12. God in our Passions
I suggested in chapter 3 that the Biblical witness is that God can and does speak to us through anything and everything. If everything is God’s creation then everything will have God’s ‘thumb-print’ on it and it is therefore hardly surprising that we can find God in everything if we have the eyes to see.
- Wood Carving
- Living without a goal?
- Modern Art
- Hills and Moors
- A walk on the wild side
- Working Out
- The Stones
- Novel Reading
I also suggested that we often seem to find it easier to hear God speaking to us when we are doing things that we enjoy doing, things that we are committed to and passionate about. Again, this is not perhaps very surprising because when we are enjoying ourselves we are probably more likely to be relaxed and open, and therefore more receptive to God. A corollary is that time for pleasure needs to be a part of our spiritual discipline. Many Christians find this a difficult pill to swallow. Some have been brought up with the notion that if you are enjoying yourself then it can’t be good for you. But if God is a loving God Who seeks a relationship founded on love with us, Who has created the world and sees it as good, then enjoying God’s creation and being open to God’s presence in the process sounds like a virtue it’s hard to find fault with.
We can put this another way. If we pay attention to what we are passionate about, to what gives us pleasure [providing of course that it isn’t something that does harm to ourselves, others or the planet] then it will have much to teach us about life and will inevitably end up leading us to God.
I learnt this for myself as a teenager standing on the terraces at White Hart Lane watching my beloved Spurs play football. Football was and still is, one of my abiding passions. A hitherto untapped part of me came alive amidst the crowd of 50,000 people supporting our team, cheering when they played well and groaning when things went badly [an experience not unlike attending a Pentecostal meeting I used to suspect?]. It was in the camaraderie of the invariably good-hearted crowd, that I discovered myself to be part of some corporate something bigger than me. Like every true football supporter I gave my commitment to my team, and once it’s given, that commitment can never be taken back. I read once in a magazine that English men are statistically more likely to seek a divorce from an unsatisfactory marriage, than they are to stop supporting their football team when it is playing badly. That’s very, very sad but I fear that it’s true! I am forever a Spurs supporter and my mood on a Saturday night was, and still is somewhat to my embarrassment, largely determined by how the lads have got on in the afternoon. I have no control over this. My mood depends on what happens to a group of men over whom I have no control whatsoever. Football teaches me to cope with the glorious highs of success as well as the sloughs of despond and failure. Hope springs eternal at the beginning of each new season, and every match is a fresh start. This is not unlike the Christian life I used to think, for once I was committed to belief in God I soon realised that I was not in charge of my life any more, and I had to learn to roll with what comes.
On a good day when the team are playing well it’s all poetry and art, but sometimes things aren’t going so well and you have to roll your sleeves up, get stuck in, and just do your best to grind out a result: life’s a lot like that too!
Back in those teenage years one of Spurs great rivals were Wolves, who played a rather more physical style of football. An image is etched on my memory from a night game against them. It was billed as a crucial clash of two giants of the game, and the outcome was said to hinge on whether Spurs midfield creative genius, a Scot called Johnny White, could evade the shackles which the hard tackling Wolves defender Ron Flowers would seek to place on him. Spurs broke out of defence on their left and play moved quickly down their left flank. Johnny White raced from the left side of the pitch away from where the ball was, into the large open spaces of the right side of the pitch. This looked like complete madness; he appeared to be running away from the play. But it was in fact a stroke of genius; he was putting himself into space from which the ball was switched for him to deliver a killer pass.
I have learnt more from that image about life and my relationship with God, than from countless sermons and talks. I learnt young that my passion was my teacher in life and a sure path to God. Listening over the years to friends talking about their passions, I realised that what was true for me seemed to be equally true for others. So in this chapter I have invited a number of friends to reflect on their passions and to wonder what they have learnt from them and whether or not they might have led them deeper into God.
The aim of this chapter has not been to cover all possible passions, that clearly is not possible, but to try and offer a range of them. Some of those here you may know personally, but you may reflect differently on them, others may be new to you. We are not suggesting that these reflections offer the way to reflect on these things, but that they offer a way. Hopefully they will offer ways which stimulate deeper and renewed reflection on your own experience? You might like to write a piece on your passion for your own personal benefit.
A final thought. If our passions lead us to God, whether they be football, singing, dancing or whatever, then these are activities that large numbers of people indulge in, most of whom have no explicit Christian faith. But if we recognise that God meets us there, then presumably God meets all these other punters there too. Maybe they name and recognise God in what they are doing. Maybe they don’t. I’m not sure how much that matters? Didn’t Jesus say something to the effect that ‘it’s not those who say “Lord, Lord” who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but those who do the will of my Father Who is in heaven?’ Maybe naming God is less important than being in touch with God and responding to the God Who is actively in touch with us. And it appears that the God we are dealing with is a God Who meets us in whatever we are passionate about and Who touches us there? Who are we to pass judgement on how others respond to that touch? How can we possibly tell?
OK, so maybe a passion for patchwork seems a little odd, cutting up bits of material in order to sew them together again! But then, there’s probably something a little strange to the outsider about most passions. Patchwork is my passion; it’s about working with colour, pattern and texture. It’s being creative, getting involved in making something new: it energises me. I love the feel of fabric and look for beautifully coloured and patterned cottons for quilting, although sometimes I’ll use other materials to bring in light or dark, or just because I want to bend the rules a bit further, or attempt the impossible once again… Sometimes I’ll get a different feeling by altering the surface of the cloth, folding it, putting in pleats and tucks that move the fabric here and there, giving depth and texture.
Quilting allows me to be reflective: with my hands occupied my mind is freer to dip and dive, making connections. Traditional patchwork is about repeating blocks, laid out so that an overall pattern flows across them. One block on its own may look nothing much, but together they sing a completely different song. There’s a rhythm and a flow to this repetition of pattern that feels like good liturgy, it feeds the soul, stilling it so that God can be heard and encountered in a new way. Occasionally, when prayer becomes impossible, quilting becomes my only way of connecting with God. When life is difficult, I leave frustration behind as I quilt. When things are going well, I glory in being creative. Either way, I have to quilt, and ignoring that passion leaves me in dangerous waters, where I am somehow less ‘myself’.
There’s a real energy in starting a new quilt, as there can be in starting anything new. As a child I was taught to always finish things, but I’ve learned not to worry overmuch about unfinished quilting projects: either a flash of an idea will transform them, or they will be unsuccessful experiments to shelve or abandon. Quilting has helped me appreciate the importance of community. Historically, quilts were often group efforts, an almost subversive form of artistic expression by women who had few other outlets for their creativity?. And the sense of the quilting community is still strong. I’ve found quilt groups to be very friendly, cooperative groups of people, always willing to share ideas and often working together.
Most quilts use only the simplest of stitches, just a running stitch, but the simple can become divine in the hands of the creator with imagination. Quilting can speak of resurrection. Recycling might be a modern catchword, but quilters have always recycled fabric inventively, resurrecting the new from the old. Even the tiniest fragments of fabric can be used in quilting; all have a contribution to make, something that enriches, just as our simple actions can together bring about the Kingdom of God.
But quilting takes time and patience – both often difficult to find. Sometimes people ask me how long it takes to make a quilt: it can be years, but most of the time is spent thinking and dreaming my way towards finishing, trying new ideas, ripping out stitches that don’t work, or are inaccurate – a slow process. In a world obsessed by words, quilting communicates in a different way, drawing ideas outside the strait-jacket of words. I’m often surprised by what people see in my quilts, but one thing quilting teaches me is always to be open to being surprised!
A bit late, you might think – I discovered my passion for singing in my mid-50s. You’d be partly right – many singing avenues are closed to me through my late start; my body is simply too old to adapt in the ways necessary for a high flying singer. That has been and is a source of deep grief – and anger: towards God and others who might have pointed me in the right direction and encouraged me when I was young, and towards myself for being so fearful for all those years.
But one of the many lessons of my life-journey of faith and learning is to grow by putting the regrets into the background. They don’t go away, I know they are there, but I am determined to make the most of life as it is, with what I have, now. The God of my childhood and earlier life, micromanaging the details of the world scene and my personal life, has gone. I, in company with travelling companions, have the responsibility for what I make of my gifts and circumstances.
So now I sing when I can and I love it. The hard work of choir rehearsals is richly rewarded in performance. Occasionally an unsought moment of transcendence is the ‘icing on the cake’. I can still feel the thrill of the first concert during which this happened, in Vaughan Williams’ ‘Serenade to Music’. Then it’s hard to hold back the emotions and concentrate on the next few bars. There’s nothing like it! In these moments, I am drawn out of myself towards the transcendent, the energy holding everything together, the creative force – call it God if you like, but I’m still working on throwing away the unwanted connotations accompanying that title.
The Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam is a marvellous tribute to one of the great artists. It also helps me explain why I enjoy picture framing. Poor in his lifetime Vincent (1853-1890) sold very little of his work and relied on his brother Theo to support him. In the gallery you will see two extremes of framing. The first is a study of the colour yellow called “Still life with quinces and lemons.” (1887-1888). It is moving because it is bordered by the only original painted frame made by Van Gogh himself. No others have been preserved. There are gaps in the corners of the frame and the painted wood is chipped and faded in places. The frame would never pass a trade exam and yet it has a symmetry, simplicity and beauty all of its own. This work is displayed alongside the second extreme; other masterpieces since placed in incredibly ornate, exquisite and beautifully gilded frames. These surround and proclaim the works of a grand master. Some of them in fact are so ornate they almost detract from the artwork! As an amateur framer wandering this famous gallery I found myself itching to re-frame many of the paintings to better complement the artwork.
Picture framing is an intricate, detailed and fascinating industry. I first became interested in it when I had a sabbatical from my day job as a vicar. I wanted to do something practical and different, so I attended a professional framing course. This week long residential was great fun and totally absorbing. The hours from morning to night flew by and at the end I had produced seven pictures framed to a high standard, and learnt a great deal from our tutor. I resolved to continue, and along with a developing interest in art, I was hooked, and sensed God’s hand leading my enthusiasm. In my life this has been a hard lesson. I have had to learn that God can guide me through my passions and interests outside of the church. In this case I’m glad I did respond by continuing a new found hobby. It is one I never dreamt I would follow as I never learnt about art at school and only had rudimentary woodwork lessons. However, it is now an important part of my life and teaches me a great deal about discipline, care, and preparation as well as appreciating a craft.
I enjoy framing because of the sense of completeness it gives. To work with a beautiful piece of art, a print, or simply a favourite family picture, is deeply satisfying and, for me, has become a form of prayer. I now have a mini workshop with much of the equipment professionals will use. I can easily engross myself in the workshop, as each new project is a fresh challenge and allows me to be creative and detailed in a way my everyday experience of life does not. Taking a picture I have first to plan the frame. I have to make design decisions, which can’t easily be changed later. I then have to carry out the work, cutting mounts, mouldings and glass. This can be a painstaking process since each stage requires great care and some skill. I make mistakes and these can be costly in time and money, and at times the work can even be very frustrating. But, I liken all of this to my spiritual journey with God. It too needs planning, there can be times of enormous creativity and there can also be immensely frustrating times. However, at the end of the process is a beautiful changed object. Framing adds value and can enhance work, which otherwise may have little significance. Similarly God changes me and framing quality art well, and enjoying it, is helpful to my discovery of Him. Every time I look at a piece of work I can have a conversation with God about its beauty and how it may be used for his purposes.
I am a bit further on now and am interested in skills like gilding and bespoke work. Every time I visit a gallery I explore the work on show and the way it is displayed and framed. I learn from looking and talking to others and I have come across some new and fascinating people who care about art, conservation and producing the best of work. All this speaks to me of the creativity of God and the beauty of the world around us, not just that inside a church building, but also in the art gallery and beyond.
I am passionate about wood carving. I began by making board and table games. I then made a cot, and toys for a growing family. While I quickly came to love the feel and the smell of the wood, all this was using wood for my own purposes.
I then tried my hand at carving, and found something different began to happen: the shape of the piece of wood, and the way the grain revealed itself as I worked it with a plane or a gouge, began to influence or even dictate what I was making. There was a sense of revealing what was already present, but hidden.
This speaks to me of how we human beings interact with creation. We sometimes sense a presence beyond the physical experience of our surroundings. It can be as if something out there is reaching towards us, a spiritual presence with which we can cooperate. Religious people may use the word “God” of this, or spell spirit with a capital “S”; many would not do that, and yet the experience itself seems widespread, far beyond people who are overtly religious.
An example of this process happening is a series of carvings I made in response to the music of Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat Antiphons. These antiphons were short sentences sung by the monks and nuns on the days leading up to Christmas, a different antiphon each day. A form of them is familiar to people who go to church in the words of the hymn, O come, O come Emmanuel. But while the hymn has a chorus, “Rejoice…”, the original antiphons constitute a prayer, “O come…” Arvo Pärt is an Estonian. His country suffered terribly at the hands of a ruthless atheistic Soviet regime until it gained independence in 1991. His music therefore has a desperation to it, which still feels appropriate to many of the troubled places of the world: “O Daystar…come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death”.
I decided to use slabs of spalted beech on which to carve a symbol of each antiphon, the symbol in each case surrounded by an “O”, all of them made to stand in a circle or arc. As I worked on the wood, I found that the markings in the grain could illustrate the meaning. Not only did the letters of “Oriens” (Daystar) form an O with rays coming out from it, the marking in the grain emerged as a burst of light, like a photograph of a distant galaxy. But some things I discovered only later. After carving them I visited the Outer Hebrides and Orkney, and realised I had made the slabs in the shape of the standing stones of Calanais or the Ring of Brodgar, with all their mysterious associations. Somebody then pointed out that the symbol in the “O” was a cartouche, an ancient Egyptian symbol for a god. And almost every time I use these, and other carvings, with music, in a form of meditation others will point out meanings that had never occurred to me.
So carving wood is, for me, a way God speaks not only to me, but through the carving to others also, in ways that can be intensely moving.
I am passionate about food! Not just stuffing my face – although I do love eating. No, it’s the preparation and cooking of food that is my special passion.
‘Trust your instincts’ is a good rule of thumb for cooking. If the first principle is ‘use the best, freshest ingredients’, then the second must be ‘taste it as you go’. Taste buds are the best judge of character where food is concerned. As a lover of food I instinctively know when it is well prepared and cooked – so that it will nourish not only body, but soul.
It is much the same as a lover of God instinctively knowing the nourishment of the Spirit; ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’, says the psalmist. I have intuitively learnt to trust my instincts. For me, cooking and preparing food puts me in touch with a God who cares about nourishing me as a whole person; not only my spiritual, but my physical, emotional and mental being is of infinite value to God.
Whether the food I work with is vegan, vegetarian or includes meat and fish, when I cook I am collaborating with the earth – the land that produces the raw materials of our diet. Cooking engages me with the created world, and with the creator.
Why am I passionate about food, and how does it energise my spirit? Cooking for me is a creative thing. I am energised when I create a meal out of some gathered ingredients, just as others may be working with wood or clay. Cooking connects me with the creator God in whose creative image I am made. I am more truly myself when I am engaging with food and cooking it. Even a cup of coffee is a work of art for me! ‘Coffee boiled is coffee spoiled’ is a mantra I heard years ago and remember, and it rings in my ears whenever I’m near a cafetiere!
There is no doubt in my mind that there is a spiritual dimension to food. In many cultures it is around food that interpersonal relationships develop, communication flows, and hospitality is extended. In British culture, this has traditionally focused around the dinner table, either in the middle of the day, when shops and offices closed down for an hour or so to honour the importance of the ‘meal time’, or in the evening. There is something ‘sacred’ for me about meeting around the table.
In other cultures, it is not only the meal itself that is sacred, but also the preparation and cooking of that meal. In Morocco, for example, the preparing of the fire and the food, the placing of the food in the tagine (a pot with a tall, funnel-like lid, resembling a clay wigwam), and the tending of the tagine and fire until the meal is ready are equally a focus of extended family relationships, and hospitality, as the eating of the meal together.
That whole concept which gathers together food, conversation, relationship and hospitality thrills my spirit and sends a tingle down my spine! Show me food, a kitchen, a table and I become lost in creativity. It teaches me that God can take the simplest of ingredients and create something wonderful. It reminds me that all of our senses are involved in the life of the spirit; smell, taste and texture are all ways in which we can sense God.
There are some cooking techniques that teach me about God too. Meat is so much tenderer if it is marinated well – it needs time to infuse, as I need to give time for infusion in God if I am to become a tender person. Much baking needs air, and not to be overworked if it is to be light. I, too, can become stodgy without adequate airspace, and when I allow myself to be overworked. A cook’s knife needs to be sharpened each time it is used; it cannot rely on being ‘a good knife’, or on being sharp last time! Similarly I find I cannot afford to become complacent or I become blunt, tearing through life rather than living it with the respect and honour that food, well prepared, cooked and eaten embodies.
I’ve always enjoyed cooking. It was a revelation to me when I discovered that I could actually cook, and if you followed a recipe the finished product looked passably like the one illustrated in the cookbook. I thought it was a kind of magic. In the early days of course cooking was an activity which had to be done. I had a young family at the time and cooked for them and although it was always enjoyable it was constrained by set times and particular likes and dislikes of my brood.
However I also enjoyed having my friends round for light relief and we would always have a meal together. After a while I dovetailed the two things and my sons had the same meal as my guests but probably at an earlier time. My greatest delight has been in recent years when I have entertained friends for the sheer pleasure of doing it and when my sons became the honoured guests at the meal, together with their own families. In their turn they have always enjoyed entertaining me by cooking for me, so there has been a direct spin off.
I like to have the house prepared for entertaining, and I try to make sure there is a relaxing atmosphere, preferably with candlelight and I always have some good music on. I never cook anything I haven’t tried on myself first several times so that I can almost cook it without thinking. I always have plenty of wine and cream around. I like to make sure there is plenty of everything. Then I sit back and enjoy people and the food. There’s no better combination. Just being able to have that time with people, that space together to sit and linger in each other’s company over an enjoyable meal and something good to drink is sheer joy. Moments like that are all too few in an age where we are rushing to get things done and where most of our activities in an age of computer technology are solitary.
Enjoying each other, and taking time to enjoy each other, really listening to each others stories and sharing each other’s joys and sorrows is for me part of treasuring people.
I think feeding people is pretty basic; it’s about caring and nurturing and I suppose as a mother those instincts linger on in me and are translated into the world at large. Entertaining people, giving them hospitality is about giving them a space to be themselves and to really ‘be’. It’s about making them feel valued and respected and welcome. For me there is the delight in making it happen.
I think God invites us to sit and eat with him and be his friends. To take time out from our busyness and just enjoy him is not just a rewarding thing for us to do; I think it also delights God. I was struck by the fact the other day that whereas I send out an invitation for a particular day at a particular time so that I can make sure everything is ready, God operates an open house all the time, his generosity is far wider than we could ever possibly imagine, and he always has the time.
I have noticed that photographs move me emotionally in a way that other visual art does not. I cannot find an explanation but I am content to notice the phenomenon and see that it is a way that God gets my attention towards people, situations and creation. I can lose myself in framing photographs that brings me to a place of peace, joy and attention to the ‘now’ which for me, is prayer. The process of doing this and taking the photographs I find engages me with the world in a way that few other things do.
It is a form of creativity that brings me satisfaction, since I take images out of a necessity in me to ‘slow down and look’. It is nice when the photographs are appreciated by others, but that is not what they are for and is very much the ‘icing on the cake’.
I find that I am captivated by a personal impact of an image which seems to vary in content but gives me a sense of wonder, interest or sheer delight. This can be places, people, things or patterns and is somewhat unpredictable. I have noticed that narrative or story for me is an important part of an image and I enjoy choosing titles for my work. I enjoy mornings, evenings and trees which I find often come together to make a romantic or spiritual theme.
I like to visit places where there is ‘space and light’ and people and then take a large number of images to capture the feel of the place. I recently spent time at the new St Pancras Station in London and particularly around a statue of the couple embracing which sums up the ‘feel’ of stations and the life and relationships that are dramatically seen there. I attempted to take an image which captured the largeness of the station, the individuality of the shoes and the sense of dressing up to go to Paris which are all part of that statue.
Another recently taken image of my grandchild taken at a carnival was not premeditated but came out of enjoying a day with my family and just ‘snapping’ with an automatic as I took part in the joy of the afternoon.
Recently I tried to communicate the finding of a simple pleasure on a wet summer afternoon. The image uses the light reflected water and the freedom and delight of a child’s approach to a muddy puddle in wellington boots.
A further aspect of image that I try to convey is the unusual or amusing giving a new view of reality or one that is unexpected. I often use silhouettes in images which emphasise the beauty and drama of shapes, particularly trees. Photography leads me to spend time with the un-noticed, the surprising and to see beauty in the little things as well as the great dramas of creation made by light and shade. Images lead me back to God and a child like astonishment and wonder at the beauty of the world and its peoples.
Living without a goal?
It was a moment of compelling absurdity. There I was, a windswept young Englishman perched on the terrace steps of a small-time Scottish football ground (the romantically named Boghead Park), suddenly caught up in a frenzy of yelling, whooping and embracing. Just the kind of unfettered emotion that, in other circumstances, would probably have caused me acute embarrassment.
This scene, minus the socialised inhibition, is hardly unusual. You will find its equivalent in sporting arenas across the world any weekend. But for me a first half goal by Dumbarton striker Peter Houston, scored on 5 September 1987, was pure epiphany. The team I had been irrationally supporting from a distance of 400 miles for nearly 18 years had finally hit the net in my presence, following a dozen goal-free afternoons stretched over many months of anticipation-ending-in-emptiness.
The fact that it turned out to be a pretty scrappy consolation goal struck in a dreary lower division match against Hamilton Accies, which we had already lost 2-1 before the break, really didn’t matter to me. My previously goalless life suddenly felt strangely complete in an incident of ecstatic insignificance.
Well, as they say – go figure. The bemused ‘Sons’ supporters standing around me looked slightly taken aback by this weird Sassenach suddenly going wild about something that surely only merited a quick burst of applause before the return of a few dozen pairs of hands to the doleful pockets that were their rightful domain.
But this was and is football. A strange cocktail of artistry, industry, geometry and (much of the time) drudgery which, for those of us who find ourselves hooked, mirrors life’s ups and downs but also renders them sensible to an athletic period drama, a few reams of statistics and a particular repository of dreams. That is, you and me. But really, wonders my eminently sensible spouse, what’s the point?
Here’s one take on that. The best definition of prayer I have ever come across, and certainly the one that has made most sense to my own 50 years of muddling experience, is “learning to waste time with God.” (A bit like learning to waste time with 22 men and a lump of leather, maybe? Well, okay, perhaps I’m stretching that one.)
In a world where we are encouraged to acquire money, ration time and pursue attainment from cradle to grave, liberating spirituality (as distinct from the consumer kind that has become a synonym for ‘personal development’) means letting go of one’s illusions about control and cultivating unexpected joys.
Those nameless occasions which I get to call prayer, football, music or art: they show me something about the world which enables me to realise that nothing can manufacture the true experience of grace, elation, love, completeness and transcendence. These things just are, and in ‘just being’ they speak of something precious beyond bargaining and calculation. God’s life overflowing into ours, one might say. And I would.
Passion such as one feels with the first chord of a symphony, the final whistle of a match or a lover’s incidental touch knows no boundary between sacred and profane, religious and secular. Such things can pass you by, or they can change your life. They can fill time or fulfil it. Alarmingly, their impact or lack of it depends on you rather than on anything magical in the air. Times of inexplicable intensity can prepare you for even more, for sharing and multiplying. But only with practice… the practice of letting go and letting be.
This, for me, is not a way of becoming that I can think myself into. It is a state of sheer gift: an epiphenomenon of the rub of the turf or the jink of the ball. With music, my other ‘balancing passion’ (as I describe it, along with football, in my ‘potted biography’), it is possible, in a certain way, to re-appropriate life-giving moments through repeat performance. In sport they are, technically, unrepeatable. Yet they go on happening. That is the God-born world which prayer invites us to see. Living without a goal, yet finding them all the time.
One of my favourite places is the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. I’ve only been twice, but both times my breath was taken away by the artworks on display. One particular painting has an extraordinary effect on me. I am a priest in the Church of England. I value works of art and have always appreciated religious work in particular. I am also a fan of the great impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh. The museum has a few of his famous works including “The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise” (1890 oil on canvas). You would probably recognise the picture if you saw a reproduction of it, as it is so famous. On my first visit I expected to be transfixed by this scene. However, imagine my surprise when I was utterly captivated by another Van Gogh nearby and not the religious subject. Instead, “Thatches at Cordeville, at Auvers-sur-Oise” (1890 oil on canvas) kept drawing me to look at it. I had to go back several times and fight my way through crowds to do it! The picture is important to me and even now the feeling I experienced stays with me with profound depth. Why, you may ask? What was so important and why the lasting effect? Let me try and explain.
An artist friend of mine, Mark Cazalet, often quotes Paul Klee in saying “artists make visible the invisible”. In other words they interpret the world by capturing the ordinary in whatever media they use, thereby giving it significance. They might see beauty, or they might see controversy. They might wish to convey a message, or they might simply rejoice in the creative process for its own sake. Whatever the motive behind their work, artists have ideas and something to say, but not usually in words. Now I am not an artist! I don’t paint, draw or sculpt. I have tried and found it very difficult. However, I love art and I have a great respect for artists who seek to make their living from the profession, but do so without compromising their artistic integrity and ideals. I take great pleasure in viewing work and meeting the individuals involved. I find it a stimulating world emotionally and intellectually and, as a person of faith, I find art an incredibly productive spiritual ground. I need to spend time going to exhibitions, reading the reviews and teaching myself more. There is much art in my own Christian tradition, which I affirm and appreciate, but I have found a purely religious approach too restricting and this is where my experience with “Thatches at Cordeville” is significant. It is a swirling landscape with heavy brushstroke and beautiful colouring. It takes an ordinary village scene and fills it with wonder, life, and vitality. It oozes spiritual energy and as I look I can lose myself and meet God through the vision of Van Gogh. An ordinary scene becomes an explosion of beauty and a powerful affirmation of the world. It lifts my spirits to the divine and renews my hope in the world.
Nowadays I can often find out more about God and the world by looking at contemporary art. For me contemporary artists are like the prophets of the Old Testament in the Bible. They can disturb, provoke or upset. They can appreciate, rejoice and praise. Most of all they are never static, but critique society (including the Church) and call us all to account. There are many gifted artists at work (including artists of faith) and through them I can discover God, often outside the boundaries of the Church building.
My earliest and happiest memories include plants and flowers on my grandparent’s dairy farm where I was born. Aged 2 or 3, lying amongst buttercups and grasses on a Sunday morning, hearing church bells above the buzzing of insects, and instinctively sensing that I was more in touch with God and the spiritual there than in the strange though familiar service I would shortly be obliged to sit through. A sense of belonging, security, at homeness and oneness with the natural world which I lost later but found again when I needed it most. The spicy scent of phlox in the garden mingling with the heavy ripeness of Victoria plums and dozy wasps. The pure whiteness and shape of Arum lilies, and delving among the strawberry plants for forbidden fruits whilst inhaling the sweet smell of summer jasmine growing along the wall. Good memories of things which fed my very young soul along with the gentle cows and calves, hens, pigs, dogs and cat.
In later years I followed and watched my parents who were gardeners and in my adult years it came naturally to me to garden and find great pleasure in growing and tending plants.
I have discovered that all the lessons of life are contained in the natural world and husbandry if I open my inner ears and eyes and give time to reflection. Through gardening I am in touch with conception, birth, growth, sickness and disease, dying, death and resurrection and through the sowing of seeds, bulbs, and plants I learn about clearing the ground, good preparation, appropriate nurturing, patient waiting with hope, excitement and delight as well as disappointment and despair. Bulbs buried for eight or nine months of the year before the green noses above the soil teach me about the ‘dark night of the soul’; to trust and rest in the ongoing work of the Spirit within though all is experienced as darkness and loss. I learn that some plants need hard pruning to bring out their best while others respond to some gentle cosseting although all need to ‘stand on their own two feet’. Most flourish if surrounded by others to provide a healthy environment but with enough space, light and moisture to develop their unique character, and of course it’s no good planting lavender in damp, heavy clay or expecting hostas to flower well in hot, sandy soil though there is always the exception to the rule, if only for a short time!
If we image God as the ground, i.e. the soil, humus of our being, we need to have our roots in close contact in order to receive nourishment, so watering, feeding, replenishing and weeding, or their spiritual equivalent, are important. I could continue for many pages!
But I learn too of the interdependence of all living things so I do not use chemicals, and plant with awareness of the needs of wildlife. I love my compost heaps and bonfires and thank God for worms! Most of the snails are sacrificed to the thrushes but slugs!! Well, slugs, although the gardener’s enemy, are gourmet delight for hedgehogs. I feel a lesson in non-attachment lurks in there somewhere!
All these lessons! Is that all it is about? No of course not. Gardening keeps me in touch with the miraculous, the ongoing cycle of life through the seasons, the sun and moon, and every sort of weather. I work deeply aware of the Source of Life and in cooperation with her through Mother Earth. Each year I watch in awe as the runner bean plants rampage over the canes producing hundreds of bright orange flowers and then, lo, there are beans which I cook and eat. And all from small kidney shape seeds planted in the soil earlier. Every year I experience wonder and a deep down delight as the snowdrops appear, green shoots push through the earth and young leaves are born. I remember a time of great depression in my life when there seemed no point in life continuing. I went for a winter walk and stood in the snow under a beech tree and after a while my eyes focused on the branches and I noticed the already forming buds of the new leaves. I saw in my mind the strong roots going down into the earth continuing to nourish the life of the tree during the cold, dark winter months and felt warmth in my heart.
And now as I wander around or sit quietly watching the birds and butterflies, inhaling the scents and enjoying the beautiful shapes, textures and colours my heart is warmed again for they speak to me of God’s love, compassion, and delight in all of creation including me. And I am given peace, courage, hope and the grace to continue the gardening of my own soul in cooperation with my Maker.
Hills and Moors
I am passionate about hills and moors. I’m drawn to them, love to be amongst them, looking at them, on them – and I feel close to God when I am – they lift my soul. Some people find great expanses of moorland frightening and threatening but I just love them – those wide open spaces unlock the door-catch of my heart and set me free.
I’m sitting writing this high up on the North Yorkshire moors in August – the sky is mainly a dark grey but the sun has just come out and is setting alight the deep purple of the heather which stretches as far as my eye can see. Earlier this afternoon I was walking on a track over these same moors – alone but not alone – a female wheatear, a bright green caterpillar, a lone curlew – and who knows what else, who else? It was quiet, no abstractions “ the mind’s cession of its kingdom”.
And when I’m up – on a hill, on the moors – my eyes are constantly drawn to the distant horizon, to the limit of what I can see, straining to see beyond. Is this the pull of the infinite one, the God who has no name but who is ever present? – transcendent and yet immanent.
The urge to see beyond is complemented by my fascination with what is under my feet – the shape of the rocks, the plants and flowers – the feel of the earth, the heather, the grass under my boots – connecting, grounded, earthed. And if it rains, that is a challenge – there is something elemental about being out there experiencing the raw caress of God’s Creation.
I remember once being with friends up Glen Sligachan on Skye – surrounded and enveloped by the high peaks of The Cuillins. It was wet – and I was not alone – but there was such a sense of stillness, of being held – it was unforgettable – like being hugged and held close within the love of God.
Is it the shape of the hills and their surroundings that I love so much? I think so – the hidden valleys, the little hillocks, the sweep of the hillsides perhaps dotted with a barn or a white farmstead or a lone tree – sheer poetry writ large on an immense canvas – “what is man that Thou art mindful of him?”
And best of all, I love the long flat-topped moors and hills of the Yorkshire Dales and Moors where it looks as if I could walk for miles and miles – free, unfettered, my heart singing praises to God – Wordsworth’s “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused” – part of my whole being – and a source of energy and creativity.
And then there’s the light – something I have come to enjoy, value and delight in more and more as I have got older. It is never the same – constantly changing – the sunlight on the hills, the lowering clouds, the rainbows – the light of dawn when I get up early to watch the black grouse lek, the bright midday shimmering light, the evening light as the shadows lengthen and deepen. It is all so indescribably beautiful that it brings tears to my eyes. I can’t get enough of it –I just want to “gaze and gaze on Thee”.
I love people and could not live without them – but I need to go to the hills. There is a stability about them, although they do change – the light and the seasons see to that – but I am not in control of that. I am a watcher, an admirer – and I watch in wonder and in awe.
For me the glory of God is manifest all around us not just in Creation. But for me it is the hills and moors that enlarge my heart, attune my soul to the infinite, refresh me, put the concerns of my little life back in perspective – take my focus from a centre which is me to God who is the true centre of my life “so that we may evermore dwell in Him and he in us”.
A walk on the wild side
At the end of March 2008, I went for a post-Easter break to the north-west coast of Scotland to do some walking. After a good pint of ‘An Tealloch’ one evening, I decided that the mountain of the name was worth exploring. Ever since a Youth Hostels Association trip to Snowdonia when I was 15, mountains have held a fascination. They are dangerous places, and they are beautiful. From a great height, you can look down on the world, and yet feel how tiny a speck you are in the immensity of rock, bog and heather. And there is God to be felt, so much closer when the clutter of life has been set aside in the valley below.
I parked in a layby near the little village of Dundonell. The day was cloudy bright, and I was intimidated by the challenge before me. Basic preparation was important. I checked my kit carefully, gauged the weather, then set off through the wood. The path was hard to find through the mass of rhododendrons, swampy grass and bog, and my feet were soon soaked.
Not an auspicious start! To my left, a stream poured in torrents down through a rocky defile, swollen by snowmelt; on the other, the trees seemed impenetrable. But eventually I found a way through, and emerged on to a hillside of heather and rock, and the occasional tree.
In the middle distance lay the rim of snow-capped mountains crowned by An Tealloch. As I threaded my way upward they looked more and more forbidding. The going was tough, and I wrestled with my insecurities. The barren landscape had no signs of life at all: no bird in the sky, no animal, not even the buzz of an insect.
Not that I felt alone: there was a strong sense of Presence. Here lay a paradox. Within me lay a strong assurance of God, my protector and guide. Before me lay God in his mountain fastness, stern and forbidding. Could I make it there and back before darkness fell? Could I get back in one piece?? The quiet voice within said: “Don’t get this out of proportion. Keep going: all will be well.”
Encouraged, I worked my way up through the glacier valley. At last I stopped by the rim of the cwm under the snow-capped rocks. This was far enough. I listened to the silence. A faint breeze rippled the surface of the water. I felt a sort of reverence mingled with fear.
I had something to eat and drink, thinking of Moses and the elders of Israel on Mount Sinai. I was alone with my God, open to a dark grandeur and a power that – to say the least – was awe-inspiring, but at the same time transforming. It was good to be there, and as I beat a retreat down to the green valley below I knew I had been ‘marked’.
Of course God is far beyond anything I can understand, even with the help of Gerard Manley Hopkins or the metaphysical poets, but here for the first time in that rim of mountains I had encountered a God who is neither cosy nor comfortable. The paradox I now live with is the strong assurance of the God within, and the dawning discovery of a God who, in the words of the psalmist, ‘breaks the cedar trees… splits the flames of fire (and) shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.”
It would be terrifying. In fact, it’s immensely exciting! If it won’t go down in my logbook as a great mountain walk, this passion in my lifeblood had led me to this place and this awakening. Mountain walks won’t be the same. I am grateful.
I have been a birdwatcher since my days in primary school, having been introduced to the hobby through the Observer’s Book of Birds which was published by Frederick Warne & Co. at a cost of five shillings. At its peak in the 1960s, the book sold 1,040,400 copies.
You can watch birds virtually anywhere, of course, from your own back garden to the rugged splendour of the West Highlands of Scotland and the expansive plains of Africa. In a sense, that is a parable for seeking God – you can do it “on your local patch”, amid the familiar, or travel to a special place (a retreat centre?) and even abroad (pilgrimage site?) if your finances and ambition allow for it.
Above all, bird watching demands patience. I have found that birds will not appear to order even in a well-known habitat and, in the words of Robert Lynd, “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence”. Patience and silence both apply to our efforts to discover God and the reward is a certain serenity (the product of sitting quietly and focusing on nature) and an at-one-ment with creation (through engaging with the Creator God).
The sheer beauty and grace of some species, the kingfisher and avocet to name but two, take one into another dimension … what we would currently call the “wow factor”, bordering on a spiritual experience. But one must not forget “the little brown jobs” – the sparrows, for example, who the Bible describes as being “sold at five for two pennies”. They may not be exotic but not one sparrow is forgotten by God. In other words, you do not have to be flash to be valued.
In some places you would now be hard pressed to find five sparrows. Historically, birds, or the lack of them, have been an indicator of things going wrong in our care of the environment – God’s world – which, when it was established, was described as “very good”. This year people are talking about the absence of the cuckoo whose call is one of the easiest of bird songs to recognise. If we continue to abuse God’s world and use it selfishly and unsustainably, then how many more birds will have to vanish before we wake up to our marginalization of God and his provision of “all good gifts around us”?
As a timid child I found plenty in the world to be afraid of – the dark, strangers, new situations, ‘rough’ sports and games, frightening films on television . . .
One thing that stands out from this long list is dogs. I have hardly ever had occasion to be afraid of dogs. Instinctively I recognised them as fellow creatures and potential allies.
My childhood reading was littered with wonderful fictional dogs – the Famous Five had Timmy, William has his faithful hound Jumble, and is some tales dogs featured as the chief characters – Blackfriars Bobby, and Prince Llewellyn’s dog Gellert whose story of misinterpreted loyalty and bravery is told on a stone tablet near his grave at Bedgellert in Snowdonia – a place of pilgrimage for me.
Dogs feature large in literature – which neatly combines another of my passions. Not just the imagined ghastly Hound of the Baskervilles and Jack London’s heroic White Fang but real canines such as Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s lapdog, Flush; and John Steinbeck’s travelling companion Charley the standard poodle. Then there are James Thurber’s touching and funny stories about his various dogs and the joy that gave. Recently there has also been John Grogan’s compelling account of life with Marley, ‘the world’s worst dog’.
Literary insights into the dog’s life and mind have been fleshed out by my contact with real-life canines. As the conditions never seemed to be right for me to have my own dog, I have lived out my passion vicariously by looking after other people’s.
When I have care of a dog, life seems to have an added dimension. I feel better physically (that’s because of the walking) and more cheerful (that’s because of the tail-wagging every time I come into the room). Having a living, sentient being to look after is an excellent way to get ‘taken out of’ oneself.
Among the many admirable qualities they exhibit, dogs are: affable, fearless, devoted, enthusiastic, straightforward, and optimistic (especially about walks and the possibility of food!). Most of all they give those who are good to them unconditional allegiance.
To me, these are the same as many of the qualities that inform the spiritual life and the quest for God. When caring for a dog, I become aware of myself as a valued, special person – which I take to be the assumption at the heart of faith.
I feel more focused in the present moment and the practical task of caring helps to calm my anxieties about many things beyond my control. I find the dog’s uncomplicated joy in the natural world infectious and become more appreciative of its beauty – not least because I actually take time to look at some of it.
From the dog’s positive attitude I can learn key lessons about living: to trust my own enthusiasms and instincts about what is good, to value the ever-changing, ever-passing pattern of life’s joys and hopes, and most of all to be courageous and hopeful in the face of the promise held out by each new day.
I remember a grey November evening some years ago now, when I was working at Bradford University, playing football for the Peace Studies dept against Chemical engineering – the ball came to me on corner of penalty area, I pushed it to the side of the defender, looked up, saw the keeper off his line and chipped it. Time stood still, a moment when you just knew everything was right, there was a felt harmony, a oneness with the ball, the turf, even the breeze, and it sailed in to the top corner. Have you ever had that experience? That sense of unity with what is around you, interrelatedness, a feeling of touching a profound connectedness? Another example from the beautiful game; I remember Eric Cantona, a famous Man United midfielder from the mid 1990’s describing what was for him a positively spiritual moment, watching the perfection of a pass from Pele to Carlos Alberto in the 1970 world cup final, where Alberto did not have to break his stride as he swept in their fourth goal. Its timing, its coordination, its pure fit to the physical circumstances took Cantona’s breath away. And this harmony, this sense of connectedness can be felt not just with the world around us but at times between people too. Mark Dowd, a former monk, made a Channel Four film on football and religion, and managed to get a ticket for the European Cup final between Man United and Bayern Munich in 1999. Towards the end of that amazing game he realised that everybody he loved in the world was watching that one small ball. Here for him there was a deep experience of connectedness across continents and generations.
It seems to me that there are times in our lives when we experience a unity, a connectedness and a beautiful harmony which speaks to our souls deeply. Maybe it’s part of being human to experience moments of true perception about those things that touch you so intimately that you suddenly really see. And what’s seen, read, or heard, at such a moment has such a ring of truth about it that you know it’s the real deal.
For me that happens most frequently through going to the gym. I’ve been going for 27 years, mainly running on the treadmill, a bit of arm and stomach work, and more and more yoga in recent times. It is a time of reconnection with my body and of being earthed in the reality of my immediate environment – having a job that is sedentary and largely cerebral it’s all too easy to become disconnected, and it brings me back to myself and gives a healthy sense of perspective on my work and its immediate challenges, as well as giving me energy and an endorphin rush!
But actually, it’s deeper than that, it’s deeper than re-connection too. The late John O’Donohue wrote in his book Divine Beauty of how the possibilities that are open to us are deeper than just connectedness, there’s the possibility of communion if we take time, find the space and have the patience and gentleness to enter that embrace; speaking of beauty he writes “When the heart becomes attuned to her restrained glimmerings, it learns to recognize her intimations more frequently in places it would never have lingered before”. I find that the physical exercise of the gym attunes me in ways I’m frequently surprised at, and it makes me more alert to what O’Donohue calls Beauty and Presence. It doesn’t just bring me back to myself but takes me into something more.
Having the time to reflect on this on the treadmill(!), I’m reminded of those words in the New Testament about how “in Jesus all things were created…created through him and or him….in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things…” (Colossians 1.16-20). This suggests it’s Jesus’ signature which is there, on creation, his beautiful trace, his presence shot through creation. The experiences I’ve just described, about a sense of connectedness and unity – these experiences tie in for me to this sense of Jesus as the One in whom “all things hold together”. But even more than this, that same passage suggests to me that Jesus is the goal of creation. For me those experiences of communion, those fleeting glimpses of beauty, might just be foretastes of that sense of coming home, that dazzling splendour, that waits for us, in Him.
And I guess for me it begins to tie up with other experiences. Like being alone on a star-lit night, hearing a pebble drop in a quiet pond with a solitary splash, when my child puts their hand in mine and I’m there. It’s a hint of connectedness with it all: glimpsing, if only fleetingly, that underneath my anxieties, insecurities and fears, is a beauty and a love for communion, a hint of a homecoming to beat all homecomings.
It was about ten years ago that I decided to take up swimming, partly for my health and partly for my spiritual well being. I had become self-employed having taken early retirement from my University. I found this gave me more flexibility but also some challenges in the way I structured my life. These came together when my doctor suggested I take up swimming as an exercise and I also felt this might be a way of setting aside time for prayer while I swam. Certainly other ways of setting aside time that I tried had not worked.
I started to swim three times a week and tried praying while I swam. It was hopeless and before I was half way down the first length my mind had wandered on to all the other things in my life. I then thought more about prayer and decided that although I could not offer prayer with words I could make the time set aside as prayer in itself irrespective of what my thoughts were.. It is, I suppose, a sort of silent meditation. I remembered hearing a nun talk about the boredom of going through the same prayers every day for years and saying that her prayer was ‘giving that time to God’. I did the same as an act of faith and it has now become part of my ‘Rule of Life’. It provides me with a spiritual ‘break’ to allow my over active brain to stop occasionally and let God into my life.
A while afterwards I resolved to make my swimming structure more ‘robust’ by buying a season ticket. It worked! It gets me through the winter and the days when I don’t want to go. I was tripped up for a while by starting to time myself to see if I could improve my speed and then found if I did a slow time I would feel disappointed and that could spoil the whole experience. It was meant to be relaxing! I had slipped back into a competitive and goal orientated mode which I was trying to move away from. I stopped timing and sometimes now make conscious effort to swim really slowly and enjoy the experience of being in the water.
Much of the time the experience is very ordinary. I just go, swim, and come home. I don’t think I pray anymore in the conventional sense but it does help me to stop thinking and try to tune into a more intuitive approach to life. I usually get a better sense of perspective after I have swum and just occasionally I get into a moment when I ‘lose myself’ in the water. It is what might be described as a ‘Zen’ type moment of oneness and that sportspeople and musicians describe sometimes as ‘being in the zone’. Unfortunately for me it doesn’t mean swimming any better but it does give a simple moment of enjoyment in being ‘at oneness’ with the water. This in itself seems to be a sort of prayer.
Swimming most days gives a valuable balance to my life and makes an important contribution to establishing a spiritual ‘anchor’ in my day. With a few other things it has given me a robust structure which helps me with the slippery process of pray.
Catapult, basket, Wurlitzer, flat spin push, ballroom drop…just five of the many dance moves I enjoy when dancing Ceroc, a cross between rock and roll and jive. With a confident partner I can be spun, dropped, turned, even thrown up in the air and caught again – it’s totally exhilarating.
On top of that there’s the pulse and throb of the dance music, the companionship of other enthusiastic dancers and the satisfaction and stimulation of learning new and ever more complex sequences. Sometimes the pace is gentle and slow, at other times fast and frenetic with acrobatic and dramatic moves. There are an estimated five hundred moves to learn!
When I’m in the middle of spinning round and round I can feel pure joy welling up inside me. I feel so fully alive and very conscious of how blessed I am to have the health and strength to dance. Sometimes as I spin and twirl in synchronisation to music and partner there are moments when I remember the words of Eric Liddell the Olympic gold medal runner who said, ‘When I run I feel His pleasure.’ Dare I say that when I dance I feel His pleasure. I sense God saying I enjoy seeing you happy, I enjoy seeing you express yourself, I am a generous lavish extravagant God who delights in creativity and energy and vibrancy.
Sometimes I can feel that same sense of joy just observing others dancing together in harmony. It helps me reflect that I can find contentment in watching and being and not just in doing.
Some couples have their own conspicuously unique style which reminds me that in the sight of God I too am an original! I need to hear that often as I struggle with feeling insignificant in a busy hierarchical and complex world.
I have to admit that I don’t enjoy every dance. Some partners especially those who are raw beginners have little synchronization, their arm and leg movements are wooden and jerky. At times like these I am tempted to be critical and impatient with my partner. It would be easy to flounce off or be critical so the other person could easily feel a failure. But I know that is not how God would want me to be. So dance can be an opportunity for me to pray for and learn to be patient.
Likewise when life isn’t the smooth dance I would like it to be, God is there challenging me to let him transform me and my negative attitudes.
I’ve never had a problem linking God and dance together. They’ve been a natural combination since my early twenties, when jigging about at a disco I first heard an authoritative, calm, inner voice that I believe was God speaking to me.
Thirty years later, both on the dance floor and in life I am very much ‘work in progress.’ I still have much to learn and many more new Ceroc moves to master.
I can remember buying the first Rolling Stones LP, and carrying it home feeling proud and excited. They were the band that I loved to listen and dance to as a young man. There was a group of us who used to gather on a Saturday night in one another’s homes to party. The lads would probably have played football together in the morning, and most of us would have cycled across the Lea Valley to watch Spurs in the afternoon, and then in the evening the girls would join us and we’d drink and dance the night away. At least that’s how I remember it! Music, football and girls: the stuff of this young man’s dreams.
When we’d had a few beers we did what we thought was quite a passable imitation of the Stones, leaping and strutting about, playing our instruments! It was the hard driving beat, the frenetic energy, and the irreverent attitude to all things establishment, that spoke I think. And the exuberant sense of feeling so alive as we danced. I wouldn’t have made the connection between those things and God then, but I can see it now.
And it’s never gone away. I can recall hearing ‘Satisfaction’ for the first time on a transistor radio while doing Voluntary Service Overseas in the Pacific, between school and university. It came from a radio station in Townsville, Australia, and it sounded fantastic.
I remember the deep satisfaction at ending a sabbatical period a couple of years ago by going to a Stones concert with a mate. It was a huge crowd, a warm night, and a magnificent display of lights, theatre and throbbing music, orchestrated by this small group of elderly gentlemen whose fitness levels defied belief. And I was jumping up and down and singing like a kid again. And then just a couple of days ago I went to a friend’s fiftieth birthday party, and after the food was eaten and the speeches were delivered, and the crowd had thinned as its elderly members retired to their beds, the music started and eventually the Stones were playing again, and there I was leaping about, surprising myself, and possibly embarrassing others, with my sprightly and deft footwork. At least that’s how it seemed to me.
Where’s God in all this? Well, all over the place. God’s there in the pounding beat that brings my body alive, and the overwhelming sense of release in being taken out of myself in the corporate response. God’s there in the exciting sense of being on the creative edge. God’s there in the slightly anarchic, rude gestures to the establishment both within and without, that’s such a part of the bands appeal. Think early Old Testament prophets and their wild activities; think King David dancing before the Lord and embarrassing his wife; think Mary shouting out the words of the Magnificat that celebrate a God Who turns everything upside down; think Jesus himself leaving home and telling his family that they were no longer his mother and his brothers. Think of the subversive God, Who questions all our comfortable assumptions, Who challenges us always to be explorers, Who occasionally overwhelms us with the power of the Spirit. Think the Rolling Stones!
I see this picture before me. I am an old man in a seedy nursing home, slumped in my chair. One of the staff puts on the music in the hope of bringing back a memory or two and inducing a little life. It’s the Stones! Slowly I drag myself up onto my zimmer, and begin to move, slowly at first but then faster and faster, until I slump and collapse to the floor, summoned by the Lord to a greater place. What a wonderful way to go.
Justice, the state of the world, politics, campaigning – these are all things which ‘the world’ (evil, separated from God, going to Hell) does. They are not for true Believers who ‘love the Lord’. So ran one of the narratives of my youth.
Over the years I grew out of it but it was not easy. Leaving that kind of certainty was a slow process sometimes painful, yet joyful at the same time. Someone said to me years ago ‘God is more concerned about how we treat one another than about what we do in our bedrooms.’ That has become a guiding light for my conscience.
Still justice and activism were not really for me – until a short awareness raising visit to Israel Palestine with Christians Aware, meeting many workers for peace and justice (Palestinians and Israelis) sent me home shocked by what I had seen. It was the nearest thing to a ‘conversion experience’ that I have known – an inner conviction that I must get involved. I began to participate in marches and Parliamentary lobbies – yes, me!
Finally I screwed up my courage to apply to be an Ecumenical Accompanier (www.quaker.org.uk/eappi; www.eappi.org ) and was accepted. I’ve served two 3-month periods as an EA in the West Bank, observing, accompanying, learning about an incredibly complex conflict. Since then I have spoken to many varied groups, raising awareness of the situation.
And this passion for justice has moved me towards the fringes of the organised church. Justice, poverty, human rights in their best form – these are what Jesus is all about. For me ‘church’ simply doesn’t ‘do it’. I’m drawn towards the Quakers because they are doing it, often at great cost; perhaps that will be the next step on my journey of questioning and learning.
I keep novels in the workplace. In a study full of practical papers and jobs to be done there are two bookcases of fiction. They are like the wardrobe doors into Narnia.
For me there is pleasure in the mechanics of reading each novel. It begins with discovering the novel in the bookshop: perhaps it is another book by a favourite author, an intriguing title, a prize winner or often I simply judge a book by its cover. Back at home the novel sits on the “ready and waiting” shelf before the first page is turned. I love the anticipation. The front page is the start of a journey. Not just the first pages, but every time I open the book I am currently reading, I have sense of travelling into a new place.
Like many people my life is ordinary. It is spent in an obscure suburb of a Northern town of little beauty and excitement. Sometimes the journey of a novel will take me to wonderful places with beautiful landscapes, fabulous homes, delicious meals or into an adventure. Novels give me an intensity of experience that cannot be felt in ordinary life. Above all I love them because they are full of people. A novel brings me into the company of new friends: people to admire and love, yet others who will enrage and frustrate me but the novel offers the opportunity chance to explore the minds of others.
A good story is very satisfying. It touches on a range of emotions. I can find myself laughing out loud or spitting rage over an injustice or encouraged by a picture human compassion and selflessness or feeling broken-hearted with a jilted lover. All this feels very therapeutic.
I relish the sense that the writer is in control and he or she will lead me on a safe journey, although we may go to dangerous and forbidden regions. The reader can inhabit all sorts of places that could never be available to an individual in a lifetime. Some of these situations are frightening. There is no pleasure in sitting amongst drug dealers or being inside a torture chamber but experiencing such dark places in a novel offers a glimpse of experience that others have really known. Far from being an escape from reality, there is the possibility in fiction of hard truth staring me in the face.
I believe that God’s creation is beautiful and good but because it is flawed there is darkness too and the novel allows me to see more of all of that, especially when the writer is observant of the minutiae of created order and the human mind. Sometimes a novelist helps me to make sense of half-formed ideas and that deepens my understanding of God’s world. For me Christ’s incarnation is the key to hope. In his complete participation in the world and human experience I find connection with Divine life. In novels which help me to know more of the world and further explore human nature I see more of him. It is not that the great novelist captures and contains the mystery of life found only fully in Divine Life but that he or she reveals more and more of it that I could not otherwise see.
The exciting thing is, there are more great novels out there than I have the time or energy to read so the possibilities for new discoveries and thus journeys into God are endless.
I can remember very clearly when I first discovered Su-Doku. I’m not sure that I would call it an ‘epiphany’ but perhaps I should. I was bored on Newcastle Railway Station as I waited for a connection, and was browsing in a bookshop. There on a shelf was a book of puzzles, of which I’d heard, but to which I’d paid no attention before. I took a chance, bought a copy, and within minutes I was hooked!
A Su-Doku is a number puzzle. It consists of a large square made up of nine small squares along the top and nine down the side: a total of eighty one squares. The large square is also divided into nine medium size squares, three small squares wide and three down. Each medium square contains the numbers one to nine, as does each line, vertical and horizontal on the large square. You are given some clues as to which numbers go where, quite a lot on easy versions of the puzzle, far fewer on the difficult ones, and you then have to work out the rest.
Su-Doku has taught me many things:
- It’s a good way for me to relax after a busy day. But it is no use trying to solve one when I am tired. I need to be fresh.
- I have to trust that there is an answer to the puzzle, which is discoverable, although I can never see it to begin with.
- I need to proceed one step at a time. I start by completing what is obvious and easy, and then try to build on that.
- I can proceed both positively and negatively. Sometimes I can see that a number must fit that space. Sometimes I can see that it won’t go there, or there, or there, so it must go here.
- There often seems to be a crucial clue which may be difficult to see, but once found opens up a whole section of the game, or even occasionally, the entire game.
- If I get totally stuck, cheating by looking at the solution at the back of the book, doesn’t help much. It may show where I’ve gone wrong. But because there is a flow to the game, just filling in one number without knowing why, may not help at all, and can be positively misleading.
- If I am stuck then I may put it down and come back to it later. When I do, it’s often surprising how what had before seemed like a muddle, now seems very clear and obvious.
- Or if I am really sick and tired of this puzzle that has defeated me, then I can erase my answers and try again, often with greater success.
- There is often a wonderful sense of achievement on successful completion.
There seems to be much life and faith wisdom in all this.
Its good to take a chance.
It’s not easy to pray or do anything important when I’m tired, I need to be fresh.
Faith requires me to trust that there is meaning in my life even if I can’t see it. I have to proceed one step at a time and trust that the way forward will become clear.
Sometimes I make progress by seeing things and sometimes by deducing from what I cant see.
There can be sudden flashes of insight.
Sometimes everything comes together in a wonderful and uplifting way, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The puzzle, like God, is very forgiving, and is always willing to give me a second chance.