Contemplative TV?

The Retreat

Like many I have been a bit obsessed with this wonderful series on BBC4 – The Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery. The series has three episodes which record daily life at three Benedictine monasteries, Downside in Somerset, Belmont in Herefordshire and Pluscarden in a remote area of Moray, Scotland. Each episode shows ordinary activities unfolding, mostly in silence with the only spoken word being within worship or for practical necessity. Sentences explaining the Rule of St Benedict and quotes from it are offered on-screen. Individual brothers who have particular and traditional skills are filmed taking time and care in their activities – icon writing, bee-keeping, bread making, sewing and skilled wood craft are offered to the viewers. In one of the episodes a picture builds with one brother clipping the hedge, Brother Alex from Peru sitting on a bench drawing the face of Christ and another brother throwing a ball for the community’s dog adding a playful and human element into the tableau.

The series is slow but never dull. The lack of words means that views hear the birds, the toll of the bells, the beautiful rhythm of a life lived as work, prayer, study and hospitality intertwine.  One could imagine a Dutch still life painter like Vermeer focusing in on one of the monks and their work. The camera focuses on what the brothers must see themselves, the beauty of a rusted gate, the frost on the lawn in the winter, the security of a holy place prayed in for many years where a common understanding of God and humanity is shared. The pace is unhurried, and for many who seek purely entertainment from television this would kind of filming might seem immensely boring. I experienced it as calming, meditative, and strangely compelling, inviting me into a way of life I could only ever flirt with as its visual prayer unfolded on the screen.

Since this series I have watched other programmes which, although distinctively different, have this contemplative element within them. Blue Planet 2 might be one, a series breaking new ground in terms of the discoveries and amazements of the ocean and its depths. Another was the life of a garden, filmed over a year using time-lapse cameras and showing the incredible cycle of life, growth, abundance and decay. Much of this filming was, ironically, speeded up to show seasonal transitions.. Yet the vibrancy and mysterious energy behind these, for me, demonstrated clearly the immanence as well as the transcendence of a power at the heart of the universe.

Until now, I have never thought of watching TV as a particularly contemplative activity. Perhaps a reflective one but I have never thought of it as a media which stills the mind and soul particularly. These series then break now ground, opening viewers to the possibility of slowing down, contemplating, reflecting, entering a new world which shows us something of the wonder and quietness of God





I have LOVED this series and have felt really inspired to reflect on its presentation of what being a good priest actually means in  a complicated and broken world.

Father Michael Kerrigan embodies the three-fold nature of ministry in terms of who he is, what he does and what he represents as a Catholic priest.

Firstly, he is a person of immense and stunning integrity – he seems always to be naturally himself, never inhabiting that sanctimonious and cloying clerical persona that clergy so often put on or mysteriously become, perhaps protecting their inner core as they do so. But Michael never wears a mask, instead he is unashamedly honest about his frailties, his vulnerability and his scars, and yet he rarely allows these to get in the way of the ministry that calls him to those who need him most. He models the fact that we do not need to be perfect or unscarred in order to help others, yet at the same time we must not let our own brokeness overwhelm their pain to minister well. One of the reasons he is so good at ‘being’ is that he never tries to fix peoples’ problems. These are, to be fair, too huge for most people to take on board, priest or not. It is not easy to help someone in thousands of pounds of debt, you cannot always stop someone intent on taking their own life, you cannot easily ‘sort’ a young man disturbed by his mental health.  Instead, we see Fr Michael simply ‘being with’, having the courage to knock on the doors of his parishioners when he sees or senses there is a problem.  Some of these he knows well and others  he has only had the most fleeting of encounters but often he bravely pursues. We see him listening and drinking tea, in a compassionate and ungrandiose manner, offering what he can in terms of his own historical faith and the hope that goes with it.  And his parishioners, on the whole, love him for it.


Secondly we see Michael being a priest in the sense that he is involved in the four-fold core ministry of what it means to live an ordained life – he presides at the Eucharist, he preaches passionately, he prays with and for others and he accompanies people as they walk the often hard and stony path of life. Admittedly we don’t see Michael doing the extras – raising money for the roof, getting involved in ‘mission activities’, teaching the faith through small groups although sometimes these are implied. But we do see him acting as a prophet leader – speaking out, often bravely, against the evils of the age which have a tangible and detrimental effect on the people in his ‘soul care’. So he advocates against the insatiable addiction of the slot machine, against the discrepancies in the benefit system and links his sermons with the person of Christ and the gospel stories, often upsetting regular Catholics within his congregation.

He celebrates Holy Communion at considerable cost to himself as he has intense flashbacks of his own abuse as a child and yet he offers this sacrament of love, forgiveness, equality, redemption to those who come, desperate and holding out their hands for it. The policeman Andrew, caught up in the agonising decision of whether to speak the truth at the expense of disloyalty to his colleagues, says “Why did you give me the sacrament?”. Michael throws a question back, as Jesus often did too, “Why did you come up?”. “Because I have never needed it as much as I do now” , Andrew replies and Michael says “And that’s why I gave it to you”.

And Michael prays – simply,  unself-consciously, faithfully. He prays because this is what God asks priests to do, because he believes that this will bring genuine hope and some renewed revelation to those he is praying with and for.

And Michael acts prophetically – he talks to the manager of the gambling shop and he talks to leaders in the community about the effect this has on people who already have nothing materially. He tries to change the culture of spending a lot of money on fancy 1st Communion gear, he suggests the food bank to those who need it, he becomes a mediator between two people prejudiced against each other. He speaks a sensible, unjudgmental faith which pours a prosaic yet holy balm on the raw wounds of those who cross his path.

Finally, in Fr Michael anyone interested or contemplating what it might feel like to be a representational leader of the church need look no further. Rarely do we see him without a dog collar or vestments. Fr Michael is Fr Michael, the priest in the community where he resides. He is known and he is recognised as someone representing Christ as well as a broken church with all its flaws and dirty secrets. His presence provides endless opportunities for people to pour out their troubles, to be treated with dignity, love and to be shown God’s mercy and forgiveness, for them to have an alternative vision of hope presented to them, even if they refuse to take it. As most clergy understand, living this kind of visual ministry, although wonderful is also inevitably costly. Gay Carl throws the generous compliment back in Michael’s face because to him Michael has ceased to be an actual individual with feelings  and inconsistencies like the rest of us, he simply represents the hypocrisy of a church who offers pastoral kindness and welcome to individual gay people whilst  institutionally stating that they are living a life of sin.

More than this though, Michael absorbs such a lot of pain. Like Christ he might just as well be hanging up there on the cross,  soaking up every millilitre of problematic angst. So it’s no wonder that, as the series draws to a close, he tells his clergy friend, Peter that he can’t go on any longer, he has had enough. Can’t go on because he can never win, never please everyone, is so embroiled with the complications of moral dilemmas which have no easy solution, so compromised in terms of integrity, so easily daubed as ‘a hypocrite’ as so many genuinely saintly people so often are. How will all be redeemed, we wonder as viewers, and indeed we ask how would we like the series to end – will there be some kind of simplistic and unrealistic hopefulness or salvation or will this become another nail in the coffin of institutional religion’s reputation?


As we wonder whether the final scene will indeed be the last mass that Fr Michael will ever celebrate we are perhaps soothed and encouraged by the fact that those whose lives have so closely interwoven with his over the last 6 weeks seem to have had a word with themselves. They seem to have done some serious ruminating on the significant ministry Michael has offered them in their brokness. Even those who Michael has let down, challenged, not ‘sorted’ , tell him as they come up to receive Communion that he is ‘a wonderful priest’. It is an incredibly beautiful and moving  recognition of the priest and person that he is and for the presence and living sacrament he embodies in a harsh and broken world.  And in the sense that this weird and so-often misunderstood vocation is still so needed and well as so appreciated.

Catch up on Iplayer or get the DVD.






Hairy Bikers Chicken and Egg


Being a complete ‘foodie’  as well as travel addict I love programmes which combine the two. My guess is others like me have our favourite TV chefs and two of mine are Si King and Dave Myers, the so-called Hairy Bikers. King and Myers are infinitely watchable partly because they  zoom everywhere on beautiful shiny motorbikes but also because they are such characters. King is a native of the North East and Myers a good Lancashire lad.  Various series have enjoyed much success and the pair’s warmth and down-to-earth approach both to people as well as food have made them national treasures. This latest series (which I watched on iPlayer) has them jetting round the world exploring the infinite variety of recipes which feature either chicken or eggs or sometimes both. Israel, Morocco, the USA and France all feature. Chicken, it appears, is fast becoming the world’s most popular ‘meat’ and it seems that there is no shortage of cultural variations.

The pair have jokey arguments in most of the episodes, to ask “Which did come first, the chicken or the egg?”. Food programmes are especially enriched (to keep with the culinary theme) when they are combined with travel because the content is really more about the culture and people than anything else. Indeed the food simply acts as the magnet to draw people together in spite of language and cultural differences.  The Bikers hold an openess and humility to observe and learn different dishes and then offer their own unique version of inspired recipes to viewers.

King and Myers are also great friends. In 2014, King suffered a major brain aneurysm placing him in recovery for weeks. His 27 year marriage also broke down due to the pressures of celebrity and the relentless work of the TV food industry. But through it all King and Myers have remained friends and it is still their jokey banter and clowning around that remains so watchable.

This programme has made me reflect on the times I have shared meals with my own family and good friends. Food should mostly be a communal thing – it can be hard to eat alone. Biblically it is often presented as a communal occupation such as in the archetypal Feeding of the 5,000  or the post-resurrection Breakfast on the Beach. Jesus uses food as a metaphor for something greater and more profound. Powerfully, he invites people to his meals who are often double-edged ‘friends’ – Judas at the Last Supper as well as accepting the invitation to go to dinner with Simon the Pharisee,  a man who probably invited Jesus more to show off than through any genuine hospitality. At the Last Supper Jesus fed those disciples who were loyal to him as well as those who were weak, who would betray him – Judas and Peter but all had a place at the table.


When it becomes a Kingdom motive, the metaphor of ‘the table’  is one of being a great leveler.  It is a place where whoever sits down is ‘at the same level’ physically even if those who sit, believe that there is social inequality or superiority. The table can be a place of genuine offering, a place of experiment, of sharing, of consideration, of inclusion and comfort. At times in my own life which have been hard, bleak, lonely the cooking and sharing of food has been a genuine joy and encouragement – an event to look forward to each day, a tangible ‘event’ in my world of faith intangibles.  I currently feed hungry teenagers who arrive at our large vicarage on a regular basis. I’ve never had the money for fancy restaurants and whilst I sometimes enjoy the artistry and creativity of MasterChef, the food I most enjoy is perhaps a bit like the relationships which most nurture me – those which are simple, full of fun, honest and nourishing.


Opening the table to people is something we can all do; it’s not an elite ministry but a varied and creative one. It doesnt matter if what we share is soup, cake, wine, stew but it is something which can make a huge difference to how others feel about themselves. In my own Home Groups we have decided that each member will offer one occasion of hospitality this Lent to any member/s of our two congregations (hoping especially that newer people might take up the offer so that we might get to know them a bit better). So, someone is offering a Sunday lunch for 4, I am offering an Afternoon Tea for up to 12 with another member and someone else is offering to bring round a meal for someone else. We are doing this partly as an experiment and we are going to talk about  how this went when we regroup. Maybe what we do can become a kind of ‘model’ for other members of our church who might feel inspired to do something similar.


All of us probably have had the experience of being the host, and then the guest and then sometimes being the stranger at a party or gathering as well. In the Bible, these three metaphors often interweave and Jesus himself takes on simultaneous roles actually as he does at the Last Supper. He is the host in that he blesses, breaks and distributes the food; but he is the guest in a borrowed space as well as being something of the stranger – the person on the outside, on the edge of the society he sets himself amongst and it is because of his outsider status that he is arrested and crucified. When we are in a position of power we can be the host and it is perhaps always good to be the guest. To be the stranger as guest reminds us of how it feels to need others, to accept things gratefully and in humility. We need to feel all three dynamics to understand what immense power lies in the simple gift of hospitality when it is properly and naturally offered. They are present in the Hairy Bikers series as the two are guests and strangers in countries which are not their own as well as being visual hosts to offer their recipes to us.

As Thomas Merton says, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another and all involved in one another”.








Jimmy Doherty’s Escape to the Wild

I’ve found this series fascinating. Farmer, food activist and friend of Jamie Oliver’s, Jimmy Doherty travels to three different parts of the world to stay with three different couples who have decided to up sticks and create a brand new life in the middle of nowhere – in Indonesia, Yukon and Uganda respectively. Two of them have babies in tow.

I have to hand it to them for bravery. Now 8 years with a major supermarket right opposite where I live and a large M & S just up the road I just don’t fancy this in spite of my insatiable love of travel (and, to be fair, significant periods of serious roughing it abroad in the past).

The series watches Jimmy, who has genuine experience in farming and making interesting stuff from scratch, philosophising about the human urge to escape from the pressures and constraints of contemporary life and the search for a personal slice of what he frequently describes as ‘paradise’. Indeed, at face value which one of us wouldn’t be wowed by a constant environment of a lush tropical island, the stark beauty of a winter wonderland or a torrential river just outside our front door.

But I’ve been pondering, as the series has continued, what constitutes ‘paradise’ exactly? This series would have us believe that somehow human beings become more alive, feel more alive when they are somewhere more elemental, where they have to survive in a world where there is no running water, instant heating, and where mangoes are a food which grow from a tree rather than a food item which you scan through the checkout. There is of course some truth in this but it is not the end of the story. Those who listen hear the simultaneous scepticism  as well as the admiration underneath Jimmy’s commentary, particularly as he reflects on his own family situation.

I know there are people with genuine pioneering spirit and good for them. But my own idea of paradise would not be in any of these situations or out of the way places for a number of reasons. The couples shown in this series seem to be really quite isolated, with no particular link or connection with any community, save the local people who are providing them with the things they need to survive physically. I wondered how the two with children would cope with no immediate other young parents to socialise with and learn alongside? As much as I love my husband and immediate family, the thought of them being the only emotional and physical support leaves me slightly panicky rather than reassured. We need a wider circle.

As a person of faith, God’s Kingdom is felt and seen when we are in community with others. Part of the reason I love the clergy life is because it is possible to find yourself in a number of different contexts and ‘cultures’ which are rich  with the variety and beauty of human life. ‘Paradise’ is understood as we discover who we are more through relationship with others and I wonder whether I personally would find this through a more isolated existence, however much I  value and need my own space as quite a high introvert.

The pressures on the average modern western person are indeed immense and there probably isn’t anyone reading this who hasn’t, at some point, wished to flee to a monastery or alternative existence at some point in their past when it all feels too much. To escape from the pressures of things like finding the right education for our children, mortgages, jobs,  having the right stuff, and keeping up our ‘life style choices’. But faith has the potential to provide an antidote to all of this by providing a kind of continuous inner dialogue that tells us that actually we do not have to absorb or worry bout any of this actually. Matthew’s Gospel tells us not to worry about anything material. That we can attempt (and it is always only an attempt) to live in a distinctively different way with an alternative narrative of relishing the joy of material life but also hanging loose to it too.

I’m no saint and worry (sometimes overly so) about having two incomes to support my children, a holiday, a decent car, a future and yet I am also aware of the opportunity to be set free from the constraints of the material. Reading Justin Welby’s brilliant Lent book Dethroning Mammon he challenges us to ‘see life differently’, as God sees it, to understand the joy and profundity of so much that we naturally miss in other people, especially those who are poor and broken, because of being washed in the consciousness of a consumerist mindset. But this takes effort and prayer, in order to become a discipline to counterbalance the other messages that come at us thick and fast.

Another brilliant book I have read this year which might provide a sharp contrast to this series is Toby Jones’s A Place of Refuge. It’s about Jones’s brave and sacrificial experiment in communal living in a wood in Somerset. He buys a house and land and opens it as a place of hospitality for anyone essentially who rocks up, sharing it with his own family. This includes the mentally ill and fragile, the idiosyncratic, socially challenging as well as at times, the downright dangerous. To me this seems far braver than escaping the pressures of the age to an alternative physical place like Yukon (where apparently there aren’t any pressures?) because he chooses to remain embedded in a society where all of those anxieties are still very real. He chooses to remain amongst those in the wider community who believed him to be very strange because of what he was doing…until his deeply faith-based way of life wins the respect of the local community.

It is debatable whether those indigenous people who live in the so called paradises of isolated places consider themselves that where they live is also without pressure. I lived for a time in isolated rural Africa where many of the younger people were desperate to escape from the poverty that was actually their reality and equally desperate to be showered with all the modern conveniences of stereos, ipads, phones that we occasionally wish had not been invented. Everything is relative but for me, I hope to continue to find the glimmers of paradise in the people, places and spaces where I inhabit and find myself right now.

I have decided for my first 5 blog posts to reflect on the TV programmes I’m currently watching  (a kind of literary GoggleBox maybe?) and to reflect on how they might speak into our attempt to live a Christian life.

Call the Midwife (BBC1 Sundays at 8.0pm) could be described as something of a cosy Sunday evening drama and indeed it does have this ‘feel’ to it. But it’s so more than this –  it deals with the very real themes which emerge from people whose lives are materially poor as well as the health and medical concerns and challenges of the 1950s and 60s. Previous series have dealt with thorny historical issues such as thalidomide children, the growing awareness of cancer being caused by smoking and the trap that mothers who tolerated abuse found themselves in as they had no choice but to rely on their men to bring in an income to support their children.

My day job involves me discerning and testing out whether men and women are called into the ordained ministry of the Church of England. Subjects like spirituality, personality, leadership and mission are all explored with those I walk alongside. Call the Midwife incorporates many of the same subjects that people of faith attempt to ‘inhabit’ and live out, albeit imperfectly. It’s also a positive media experience to watch a programme which shows Christian faith as sensible, compassionate, wise, proactive and beautiful. Last week showed an exquisite scene with Tom, the handsome vicar, performing a baptism in the home of a woman who was preparing to give away her third child (to be brought up by her sister) because she was too poor to keep him. The baptism was intimate, meaningful and agonising all at the same time.

This series has played with leadership in an interesting way too. Sister Ursula arrives from the ‘mother’ house to replace Sister Julienne (the known and popular choice), who accepts this decision with her usual courteous spirit. But it quickly transpires that Sister Ursula will not be popular because she tries to make long established rhythms and work practices change too soon, changes which feel forced and unconducive to the way the midwives want to deal with their patients (the 20 minutes for each patient ‘rule’ which feels strangely contemporary according to my physiotherapist friend). But after several episodes Ursula herself graciously relents, perhaps realising that good leadership is always earned through respect and listening rather than through an authoritative dynamic imposed from on high and she departs to restore the popular Sister Julienne to her position of superior of the community of Nonnatus House.

Mission happens all the time –  the midwives and nuns go out into the community, unashamed about who they are and proud of their skills. Nowhere is off-limits be it pub, factory or brothel and Nonnatus house (a model for healthy mission in itself) is understood as a genuine safe haven and loving lighthouse which exudes the steady heartbeat of a loving God through the presence and hospitality of its residents. The nuns are seen as praying people, knowing they cannot face the challenges of each day without the strength of a power which is greater than they are. The midwives and many of the residents of Poplar are portrayed as knowing their need of God as well, in spite and perhaps because of, the ragged and raw nature of life at that time there. Poplar itself is portrayed as a rich diversity of races, cultures and idiosyncracies – a tapestry of imperfect but vibrant humanity, woven through with grace, as well as a place both geographical and metaphorical where joy is also identified and discovered in unexpected times and places.

So many have shared how much they particularly enjoy the commentary  spoken by Sister Julienne at the end of each programme – a mini sermon perhaps, or a commentary,  where faith is reflected upon philosophically but thankfully with no religious platitudes or easy, ignorant answers to the mysteries of life as well as faith. Perhaps authenticity comes as the series is based on the memoirs of a real-life midwife, Jennifer Worth, who worked as a district nurse and midwife in the 1950s in London’s East End. The real Nonnatus House was actually St Frideswide’s Mission House and is remembered by another real life midwife who worked there as cold, with the warmest place being the kitchen and in the in the summer the nurses and nuns would sew and knit on the roof, perhaps a fitting place to have surveyed the life of God embedded and active in the community of Poplar of the time.

Call the Midwife – a reflection on the life of faith