Matter into Spirit, Spirit into Matter – A Homage to Mary Sumner

sumner_doggardenThis year, on New Year’s day my partner and I went for a walk along the front in Brighton. Our meandering wanderings took us into a delightful shop strategically located on the front – part art gallery, part arty-farty shop called Castor and Pollux. As we rootled through the beautiful pictures I came across a print of a painting that spoke to me, and captured my heart, it was called ‘The Dog in the Garden’. It was the most loving, clever painting I had looked at for many, many years. It was entrancing – the hedge was so hedgy, the birds so birdy-like and the dog so sweetly doggish. The creator of this painting had learned to capture the spirit of nature — the cultivated nature of this land. I wanted to buy the print, but it was a bit beyond my price capability so soon after Christmas, but I was captivated.

Afterwards we wandered into the Grand Hotel for tea, and no sooner had we sat down, I googled the artist’s name – Mary Sumner – and was completely blown away by the images that came up. Here was an artist who understood the allure of English gardens, allotments, landscapes, countryside and also animals and birds; she was massively competent technically, and utterly inspired creatively. sumner_watersideplantsAbout a month after this happened, we were booked into a hotel in Cornwall for a few days, and bearing in mind that Mary Sumner lived in Tiverton in Mid Devon, I decided to contact her in the hope that perhaps we could meet and talk about commissioning a painting. But Mary was elusive. She didn’t respond to her emails, and I couldn’t find her phone number. Urged on by the family, I rang an art gallery close to where she lived, and somebody answered the phone in a sort of friendly way. I asked if this was the Gallery, and he said ‘no’, and I said ‘what a shame, I’m looking for the work of a particular painter’, and the friendly voice at the end of the phone asked which artist, and I replied ‘Mary Sumner’, and the voice said ‘well you’ve come to the right place’. windy-day-at-stives-150In a strange twist of fate, I had rung Mary’s home number, and her husband, John, had answered. And so we went to visit their magical house in Tiverton, on the way back from Cornwall.

And meeting these two lovely people was one of those strange things, because it was as if we had all known each other for ages. And as we looked at Mary’s prints and talked about the exhibition she was currently working on in Southwold, she merrily explained that just about all her work was sold before it had even been shipped… but we still commissioned one of her great paintings. I said in passing ‘you know how I can afford to buy your amazing work… I’m an interfaith minister and I make my money doing funerals,’ and equally casually Mary replied, ‘that’s useful, I’ve been looking for somebody to do mine.’sumner_allotment

Despite her cheerful reply, Mary was dying, but it was difficult to believe, she had such a powerful personality, such a massive hold on life, such a passionate commitment to her implausibly beautiful work. Afterwards we stayed in touch, but we never saw Mary again. We communicated very regularly – my partner supported her in a number of ways, and I sent her recorded meditations to help her relax and also deal with the chemotherapy. She responded by sending us some utterly exquisite prints.

images-1The circumstances of our meeting were so curious, and so mysterious. It is this kind of magic serendipity that obliges me to point out where and what I think Mary may well be up to now; by my reckoning she is appreciating that being in another dimension is even more astonishing and beautiful than being in this one.


It is work like Mary’s that reminds me of the power of spirit over matter. For me, the most compelling aspect of Mary’s work was her ability to capture the ‘spirit’ of animals, birds and scenery. Shortly after she died in June, we took a journey in the car into the country, and I found myself marvelling at her ability to capture the very essence of wood pigeons and finches, poppies and thistles, and many other life forms.

imagesI have a real passion for Vaughan Williams’s melodic depictions of English countryside, and I realise he used music, because thoughts and emotions can be better and more meaningfully conveyed as sound, wonderful sound. Mary Sumner did something very similar – she understood and expressed the soul of nature through her work, painting the very spirit of English countryside in a way that would never be achieved in words. If I could toast you now Mary I would; this blog is the nearest I can get to raising a glass to your prodigious talent. Here’s to you, Mary. We love you, we love your work.



Mary Sumner 1957 to 2016



A Priest in Brighton

Every now and again things happen that make me think “Yes, I am a real priest now… Yippee!” …But the things that trigger such thoughts can be slightly nonsensical. Once I was asked to represent all the Interfaith Ministers of Sussex, by doing a reading at a large public service. In that moment I felt that I was a real minister, and had finally arrived, even though it just involved saying a few words into a microphone and then standing beside the local archbishop, who behaved as if I was invisible, while the expression on his face looked as if I had let off a bad smell.IMG_1666 The trouble is, it’s ego stuff that trip those moments of super-self-belief. Let’s face it, ego stuff is proof of nothing other than the need to be patted on the head, to be told that one’s “a good little girl”… because I haven’t progressed greatly (in some departments) much beyond the age of five.

Kings, Cambridge

Kings, Cambridge

I won’t deny the pleasure that such ego trips can provide, particularly if I know that what I did gave pleasure or inspired others. The other day I received a phone call from a young woman who was the Human Anatomy Technical Coordinator of Cambridge University. She asked if she could use my reading – And Rest – for their forthcoming service at Great St Mary’s for the friends and families of donors to the University. This really moved me, because it’s a short, good reading that says a lot about the nature of death, and how it affects us. If I was ever brave enough to take some of the readings from Funerals Today to a publisher, this might be a favourite.

Recently something quite different happened that reminded me of my role as a priest. A funeral director asked me to do a funeral for a lovely woman who had died in her 50s. Her daughter and mother were grief stricken – it was very sad. She had been a nurse, and was clearly a very lovely woman. He elderly mother was a devout Catholic but she and her daughter were not religious in the traditional sense – but believed in life after death. The daughter and I spent a long time finding the right readings, and two of the readings from The Bible were agreed— but then to her surprise her grandmother showed no interest in The Bible readings, so she wanted them removed from the service. I really didn’t want to take out Corinthians 13, 1-3, because the deceased clearly understood what love was about. Then the daughter’s best friend, who happened to be there, supported me saying “that was the reading I had at my wedding, it is so beautiful, you must have it,” so we left it in. A day or two ago I got a text from the daughter. Going through her mother’s things she had found a beautiful copy of the Corinthians reading, in colour, beautifully presented; she wrote back to me with gracious thanks… “it was so right.”

Corinthians 13, Verses 1 to 3.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but haven’t love… then I have become just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… an annoying distraction. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all the mysteries, and have all knowledge; and if I have all the faith needed to move mountains, but don’t have love, I’m nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it does me no good at all. Love endures with patience and serenity, love is kind and thoughtful, and it’s not jealous or envious; love doesn’t brag and is not proud or arrogant. Love isn’t rude; it’s not self-seeking, it’s not provoked, nor is it over sensitive and easily angered; it doesn’t take into account a wrong endured. It doesn’t rejoice at injustice, but it does rejoice with the truth.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.

Love never fails.. it never fades nor ends. But as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for the gift of special knowledge, it will pass away; for we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is complete and perfect arrives, that which is incomplete and partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I did away with childish things. For now we see life like a blurred reflection in a mirror, as if everything is a riddle, or a mystery, but then when the time of perfection comes – we will see reality face to face.

What I know now is in fragments, but what I will come to know will be complete, just as I have been fully known all my life, by God. And now there remains: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of all of these is love.


Now Let Us Sing! The Interfaith Choir Sings Out…

Hallo there. It’s time you joined the choir. It’s blooming brilliant. Trouble is, not all of you lovely people reside here in Brighton and Hove… but even if you don’t live here, please carry us in your hearts, and wish us a great future, for the Interfaith Choir is a thing of beauty that defies the odds and goes on and on, sounding better and better, even when we find ourselves in situations where we amount to little more than a handful of very enthusiastic singers.

The Choir at the Annual Service. Photo by Sarah West.

The Choir at the Annual Service. Photo by Sarah West.

The Interfaith Choir of Brighton and Hove first popped up a couple of years back when Interfaith Contact Group executive Charlotte Gravestock decided to ask the interfaith minister and musician Razia Aziz if she would  help start up a choir for the annual interfaith service in November. And so Razia did, and in doing so she called on the power and glory of the famed choir-master Judith Silver… and so it came to be that the twin choir-masters of the Interfaith Choir are members of the the Islamic and Jewish communities respectively, and I cannot think of anything more beautiful or inspirational than that; the two are so massively gifted, it’s hardly surprising the choir is so very special.

The problem was the choir masters needed to be paid, and this began to present problems as funding money dwindled away. Judith doesn’t even live in Brighton and is a choirmaster by profession, and Razia is a professional musician, so when the grant ran out, it seemed that the choir might fail. But, no, this was not to be. Taking reduced fees, and sometimes even working for nothing our leaders have continued to support us with heartfelt enthusiasm. Meanwhile the choir has done something pretty wondrous in its own right. It has taken responsibility for its own rehearsals and practice, with different members of the choir leading, and in some cases, we have reaped the benefit of a gifted musician from within our own ranks, like Laura Hopper, who is already an acclaimed solo performer, with her partner Jason. On Saturday the Choir sang at the opening ceremony of the Horsham Circle of Life Festival. The weekend was a public holiday weekend – the Saturday before May bank holiday.

The Choir in Horsham, led by Rev Razia Aziz

The Choir in Horsham, led by Rev Razia Aziz

More than two thirds of the choir had long standing family commitments which left us with just six singers for the occasion. As we sang in Horsham, I realised that we are now far more accomplished than we started out with around 18 to 20 singers over two years ago, gathered together for the interfaith service. Some wonderful new members have joined, and they are destined to make us even stronger, and also people have dropped out, thinking that we would never be up to the mark, while others just found the commitment too much. But today, with a core of very special and enthusiastic singers representing people from the Quaker, Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Pagan, Interfaith and Atheist communities of our City, we have the joy of sharing a sentiment that is beautiful and inspiring both for ourselves and those we sing to. The choir rules OK, and not only does it rule for us, those listening realise the significance of what it represents; it’s about the authentic spirit of love and harmony.

Laura leads us, and Razia looks on sweetly as we all chime in mellifluously

Laura leads us, and Razia looks on sweetly as we all chime in mellifluously


Welcome to the Wonderful Weird Wired World of the Unexpected

Unknown-3I have made a discovery. Life is not easy if one clings on to expectations. It is so much easier to wander around in a cloud of bemused jollity, expecting almost nothing other than to have a jolly time, or a serious time, or a thoughtful time… but a good time.

I learned about the pleasantness of having no expectations when I started to do funerals in quantity. As I got better at it, and focused on the crucial bits that make people feel better and more connected, things happened. Families would send me lovely ‘thank you’ cards, and sometimes even flowers and plants. It came as a massive surprise that families and friends of people that had died were able to find the time to be gracious and say ‘thank you’. It continues to be a surprise, no matter how often it happens.

Other surprises just shouldn’t be surprises. The physical changes that happen as one gets older. I find myself looking in the mirror thinking “Blimey, that person in the mirror looks exactly like my dad… or my granny… hang on a sec… Oh No! It’s me!”

A lack of expectation is so freeing. A week ago I went to my 90-year-old cousin’s birthday party with absolutely no expectation whatsoever. She is a grand old lady, who has got an impressive gong (Member of the British Empire, methinks) for services to bibliographic conservation. She is remarkable – but I had no expectation of how her party would be; in fact, it was wonderful, and it was one of three, because her social circle is so vast that she had to have three celebrations to accommodate us all. It was a brilliant occasion, one of the best parties I have been to in years – so unexpected. And yet when I think of my mother’s 90th, it seemed as if all her contemporaries had just drifted away, and only a tiny handful of friends were left. Clearly one cannot make comparisons, and one cannot have expectations, either.

The Crest of Brighton & Hove's Mayor

The Crest of Brighton & Hove’s Mayor

The most unexpected thing to happen to me of late is that I have been appointed Chaplain to the Mayor of Brighton and Hove. I am still surprised and overwhelmed by what it involves, and what it means, but as soon as I was told, it seemed that the job began. It’s an honorary title, but this is immaterial – with 27 different charities covering everything from food recycling to cycling, from housing to environmental conservation, from bereavement to hearing loss, this task, serving the spiritual needs of the mayor and those he supports is an honour, and also an education of the highest order. And now for something completely different… I am looking at the page that this blogetty blog appears on, and I notice that it is out of date. The Brighton wheel has gone. It was a thing of beauty. We are stuck with a giant and pointless pointed stick instead. Everybody I know does not feel affection towards it… not in the way we loved the wheel. Can the pointed stick (called the I360) win us over? I have few or no expectations.

The I360 Pointed Stick of Brighton

The I360 Pointed Stick of Brighton



What has the Dalai Lama got to do with the address
I did in the Unitarian Church yesterday? 

Connection is in us and around us, from the moment we are born. From the moment the chord is cut at birth, to the moment when we fight to breathe in the air of the world we enter, we seek connection. And our search for connection and its opposing companion (detachment) continues throughout our lives, with our families, our friends, with ideas, plans, ourselves… we constantly seek connection. images Unknown-2






This morning we relived our birth, and our lives, in a metaphoric sense. We woke from sleep and set out, after a while, to go to a place of connection, this amazing church. It is no coincidence that the church is historically referred to as ‘Mother Church’ and has done so for hundreds of years. It’s because (very simply) it offers nourishment and protection in the spiritual sense. In reality everybody has their own reason as to why they come to church, some want to see their friends, other long to hear words of wisdom… and other recognise that this astonishing and beautiful place is a source of spiritual inspiration and sustenance, and it is worth repeating the pattern of visitation in order to benefit spiritually, and of course physically and mentally. So we come here to connect… with ourselves.

It must be said, that one feels very comfortable in this space. It is massively civilised. It’s one of the most beautiful churches is Brighton, and one of the most enlightened. You may be Christian, but equally you don’t need to believe in anything much to come here on a Sunday and get the benefits of this place… spiritually and mystically…. And apart from coming to church… the building itself is extremely special. It has classical proportions. One might say it has more in common with a flower than a church, because it embodies divine proportions, and it’s much more a temple than a church in many ways… and being an echo of something so ancient, by virtue of the light, and the sensation of familiarity, its defining shape goes back a lot longer than the actual age of anybody here, so it gives us a powerful sense of familiarity, and this sense of familiarity goes hand-in-hand with a feeling of connection, connection that goes back hundreds of years… to the temples 6th or 7th Century BC… This is the home of the soul, and the connection of the soul with things ancient is an entirely natural, and dare I say it, organic and poetic process.

And the feeling of connection doesn’t just apply to this wonderful church, this feeling of connection also exists in this City. I have spent time in a number of places in England France and Italy, and been here 25 years, but never have I come across a place where people have such a strong sense of belonging as Brighton. Version 2One may be standing anywhere, and a great personality dressed in the most outrageous outfit, a feather or two plaited through the hair, green and gold make-up, a weird earring or five, plus a purple sari and matching beard will happily drift past us, and rather than saying, ‘Dear me how shocking’, we of Brighton and Hove tend to say, ‘Ooh er, what fun… only here, only here… and  doesn’t he or she look great?’ and in some kind of affectionate way we feel comfortable and flattered that an outrageous purple clad person feels OK and safe here, and we feel OK and safe here too, because we all belong here. Belonging is very much about acceptance of ourselves… and others… and I will be putting on my feathers and revealing my beard after this service.

I think it is this sense of belonging that makes us actually want to thank the bus driver when we get off the bus. We feel grateful to be here… Whether we were born here or arrived in Miss Prism’s bag, or came by train or car… whatever… We feel connected… and rightly so.

But connection goes much further than a place of choice. How many of us have had friends, or maybe even lovers who came into our lives and we simply don’t know why, and these people, these forces of nature… were connected to us by virtue of their total difference with our own world view, their stultifying meanness, their mind-bogglingly anti-social behaviour, maybe their mystical superiority and beauty, or their sheer gruesomeness, whatever it was we all have friends or lovers who are distinctive by their difference… and yet there is connection. Connection is inexplicable and yet it is always there.

And then… how many times have we made connections, meeting (seemingly by chance) with people we know in circumstances that defy explanation, chance meetings in inexplicable places, love at first sight, encounters in far off lands, and not just finding a very particular person but meeting them at the apposite time, when we needed them or they needed us, or better still, when we were both thinking about each other.

But I do have to say, here is one anecdote, about this very address I am now giving… that happened last weekend, when I was walking back from the allotment with my sister in law; it was one one of the conversations when two people are sort of listening and not listening to each other simultaneously (it’s a family speciality I think), and I said aloud “I think I’ll write that address on Sunday about connection”, and Eileen (my sister in law) replied saying, “Do you know… we are just walking past the house of that woman who came to see me 18 months ago to talk about historical costumes and she never came back to me, I don’t know what I did to annoy her, perhaps it was political…” and when we got home, Eileen opened up her email, and behold there was a message from the self-same woman who had apparently avoided her. And this email started off with an apology for not getting in touch before, asking if could she do an article about Eileen’s company.” And I thought, “Oh hell! I’m going to have to write about connection now, whether I want to, or not.” This little incident is just another reminder of how powerful connections between people are, and the world likes to have a joke at our expense.

We have connections with so many things. Places, objects, good memories, bad memories, animals, pets, recipes, tastes, smells and people, soul brothers and sisters. The brain makes wonderful and clever connections, that sometimes are relevant, and sometimes completely inexplicable, but isn’t surprising… there are at least 100 trillion neural connections or synapses in the human brain, at least 1,000 times the number of stars in our galaxy. It’s a lot, and to this effect, our powers of connection should be cosmic… and I think they are.

Connections help us. They can come in the form of angels that save our lives, or the lives of our children, as well as helping us write books. Arthur Koestler invented The Library Angel, and here I quote Larry Dossey in his brilliant treatise entitled ‘One Mind’ about the ultimate connection, which I highly recommend.

Here’s what Larry Dossey says: “After reading scores of reports in which a book, magazine, article or quotation suddenly presents itself at a moment of need, Koestler said that ‘One is tempted to think of library angels in charge of providing cross-references…’” and then both Dossey and Koestler relate a number of anecdotes about research exercises of seeming impossibility where books have been selected in desperation and at random, and proved to be precisely the one needed, materialising quite inexplicably. In one case the story tells of a much needed volume that actually dropped off the shelf and fell open on the right page. I myself happened to be the owner of a particularly obscure and ancient volume on animal behaviour, which was thrown at me by a drunken friend one drunken night for no reason. I kept this tedious and ancient little paperback and it later turned out (25 years later) to be the missing link in my sister’s opus magnus on Virginia Woolf.

But perhaps the most baffling connections and senses of longing and belonging come from those that are no longer with us. The much loved dead and departed. The connections with those souls that lead us to find objects at very particular moments, as well as our own mysterious capacity to see and hear people that we haven’t encountered for decades sometimes before the very moment of death itself, and sometimes enabling us to avert death as well.  It looks very much as though our capacity to make connections can transcend time and life and space.

And last but by no means least, we must appreciate that this desire to belong, to connect is a fundamentally human drive that will carry entire nations to seek safety and sanctuary…and… almost all of us carry genes that bear witness to our antecedents’ journeys in search for places to belong and survive. It is so sad that this journey to a place we want to call home or sanctuary can be so precarious, and the welcome we may receive at the other end may seem so lacking in compassion. So many people in this country are just unable to understand that there is a story, somewhere far back in their own history, and in our own genetic makeup, be it Viking, Latin, Roman or Semetic that mirrors the very dispersion and struggles of people today, fleeing war, poverty and the hazards created by environmental degradation. We make connections, it is true, but sadly not always in connection with the judgements that enable us all to understand the sense of longing and belonging so passionately experienced and needed by our fellow souls.

And all this takes me back to where we began, the very much shorter journey we all made to this place of inspiration and love today… a journey to make a connection with our spiritual selves…and I will close with a few apt words from The 14th Dalai Lama:

‘Our Ancient Experience confirms at every point that everything is linked together, everything is inseparable.’220px-Dalailama1_20121014_4639





How Can an AGM be Beautiful? It Can…

UnknownOn Sunday 13th at 2.30 pm at the Friends Meeting House a very special and wonderful event will take place. It’s the Annual General Meeting of the Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove, a 20 year old organisation that proves that people of fundamentally different faiths, and none, can get together and talk, listen, have fun and harmonise, creating beautiful moments of spiritual brilliance and understanding, just by being together, respecting each other, and enjoying each others difference.

This Sunday we will be holding a discussion on the power of change through faith. We have invited four speakers from the Unitarian, Muslim, Buddhist and Pagan communities to tell us how arriving at their faith changed their lives, and the lives of those around them. Everybody will be invited to join in with the discussion. Before and between the business of the AGM, and the open discussion, we will be celebrating interfaith in harmony, with our wonderful Interfaith Choir. 22653811549_05bc1b5797_k23020133946_7e034478ed_kThe IFCG has the ability, with its small committee, to generate unusual events where people of different religions and none come together and celebrate in the most special way. After the AGM on Sunday, March 13th, the IFCG will continue to develop its interfaith choir. Other planned events include an interfaith concert in July, and a conference event in late September, called ‘Visions of Eternity’, when we will be inviting different faiths to explain and discuss their perception of life after death, or the discarnate state. In interfaith week we will hold our annual interfaith service at the newly built Progressive Synagogue in Hove.

If you are interested in The Interfaith Contact Group and its activities, please contact me… it’s time to bring about change through harmony.

For the Love of Animals

imagesI recently had to do a funeral for somebody who was deeply private, but one of the few things I discovered about him was his love for animals… so I went in search of a reading about animals, and came across these lovely words by Meister Eckhart which begin “If I were alone in the desert” … and with a bow and a flourish to the mystic who penned this exquisite thought 700 years ago, I have written a variation on his theme. I hope you like it:

If I Were Alone in the Desert
with thanks to Meister Eckhart

If I were alone in the desert
And feeling afraid
I would take an animal with me
Then my fear would fade
For that living spirit
Would be by my side
And make me strong
And the fear of loneliness
Deep, dark loneliness
Could never take hold

If I were alone in the wilderness
I’d take a dog with me
And we’d trot side by side
Through the windswept sands
The stony hills and the empty lands
Courage and resolve
Would be our companions
For the unspoken
Is the language
Of true friends

If I were a wanderer
In the chaos
Of man-made disorder
In a devastated city
I would walk with my cat
And my cat would walk with me
We’d have no fear
For our loving friendship
Would carry us through
Streets of desolation
Memories of sorrow

And… If I meandered gently
Through a flowered meadow
I’d choose to have
A friendly bird on my shoulder
So we could share
The joy of life
The beauty of harmony
The mystery of death
And the perfection of eternity


Music and the Soul

I am not sure about what the soul is, so I begin with a definition. Apparently the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being regarded as immortal”…. But there is another definition, and this is different and yet completely compatible and it is “emotional or intellectual energy, as revealed in a work of art or artistic performance.”

UnknownMusic creates a direct route to the soul, because there is no great need for words, and we are lumbered with thinking in words. Words may form part of the mix, but when one listens to somebody like Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, you realise that the words she’s singing are just part of the experience, so a song like “I’m in Love” which is both wistful and optimistic, has a zillion things going for it, in terms of soul, and taking one to a place of the soul.The Queen of Soul is producing a sound of massive richness…. which starts with her stupendous technique… that’s to say her internal knowledge of knowing exactly what note she wants to hit (she must have perfect pitch) plus there is the emotional quality of her voice, which is something of her own, but it’s also born out of her history within the Afro American community (generations and generations here) her history as a gospel singer from childhood, coupled with her intention to express emotion at the deepest level… So a lot of depth, technique, creativity and intention are all going into one song lasting just 2mins 51 seconds… providing a direct path to the soul. Most importantly perhaps, she is using her voice as much as a musical instrument as anything – she is after all, an accomplished pianist.

A lot of great art resonates with the soul, but I believe that music does it most immediately because of the time element. Music moves as we are moved.

Recently, it was drawn to my attention, that there is this wonderful research going on with people who have dementia and other mental problems who immediately reconnect with the world through music. They respond to music, when words won’t do, and I’ve come across this in life, first hand. Music is a very, very high way to connect to the higher self, when it resonates with us…

I think one connects with the soul through music very much on the principle of treating like with like, like homeopathy. So when one is very sad, or low, the best music to connect with seems to be things like Leonard Cohen, weepy Puccini, or you may wish to be deeply miserable to Barber’s Adagio, the most depressing piece of music in the world …

We are all unique, the preferred music that speaks to our soul will be always differ from person to person, so, in the hour of powerful emotions what may be achieved by Elgar or Bach say, can equally be achieved by Dusty Springfield, Eric Clapton, John Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans or my wonderful friend, Tom Kirkpatrick… in other words one man’s Lady Gaga is another man’s Joan Sutherland, and that’s what makes music so divine, its uniqueness and our own sacred singularity. UnknownAs I mentioned before… we ‘think’ in words, but music reveals that we can ‘think and feel’ without any need for language. Just listen to Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on A Theme by Thomas Tallis” and meditate on the idea of fracking being carried out on The South Downs, and then… tell me what you feel; I would be really interested to know. I tried this one out while I was writing this, and it affected me physically and mentally, to great effect. Words are not needed.

The power of music to move us is exquisite and mystical. It is for this reason I’ve had to collect music all my life from Ambient to Dance, Classical, Easy Listening, (forsooth) Electronic, Folk, Film Music, Gospel and Religious, Jazz, Latin, New Age, Rhythm & Blues, rock and pop, World music and even sound effects – twittering birdsong, wind, sea and watery noises to name but a few. I believe that all of this harmony, in all its beautiful variations provides doorways to the soul that are heavenly.

When we listen to music we are often most closely connected to our true selves, our immortal selves. It’s like the time when we were babies, and we thought and felt without understanding language. And there’s another very valid reason for accepting music as a pure way of thinking and feeling. When people are close to death, and have near death experiences and out of body episodes, we are told that they don’t need language to communicate – but they do hear music – heavenly music… and this is important, so important… and quite lovely.



A Traveller in Time: the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Ferrara


Street Art in Ferrara

There is something so exquisite about being familiar with a place far from home. I’ve been visiting Italy, the Emilia Romagna and the City of Ferrara for over 30 years and always find it enchanting and inspirational – a landmark in my life like no other. I just came back nine days ago and I’m still there in heart and part.P1010510 Italy has a true sense of its glorious past; it’s all there in its language, its architecture, its food, art and music. In the split second that I stepped off the plane and got that massive hit of white, sunny heat, and the perfume of the dust, I stepped into that place of timelessness that prevails. History is an issue of massive pride to the Italians. It affects the images on their predominantly crummy TV programmes, it’s part of their cities, and its spun into the very fabric of Valentino’s designs – it is here, there and everywhere, in sights both sophisticated and unexpectedly vulgar. This powerful language of the past affects everything Italian. Ferrara is beautiful and old. It is embraced by six miles of five hundred year old ancient walls; it is dominated by an elegant castle, a great Cathedral, fine streets, many ‘palazzos’ and lots of lovely shops, although sadly an increasing number are cloned.P1030096


Ferrara’s Museum of Archeology

This month I was treated to a trip in time like no other. On the day when Ferrara’s Museum of Archeology (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Ferrara) was closed, I was taken round the Palazzo Costabili, which houses the museum, and would be an astonishing building on its own, but is made even more extraordinary by the artifacts it holds. My guide was none other than the director of the museum, Dr Caterina Cornelio who generously revealed this fabulous museum with justifiable pride. Most of the exhibits come from Spina, an Etruscan trading port on the Adriatic, South of Venice that was doing its thing around the 6th Century BC. Being a trading City it was rich and busy and full of the stuff of life – jewellery, pottery and the bits and pieces we all need and use, some of which were local but a great quantity were imported from Greece.

There are always some very particular images and impressions that stay in the mind of a ‘traveller in time’; one was the two giant ‘pirogues’ – dug-out canoes that are thought to be late Roman (3rd C AD). They are simply two vast trees that have been carefully scooped out to hold people and stuff.

Piroghe-1In the room where they are displayed, one can almost imagine them in their place of birth and use, slowly making their way thought the muddy waters of a reedy canal. The museum brought so many of its exhibits to life – a wonderful showcase of pottery, full of light and animation, revealing the joie de vivre of the artists and the people of the time, the necropolis displaying greatly differences in lives and deaths. Other delights included some fabulous gold jewellery, and just a lovely ‘touch’ – a space to chill out where visitors to the museum can touch and examine exhibits with their hands. This is a museum that brings the past ‘up close’ in every way.

I wish (in this country) we could emulate that loving way that history seems to be eaten, worn, lived and breathed by the Italians. Yes we have our museums, but our history is not a great source of pride, apart from our TV dramas. I close with two quotes that just remind me of the massive importance of the past… If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree… according to Michael Crichton… Study the past if you want to define the future… Confucius.

Ceiling painting in the Palazzo Constabili

Ceiling painting in the Palazzo Costabili



Creating a Funeral – A Journey into an Unknown Land – without Front or Back

Many of us die without any kind of ritual or funeral. Those unfortunate enough to die far from home, victim to the cruelties or vagaries of man or nature may be deprived of a ceremony of departure, but more usually humans need to mark the place and time of the death of a beloved, whether they are just one day old, or 100 years. Our history, as a species carrying out rituals celebrating the end of human life through ceremony, can be charted as far back as 60,000 years before the birth of Christ, which puts many of our existing faiths in an interesting and modest place on the map of world history… P1030269

There is a move to celebrate death in a new and more creative way, focused on the sacredness of the departed. For people wanting to do things this way the established faiths don’t always deliver.  Yet free-flowing creative funerals are still encumbered by the way we’ve done them in the past… and it’s true to say just about any kind of ritual needs a beginning, middle and an end. The problem with these new kinds of funeral is that the tools — the readings, the words and the music that support the component parts of this three part structure, are not always there. When I started writing readings for funerals I didn’t realise that although I was creating ideas about unique people and circumstances of death, I was just writing content for the middle part of the funeral –

Now I am working on the beginning and the end readings, because it is so hard to find those bits, in fact near impossible. I have two obvious openings, one that was never intended for funerals, but has been used many times called Open the Heart, but it’s not suitable in some situations, so I wrote another, called The Moment of Opening.

P1030420It’s the closing words to the funeral that present a real problem. For those happy with tradition, The Lord’s Prayer is beautiful, but lots of people no longer resonate with biblical readings. For years now I’ve been using the Celtic Blessing (at the bottom of this page) but for some that doesn’t work either; it’s “the Son of Peace” and “God holding you in the hollow of His hand” that is just too much for some of us. So I change the words, but it still doesn’t always work. So I have set myself the tricky task of writing something that will bring spiritual and poetic closure to the service. Trouble is, the Celtic Blessing is hard to beat for sheer beauty and brilliance.  There is a nice musical version called The Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter, which shows that it’s possible to churn out authentic sacred music in the 21st Century, although it must be said, these words have astonishing power when spoken aloud.

Celtic Blessing

Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
May the rains fall softly upon your fields
Until we meet again…
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand