the case, then I can say about myself that I receive a poet’s message through the body first; it is my particular starting point with words.  Perhaps that is why I love Pádraig’s words: they have a vibrant rhythm to them that carries me up into the story of the words where I can know whatever it is the story has to teach me with a deep, sensory knowing.

The older I get, the more I value reading theology through the poetic form: somehow it is better able to capture the subtlety of things – the fact that we can know God without ever really knowing God.  There is a freedom in speaking about God this way, a freedom from the expectation that our words are capable of containment, that God will always be bigger, better and beyond our wildest dreams.  With gratitude then, do I read seven ‘readings from the book of exile’ which form the structure of the book’s corpus, and the many other poems which address faith and the human spirit.  I am thankful for my Irish brother Pádraig, for living the life he has been given in order to write these words which now accompany me in mine.

(There are a number of youtube clips, etc where you can see/hear Pádraig speak but he’s a poet – he needs us to buy his books so he can eat!)

Rebekah Pryor

I’ve been meaning to update you for a while on my friend Bek, the artist responsible for the reddress icon over to your right just here!

Bek has a webpage you might like to check out, where you can purchase copies of her artwork on-line:

Or you can go straight to her etsy shop:

little inkling

If you’re in Melbourne, you might also like to get along to the walker street gallery in Dandenong before 28 March, where one of her pieces – Simple Things –  is being exhibited in the collection of finalists for a competition featuring local female artists.

And for something really special, you can head to Solace for one of the easter events that Bek is running:


‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Sarah Dowling

This post is the seventh in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

When One and One Equals Silence: The Mystic Way in the Poetry of Theodore Roethke and Charles Wright

by Sarah Dowling

Sarah is a postgrad student at ACU in Melbourne.  Both she and her paper were ‘beautiful,’ as defined the day before by Dominique (Beauty as Resistance).

My mid-life passion for poetry has developed in parallel to my passion for love as the source of all life and being.  There is something inextricably connected about the two, and today in the postgrad room I threw around some thoughts with my colleagues about what that is.  I think about an oft repeated phrase for poetry students: poets ‘show don’t tell’.  What if that is applied to love as a form of knowledge or communication: love ‘shows rather than tells’.  Whereas with poetry, the showing is still done with words – symbols, metaphors and allusions – perhaps with love the showing is done with the body.  In both my academic and my pastoral work, I am often reminded of the ‘fact’ that 55% of communication is done through body language, 38% through verbal intonation and only 7% through the actual words.  What if love is communicated through body language?  

This reminds me of my one of my favourite songs of all time, the 90s classic More Than Words!  Take a trip down memory lane and check out the ‘Extreme’ film clip on youtube!

Anyway, back to Sarah’s paper, she introduced me to two poets I’d not yet read, both of whom were influenced by Evelyn Underhill’s description of ‘The Mystic Way’.  They declare themselves to be be not mystics, and yet by challenging the location of mystical experience create poetry which reads mystically.  I found this wonderful – and instructive of so much energy in philosophy, psychology, theology and all forms of art at present: where is the location of the mystical?  How do we bring language to bear on that which is essentially mysterious?

Rather than ‘tell’ you more, I’ll just share the poems that Sarah shared with us, and hopefully they will ‘show’ you what I mean by this!

The first poem Sarah dealt with was by Theodore Roethke, In A Dark Time which can be found in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1963).

In A Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,

I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;

I hear my echo in the echoing wood–

A lord of nature weeping to a tree,

I live between the heron and the wren,

Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.


What’s madness but nobility of soul

At odds with circumstance?

The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,

My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,

That place among the rocks–is it a cave,

Or winding path? The edge is what I have.


A steady storm of correspondences!

A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,

And in broad day the midnight come again!

A man goes far to find out what he is–

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,

All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.


Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.


The second poet was Charles Wright and she presented two of his poems: Drone and Ostinato and Ostinato and Drone which are published in a volume called Negative Blue (1998).

Drone and Ostinato
Winter. Cold like a carved thing outside the window glass.
Silence of sunlight and ice dazzle.
Stillness of noon.
Dragon back of the Blue Ridge,
Landscape laid open like an old newspaper, memory into memory.

Our lives are like birds’ lives, flying around, blown away.
We’re bandied and bucked on and carried across the sky,
Drowned in the blue of the infinite,
blur-white and drift.
We disappear as stars do, soundless, without a trace.

Nevertheless, let’s settle and hedge the bet.
The wind picks up, clouds cringe,
Snow locks in place on the lawn.
Wordless is what the soul wants, the one thing that I keep in mind.
One in one united, bare in bare doth shine.

Ostinato and Drone

The mystic’s vision is beyond the world of individuation,
it is beyond speech and thus incommunicable.
Paul Mendes-Flohr, Ecstatic Confessions

Undoing the self is a hard road.
Somewhere alongside a tenderness that’s infinite,
I gather, and loneliness that’s infinite.
No finitude.
There’s radiance.  Unending brilliance of light
light drops of fire through the world.
Speechless.  Incommunicable.  At one with the one.

Some dead end – no one to tell it to,
nothing to say it with.
That being the case, I’d like to point out this quince bush,
Quiescent and incommunicado in winter shutdown.
I’d like you to notice its long nails
And skeletal underglow.
I’d like you to look at its lush
Day-dazzle, noon light and shower shine.

It’s reasonable to represent anything that really exists
by that thing which doesn’t exist,
Daniel Defoe said,
And that’s what we’re talking about, the difference between the
voice and the word,
The voice continuing to come back in splendor,
the word still not forthcoming.
We’re talking about the bush on fire.
We’re talking about this quince bush, its noonday brilliance of light.

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Dominique Godfrey

This post is third in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

Beauty as Resistance

Dominique Godfrey

Dom was one of two amazing women that I traveled up to Sydney with last weekend.  I liked her instantly when we met on Friday morning in Fitzroy and by the time we arrived in Sydney I knew we were kindred spirits.  Von Balthasar says that beauty and love work the same way as metaphors for knowledge – both refuse to be controlled by human hands; both are an opportunity of connection with God’s grace.  As such, our projects are very much aligned.

The transcendence of true beauty somehow lords it over us, disengaged by the power of beauty’s magic and mystery.  In Dom’s words:

“when something is interesting, we almost conspire with it. But when it is beautiful it somehow directs us, stands apart from us…
beauty is as ‘tears in the world that reveal a vaster space’ (Simone Weil)…
beauty is a personal experience, but it is not a private one. We desire to communicate and connect around it, to share our experience or encounter…
the universality of beauty does not belong to the object but to the experience…

It sounds like beauty is irresistible!  What then, might it be resisting?

Whilst Dom’s doctorate was in existential philosophy (‘Boredom’ in Heidegger), her initial training was in music, art and drama.  The postmodernism cultural phenomena of the last half century has had no interest in what’s beautiful – preferring instead irony, kitsch, shock or playfulness.  Hal Foster described it as an anti-aesthetic, though Dom explained it’s not so much that Beauty has been banished, but the discourse of Beauty that has been banished from postmodern art.  And if this is the case, it is secularisation that has wielded the whip.  As John Millbank argues, there can be no beauty without God, therefore in a secular world there can be no beauty, only prettiness or something less.  When visual pleasing sights, sounds, people and things are coupled with production or any other kind of purpose, they become what Dom called ‘toxic beauty’.

So, to reintroduce Beauty – not just as a notion, but also as an experience, is to refuse to collude with the secularising impulse of late-capitalist culture.  (These are my words here – the sociologist coming through.)

The discussion after Dom’s paper was really engaging – testimony to her clear presentation and welcoming disposition.  We explored some questions around power and beauty – that an attempt to define what is beautiful and what is not is really an attempt to construct boundaries: to include and exclude.  Perhaps we need to redefine beauty more strictly to emphasise its implicit nature of freedom.  However, wise and beautiful Dominique pointed out, it is not arguing about definitions that draws people into truth and goodness, it is enacting the beautiful and showing-not-telling, so our actions take on poetic form in order to persuade.

I was persuaded; and have committed myself afresh to the subversive pursuit of enacting the beautiful in everything I do.

‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible Conference’: Goetz Richter

This post is second in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

What about the Inexpressible in Music?  Musical Performance as Embodied, Spiritual Exercise

Goetz Richter, Sydney University (Conservatorium of Music)

Apparently, Kierkegaard once said that music is properly described as ‘erotic’.  This is the first phrase I jotted down in the paper given by Sydney Conservatorium’s Goetz Richter!   A great way to wake up the mind on a sleep Saturday morning in Sydney!!

Goetz has a passion for the philosophy of music as he seeks to describe music’s capacity to move human beings deep down in their soul.  As such, he argued that music is a form of spiritual knowledge, though not of an esoteric kind.  U.S. philosopher Richard Schusterman speaks of ‘somaethetics‘; i.e. body aesthetics or bodily experience of beauty.  Music is movement as much as it is sound, just as contemplative silence is embodied rather than disembodied.

Von Balthasar developed a theological aesthetics; i.e. a method of theology which starts with the observation of beauty.  Perhaps theology is more properly a somaesthetics!  Wow – big thoughts!

You can read more about Schusterman’s somaethetics here.
You can visit Goetz’s homepage here.

‘Arise My Love’ by Helen Martin

Image: Helen Martin, Arise, my love, 2011, sugarlift etch, intaglio print, 38 x 56 cm USED WITH PERMISSION

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.
Song of Songs 2:10-13 (CEV)

What is Love?  How do our expectations and definitions of Love stymy it and limit our experience of Being Loved?

These are the questions which arise from Helen Martin’s recent exhibition of work which ‘exegetes’ the Song of Songs.  The work included paintings and prints which were images of the indigenous landscape in which Helen lives: a deeply spiritual place that has a mysterious capacity for spiritual renewal and nurture of the heart, mind, strength and body.

Helen spent a year contemplating this enigmatic book of the bible in preparation for her artworks, understanding the texts in their original format and how they have been read through-out the centuries.  She commented to me that her desire was to rescue the text from limited interpretations of a relationship between a man and woman.  The poetry unashamedly uses romantic and erotic imagery to describe the mystical experience of Love.  A transformative, transcending encounter evoking the entirety of humanity and divinity.

Why has the church so often interpreted this poetry as a description of Almighty God and God’s special Chosen Ones?  Is it just because as an institution we have been so uncomfortable with sexuality that we have needed to avoided such earthly engagement and redirect attention away from the body?  Undoubtedly that has sometimes been the case but there it is also a legitimate depiction of the human-divine encounter.

Christian mystics have often drawn upon the Song of Songs to describe their own intimate relationship with God.  For example, the Song of Songs was the favourite book of the bible of St John of the Cross. He rewrote his own version of it and mimicked the erotic style in others of his poem-prayers.  He also opted to make the final journey from life to death accompanied by the recitation of the Song of Songs, as opposed to liturgical usual prayers for the dying.  For St John of the Cross, they perfectly described his experience of divine love.

So, how wonderful that Helen is challenging our preconceptions of the way we read Song of Songs and questioning our assumptions about pathways to encountering Divine Love.  Do we not frequently find a stirring in our souls when we are surrounded by natural beauty?  When the wind is blowing through our veins and the sun dragging out the melatonin?  Another famous mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, took ecstatic delight in nature and sang God’s praises for every leaf and flower.

In the recent Spirituality of Love course which I led at Solace, we talked about Divine Love being like a rainbow; all the colours combining to create something wonderful, ecstatically beautiful, magically.  Human Love comes in individual colours of the rainbow – red might represent Romantic Love, magenta might represent Parental Love, green might represent the Love of/by Nature, and so on.  The individual colours provide a glimpse, and ultimately a pathway, into experience of the Divine.  Arise My Love is a special piece of Ecstatic Love is printed in deep ink blue which, incidentally, is the colour of the gown Demeter is sometimes depicted wearing in ancient mythology – Demeter was a goddess of the earth, known for her gracious generosity!

This print is special for me personally in another mystical, magical way of  Love – through the divine gift of female friendship.  I had been raving about Helen’s exhibition for weeks and lamented to a girlfriend the impossibility of me purchasing my favourite piece – Arise My Love.  Cath sneakily sent word around to Liv, Sarah, Maggie, Barb, Chris & Clare (only half of whom she had ever met) and together they purchased the print for me as ‘an early birthday present’!  In recent years, these women friends have embodied Divine Love me as they have sat through floods of tears, listened to hours of self-indulged lament, and urged me onwards and upwards towards peace and happiness.  Just another colour of God’s Love refracted in spectacular light into my humble life.

You can find out more about Helen here, through her blog.  Her next project is going to be on ‘road trips’!

Egalitarian Spiritual Space: Left Bank Leeds

Left Band Leeds is a remarkable space.  It is ethereal in its beauty, haunting in its potential for any creative endeavour, and a complete surprise (contrast) from its ordinary exterior.  Deconsecrated as an Anglican Church in the 1990s it was owned for a time by a Pentecostal Congregation who could make no headway on the huge financial burden of transforming such an ancient relic into a contemporary space of possibility.  It is now managed by a Board of Trustees made up largely from a local missional community of Christians.  Their vision for Left Band Leeds is as a vibrant place of creativity and spirituality.

Left Band Leeds is a missional space – not just because of the intentions of the Trustees, it seems to invite spiritual exploration of its own accord.  Perhaps it is the wonder-full beauty alone that does this, but I have wondered about the psycho-spiritual effect of the building’s lack of inherited church ownership.  There are no plaques commemorating wealthy people of old and no sophisticated religious iconography beyond the simplest temporary cross and the permanent fixtures retained to satisfy The National Trust.  I found myself wondering about the importance of it being deconsecrated – could it be that it works as a missional space because it is not ‘our sacred space’ that Christians are inviting others into but rather is ‘a deeply spiritual space’ where Christians are starting a conversation which for them leads to Christ?

The questions of power and influence were never far from my mind as I contemplated questions of transformative space these past few weeks.  The creative arts do provide opportunities for mission in a spiritually seeking generation, but any conversation that denies the freedom of individuals to respond without coercion is both unethical and ultimately ineffective.  If our rhetoric is an invitation to ‘share’ then we need to have genuine dialogue and forgo any sense of superiority.  It’s this ethos of radical spiritual egalitarians that is slowly giving birth to new possibilities for evangelism.  Perhaps that will be surprising to some, but for me it is simply a profound discovery that God is fully capable of looking after God’s own business – including the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

Liminal spaces: Bombed out Church, Liverpool

St Luke’s Church was bombed during world war II and it was decided to leave it deconstructed as a reminder of the devastation of war.  The consequence 70 years on is a remarkable lesson in liminal space.  The old has died but the new has deliberately been left unbidden.  

There is a garden blossoming through-out the interior, some installations for music making and visual art exhibitions but the overall effect is untamed, ramshackled freedom.  The Urban Strawberry Lunch arts collective seems to take most responsible for curating the space, which they do with conscientious egalitarianism and inclusion.  There is a table set up with paints and canvases with an invitation to create your own artwork whilst you sit and soak up the vibe – it feels very much like a prayer station and it indicative of the conflation of art and spirituality in this space.

On the day we visited we happened upon an artist pulling down his installation work at the close of his exhibition.   The work was a mandalay teepee set up on the site of the ancient church high alter, inviting people to find the compassion that lives within themselves and commit to expressing that compassion to the world.  He described himself as a pagan shaman (with a PhD in Jungian psychology!) and his intention was explicitly spiritual but not at all Christian.  Yet the meaning of the work fitted perfectly with a theology of Christ’s compassion made personal to us in the eucharist and in my conversation with the artist we marvelled at how these spiritual connections make themselves felt of their own accord, particularly I would say, in liminal space.

What made this liminal space?  Well, there are the obvious things like the absense of a roof, floor, windows and doors!  But there were several other key ambiguities – was this a church, a gallery, a garden, a performance venue?   Is this a safe space or is it dangerous? (We had to sign an ‘enter at own risk into an unstable building site’ waver upon entry!)  Is the space beautiful or unkept?  Who owns this land, this art work, who tends this garden and pays the bills? All this ambiguity keeps the human inhabitant on their toes – alert to the absence of clarity and the possibilities for questions.  There is no definitive form here and certainly no clear answers – the very definition of liminality.  I loved it.



The Royal Wedding

Well, everyone will have their own thoughts on the Royal Wedding, so I thought it worthy of a reddress post.

As several commentators have said this past week Will & Kate’s Wedding is about the making of history.  It’s about locating the present in a particular history of the past and directing the pathways of it’s participants into a particular future. I read recently that a ‘ceremony’ is designed to maintain tradition, whereas ‘ritual’ is designed to transform it.  As an neat summation of something complex that is a nice way to put it.  The Royal Wedding was Ceremony par excellence!

Over and above the multitude of things that could be said there is one thing that stands out for me:  it is clear that Women’s Liberation has completely by-passed the Royal Family.  Kate and Will chose a form of Anglican vows which allowed for her to omit the word “obey” without messing to much with the oldest authorised marriage liturgy in the Church of England.  (Note the irony of having a Royal Wedding Liturgy historically located in the Reformation!)  You can check out the liturgy here, it’s a bog standard choice for any couple wanting a Church of England Wedding.  However, substituting one word simply cannot stand up to the tide of patriarchal symbolism in the movements and actions of the service.  Will is not supposed to look at his bride until Kate is ‘presented’ to him by her father.  Mr Middleton stayed at Kate’s side until the deal was done and his ‘chattel’ is passed over from father to husband.  In fact, during the exchange of vows the vulnerable bride is surrounded by men who all collude to seal her fate.  Perhaps you think I protest too much, but there is also the very significant symbolism of the ring.  It may be that some men don’t wear a wedding ring because they don’t like jewelry, but that is not the history of the tradition (and remember this ceremony in particular is all about tradition).  The ring is a sign of ownership.

The fact that so many liberated women all over the globe, who would never dream of  consciously choosing a subordinated marriage relationship, are willing to turn a blind eye to the patriarchal symbolism for the sake of a few moments indulging in archetypal fairytale romance, tells us that the heart’s desire for romance is very deep within the feminine soul.  Is it merely the inherent beauty, the splendid garments and jewels, or more dangerously the fantasy of the perfect body image:  ‘If I looked like Kate I’d be a princess too!’  I suspect the sacred elegance of the moment did sing us an alluring love song, however, I think it is more about the Prince.  The desire for a Prince who will only have eyes for us.  Someone who will look longingly into our eyes and tell us we are beautiful.  Despite what we feel about ourselves (a ‘commoner’, an ‘ugly duckling’, a ‘cinder’-ella) there is someone who sees us only as lovely and good.  (Note that the fantasy is actually about Love rather than marriage!)  The fact that we are only ever moderately perfect and our Prince is only ever mostly blind to our faults is kind of beside the point!  Fairytales tell us about our heart’s desires and there is no stopping the human heart’s desire for Love.

The Bishop of London was drawing on a very ancient wisdom when he remembered every marriage involves a royal Bride and Groom.  It is the ideal picture of peace and harmony epitomized in a great variety of cultural mythologies, indicating some kind of universal human experience in the coming together of a man and woman.  The ‘marriage’ of Adam and Eve represents the universal human experience of man and woman yearning for a relationship which completes them.  Song of Songs alerts us to the mimicry of Divine Love in the aroused sexuality of lovers.  Psychologists tell us that ‘falling in love’ is the experience of truly finding ourselves, recognizing ourselves in another, even as they are also, at the same time, our opposite.   The soul’s desire works in tandem with the body’s sexuality to produce a driving passion!

So, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-Romance!  But I found it in-credible that the Royal Family could not have chosen to navigate a route through historically embedded ceremony which would have more accurately portrayed the seeming reality of Kate and Will’s actual relationship, and hence directed our historical attention towards a less patriarchal future!  It was as if the Queen’s long Matriarchal Reign is a mere hiatus in Royal Affairs and the feminine might be put firmly back in its place with a tight bodice and impractical skirt, that by their very design restrict movement and create an aura of dependence upon the man in practical pants and shoes!  (Let alone a military man who which conjures up another whole level of power and control.)  I do not read anything in the mythologies of Love – christian and not – that require the masculine to dominate the feminine.  Instead it is the equality and mutuality of the Lovers that is celebrated!  However, the Royal Wedding was laden with a diminutive and passive role for the bride.  Similarly, the allusions to ‘chattel’ and ‘authority’ within the actions of the liturgy are totally at odds with the gratuitous nature of real Love.   Hence, unsurprisingly, there was a strong note of Duty as the prerequisite quality for Love underlying the whole Royal Fairytale.  Well, maybe Duty is the coupling chain between Love and Marriage but for me it was where the fairytale ended and the Royal Propaganda began.

exhibition invitation

the artist behind the inspiration for Red Dress Theology has some new work for lent.  if you’re in melbourne, do yourself a favour…  open weekend on 18th-20th march @ Solace 751 Heidleberg Rd, Alphington or contact me for an invitation to opening night on wednesday 9th.