It is the thing which shouldn’t be there. High up in the crossing above the worn-smooth stones of the Cathedral floor. It is visible across the nave of the building, raised in front of newly refurbished organ pipes resplendent in gold and bright vermilion. Millions were spent bringing this huge instrument back to a state of excellence. Every note sounding pitch-perfect, and accompanying a choir of international renown. Below the organ pipes is the screen. Elaborate stonework and gilded kings – the work of master masons long departed this world. The Cathedral harvests the best that can be had, filling this barn of a building with the finest sculptures, carpentry and glasswork. During Lent, into all this splendour, is lifted a rough-hewn cross. As basic as you can imagine, two planks of unpolished, unvarnished and uninspiring timber hanging in space below the central tower.
Liturgy, and the context it inhabits, has a knack of creating paradox. When it seems that the church has been enthralled by worldly standards, with a hierarchy of clergy, the splendour of an Archbishop or Pope is cast aside on Maundy Thursday as they kneel to wash people’s feet. All the grandeur is subverted by the truth that the least will be greatest in the Kingdom of God, and the last shall be first. Stitched into our services is the recurring message that things will not always be as we expect. God can, and does, disturbs us in surprising ways.
The Lenten cross is yet another jarring sign of this unsettling truth: just when we think everything is polished and perfect, the rough and the ready is what we need to tell us what God is about.
“But lying there long while, I, troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree, until I heard its fair voice. Then best wood spoke these words: “It was long since – I yet remember it – that I was hewn at holt’s end, moved from my stem.”
Theology could not function without paradox. Christianity is not – and can never be – something that reconciles every aspect of human experience in a divine plan. Our worship requires us to recognise and name the most difficult aspects of human living. In baptism we say that this new life will one day die. At every marriage ceremony we are reminded that the commitments are made ‘until death us do part’. There is no shying away from these fundamental truths of human life. Yet our commitment to the limits of human existence is held in tension with a great hope. A hope which, on Good Friday, we affirm even in the shadow of the cross; the Healer’s tree. We cannot disregard the injustice, suffering and humiliation of this public execution. We see it and name it.
For some people it will not be Good Friday that is difficult. Human suffering is obvious and ubiquitous. The step of faith to Easter Day is the part of Christianity that stretches their credulity. Yet for those who follow the way of Christ, our response to suffering is lit with a hope that radiates from the empty tomb. Yes, suffering is real – but it is not all.
He hung there limply on the frame, His body beaten black and blue. Exposure was the thing; humiliation, too; To which the nails seemed superfluous When all you had to do was die of shame; Quietly expire, a minimum of fuss. But what a noise you made, Silent Messiah, Your humbling death, so nakedly exposed, Conquered forum, basilica and the choir Of poets with the love you interposed.
N. S. Thompson, ‘Silent Messiah’ in ‘The Poet’s Quest for God’ Eyewear Publishing 2016
Life-drawing presents all kinds of challenges to the drawer – especially me. A fundamental issue is the need to unlearn our habits of seeing what we think is there, and focus on the reality of the subject. This requires careful attention to the relative size and scale of limbs and their disposition. For example, the face is only a small part of the head, even if our communication-centred focus leads us to privilege the eyes and the mouth. Drawing what we see as important delivers a disjointed and disproportionate view of the body.
For some time I have been intrigued by Anil Seth’s hypothesis that consciousness and our sense of self is best understood as a ‘controlled hallucination’. Reflecting on this I would be more inclined to amend the phrase to ‘collective’ rather than controlled. In every age there have been people who stood apart from a collective agreement about what constitutes a normal sense of self. Usually, they suffered for this nonconformity, even if their perspective later came to be an accepted view. For me the strength of Seth’s idea is not so much for people who share an agreed interpretation of objects and events, but as a way to explain behaviour when the hallucination is fractured. For example, with dementia, the way we order past and present might be rearranged. There is still engagement with the material world but this materiality might be significantly recast and reinterpreted. A husband and son are not recognised in these roles but instead named as the person’s father and brother. Sense-making appears to be less controlled and requires some lateral thinking in order to comprehend. In this example, in which I was involved, the person knew that these were her male relatives of different generations, but the designations were misplaced.
I noted some time ago that the pandemic has generated increasing interest in subjects such as those covered in York’s nightly ghost-tours. At the time I thought this was linked to increased mortality but in the light of a recent Guardian article I wonder if there is another reason. For example, whether the degree of social disruption has sent a significant earthquake through the ground of our perception. What was assumed to be certain was shaken, and many people are in the process of renegotiating the relative meaning and value we construct to make sense of the world. It is not necessarily the case that more people believe in ghosts, but they may be more open to the unexpected and the disruptive.
Prof Christopher French, head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, is not surprised to hear reports of a rise. “There is historical evidence for increased interest in, and reported experiences of, this kind of stuff at times of uncertainty, stress and turmoil.”
Emine Saner, ‘Spooky Britain: how ghosts became a national obsession’ The Guardian, 6 April 2022
How we draw a head, or how we order our experiences of the physical world, may not be as accurate as we would like to think. A significant aspect of religious experience is that the way we accept the world should be questioned and challenged. Today, Palm Sunday, is a day when the Church marks the start of a week in which the presence of Jesus questions a whole range of assumptions. Entering Jerusalem on a donkey, the expectation of sovereignty is placed in a posture of humility and service. This is a King who is not here to stamp authority on a subjugated people. Perhaps more potently, his action in washing the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday puts the teaching into action. Jesus’ words and deeds subvert the accepted relationships in society and open the possibility that we see and embrace a more proportionate understanding of our place in the world. A place where we see properly the people who are often peripheral to our vision; recognise our illusions of independence for what they are; and live at peace with our mortality. The foundational stories of the Abrahamic faiths all narrate how our clarity of sight has been corrupted and distorted. On our own we cannot see aright, and embracing this awareness should foster some humility and co-dependence as we seek to determine how best to live.
Christians live with a conviction that the world is not as it should be. The idea of the Kingdom of God points to an altered reality where a different kind of society lives in peace and justice. Having this belief may inspire discontent with the world as it is, as well as energise activity to aid this Kingdom emerge fully into our personal relationships and local communities. In this much there is hope, resisting the temptation simply to accept what is in front of us and ‘labour for what does not satisfy’ (Isaiah 55:2). When it is fully alive, the Christian story challenges false power by its persistent presence and emphasis on servant leadership. It questions those who misuse religious authority, and stands in profound silence before Pilate. At the end of this week those who oppose the petition ‘your Kingdom come’ find that even the certainty of a sealed tomb is not enough to extinguish this outrageous hope.
Last Sunday, as I begin to fill in the Register at a church where I’d just lead a service, my fountain pen broke in two. It was quite dramatic. Large blots of black ink formed on the page; my hand was doused in the stuff; a small amount pooled onto the floor. As far as possible, using tissues and wipes, I remedied the damage – but left an indelible mark of my (first!) visit to the church.
Returning home I turned to Google to see if I was alone in my experience. Apparently not. This trusted model from a good brand was known to suffer the occasional failure of a welded section, causing the split I had just experienced. I also learned that it is reparable, and during the week I parcelled up the parts to send to a UK agent for assessment and onward travel to Germany. Like many items we might have as we get older, not only was it – until this point – a reliable mainstay of my writing, it was also a gift from my father for my 50th birthday.
Although I have only caught glimpses of the BBC series The Repair Shop, it isn’t difficult to understand the popularity of the programme. Things that have aged and become damaged are brought back to their former glory. Through the process of repair we are connected with the past as heritage skills are used by the experts to restore the items. Of course, in the process, the person who has presented the treasured artefact tells us the story about its origin and arrival with the current owner. Often these accounts will involve bereavement and the role of the heirloom has a tangible connection with a vanished world.
It may be that this programme appeals to younger people – but I suspect the larger audience will be at the older end of the scale. People who have inherited items or been gifted them by friends or relatives when inevitably downsizing as the years advance. Perhaps some personalities are more invested in such things than others, but I imagine that almost everyone can recognise the feeling that an item from the past evokes a sudden sense of connection to a world where we once lived, and which is now past. Watching Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast last night led us to remark that it was like watching our childhoods, not because of the circumstances of growing up in Northern Ireland, but because of the consumer products, Christmas decorations, gifts and furnishings that were featured in the film.
Now in his late 80s, the unconventional former leader of the Episcopalian Church in Scotland, Richard Holloway, has been reflecting on melancholy in his latest book, The Heart of Things. Holloway’s writing in recent years has been a great blessing, not least because he is sharing with us considerable insight, intelligence and feeling from what might be called ‘the front line of later life’.
“Melancholy has become a kind of grateful sadness at what life has given us but which we can never cling to, because it is constantly passing, disappearing into the past. Melancholics find it impossible not to keep looking back at what time has wrought as it slips away behind them like the wake of a ship”.
Richard Holloway, ‘The Heart of Things: An Anthology of Memory & Lament’ Canongate 2021 p. 9
It is little wonder that so many of us enjoy repairing things from the past and re-lustering what has become dull over time. Through these physical fragments of heritage we achieve something we know is impossible for ourselves. We can pass on these keepsakes in near mint condition, while recognising that we share with their first users the reality of our own change and ultimate demise. Like Holloway, I don’t find this a depressing thought, and will be glad to receive back my fountain pen in one piece and use it for a while longer.
Religions typically invite their adherents to avoid investing excessive attachment to things. Whether it is putting wealth into barns or clinging onto power, the behaviour of Jesus in the wilderness is to reject the beguiling shortcuts to food and sovereignty. In his life and teaching Jesus makes clear that false attachments become a barrier to a spirituality that endures. We can live well with ‘things’ but need to be mindful that everything is lent to us for a time. Jesus doesn’t reject possessions entirely, but questions what his hearers ‘treasure’, aware that material things are not eternal. Living at ease with an awareness of irretrievably passing time can help us all live each day well. It is folly, like the example of Cnut, to think that the sands of the hour glass can be diverted or prevented. We live within their falling, and might live better lives if we were at peace with this reality – and our custody of things for a season.