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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

12 February 2021

Malcolm Guite is alerted to everyday moments of epiphany in outward and visible signs

“EVERY day moments of epiphany are bestowed on everyone.” I was very struck by this remark, from the introduction to a book, ostensibly about violin-making, which had arrived as an unexpected present from a friend, and proved itself to be just one of those “moments of epiphany”.

Martin Schleske’s The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty is a series of reflections on his work as a master violin-maker. On the one hand, it is an account of all the parts and processes of his art and craft, from going out into high Alpine forests to select the trees that will provide the best tone woods, through to the storing, drying, shaping, carving, and stringing of the instruments.

But each of these stages and processes, thoroughly familiar to a master craftsman of many years’ standing, seems to release, for him, in his reflective writing, a series of analogies and metaphors — more than that, emblems and symbols — offering wisdom for the way we live our lives, and particularly for our lives as Christians.

The whole book is a series of examples of how the outward and visible can give voice and expression to the inward and spiritual. And yet none of these outward and visible images and processes is exotic or recherché, but they are, rather, part of his everyday work. But you have the sense that, for the man himself, the epiphanies that they offer are continually surprising. As he says in one of the early chapters, “An alert faith does not become accustomed either to God or to the world.”

His book set me thinking about my own daily routines, about the everyday things with which I am surrounded: the furniture of my house, my books and pipes, the garden with its trees and bird-feeder, and, beyond them, always ready to greet me on my daily walks, the ever-changing flow of the little River Granta.

Schleske’s book heightened my sense of expectation that all these familiar things might also be waiting to disclose surprising epiphanies, and he is, indeed, right; for sometimes they do: it’s just a matter of being alert enough, and pausing long enough, to receive them.

I have begun, therefore, to pause and wait a little, to be alert in the midst of the familiar. A favourite pausing place, for me, is the wooden bridge over the Granta that leads up to a green lane near Little Linton. Gazing down from the bridge into the stream, I realised that my accustomed spot on the bridge was, in fact, directly over a black rock on the river bed, sometimes fully submerged, but, more often than not, just emerging from the stream. I’ve no idea how it got there, since rocks of that size are not common among the clay and broken flint of the valley, but there it is.

And, today, I found it speaking to me about the paradox of stasis and flow. There it is, unmoved, as the water flows round it, as I stand above it, and also unmoved as time streams past me. And yet, because it is still, because it resists, the stream itself is turned into lovely patterns and ripples, little wavelets, as though the experience of resistance were itself provoking the stream into beauty.

There was something suggestive there, I felt, about the way in which the constant impediments of this strange time might nevertheless give rise to new beauties, if only we will let them.

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