The Tree of Life

 

Tim Middleton reflects on theodicy and the search for meaning through the 2011 film ‘The Tree of Life.’

 

 

I am not sure what to make of The Tree of Life.

 

Terrence Malick’s 2011 film is certainly different, and it has received polarised reactions from critics. It won the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or, and it is listed in the BBC’s top ten films of the twenty-first century. Other reviewers, meanwhile, have described it as ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘achingly slow’.[1]

 

It is also pointedly theological. Words from the book of Job frame the entire narrative: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… when the morning stars sang together?’ One theologian describes The Tree of Life as, ‘deeply Christian… mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical’.[2]

 

The film opens with haphazard fragments of a family’s grief. Sepia tones and hushed commentary add to the bizarre feeling of disconnection. It seems appropriate for the senselessness of mourning. Job’s notorious comforters come to mind as one realises with horror that someone has just told the mother of a dead child (Jessica Chastain) that she, ‘still has the other two’.

 

After the initial, intense focus on personal loss, the film then leaps to the cosmic scale. A montage of twisting nebulae give way to planetary formation, and volcanic churning. This is the universe in its raw, uncultured originality. Surely human stories are insignificant on a stage of these proportions. Biological forms materialise. Yet the peculiar sense of the disturbingly inhumane is continued by an explicit focus on the weirdest of underwater creatures. These are Malick’s Behemoth and Leviathan in all their Attenborough-esque, multi-coloured glory. But then, these scenes, too, receive an abrupt truncation in the form of an unyieldingly accurate Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event. No mercy for the dinosaurs either.

 

Another handbrake turn: we are back in Texas, following a marginally more linear progression through Jack O’Brien’s childhood (Hunter McCracken, and latterly Sean Penn) and his increasingly tense relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Apparently formative moments are relayed: the drowning of a schoolfriend, an act of vandalism, and his teenage sexual awakening. Jack’s father and mother are portrayed as simplistic archetypes for the ways of nature and grace respectively: one authoritarian and combative, the other thankful and forgiving. And in the audio, a boy’s ongoing, God-searching refrain: ‘where are you?’

 

As we judder towards the conclusion, the moment when Jack’s brother must inevitably re-die, the final scenes of the film are the most thought-provoking of all. Human characters are seen in motion on a beach. This tidal zone provides a fittingly liminal setting for a re-enactment of the paradox of life—between birth and death, nature and grace, meaning and chaos—our characters continue their seemingly random, Brownian walks. Assemblages coalesce: bodies exchange looks, one human embraces another, meaningful family units appear to form—only to dissipate again in the continuing flux.

 

What are we to make of all this? Is Malick intending to answer Job’s opening question or not? Are nature’s grand machinations supposed to validate God to humanity? Or is the trite, visual onslaught (and its glaring insufficiency in comparison to the reality of human misery) supposed to parody biblical theodicy?

 

The staccato cinematography never stops: the whole two hours consists in only kaleidoscopic crumbs. Even the film’s advertising poster was a mosaic of apparently unrelated images. For some, the disjointedness of the postmodern might all be too much. My own perplexity, however, was something much more banal. If I am brutally honest, I was a little bored.

 

But when I began to reflect on this a little more, it struck me that boredom was just possibly precisely what I was supposed to feel. Malick’s point is that different vignettes make different sense. The shards of meaning are from separate mosaics. When you zoom out to look for a cohesive whole, the sense is lost. The longed-for God’s-eye perspective is simply boring. We make sense of the human condition from within the world, not by attempting to abstract ourselves from it. Furthermore, if we had all the reasons and justifications at our fingertips, then there would be no hope of real transformation. We would already know the best that could ever happen—and that is a depressing thought indeed. No, we must remain open to what is beyond. And Job’s beyond is not necessarily our own beyond.

 

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/8623873/The-Tree-Of-Life-review.html

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/07/seven-characters-in-search-of-a-nihil-obstat

 

The-Tree-of-Life.jpg

 

Two poems: ‘Because they are no more’ and ‘I’ve had better days’

Two inter-related poems by Dr. Cathy Ross, on the Massacre of the Innocents told in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The text gives the context for the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt, told in the installation of this image of Mary and the Christ Child as refugees

 

Because they are no more

Soldiers.
Levi and Joshua rush in from outside
Excited, noisy, eager to tell me
Soldiers! Soldiers! They shout in unison.

 

Hush.
Quiet! I admonish them gently
You will wake up our sleeping baby boy
Asleep now after incessant crying.

 

Soldiers.
The boys pant again, more softly this time.
Jumping out of trucks. Striding into homes.
Nervous, I peer out the curtained window.

 

Pounding.
At the door. At the front door. At our door.
Sudden, Brutal. Insistent. Entitled.
Slowly, terrified, I open the door.

 

Baby.
Where is the baby? The soldiers demand.
Sleeping in his cradle, replies Levi,
Awe, fascination and fear on his face.

 

No.
No baby I insist, heavy in my heart
Sensing danger, cruelty and evil.
I move my body to block their entry.

 

Panic.
As they push me to one side, carelessly.
Invade my home, my precious sanctuary
Tracking my sleeping baby boy, Samuel.

 

Abruptly.
The soldier tears him from his small cradle,
Samuel awakes, gurgles, chortles softly
Locks his gaze onto this khaki stranger.

 

Whimpers.
Now Samuel sees the soldier’s troubled face
Quickly the soldier turns his face away
How do you kill a gurgling baby boy?

 

Herod.
He mouths. We just have to obey the orders given.
I scream. I leap forward to save Samuel
The other one pins my arms. Well practised.

 

Blood.
He quietly slits my baby’s throat.

 

Silence.
The silence of the entire universe.
Because they are no more. No more. No more.

 

 

I’ve had better days

 

I had good days
The camaraderie. Training. Purpose.
Join the army. Travel and see the world.
Taxpayer funded. All bills paid, this gig.

 

I had good days
I lacked nothing. My body fit and lean,
My hands not idle. My mind engaged, alert,
My soul, the padre to attend to.

 

I had good days
I enjoyed being useful, part of a team.
Our platoon always obeyed the orders,
We made a difference. Our presence noted.

 

I’ve had better days
The mothers, the bitches screamed and wailed,
They fought like mad she-devils, insanely
Desperate to save their infant children
From our murderous slaughter.

 

I’ve had better days
I am crazy now. The boys’ small bodies
Haunt me still. Boys under two years old
Murdered by psychotic command of a
Paranoid king. Herod, he was called
If I remember rightly.
Or wrongly.

 

I’ve had better days.

 

Nov 2017.
Iffley.

 

massacre innocents.jpg

 

 

 

Magenta

A poem by Dr. Cathy Ross

 

Magenta

I hold the large key, ancient, iron, trefoil,
Cold to touch.
It slides easily into the lock
Turns smoothly.
No creaks for this door. Well oiled.

 

A tiny chapel
Hidden on a rocky outcrop in north Wales.
Sunlight rainbows in reflected by the stained glass windows.
Seven of them.
Purple, yellow, blue, orange,
Green, red, turquoise, magenta.

 

Eight colours.
Seven stained glass windows.
Magenta is missing.
Where is magenta? worries my tidy mind.

 

Slowly I absorb the sound of the refracted colours.
Red for strength; green for healing,
Purple for longing, yellow for curiosity,
Orange for vitality, blue for tranquillity,
Turquoise for sheer beauty.

 

Magenta for completion.

 

Eight colours on the wheel,
Seven windows in this chapel.

 

Magenta for completion,

Wholeness.

 

Magenta is missing.

 

Magenta calls me on,
Out of the chapel,
Into the world.

 

 

St Beuno’s, 12 Aug, 2017.

 

Snapchatting the Sistine Chapel

 

A poem by Sorrel Wood.

 

I looked for you in the Sistine Chapel,

Peering through a bustling scrum of tourists.

One tour guide waved a faded Minnie Mouse

Precariously flopping on a selfie-stick

To herd his chattering, snap-chatting flock.

 

Then I saw you: bearded, robed, reclining;

Your Father Christmas face so iconic

That it was all a disappointing déjà-vu.

Your accusatory finger pointed

Towards a languid, naked, tight-muscled Adam

Genitals small as a bunch of shrivelled figs.

 

A megaphone bellowed demands for silence

And I tried to pray, I really tried

But a backpack swung in my praying face

And I was carried by the rushing crowd

Like a rootless branch of river driftwood

Out of the chapel, towards the cafe.

 

I sought you out in the vast corridors

Of the Vatican art collection.

I found you, a thousand versions of you:

Baby doll eyes, girlish hair, impotent

Bearing faint traces of Christ-likeness

Like the almost-familiarity

Of meeting someone’s cousin.

 

I tried to buy you in the gift shop.

A glittering, gold cross (five hundred Euros)

Sparkled in the soft, Italian light.

“Nothing made in China! Everything blessed!”

A wrinkled nun informed me with a grin.

I wondered if the blessing extended

To the red-rimmed shot glasses, key rings,

The black and white “sexy priests” calendar.

 

I pined for you in the almost-quiet

Of a shrine at St Peter’s Basilica.

I lit a turgid electric candle

Longing for the warm light of a real flame.

And as the cameras clicked I understood

 

That I would find you where you’ve always been:

Healing leprous scabs, washing grubby feet

Kissing the smudged-lipstick face of the whore

Scooping up the knee-grazed child again

And when I found you, I would come to see

I was already lost in your embrace.

 

 

Sistine-Chapel-Michelangelo

 

Cuddesdon Soundscapes

Through Cuddesdon soundscapes, Ollie Blease reflects on the miracle of creation in the Psalms. 

 

For all the beasts of the forest are mine, the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains and the insect of the field is mine.

– Psalm 50:10-11

 

The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. The north and the south, you have created them.

– Psalm 89: 11-12a

 

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created. And he established them forever and ever; he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.

– Psalm 148:1-6O

 

I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers, at the moon and the stars you set firm – what are human beings that you spare a thought for them, or the child of Adam that you care for him?

– Psalm 8:3-4

 

Proximity to God is found in a myriad of ways: Eucharistic worship, scriptural devotion, and corporate prayer, for example. However, for many it is helpful to intentionally recall God’s work in creation around us.

 

This is especially easy at Cuddesdon, which is outside of the nearby city of Oxford, and is something of a rural idyll. I regularly walk around the surrounding fields and woodland, and feel a closeness to God when I spend time among that which God has created.

 

Recently I have begun to record the birds and the sounds of the life around us.

 

As something of a visual learner, I have loved seeing the images of the waveforms in the software, showing a graphical form of the sound transmitted from the birds and surrounding elements.

 

I find birdsong a glorious background to quiet prayer. It is easy to meet God in creation – nothing so complex or beautiful, or endlessly content, has been made with human hands as the blossom on the tree at the entrance to the college. When the writer of Psalm 8 asks “what are human beings that you spare a thought for them…?” I can’t help but ask the same when faced with the beauty of the landscape and creation of this place.

 

But I must accept that no matter how much we love our surrounds, the mystery and majesty of creation (including one another), God’s love is infinite in capacity and grace, and overshadows all. This is scary and beautiful, and I accept it as a river of hope amidst occasional uncertainty and seeming chaos.

 

Below are a few soundscapes of Cuddesdon, which I hope you will enjoy. Some of these are recorded by Lee Chantler, some by Nick Wells, and some by myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The full list and other audio clips are posted here.

Just a Cup

The Rev’d Morna Simpson, author of  tea and theology, reflects on preparations for ordination. 

 

What does it mean to be a deacon or priest? Where does our time get used and what do we memorialise? This reflection is also based on the idea of salt and light; being in the world but not of it is part of the calling of all Christians…but what about when not being ‘of the world’ takes us so far from the world that we are seen as misunderstood misfits…?

 

 

A cup is only a cup, regardless of what it is made of or holds, surely? Material cannot drastically change something which we understand to have been made in our mutually accepted ‘cup’ form as Plato suggests in his Theory of Forms. Even a cup made of glass, if it has clearly taken on the form of cup with a handle and a wide rim, is not a glass, but is universally known as a cup.

 

There are cups of different colours, shapes and sizes, some might be more correctly termed as mugs, mugs which do not generally team up with a saucer as cups do; yet they so often find themselves posing in the widening ‘cup’ category. It does not seem to matter how much liquid they hold, or indeed what liquid they hold, whether it is hot or cold; regardless of all of that it is still just a cup.

 

Is it always just a cup though? It might be a cup of tea or coffee, or on a good or bad day (very much depending on the circumstance) it could be a cup of hot chocolate. On the odd occasion it might even be a cup of water or wine…or water mixed with wine even water turned into wine.

 

At what point would the regular tea cup become a precious reminder of the cup that Jesus had to bear?

 

At what point in our church history did the humble and well known household item of ‘cup’, the one that Jesus asked God the Father to take away…”yet, not my will but yours be done”; when did that become a ‘chalice’ which people may identify with far less than the good old fashioned tea cup? Who knew that a chalice is also a term for a cannabis smoking pipe? Talk about losing context!

 

I mean if we’re talking about context, real unadulterated context, the last supper was a meal with friends. It began with Jesus washing the feet of his friends, properly washing them as an act of loving service. The meal was then punctuated with bread which represented Jesus’ ‘body broken’ at the beginning and wine or ‘blood shed’ at the end. Then Jesus told them to do this in remembrance of him.

 

But which bit? How much of this has just got lost over time? Did Jesus really mean for us to take out two components from that whole meal and focus solely on those? Are we right to ignore the foot washing as loving service for 364 days of the year and only wheel out the bowls of warm water and towels for Maundy Thursday when for one day of the year we honour that meal fully?

 

And so we focus on the cup, but I am not convinced that we understand that cup of wine, the cup that Jesus drank, significantly enough as transformative. How can it be just a cup when it led Jesus to the cross to die that we might live? That is the cup of wine which in the words of George Herbert “my God tastes as blood, but I as wine”. It is surely never ‘just a cup’ is it, even if that’s all we have….

 

cup
image by Morna Simpson

Geraldine Crimmins: wellbeing and the arts

During Arts Weeks 2018 at Ripon College Cuddesdon, artist and wellbeing advocate Geraldine Crimmins came to speak to students and staff at the college.

 

Geraldine Crimmins is a London-based artist, currently in a professional residency at the Old Diorama Arts Centre in Camden.

 

Geraldine has exhibited at Somerset House and Spitalfields amongst other places, and since 2015 has won four awards for her work, including ‘Outstanding Progression and Achievement in the Arts’ from the Westminster Adult Education Service in 2015, and in 2016 she was awarded the national prize at the UK’s Festival of Learning.

 

Geraldine has said that it is her view that creativity can be a source of nourishment, a kind of ‘food,’ especially for the vulnerable.

 

Although a budding artist in school, Geraldine convinced herself she ‘didn’t have the imagination’ and went on to pursue a successful career as a counsellor and psychotherapist.

 

Geraldine joined us to share the story of her remarkable life, and the part in which the arts have played on that journey, followed by a Q&A session towards the end.

 

A good introductory article on Geraldine’s life and work is provided in this interview in The Canary, and we encourage a visit to her website which has more information, and an an excellent gallery.

 

Here is the talk, followed by the Q&A (which begins at 22.00 minutes), with Geraldine in full:

 

 

 

Our Lady of Calais

 

The Arts Committee of Ripon College Cuddesdon are delighted to announce the installation of a new artwork at the college:

 

Our Lady of Calais

by Joy ‘CBloxx’ Gilleard

Spray paint on board, 250cm x 250cm

 

 

our lady 2

 

Painted and originally exhibited in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, this picture depicts Mary and the Christ Child as refugees. The picture raises awareness around issues of forced migration and the plight of refugees across the world today. In 2015 the picture was part of a fundraising initiative on behalf of Save The Children.

 

our lady 2 - close up.jpg

 

Commenting on the piece in this 2016 interview, Joy reflects that one of the roles of the artist is to speak to the human condition, particularly on such a large-scale issue affecting human life as forced migration:

 

No work is purely for visual effect…there is a responsibility as a creative person to put a message out there … it is good to challenge perceptions and make people think.

 

Joy describes the process of engaging with the issues surrounding Mary and the Christ Child as refugees, and painting this picture, as a “spiritual experience in itself.”

 

In bringing this piece to the college, our hope is to contribute to raising awareness of the plight of refugees and those experiencing forced migration across the globe. This is an issue especially pertinent to Christians in light of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, described in Matthew 2:13-15 –

 

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

 

Our Lady - in St Pauls.JPG

 

A formal launch of the painting in its new home at Ripon College Cuddesdon will follow in due course.

 

Joy is one of the artists behind the 2017 artwork Athena Rising, a 150ft tall mural on the side of the Platform building in Leeds, the UK’s largest ever piece of street art.

 

Refugee Mother and Child

A Poem by Chinua Achebe

 

No Madonna and Child could touch

that picture of a mother’s tenderness

for a son she soon would have to forget.

The air was heavy with odours

 

of diarrhoea of unwashed children

with washed-out ribs and dried-up

bottoms struggling in laboured

steps behind blown empty bellies. Most

 

mothers there had long ceased

to care but not this one; she held

a ghost smile between her teeth

and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s

pride as she combed the rust-coloured

hair left on his skull and then –

 

singing in her eyes – began carefully

to part it… In another life this

would have been a little daily

act of no consequence before his

breakfast and school; now she

 

did it like putting flowers

on a tiny grave.

Being Fully Human

A poem by Sorrel Wood

 

Perhaps the moment we are born:

Naked, screaming and messy

Completely dependent on the provision of the other for survival

Vulnerable, miraculous

As ordinary and extraordinary as snowfall and the stars,

Perhaps that is the moment we are most fully human.

 

As quickly as the breath in our lungs transforms itself

Into air for the trees,

Step by step, we forget our true humanity.

 

We forget that we deserve to be loved unconditionally

Before we have achieved or amassed anything

Because we are unique.

We refuse to acknowledge that our presence

Infinitely and irrevocably changes the lives of those around us.

We forget the terrifying truth

That each time another disappears from our vision (however briefly)

We may never see them again.

We forget how to scream the depths of our pain

With every atom of our being.

 

We pretend that we are insignificant,

We pretend that we are God.

 

We deny the truth that we are

Miraculous

Irreplaceable

Uninsurable

And that every other is as fully human as we are

No more, no less.

 

We shirk the weighty responsibility

Of treating every other

As intricately connected to our story

And equally worthy of love.

 

We forget that we are precious.

 

We forget that our brief, significant life

Is a journey of re-remembering every day

How to be fully human.

 

Instead, we run and hide from the fragility

The responsibility, the co-dependency

The spark of divinity

That characterises our humanity.

Because the cost of being fully human

Is too heavy a cross to carry in our fragile, human hearts.

 

 

hands

 

First Light

In this poem and reflection, Rev’d Vicky Barrett considers the paradox of the women’s silence after visiting the tomb and meeting Jesus, and the experience of reading in Mark’s Gospel, two thousand years later, of a resurrection which refuses to be silenced.

 

First Light

(a poem based on Mark 16:1-8)

 

They must do what they can
now the Sabbath is over.
Back to work.
Their oils are sharp and pungent,
Stripping dawn’s thin grey curtain.
Their steps, directed, urgent,
to soothe the scarred body,
move the lovely limbs
lying wound up and wounded
in the dank dark of a borrowed grave.

 

How? How? the doves cry,
an echo of their anxious words,
the weight of the stone
wedged between them and their love.
Pounding hearts:
as the oils glow like slow amber pools,
spices tease their nostrils.
Tick, tick. Birds shrill the alarm.

 

Breath snags on a barb.
Surprise? Confusion? Hope? Jealousy?
Has someone come ahead of them
to offer the rituals which are theirs?
Has someone stolen the precious freight
from this stony barque?

 

Who is this man in white?
What is his news?
Not here.
Their eyes trace the outline of the tomb.
Not here.
Not there, where they laid him,
Escaped, unbound, fetterless.

 

The sun rinses the mouth of the tomb,
A widening ‘O’ of light.
The spices fall to the ground.
Oil finds a new course.
The earth gleams and is fragrant.

 

They turn and feet flutter a fleeting path
like sparrows’ feathers.
Breath unravels in rags,
muscles shriek with exertion.
The burden of their news
lurches and sways and batters them
mad-eyed with joyous fear.
Teeth chatter riddling messages.
But who would believe these harpies
who say they have seen an angel?

 

Better to roll the stone back again,
be safe, familiar, silent.
Let the men
wrap the words like oilcloth round the carpenter’s tools,
stitch up the fishing nets
and not
dare to believe
in the terrifying mystery
who comes in majesty
to greet them.

 

Vicky Barrett Easter 2018

 

Reflection

 

Mark’s Gospel is full of silences, no more so than that of Chapter 16, verse 8:

 

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 

How is it then, that out of the women’s paralysis of terror and amazement, we find ourselves responding to the good news of the risen Christ today?

 

We may find ourselves silent, paralysed also by terror, amazement; scepticism or apathy too, perhaps. But the wonderful good news is that Jesus has done this thing anyway; that’s how much he loves us. Our Creator God is able to bring the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the world in spite of us. As Luke puts it when the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to be quiet, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

Mark’s Gospel account gives us the encouragement to explore our response, to fill in the narrative gaps and colour them in, to play in the shadows of this amazing message.

 

I found myself doing this as I prepared for Easter morning and ended up writing a poem.

 

How can you find your way of expressing a response to this Easter story?

 

empty tomb