Monday 26 October 2020

God's Study. A glimpse, through a painting, into where God does all his admin. No religions needed, just a sense of humour.

This week, we are doing art.  

During the last few months, I have been busy. Not with things that further my career and catapult me into stardom, but with pottering about rearranging my house, painting my garden furniture blue, cooking, sitting on the sofa and dreaming of shortbread, making lists and trying to remember what I used to do. I found motivation difficult, there does not seem to be much point in painting.  Oh, what the heck, I say.  Can't be bothered.

What's it all for? I ask myself.  There is no exhibition possible and no one will know if I paint a master piece or not, and I don't have much inspiration, so I'll leave the studio till later, pour myself another cup of tea and find more FBI Files on YouTube to watch.

And then, I thought, I miss my studio.  It is so full of the sights and smells of oil paints, there are so many pieces of wood primed and ready to use, the heater works, I have a comfy chair and I love the organised disorder in there.  So I went and spent an afternoon chilling back in the studio, with the rain falling outside, a scented candle mixing with the smell of oil paints and turps, and I had a great time.  I found the series of God's Life paintings I had done for my dad, had a look, remembered how much fun they were to create, and decided to write about them today.  

A while ago I painted an idea I had had for a long time.  Called "God's Study", it showed the study where God works, the idea being that he pops out for ten minutes and we all get a quick glimpse of the room.  There is so much scope to make this really amusing, with God's in tray and out tray, reference books on the desk, bills, letters, articles and leaflets advertising courses and events he may like to attend.  This first God's Study sold quite quickly, and my father asked me to do him another but to add references to his own life to all the stuff on God's desk.  Fine, I said and this became the first in series of paintings of the rooms God uses but has just left for a moment or two.  We see what his rooms look like, and all the references to his life and times.  I ended up creating a God's Study, God's Bathroom, God's Garden, God's Kitchen and a God's Schoolroom.  The study, the kitchen and the schoolroom paintings have references to my dad's life, as the paintings were his idea, and for him to keep.  Between us, despite his dementia, we had so much fun creating these.  The God we refer to in the God's Life series is the Christian God of Dad's Anglican church; he was a very devout and religious man, with a quirky and wonderful sense of humour.  Today, we are going to look at the very first of these paintings.  

God's Study

God's Study, painted for my father.  First reference to his own life is the clock hands 
at five to eleven.  This refers to his television programme in the eighties called
Five To Eleven, where famous guests read wonderful poetry. 

God has just popped out for ten minutes, and we get a look at how he works.  There is much for him to sort out on his desk.  Painted in acrylic on canvas, I have used my own office in the studio as a template.  I will take you through the details in the painting - it will help to have some knowledge of the Christian Bible, a book that my father loved very much.  

I read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and began to use this grid here.  It seems that God uses it too, the idea being to remember not to just do the urgent important things, but to do non urgent important stuff too.  God has some notes here, about not panicking, and hoovering Heaven.  Below is the book of the week, a reference to my father's great love of Dad's Army, the iconic, heart warming and wonderfully hopeless comedy series made for television and first shown in 1968.  It tells of the adventures of a band of elderly and rather eccentric British men during the second world war, as they take their duties as the Home Guard very seriously.  The book of the week here is "We're Doomed, how Dad's Army captured the zeitgeist".  "We're Doomed!" was a catch phrase of one of the characters making up the Army, a pessimistic, fatalistic character called Fraser, an elderly, tall, lugubrious Scot. Captain Mainwaring, pronounced Mannering, was the pompous, loveable, infuriatingly humourless and well meaning leader of the Dad's Army. 

I have signed the painting with my name on an envelope on the desk.  Next to the envelope is a book called Absent Fathers, is it enough to be there in Spirit?  The son of God, Jesus, was born to an unmarried virgin called Mary. God sent an angel to tell Mary that this would happen, and that Mary would marry the man she was already betrothed to, called Joseph.  And so, pregnant via the Holy Spirit, not through the normal channels, carrying the actual Son of God, Mary - a virgin - gives birth to Jesus who is raised by Joseph, his step father.  His real father is God.  The book title here is a pun on this situation.  Maybe God feels a bit guilty for not being around physically, though of course, being God, he was always around in Spirit. 

There is a leaflet advertising a course for deities, who are said to not only be divine, but a manifestation of Light.  This course is a take on the kind of courses we humans offer, only it is for God and poses a bit of a conundrum.  The course is called "Follow the Light - what if you ARE the light? Courses on Divine Problems"  Under the advert is a letter from Mother Teresa, a newly canonised saint in the Catholic Church, and someone with whom Dad worked when she was alive and he was head of religious broadcasting at the BBC. 

In God's in tray are three lists of prayers to be answered.  They fall into the categories of  For Answering, For Smiting, and For Miracles.  And of course, in the picture above, God had his tea in a mug with Boss written on it.

God has gone through the prayer list for today, and those who he can answer with advice, or guidance, or a bit of good fortune will come under the Answering list.  

Those who are cheeky, or asking for bad things, won't get a nice answer, they will be smitten, which is a way to say they will get a smack from God.

The miracles are reserved for those who have requested something very special and are probably special themselves.  These lucky supplicants will have the best outcome of all.

Here, on a shelf under the computer keyboard, is a game that God may like to play when he has some down time.  Called Spot the Atheist, it is a family game to be played with his own family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and any of the legion of angels and seraphim and cherabim rushing about in Heaven.  The tag lines on the box - Is it me?  Is it you?  Him? Her? - give us an idea that it is no easy thing to spot an atheist.  God, being a deity, knows he exists.  An atheist does not believe in any religion or divine idea, and therefore is the absolute opposite of God. This may be a fun game for God to play, because from his point of view, the atheists will have a bit of a surprise when they die and find out there is something out there.  Maybe he will get the game out for them to play, and watch them laugh at the obvious wrongness of the very idea that there isn't a God, amused to be remembering their own foolishness.  

Oh I had fun with this bit.  Here is a newspaper God was reading, with big shock headlines.  Fifth horse joins the apocalypse, it says.  The final book of the New Testament in the Bible is called the Book of Revelations.  In it, the four horsemen of the apocalypse ride over the end of times as punishments from God.  Here, in this article, a fifth horse is added to ease the workload.  A rota system of four on one off will make the whole business of being a punishment from God more efficient and less tiring.

On the next page is another shock that the Lamb of God has grown up, and is now a sheep.  The sheep says, "Sorry."

Jesus, the son of God, was also known as the Lamb of God.  A sacrificial lamb had to be unblemished and pure, and so Jesus, being also unblemished and pure, took on the symbolic title of the Lamb of God, and without sin.  In this newspaper article, the lamb of God is a separate entity and has, unfortunately grown up and is now a sheep.  This could get confusing.

The Golden Smartie is a reference to a system my father set up when he was a teacher in Liverpool, before he joined the BBC, where he taught Latin and English to boys at an independent school.  Always eccentric and very academic, Dad was given boys that were considered difficult.  He devised a weekly reward system, where on a Friday, the boy who had done best for the week was given a golden smartie.  It became wildly popular and successful, and I believe there were silver and bronze smarties too.

Behind the golden smartie is a Father's Day card, simply saying Best Dad and showing two figures in Biblical robes and beards, and both with haloes around their heads.  In Christian art, the halo is a circle of light around someone's head, to signify that they are holy.  These two are God and Jesus, God obviously being the Best Dad for Father's Day.

The Ethical Angel Bureau advertises itself here. A small deposit secures an angel, so best get onto them now.  This is a pun on secretarial agencies of the past, where a small deposit would mean the agency would send someone either temporarily or permanently, to help with the office workload.  A definition of the word "ethics" is a philosophical discipline concerned with what it morally right and wrong, good and bad.  Angels, those divine beings that do only good and live in Heaven, would have to be ethical and so this bureau has used some clever marketing in their name.  

Below this is a receipt for God to pay, for £9.99 for the polishing of the Pearly Gates.  The Pearly Gates are at the entrance to Heaven. Now they are polished, and at a very good price too.  Perhaps an Ethical Angel did it.

Three reference files here.  Martyrs, Heretics and Nutters.  

Christian history is full of Martyrs - those who died horribly for their faith, Heretics who reject the doctrine of the church or faith of the time and Nutters, who are possibly mad and have strange beliefs.  

There will always be a huge number of martyrs, heretics and nutters, God will need some guidance on how to deal with them all.

Some more books to help with the business of being God.
Virgin Births - a practical approach.  I mentioned before that Mary the mother of Jesus was a virgin and yet became pregnant and had Jesus.  This is an article of faith, very strong in the Catholic faith.  The whole idea is very difficult to get our human heads around, so this book offers a practical approach to something that is not actually practical at all.  
Smiting and Plague - a thoughtful approach.  In the first book of the Bible, the Old Testament, God sometimes shows his displeasure by using severe punishments.  A word often used in the Old Testament is "smite", to hit hard with the hand or a stick or an object in the hand.  Plagues are sent by God too, to punish disobedient tribes and nations.  This is another paradox, in that God has a book on how to do this thoughtfully.  In the Old Testament, smiting and plagues were products of rage and anger, and not likely to be too thoughtful.  This is as unlikely as a Virgin Birth.
Resurrection - a hygienic approach is the final book here.  Jesus was executed by crucifixion, but had promised to come back in three days.  This he did, and it is called the Resurrection.  It is a hugely joyful and hopeful story that is celebrated by Christians on Easter Day.  The hygienic approach is necessary because having been executed and buried for three days, any coming back could be a bit smelly.  Obviously, Jesus wasn't smelly, God had read this book.

And finally, on the wall on God's study, is the Pope of the Moment award.  The Pope is the leader on earth of the Catholic church.  He lives in the Vatican in Rome and is responsible for all the Catholics wherever they are in the world.  Pius was a popular name for a pope, there were twelve over the centuries.  Pius sounds like the word Pious, which means devoutly following a religion. 

I did jury service with a lovely nun once, who denounced much of what the lawyers were saying as pious twaddle, meaning they were talking pretentious nonsense.  I was struck by how wonderful it would be to have a pope called Pious Twaddle, and she, being a humorous and wonderful old nun, agreed.  So, with huge apologies and respect to all Catholics, here he is and what is more, he is Pope of the Moment.

Another talk for God to go to, is the How Did I Get Here event.  God is said to be without beginning and without end, and so this could be a difficult question for him when awake in the early hours of the morning.  In this lecture, on Thursday at 8pm, he will get to explore Divine Consciousness - in other words, his own consciousness.  

Phew!  Thank you for getting this far.  God is due back into his study any minute now, so we will leave it there.  I had so much fun painting this, with my lovely old Dad.  He died in June, and all of the God's Life paintings have come back to my studio. If you are up for it, I will do God's Schoolroom next. See you in two weeks and I hope you either get an answer or a miracle for your prayers, and avoid the smiting. 

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Monday 5 October 2020

Total acts of grace from the dying. Gifts from the end of life.

"Winnie." I painted this for the A Graceful Death exhibition, portraits and words from the end of life.  Here, the carer on the right is training the carer on the left to sit with Winnie, who is dying

There are, sometimes, magic moments during the dying of someone you care for.  We hear of people very near to death talking to invisible beings, telling them to wait, they are just getting ready.  There are reports of people seeing family and friends long dead, coming to visit them, and it all seems perfectly normal.  Over the last few years, I have begun to notice small but significant acts of grace during the dying of someone with whom I am, or have become, close.  I call them acts of grace but I want to call them acts of love, even though there is no proof at all that they were.  These small gifts have given me immense joy, and sometimes, I have been affected by the power of them for a long time afterwards.  Even now, recalling them, I feel my spirits lift.  Here are three of these moments of grace, these glimpses into something beyond time.

Dominic and the angels.

I painted Dom for the A Graceful Death
Exhibition. Shown here with his boule
of chemotherapy drugs that he had to carry
with him

I sat with my youngest brother all night, the day before he died.  Father Dominic, my brother, was a Catholic priest.  In his early fifties, the youngest of four of us, it seemed the natural order of things was being upended, and that he was leaving us far too soon. 

I woke in the early hours one morning, on my bed in his hospice room, remembering this deep dark time in the middle of the night had been the most difficult for Dom.  He had spoken of the difficulties the night had brought him when we talked before he arrived at the hospice.  So I went in my pyjamas to sit beside him. There was only a small light in the corner of the room, outside it was dark and silent and I prepared myself for a long wait with him.  Taking Dominic's hand in mine, I sat and watched him sleep.  He had drifted into that deep state of unconsciousness that precedes death, and I did not know where he really was.  Suddenly, I felt the room fill with joy.  I felt something change in the atmosphere around me, and I thought - there are angels here. I felt intense love, almost tangible, but invisible, swirling in the air around us and I looked around to see where this extraordinary joy was coming from.  It felt like someone was pumping pure love into the room through the air conditioning, but I knew that made no sense, and I could not work out where it was coming from.  And then, I looked at Dom and knew that he was doing this.  It is you, Dom, I said.  You are doing this!  And as the light began to change outside, and the angels, if that was what it was, were fading, Dominic took my hand in his and kissed it.  Dominic died hours later just after midday, when I had left the room for a few minutes.  But he had let me know his angels, and allowed me into his love. 

Margaret and her smile.

I loved Margaret.  I had been asked to support her for her final journey, neither of us knowing whether I would be needed for the whole of it.  As it turned out, I did stay, and Margaret in her nineties and I in my fifties then, became great friends.  She was a modest, shy, intelligent lady.  She had taught maths and music, before marrying into the church and becoming a vicar's wife and later, a mother.  Margaret was tiny.  She spoke with a strong Northern accent, and I visited her every week until near the end, when I found a way to be with her every second day.  She had no visitors but her excellent son and his wife, and me. I loved being with her, and she loved being with me.  We would tell each other we were so lucky to have met.  

Later, as Margaret drifted into the last stage of disconnection from the world, I would sit with her and keep her company.  One Sunday I had a compulsion to go and see her.  I ought not, I thought, she isn't expecting me.  But I found myself in my car driving to the home where she lived.  I really ought not, I thought as I let myself in and climbed the stairs to her room.  She lay in the bed in her little room, the sides up now, and breathed heavily and noisily.  I wondered why I had needed to come, but I sat down anyway and told her I was here, and that all was well.

Nothing happened, so after a while I prepared to leave.  Saying goodbye, I stopped at the door and I do not know what made me go back to see her again.  Leaning over the sides of  her bed to say a proper goodbye, her tiny head with white hair on the pillow, mouth open, and breath coming noisily and sharp from her throat, I told her that she was my dearest friend.  And then, Margaret opened her eyes, and looking into mine gave me the most beautiful smile that I have ever seen.  The smile filled me with joy, with love, and with utter astonishment.  It seemed to radiate light and I remember laughing and saying out loud that all was fine, it is all OK now, I know she is fine and I am so so so happy!  I was so happy.  I was elated.  It was the most wonderful gift.  I laughed all the rest of that day, and into the next.  The next day she died, and when I went to see her for the last time, I put fresh lavender on her pillow and thanked her, still laughing for joy.  Her final gift of grace had been to show me a glimpse of Heaven in a smile that shone with light and love. 

Anne and the look.

I painted this of Anne last year, requested by my cousin
Jemima, before Anne became ill.  Since this photo was taken,
I have painted forget-me-not flowers in Anne's hands.

A few days ago, my Aunt Anne died.  The last of my mother's sisters to go, it is the end of an era.  Anne, her sisters Maureen (my mother), and Kit, looked more and more like each other as they grew older.  Anne had begun to look so like my mother that I took huge comfort from it, and though they were very different in character, my mother and Kit and Anne shared such a history.  My Aunt Anne was precious to us all, the youngest of the sisters, they had had four brothers and now, after Anne's death, there are only two brothers left.  Five of the seven siblings have gone.

I visited my aunt twice during her final weeks.  She was lovingly cared for by two of her own six children, and wanted for nothing. I did not know Anne as well as I had known my mother and Kit.  I wanted to know something of the real person before she died, and so I went to see her and my cousins Maddy and Min.  I sat alone with Anne for a little while on the second visit, talking about her life, longing to know her more and understanding that perhaps, I could not.  There was a silence, Anne was looking down at her hands resting in front of her as she lay propped up in her bed.  Then she looked up and into my eyes and the power of the look was like an electric charge.  For a few seconds she shared something so deep and profound, so wonderful and so personal, that my only thought was that she was seeing me.  She was seeing my soul, she was completely and utterly seeing me.  I felt understood, affirmed, reassured.  So instead of my understanding Anne before she died, Anne understood me. It left me full of peace and awe, and I knew it was her goodbye.  There was nothing more for me to do, no more visits needed, Anne had seen into my soul, and had send me away with love.  She died a week or so later.  

What does it all mean?

This, I do not know.  The experiences are simply that, experiences and leave no physical proof behind that they occurred.  Because they happened to me and no one else - except the dying person who then died and cannot be asked about it - there is only my word for it. I am speaking of my own experiences, setting them in context and describing the effect they had on me.

Here is where they become meaningful.  These experiences were not expected.  They were surrounded by powerful feelings of love and connection that did not come from me.  If I am able to create these experiences myself, I am a very lucky person and wish I knew how I did it.  In the moment of each one of the above accounts I was, for a short while, beyond myself.  It was like a light exploding in my mind and heart, there was connection beyond my five senses and there was an understanding of it being absolutely, and perfectly, for me.  I did not understand these experiences so much as feel them and know them.  I knew what they were as they happened. My response to each was joy, tears, gratitude, laughter.  I did not question them, worry about them, analyse them, or dismiss them.  Each experience was so wonderful, I left knowing everything was perfect.  With two of them, Margaret and Anne, I did not need to go back to see them again.  They were on their way and did not need me, and made it clear that what they were doing, where they were going, was far beyond me and my small offerings here.  I was given a glimpse of perfect love and perfect understanding, and allowed to go on my way.  They then went on their way, and died.  I like to think they were surrounded constantly by the love, connection and joy that they allowed me to experience in the teeniest of ways in a microcosm of a second, and that that is what is awaiting us all. 

With thanks to my dear friend Claire for the Angels Gather Here sign.

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