Rough and Rowdy Ways: Bob Dylan’s Gospel and the Excavation of American Music


A 79-year-old Bob Dylan released his latest album Rough and Rowdy Ways on 19 June, and it’s been widely hailed as a late-career masterpiece. The title is drawn from the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers song ‘My Rough and Rowdy Ways’, and this is only one of the numerous cultural byways that the album takes us down. Indiana Jones and Edgar Allen Poe sit comfortably alongside each other as Dylan says hello to Mary Lou, and goodbye to Jimmy Reed. In the remarkable slice of American gothic that is ‘My Own Version of You’, he plays the role of Dr Frankenstein, stitching ‘the Scarface Pacino’ and ‘the Godfather Brando’ into a ‘robot commando’ of his own making, ‘at the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street’. All while ‘Mr. Freud with his dreams’ and ‘Mr. Marx with his axe’ are having the flesh torn off their backs by ‘a rawhide lash’ in a burning hell. In its own way, it’s all as stunning as the literary masterpieces that appeared on his mid-60s albums. It’s also profoundly Christian in the worldliest and most humanly-grounded kind of way. After first gaining inspiration from the elder statesmen and stateswomen of the blues, he has become one of them himself, with the same mix of worldly impulses and spiritual longing that characterised their art.

People talk about Dylan’s ‘Christian period’ or his ‘Gospel years’ (c. 1979–81) as if they ended at some point, as if the rest of his body of work were not also littered with sermonic rants, biblical allusions, prophetic denunciations, and a deeply-held personal faith. Even the material in the earlier part of his career is filled with Christian material. On his debut self-titled 1962 album, he drove the Gospel plough asking Jesus to make up his dying bed and meet him in the middle of the air. Sure, he drew much of this from the unmistakeable presence of Gospel music in the American roots music that has always been his inspiration. At the same time, there’s an unmistakeable personal conviction in his entire body of work that draws on a range of Christian ideas. When his faith became explicit in 1979 on the Slow Train Coming album, it was in some respects only a continuation of the fierce, finger-pointing, apocalypticism that had always pervaded his work. Yes, Dylan had become a Bible-bashing fundamentalist. But should this have taken us so much by surprise? After all, the guy who told the ‘masters of war’ that he would stand over their grave until he was sure they were dead was never going to become an Episcopalian.

Dylan is often seen as someone who wears masks and plays with multiple identities, refusing to be defined by anyone but himself. Early in his career, he told all kinds of lies, including that he had run away from home and joined the circus. He’s been telling tall tales ever since and baffling all attempts to quantify and commodify his art. He enraged the folk purists in 1965 by plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival and playing a very loud rock set. Two years later, on the cusp of the psychedelic era and in the wake of The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers, Dylan released John Wesley Harding (1967) an album of stripped-back mystic Americana that opened up his country gentleman period. No one saw that coming. No more than they saw his Christian conversion, or that he would one day release a Christmas album, or five discs of Frank Sinatra covers (!). On the Rolling Thunder Revue tour (brilliantly documented in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 semi-fictional film), he literally wore masks and at times switched identities with other band members. These various renditions of himself are usually seen as the expression of an artist’s unwillingness to reveal his true self to a watching world. Let the songs speak for themselves. The music recorded in the Gospel Years, on the other hand, was Dylan without masks. Listen to the deeply-personal and public songs of gratitude, faith, temptation (and yes, self-righteous piety) that are found on Trouble No More, 1979–1981: The Bootleg Series vol. 13 (2017) and you hear Dylan with the masks stripped away, achingly vulnerable to a world that either hated or loved his message of repentance, faith, and holiness.

Now in old age, Dylan’s music remains uncompromisingly personal and authentically Christian. He’s teetering on the edge of eternity and he knows it. He’s standing ‘three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond’, ready to pray to the cross, kiss the girls, and cross the Rubicon. But there has never been anything polite or harmless about Dylan’s form of Christianity. He has never suffered fools gladly and his famous venom remains intact, though it sits right alongside a remarkable tenderness. On the opening track, ‘I Contain Multitudes’ (a line borrowed from William Blake), he barks:


You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart

But not all of it, only the hateful part

I’ll sell you down the river, I’ll put a price on your head

What more can I tell you?

I sleep with life and death in the same bed.


A few songs later, we have the contrast of these lines from ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself To You’:


If I had the wings of a snow-white dove

I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love

A love so real, a love so true

I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.


Is this a love song or a hymn? Is the singer giving his heart to a woman or to his Lord? A line from the following stanza suggests the latter: ‘Take me out traveling, you’re a traveling man / Show me something I don’t understand’. Dylan may be a Christian, but his Gospel is definitely in inter-faith mode here. He tells us, in ‘On Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’, that he knows ‘all the Hindu rituals’, and, in ‘My Own Version of You’, that he’s studying Sanskrit and Arabic to improve his mind. On ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, he lives on ‘a street named after a saint’ where ‘women in the churches wear powder and paint’ and ‘where the Jews and Catholics, and the Muslims all pray, I can tell a Proddie [Protestant] from a mile away’. And then comes the farewell to the beloved black blues man, ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Reed indeed. Give me that old time religion, it’s just what I need’:


For thine is kingdom, the power, the glory

Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story

Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone

In the mystic hours when a person’s alone

Goodbye Jimmy Reed, Godspeed

Thump on the Bible, proclaim the Creed.


‘I feel the Holy Spirit inside’, he testifies on ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, and yet he also warns us to ‘keep as far away as possible’ because ‘it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn’. The seemingly spontaneous aside ‘Oh Lord’ before admitting ‘I turned the key and broke it off’, is a groan that reminds us that the Spirt-filled person remains a flawed sinner in need of grace still at times uncertain of his or her entry to the kingdom.

In a strange way, Rough and Rowdy Ways blends the particular with the universal. It’s a quintessentially American record in its name dropping and cultural references. At the same time, it highlights the human condition from a time ‘long before the first Crusade, way back ‘fore England or America were made’. Set against the touching folk song arrangement of ‘Mother of Muses’, Dylan urges his feminine muse to take him back to more ancient times and places, to ‘sing of the mountains and the deep dark sea … of the lakes and the nymphs of the forest’. He begs her, ‘put me upright, make me walk straight … forge my identity from the inside out’, before praying: ‘Wake me, shake me, free me from sin. Make me invisible, like the wind’. It’s a song that exhibits a profound creation spirituality, and also lovingly evokes the women who have so often been the inspiration for his art.

The album closes with ‘Murder Most Foul’, the first insight we received on this new body of work when it suddenly dropped unexpectedly on the Bob Dylan YouTube channel on 27 March. That a 17-minute song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy would prove to be Bob Dylan’s first ever song to top the Billboard charts must surely be a sign of these strange times we’re living in. Perhaps it’s appearance during the pandemic struck a chord with an audience that needed a familiar voice to reassure them? Or maybe we just missed him? The song is a dream-like trance containing almost ‘spoken word’ stream of consciousness reflections about one of America’s defining moments punctuated by radio airplay requests that document an America in decline:


Goodbye, Charlie, Goodbye, Uncle Sam

Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.

What is the truth, and where did it go?

Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know.


Dylan remembers the day they killed Kennedy, when someone said to him: ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun’. During such times we need music as the soundtrack to our lives. Now we create our own Spotify playlists, but once upon a time we asked the disc jockey to play our favourite song to give meaning to our lives:


Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues

He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack

Play it for me in my long Cadillac.


Sure, you might dismiss it all with, ‘Ok, boomer’, the ravings of a worn-out old man nostalgically mourning a forgotten past. But Dylan is so much more than this. As a living archivist, he carries within him the back catalogue of more than a century of music. As a hungry 20-year old kid in Greenwich Village, Dylan would beg, borrow, and steal other people’s record collections so he could excavate the hidden world contained therein. Sixty years later, he’s still engaged in the archaeology of the blues. At one point in the long playlist requested in the second half of Murder Most Foul, he requests, ‘Play “It Happened One Night” and “One Night of Sin”. There’s twelve million souls that are listening in’. ‘One Night of Sin’ was a 1956 hit for New Orleans rhythm and blues singer Smiley Lewis. When Elvis Presley covered it a year later, the risqué lyrics were sanitised to ‘One night with you’. This deep dive into the rich veins of music history is something that only our cultural elders can carry out, and it’s hard to think of anyone who can do it better than Bob Dylan. He may be one of the strangest cats on the planet, but we’ll sure miss him when he’s gone.


Glen O’Brien is a theologian and historian. He is a Uniting Church minister employed by The Salvation Army as Research Coordinator and also serves as Chair of the University of Divinity Research Committee. Interested in all things Wesleyan and Methodist, he has published widely in that field including Methodism in Australia: A History (Ashgate, 2015) and Wesleyan-Holiness Churches in Australia (Routledge, 2018). His monograph, Liberty and Loyalty: John Wesley’s Political World, is currently in peer review with T&T Clark. Glen lives and works on Wurundjeri country in the beautiful Plenty Valley, gives thanks for the wisdom and custodianship of elders past and present, and has pledged to hear their voices and learn from their experience.

Counting Dead Women

Counting Dead Women 7.jpg
Katherine Grocott, Counting Dead Women, 2020. Copper and enamel. Artist’s collection, Adelaide.

Since 2012, an online community called Destroy the Joint has run the Counting Dead Women Project. The researchers investigate, count, and document the number of women who are murdered each year in Australia. These femicides, most of which relate to domestic violence, are published regularly on their Facebook page. The group is named after sexist comments by radio announcer Alan Jones, who claimed that ‘women are destroying the joint’. Their story states that ‘Destroy The Joint stands for gender equality and civil discourse in Australia’.

The majority of women who have been murdered in Australia in 2020 were killed by family members, most commonly their partners or ex-partners. This is the same in the case of children, who are much more likely to have been killed by their fathers. While more men have been murdered than women in Australia this year, most were killed by other men not related to them. Very few were killed by family members, and even less by the women in their family.

In her research paper Intimate Partner Femicide, Jane Monckton Smith outlines an eight-stage progression from pre-relationship to the homicide. Stage One, Pre-Relationship, acknowledges that there is a history of abuse, control, and stalking in the previous relationships of the perpetrator. Stage Two, Early Relationship, is characterised by gaining commitment by the victim. Many of the attentive and romantic gestures are present, but in fast succession. Stage Three, Relationship, sees a confirmation and commitment to the relationship by the victim coinciding with a belief in the right to control by the perpetrator. This can be seen in restriction of movement and contact, financial control, stalking, and physical and sexual abuse. Stage Four, Trigger/s, is where separation is hinted at or achieved by the victim and the perpetrator believes they have lost control, and therefore status. Only the male has the right to end a relationship. Stage 5, Escalation, sees an increase in the type and frequency of controlling behaviours in order to re-establish control. Perpetrators may share details of this with other men to get passive solidarity in order to justify their behaviour. Stage 6, A Change in Thinking/Decision, sees the perpetrator move from trying to keep the victim in the relationship to destroying her for leaving. The relationship is, only now, irretrievable in their thinking. Stage 7, Planning, has the perpetrator preparing for the killing. Research, purchasing weapons, stalking, planning on disposing of the body, etc. are all examples of preparation. The final stage, Stage 8, is the Homicide itself. The murder can be excessively violent, even in cases where there was no violence before. Children and others blocking the murder can be included in the killing. Monckton Smith concludes that frameworks of coercive control, feelings of entitlement and male privilege, and justifying behaviour are more accurate predictors of future homicide rather than simply the presence of domestic violence.

Counting Dead Women 8
Katherine Grocott, Counting Dead Women, 2020. Copper and enamel. Artist’s collection, Adelaide.

I started to make a neckpiece after hearing of the tragic murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children – Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey – by her estranged husband on 19 February 2020. By then, she was the eighth woman to be murdered this year. I was aware of the statistics that one woman a week, on average, is murdered in Australia. It was an act of memorialisation, of remembering these women, almost half of which were not named in news reports at that time.

Responding to these deaths is tragically a work in progress. So far, in 2020, Australia has seen 29 women killed. I have constructed copper female figures and enamelled them in different colours to highlight their uniqueness and individuality as they stand in for those killed. My (naïve?) dream is that I will not have to add any more to this necklace by the end of the year. Statistics, however, seem to show that this will not be the case. In 2019, there were 61. In 2018, there were 63. In 2017, there were 53. In 2012, there were 69.

For 2020, the following women have been killed in Australia:

  1. Kimberley McRae (unknown connection male)
  2. Christine Neilan (unknown)
  3. Unnamed (husband)
  4. Maude Steenbek (male neighbour)
  5. Unnamed (stepson)
  6. Unnamed (known male)
  7. Alexis Parkes (male partner)
  8. Hannah Clarke and three children Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey (ex-husband)
  9. Unnamed (unknown connection male)
  10. Ann Marie Smith (carer neglect)
  11. Maree Collins (male neighbour)
  12. Kim Murphy (ex-partner male)
  13. Lesley Taylor (son)
  14. Jacqueline Sturgess (ex-husband)
  15. Ella Price (known male)
  16. Erlinda Songcuan (husband)
  17. Britney Watson (known male)
  18. Unnamed (known male)
  19. Unnamed (male relative)
  20. Loris Puglia (son)
  21. Kamaljeet Sidhu (husband)
  22. Karen Leek (unknown connection female)
  23. Ruth Mataafa (ex-partner male)
  24. Gabriella Delaney (brother)
  25. Unnamed (known male)
  26. Emerald Wardle (partner male)
  27. Karen Gilliland (ex-husband)
  28. Liqun Pan (known male)
  29. Roselyn Staggard (son)

Scripture speaks of humans being made in the image of God, the imago Dei (Genesis 1.27). As such, human beings are endowed with immense value. They are precious and are to be treated with dignity, love, compassion, and care. Intimate partner violence and femicide are extreme examples of the dehumanising of another person and of distorted concepts of male superiority.

Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson’s in-depth reporting of domestic violence in the Christian church (as well as other religious bodies), demonstrates a clear link between domestic violence and male headship theology. Hannah Wagner, in her article, Femicide is a Christian Issue, concludes:

Christianity’s history is rooted in patriarchy. Because of this, the fundamental belief that women are inferior is embedded in much of the Christian culture, especially related to how men and women interact. Dismantling the remaining remnants of misogyny in our theology should be at the forefront of Christian discussion.

This year-long memorial project has revealed a terrible emotional, social, and human cost as children, families, and communities are affected. Sexism, misogyny, and violence against women are issues that must be addressed by the church, by society as a whole, and also by men willing to listen and stand with women.

Counting Dead Women Back.jpg
Katherine Grocott, Counting Dead Women, 2020. Copper and enamel. Artist’s collection, Adelaide.


Katherine Grocott has had many years in ministry in congregations, presbytery, and tertiary education and outdoor adventure. She is currently a Jewellery and Metal Associate at JamFactory, Australia’s leading art and design centre in Adelaide. Katherine lives and works on the land of the Kaurna peoples of the Adelaide Plains, acknowledges that sovereignty has never been ceded, and recognises the importance of The Statement From the Heart.

A Year of Jubilee

Megan Fisher, That You Shine Like Stars In The World, 2020. Ink on paper, relief print, 32 x 8cm. Artist’s collection, Melbourne.

Gentle stirrings of chimes herald in a purifying breeze
reminding the caretakers of the world how careless they’ve been.
The starry nights obscured to the watcher’s eye by the wasting of the land,
isolation edicts are an unanticipated jubilee from the Maker’s hand.

Hear the chimes, ‘people of the land submit!’, rippling through
singing a contemplative melody as the asphyxiating smog unknits,
The quickened pace from then to now left Sayers dismayed, of stockings
thrown into decay after one shift, opportunities to change our ways. Will we?

Decimation to the soil has brought groans across a withered land
whispering chimes gather strength as our mandatory solitude continues by,
providence. Bringing the land a Sabbath from the ancient ways
has not been on the minds of caretakers today.

‘Behold!’ the starry nights sing a promise to the generations.
The Father that placed these radiant stars left impressions
of a long-awaited covenant. Can we see? when we smother them with our greed?

‘A rest, please rest’, sighs the breeze as it sweeps through urban spaces
‘come wonder and be still beneath a shimmering celestial glow’
whispering peacefully to the caretakers, for to them this great gift was bestowed.


Megan Fisher serves as a manager in the McKinnon Reformed Presbyterian Church, homeschools four of their five children, and teaches English and citizenship classes for women in the Melbourne Afghan community. Sometimes she is successful at finding just enough silence to create the art that is rumbling around in her head. She lives and works on Wurundjeri Land.

The Rawest Cry (for the caring professionals)

When I hold your hand
on the crisp white sheet,
I pray with all my heart
for you – deep peace.

When I’m at home,
there’s no one’s hand
holding mine,
and mostly I’m just fine –

but maybe – maybe –
maybe I’m too strong
for my own good?

When I catch your tears
in frothy coffee remnants,
I pray with all my heart
for you – new hope.

When I close the door,
I pour my own wine
to catch my falling tears,
and most days, that’s just fine –

but maybe – maybe –
maybe I’m too strong
for my own good?

When black dogs and monsters
cast clouds across the sun,
I pray with all my heart
for you – be well.

Then, at last, my dog wakes,
pulls me into the shadows;
and no one hears the rawest cry
that I am far from fine –

and maybe – maybe –
maybe I am too strong,
too strong for my own good?



Martyrdom and the Meaning of a Death

Non in Cruciatu
Robert Besana, Non in cruciatu sed causa quae facit  martyrem (It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr), 2018. Oil on canvas, 244 x 609.5 cm.

The image of victims whose individual lives have been crushed by political or social forces is a common part of our media consumption in this period of increased international conflict and tension. While local circumstances contribute to such deaths occurring, there are clearly larger social interests at play when one death becomes a cry that their death will result in change and justice may prevail. This is the anger and hope that is reflected around the name of an African American victim of police violence, George Floyd, that has resulted in a movement towards justice that has been echoed around the world. This is heard, most especially, where social inequality prefers certain people based on their colour, race, religion, or gender to enjoy the luxury of privilege and power.

Robert Besana is a skilled painter, musician, and educator working in the Philippines. In an important solo exhibition in 2018, he explored the subject of martyrdom and the lens that it provides in looking at the meaning of death at the hand of political and social forces. The title of the major work in this exhibition is a quote from a sermon by St Augustine about the meaning of the death of a martyr: ‘It is not the punishment but the cause that makes the martyr’. Besana uses this phrase as a means to advance concerns about the meaning of death in contemporary society, in particular of those who die violent deaths as a result of government or political intent. Since 2016, the Philippines has endured a government-led ‘war on drugs’ that has seen many unlawful killings, including a bounty on murdered criminals and drug addicts. The subject of martyrdom also reflects on the longer history of political repression, especially by the Marcos regime during the 1970s and early 1980s, that forms part of the public consciousness of Filipino identity.

Besana has taken a historical work, The Martyrdom of St Matthew by Caravaggio (1599–1600), as the basis for his own interpretation. The original work, which is part of the cultural-religious imagination, has been enlarged to panoramic scale and then divided by angular gold bands. In some ways, the viewer has to reassemble the work and its subject in their own imagination. These gold bands – or as he calls them, slashes – are stained with black liquid, reminiscent of dried blood. At several points, a large red rose intersects the composition. The act of visual repair required by the viewer becomes a metaphor for considering an unjust death and the pursuit of freedom in the face of oppression and corrupt structures. It offers a visual link between these historical markers of martyrdom and the meaning of contemporary deaths caused by unjust actions. The red roses reference the daily practice of the rosary so familiar to Filipinos, a prayer that focuses on the suffering and redemption of Christ.

Contemporary art in the Philippines is engaged with questions of representation and their social and political implications. Artists are alive to the power of images for uncovering the effects of colonisation in the past and the nature of freedom in the present. Filipino culture has undergone over four centuries of European colonisation. It has been formed within a vocabulary that reflects Spanish Catholicism and inherent hierarchies of power. Set within an Asian context, these unique cultural forms of visual awareness deserve wider international attention. These perceptions also resonate for those in first world situations who struggle to uncover the ingrained habits of visual ordering that are based on the apparent colour of skin. In this work, Robert Besana offers a meditation on violent death that affirms the meaning of life itself, reflected in the sacrifice and redemption found in the Christian story of faith. Death is not an end, for like a seed it holds the possibility that it may break open the future with hope.

Reposted (with some editorial changes) from Artway


Robert Besana (b. 1976) is an artist, musician, and educator working in the Philippines. He is presently the Executive Director of the Asia Pacific College in Makati, Manilla. He has served on the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Philippines as Technical Committee Member for Multimedia Arts since 2011. Since 2008, Robert Besana has held nine solo exhibitions and has joined various group exhibitions in art galleries in the Philippines including Galerie Anna, Blanc Compound, Blanc Peninsula, Nineveh Art Space. He has exhibited in the Art Fair Philippines and Manila Art Fair. He holds a Master of Arts in Fine Arts and Design from the Philippine Women’s University, Manila.

A Collective Silent Space: creative words in the chatroom following a Zoom meeting during COVID-19

after the ocean wave of silence
colourful shells on the sand
form these musical lines:

entering the fire
dancing in the heart of flames
beating the drum with rhythms
immersed in the liquid love of the Spirit
soaring above the clouds
the shelter of each other where we live

harness of God
energy of love
healing of all creation
sacred ground of truth
and mystery

let yeast permeate the dough of our reality
enliven our hearts to reach out
Christ takes shape among us
a new way of being
a unified space
enfolding each other in the Presence
sheer blessings

birds calling
ripples on a pond
go in peace
……….go with justice
……….……….go in love



A Choreography of Grace

My world has contracted, the dining table replacing my studio, my watercolours small enough to occupy that limited space. It’s my habit to begin each day with a watercolour reflection on the state of things around me. I’ve been comforted by small pleasures; knitting, cooking and our sunny balcony but saddened to see empty shelves and abandoned playgrounds, birthdays celebrated alone and embraces from afar. The idea that this too will pass sustains us and the creative impulse never wanes. – Margaret Ackland

I have become so very conscious of the empty spaces, and all the in-between manoeuvres that I have had to negotiate to keep my distance from other bodies. This is especially focused when I take an afternoon walk in my local park. It is filled with other bodies longing to break out of confinement. Bikes, wheelchairs, dogs, and runners are all vying for space on the footpath. At every potential meeting, there is an awkward hesitation of give and take as we work out who goes where. My eye is on the space to make it through, no time to recognise faces. I imagine this is what footballers do – looking for the opening space, with their eye on the prize. Freedom at last!

In the last nine to ten weeks there has been an abundance of space. My diary was the first thing to empty out; first in days, then weeks, and then for the ‘foreseeable future’, a phrase now in constant use. Space appeared as the garden called for nurture, half-finished projects reached their completion, my floors appeared from under piles of paper, and small things found an unexpected level of importance. Space appeared for cakes, slow cooking, vegetables, art-making, sunshine, and that elusive sensation of actually feeling time pass. I loosened demands that I had on myself. I got bored. I watched re-runs of old comedies. I felt nostalgia. I made no plans. I wasted time and did not feel guilty. I slowed down and actually felt life, like a pulse under my skin.

I could sense the expectations peeling off – of getting things done, of tidying up, of always being cheerful, on time, efficient, careful, spontaneous, and always great company! I lessened the strangle-hold that the consumption of products has had over me. I purchased nothing for weeks and found I was not in the need for anything. I discovered online shopping, and I thoroughly enjoyed the arrival of luxury in the post! I was inconsistent and enjoyed it. I have enjoyed this isolation. I have been an indulged introvert! As things begin to open up, I want to treasure this sense of finding the space in between. This might prove useful in negotiating the bigger spaces of my life and work, and especially how I judge my life to be productive, useful or full!

Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing #7 – Palm Sunday, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 18 x 24 cms. 

Artist Margaret Ackland has pictured it well. In a series of small watercolours, she presents moments of intense stillness and empty space that become the centre of her interest and awareness. This intensity of looking indicates a refined observation of things usually overlooked and pushed the edge of vision. Palm Sunday, the fifth of April, now so many weeks ago, Margaret Ackland captures the profile of a priest leading a televised service in a church empty of a congregation. The placement of this robed figure to the left of the page, leaves an accentuated empty space held in place by a shadow and a curled palm frond. It is as if there is a tug of war going on for our attention between the figure intent on religious ceremony moving to the left and the space that opens up to the right. There is an interplay between activity and rest, movement and stillness, presence and absence, that leaves this otherwise empty space alive with possibilities. I remember how busy I was, that time now so long ago, when this emptiness arrived and piqued my interest.

Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing # 3 – Stay Part, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 19 x 28 cms. 

In another work, we see people busily going about their activities, jogging, shopping, or incessantly checking their mobile phones. This evidences a search for the new choreography that we have been told will express our consideration for others. Suddenly our personal boundaries are being pushed out and our physical edges take on new meaning. We need to find a distance that is clearly more than one breath away. Alert for coughing, and the slipstream of joggers and getting our tongue around that new phrase ‘respiratory aerosols’. The bright pink lines of geometry represent that process of retraining needed to find the correct level of distance between us and the other. Such is the evidence of this discipline that even the pigeons seem to be following the lead. We are all re-crafting our world with our eye not on things, or even people, but the illusive and moving spaces of the in-between.

Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 19 x 26 cms.

Presumably on the kitchen bench, two cans of imported Italian tomatoes have sorted out their positioning. A larger-than-would-be expected distance between them accentuates this awareness of space. How did we not see this before, this negative space, this void, this shadow, that allows what is present to pop out into our visual awareness? In taking the time to look at these two objects in space, we become acutely aware of the space that is enveloping and giving frame to what has firm edges and solid shape. After a while, the two elements of what is and what is not play a game of grabbing our attention, taking it in turns to hold our awareness. Our eyes remind us that we live in this space, and that we are not the can of tomatoes! Life does not consist of firm edges, but also welcomes the shadows and empty spaces that are full of lively potential, or of nothing at all. How restful and yet also how exhilarating are these possibilities.

Margaret Ackland, Social Distancing #6 – Stay Inside, 2020. Watercolour on paper, 20 x 28 cms.

A space of potential is explored in a final watercolour, as two skeins of wool lie next to each other, with one strand rather seductively unravelling into the void between. Is this accident, or comedy, or fate, or chance, that a thread relaxes so easily into such a place. In the emptiness of this space, I begin to see my mind at work looking for meaning, connecting threads, cause and effect, patterns, portents, powers. I fill such empty spaces with signs that confirm my own anxieties, wants, desires, and hungers. In my mind, I can see this tendency to draw endless lines over the surface of existence. I am looking for meaning on every surface to reflect back to me my freedom or my struggle. And then I become amused by the meanings that a single twine of thread keeps generating in my mind; it shows me how furiously the wheels are turning to keep the world from dissolving into nothing. And yet there is nothing to be anxious about. In the end, there is nothing, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Living with space. Living in space. Who knew there was so much space! What I find in these humble and small works are scenes of the ordinary that have taken on the gravity of something keenly observed and considered. They carry the weight of significance and the attention to detail that is found in acts of contemplation. They carry an aura of devotion. This is the stance we would adopt in front of a religious icon, or a work of great spiritual significance. These works carry a sense of gravitas usually reserved for images inviting a form of devotion, where looking is rewarded by an experience of grace. This is a form of looking that leads to life, where my own insignificance is held in the gaze of another where I sense my own existence as a gift. These fine moments of looking become the empty spaces where we experience what we might term at this time ‘a choreography of grace’.


Margaret Ackland is a Sydney-based artist. The works referred to in this article are currently being exhibited online through Flinders Lane Gallery, in Melbourne.

We’ve Misplaced Jesus’ Jewishness

We’ve misplaced Jesus’ Jewishness.
(It’s a bit embarrassing)

I knew we left it somewhere
Around the farm or in the yard
Between the 2nd temple and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Lost the Messianic in the messy-attic;
We Turned the wrong tables and spilled hope of the Mosaic, everywhere.

So I guess it’s no wonder that we found other pieces

filled in the blanks with what made sense at the time and turned the free salvific into a cost-less grace.
Understand, not, ‘make a stand’.
It’s a gentler salve for an aching heart and we can say it from wherever we sit.

But what would the cows think
out there grazing on the
blessed bounty of the earth?

Do they think that what they die for is more important than their own muchness?

At least someone’s helping to search the top paddock … even as the rains come …

And with all those pieces in puddles
and no Moses to muscle the Reed Sea,
We filled in the picture with culture and reason and it’s no wonder that the hand became its center.

That hand
pointing …

before long we had painted so many pictures that we forgot it was ever a mosaic hope.
… no wonder that here
I AM: confused

But I found a bit today

Back, behind the stove
Behind the boiler and
manufacturing machine,
amidst the tear Gas

and passionate web of solidarity …

And if you fit it in just right you can almost see a new humanity.
The precious darker shades bring out the definition

a picture more gracious in a higher resolution.

So hope? … We are. Aren’t we?

Here and now in this new human future.

And somewhere I’m sure,
A bush is still burning.


(Who’d have thought
we could just say



Dying alone in the age of COVID-19


From her garden glowing with autumn colours, a neighbour tells me news from kin who work in emergency healthcare. The triaging will be grim. Another friend who is a hospital chaplain tells me that even now families cannot gather around dying relatives in ICU. This isolation extends beyond Coronavirus patients. Enforced absence strikes deep. Removing the capacity to be present, to accompany, to say farewell, is an unmaking of the fabric of our lives.

Daniel Burke writes for CNN, ‘Coronavirus preys on what terrifies us: dying alone’. He describes as a primal instinct ‘the impulse to be close to people we love when they are suffering and near death’. In the context of COVID-19 he says, ‘It is a painful irony, the very thing we need in moments of fear and anxiety could also kill us’. It may well remove us from the possibility of bearing witness to the death of people we love.

This is a painful and difficult truth. It is hard to know what to do in the face of it.

I ask my neighbour over the garden fence, ‘How could people prepare for this possibility? How could you ease the pain and guilt for your family if you were the one dying?’ My neighbour is experienced in death. She says, ‘I would write a letter to my daughter. I would tell her I understood the necessity of absence. I would tell her not to feel guilty, that I would be alright’.

The simplicity and courage of this response strikes me to the bone. I know a written message from a loved one can carry huge weight in a crisis. In what seems like a different universe, my 94-year-old mother died in January following a major stroke. Her Advanced Care Plan (ACP) was the thing I could hold onto.

A question appears at the base of the ACP form: ‘What would you hope for most when you are near the end of your life?’ My mother’s words on the page read: ‘I would want my family to know that I am not afraid of dying’. She went on to say that she would want them to come and be with her ‘if they wanted to and were able to’. I wonder how she would have phrased that if she knew what we know now.

Back in January, when I saw her lying on a stretcher in Emergency, I wondered if my mother really was unafraid of dying. She was unable to speak and there was a haunted look in her eyes. Of course I don’t know how she felt, but all her instructions suggested she was more afraid of a living death. In the instance of a stroke she wanted no surgery, no intervention, no feeding, only pain relief.

In those last eight days my mother needed only minimal pain relief. And when she died, her fast breathing simply slowed to long spaces between breaths and then stopped. Would it have mattered to her if I was not there? I am not sure that it would. It mattered to me, it helped me to accompany her and to bear witness, but I think my mother was already bent on the business of leaving.

Daniel Burke quotes hospice chaplains who remark on the frequency of people dying in the moments that their vigil-keeping families briefly leave the room. Dying is, after all, something you have to do on your own.

There’s a difference between dying alone and dying without love. Hospice chaplain Kerry Egan says, ‘In a certain sense we all die alone, even if we are surrounded by people we love. Often, as we die, our bodies are breaking down so our minds are elsewhere. The conscious experience of death, is, by nature, solitary’.

I remember when my children were small, they came to me to show me a dead bird in our garden. The older child spoke the question I could see in the eyes of his sister as well. ‘Mummy, when the bird dies, is it all by itself?’

A colleague and friend who is a psychologist tells me the pattern that follows a death by suicide. ‘People will go back over the details of the death, step by step. It is as if they are trying, in retrospect, to place themselves so they can accompany the person they have lost, so they can be with them, so they won’t have to be alone. On the anniversary they will often take themselves to the place the suicide happened. We are wired to accompany each other’.

So how can people prepare for the profoundly upsetting possibility that this primal urge to accompany cannot happen? My neighbour’s instinct is to prepare by writing to her family, releasing and reassuring them against their potential distress. And there is another thing we can still do – we can accompany the bereaved.

Leigh Sales’ remarkable book, Any Ordinary Day, is subtitled ‘blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life’. Her interviews and research highlight the significance of standing beside – of accompanying people who have experienced the kind of losses that leave us aghast. In this age of COVID-19, every loss is magnified and has its own degree of heightened fear.

We cannot stand in the same close proximity we associate with solidarity but we can still acknowledge and make room for others in sorrow. In some ways it takes us back to an earlier era. I see in my own neighbourhood exchanges of care: home-garden flowers arranged in a bottle on a doorstep, a jar of soup, a loaf of sourdough bread, cards delivered through the mail, miniature care packages that include candles and poetry.

We cannot do anything grandiose in this moment. It is time for the small acts of kindness to inhabit the space.

Poet Seamus Heaney died unexpectedly in 2013. At the funeral his son Michael reported that his father’s last words were in a text message sent to his wife minutes before he died. He used his beloved Latin: ‘Noli timere’ – don’t be afraid.

[Image: Christopher Campbell via Unsplash]

[Ed. In second semester 2020, Jason Goroncy will be teaching an online unit on Death, offered through the University of Divinity. This can be taken for credit or audited. Further details here.]