The crucial eye of the beholder

by
05 September 2014

Adam Ford relishes Places of Enchantment by Graham B. Usher

Finding a place: the Rt Revd Graham Usher at his consecration as a bishop in March this year (CREDIT: ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL)

Finding a place: the Rt Revd Graham Usher at his consecration as a bishop in March this year (CREDIT: ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL)

FUTURE historians, if there are such people, will look back on our era and judge us in accordance with the way in which we have handled our relationships. Not just those relationships within marriage or among families, but between religions and between sects within religions; between nation states; between races; and, perhaps most of all, between ourselves and the natural world.

Never, in the whole of history, has human stewardship of the planet been more important than it is today. We need to feel deeply that our links with the kingdoms of insects, birds, fish, and animals, the worlds of plants, trees, and bacteria, are intimate and essential to all our lives. The rich ecosystem of which we are a part is a com- plex web of interconnections and mutual dependencies covering the landscapes of the world. We have to learn to love it. Graham Usher points us in the right direction.

The lovely thing about Bishop Usher's Places of Enchantment is that, while recognising the importance of Christian worship (he is the Suffragan Bishop of Dudley), his aim is to take the reader out from the church building and the beautiful formalism of the liturgy to discover that this is God's world, and that its landscapes are charged with spiritual value.

It does not take more than a moment's thought to realise what a powerful part landscapes play in scripture: Jesus alone in the rocky wastes of a desert; Moses encountering God through fire and cloud on Sinai; the panoramic review of the world of nature, of its mysterious order and its calamitous chaos, in Job. Always the implication seems to be that this is where you may find a revelation of God.

As we come to contemplate landscapes or, better still, walk through them, we need have no fear of that old bugbear of Christianity, pantheism ("everything is God"). We can enjoy and be transported by the beauty of landscapes without falling into the mistake of worshipping them. All of nature is "in God", panentheism, and enjoys its existence through his continuing creative power.

We find beauty in some landscapes, and Bishop Usher encourages us to ask what it is about beauty that makes it so: is it an aspect of the world, even when we do not respond to its presence? "Beauty", he writes, "is not simply something that is in the eye or mind of the beholder. Rather it is a sacred manifestation of God's immanent power in nature."

Perhaps, rather than think of beauty as being in a landscape, we would be better to think of it as something that emerges only in our relationship to a landscape. It is in contemplating the scene that beauty is created. This leads to a further question: in the modern world, have we lost a sense of the sacredness of nature, restricting the experience to churches and religious things? If we begin to think of nature as a sacred realm, it should affect the way we live.

Appreciation of deep beauty does not always come naturally, and we can be helped, Bishop Usher suggests - even educated - in our exploration of landscapes by looking at them through the eyes of great painters: Turner, Constable, or the American artists of the sublime. We can also draw on a wealth of great writing, both poetry and prose. The author quotes, as one might expect, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, R. S. Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Henry Thoreau, and many others.

All readers must have their favourite passages and poems: it is always worth sharing them, and a group compilation could be a fruitful exercise. Would it be too much to expect a church to include one of these readings weekly in the liturgy, an addition to the epistle and Gospel - or even to print one in the order of service or the notice sheet for private meditation? A good time would be during the Trinity season, when the liturgical colours are green. Visitors to the church might be cheerfully surprised.

This book encourages us to get out of the house, and out of the church building, to go walking and look again, perhaps with the thought that God has been creating the landscape around us for millions of years before we opened our eyes to it. In looking, we will find ourselves asking more questions: is there a revelation of the divine to be found in an urban landscape, for example? What are we looking for?

Anyone who has walked on their own in mountains will recognise that feeling of being strangely disturbed by a presence and power, almost threatening; one that evades words. On other lingering walks, we might feel gently enchanted.

Bishop Usher quotes an Orthodox theologian, Vigan Guroian, on spirituality and walking in the smaller landscape of a garden: "No earthly garden ever is just an earthly garden, for God is in the Garden."

We are reminded, however, that God is elusive, and theophany will not happen where we expect it. Looking forward to an encounter with God can be rather like planning for happiness - an experience that more often comes when unexpected, perhaps even unsought for. It is in the essential nature of the divine that he will seldom force himself on us, and there are times when, out in the wild, we may find ourselves left alone.

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul's School for Girls.

Places of Enchantment by Graham B. Usher is published by SPCK at £10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90); 978-0-281-06792-3.

 

PLACES OF ENCHANTMENT - SOME QUESTIONS

Is there anywhere on earth that you think of as paradise?

Have you ever seen a view that made you think you were experiencing theophany?

Do you know a view that makes you think of a loved one?

To what extent is every watercourse a metaphor for the River Jordan?

Do you feel more secure in woodland, or in open fields?

"I will lift up mine eyes to the hills" (Psalm 121.1). What part does high ground play in salvation history?

What does Mount Sinai teach us about the elusiveness of God?

To what extent is a garden a metaphor for the human condition?

What might the ocean teach us about the nature of God?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 October, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook. It is published by Penguin at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-241-95747-9).

About the book

This is Rhidian Brook's third novel, and is set in British-occupied Hamburg in 1946. Colonel Lewis Morgan - who is loosely based on Brook's grandfather - has the task of working to help rebuild the city after Allied bombing, and to eradicate any lingering Nazi sympathies that have survived German defeat. He requisitions a large house on the banks of the river and moves in with his wife, Rachael, and their surviving son, Edmund. Rather than evict the house's occupants, however, as was the usual practice at the time, Morgan insists that they stay. As the two families try to live alongside each other, their relationships, already strained, unravel.

About the author

Rhidian Brook (Back Page Interview, 2 November 2006; Features, 25 April) is a novelist, broadcaster, and screenwriter. As well as his three novels, he has written for BBC1's Silent Witness, and is a regular contributor to Thought for the Day. His first book, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones (HarperCollins) won the 1997 Somerset Maugham Award, and he frequently appears at the Hay Festival, Greenbelt, and the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature. Married, with two children, he lives in London.

Books for the next two months:
November: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
December: Mud, Blood and Poppycock by Gordon Corrigan

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