Book Launch – Beyond the Face: Looking for the Soul in a Portrait

We are delighted to announce that our Abbey Missioner, Reverend Stephen Girling, has published his first book: Beyond the Face: Looking for the Soul in a Portrait. Here, we sit down with Stephen to discover what inspired him to write his book, what the writing process was like, and what he learnt along the way.

We invite you to join us for the official book launch:

  • Bath Abbey, Bath, BA1 1LT
  • Friday 12th July
  • 1pm in the Abbey
  • No tickets required

Beyond the Face Blurb

Our lives are a complex web of relationships with those we most associate with by their face. For some this includes a face of God, imagined or as portrayed by artists. These relationships give us insights about ourselves and others that change how we think or what we believe or value. By focussing on the human face, Beyond the Face explores how portraits can help us relate to other people in an intentional and expectant way. Using a three-step method of noticing, responding, and reflecting they offer a straight-forward way both to read the human face in a portrait and to notice ourselves being read by it. Written in an accessible way, this is a book that will deepen our empathy for friends and strangers in order that we might live in a kinder and more generous way.

Author BioA reverend holds a book with a red cover, called Beyond the Face, by Stephen Girling

Stephen Girling was ordained as a parish priest in the Church of England in 1991, after a short career as a scientist with the Ministry of Defence. He has a long-standing interest in art history and spirituality and has written and delivered short courses and lectures on topics which engage with art, lived experience, personal formation, and Christian spirituality. In 2016 he completed a Masters in ‘Theology, Imagination and Culture’ at Sarum College, Salisbury. As Missioner and Priest at Bath Abbey he curates exhibitions of the Abbey’s own collections and visiting art collections and installations. He is a trained and practising spiritual director. Stephen is married with four children and lives in Bath.


Author Q&A

What inspired you to write this book?

I was reading Vincent Van Gogh’s letters and came across one in which he told his brother Theo he wanted to paint portraits of ordinary people using colour combinations which would help us see through to their soul. I realised he was doing what the painters of religious icons do when they paint images of Christian saints – opening a window onto eternity, where the soul finds its consummation. I was inspired to build on Vincent’s aspiration and devise a method to help us approach any portrait as a ‘window onto the soul’.

What was the writing process like?

It was long and tortuous, because I was having to fit it around working as a full-time vicar. However, every time I went back to writing I found I was still passionate about the subject. That passion (and the support of many people) kept me going.

What was the most difficult part of writing the book?

I wanted to write a book that would engage both people who would describe themselves as ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual but not religious’. As a full-time vicar it took a lot of discipline and close attention to get out of an overly religious mindset – but I believe I managed it in the end.

Is there a story behind the image on the front cover?

I had been reading about the ability of AI to create images, including portraits. I decided to do an experiment and have a go. I was astonished how, in a very short space of time, the software I used came up with a portrait (of myself) I was happy with, in the ‘cubist style of Picasso’(although it wasn’t repeatable). It begs the question of ‘who exactly is the artist?’

What have you learnt from the process of writing a book?

Be patient, keep tapping into your core inspiration, talk to other people and don’t give up while there is a ‘fire’ burning within you to get it done.

What important advice would you give a first-time author?

Find what you’re passionate about and once you have an idea for a book see yourself as a midwife bringing it to birth: there is only so much you can do, much of the time is waiting, pondering and being available to what is growing within.

Book Review

‘I found the approach of this book to be transformational in my own spiritual journey, it provides a simple framework which can be applied across many contexts to build connections with unfamiliar people and a deeper appreciation of what it means to be fully human.’

– Dr Anne Moseley, Faculty member, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies

Book Launch

Please see the event listing here.