A MEMBER of a group making the usual arrangements for a Good Friday witness procession undertook to create several of the artefacts needed, including the scourge used on Pilate’s orders to flog Jesus for disturbing the peace. Making that scourge caused the group member to have an unpleasant but invaluable experience.
He was a reasonable handyman, and undertook the work after investigating on the internet and in his local reference library about the size, materials, and construction of such tools in those days.
As the scourge began to form on his bench, however, he experienced an increasing sense of dismay and distaste at what he was creating — so much so that, when the job was completed, he stared down at the gruesome device for several minutes, shuddered, and then turned away and left.
The sight of the scourge and his intimate association with its making had interacted with his mental image of the events of that first Good Friday, about which his thoughts had hitherto been rather routine, as if he had been watching a horror film. They were not connected with reality. Now, for the first time, he could imagine something of the sights and sounds that dominated that cruel day.
Despite his distress, however, it was an invaluable experience, because it ignited an understanding of the reality and purpose of Easter about which he had never really thought hard. He now had empathised with the event at a deeper level than he ever had before.
EMPATHY is important for Christians as it is the only means by which an individual can develop his or her faith to any depth, and begin to understand it. The definition in the OED warrants careful reading: “Empathy is the power to embed one’s personal way of thinking into a theme needing contemplation.” To the same end, the Bible tells us to “inwardly digest”, although this is not so arresting.
We need as many ways as we can find to think ourselves into the Christian faith; for its simplicity is difficult for our cluttered and cynical minds to grasp. That is why the scourge-maker had the experience he did. The details of Good Friday are not just part of an unpleasant story: it was an actual happening. The creative activities of his hands stimulated his imagination, and hence his understanding intensified.
Many attain the same ends by prayer or study. But, as one old man explained his reluctance to go to a prayer group: “I prays better wiv me sleeves rolled up.” He had found that he achieved a deeper awareness of his faith by physical activities such as helping his friends; for these related closely to his thoughts about his faith. His “way of thinking into a theme needing contemplation” was powered by empathy, although he was unaware of it.
Lent and Easter provide opportunities to explore this power, and more arise throughout the Church’s year, such as festival processions and nativity plays. But their routine familiarity can dull their impact, and it is difficult for individuals to isolate themselves and think deeply, while passively watching in a crowd.
By the use of a combination of hands and mind in a quiet environment, and concentration on a specific aspect of personal interest to create a tangible relevant artefact, the quality of understanding is deepened.
THE first Easter must have been an occasion of social unrest, spectacular violence, and profound mystery. Simple artefacts relevant to it are easy to make or acquire. Those with little practical skill can buy a simple doll and two sticks of wood. Assembling a small male figure and a wooden cross and then nailing them together may be an action too violent: even thinking about it illustrates how such ideas can jolt the mind. Making a simple crown of thorns from a blackberry bramble, however ineptly, while considering its original purpose, prepares you well for further thought. Actually wearing it would bring an experience at a deeper level.
Painting and sketching are not skills at which everyone can achieve great results. But most can create a reasonable picture, and when painting in the nails on the hands and feet, and the blood on the body, people may well find that they are are wincing.
Attempts at poetry or essays are more familiar activities to some, and transposing an unclear mental picture into words is a practical exercise that can bring into focus half-formed shallow thoughts.
In his book The Case for Working With Your Hands (Penguin, 2010), Matthew Crawford makes persuasive arguments for the benefits of combining mental and physical activities. He analyses the workplace in general, but his arguments reinforce the proposition that simultaneous mental and physical activities are a powerful combination for creating deep understanding. When focused on a common subject, each nourishes and clarifies the other. His theory can be applied with good effect to the individual empathised study of aspects of the Christian faith.
A boy was asked to create a picture of Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple. His finished drawing showed several bearded men clutching swag bags riding in a car with Jesus, who was identified by a halo, at the steering wheel. He was shouting angrily at them, as shown by a speech bubble of asterisks and exclamation marks. The child had obviously empathised with what he had been told.
Attendance at, and support of, church activities can be carried on without creating disturbing personal thoughts. Not everyone can recall the sermon or the readings the next day, and then think about them to deepen their understanding of their faith. And yet, by quietly creating a tangible reality — an artefact, words, or a picture relating to a crucial aspect of their belief — empathy causes believers’ vague images to become vivid, and their thoughts razor-sharp. From there, understanding and then belief grows.
John Gisby is a former soldier, an executive of a medical charity, and a server at St Thomas’s, Salisbury.