It Will Flame Out

Editor’s Note: Over the next week, Transpositions will honour Dr Ewan Bowlby, our beloved past Editor-in-Chief who died just before Christmas. Several of Ewan’s colleagues will offer a reflection on him and his work. The series launches with a poignant reflection from Ewan’s PhD supervisor, Prof George Corbett. To read more about Ewan, see the post: Honouring Dr Ewan Bowlby.

At a ‘TheoArtistry Text and Image Exhibition’ in December 2021, I was profoundly struck by a triptych of artworks entitled ‘Bright Wings’, and created by Ewan’s soon-to-be wife Karlee. On discovering my response to the three artworks, and unbeknownst to me, Ewan purchased them on the spot. He was keeping the triptych to give to me, his PhD supervisor, after the completion of his doctorate. Ewan became Dr Bowlby just a few weeks before his untimely death on 23rd December 2022. I thus opened Ewan’s extraordinary gift − with feelings of utter surprise, joy, and grief − a week or so after his ‘Service of Thanksgiving’ in Hexham Abbey on 20th January 2023. These three pictures are now for me a priceless daily reminder of Ewan, and the immense privilege of having known him in my own life. I counted him as a student, colleague, and friend.

In keeping with the exhibition’s theme ‘Text and Image’, Karlee had taken as her text the first two lines of Gerard Manley-Hopkins’ sonnet ‘God’s Grandeur’. In the first picture, she had embroidered with white thread on white paper the words – ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’ – as well as a beautifully-formed geometric pattern, also in white stitching, that instantly brought to my mind the everyday wonder of a spider’s web, perhaps glimpsed on a frosty morning at first light: fragile yet strong. Karlee later told me that, some twenty hours into stitching the words on paper, a performance art of delicate skill and patience, she had almost given up but for Ewan’s encouragement. Ewan also played a part in the second picture, in which Karlee had burned the words – ‘it will flame out’ – such that they literally flame out, marked by the heat, dark on the white paper, while Ewan had helped to craft – with a flame – a framing effect on the paper’s surround. Following the white and black of the first two text-images, the third bursts into bright gold, with Karlee using an explosion of gold leaf, shining across the paper, and lighting up the last words (as throughout, in William Morris’ ‘Golden Type’) of her triptych – ‘like shining from shook foil’.

At the exhibition, I had been struck by Karlee’s triptych, I think, because it re-charged Hopkins’ words which, through over familiarity, had lost – for me – their raw power. But, more deeply, Karlee’s triptych took me directly to the theological reality that Hopkins’ poem originally sought to convey. The painstaking care with which Karlee had stitched on paper the hiddenness of ‘the grandeur of God’ in white on white, made me realise how blind and dulled I had become to the glory of God in creation, and how it needed my own care and attention, and a change of perspective (as art can allow us), to rediscover again in the visible creation the seal of the creator. As Hopkins wrote a few years after composing the sonnet:

 

‘All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God, and if we know how to touch them, give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him’.

Hopkins’ own perception of one concrete reality – the ‘shook foil’ which, in Karlee’s artwork, bursts into life (the analogy ‘like’ becoming reality on the page) – had, indeed, been the seed for his poem:

‘I mean foil in its sense of leaf or tinsel […] Shaken gold foil gives off broad glares like sheet lightning and also, and this is true of nothing else, owing to its zigzag dints and creasings and network of small many cornered facets, a sort of fork lightning too’.

Karlee’s triptych invited me to see creation – a flame, a spider web, an artwork – as indeed charged with the grandeur of God. Its very three-ness also reminded me that God does not just show His love to us through the gift of creation, leading us to know Him through it, but He became a creature, a man, to communicate more fully His love, man’s destiny, to restore a pathway to Him. Moreover, His love – the Holy Spirit – still ‘over the bent / World broods with warm and with ah! bright wings’.

For me, the triptych, and Karlee’s collaboration with Ewan in creating it, exemplifies the best of ITIA – our beloved Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts – and of the capacity of art (text and image in this case) to draw us back to God. ITIA was certainly the right place for Ewan to flourish, to contribute his gifts, and to ‘flame out’, and ITIA will always remember and recognise Ewan as one of its brightest stars.

Ewan threw himself, indeed, into the life of ITIA, getting involved especially closely with Transept, TheoArtistry, and Transpositions. It was fitting that it was as an editor of Transpositions (ITIA’s award-winning blog, with ¼ million unique visitors each year) that Ewan met Karlee, then a student on the ITIA M.Litt. in Theology and the Arts. I will never forget the joy in Ewan’s eyes when he told me about his budding relationship with her.

Before either of us were associated with ITIA, I first met Ewan when teaching him for the theology tripos at Cambridge. We had one-to-one supervisions on a wonderful course – ‘Religious Themes in Literature: Moral Vision in the European Novel’ – and each week, we would reflect theologically together on an author and set text. The range was eclectic, and included novels by George Eliot, Flaubert, Primo Levi, Madame de La Fayette, and Dostoevsky (Ewan would go on to write his undergraduate dissertation on Dostoevsky with Rowan Williams). I remember well, and treasure, these one-to-one discussions in my office during which, as subsequently, I found myself frequently as much the student as the teacher.

It was, therefore, a joyful moment for me when, having moved to ITIA in 2015, I saw ‘Ewan Bowlby’ on the list of applications for our ITIA M.Litt in Theology and the Arts. Despite the offer of a fully-funded place on the masters programme in Cambridge (Ewan had received a double first, coming top for the theology tripos in his year), Ewan – like so many before and after – intuited, I think, that ITIA was the right place for him to develop his passion for theology and the arts. He would be proven right – can one imagine a PhD thesis entitled ‘From Beaune to Breaking Bad: Using the Arts to Meet Cancer Patients’ Need and Desire for Spiritual Care’ written elsewhere? And how often has the unique, interdisciplinary community of ITIA – so much greater than the sum of its parts – been the seedbed for ‘out-of-the-box’, truly original and ground-breaking research?

Indeed, when Ewan – during his masters programme – came to talk to me about continuing to the doctorate, I seem to remember recounting my coming across a particularly good example of this kind of out-of-the-box research in the most unlikely of places. At the end of my first year lecturing in ITIA and the Divinity School, I took a week’s holiday with my family in the Shetland Islands. I had promised Lizzie, my wife, not to bring any work or books with me and, midweek, I had managed to remain faithful to this in letter and in spirit. However, that night, having put our children to bed, and after a second glass of wine (mistake), I found myself – last up – browsing our little cottage’s bookshelves. I picked out one book which intrigued me and, as I turned the pages, I became ever more engrossed in the author’s apparently bizarre but increasingly compelling argument: namely, that underpinning each of C.S. Lewis’s seven chronicles of Narnia lies the ‘discarded’ medieval theory of the planetary influence of the seven visible ‘planets’. At 3am, and feeling very guilty, I happened to turn back to the book’s ‘Preface’, only to discover that Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, which I was coming across for the first time in a cottage in Shetland, had started life as an ITIA PhD thesis. Well, of course!

I mentioned this to Ewan, I think, because his first PhD proposal – which was fine and coherent – seemed, to me, a bit safe and I felt that, once accepted onto the PhD programme (as he readily was), he could go for something more ambitious. After the summer, Ewan returned with a completely new idea for his PhD – the spiritual care of cancer patients through the arts. Of course, we discussed frankly the personal challenges of researching this while himself living with cancer, but this project felt right and exciting to us both. From an academic point of view, Ewan’s doctoral journey from that point on was unusually smooth: as with truly original research, one thing led to another, and the more Ewan studied, the clearer it became, first, that patients and medical practitioners had recognised the urgent need for spiritual care and, second, that the resources currently available were limited, requiring creative new interventions.

Unlike in art therapy, where patients must practice art, Ewan’s pioneering model for spiritual care involves pinpointing key challenges or areas of experience common to patients with cancer, and then curating works of art – across different media, and across different artistic registers (‘From Beaune to Breaking Bad’) – which help a patient to explore, reflect on, and sometimes re-envisage entirely this challenge or experience. In laying the methodological groundwork for his model, Ewan engaged with many different fields – including Medical Humanities, Narrative Medicine, Television Studies, Literature and Theology, and Religion and Culture, as well as their specific modes of inquiry and sometimes quite technical and specialist vocabularies. During the course of his PhD, Ewan published some six academic articles in leading journals in these fields, as well as many shorter public-facing articles for Transpositions, and other blogs. Through his PhD and his body of publications, Ewan has contributed a new intervention in spiritual care, one which could be fruitfully applied to those suffering from other physical and mental illnesses. He has also opened up new conversations – especially between theology and the arts and medical care – which, I believe, are of vital importance for the future.

Ewan lived, moreover, to see his theoretical model benefitting patients in practice. During his doctorate, Ewan participated in a men’s group at Maggie’s Cancer Centre, Dundee (for which he would become an ambassador), and he trialled an innovative ‘Fiction Library’ resource for the spiritual care of cancer patients across Scotland. He also ran a Northumberland Cancer Support Group, as part of a six-month internship, which, due to covid, transferred online, providing an invaluable connection for cancer patients (then particularly vulnerable and therefore isolated) via zoom, helping them to share and reflect on their experiences together. Using qualitative research methods, Ewan was also able to draw on these patients’ practical experiences to substantiate the theoretical claims made in his thesis. Ewan had hoped to develop his model, and engage further with the NHS and healthcare providers after his PhD. Instead, it remains now for others to follow up on his pioneering model for spiritual care through the arts, which forms the principal part of Ewan’s scholarly legacy. Although only time will tell, my own view is that Ewan’s short but stellar academic career will have a much more fundamental influence on scholarship and society – on individual lives – than many a much longer career.

In reflecting on ‘God’s Grandeur’ and the Spiritual Exercises in 1881, Gerard Manley-Hopkins connects the last exercise – the ‘Contemplatio ad Amorem’ [Contemplation to Obtain Love] – with the beginning and foundational principle of St Ignatius of Loyola:

Contemplatio – This last exercise of the book corresponds to the Foundation. Cp. E.g. 2nd Prelude Amare et servire [to love and to serve] with Homo creatus est ut laudetserviat [Man is created to praise … to serve]’.

This draws out, I think, the potential ambiguity of the first line of Hopkins’ poem: the world, and man in particular, is also charged, called as on a mission – in his life and work – to render glory to God (ad maiorem Dei gloriam) through praise, reverence, and service. ‘Like shining from shook foil’, Ewan, immensely talented as he was, was charged with the grandeur of God: everything he touched, even beyond his academic work – music, sport, even ‘a drawing a day’ – seemed to turn to gold, to conduct this charge of God. One could easily love this spark of God’s glory, God’s gifts, in him. What I love, and admire, much more, though, is Ewan’s sense of mission: that he was charged with a mission, to give of his gifts generously back to God and to others. Given a 50% chance of living for 5 years, he could have chosen an easier or more immediately pleasurable life (a bucket list of adventures, for example), but he chose to embark on a PhD dedicated to the spiritual care of others. He chose not just to shine with his gifts – as the star that he was – but to illuminate new paths for us to follow. Ewan was indeed charged with the grandeur of God, he flames out, like shining from shook foil.

 

 

Author

  • Prof. George Corbett is Professor of Theology, School of Divinity, University of St Andrews. He researches and teaches in theology and the arts (with specialisms in Dante studies, sacred music, and theological aesthetics) and historical and systematic theology (with specialisms in medieval theology, Aquinas’s theology and its influence, and Catholic theology). He is the founder of TheoArtistry, a project bringing together theologians and artists in creative collaboration, and co-founder of CEPHAS, a Thomistic Centre for Philosophy and Scholastic Theology.

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