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Lift Up Your Hearts: A time when touch is banned

by
17 April 2020

Rachel Mann continues our series

The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

Simeon in the Temple (1669) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Simeon in the Temple (1669) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Download the free PDF to print at home: Lift Up Your Hearts: No. 4 | 17 April 2020

 

IN THE past couple of weeks, I’ve had many conversations with parish­ioners which have begun with their asking: “How are you? Are you bear­ing up?” It’s usually me who asks those questions. In a time of self-isolation and shielding, however, the polarities have been reversed.

As someone with underlying health conditions, I was forced by Covid-19 to retreat from public be­­fore everyone was instructed to do so. At times like these, I reach out for art, prayer, literature, and film to in­­spire and comfort me.

 

THERE are works of art which haunt us. I’ve never fully recovered from seeing Rembrandt’s Simeon in the Temple (1669), at the National Gallery in 2014 as part of the “Rembrandt: Late Works” exhibi­tion. It is a miraculous study in vulner­ab­ility and love, famously found un­­finished in Rembrandt’s studio the day after he died.

Rembrandt’s near-blind Simeon models intimacy and vulnerability, a life coming apart in paint and old age. At a time when touch is banned, the simple fact that Simeon holds Christ in his arms shatters me. There is promise, however: Simeon waited for his Lord, and received blessing; and we, too, shall come to a time of renewed love and physical closeness.

 

IN THE late 1990s, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. I was in and out of hospital a lot, separated from loved ones, and, in the long nights of waiting, I found hope in this short prayer based on Genesis 31.49: “Watch between us, dear God, when we are absent from one another.” Ab­­sence can take many forms, and, in this time of virus, there are potent ways of fostering connection: letters, emails, phone calls, and video apps.

Still, I feel the cut of physical absence. I long for connection. God is the connective tissue in the night-time of my fears.

 

IT MAY seem perverse to find power in Psalm 121 when confined indoors in one of the most urbanised parts of Europe. Even if I climbed on to the chimney-pots of my house and strained my vision, I could not say: “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

Of course, we do not need to see physical hills to imagine them. I long for the wide-open spaces of the hills. The God of “the Heights” — of Zion, and Mount Sinai and, yes, the Pen­nines, too, is in my heart. He shall “come[th] forth” to liberate us one day.

 

THE academic Alison Light claims that Golden Age detective fiction is “the literature of convalescence”. Classic mystery novels ruled in those decades after the horror of the Great War. They present murder and viol­ence as something which is both dreadful and — when handled by a Poirot, Miss Marple, or Peter Wimsey — tractable.

In a time of trauma and grief, I reach for literature and film that help me cope and heal. Much as I adore Christie, my “self-isolation” book is Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night. It is a great piece of detective fiction, set primarily in an all-female Oxford college; but it is also a quietly and firmly feminist study of the love between Lord Peter Wimsey and the writer Harriet Vane. If Auden claimed that detective fiction was “an addiction like alcohol or tobacco”, Gaudy Night is a glass of Chateau Pétrus and a fine Havana cigar.

 

GOLDEN Age stylings are also on show in the recent film Knives Out. While my usual go-to movies in times of stress are old favourites — Casablanca, say, or Gosford ParkKnives Out is an instant “rest night” classic. It takes all the old mystery fiction tropes — genius amateur detective, dodgy wealthy family, mur­­der and suspects aplenty – and both honours them while throwing them all up in the air. Knives Out is witty, clever, and oddly life-affirming.

 

Music: My isolation track is any­thing sung by Dame Janet Baker, though her voice on the 1965 Barbirolli/LSO recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures is unmatched: longing meets strength, and her ability to capture vulnerability in the shadow of sheer power brings me to tears.
 

Poetry: Recently I’ve found myself reaching for the poems of Edmund Blunden (Edmund Blunden: Selected Poems, edited by Robyn Marsack; Carcanet, 2018). Yes, he was a “war poet”, but he is so much more. His simplest, most unwarlike poems are shot through with wounds and tender­ness that seem both oddly real and comforting in a time of crisis.

And the older I grow, the more I’m mesmerised by the work of “the New England mystic”, Emily Dickinson. At this time of lockdown and isolation, her quiet intensity — and her capacity to hold a universe in a lyric — strikes me as never more potent. How the world needs her vision, simplicity, and perspicacity (especially “Hope is the thing with feathers”).

 

THERE is comfort reading and then there is comfort reading. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice countless times. From its justly famous opening paragraph to its end, it sparkles.

I adore this brief interchange between Lizzie and Darcy near the novel’s close. We long for beginnings and endings, but — in love as much as in times of pandemic — so often we find we are in the middle of things before we knew they had be­­gun:

“Elizabeth’s spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her. ‘How could you begin?’ said she. ‘I can compre­hend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a begin­ning; but what could set you off in the first place?’

‘I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.’”

 

Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

Next week: Amy Scott Robinson

 

 

St Mary the Vulnerable.

ReutersDamaged statue of the Virgin Mary, found in Qaraqosh, near Mosul, in December 2016, after the expulsion of IS fighters

A READER, Andrea Chance, was prompted by the first issue of “Lift Up Your Hearts” to send a painting of hers. She writes: “The Church Times photograph of a bomb-blasted Madonna in a Mosul church [repro­duced here] enabled me to resolve this painting. I am a perpetual stu­dent of iconography and this began as a Hodegetria in which I had mis­calculated the sacred geometry.

I put it to one side, hoping that at some future date a way forward would be revealed. Your photograph was the catalyst.”

Whether conscious of it or not, Ms Chance was following a de­vo­tional tradition that began nearly 500 years ago. Statues of the Virgin Mary which had been damaged by Protestant iconoclasts were afforded a special status by the Roman Cath­olic faithful. The Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his essay “The Virgin Mary and Protestant Reformers” (2004, reprinted in All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation, Allen Lane, 2016) writes of “a new genre of Roman Catholic Marian devotion, what might be styled cults of battered Marys”. He cites one in Valladolid, damaged in the English raid on Cadiz in 1596, which was re­­named “Santa Maria Vulnerata”.

Damage of this kind is linked to images of the crucifixion. It serves as a re­­minder that the Virgin Mary — and through her intercessions, God — knows of our suffering within her own body, and that there is no need to explain or describe the pain or sorrow felt at times of crisis such as these.

 

Communion on Christ’s terms. CAROLINE BROWNLIE, a retired priest in the diocese of Ely, has reflected further on the matter of spiritual communion:
 

WE ARE material human beings, flesh and blood, and we need feed­ing, as recent trips to the super­market have confirmed.

St John understands Jesus as saying to all of us: “My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink in­­deed” — at a time when we are being asked by Mother Church to forgo our experience of that. God is asking us, in a way none of us has ever experienced since our baptism and confirmation, to believe in his pres­ence and to trust that we can still receive him, on his terms, and not ours.

He is asking us, as he did the woman at the well, to trust in him as living water rather than as the actual water from a well. He is asking us to trust that, in worshipping him in spirit and truth, for as long as our Government and Church require us, we are not limited by human re­­stric­tions.

In the end, as the Gospels tell us, we “shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Taking someone at their word is a very trustful thing to do in any relationship, as many of us know from experience.

That involves trusting that he is not limited by human circum­stances. He will be as present to us, and feeding us as truly and in as life-giving a way as if we were all together at the communion rail.

If you overheard someone de­­­scrib­­­ing their friendship with an­­other person as one of “spiritual com­­­munion”, you might envy them and wish you had such a relation­ship. As Christians, we are being given the opportunity to take God on trust, realising that we are being offered the opportunity to taste the life of heaven, which will be beyond bread and wine.

Listen to Rachel Mann talk more about this article on the Church Times Podcast

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