by Tim Purchase
from Signs of the Times No. 69 - Apr 2018

The return to acceptance of meditation as something mainstream, and the availability of information about alternative religious practices has made this book more readable for many, although one has to say that, if the reader has little or no knowledge of spiritual contemplation, they may find the work difficult to understand.

Quite clearly the author, Philip Pegler, holds the subject of his book, the late Rev Dr Martin Israel, in extremely high regard. It does become clear, early in the book, that the lives of both men were very similar, not so much in actual place, but in experience and the desire for ultimate truth.

The author and his subject both start their journey outside of the Christian faith. The book traces both men’s journeys to finding eventual solace and support within an Anglican setting. Martin Israel started from a Jewish upbringing, and suffered physical abuse from his father, a subject that is mentioned often in the book. The author took the path of Eastern mysticism before finding Martin Israel by chance and being counselled by him. This ultimately led the author to embrace Christianity and explore his issues with guidance from Israel as his new spiritual director.

Looking at the life of Martin Israel, one sees a very troubled soul, and somebody who was born into the wrong religion. He, like the author, went on a journey both spiritually and physically. He began in South Africa and ended up in England. He trained and qualified as a doctor, which he excelled at. It was where he developed his pastoral skills, and you can quite see how this training was suitable for somebody who would go on to exercise a pastoral ministry within the Church of England. Whether he found being a doctor too unfulfilling, or whether other factors contributed to his change in direction, is not entirely clear. What is rather surprising is that Israel was ordained in the Church of England without undertaking any theological training. Despite this, Israel moved seamlessly into being a parish priest. The author has high praise for his parochial ministry, which is where they finally met. Israel, as parish priest, took it upon himself to extend his ministry to any who would come to him for spiritual direction. This ministry caused the author to experience peace and contentment and be moved to accept Christianity as the meaning in his life.

Israel’s theological message was complex, but he was teaching that everything evil could be overcome by love. He taught those who came to him to reflect on their inner being, and once you had achieved that state of grace, nothing else could harm you. Even more surprising is the fact that he was subject to severe bouts of depression. You could see this as the ‘thorn in the side’ that Saint Paul refers to when writing about himself, but it is a paradox in the book; that somebody who was so adept at giving other people advice and meaning to their lives, should at times be so unsure of his own purpose.

If you persevere with this book and finish it, you will be left with a desire to learn more about the subject, and indeed perhaps the author. It is also somewhat of a matter of thought as to why Martin Israel did not receive preferment in the church, after his rather rapid path to ordination. It could be an interesting historical study, albeit a bit of an oddity!

Tim Purchase is a Lay Worship Leader and Pastoral Assistant working in several parishes in Wiltshire. He has a keen interest in liturgy and the working out of the Gospel in rural parishes.