Book Review: Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art, by Dierdre and Craig Hassed

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_illuminating_wisdomPartners Craig and Deirdre Hassed have collaborated to share wisdom from Eastern, Western, indigenous, ancient and contemporary sources in the form of spiritual and philosophical quotes, mantras, proverbs and blessings. Craig, who wrote the text, is an academic and coordinator of mindfulness programmes at Monash University. Deirdre is a skilled calligrapher with a deep interest in philosophy. Themes covered in their book include love, beauty, truth, justice, service, compassion, virtue, unity, peace and wonder.

The title plays on various meanings of illumination – including the lustrous gilding added to some artworks to reflect light, as well the association with understanding and insight.

Although there are plenty of inspirational and aspirational quotes circulating on Facebook (and sold on cheap canvas ‘art’) few are attributed to individuals and there is typically no contextual information. Illuminating Wisdom is very different: the comprehensive background story for each quote both educates and informs – at times gently challenging readers to consider life from a different perspective.

The book includes Apache and Celtic blessings and the brief ‘indigenous and folk traditions’ section includes a whakatauki (Māori proverb). This section also acknowledges the role of symbolic stories, songs, dances and proverbs and the interwoven connections between land, ancestors and other living creatures (with particular reference to the teachings of the original inhabitants of Australia).

Many of the people quoted are familiar, such as scientists Curie, Newton and Einstein, leaders and politicians Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill and Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Michelangelo. Others are less well-known. The historical notes and accompanying stories are engaging and several inspired me to turn to other sources to find out more. I learned, for example, about the Benedictine Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was the head of a religious community as well as an outspoken philosopher, mystic, author, composer, healer and scientist. Her writing and music are still popular – her Gregorian chants have been updated with electronic effects and modern instrumentation; I was soon listening to her soothing compositions on YouTube.

Craig includes a brief history and outline of diverse spiritual and religious traditions and practices. He explains that spiritual traditions often have dual paths – a religious pathway for people drawn to faith, and a mystical or philosophical pathway for those drawn to reflection.

I was at first confused by the ‘see text’ note accompanying most illustrations, expecting to find a typewritten transcript of the relevant calligraphised quote. This would have been helpful, as some of the more ornate and intricate lettering is a challenge to read. Instead, the referenced text describes the source and context of the quote, and explores its key message and likely intent.

In an ‘artist’s notes’ section at the back of the book, Deirdre summarises the technique used for each calligraphy work, including linocuts, sandblasting, collage, and letterpress prints. She uses inks, hand-stamping, gouache, gold leaf and gold powder, acrylic paint, foil and coloured pencils to inscribe her designs on surfaces such as hand-made, hand-dyed and hand-marbled papers, canvas and papyrus. An index assists readers searching for a particular quote, author, religion, spiritual teaching or tradition.

My favourite? A quote from the Sufi poet Rumi: ‘Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.’ Craig interprets this as a reminder ‘to be open to the grace and good fortune surrounding us’, drawing parallels between this quote and the focus on gratitude in current positive psychology circles. (Food for thought: it was apparently Socrates, rather than Marie Kondo, who first challenged us to consider: “How much can I do without?”)

This is a book to be dipped into and savoured over time. For me its value lies in the history, analysis and wisdom shared alongside each quotation, as well as the beauty of the calligraphy – not only the intricate lettering but also the materials and mediums used to create it.

Illuminating Wisdom would be a good place to turn for inspiration next time you write to comfort, congratulate or console someone you hold close to your heart.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art
by Deirdre Hassed and Craig Hassed
Published by Exile Publishing
ISBN 9781925335354

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