I REMEMBER reading an interview once with an astronaut who had just returned from a spell in the international space station. “What was re-entry like?” he was asked. “What did it feel like to fall to earth again and return home?”
Perhaps the interviewer was hoping for an encomium on the joys of homecoming: how precious the earth was, how sweet the rain smelt, how good it was to be back. But what the astronaut said was that, on his return to earth, the first thing he felt was the oppression of unaccustomed weight. He felt overweight, sluggish, hardly able to lift a hand, and there was a stale and smoky tang in the air from the burn-up on re-entry.
And that is exactly how many of us feel on returning to work in January: coming down, suddenly heavier, after our free-floating holidays.
And, for those of us who resume the privilege and burden of pastoral care, there is an even deeper, perhaps heavier, sense of returning gravity; for we often come back to the gravitas of sorrow. We come back to organise and conduct January funerals, to pick up, to knit up again, the ravelled threads of parish tragedies, and it takes us a while to adjust.
But perhaps the parallel experience of that astronaut has something to offer here, as well; for in that interview I recall him saying that, after the first dismay of unaccustomed weight, he did bring back to daily life a new perspective: the astonishing sight of the earth from afar, an epiphany in all its blue-green beauty, in all its unexpected variety, but borderless, undivided, its political lines of separation erased; he had seen the earth, at last, as single, precious, indivisible, irreplaceable.
So, maybe it is no bad thing that our return to the bleak weeks of January is also a return to the season and the Sundays of Epiphany.
I can’t say that on my holiday I experienced anything quite so spectacular as “This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon”, as Milton, with astonishing prescience, imagined the view from space.
But I did get a chance to look back from a distance, to have something of an overview and a new perspective. And my holiday did, in its own way, open out a little epiphany that might be a light for me in the dark time of the year.
It was not the earth from space which gave me a glimpse of blue-green beauty, but John Piper’s Britten Memorial Window, in the parish church in Aldeburgh. There, a deep blue, set with a Palmeresque crescent moon, flows down into the three lights, showing in rich colour and detail three scenes: the return of the prodigal, on the left; the three children safe in the burning fiery furnace, on the right; and, in the centre, the sinuous green curves of “the curlew river”, flowing towards us, unbidden, from its hidden source.
So, I will set the light and lift of that epiphany against the sluggish gravitation of my return to work; for, in my return, I see that other return and embrace of the prodigal; I see the hint and glint of an angel with me in the furnace of events, and, flowing between them, free of all January ice, I glimpse a curling, blue-green river of grace.