Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher

Edith Cavell: Faith before the firing squad, by Catherine Butcher.

Edith Cavell was an English nurse who helped establish a nursing school in Brussels, at a time when nursing practice in Belgium had low standards and little community respect. Cavell sought to change all of that by training young women to the same kind of standard she had learned during her own training in London and through her experience as a practising nurse in Britain. In 1907 she accepted the role of matron at the new training school in Brussels.

edith-cavellIn 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, thereby drawing Britain, allies of Belgium, into the First World War. Cavell chose to stay in Brussels with her trainee nurses and helped to look after wounded troops from both sides.

When wounded French, British and Belgian soldiers were in danger of being killed by the German invaders, she started to help the Belgian resistance to get them to safety across the Dutch border.
In August 1915 she was arrested and two months later was tried, sentenced to death and shot by firing squad.

This book tries to piece together a part of Cavell’s life that has probably been omitted from many other biographies: the way her Christian faith prepared her to face premature death.

The author looks at the religious routine Cavell followed throughout her life, first as the daughter of a Church of England vicar, and later as a continuing part of her daily devotions, following the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and readings from other devotional books known to be used by Cavell.

Apart from Cavell’s own story, the book touches on the role of religious practice across general society, particularly within a hospital environment, where it is said that prayer and bible reading were the essential starting point of each day in the wards.
How things have changed!

Cavell was shot at dawn on the 12th October 1915.

“Her last glimpse of life on earth would be the gloomy mists of an autumn dawn in Belgium. Her expectation was that in the ‘twinkling of an eye’ she would be in the presence of Jesus.”

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In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord

burqasIn the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord gives a fascinating insight into the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women, and how Islam affects their lives and relationships.

While Islam and Christianity embrace very different views of God, McCord makes use of a few common areas of belief to build a bridge to share the gospel.

McCord writes of how “Afghans almost universally believe in the concept of kismet, fate. Whatever happens happens because Allah wills it, no matter whose hand has accomplished the thing”.

She addresses this with a group of Afghan women while discussing a deadly car bombing in Kabul that destroyed a bus and killed many including a young mother:

“God told us not to kill. We cannot disobey God in the name of God. That is a lie. God told us to love Him with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Then He told us to love our neighbours. If a man kills his neighbour, he is disobeying God. This man who blew up the bus and killed that mother did not do the will of God. He did the work of Satan. God will judge him”

One woman in the room responded by sharing another story.

“Our town was at peace. We didn’t know war. We were happy. One day my cousins and aunts were gathered in the house preparing [food] for a wedding party. A bomb fell. We found pieces of dough, bundles of meat, hair ties, scarves, and scraps of bloody fabric. Even the part of the ceiling that didn’t fall was covered with blood and pieces of bodies”

… we all looked at the swirling red carpet . Each woman muttered “Tobah” repent.

After a long pause I restated what I absolutely believe to be the truth: “That was not the will of God, either”
“No,” the women agreed. “That is not the will of God.”

McCord gives the Christian reader a lot of food for thought.
She writes:

“For many Westerners, the question of who God is and what He wants for and from us is simply not relevant. We are, after all, wealthy and busy. For Afghans, it may be the most important question of all.”

And she confesses to something that I think affects most western Christians to one degree or another:

“Sometimes I forget to differentiate between what I believe as an American woman and what I believe the Bible teaches. America is my culture, and Jesus is my Saviour and Lord. Sometimes it’s hard to untangle the two. Afghans challenged me to try.

McCord compares various aspects of her Christians beliefs with those of her Afghan neighbours to show how the vastly different cultural beliefs affect Afghan views of God and as a result their society.

One example she describes is the Afghan view of temptation and sin.

I learned that in Afghanistan, the influences that cause or encourage a person to do what the society defines as wrong are the real sin, not the person who actually does the wrong. People are weak and must be protected. The society provides that protection. Any influence that tempts a member of the community must be eradicated, silenced, or walled out.

McCord also found that her time in Afghanistan gave her a new perspective on some very familiar parts of scripture.

Afghans helped me understand the teachings of Jesus more completely. The culture of Afghanistan today is much more similar to the first century Judea of Jesus’ day than my own Western culture is…

As an example of this, she writes:

I was often amazed when an Afghan heard a Jesus story for the first time and then told me what it means. Jesus spoke to a woman at a well, a woman who had had several husbands and was not married to her current partner. My Afghan women friends immediately saw the woman’s shame. No woman in Afghanistan can arrange her own marriage. The woman at the well had been used by five men, and the last didn’t even have the decency to marry her.

I found the book to be a an effective eye-opener, not only to an unbelievably foreign culture and religion, but also to the unbelievably naïve view that Western Christians have developed concerning the life and teachings of Jesus and how we’ve been taught to view them.

Notes on an Exodus, Richard Flanagan

xnotes-on-an-exodusNotes on an Exodus : an essay is a small book by Man Booker prize winning author Richard Flanagan, illustrated by Ben Quilty.

Flanagan and Quilty travelled to the Middle East and Europe with World Vision, visiting refugees in camps and on the road, who were escaping from the violence of their homes in Syria.

While described as “an essay” in its subtitle, the book is more a collection of brief written portraits of the people Flanagan and Quilty met on their journey.

People who had fled villages, towns and cities to escape either the day and night bombing by Assad supporting Russian planes, from the violence and oppression of Daesh (ISIS), or both.

People who had fled prosperous lives to live in makeshift tents constructed from recycled garbage.

People who once owned productive farms and orchards but now have to survive on meagre rations of bread and tea or scraps collected from the floors of vegetable shops. Where a family survives (barely) with the help of their nine year old son, working as a welder for $3 a day. who has half his weekly pay retained by his employer to ensure his return the following week.

These are the kind of stories that we in the west prefer not to know so we don’t have to see the refugees as REAL people with REAL lives who probably weren’t so different from other people we know. Individuals we can’t disguise and dehumanise as a “flood”.

Flanagan’s vignettes of people he met bring focus to the plight of millions who have been driven from their homes and homelands. They should stir similar feelings to those stirred by the photos of the small body of Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach that briefly moved the conscience of the world. But sadly they won’t. All too quickly our collective hearts have rehardened.

Suspicion and hostility against the flood have been restored.

Alan_Kurdi_lifeless_body

 

Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me.

Richard Flanagan,  Notes on an Exodus, p 53

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This has also been posted on my other blog: The Onesimus Files

The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam

wasted vigilI’m writing this before I’ve finished the book, because Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil is book that I don’t want to end. I want to write something about it now before I face the disappointment of reaching the last page.

 There have been books I’ve read recently that I haven’t wanted to put down, that I read at every opportunity until I finished them. This one is different. It isn’t a gripping page-turner to be consumed like fast food, it’s something I want to savour – and enjoy for as long as possible.

 Two years ago my wife took me to lunch on my birthday. We ate at a cafe attached to a commercial art gallery. Both of us ordered vegetable lasagne, and were initially disappointed when the meal was served. It seemed tiny in comparison to our expectations – and apart from a small quenelle of pesto on top, a small rectangle of lasagne was all that was on the plate. There wasn’t even a token garnish of lettuce leaves.

But as soon as we had the first taste,  all disappointment vanished. Every mouthful was rich with the flavours of roasted capsicum, eggplant, zucchini and sun dried tomato, with an occasional burst of pesto…

…but this is not about food. I mentioned that because reading this book gives me the same kind of rich experience, full of different flavours.

quote 1 Set in Afghanistan some time after George W Bush made it the focus of his war on terror, the book sweeps across the country’s turbulent history, throughout which  local war lords and foreign invaders have preyed on the population.  Only the source of oppression or hardship changes: warlords, Russians, The Taliban/Al Qaeda and the United States all have the same kind of  effect on the people, creating fear through the threat of death, disability or even hell’s fire.

The main characters in the book are representative of the major powers of recent Afghan history. All of them are brought together for various reasons in the house of an English doctor who moved to Afghanistan decades before after falling in love with (and marrying) an Afghan woman, also a doctor.

 There’s a Russian woman searching for information about her brother who went missing after trying to defect while he was part of the Russian occupying force in the 80s; a former CIA agent who was part of US involvement with Afghan warlords opposing the Russian occupiers; and then there’s a young man devoted to the Taliban and Al Qaeda who needs to take refuge (hiding his true identity) when he is mistakenly seen to be a traitor by his fellow terrorists.

 This strange collection of “housemates” allows the author to give a vivid and disturbing look at the plight of average Afghan people and the ongoing suffering under several regimes and the various conflicts waged around them.

quote 2The author gets into the minds of each character so that the reader can “understand” what motivates them. The young terrorist is a particularly interesting example, as we are shown how his corrupted world view has been shaped by religiously motivated misinformation to create a hatred for anyone not taking the extreme path that has been instilled into him from childhood.  (Did you know that the Americans have always hated Islam so much that they even assassinated their Moslem President” Ibraheem Lankan”?)

The book presents many heartbreakingly cruel and violent incidents that the western mind would find hard to understand: especially that such things could be officially sanctioned, or at least tolerated, not only by the Taliban, but also, when politically expedient, by the Russians and Americans. But although very disturbing to the reader, those incidents are not treated graphically or gratuitously. Its not the physical horror being highlighted, but the human cost.

 It is a beautifully written, intellectually stimulating book with a compelling story, vivid in imagery and touching multiple senses while stirring the conscience. It ought to be read by every politician potentially in the position of committing troops to conflicts in foreign place.

 

 

 

Another three bite the dust

Over the last week I’ve been able to transfer three books from my “Reading Now” list to this year’s list of books read.

rock bottomRock Bottom (Inspired by God), by Michael Teter is only a short book, but it took me a long time to get through it. I read about half of it some time ago but didn’t get back to read the rest for several weeks. The book is a testimony of how Teter’s life was dramatically changed by an encounter with God while serving a prison sentence. It comes across as an honest and heartfelt, no-frills story that would have benefitted from some basic editing for spelling and grammar. The technical shortcomings in the writing made the book more difficult for me to get through, but maybe its lack of literary polish added to the authenticity of the book .

tina arenaNow I can Dance is Tina Arena’s autobiography. Starting her career as a child star on the once popular Australian variety show Young Talent Time, Tina Arena has been one of Australia’s most successful singers, both at “home” and also overseas. Until very recently I gave no attention at all to Arena’s music, but for some reason that changed a couple of months ago.

She’s an artist I’ve admired in the past after hearing her sing live at two separate record store promotions. I’d never before witnessed a singer putting so much emotion and power into a performance of a song. But she didn’t sing the kind of songs I liked at the time. Now it seems my musical tastes have broadened.

While she is 10 years younger than myself, the fact that her singing career started at such a young age, a lot of the book covers times that are familiar to me, from the 1970s through to the present day and I found a lot of personal memories being stirred as well as learning something about the background of Arena’s life and music.

electric edenThe last of the three was Electric Eden by Rob Young. I bought this book because it seemed to be about a history of British folk music, starting in the late 19th- early 20th centuries when a systematic collecting of folk music and songs began, through to the beginning of the 21st century. While there was a continuing thread of that historical journey, Young was more interested in the reflection of the “spiritual psyche” of the British, as portrayed through the music and perceived by the author who seemed to lean favourably to a new age/pagan/ Gnosticism.

Hilary Mantel’s memoir (and thoughts of my own) with just a hint of Rushdie

Hilary Mantel is a double winner of the Man Booker Prize, first for Wolf Hall and then for its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. These are the first parts of a trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII.

I read Wolf Hall two years ago and included my impressions of the book in an article here *: http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2011/01/visiting-lady-jane-grey-and-tudor.html

Yesterday I received Bring Up the Bodies, something I’ll have to try to fit into my crowded reading schedule. But it’s another book by Mantel that I’ve been reading over the last few days, a memoir called Giving Up the Ghost.

Giving Up the GhostCompared to the last memoir I read (Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton – see note below*) this one is a small book, but it seems to contain far more than its size would suggest. I’m only 2/3 of the way into it, but there has already been a lot to keep me interested. I can identify with a few areas of her experience; from Derbyshire village life in the 1950s-60s (though she’s six years older than me); living in homes that have a “ghostly” presence; to the occasional “tip” for writers. She also has a liking for semi-colons.

The first half of the book recalls her childhood and she is able to create a cohesive narrative out of many fragments of memories.

I occasionally consider writing my own memoir (which at the most may be of interest to future generations of my family) and I can see how my account of childhood would be made up of fragments – just brief glimpses of things I did and saw; a few seconds of a movie playing in my head.

Things like an image of a holiday cottage beside a beach. At that cottage I recall lying in bed between my parents. I must have been under three years old because I was later told that my mum was pregnant with my sister at the time, and she is two years ten months younger than me. I also ecall a walk through the back garden of the cottage to get to the pebbly beach. There are other incidents of this holiday that I don’t remember myself, but I know of them through family conversations over the years. The difference between the actual memories and those recounted anecdotes is in the detail. The memories are snapshots or brief loops of “action”; while the anecdotes have a form of narrative.

In Mantel’s book the most covered part of her childhood is her primary school years and earlier. It is during this period that she gives up her belief in God after a strange unnerving experience in the garden of her home. An experience that she thinks God could have (should have) prevented – and because He didn’t, He couldn’t exist.

Like so many who have given up (or never had) belief in God, the conclusion of His non-existence was formed according to criteria of Mantel’s choosing. God didn’t fulfil her expectations, He didn’t act how she thought He should, and therefore He couldn’t be real.

Joseph AntonA similar thing came up in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where the child Rushdie concluded God couldn’t exist because He’d never live in such an ugly “house of God” as the church building near his school. And in an interview (and maybe not in the book) Rushdie also told of how (as a “moslem” child) his ability to eat a ham sandwich without being struck down by an angry God gave him further certainty of God’s non-existence.

Surprisingly, the teen years of Mantel’s story are skimmed over in comparison to her pre-teen life. It is that period of my own younger days that I remember most, and my hypothetical memoir would perhaps need a separate volume to cover it.

I have now read up to the start of her adult life; her time at university and her early marriage. And how times have changed – Mantel’s marriage being an economic necessity; home life for two being more affordable than home life for two individuals, and culturally impossible for an unmarried couple to make a home together.

Even as an engaged couple they had difficulty finding “a place together in anticipation of [their] marriage…the landlords demanded certificates …to say that [they] had really booked the priest and registrar”.

I’ve already mentioned the size difference between this memoir and Rushdie’s, but that isn’t the most significant difference. Rushdie keeps a regular journal and that practice clearly helped and shaped the book he wrote. It is largely a straight forward narrative that avoids the playful approach to language and storytelling found in his novels.  Rushdie is getting his story across,  putting right the many false impressions of the “fatwah” years presented by others.

Mantel’s book is one of reflection rather than reporting;  remembering the past from an adult’s perspective, but not just as an adult; she writes as a mature literary writer interpreting her life from a present day vantage point. 

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*I see that I had a problem with Mantel regularly using the term “he” to describe her main character in a way that made it difficult to determine exactly who was being referred to. That’s a problem I also found in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where Rushdie continually referred to himself in the third person often making me unsure of whether he was referring to himself or someone else.

“Things became terrible while you were dead”

Lyrical, lush and poetic in descriptions of both beauty and horror, the book rings with  honesty, moving the reader through a range of emotions without a hint of manipulation.

nadeen aslamThat is how I described Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden after reading the first 100 pages. And the description remains relevant now that I’ve finished the book.

The title of this post comes from a part of the dialogue between two characters and conveys the fragility and uncertainty of life caused by the invasion of Afghanistan by American forces. A conflict that spills out from the recognised battle front and over geographical borders to affect the lives of average people in nearby regions, sandwiched between the  forces of extremist religion and extreme nationalism their homelands become the venue of a fight  they didn’t seek.

Aslam is an author I’ll certainly read again, I’ll be looking out for his other books. I’ve had a look on the Book Depository site and have added them to my wishlist. One is still available in hardcover which is my preference, but for the cost of that I could buy two novels in paperback. I have to decide which path to take, whether I’d eventually regret the paperback option.

Here is a link to a recording of Aslaam talking about The Blind Man’s Garden (22 mins).

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandartsdaily/nadeem-aslam27s-the-blind-man27s-garden/4529084