Kindness stories in the modern spiritual mode

tender.jpgEvery generation throws up popular reflection on how best to live. Much of it comes from within religious traditions. It is designed to help people reflect on their lives by building bridges between religious traditions and the world in which the reader lives. It is instructive to note how its style and emphases vary with changes in the religious and broader culture.

Julie Perrin‘s recent book Tender, a collection of short reflections, grouped thematically, is splendid in its own right. It is spare and elegant in its writing, inclusive in its address and open-ended in its invitation to reflection. It also offers an occasion to reflect on the ways in which spiritual writing has changed.

Seventy years ago much spiritual writing was based in the language, ritual practices and shared faith of religious communities. Readers outside the community would normally feel themselves made outsiders. A reader wandering along shelves of spiritual books would look first for their denominational origin to see if they were Anglican, say, or Catholic. If readers drew on their own experience or on contemporary news, they usually did so simply to illustrate a point already made conceptually.

Fifty years ago many churches were becoming less tribal, ascription to faith was less certain, and people looked to a range of authorities when seeking wisdom. Though spiritual writers generally worked within a particular tradition, they also drew on other Christian and religious traditions and appealed to psychology and other secular sources. The writing was often exploratory rather than didactic. Readers measured it, not by its denominational solidity, but by its spiritual depth.

Today another genre coexists with those earlier ones. In it, writers with a strong and questioning faith address a general audience, using anecdotes, inherited wisdom, contemporary social debates and a broad cultural reference to encourage their readers to move beyond inherited prejudice and ask themselves what really matters. The heart of the exercise is to find the right words that will disclose the depth in ordinary experience. The writing encourages readers to pay attention to the world around them, to wonder, and to celebrate God’s presence there. Readers evaluate it by the quality of the writing and its attentiveness to the depth of ordinary human experience.

Among writers familiar in Australia who write in this vein are Michael McGirr, Terry Monagle, Pádraig Ó Tuama and the much missed Brian Doyle. Their writing does not merely describe but evokes and creates a world, and shapes a human response that respects its variety and mystery. Significantly, too, these writers are masters of short anecdotal pieces which invite us to see the great in the small. They also write fastidiously, choosing words that disclose freshly aspects of reality which the language of traditions conceals at first reading. Following the age-old advice to writers their words don’t merely tell but show.

These qualities are evident in Tender. Even the title is evocative. Not Tenderness, a lovely word, but sometimes tainted with sentimentality, the adjective Tender suggests at once rawness, vulnerability, affection and offering. In the subtitle — stories that lean into kindness — lean intimates the delicacy of an invitation to follow a direction without compulsion. It also suggests the intimacy shown when we lean on another’s shoulder, and perhaps trust that the reader will respond to the gentle invitation. Kindness evokes both generosity and our shared humanity.

The encounters and reflections that compose the book display the same sharp attention to the rawness and pathos of reality and the possibilities of words. Behind the initial detail of description of place, time and ordinary actions, a deeper reality is disclosed that leads to reflection inviting readers to ask themselves what matters. In ‘Bank Teller’, for example, the opening paragraph sets the scene through simple, carefully observed detail:

In Melbourne, I’m walking along Sydney Road, Brunswick, the traffic is stretched bumper to bumper. There is a taxi at the kerb outside the bank. As I enter the foyer through the glass doors a young man is walking towards me. His arm is outstretched as if to make a space ahead of him. With his other arm he is guiding a woman dressed in long flowing robes and hijab.

The succeeding paragraphs fill out the description. The young man is corporately dressed, sharp, but in his attention there is something unexpectedly ‘decorous, almost tender’. The woman’s face is a mass of scarring, with no nose, and she seems to be blinded. As they talk together, ‘he leans his head closer, so he can hear’. The final paragraph sums up the story into which the reader has been drawn and invites them to ponder a larger question:

Human cruelty and human kindness, they sit closely together. The bank teller carved out a space for the scarred woman to walk in. Her presence and energy called something out of him, and from other witnesses to their conversation. What will it take before we can make space on our shores for people who carry their scars less visibly?

In this writing, every word, every punctuation mark, every turn of phrase has been considered in order to draw the reader into the human reality of a simple action, to share the writer’s compassionate regard, and finally to embrace a question that ripples out into widening circles. Our shores can be those of our inner life, our domestic relationships, of our workplace and, evidently, of our nation.

In this book, as in the genre of which it is representative, the writing encourages the readers to draw on their traditions, not as authorities to close conversation but as resources to open it. It displays devotion to the word fleshed out.

Reposted from Eureka Street.


Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Conversations and Explorations with Friends by the Sea: Worship in the 21st Century

ConExp-Beach.jpgThe Centre for Music, Liturgy and the Arts (a Ministry Centre of the South Australian Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia) is running a conversational event over three days offering the opportunity to talk, explore, and think deeply and widely about why and how we worship in our churches and communities now and into the future.

When: 8–10 October

Where: St Andrew’s by the Sea, Jetty Road, Glenelg, South Australia


  • Libby Byrne is a visual artist, art therapist, and theologian. She will offer participants the chance to have a go at art making.
  • Malcolm Gordon is a songwriter and minister in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. He will offer guidance to those wanting to engage in song writing.
  • Mark Pierson is a minister in the Baptist family of Churches in New Zealand. He will lead sessions in curating worship and events that integrate the arts and faith.
  • Charissa Suli is one of the National Consultants in the UCA’s National Assembly’s Resourcing Unit. She will offer space to think about and create worship that encourages and honours diversity.

Key presenters will not only start conversations but also offer the opportunity to work with them in creative spaces.

For more information and bookings, visit here.

Vessels: Theology and the Arts Symposium


As noted in an earlier post, St Luke’s Woy Woy (147–149 Blackwall Rd, Woy Woy) will host a three-day symposium (12–14 July) gathering theologians, artists, clerics, and philosophers to explore the relationships between the arts and theology.

There will be an art exhibition, poetry, creative workshops, short papers and music. The last fifty years has seen some astonishingly inventive solutions to creatively engage with theology, ecclesiology, liturgy, and the public sphere of spirituality and faith.

This three-day symposium seeks to explore the shifts in method, style, and theory found in the liminal space created when the creative arts, scripture, theology, faith and community coalesce.

The aim of this symposium is to draw people from within the Australian context to reflect, discuss and analyse the integral place of the arts in Christian expression.

Further details and registration here.

The Cross and the Tree of Life

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One of the pressing questions for the Church is how we see Christology being renewed in the face of climate change and the potential for the quality of life on this planet to decline. Who is Jesus for us in the midst of the profound changes that are occurring to the earth, water, and air of our world? It is clearly not just a question about theological language as it is more material and global in scope, calling us to transcend our liturgical customs, our cultural allegiances, and our national identities. Is Jesus part of our future as we dare to imagine what that future will be?

Andrew Finnie’s image The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life is an attempt to re-imagine the figure of Christ in conversation with the earth and the networks that sustain human life in all its thriving beauty. Here, the traditional figure of the cross has become entwined in the roots of the tree, a tree of life that is giving form to the variety and beauty of the natural world.

Andrew Finnie, an artist from Newcastle, Australia, is well known for his paintings of rich colour that express the sensual delight of the local beach-side landscape. Alongside this practice, Finnie is also a skilled digital artist, who is able to transform images into new forms with unexpected relationships. Here in this complex large-scale digital image we have a multitude of visual fragments that work to express the complex significance of the cross for this time in history.

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Finnie has placed the cross not in the position favoured in former centuries, high in the sky in glory, but deep into the shadows and roots of a large green tree. He explains: ‘This is the Tree of Life – this apparently jumbled mass of branches we see behind Christ. Inscribed in the bark of the tree are prayers and biblical texts. These prayers gather at the trunk of the tree, and make their way through the branches and transpire through the leaves, heading off towards heaven. So the Tree of Life’s story in this image is that it is a channel for our prayers’.

What strikes me most profoundly about this image is its insistence that my eye keeps returning to the earth, the ground. It reminds me that life is here and now and that God is incarnational, taking on human flesh. It also echoes the idea that the grace of God flows in and through creation; it is, therefore, an eco-theological insight for our times. We are invited to love the earth as God’s beautiful creation. In this regard, one is reminded of the medieval theologian, scientist, musician, and visionary Hildegard of Bingen who talked about ‘viriditas’, the greening force which is God’s gift and energy in creation. As Hildegard writes: ‘Christ brings lush greenness to shrivelled and wilted people’. The vibrant green of this work is the thing that pulses throughout all its branches and the tiny unfolding details that draw you down into its tendrils and roots.

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One of the devices used by the artist is the surface of repeated square divisions, which provides distinct pictures of engagement as worlds in themselves. The digital process has allowed Finnie to enhance the eye’s engagement through the fine details of cobwebs, insects, and flowers, as well as text that sounds out the words of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. The fulness of engagement found in this work is at this level of detail, where one’s eyes are found wandering among the fragments, networks and connections. An apprehension of the whole is the awareness of an interconnected network of myriad details. An appreciation of the work builds through encountering these small meditations of looking into these tiny windows of intricate detail.

Arising out of these fragments and networks is the figure of the Christ crucified. The figure has been constructed from a found image used in a medical text, and is without skin and flesh. This emphasises the muscular structure and allows the figure to take on a more androgynous likeness, in turn allowing for the possible representation of both the male and female form. If this view is correct, then a maternal figure may draw us even closer to those earthly connections, where grace is found in human love and connection.

Does this figure represent a crucified and risen Christ who can embrace this world and respond to the travail of climate change and environmental stress? Who is God for us in this moment in our world history? How can we connect what we know about the cross, the redemption and resurrection, and apply it to God’s purpose for all creation? Andrew Finnie offers us a refreshingly hopeful opportunity to think about Christ and God’s purpose for human existence, embedded as we are in God’s creation, sharing its travail and looking for its redemption.

Reposted from ArtWay.




Artist callout: Holy, honest confluences

Dr Rebekah Pryor has issued a callout to ‘artists (professional and established or emerging) working in any mode or medium, from any background, cultural, social or political context, and out of any religious tradition or none’ to contribute to an exhibition exploring ‘complex personal and communal relationships between humans, and between humans and other living beings and things’. Details here.