The Parable of the Two Sons

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I will go, sire’, but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

This is an extract from a reflection from Bible Alive for the 26th Sunday 27th September and the above Gospel reading

The message of the parable of the Two Sons can be boiled down to the phrase ‘actions speak louder than words’ (but words and actions would have pleased the father more). We profess our faith and say ‘yes’ at Sunday Mass, but do we live out our faith in our daily lives? Modern Western society likes to try and remove religion and faith from affairs of state and day-to-day living. St John Henry Newman taught that there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Neither of the two sons responds well to their father in today’s reading. One says ‘no’, but then has the strength of character to change his mind and do what he knows is right. The other pays lip-service to his father, but doesn’t do his will.

Dear Jesus, give us courage to respond to your call and challenge. Help us to make a positive contribution to society in your name. Amen

Seeds of God’s Word

Taken from Bible Alive September 19th (

The potential within a seed for new life is one of nature’s miracles. Seemingly small and insignificant in itself, it contains all that is necessry to produce a plant, flower or crop. Jesus compares the word of God to a seed. So how does it cause new life to grow within us? Just as a seed brings a whole new order of life to the soil, so God, through his word and his Spirit, enters into a conversation with us that changes us within. ‘In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them’ (Dei verbum 21).

Jesus said: ‘my words will not pass away’ (Luke 21:33). He is in glory in heaven, but through the Holy Spirit he continues to speak to us. ‘These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit…will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (John 14:25). Jesus’ word has the power to change us as it changed the disciples. But he warns us that there is a battle, that we need to strive to be good soil. Which type of soil are we? Do we resist or welcome the seed of his word? We are called to accept the word, to grow, to choose life. ‘Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls’ (Jas 1:21).

Lord, may the seed of your word bring forth abundant fruit in me.

Comment from the editor: I have a garden. I planted strawberries into a patch. Tomato seeds from last year started to go there. Someone said let them grow among the strawberries and they soon showed themselves to be superior and took over the strawberry patch. Second thing was I noticed potato plants coming up in another part of the garden. I did not plant them and if I had potatoes in previous years they were never planted there. I got about 20 potatoes and I had not done anything. I pray that whatever soil I have that God plants the seeds of his word into my soil (soul) and that they grow and flourish and bring me into a state of goodness that cannot be overcome.

Seventy times Seven

This is taken from the 24th Sunday in the Bible Alive booklet for September (

C.S Lewis was right on the button when he said, ‘Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.’ We pray at every Mass: ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’. Yet, when sinned against by a brother or sister, husband or wife, friend or foe, how ready are we to forgive? And how do we forgive? Reluctantly and resentfully, or readily, from the heart?

When Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive, proposing the generous offer of ‘as many as seven time’, he was really trying to set a limit – to see how few times he could forgive and get away with it! Jesus responded with a number which was not really a number! ‘Seventy-seven times’ (or seventy times seven’) signified a countless number. Again we turn to C.S. Lewis, who explained: ‘We forgive, we mortify our resentment; a week later some chain of thought carries us back to the original offence and we discover the old resentment blazing away as if nothing had been done about it at all. We need to forgive our brother seventy times seven not only for 490 offences but for one offence.’

As often as the sense of grievance rises hot and strong with us, Jesus challenges us to forgive. And this forgiving is not so much about forgetting as about remembering without bitterness or acrimony in our hearts. Jesus speaks in the context of relationships within the church family. The closer a relationship, the more frequently and heavily we tend to tread on one another’s toes. Our deepest hurts are not usually inflicted by our worst enemy, but by our nearest and dearest, those close to us – our friends/relatives/work colleagues.

Editor’s comments: Yes and I say Yes. It is about anything that disturbs us. Every time it comes up give it to God. Again and again until he takes it graciously from our hands. Here is another. Forgiveness – again and again – for the same offense! Until we know that the offense is forgiven and it is God who washed it away when he knew we really and truly wanted to forgive. We are a funny lot but we are all made of the same human stuff.


If you would like to listen to something on the subject of forgiveness then go to youtube Bishop Robert Barrow Anger, and Forgiveness … He has many good Youtubes to listen to.


by Clive Sansom in The Witnesses

For a while, Mark, lay your scoll aside. I need your eyes. When I’m dictating I think in words. That kind of thinking blurs what’s behind the words. You see, I’m no scholar, friend – nor ever will be. Words come hardly to me, very hardly. Though I have fought them for our Master’s sake, I’ll never be their master. Talking’s all right: You see the other’s face; talking is natural. But when I watch you setting down my speech in black and white, it puts my tongue in fetters. So this evening, Mark, just let me say my memories to you. I want to recall this clearer than the rest – it most concerns me. I would remember and re-live what happened on the road to Caesarea, those years ago.

We were walking despondently towards the city discouraged and alone. Driven from Galilee, each had his own regrets. Yes, even he was sorrowful – I sensed it – saying little, scarcely answering…then all at once the sound of water. We raised our heads, and rearing over us, a cliff of limestone, brilliant in sunlight. Streaks of iron, like blood, ran down it, and from a cave half down the rock, the Jordan river descending from the heights of Hermon poured out its spring-clear waters. We stopped, seeing the city of Caesarea behind a lace of spray – the trees, white roofs and towers. It should have lifted us, that sudden vision. Somehow it didn’t. It made us more despondent. For I thought – or was it he who thought and I who felt him? This water that is born so hopefully ends in the Dead Seas’s useless desolation. Abruptly he asked, ‘Who do men say I am?’ We answered variously, ‘John the Baptist, risen’, ‘Elijah or Jeremiah’, ‘One of the prophets’. Silence, the water speaking. Then he asked: ‘Who do you say I am?’ Another silence – only a moment, but enough to tell our disillusionment. I cried – No, rather I heard the words drawn from me – The voice was not my own: ‘You are the Christ, Son of the living God!’ He turned to me transfigured. His face was God’s. ‘Peter‘ (he named me then), ‘You are the rock on which I build my church. The gates of hell shall not prevail against you.’ Oh, Mark, men have their moments, – that was mine, The phrase I’d lived for. Since then I have betrayed it – doubted, denied, deserted him but always those words return, with their background of falling water, each time more powerful than before. For he saw me, not as I was, but as I might become. His faith has hardened me. In course of time the rock has petrified. When that hour comes when I must follow him who questioned me, I shall not fail again. The gates of hell, as he once prophesied, shall not prevail.

The Phoenician Woman

(Taken from The Witnesses written by Clive Sansom)

She has followed us all day, master, hook-nosed, insistent

Yapping at our heels in commercial Greek:

Her husband a boat-builder – those boats of gopher-wood,

Her daughter, it seems, possessed of a devil

Which you, master, a Jew, are supposed to exorcise.

Talk to her master, send her away.

Tell her you came to the children of Israel,

Not to Phoenician dogs.’

He turned on me sternly. But his voice smiled,

You hear what they say?’ he demanded.

Is it right, do you think, taking the children’s food

And tossing it to the dogs?’

Master,’ I replied, feeling the bond between us,

A humour we shared alone,

Even dogs are allowed scraps from the table

When the children reject them.’

His face smiled too.

You have understanding and faith, mother:

it will happen as you desire.’

It was true. Coming to the hill above Tyre,

Weary beyond all weariness, I fell on my knees.

Letting my eyes search where feet could not follow.

Looking down on the cluster of evening ships.

The causeway with its moving chain of carriers

And the heap of murex-shells outside the dye-works,

I saw her coming from the bazaars to meet me,

Her white conspicuous among blues and purples.

She did not need to speak.

She walked up the hill as a girl walks

Whose arms are her own.

The Emperor’s Pardon

(Why go to Confession?)

Confession involves telling the story of our brokenness, of our failures…honestly and simply acknowledging what we are.

The story is told of a prince who was visiting Napoleon, and whom the Emperor wished to honour. Napoleon, it is said, gave the visiting prince permission to pardon a prisoner of his choice. The prince accepted the honour and went to a prison, but with no idea of whom to release. He spoke to very many prisoners, and every one of them said: ‘I, of all people do not deserve to be here.’ Each one had a tale of woe, a justification for their crime, a protestation of innocence, a rationalization, an excuse…

Finally, the prince spoke to a very notorious prisoner, one who had committed terrible crimes. This man, unlike the others, spoke plainly to the prince: ‘I committed evil deeds and I am receiving the punishment I deserve. I abused my freedom, and so my freedom has been taken from me. I, of all people deserve to be here.’ The prince granted that man the Emperor’s pardon.

When word went out that the prince had chosen the most notorious and brutal prisoner in the place, decent people were outraged and demanded to know what he was thinking. The prince explained: ‘The Emperor Napoleon granted me the right to extend his pardon, but nobody can pardon the innocent: I could offer the pardon only to the guilty.’

There is a humorous twist to the story, where the prince, after finally hearing an admission of guilt, says to the jailers: “Throw this man out of here, he is corrupting the innocents.” Legend and embellishment aside, the story underlines one of the main ingredients we need to make a good confession: honesty. Honesty with ourselves and before God.

Confession involves telling the story of our brokenness, of our failures, of our betrayals, of our falling flat on our face – of our need for mercy. It is about naming our need; not denying, not rationalizing, but honestly and simply acknowledging what we are. And the love of God comes pouring into that honesty.

This also sheds light on the old question, why not confess directly to God? There are several reasons, but to consider just one of them, we have a remarkable capacity to be subtle, with ourselves, to explain things away, to distort, downplay or exaggerate. To name things in the presence of a fellow human being, while it can certainly be more demanding, is also far more healing than simply turning things over in our mind. In every single relationship involving healing, be it with a doctor, a therapist, a spouse or a friend, the foundation is open, honest communication on the part of the one who is in need.

So, when the Church asks us to confess our sins honestly to a fellow-sinner entrusted with the Emperor’s pardon, she invites us to be honest with ourselves. It is ironic, not to say rather sad, that while the secular world has come to see the wisdom of ‘naming one’s stuff’ to another, Catholics often disregard this wisdom in the very context where it is liable to bring most healing.

Married people don ‘t expect their spouses to be perfect, but they do expect them to be honest. Love and honesty are closely related: honesty is a response to love and an openness to love. The same applies in our relationship with God.

I’ll conclude with an image I once heard for God’s judgment. Our faith assures us that each one of us will, when the pilgrimage of our life is over, be ‘held to account.’ But to be held to account is nothing other than to be invited to tell our story. And our judgment, this image goes, will be the whispering of our story into the ear of an understanding, loving Father. Confession is not the last judgment, but it is an opportunity to speak something of our story, of our neediness, of our brokenness, into the ear of our loving Father. Let’s not put it off; let’s not hold it back. Let’s not be afraid to approach a priest for the sacrament of reconciliation, and to confess or sins trustfully to a fellow sinner entrusted with the Emperor’s pardon.

Taken from Totus Tuus Edition 15 by Fr Chris Hayden

Totus Tuus website

A Thorn in the Flesh

Yoko was an oyster who had had an easy life. At his birth he had been released from his mother oyster under the form of a small sphere and had swam for five days without ever encountering one of those deadly starfish who could have eaten him up. Then he had had the good fortune of finding a giant rock placed at just the right depth below the surface of the sea. He thereupon had attached himself to that hospitable rock and had settled down to a peaceful existence.

Gradually he had formed the two valves of his shell, feeding himself on the minute organic particles which he filtered from the water passing through his slightly opened valves. After five years Yoko had thus grown to a respectable size, and his valves had become so thick and hard that he no longer feared that a snail would drill a hole through them and devour his soft body. In short, since his birth Yoko had felt quite satisfied with the way things were going.

But one day his life was drastically altered. A grain of sand lodged itself into his shell, causing indescribable irritation to his tender tissues.

Yoko cried out in pain. “Damnation! A foreign body has penetrated my epithelium!”

And thereafter from a contented oyster Yodo became a wretched one. Night and day he fought the intruder, but to no avail. The more he endeavoured to expel the grain of sand, the more it bore into his flesh.

Now Yodo was by no means a pious oyster. He did occasionally think of praising God when a particularly tasty tidbit of organic matter entered his shell, but whatever religion he had ended there. However, faced with the totally new experience of pain, he decided that extreme measures were in order: for the first time in his life he prayed in earnest.

“Lord,” he pleaded, “please deliver me from this grain of sand.”

Naturally, his plea reached the ears of God, for God is just as present in the depths of the sea as in the heights of the sky, and he never lets a sincere prayer go unnoticed. So God spoke up as soon as Yoko had formulated his request.

“Yoko, my beloved oyster,” God said, “rest assured that your prayer has reached me.”

“Then you will grant me my wish?” asked the mollusk, “and rid me of this grain of sand which hurts me so much?”

There was a pause.

Then God answered gently, “I did not say that, Yoko. I only said that I was aware of your distress. Now, as to ridding you of it, that is another matter. You will have to trust my love for you and live with it for a while.”

This did not suit Yoko at all. He wanted action, and he wanted it now. This he told God in no uncertain terms. But God remained unyielding.

“Trust me,” he repeated, “and in the end all will be well.”

Of courses this was not at all to Yoko’s taste, and he was thoroughly disgusted with God. Humph! His talk about trusting him was all very nice, but he didn’t have a foreign body tearing away at his insides… So ran his thoughts. And for quite a while he ranted and raved at the insensitivity of God, at the cruelty of life, at the injustice of his fate, at his fellow oysters, at the sea currents and at everything in sight.

All the same, there came a day when his resentment finally spent itself, and he began to take stock of his situation. Bitterness, he reasoned, would not solve his problem. However much he blamed God for his plight, God had apparently made up his mind that events would run their course. On the other hand, however much Yoko fought the grain of sand, it would not go away. So, in desperation, Yoko opted for the only reasonable course of action left to him: he appealed to God once more, but this time for advice.

“Lord,” he prayed, “what shall I do?”

God answered, “Love your grain of sand.”

“What?” cried the oyster in utter disbelief, “you want me to love the cause of all my troubles?”

“Yes,” God replied, “that is what I would like you to do. But, of course, it is all up to you. You can go on hating your grain of sand and thus continue to be miserable for the rest of your life. Or you can love it and find happiness in the process.”

Yoko mulled this over in his mind for a long time. He was certainly keen on finding happiness, but the means to achieve this seemed to defy common sense. But then, as God had insisted from the start, this whole business was not a question of common sense but of faith in him. After all, he mused, what did he have to lose? He could hardly be more wretched than he was presently. Maybe he should take God at his word and see what would happen.

“All right, Lord,” he said finally, “I’ll do it your way, at least for the time being. I’ll try to love this monster inside of me. But you’ll have to show me how to go about it, because the only feeling I can experience at the moment is hate. I simply loathe that grain of sand.”

“That’s all right, Yoko,” replied God, “I know you can’t change your feelings by an act of the will. I’m merely suggesting that you love your grain of sand through an appropriate action on your part.”

“And what would that be?” asked the oyster.

“It’s really very simple,” said God, “Just make a nest for it in your body and leave it there in peace.”

Well that did not sound too impossible. So Yoko decided to give it a try. He gradually formed a cyst of tissue around the grain of sand. This took a long time, but eventually the work was done. The result was startling, for by now the pain, which had subsided by degrees, had completely disappeared.

“Well, well, well,” thought the oyster in amazement, “at least that part of God’s promise has already been fulfilled. If I can’t say as yet that I’m happy, at least I’m not miserable any more.”

And so time passed.

One day, God awoke Yoke from his afternoon siesta.

“Yoko, Yoko,” he called.

“Yes, Lord,” ansered the oyster.

“Remember, Yoko, I promised that, if you trusted me, things would go well for you? Now the time has come for me to fulfill my promise. Look down into your shell.”

Yoko was greatly surprised by this order. After all, he had learned from his early childhood that the interior of his shell was always plunged in darkness. And because of this, he had long ago given up looking into his shell. But now, prompted by God’s invitation, he looked in.

A strange sight awaited him. His entire body was suffused by a soft, white light. This originated from the part of his organism where he had made a nest for the grain of sand. And there, in the midst of the cistlike tissue which formed the nest, a perfect orb of matter was glowing. The grain of sand had become a matchless pearl.

The voice of God asked gently, “Are you happy now, Yoko?”

The oyster could not answer. His eyes were transfixed in utter fascination, feasting on the pearl. And, in a remote part of his mind, something in him wondered how it was possible that so much pain could produce so much beauty.

A story from Nil Guillemette, S.J. Greater Than Our Hearts – God-Tales for Young and Old.

‘The smallest of all seeds’

by Michael Commane in The Irish Times Saturday July 18th 2020 in Church Notes Thinking Anew

It was brought to my attention some days ago that an acquaintance referred to me as a “thug”. I presume it was about something I had written or a view that I had expressed. It appears we have different opinions on myriad subjects, theologically, politically and socially. It set me thinking and while I jokingly told friends I considered it a badge of honour, it did of course hurt me. Have I never referred to an opponent as a “thug”? Unfortunately, I too have used the word. When someone calls you a name you mull over it and spend some time thinking about it. We spend more time and energy thinking of the negative aspects people see in us than the positive ones. You wonder why someone might think badly of you and no matter who they are, most of us don’t want people to perceive us badly. The corollary is certainly true, when someone speaks well of us, we immediately are inclined to view them in more positive terms. On reflection, it dawned on me that the man who called me that name had never in his life sat down and spoken with me in any serious way. I always felt he was shouting at me.

And isn’t that so often the story of our lives? We form opinions of people, make judgements, yet knowing so little about them. Certainly, I often find myself forming opinions of celebrities and politicians without knowing the first thing about them. We can easily do the same about our neighbours or acquaintances. It might be based on how they look, the way they walk. Yes, it’s as superficial as that. Isn’t that why corporations and political parties spend so much time, money and energy on advertising? If they can manage to get their target audience to see someone in a a favourable light then they have the possibility of winning them over to their side, buying their product or voting for their candidate. Is it all as ephemeral as that? I suspect it may well be. Dogmatists and those with “notions” about themselves may claim that it’s objective standards, the teaching of the difference between right and wrong, that win people over to doing what is right and proper.

Of courses, that approach too has a role to play in the forming of a person and the structuring of good society. But we can never, nor must we ever, forget about the incidental words and acts of kindness that shape us and leave indelible marks on our psyche. Jesus tell us in Matthew 13:24-43 that “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches.”

Isn’t it a remarkable illustration of the effects of the smallest of things and then how significant they can become in our lives? Indeed, they are so influential that we continue to go back to them looking for shelter and protection, just as the birds seek shelter in the branches. And again, in Psalm 86 we are told that the Lord is kind and forgiving and most loving to all who invoke him. Little acts of kindness have the potential to swell into major moments in our lives. When we experience acts of kindness from another person, we will see that person in a positive and warm light. Alas, the reverses too is true, when someone disrespects us, it makes it far easier for us to see them in a negative light.

Maybe we are called to focus on God, who is love and compassion. Instead of looking for the weak and negative aspects in other people, we are encouraged to see them as the handiwork of God, who fashioned them. It’s easy enough to call a person a thug, and I may well deserve it, but it’s more gracious and uplifting to acknowledge another person’s moments of greatness and goodness, a potential of which we are all capable. If we all make greater efforts to be kind to one another. to understand people’s challenges and frailties, surely, we shall see them in a different light and they in turn will reciprocate those acts of kindness. Pie in the sky? No actually it’s the message of Jesus.

Editors remarks – May the Lord give us the grace…….

Deeper things under the surface

Fr Rolheiser writes in The Irish Catholic July 9th, 2020:

Imagine this. You are the dutiful daughter or son and your mother is widowed and living in an assisted living facility. You happen to be living close by while your sister is living across the country, thousands of miles away. So the weight falls on you to be the one to help take care of your mother. You dutifully visit her each day. Every afternoon, on route home from work, you stop and spend an hours with her as she has her early dinner. And you do this faithfully, five times a week, year after year.

As you spend this hour each day with your mother, year after year, how many times during the course of a year will you have a truly stimulating and deep conversation with your mother? Once? Twice? Never? What are you talking about each day? Trivial things: the weather, your favourite sports team, what your kids are doing, the latest show on television, her aches and pains, and the mundane details of your own life.


Occasionally you might even doze off for a while as she eats her early dinner. In a good year, perhaps once or twice the conversation will take on some depth and the two of you will share more deeply about something of importance; but, save for that rare occasion, you will simply be filling in the time each day with superficial conversation.

But, and this is the question, are those daily visits with your mother in fact superficial, merely functionary because your conversations aren’t deep? Are you simply going through the motions of intimate relationship because of duty? Is anything deep happening?

Well, compare this with your sister who is (conveniently) living across the country and comes home once a year to visit your mother. When she visits, both she and your mother are wonderfully animated, they embrace enthusiastically, shed some tears upon seeing each other, and seemingly talk about things beyond the weather, their favourite sports teams, and their own tiredness. And you could kill them both!

It seems that in this once-a-year meeting they have something that you, who visit daily, do not have. But is this true? Is what is happening between your sister and your mother in fact deeper than what is occurring each day when you visit your mother?

Absolutely not. What they have is, no doubt, more emotional and more affective, but it is, at the end of the day, not particularly deep.

When your mother dies, you will know your mother better than anyone else knows her and you will be much closer to her than your sister. Why? Because through all those days when you visited her and seemed to talk about nothing beyond the weather, some deeper things were happening under the surface.

When your sister visited your mother things were happening on the surface (though emotionally and affectively the surface can look wonderfully more intriguing than what lies beneath it). That is why honeymoons look better than marriage.

What your sister had with your mother is what novices experience in prayer and what couples experience on a honeymoon. What you had with your mother is what people experience in prayer and relationships when they are faithful over a long period of time.

At a certain level of intimacy in all our relationship, including our relationship with God in prayer, the emotions and the affectivity (wonderful as they are) will become less and less important and simple presence, just being together, will become paramount.

Previous to that, the important things were happening on the surface and emotions and affectivity were important; now deep bonding is happening beneath the surface and emotions and affectivity recede in importance. At a certain depth of relationship just being present to each other is what is important.

Too often, both popular psychology and popular spirituality do not really grasp this and consequently confuse the novice for the proficient, the honeymoon for the wedding and the surface for the depth. In all of our relationships, we cannot make promises as to how we will always feel, but we can make promises to always be faithful, to show up, to be there, even if we are only talking about the weather, our favourite sports team, the latest television program or our own tiredness.

And it is okay occasionally to fall asleep while there because as Therese of Lisieux once said: a little child is equally pleasing to its parents, awake or asleep, probably more asleep! That also holds true for prayer. God does not mind us occasionally napping while at prayer because we are there and that is enough.

The great Spanish doctor of the soul, John of the Cross, tells us that as we travel deeper into any relationship, be it with God in prayer, with each other in intimacy or with the community at large in service, eventually the surface will be less emotive and less affective and the deeper things will begin to happen under the surface.

website editor says : highlighted in this article are the following two quotes which I find inspiring and hope that you do too.

“At a certain level of intimacy in all our relationships, including our relationship with God in prayer, the emotions and the affectivity (wonderful as they are) will become less and less important and simple presence, just being together, will become paramount”

“It is okay occasionally to fall asleep while there because as Therese of Lisieux once said: a little child is equally pleasing to its parents, awake or asleep, probably more asleep!”

Secrets in Stone



Hagar and Forever Free – two of Edmonia’s works

Edmonia Lewis – a black, Catholic, American sculptor – cut an unusual figure in nineteenth century Rome. Joanna Moorhead seeks to unravel the mystery of this remarkable woman. Article taken from The Tablet 4th July 2020.

Not far from The Tablet’s office in west London, in a Catholic cemetery containing the remains of distinguished figures including Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, writer Max Pemberton and entertainer Danny La Rue, is a grave that until recently was unmarked and known only as plot C350.

Today it has a shiny headstone, and the legacy of the individual whose remains lie beneath is attracting belated but much-deserved accolades from the art world. A distinguished sculptor, who rose from modest roots in New York to become a celebrated figure in Rome, what’s most remarkable of all is that this artist was also female, and black.

Her name was Edmonia Lewis, and as the headstone, erected in 2017 in St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green, reveals, she was born in 1844 and died in 1907. The truth is that even if she was a contemporary artist, the story of her struggle, her indomitable spirit and her success would be extraordinary – because to this day, as the Black Lives Matter protests have made abundantly clear, the world is ranged against people like her.

“Women artists, artists of colour, face the same obstacles today that Edmonia faced,” says her biographer, Albert Henderson, on the phone from Connecticut. “But her talent was her capital. She was an incredibly skilled artist, and she was also determined, single-minded, and unstoppable.” The fact that one of her focuses as an artist was the abolition of slavery only underlines her relevance and resonance in the present moment.

Lewis’ attributes meant she found recognition in her lifetime, especially in Rome where she worked out of a studio off the Piazza Barberini She must have cut an unlikely figure in the city, at a time when it was dominated by white artists. In fact, says Henderson, it was the patronage of several white British Catholics, who encountered her in Rome, that helped launch her success. “I think they related because of their recusant history. They knew what it was like to be a second-class citizen,” he says. Their influence was presumably behind a short news report, which appeared in The Tablet of 10 March 1866, that noted: “Miss Edmonia Lewis, a lady of colour, has taken a studio in Rome, and works as a sculptress.”

Much of Lewis’ story is sadly lost in time – and much of her work, even more unfortunately, is physically lost. The current focus on Black Lives Matter, though, is helping to turn the tide, and Lewis is one of many unsung inspirational figures profiled in the Black History and Culture strand on the Google Arts & Culture platform.

She was born to a mother who was of Chippewa Indian heritage and an African American father, but both her parents died when she was a young child and she went to live with her mother’s family in their tribe. Those years were formative for her art, and perhaps she was also propelled by the Indian name by which she was now known, “Wildfire”. When she was 12, her brother, Sunrise, went to California to become a gold miner, and sent back money to pay for her education in Ohio.

Schooling was to be the making of Lewis, but it also very nearly unseated her: in a move that was almost certainly racially motivated, she was accused of trying to poison her white roommates. She was eventually acquitted, but not before she had been beaten by white vigilantes.

She moved to Boston to study sculpture, and among her first works were busts of abolitionists; it was the sale of one of these, of Robert Gould Shaw, that gave her the funds to buy a one-way ticket on a ship to Europe. She travelled around for a while before settling in Rome, as reported in The Table, having gained the support of established sculptors such as Hiram Powers. Rome was a fashionable place to be a sculptor at the time; as well as its history of sculpting in antiquity, fine white marble was available there, and the skills of Italian stone-cutters.

Being away from the US didn’t diminish Lewis’ interest in her African American and Native American heritage; if anything, it seems to have given her the space to focus on it more. One of her best-known works, now in the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, is Forever Free, depicting a man and woman emerging from slavery, shackles held aloft. Another piece, Old Arrow Maker, shows a Native American father instructing his young daughter.

Her relationship with Catholicism, like much in her life, is shrouded in mystery. According to Henderson, she used to say that “the black robes taught us to say our prayers”, which he believes is a reference to the Jesuit missionaries who worked in New York State when she was growing up there. She seems to have been baptised as an adult, although precisely when and where is unclear. “We’ve been to the Vatican archives to see if it happened in Rome, but there’s no record of it there”, says Henderson. More tangible evidence of her faith perhaps is evinced in her biblical works: one of her masterpieces is a statue of Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant from the Book of Genesis who became the world’s first surrogate mother when she gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Hagar was later cast out after Sarah gave birth to her own son, Isaac; in the sculpture, she is a symbol of the courage of an oppressed female. She also created a Moses, copied after Michelangelo, and now lost Adoration of the Magi.

Most of Lewis’ adult life was lived out in Rome, but she made regular journeys back to the US, taking examples of her sculpture with her and encouraging galleries to show them. In 1872 she was in California for an exhibition of her work at the San Francisco Art Association; four years later came important recognition when she was included in the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. Her piece, The Death of Cleopatra, was an unsentimental portrayal of the Egyptian queen in her final moment. One reviewer called it “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the show. The fact that it was then lost for a century, and discovered in 1988 hidden in a Chicago storage room, stands testament to how deeply art history, a discipline dominated by white men, has ignored the contribution of women, and women of colour in particular. The Death of Cleopatra now stands in the Smithsonian in Washington.

The later years of Lewis’ life are as intriguing as her early times. Exactly when she moved to London, or why, is unknown, but by the census of 1901 she was living in Bloomsbury. She seems to have moved again, to a house on Blythe Road in Hammersmith, and appears to have been a regular parishioner at Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. If she produced any work for that church, though, it was almost certainly lost when the premises were bombed during the Second World War. Today, the only places in Britain where you can see her work are the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and at Mount Stuart in Scotland, whose owner, the third Marquess of Bute, was one of those long-time British supporters of her work. Lewis died in the Hammersmith infirmary and, says Henderson, she asked for her death notice to be published in The Tablet. “A spinster and sculptor” was how she wanted to be remembered; more than 100 years on, that ambition seems finally to be being realised.

The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis by Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson is available for download on Kindle. For further information, see