Hercules Buildings

 

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“Everybody does not see alike”, writes William Blake. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eye of others only a green thing which stands in the way”. Blake’s blood was up: he was responding in a letter to a Reverend Dr Trusler, of Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, who had commissioned artwork from his neighbour, but found it too fanciful. A stick thrust into the swirling hive of his imagination, Blake’s riposte fizzes with stinging insight. “Why is the Bible more entertaining and instructive than any other book?” he presses: “Is it not because (it is) addressed to the imagination, which is spiritual sensation?”

That the imagination was our highest faculty for apprehending truth was an article of faith for the Romantic movement, and one with deeply theological implications – as Coleridge, in particular, was later to expound. Modern thought had increasingly grounded metaphysical flights, deifying the rational mind: Coleridge had different ideas. Indeed, for him, the biblical portrayal of God as Trinity was ‘the idea of ideas’, from which all others proceeded. Human reason was not supreme, but a reflection – an emanation – of the divine mind and character. “We see all things in God”, he considers, in the Biographia.

Dismissing believers as those with ‘an imaginary friend’ is a commonplace taunt (to the fore in this week’s episcopal forays into political debate), but one worth embracing, I think. For the plain truth is that God, not being visible, must be imagined – and it is surprising, therefore, that our sermons give so little space for considering its central place in realising faith. All of our friends – on earth or above – are, in part, at least, imaginary: we cannot conceive them otherwise. The question is how much of what we imagine is true, and what is fanciful as fairies on a foxglove.

Our ideas are trialled by experience: will their bright wings bear our weight? Equally, by where they transport us, or the world they construct. Coleridge separates our basic (or ‘primary’) imagination – the everyday picture of life we frame – and highlights the ‘secondary imagination’ as the creative ability to reassemble this collage of images into something new and meaningful. But the matter is the same: whatever we see – whether a tree, train or trombone – is filtered, tinted and re-touched by each person’s perception.

Many have found in this impulse to re-create an echo or expression of the divine image in humanity. Indeed, the premise of scripture is that we are God’s idea before he is ours: hatched from his matchless imaginings, sparked into life. Our six-day labours to make something of what has been given us thus begin in the heart and mind. The talentless slave in Christ’s parable fails, not by his actions primarily, but in how he imagines the master. “As a man is”, remarks Blake to Dr Trusler, “so he sees”.

 

 

 

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Out of the cloudy pillar

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‘For the healthy visionary’, writes Aldous Huxley, in Heaven and Hell, ‘the perception of the infinite in the finite particular is a revelation of divine immanence’. Unassisted by mescaline (this morning in May being hazy enough), I’m off and away by six or so, searching for what Huxley calls ‘the union with divine ground’.

Ascension Day is, I think, my favourite festival of the Anglican calendar. The departure of Christ – ‘carried up into heaven’ – is, in the fullest sense, an imaginary thing, in which the elastic of language is stretched tight before snapping back to earth, as all language must. St Luke attests that ‘a cloud received him out of their sight’, and out of sight means that in our mind we must now conceive him. It is not simply that all talk of God must use analogy, but – as Dorothy L. Sayers explains – that ‘all language about everything is analogical’ – not being the thing itself, but a limited descriptor. She continues:

‘To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yardstick.’

So what if we experience – as we regularly do – something beyond words: what then can we say? We speak of elevated or ‘heightened’ language to convey our sense of a reality beyond our ken, that nonetheless meets us and invites that we reframe our referents. This is what Huxley, discussing the heavenly vision in art, meant by ‘the impossible paradox and supreme truth – that perception is (or at least can be, ought to be) the same as Revelation…’ All truly new experience has this quality, in which we realise life, not as a monologue but an antiphon, responding to prior reality – the word that was in the beginning.

The most novel encounters or experiences appear to go ahead of us, like the fiery, cloudy pillar to the children of Israel – and really require a new kind of tense, for they seem to come from past and future simultaneously. The closest English word for this convergence is ‘before’ – meaning both ‘previously’ and ‘ahead of’. As Jesus explains to the twelve what could never be anticipated, he says: ‘after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee’.

The language of God always goes first. The Resurrection and Ascension as described in scripture are not so much ‘what happened’ as an inspired bid to express what was inherently inexpressible, by virtue of being entirely new. The old words wouldn’t quite do. So we must settle for heaven above and earth below, although an intersection of the two is where we reside in this rapturous season, suspended like those of whom St Paul writes: ‘which are alive and remain (who) shall be caught up together and meet the Lord in the air’. Looking up, the firmament is flocked; clouds crowd the sunlight, leaving the land baffled.

 

 

 

 

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The rutted path

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“Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark” Deuteronomy 19:14

May is the abundant month: her bounties come in showers. Overpowering mists of hawthorn, elegant cranes of buttercups: uplifted nature’s open hand. So, in the coming days, Rogationtide – when, by ancient custom, parish bounds are beaten and (in those tracks) the waxing crops are blessed. A time to consider the benefit of this particular plot: the yield of the season.

From Overton Hill, walking north along the Ridgeway – the neolithic trade route that may once have extended from Grime’s Graves in Dorset to the Norfolk coast, I am also tracing a parish boundary. Often following more ancient patterns, these frequently picked up hitchhiking landmarks – long barrows, especially – incorporating them to delimit parochial or manorial lands. In her exploration of Englands ‘spiritual topography’ Inhabiting the Landscape, historian Nicola Whyte demonstrates how a range of Christian and pre-Christian territorial markers – standing crosses, for example – linked with natural features to form a ‘mnemonic’ framework that enabled communities to learn their locale by heart. Perhaps inevitably, these lines also symbolised the threshold between life and death – burial mounds in some cases becoming sites of a gallows or gibbet, usually at a conjunction of routes.

Pausing at the Ridgeway’s intersection with the ‘Herepath’ or Green Street – another prehistoric trackway – the crops look ripe for a reading of the 103rd Psalm, one of the Rogationtide texts. Since I last visited (before lockdown), a lush velour of barley has covered these crusted furrows – the brown sweep of the fields now furred by a soft green pelt. The ‘perambulation’ of parish bounds during this week in May was, interestingly, the only outdoor religious procession to survive the English Reformation: not merely permitted but mandated by the Injunctions of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. While this accords with the growing significance of the parish as the footing for local government (whose powers accrued for a further three centuries), attachment to the enchanted landmarks of catholic – and, indeed pagan – practice persisted, only being dislocated by the ever-expanding privatisation and enclosure of common ground.

For a thousand years, these ceremonies defined community as a triangular conversation between God, land and humanity, with scripture employed as the mediating language of our dialogue with nature. In this, it was both the term of address: William Tyndale describes the “saying of gospels to the corn in the procession week, that it should better grow” and also of reply, for the same Gospel would be read from holy trees (hence ‘Gospel Oak’), that those gathered should likewise flourish. In a roughly practical outworking (Rogationtide processions could also be the riotous flashpoint for disputation with neighbours) the words of the Bible thus sealed our covenant with the soil.

That is a compact worth renewing as we land from modernity’s long-haul flight, and reckon again with the routes of community. So today, I pray from the rutted path: with suede-faced fallow deer and fly-twitched cattle; with rosters of red campion and bush vetch, and a skylark to cantor the wind’s amen.

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“Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out…” (John 5:28-9)

Dawn walks have lately become my liturgy: a faithful repetition. The same circuit of fields and lanes, nature’s performance framing days that are improvisations on a theme. Mundane though it is to do the same old thing, or view a constant scene, we become attuned to small alterations in self or situation that would otherwise have no measure. As Bonhoeffer wrote from his Berlin prison in May 1944: ‘where the ground bass is firm and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of its limits”.

This work of walking has provided the cantus firmus for lockdown, my metronome feet beating the bounds, keeping pace with events. Today’s tableau has changed again: last time I passed, the sun hung in this tree like a bauble; this morning it is offset, a soft bulb, while the leaves jiggle like bunting.

If the day of resurrection is, as Christ taught, something wrought from the earth – ever ancient, ever new – the clues to which surround us, then perhaps we shouldn’t be astonished if those in whose steps we tread reappear along the way. It being the VE Day anniversary, my late father is beside me, especially, and at home I recover from his papers the demobilisation letter sent from the War Office in September 1946. Like countless others, rapped out on a Remington, its repeated form (“the valuable services you have rendered in service of your country at a time of grave national emergency”, “I am, Sir, your obedient servant…”) undergirds rather than undermines the particular, personal case – inferring as it does that solo efforts belonged in a symphony of service and were not lost in that clamour. The letter has, at some point, been prised from a frame: there is a rough, gluey border that proves its value – surprising to me, as such things were never displayed at home.

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From India, where he served with the Royal Engineers, Dad was brought at the end of the war to Berlin, by rumbling Liberator bomber. For several months, he took part in the allied recovery operation among these flattened cities – clearing the rubble of Hamburg, Hanover and Essen. Something of their desolation awakened his own and, unforeseen, he stumbled into personal crisis. His mother (lost to him when a few months old) and father – always remote, but recently departed – rose, as it were, in grief’s pale disguise. As for most of us, all that is absent remained, of all things, acutely present.

The apparition of loss is an unwanted gift, but a gift nonetheless. My father’s ‘deep problems’ (as he described them) were redeemed as the seam of a compassionate parish ministry, but reprised in retirement. Keenly I recall praying as he preached from some Herefordshire pulpit, that the good Lord would help it end well. For it was in stillness – waiting on appointments with God – that he was renewed and where he ‘reposed, in conscious weakness’, as one of his favourite divines, Handley Moule, put it. Soon after Dad died, I wrote a scrap of a poem that I had thought was about me, but now see was entirely him:

That which you lack

will draw you back

to where the silence sings.

The yawning gape,

the ache,

and crack

become a place

of springs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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May 10, 2020 · 10:13 am

In terra pax

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May breaks, with a complex sky and high procession of clouds. Earth is mobile, mercurial – mirroring the heavens, like the cold sun of each spent dandelion. Simone Weil, a writer whose lightning insights smoulder still, considered this counterpoint to be more than merely material:

‘Every human being has at their roots here below a certain terrestrial poetry, a reflection of the heavenly glory, the link, of which they are more or less vaguely conscious, with their universal country’

That our shifting, temporal existence might be partnered in a dance with eternity is an idea old as wisdom, and has choreographed the Christian understanding of space and time. Our ‘terrestrial poetry’ finds pinpoint places that map this instinct, requiring ‘you are here’ arrows, to indicate the way. Even the most outlandish scriptural depictions of the next world are necessarily rooted in this one (St John’s apocalyptic monsters still have wings and eyes, even if uncannily numerous) – the biblical heaven, in other words, is an extrapolation of the biblical earth.

A church spire is thus an upended map pin: a stake in empyrean fields, as if our mortal tent will swiftly blow away. In a week when many were to gather for the 800th anniversary of Salisbury Cathedral’s foundation, this is much in mind. I am carried back to a service there on this date last year, for the installation of new honorary canons – an event as ethereal as any I can recall. The atmosphere inside was seraphic, as we wafted on soft voluntaries to the prebendary stalls of Alton Borealis and Netherbury in Terra. My initial response was entirely to these radiant names: imagined and alternative versions of ordinary diocesan villages. Where on earth are these places? Viewed one way, this was obscure ceremonial with fairly worldly roots: prebends had been valuable endowments of land or other revenue attached to the office of cathedral canon and thereby prone to becoming the ecclesiastical equivalent of rotten boroughs. Yet the effect of invoking them was tremendous and, by the conclusion of worship, I felt as if we had visited another dimension, in which familiar parishes each had their celestial counterpart. Wherever Alton Borealis is, I felt, I want to dwell there.

From Martinsell – Iron Age hillfort and one of the loftiest, as well as most peaceful spots in Wiltshire – you can, on a clear day, see across Salisbury Plain to where the foremost spire in England lances the skies, glorifying God in the highest. It remains a kind of eternal trig pillar for pilgrims, including Thomas Fuller: an army chaplain from the English Civil War (‘A good Church of England man, with his heart in heaven and both feet on the ground’, according to Canon Charles Smyth). In his memoir of those stricken years, Mixt Contemplations, he reflects:

“Travelling on the plain (which notwithstanding hath its risings and fallings) I discovered Salisbury steeple many miles off; coming to a declivity, I lost sight thereof; but climbing up on the next hill, the steeple grew out of the ground again. Yea, I often found it and lost it, till at last I came safely to it, and took my lodging near it. It fareth thus with us whilst we are wayfaring to heaven. Mounted on the Pisgah top of some good meditation, we get a glimpse of our celestial Canaan; but when on the flat of an ordinary temper, or in the fall of an extraordinary temptation, we lose the view thereof. Thus, in the sight of our souls, heaven is discovered, covered, and recovered; till – though late, at last – though slowly, surely – we arrive at the haven of our happiness.”

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Hard sentences

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Verging the A4, walking west to Devil’s Den and nature everywhere in debut. Limp rotors of horse chestnut, ear-handles of lambs, sweetly outsized and sooty: the year is taking shape but still untested, tentative. Wild Chervil, which will flock this path shortly, has a shyness in unfurling. Its fronds first genuflect, before an ecstatic flowering into tiny white explosions – flung out yet restrained, on stems taut as fuse wire.

Life thus reins us in, even in spring. Wendell Berry, in his essay The Work of Local Culture, describes the containment necessary for an ecology to thrive: ‘the growth of the years must return – or be returned – to the ground to rot and build soil’. This return applies as much to human society as agriculture, as Berry continues:

“A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a kind of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place.”

The dominant force in modern, urban culture is, he argues, centrifugal – and Berry looks askance at its cancerous expansion – ‘eating its way outwards, like ringworm’.  Wendell Berry is a writer of singular genius, whose grounded Christian ethic has grown from a lifetime of farming the same Kentucky acres. His gift is to see human and natural culture as an organic whole, a spiritual compact – encapsulated by ‘culture’ itself, whose root words hold in tension the sense of natural growth and husbandry, Adamic delving in the soil (as in coulter, or ploughshare) and, tellingly, the honouring with worship still evident in our use of cult. 

Traditional agricultural communities shackled most members to the soil with a toiling gravity still present when my mother began teaching in Lincolnshire villages in the late 1940s. Stone-picking and other, equally back-breaking tasks tugged pupils to the fields, bring mass seasonal absence. Industrialisation and its corollaries burst these communities like a seed head, scattering labouring classes into the towns and leaving those who remained oddly shiftless – unless, like my grandfather, they too mechanised and mobilised.

Modernity’s mistake was to dupe us into believing we could liberate ourselves from the natural world and still flourish: a lesson we are having to re-learn now – in ‘hard sentences’, as the Psalmist puts it. We cannot contract out of our skin or away from the soil, although culture always changes, as each paradigm drifts. Having lived with high personal mobility and low remote connection, we find ourselves accelerated into the opposite – broadcast beyond recognition, but at the same time rooted anew in one place, schooled again in the names of the creation, like children of Eve. Our footing, for now, is hesitant: lamb-like, yet hefting with every step.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sketches of the heavenly things

Ours is a life lived in response. Response, primarily, to our real situation and what it calls for, elicits from us. Existence stands at the door, knocking, and the truly life-changing moments – being the sphere of our greatest freedom and potential influence – are those in which we decide how to answer. Even when overcome or closed down by circumstance, this much remains open to us. Consequently, those who shape life most profoundly – who, for good and ill, end up forging the reality the rest of us reckon with – tend to be those who are most responsive, or responsible. Who, like, Moses before the bush, consider themselves addressed by the fearful brilliance of what is.

Attention to our particular situation is thus the key to a creative life. I read this week that John Constable, recalling the first stirrings of an artistic vocation, wrote how ‘the trees seemed to ask me to try and do something like them’ – his experience, in other words, required some kind of reply. What we name as self-possession is really our possession of just this: our own unique answer – and, in realising this liberty, each of us makes the world anew.

That recognition, taken one way, can lead towards the exaltation of genius advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his renowned essay Self-Reliance: “insist on yourself: never imitate!” The best part of his case concerns human timidity before the present moment. We are, he repines:

“ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts…”

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What he gains in elevating personal agency (as did Nelson Mandela, no less stirringly, in his presidential inauguration speech a century and a half later), Emerson loses, however, by painting himself into an individualist corner, where everyone is an island. “Is not a man better than a town?” he concludes, in humourless antithesis to John Donne.

The genius of Christ (which Emerson admits, among others uniquely able to command a cause) points another way. What makes all that came before him mere ‘sketches of the heavenly things’ (as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it), is really the nature, the quality of his response – as if God himself were owning the questions of existence that spring from its confounding compound of barbarism and beauty. The Passion has captivated art, partly because, with every tightening fetter, Christ retains this capacity for responding as we might, but cannot. He is life’s advocate, even in the rasps of Golgotha.

Like Constable’s tree, the cross thus arrests our attention, that we may approximate something like it. The resurrection is another matter entirely – beyond our palette, reason or reply. And not an answer, as such – more a dazzling, dumbfounding rejoinder: what will you make of this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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