I once paid good money to look at the sky. It was at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, one early December day, in the bitter cold and at that darkest hour before the dawn. With a small group of people I walked to James Turrell’s Deer Park Skyspace. Sitting on the stone seats around the inner walls, gazing at an aperture in the ceiling, it felt as though some ancient rite of humanity was awaited. In a sense that is exactly what unfolded – people offering the sacrifice of their attention to the emerging light. Sat in silence and spellbound wonder we watched as darkness became day.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.Genesis 1:5b
There are many distractions which encourage us to miss the everyday miracles of life. Recently I needed to find some reflective footage to support an online space during a large conference. At a time when physical meetings are curtailed, we wanted to offer the kind of opportunity online which would normally occupy a side room to the main event. This led me to search YouTube for something serene and spacious – a visual experience where it’s easy to find calm and inner peace. There’s a lot of this sort of material on the internet. We settled on a springtime woodland scene, with birdsong in the background. During the search I also came across a woodland track in autumn, lasting 10 hours! I didn’t watch it all, but the real-time transition of day into night reminded me of the Turrell Skyspace.
Until the closure of churches for services last week, the interplay of sacred art with the daily occurrence of daybreak was something I enjoyed during morning prayer at York Minster. Starting at 07:30 we had arrived at the moment when a clear sky meant that during the service darkness was transformed into vibrant colour. The vast expanse of Medieval glass was slowly lit, turning monochrome panes into vivid reds, blues and greens. For more than six hundred years this ritual of light and art has taken place daily – observed or not.
At Morning Prayer last week the Book of Daniel was being read. In the second chapter Daniel gives blessing to God and includes the following: “he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him”. It echoes the theme reiterated in several passages that whether in darkness or in light, God is both present and involved. Nothing is hidden and nowhere is beyond God’s reach. As we continue to contend with COVID-19 and the evolving crisis of our time, we can take comfort in that assurance which is carried in Scripture and revealed in a history of faithfulness stretching across centuries.
We don’t always find that kind of comfort when we are most intent on finding it. While prayer may prepare us and invite our spirit to be closer to God, it can be the ordinary and unexpected where we find a moment of connection and joy. All too often we pass by ordinary miracles and miss the things that can both feed and stimulate our souls. Jamie Baxter’s recent poem imagines a very preoccupied office manager filling every moment with work and efficiency but, consequently, denying others a moment of wonder:
I’m always being asked for advice. how did youget a job herehow do you define failure or success When the red of the clouds fades to pink during the 4 o’clock winter sunsets and everyone gathers by the windows to take in the view I tut and shout make sure they get back to work…Jamie Baxter A Profession London Review of Books 8 February 2020
I hope that in the week ahead, as we all live with the altered lives of a new reality, there will be time to turn aside to the everyday sacred. To have the capacity to stand by the window on a winter’s afternoon; or walk in woodland. These things feed the soul and, for people of faith, I hope and pray that they remind us of a God whose presence in the light and shade of life “is as sure as the dawn”.