Posted by: njs44 | August 18, 2010

Teresa de Cartagena

Reading about disability, as I have been doing intensively of late, led me to discover this obscure 15th Century Spanish nun, who some argue is the first feminist writer. Her family were Jewish and converted to Christianity in 1390. Her grandfather had been the Chief Rabbi of Burgos and was reckoned to be the leader of the Jewish community in Spain. He took his conversion very seriously, went to study in Rome and later rose to become Bishop of Burgos by 1412. Prior to this he had been Bishop of Cartagena, which is where Teresa’s name originates.

Some sources allege that Teresa was educated at the University of Salamanca, but this is unlikely as no women were allowed a University education in those days. More likely she was educated at home, possibly by tutors who were also professors at the University. Another view is that she joined a convent in Salamanca and that gave her access to the best education of the day in theology and philosophy. Her two books, Arboleda de los Enfermos and Admiración Operum Dei, have references to numerous scholarly works, including The Bible, Boethius, St Jerome and St Augustine.

What is significant about Teresa is that she went deaf in early life and retreated into a world of silence, where she communed only with her books. She suffered other afflictions, too, those these are never explained in enough detail to work out what they were. Suffice to say that hers is the voice of one who suffered a great deal, and yet managed to turn her afflictions into something positive. She realises that the noise and hustle and bustle of the world are a distraction and that she can get closer to God in the silence of her cell.

After she wrote her first book some people claimed that it could not possibly have been written by a woman. She wrote the second book in order to answer these critics. Some consider her to be the spiritual pre-cursor of her more famous countrywoman, Teresa of Avila.

Teresa’s take on her sufferings is very different from the way disabled people are expected to view suffering in the modern world. She considers her suffering to have been inflicted by God, in order to bring her closer to him. All this would not get you very far with the Disability M0vement of today. I am not sure what to make of it when she says “A good and lasting ailment is a bridle to humble the proud neck and a bit to constrain desires dangerous and injurious to the soul.”

Teresa does, however, have a point when she describes herself, when she could hear, as being “enmeshed in the confusion of worldly chatter, with my understanding disordered and bound up in worldly cares”. Through the silence of her deafness, Teresa came to appreciate the inner voice of God. She was able to spend more time with her books. She was able to concentrate on prayer and seems to have reached the point where she could be grateful, to God, for her deafness. Towards the end of the second book she has this to say:

Oh what sublime wisdom it is to know God and what true prudence to know and recognize His blessings! And what a healthful and beneficial science it is for us to know ourselves and our own defects and faults!

[From the translation of The Writings of Teresa de Caragena, by Dayle Seidenspinner-Nunez]

Posted by: njs44 | July 19, 2010

David Fanshawe RIP

Not long after Easter our choir began rehearsing for their Summer concert. The work we were to perform was the African Sanctus, David Fanshawe’s piece for choir, percussion and piano, with accompanying recordings the composer had made on his travels in Africa in the late 60s. Rehearsals were not an enjoyable experience. Most of us complained about the difficulty of the work, an increasing number of members dropped out, and the Soprano section, in which I sing, watched its numbers dwindling more alarmingly than the rest, no doubt due to the fact the in places the soprano parts were almost un-singable. We never really managed to learn to sing all the right notes, and a lot of the time it felt as if we were screeching around, high up in the register, unable, at times, to be sure just what note we were singing, and uncertain as to whether our neighbour was singing the same note, or a different, but adjacent one.

We stuck it out, partly because of loyalty to our lovely conductor, Jonathan Rathbone, who was unfailingly cheerful and optimistic throughout, and partly because we had agreed to do it and didn’t want to let the side down. Those of us who carried on were also encouraged by some of the ‘older’ members who could remember a previous performance of the work some years earlier. They assured us that it would be a memorable performance and that the excitement would carry us along. There wasn’t much excitement at rehearsals, however, when week after week the only tuneful part of the evening was the warm-up exercises we do at the start.

On the day of the performance we met David Fanshawe, the composer, who was coming along to supervise our efforts, and to give a talk in the first half about the piece. We had seen him on the BBC documentary, part of which we watched at an early rehearsal, so we knew a little bit about this eccentric man. In reality he was not to disappoint us, and, in spite of his brusque manner with the choir when he complained about us making a noise during the sound checks, we rallied our forces and attempted to do our best for him, and for Jonathan.

At the rehearsal he told us a story about the filming, and recording, of being imprisoned, on suspicion of being a spy, in Cairo. He was very frustrated and at one point started to rattle the bars of his prison while shouting out at the top of his voice ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus!’ The prison guard heard this, and, being a Coptic Christian, recognised the words. As a result of this, David was released the next day, and the guard took him to meet his friend, the Muezzin. This same Muezzin is the voice on the tape in the African Sanctus whose Call to Prayer leads in to one of the more lyrical movements, the Kyrie. When I heard the story that went with the music, I could understand much better what the composer was trying to achieve in this fusion of Islamic and Christian music.

Of course it was all right on the night. Nothing went badly wrong, the audience seemed to enjoy it, and we sang the very lovely Our Father as an encore. To be honest, some of us breathed a sigh of relief that it was over, and that our next concert, the Brahms German Requiem, will be a much more accessible piece. We will look forward to those rehearsals, in the autumn, even if we are singing in German, a language some of us find more challenging than Latin.

And then came the shocking news that David Fanshawe had died, aged 68, of a stroke, 9 days after our performance. I suspect that ours was the last African Sanctus he performed, unless he managed to slip in another one in those 9 days. Although I found the work so difficult, I now feel privileged to have taken part in that performance. Fanshawe has left a legacy of thousands of hours of recordings of indigenous music from around the world. You can read his Obituary in the Guardian here

May he rest in peace.

Posted by: njs44 | July 15, 2010

Not by bread alone

Imagine you cannot see and cannot hear. What would life be like? Just imagining blindness or being deaf is hard for most of us, but being both deaf and blind? Impossible! How could I survive?

On Tuesday evening I went to the theatre. The show was called Not By Bread Alone and was performed by a remarkable group of deaf-blind actors from Israel. The performance was deeply moving, a spiritual experience, which touched me, and my daughter who was with me, to the core. At the end we were speechless, which is interesting, as being unable to communicate in words is just one of the problems faced by deaf-blind actors.

There are several things that I learnt from this amazing performance. One was to appreciate how deeply felt emotions go beyond mere words or images. Unless you had been there you would not understand. How ever hard I try I can only feel what I experienced there, I cannot describe it. But the scene where one of the actors described his loneliness, as he sat in a room, unable to contact the outside world, was particularly moving because of the way he described the release from this prison, a release which started when someone touched his hand. That was all it took. Suddenly holding someone’s hand will never be the same again.

I think that good theatre affects the audience in such a way that when they leave the theatre they are not the same as when they arrived. In which case, this was very, very good theatre.

I wish I could recommend everyone to go and see this performance, but sadly the last night is tonight and then the company will return to Israel. I do hope they will come again, but if not, you can read more about the company and some of the reviews of their show in the links below.

Posted by: njs44 | June 6, 2010

Book recommendations

A few years ago there was a car sticker which said something like ‘If you can read this, thank a teacher.’ I think it was supplied by the NUT, or one of the other teaching Unions, to encourage people to think more positively about their teachers. My husband claims that his mother taught him to read, before he went to school. In my elder daughter’s case I think she taught herself, having memorised the whole of Winnie-the-Pooh from having it read to her. But I am glad that somehow or other one of my infant school teachers must have taught me to read. The pleasure I get from reading a good book is like nothing else. A book can take me to another world, can help me to see inside the mind of someone else, can reassure me that other people think the same way as I do or can challenge me to think differently. I am delighted when other people recommend books to me, and Fr Stephen Wang’s recent recommendation on his blog reminded me that I have a book to recommend to him.

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant is not a highbrow book, but it does combine a certain amount of historical information with an excellent plot that kept me turning the pages feverishly to find out what happened next. It is set in a convent in Italy in 1570. Think of a female version of Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael, with the added bonus of a musical background to the storyline. Suora Zuana is the kind of character I can totally identify with, and so if you’ve ever bemoaned the fact that there will be no more Brother Cadfael books, this is the one for you.

While we’re on the subject of books, a distant relative of my husband has written a book, and although it was not written for the likes of me (I know nothing about football) it may appeal to others, so I offer it here as a suggestion.

Since good things are supposed to come in threes, my final recommendation, which I have not read yet, but comes with good reviews from my friends, is Living Love, by Jack Dominian.

Happy reading!

Posted by: njs44 | May 13, 2010

Musical medley

Sometimes I worry that I have a musical form of Multiple Personality Disorder. I like such varying styles of music. This is particularly true of my taste in religious or liturgical music. I am often aware that my spiritual life is greatly enhanced by music and sometimes when I have felt empty and dry it has been hearing some wonderful piece of sacred music that has brought me back to a place of safety again. But the diversity is hard to explain, except that my spiritual and musical journeys have been long and wide-ranging. Here, through the wonders of Youtube, are some of the songs that have travelled with me on that journey.

This is Arcadelt’s Ave Maria. It is a simple setting that we sing in my church choir. It always reminds me of my dear friend Peggy, who is now singing with the angels in heaven.

This is John Rutter’s setting of For the Beauty of the Earth and the images are beautiful too. This film reminds me of the first time I heard it when my elder daughter sang it at Primary School.

All to Jesus I Surrender, an old, tradition hymn, with a gentle, modern setting. This reminds me of a group of lovely students who used to sing it in the Chapel at the college where I worked.

Thomas Allen singing ‘Lord God of Abraham’ from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the first big oratorio I sang when I joined a Choral Society as a student. Not only is Elijah one of my favourite Old Testament stories, this is a magnificent aria sung by a fabulous Bass voice.

How lovely are thy dwellings fair, from the Brahms Requiem. Speaks for itself.

John Michael Talbot’s setting of the prayer of St Teresa.

Who am I? by Casting Crowns.

Matt Redman’s Father’s Song.

I could go on, there are so many enriching and beautiful songs. They all have associations for me, places, times, people who are woven into my life. Was it St Augustine who said that to sing is to pray twice?

Posted by: njs44 | May 9, 2010

A message of hope

The weather is so cold and miserable at the moment and some of the beautiful spring weather we had a few weeks ago now seems a distant memory. Here are two things to cheer. The first is a message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It comes from his book, God Has a Dream, and in this passage he is remembering the dark days of apartheid.

Of course, there were times when you had to whistle in the dark to keep your morale up, and you wanted to whisper in God’s ear: “God, we know You are in charge, but can’t You make it a little more obvious?” God did make it more obvious to me once, during what we call the Feast of the Transfiguration. Apartheid was in full swing as I and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss one of the many controversies that erupted in those days. We met at a theological college that had closed down because of the government’s racist policies. During our discussions I went into the priory garden for some quiet. There was a huge Calvary–a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns. It was a stark symbol of the Christian faith. It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again. It would be transfigured.

As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration–of God’s transformation–in our world. The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again. Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches. Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water. When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.

The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable,” that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, when it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory.

The second message is from two photographs I took in my local park. They are both of the same tree. The first was taken on 27th March and the second, just over 5 weeks later, on 3rd May.

Posted by: njs44 | April 9, 2010

The bl**dy Lark

Yes it’s that time of year again, when Classic FM organise the Hall of Fame election, where listeners vote for their favourite pieces of music. Once again, Vaughan-Williams won with the Lark Ascending. Now this piece of music is a little like Marmite, I’ve decided. You either love it or hate it. Some of us were indifferent once, but having had it played over and over again have become heartily sick of it. I was pleased to find that I am not the only one to feel disappointed that it won again and there is even a Facebook group called ‘We hate lark ascending’.

I am also not the only one to blog on this topic, as you can see by reading this from the Guardian’s Stephen Moss.

I have been away to the countryside since my last blog, so here are some cheery Spring pictures.

Posted by: njs44 | March 31, 2010

Free cyberspace

Although I haven’t blogged for a while, I have been building up a list of ideas to raise, and hope to be a bit more regular in future. One thing that has been exercising my thoughts a little is the way the internet can be used for good, as well as for bad purposes. I like to think that the blogs of ordinary, amateurs like myself, are an example of true free speech. I am not paid to write, can write what I like, comment on what I observe going on in the world, and readers are free to agree with me or not, as they choose. In some ways the internet can be like Speakers Corner, but without the risk of heckling.

In today’s Guardian, Aditya Chakrabrotty writes about the disappointment that the Internet has not brought democracy to the whole world. He talks about ‘cyber-utopians’ who thought that the freedom of speech the internet affords would mean an end to tyrannical regimes, because the word would get out about them and their evil deeds would be quickly discovered. He reports that Evgeny Morozov, a US academic, who came originally from Belarus, has studied this topic extensively.

Now an academic in the US, he has plenty of examples of how Beijing, Tehran and Moscow are adapting the internet for their own purposes. He quotes the example of the “Fifty-cent” bloggers in China, so called not because of their fondness for over-muscled American rappers but because of the money they earn for each pro-government blog they post on internet forums. He describes how the clerics of Qom in Iran are now recruiting and training religious bloggers; while the secret police in Tehran find Twitter and Facebook very useful tools for keeping tabs on dissidents.

New means of communication usually excite heady talk about how they will bring about big social changes. As Tom Standage observes in his book The Victorian Internet, the fact that the telegraph allowed people in different continents to communicate almost instantaneously gave rise to predictions that there would never be another international conflict. There then followed two world wars.

Developed in California, the web is often seen as the repository of similarly sunny liberal values. This paper’s coverage last week of the Google case ran under the logo “CHINA V THE WEB” – as if the internet were a sovereign state or a moral philosophy rather than a technology that people use to download porn, or watch videos of a cat playing the piano.

Like all mass technologies, the web is a force for change – primarily because it makes it cheaper and easier than ever before for people to communicate with each other. But there’s nothing that says the change has to be good or bad, or how far it needs to go. The answers to those questions won’t be found on Google.

Full text at

So here I am, collecting examples of the internet being a force for good. I will write about some of them over the coming days, and would be glad to hear of some more examples if anyone cares to comment.

Posted by: njs44 | March 14, 2010

Changing Lyrics

I have been encouraged, by one or two people who claim to have seen my blog, to carry on. This doesn’t make the task of finding something to write about any easier. It does, however, make the effort more worthwhile. So, to those of you who are reading this, please carry on reading. It is great to get comments, too, and even though the software that works behind the scenes manages to trap a lot of spam comments, there are still a few ‘real’ comments that brighten my day.

Today I am writing about the words of hymns, and the way these are sometimes found to be, for one reason or another, in need of amendment. I love the old hymns, the ones that bring back happy memories of childhood, the ones that fill me with nostalgia for some of the countless times I have sung them before. Today we sang Love divine all loves excelling and I was transported back to my childhood when I used to sing in an Anglican Church choir. This hymn was regularly on the agenda for weddings, and we never got tired of it as there was more than one tune to use, to create variety.

There is nothing wrong with nostalgia, but sometimes I get a feeling that times have moved on, and that some of those old-fashioned lyrics are inappropriate in today’s liturgy. I know that some of my readers will disagree, but I think there comes a time when we need to move on in our sentiments and our worship. An example of this is another hymn which we sang this morning. It caused a small amount of consternation to find that the new hymn-books we are using had a different version of the words from those with which we were all familiar.

God of mercy and compassion,
Look with pity upon me,
Father, let me call Thee Father,
‘Tis Thy child returns to Thee.

Jesus, Lord, I ask for mercy;
Let me not implore in vain;
All my sins, I now detest them,
Never will I sin again.

2. By my sins I have deserved
Death and endless misery,
Hell with all its pains and torments,
And for all eternity.

3. By my sins I have abandoned
Right and claim to heav’n above.
Where the saints rejoice forever
In a boundless sea of love.

4. See our Savior, bleeding, dying,
On the cross of Calvary;
To that cross my sins have nail’d Him,
Yet He bleeds and dies for me.

The above is the traditional version. As I read through the words, and considered them closely, I can see why that hymn is so fitting for today when we heard the story of the Prodigal son. It fits beautifully with the mood of the son as he returns to his father. It also gives us a glimpse ahead to Holy Week, which is fast approaching. (Isn’t it odd how Lent seems to gather momentum and the weeks go by faster and faster? I am sure Ash Wednesday was only a couple of weeks ago, and yet here we are on the 4th Sunday of Lent!)

But, returning to the hymn, I have difficulty singing those words and meaning them. ‘Never will I sin again’ is plainly not going to happen. I know I will sin again. I know I am not perfect. In spite of this, I am not sure about deserving Hell with all its pains and torments, either. Even if I do deserve eternal punishment, when I think about the ladies around me in the choir, those who have led such exemplary lives of faith, I cannot believe they deserve pains and torments for all eternity. Nobody’s perfect, but nobody’s that bad either. It all seems a bit OTT.

So now we turn to the ‘new’ words. The final verse has been cut completely, leaving just three verses and chorus.

God of mercy and compassion,
Lord of life and blinding light,
truth whom creatures would refashion,
place on us the gift of sight.

Truth insistent and demanding
Love resented and ignored,
Life beyond all understanding,
give us peace and pardon, Lord.

God most holy and forgiving,
penetrate our pride and sloth;
on a people partly living,
place the gift of life and growth.


Lord, who out of love consented
to the worst that we could do;
Lord, abandoned and tormented,
let us love and suffer too.


I think most people will agree that this is a totally different hymn, sung to the same tune as the original one. They share only the first line, and the theme of ‘sin’. I am not sure why the compilers of the hymn book decided to commission a new version, and I am not sure they will have many enthusiastic supporters in this. I don’t like the new version any more than the old. The new version has wrapped up the ‘sackcloth and ashes’ in different words. The new version has given me pause for thought, and that’s not a bad thing. But there is no joy in this hymn. It is gloomy and full of foreboding. Where is the joy of the father when the prodigal returns? Where is the fatted calf? Where is the robe and the ring? ‘Let us love and suffer too’ is how the new version ends. Well, I suppose it is Lent.

Posted by: njs44 | March 11, 2010

About Plato et al

As Plato said “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”

I offer this thought as an excuse for not blogging for some time. I did not feel I had anything to say. Whether I still have nothing to say, and am just doing this because I feel I have to say something, remains to be seen.

At the moment I am exploring the world of Philosophy. This began because I needed to know something to help some of my students with their essays. It was also high time I stopped being a scaredy cat about Philosophy and got stuck into it.

By way of an introduction I discovered that some US Universities put their introductory courses online. The website Academic Earth led me to a course from Yale given by Professor Shelly Kagan. The fact that it is entitled ‘Death’ should not put anyone off. It is a fascinating course and, because it is an introductory one,  is accessible without any prior knowledge of Philosophy.

The course is accompanied by a hefty reading list, and with the aid of the British Library I am working my way through this. I listen to the lectures two or three times a week, and am now more than half way through the 26-session series.

Every week, twice a week, Prof Kagan lectures to his students in an entertaining, informative and challenging way. He takes the odd question from the floor, but most of the time he just talks away. He has a few notes which he refers to from time to time, but for the most part he just speaks from his knowledge, unaided by the written word. I am full of admiration, although at times he seems to be labouring the point and I wish he would just get on with it. Maybe that’s because he is making sure no-one in his audience falls behind, or perhaps it is the nature of philosophy to take a long time to say something.

I started the course in awe of this learned man, but now that I’ve been listening to him for a few weeks I have become more critical. I find myself writing in my notes things like “this seems a daft idea to me” or other challenges to his thought. I hope Prof Kagan would be pleased about this as surely the aim of education should be to encourage us to think for ourselves and challenge what we are being told. Sadly too much school education is not about that at all, and instead teaches people to pass exams.

One of the extracts on the reading list for this course is an essay by Walter Kaufmann called Death without Dread. Kaufmann writes that

… for those who reach old age the best insurance against hopelessness is surely to have lived rich lives, to have lived intensely, to have used our time so well that it would make little sense to feel cheated or to feel that we still need a little more time.

I seem to remember from long ago when I was a Girl Guide that one of their mottoes was ‘A Guide makes good use of her time’ and this quote seems to be in accordance with that. This leaves me with one question, is it good use of my time to write this blog?

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