Sabbatical Reading

When you have three months off work there is more opportunity for reading without falling asleep after the first page. I wondered whether I should read lots of theology because the Lord knows I have plenty of those gathering dust on my shelves but some wise person on Twitter said ‘Read fiction – you’re on sabbatical!’ so I took him at his word. And let’s not forget there is often tons of theology in fiction anyway. So here is my list of reading for the past twelve weeks. (The ones I can remember anyway.)

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. Missionary goes to evangelise aliens. 4 stars.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. 17th century Amsterdam, homosexuality, sugar and miniature things. 3 stars.

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. Time travel, humour, easy to read and loads more in the series. 4 stars.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg. Children run away and hide in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Angels, Michelangelo and a fierce girl. 4 stars.

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C Wrede. Another children’s book with dragons. Another fierce girl but she let the feminist side down by doing the dragon’s dishes. Good fun though. 3 stars.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid. Fact not fiction but really interesting if you love gore. Never look at a fly in the same way again. 4 stars.

The Comforter by Margaret Hart. Written by a friend and interesting journey through counselling and spirituality and sexuality. 4 stars.

Unseen Things Above by Catherine Fox. Sex , bishops, feminists in the C of E. Wonderful romp. 5 stars.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.  13th century, young woman holed up in church, world keeps interfering. 5 stars.

A Brush with Death by Elizabeth J Duncan. Wales, love and amateur sleuths. More in series. 3 stars.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die by Marnie Riches. Amsterdam, Cambridge, secrets, fast-paced thriller. 4 stars.

Runaway by Peter May. Glasgow, London in swinging sixties, crime, putting things right. 4 stars.

The Faces of Angels by Lucretia Grindle. Florence, Boboli Gardens, honeymoon killer, art history, stalker and murder. 4 stars.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. Required reading for anyone who works in a hospital. Anyone. Not just doctors. 5 stars.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A single parent, fabby children, haunted house, racism in the deep south, a trial. 5 stars.

The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.  1st in fantasy series, touch of T H White, bastard son, Wit and Skilling mind games, thrilling ending. 5 stars

Missing by Karin Alvtegen. Scandi crime, homeless woman, serial killer, enlists young boy to help so became slightly unbelievable, fast pace. 3 stars.

And a host of art books too many to mention.

So what good books have you read lately?

Our Book Group begged a break while I was away so they could read what they liked but I now have a few good suggestions for when I get back. Always open for more suggestions although this is my unread bookcase so I’ve plenty to keep me going. (Two deep on most shelves!)

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The Wall by William Sutcliffe – Book Group questions

Occasionally we choose a book for our Reading Group for which I can find no questions on the internet. It really helps the conversation if we have some questions to focus our discussion. Here are some questions I’ve come up with for The Wall by William Sutcliffe. Feel free to add any more suggestions in the comments.

THE WALL by William Sutcliffe

Is this book something you would normally read?  Did it win you over?

The book is written for young adults? Did that put you off?

The author says: “What I actually wanted to do is write the story of a kid brought up living a fantasy who happens across reality. For me, that was a lot more interesting.”  What is the fantasy about Joshua’s life?

The author is himself a Jew, so why do you think he wrote a book which was quite critical about Israel?

Did you find the story believable?

Why do you think he chose a young boy to be the main character and not an adult?  Joshua is 13 – the age a Jewish boy comes of age – so do you think he grows up in the novel? In what way?

What did you think about Joshua’s mother? Did you think she was weak?

What about his step-father?

Were there any bits you didn’t like?

It took great courage to go through the tunnel. What gave Joshua the courage to go again?

Did the life of Leila and her family shock you?

Why do you think Joshua took over looking after the olive and lemon groves? What were his motives? Did he make things worse or better for Leila’s family?

The author said “But it was really important to the authenticity of the book that it wasn’t a ‘everyone can be friends across the barbed wire’ kind of story. I guess I have an optimism about people rather than politicians – and a belief that most people want to live ordinary lives in peace.”  Do you agree?

What did you think of the ending? Was it what you expected?

The Giving of Communion

For six months I was Interim Pastor at our neighbouring little flocks of Bo’ness and Grangemouth. While there I helped them prepare their Congregational Profiles which will be given to any prospective priests. I met some lovely and interesting people while working with them and hope that they find the right person to travel with them.

At Easter I found that it was just getting too much for me. Caring for three churches was becoming a real struggle and I take my hat of to those clergy who do this, and more, on a day to day basis. Getting cover was the really time-consuming part of it, as many city-clergy seem to be reluctant to travel a few miles out of town to help out. I could spend two days a week easily phoning round old friends trying to call in favours. Even the Supernumerary system which is meant to provide cover in emergencies didn’t seem to work. (I’m told now that this system is now changing and cover is being arranged from the Diocesan Office which seems to be a much better plan. I just wish it had been in place back then!)

When I left I was given generous book tokens from both churches which was a lovely surprise and always much appreciated. One of the books I ordered was Unfolding the Living Word by Jim Cotter who recently died. It is a book of new Kyries, Canticles, Gospel Acclamations and Collects and already I have found some beautifully poetic pieces which I shall use. In the Appendix I came across a little paragraph for use in a communion service which reads:

On a church door there was this notice:
Everybody is welcome to receive communion here.
Only one thing is asked of each and all of us, that we be hungry.
However, some people prefer to come to the altar for a blessing:
if so, please incline your head rather than holding out your hands.
Or you may prefer to sit quietly where you are.
May there always be pillars to hide behind for the shy, the puzzled, and those
who are searching and seeking.


pillars church-of-our-lady-liebfrauenk

In which Ruth ponders busyness and prayer

I am not doing very well with my daily Lent blog and I’ve even managed to fail at a weekly one over at Beauty from Chaos. Those great plans of getting ahead of myself when things were quiet (ha!) and storing them up just hasn’t happened. The excuses could take up a whole page in themselves: a funeral; meetings; a full day on Deliverance ministry; Lent Groups; sermon writing and re-writing; hymn choosing; desperately trying (unsuccessfully) to get cover for foster-flocks; assisting with Congregational Profiles; and all the other minutiae which takes up a priest’s working week. And the worst thing is that none of it has felt very holy.

It hasn’t helped that I’ve been re-reading Easter for our Book Group. There’s nothing like reading about a priest in crisis for bringing you down. Arditti is so good at observing churchgoers and it has made me wonder what goes on in the heads of my own little flock(s) during services. Of course there are some whom you know well and could probably guess. There are some who are unable to hide what they are thinking from the expression on their faces – and its not always good! But I am sure there is lots going on behind those gorgeous exteriors that I know nothing about. How well do we know our little flocks? And would they want to tell us what’s going on in their heads anyway? Post-Easter resolution is to do more visiting. Crisis ministry is not good for anyone.

I have enjoyed reading Harry Williams’ Becoming What I Am, a little book on prayer. Funnily enough it was a Roman Catholic Redemptorist brother who first introduced him to me. Why do our own theological colleges not teach us about these great writers of the (recent) past? It is so easy to read and, although a little dated, still resonates strongly with me. Today I was reading a bit which has helped me. Let me share it with you:

Von Hugel once said that a very fruitful form of prayer could be compared to sucking a lozenge. What he meant was that instead of selecting passages for meditation…, you read through a suitable book, but not in the ordinary way of getting through it. You read a few lines or a paragraph and then ponder over it. It may say something to you to make you aware of God’s presence, perhaps for the whole ten minutes. Or perhaps the lines you read will keep you going for only a minute or two; then you can go on to the next few lines and try them out. On some days you will find that two lines of the book will fill up ten minutes prayer time, and on other days that you will have to read eight or nine pages. But your aim will be not to swallow what you read immediately as in ordinary reading, but to keep it in your mouth and feel its flavour, as you do a lozenge.

Our job is to put ourselves at God’d disposal by the discipline of regularity, by faithfulness to our rule, and by the use of that common sense without which we can’t do anything. But there our job ends. What happens when we pray is God’s business, not ours. God will give us what he knows is best. And what is best we see in the life of Jesus, in his joy and peace and stillness and confidence and trust. And also in his passion, his bloody sweat, his death and resurrection.


In which Ruth lets down her readers

Oh what a bad blogger have I been! My intentions fall by the wayside in direct proportion to looking after two more churches during their interregnum. I collapse at the end of the day in front of the TV with my pussy cats by my side and zonk out completely. And you know something? I don’t even remember what I did last week.

I know it has taken me about a month to read The Cuckoo Calls by Robert Galbraith, aka J K Rowling. I can give you a short review: OK story but too long. I only persevered to find out whodunnit. Writing was ok just too much of it.

On Sunday I had great fun with one of my little interregnum-flocks. We did SWOT analysis and looked at what they wanted in a priest. I managed to contradict most of that. Well, everyone wants a ‘family man with young family’. Jings. You’d be far better with an old wifie my age, I told them. We want someone ‘healthy’ someone said. I take 10 pills to get me going in the morning, said I.  I’ve left them doing the Parish Profile and look forward to reading that.

The diary is pretty full from now on so don’t expect me back here until reflection time. But heh! you never know. I just might be bursting to share something.

Here are some lovely BVM pics to ponder at this pregnant season…

BVM mullan  pregnancy-test  Pregnant Virgin dreamstime  The Crowning by Sara Schnelle

In which Ruth reads a book and goes to the theatre

It has taken me ages to read this last book – Wool by Hugh Howey. I think I began it at the beginning of the month since when my life has become rather busy and my head has hit the pillow before I’ve even thought of opening the book. it was recommended to me by my Chiropodist as we are both in book groups and have similar tastes and often swap titles. This one is like the Hunger Games but for grown-ups. However it is not quite so page-turning until the latter quarter when I did really want to find out what was happening. It is a big book and tells of life in the future (post apocalypse) in a silo. People live in these deep silos where everything they need to exist is found. If you’re naughty you are sent out into the wilderness landscapes to die and, needless to say, our heroine suffers that fate. Good story, thought provoking, and possibly good discussions at a book group. It is part of a trilogy but I don’t know that I liked it enough to carry on. 3 stars.

Will Young CabaretLast night Son #1 and I went to see Cabaret at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh. Cabaret is my favourite film and musical so I’ve always wanted to see it on stage. Will Young was playing the emcee which was not a particular pull for me but obviously was for the many drunken young women staggering about the foyer at the interval! However he was absolutely brilliant. His voice suited the role perfectly and he was deliciously camp. The set and choreography were excellent and the first half whizzed by with thrusting crotches and singalong tunes. There were a few numbers which are not in the film and a slight change to the story. Instead of the young friend who is Jewish, in the play it is the landlady who falls in love with an old man who is a tenant and ends up not marrying him because he’s Jewish. The second half was much darker and the ending absolutely breathtaking and you could have heard a pin drop as the curtain fell.  Go and see it if you get the chance.

However, don’t ever buy tickets for the Upper Circle in the Kings if you want to straighten your legs ever again. It was the most uncomfortable evening I’ve ever spent and I have the shortest legs in the world. At the interval we all had to space ourselves out and dangle our legs over the chair in front!  (Not exactly comfy either.)

And just for those of you concerned about Rita Kitten… the miraculous recovery has continued. She is frisky and fun once more. Her eyes are bright, her gums and tongue pink instead of creepy white, and Lucy Pussy’s nose is out of joint once more. And she is eating like a cat possessed (of a large tapeworm!). So we give thanks for her continued good health and hope that it lasts.

Lacy cottas, Rita kitten and other such things

Well. dear readers, I am terribly sorry to have been neglecting you in the past month or so. Since my return from holiday my diary seemed to go into meltdown and I’ve hardly had a moment to myself. In the midst of it all I even had a birthday but it was all rather low key. Who wants to shout about being 57? My boys took me out for lunch so that was nice. And no blood was spilt so that was a bonus.

Last week we hosted the Scottish Guild of Servers AGM. I think it is the first time it has been here so that was a lovely honour but nobody could tell us how many to expect. In the end we catered for 50+ and 50 came. I love it when a plan comes together. It all began with a rehearsal in which the Celebrant assures me they want it to be just like our normal service and then proceeds to change it all. The loveliest part of my day was introducing Walter who has just retired from serving at the altar after 60+ years. (Perhaps 70+ years.) My team did a fine soup and pud lunch and tons of home baking. They’ll have trouble bettering it next year, I reckon!  Lovely to see servers from all over and some old friends. Not too much tat either which was reassuring. Un-ironed lace is never bonny. But let me tell you they have the most ostentatious incense boat you’ve ever seen. And the size of it! Our boat-person practically had to work-out to get the strength up to carry it. While the previous rector was snooping around he retrieved his old thurible – the one with bells on. Oh how we shall miss it. At least Big Aggie is safe and sound, although needing a good clean and polish. (Big Aggie being the huge gothic thurible given to me by Fr Alex, it having been given to him by the Catholic Apostolic Church in Glasgow when it closed down. She is big and beautiful and much loved by all.)

Rita kitten has taken a turn for the worse again. She should have had her annual Booster a few weeks ago but they were loathe to give her it until they’d checked her blood. Sure enough this has shown she is ill again so awaiting to hear what the next step will be. We can tell she is not herself by the fact that she does not hide in her plastic tunnel and leap out on Lucy Pussy, or make herself at home in the wash-hand basin, sunbathe on my study window sill and hiss at passers-by, or stash my feather duster, fluffy toys, bubble wrap in her hidey hole under the study chair. (Not well hidden because the handles stick out.) This time we are more apprehensive because her Pet Insurance won’t cover any of it. I could be looking for a second job at this rate.



I finally got around to reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and it was delightful. Except perhaps for the end? We’re discussing it next week in the book group so I look forward to seeing what the others thought. We are getting to know one another quite well in this group. We know who prefers a good psychological thriller or a murder or two along the way; who loves a bit of history (especially Tudor); the one who doesn’t like violence; and then there’s me. I’ve just surprised myself by giving up on the last Kate Mosse one because it was just so long-winded and I couldn’t care enough about the characters. That’s unusual for me and maybe says more about where my head’s been these past few months. Just started my birthday book which is the latest by Tracy Chevalier and already I’m enjoying it.

I’ll finish with a lovely story. Someone at church said to me that they were going to be leaving something in their will to Christ Church. But they had decided that they really would like to give it before they die so that they could appreciate what they wanted bought with the money – a new carpet throughout the church, sacristy and choir and servers rooms. At the moment we have pieces here there and everywhere. Hairy carpet tiles in the Lady Chapel, two shades of blue in the sanctuary, an old rug taped down behind the altar, old thin brown cord stuff up the aisle and at the back. This person also helps clean the church and said they’d rather vacuum a nice carpet than this one. Isn’t that a great idea? Give to the church while you can still enjoy it! Yay. What would you buy?

Cave Refectory Road

As part of my non-fiction reading in Lent I have just finished Cave Refectory Road by Ian Adams. It is a very short book so didn’t take long to read and I’m afraid it was a bit of a disappointment to me.

I don’t know Ian Adams although I see he is a regular speaker at Greenbelt, and Anglican priest, and co-founder and abbot of the experimental mayBe community in Oxford. The book is subtitled ‘monastic rhythms for contemporary living’.  I think the book is supposed to be looking at how the new monasticism can learn from the old so there was much talk of the Benedictine way of life, a little bit of Francis and a few desert fathers. But nothing was in any depth so when they mentioned new communities like mayBe, The Community of Bose, Taize (although not exactly new), Earth Abbey, Anglican Cathedral of Second Life, Mirfield (again not new), etc and then gave no information about them I felt a bit cheated. THAT is what the book ought to have been about. Showing how those communities work, and what they have learned from the past. It was not enough just to mention them in passing and then give their website address at the end of the book.

Now I’m going to have to spend hours looking them all up when it could have been put into this book and saved me a lot of time.

2 stars.

Sister Wendy looks at icons

I’m a huge fan of Sister Wendy. I like her books on art and I like her books on prayer. During Lent you may remember I give up reading fiction and do some serious reading for a change. (I don’t do enough reading of theology and promise every year that I will diary in reading weeks but somehow it just never happens.) So this Lent, among other things, I’ve just finished Sister Wendy’s Real Presence : In search of the earliest icons.

To be honest, it has been a bit of a disappointment. It is not a big book and the print is huge – I didn’t need my reading specs.  There are colour pictures of all the icons she discusses but unfortunately they are not named or numbered until the very end of the book which you don’t find until it is too late. And the quality of the paper is not the best so you can see some through the pages. This book is a follow-up to Encounters with God which I haven’t read, and is all about the earliest icons of Mary. In Real Presence she continues the journey to see icons of Jesus, Mary and the Saints.  These are the icons which survived the iconoclasm of the early eighth century. Many of them are indeed damaged and missing bits here and there.  In fact there are not so many of Jesus.

But the reason it was disappointing was that there just wasn’t very much in the way of content. I just didn’t feel there was the same enthusiasm for the icons as there is for the art she appreciates.  And most of the icons were frankly quite primitive. Yes, I know they are very, very old! But I did find some lovely icons to adore.

Madonna_san_sisto The Virgin of San Sisto.

This is a really unusual icon in that it shows Mary alone. I love the sadness and sorrow of her expression, although Sister Wendy thinks it could have been Mary before the birth of Christ, a doe-eyed village maiden.  Although there is no babe in her arms they are stretched out in prayer and this icon has been venerated for centuries as an icon of healing. The hands are sometimes covered with bejewelled gloves, which seems rather a pity but there you are.


  Sinai_8th_Century_Crucifixion_IconThis incomplete Crucifixion scene from Mount Sinai is probably too small to really see but I have fallen in love with Jesus’ face here. His eyes are closed and he seems dead but he is so handsome and a man I would have followed to the ends of the earth to hear his stories. Such compassion, such love, such weakness and such strength. There are three stars in his hair which signify the crown of thorns, and from his side gushes water and blood. Mary holds a long hankie to suggest grief and the executioners are small dwarfish characters.

Sister Wendy notices that the bad thief is female with long hair and bosoms. And rather large feet it has to be said. I’m not convinced it is a woman but merely a rather overweight man. What do you think?

If you are a huge fan of icons I suspect there are better books out there which will give you more of the history and description. If you are an amateur perhaps this will whet your appetite to learn more. I’d spend your money on something a bit better.

Pippa’s Progress

Pippa's ProgressI never read Pilgrim’s Progress. I think it may have been in a box of Classics at home and I have a vague recollection that I once started it, but soon abandoned it. I may have been about 14 at this time and frankly Daphne du Maurier was much more luring then.

However, I have just finished Pippa’s Progress by Simon Parke (the columnist in the Church Times and good egg, by the sounds of it).  The blurb says:

Times have changed since John Bunyan wrote his classic Pilgrim’s Progress, telling of Pilgrim’s journey up the Hill of Difficulty and through the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City. Yet people in their millions still seek meaning in their lives and speak of journeying towards a goal. Everyone on earth seeks a heaven. This is the story of the journey of Pippa, a 21st-century Pilgrim. Simon Parke’s witty and insightful modern-day re-telling of Pilgrim’s Progress follows the original’s premise of a pilgrim’s journey to heaven, but this time through the trials and temptations of our secularised, postmodern culture. With plenty of advice and direction, not all of it helpful, from the likes of Glossy Mags, Shaw Thynge and Dee Straction, Pippa’s epic journey along the Path of Yortether includes stops at Headspin’s Hallucinatory Mental Circus, the Rock of Hidden Self, the city of Socialmeja and the village of Lower Bile.

I loved this book and fairly romped through it. However, it is one of those books that requires a more thorough study or you are in danger of missing some real gems among its pages. At some time I think I need to go through it again with a pencil this time, underlining and marking passages of note. I’m sure there’s plenty sermon material in here too. And lots of ‘Aha’ moments too.

If you are a reader of Parke’s column you will also know he has a delicious sense of humour which is also evident in Pippa’s Progress. I think this would also make a good Confirmation present – or adapted as a course perhaps?