by Tim Stead
from Signs of the Times No. 41 - Apr 2011

This is a 'resource' book, as we used to call them as curates - desperately looking for books to have on our shelves ready to turn to when our training incumbents suddenly asked us to lead some event or worship or, in this case, a series of meditations!

And it is a good one. Touching the Sacred is a book of led meditations or short services intended to be used for a small or a large group on themes throughout the church's liturgical year, together with a set of startling images of artwork by Jake Lever depicting the human hand in many different shapes, sizes and poses as visual aids to the meditations. The accompanying CD-ROM enables you to print off the meditations or services for participants and also print or project the images for people to use. This is well formatted and easy to use.

The services (as I shall call them - they are somewhere between a service and meditations) each follow the same pattern (with occasional variation): opening prayer; psalm; bible reading; lead meditation on the reading and the image; reflective music (which you have to provide); silent reflection; invocation prayer; responsorial prayers; intercessory prayers; closing prayer. There are a set of between 6 and 9 services for each of the different seasons: Michaelmas (Angel hands); Epiphany (Magi hands); Holy Week (Christ hands); and Pentecost (Jester hands). Each set could be used as a short service each week say at the end of a home group (or as part of a church evening), or all together to lead you through a quiet day or retreat weekend.

So, plenty of material for flexible use and with very a helpful CD to enable preparation of materials. But what of the material itself?

First, the images. As I say, I found them quite startling: beautiful and beguiling with an ethereal quality to them. I have only seen them on my own computer but I suspect they would be even better projected but probably not as effective printed. I do not have the art critic's language to describe them but I think the word might be 'non-real'. They are clearly hands and apparently drawn from real hands but beyond that there is much to meditate on in their texture, colour, the obscurity of the shapes and the juxtaposition of other shapes or other hands. I would be happy sitting in front of them in silence or with music for quite a while.

The words by Chris Thorpe I was less startled by. They are good and consistent and many will find them moving and thought provoking but there is no attempt to spill over from traditional themes in the way that the images of the hands do. Reasonably familiar images continue to emerge throughout, albeit in well written prose. I would also feel that there are too many words in the meditations and too much to take in - but then you would be at liberty to edit these yourself. So, if that is what you are looking for - and many will be, then this is a good buy. However, as a member of Modern Church which is concerned at least in part with re-thinking the traditional in order to express eternal truths to a contemporary culture I was a bit disappointed that there was little that was new or arresting here - for me.

That may be simply my own personal gripe though. And having said that there will be occasions on which I can imagine myself using this - and happily so!

Tim Stead is priest in charge at Holy Trinity Headington Quarry, Oxford.
Touching the Sacred: Art and Prayer to Inspire Worship - words by Chris Thorpe, images by Jake Lever, is published by Canterbury Press, ISBN 9781848250246