elusive angels

How does a story come to be?

I used to think that one must have an idea; that there must be some complex logo-rhythm that would relate character, plot and symbol into a meaningful whole.   But now I am not so sure.

Through Advent and Lent a story has been evolving on the blogs (Love Blooms Bright and Beauty from Chaos).   It is a story about angels, a story about God, and a story about what it means for the Word to become Incarnate.  Sometimes, I’ve been quite pleased with the posts.  I loved Sophia’s insistence in Wisdom Exaulteth and am still amused by sulky Jophiel in Look Again.  It’s too soon to be sure which of the Lent stories I may like.  They are too close and there is insufficient distance to see.

These stories have been fun to write, but I am not really sure where they come from.  Do they form a coherent theology?  Perhaps.  But if so, it is not the theology I would have expected to write, nor would I have realised how much I want an illustrator.

How did angels come to take centre stage?  Certainly not by my planning or intention.

Yet there they are, week after week, telling me their stories, and forcing their way onto the page.  It is fun, and confusing too.  Is there more that needs to be written, or is this it?  Do the characters live for these blogs, or is there something bigger going on here?

I kind of hope that Jophiel and Zadkiel will stick around.  I’d like to see Sophia again too.  But this seems to be their choice and not mine.  I am sure they will stay with us through Good Friday, but have no sense at all what angels might do, come Easter.

see? it is enough.

‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’

How many times have I read, told, preached the story of the burning bush?  It is one of the foundational stories for Jewish and Christian faith, and much more troublingly, for much of the history of the Middle East.  But this morning it caught me:  ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’  My breath, catching with Moses’; my heart leaping alongside his at the sheer wonder and beauty of it.

Then I found myself singing Dayenu.  I was still at the bush, mind.  Still ‘caught’ and in awe.  But in another part of my brain, the passover song was buzzing ‘Dayenu-dayenu, dayenu.’  ‘It is enough, it is enough…’

Had it been lectio, I’d have stopped here (and I did for a while), but it was morning prayer, so I knew I would have to go on.  I happily read about the sandals and Moses hiding his face.  I felt the joy of the promise of liberation  I paused again under the weight of YHVH, and thought of Eish Levanah’s white fire.  I felt the soothing hope of a land flowing with milk and honey.  And I flinched as I had to read over and over again: ‘to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Prizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.’  I remembered the anger that filled a room of seething, hormonal 15 year-olds in Rugby, as I let them ask their questions: ‘but why would God do that?  It’s not fair.  You can’t give away what belongs to someone else. Why does God start wars?’

I often carry their anger into my reading of this story.  Not deliberately, but as an embodied memory.  How could God do this?  It is not fair.  The history of the Middle East is full of pain in a thousand directions, and much of it, on all sides, is deeply unjust and unfair.  It is easy to blame, easy to simplify, easy to completely misunderstand through sheer ignorance of culture, history, belief.  I do not claim to understand it. Yet it comes to me in this passage, fighting with the glory of the burning bush.

But today, I suddenly saw my own part in it:  I want to stop with the bush.  I want to say: ‘Dayenu.  It is enough.  This is the religious moment, turning aside to the bush, to the “transitory brightness”, to the things that steal our breath away and stop us in our tracks and reveal the very presence of God.’

And I do think that is the staring point:  unless we encounter God for ourselves and help others to do the same, Christianity will be a very dry and dull thing.

But we don’t get to stop there.  We have to go on, into the awkward bit, into the stories we would rather avoid.  ‘I will give you a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Cannanites, the Hittites, the Amorites…’   I’ve read it a thousand times, but I’ve never seen it before.  Dayenu.  The land flows with milk and honey.  It is enough.

If a bush can burn without being consumed, then Israelites can live alongside Cannanites, Hittites and Amorites without mutual destruction.  Here, in this story, there is no necessary conflict:  just a challenge to our imagination, to see a world in which God’s presence is enough.  And that means that we can live alongside that things that feel impossible for us:  the clashing visions, the different theological and liturgical ways.  Even the competing needs of temperament and priorities.

Sometimes I think I have let the bright bush blind me.  I have held too tightly to my vision of the holy and felt the tension of its interruption, its opposite, the things in life that disrupt, clash, compete.  I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this, and that it is all too human a response.

The burning bush is an invitation into paradox and humility:  what should not be able to co-exist can exist freely in the mutual presence of God.  What we see and experience and hold dear is held safe in God’s presence, and the appearance of conflict, contradiction, opposition need not consume us.

I have known this.  I have even, sometimes, lived in the reality of it.  And I have often forgotten. But I had never before seen it in this story, in the paradox of wonder and terror that spins out from the telling of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.

Dayenu was the right song for this passage.  God gives us all we need and more than we can imagine.  The clashing conflict is in our failure of imagination.  The land flows with milk and honey and it is enough.

addenda for the very observant:

yes, my declension of dayenu is wrong in translation.  I went with the theological concept of the song rather than the literal translation.

yes, the words of dayenu make me flinch as much as the second half the story of the burning bush.  The song is thought to be a thousand years old, and I’m willing to make allowances.

res miranda

Gosh, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a good blog discussion.  The comments on the last post on the Easby Nativity are wonderful — and I still haven’t thought through half of them.  Kelvin seems to be leaning towards an essay on the influence of Eastern thought on Marian iconography.  Rosemary is exploring the economic situation of the holy family and the scarcity of donkeys.  Meanwhile Ruth keeps us grounded.

Inevitably, the essay I had in mind was about the incarnation and eucharistic theology (when is it not?).  The detail that fascinates me most in the mural is the hint of writing that threatens to cover the scene.  Other, now absent, writing did more damage to the Annunciation, and I wonder if the Reformers who whitewashed the murals used extra-nasty wash on the Marian scenes to try to ensure her demise.  Thankfully Mary is too tenacious for that, and we love her for it.

So, I find that these pictures help me understand the pain and turmoil of the Reformation in a way I never really have.  I’m no good at history, and care little whether something is in English or Latin, so the word-driven conflicts feel remote to me.  But when I stand in front of the Easby murals and think of them being blotted out and then covered with heavy words, I sense the anger of the masses who must have wanted their plucky Mary and weary Joseph back.

I wonder, too, how the paintings effected the congregation’s experience of the eucharist.  If every time you take bread and wine, the Christ child is smiling down at you from his ox-warmed crib, do you experience the paradox of Word made flesh, bread made flesh, flesh made Word more deeply?  Does it lead to a gentler, more hospitable Christianity than if you break bread and wine under the ominous Gothic script of The Law?  For me it would.

And for all that one might criticize the hierarchies of the Mediaeval church, I think there is something much more open-ended in telling the story of salvation through pictures instead of words.  Pictures tug at our hearts.  Quotations tell us that someone thinks they know just which bit of God’s word we most need to hear.

So, in the Curriculum of Wonder?  Well, this picture would keep us busy for a long time.  With younger children, we’d spend a few weeks with it at least (looking, naming what we saw, asking questions, learning songs, drawing pictures, imagining how it felt to see them covered over, trying to understand why someone would think it was right to do that, wondering how we can cope with people who upset us deeply).  With older teens, it might take a term, or a year.  I can imagine people picking a detail and trying to make sense of it; learning the history, exploring other images, talking with people about their sense of the nativity or the eucharist or the use of pictures in worship today.  And it seems to me that this is how we think now anyway — following links, exploring chains of ideas, letting something catch our eye and seeing where it leads us.   And then the teaching comes in trying to help each person put all the pieces together: to find some sort of cohesion and meaning in the midst of all the possibilities of wonder.  Teaching probably isn’t the right word.  It’s more ‘focusing’ — holding someone still long enough that they have time and space to think, and not letting them off the hook till they do.

Each panel of the mural tells a different story — it offers a different, overlapping curriculum.  I’m about to post them all up on Life and Light.  And today I give thanks for the vision of the artists who first pictured the smiling Christ-child, the brave Mary, the star-struck shepherds, and the insistent angels.  I am glad they got in quick with their water-colours before the plaster dried, and thus left us with visions of the glory of God that endured the worst of churchy conflicts and self-righteous violence.

turning point

The best exam question I was ever asked came at Christmas in my sixth form year.  It was in a British Studies class: in interdisciplinary History and Literature class, team taught by two of the best teachers I have ever had. It was my first three hour exam:  an hour for literature, an hour for history, and an hour for… well, that’s the bit I want to tell you about.

The third hour was a free for all.  In the last minutes of the second hour, the teachers began placing postcards face down on our desk.  The postcards had something to do with the curriculum, and it was our task to figure out and write about what.  That was all.  ‘Please write for one hour in reference to your postcard and the things you have learned this term.’

Mine was of a boar snuffling around the base of a tree.  At least I think it was a boar.  It might have been a pig, but it was hard to tell. It was richly coloured and glinting, from some illuminated manuscript or other.  Quite lovely, in its way, but a bit alarming as an exam question.

I paused briefly to panic, and watched as every illuminated boar-related though flit through my mind.

  • truffles
  • manuscript
  • monasteries
  • scribes, literacy
  • court
  • hunting
  • poverty and riches
  • Grendel
    (no, I don’t know why either, but it works like that sometimes)
  • Boar’s Head Carol
  • Boar hunting >> dangerous >> knights>> chivalry
  • heir to the throne, risk
  • oh help, I need to write an essay about a boar?
  • England and France
  • Aquitaine
  • The Lion in Winter
    No, wait.  That’s a different course.
  • Oh help.
  • Bestiaries

Anyway, you get the idea.  There is actually more than enough there to write for an hour.  You just need to sort it into clusters and wax lyrical.  I took a deep breath, and wrote frantically till the time was up.

And then I panicked all through the holidays because I really hadn’t a clue as to what they had wanted or whether I had given it to them.

Thankfully, I had.  It was a turning point for me:  the first moment my terribly divergent mind was given free reign and deemed worthy.  It was fun.  And, I confess, all the more so because most of my classmates — who were usually smarter and faster and more clever than I– had not coped with the postcards at all and suddenly, my essay was offered up as the model.

I was reminded of that exam as I looked at the wall paintings in Easby recently.  Easby is best know for the Abbey ruins, and the Turner painting thereof.  But what I didn’t realise for years was that the real treasure of Easby is in the parish church.   There, unguarded and unprotected, are a set of wall paintings dating from  c. 1250 which tell the story of salvation.

They are captivating and beautiful, and I will say more about them later in relation to my nascent thoughts on wonder. But for now, I just want to show you my favourite and ask you to consider in in the spirit of the British Studies exam.