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‘See yourself in your Father’s Palace’

by
17 September 2021

God is encountered just as easily in central London as rural Herefordshire, says Lucy Winkett

Christine Matthews

A MAN in a high-vis jacket is picking up litter in a London park. It’s early in the morning, misty, late summer, and last night’s pizza boxes and cans of lager are clustered under the trees. Not many people are there. But the wildfowl are there, gathered in groups by the Serpentine.

Among them are the colourful, often noisy, Egyptian geese. A group of ten or 12 of them are lying down on the grass under one of the larger London plane trees. And as the man in the high-vis approaches, they don’t move away — and so he starts to talk to them. I wonder what he’s saying. He’s speaking to them in his native Bulgarian and the talk seems friendly enough. He’s smiling at them. His litter picker continues to spear bits of paper, plastic wrappings, crisp packets.

And, as he picks up the litter, he is helping to save their lives. As he speaks to them, perhaps they are saving his. The conversation goes on for some time, until all the plastic is removed from their vicinity and he waves them goodbye.

The man is, on behalf of urban humans, cleaning the environment in which the ducks are living, removing human detritus, saving them from the city waste with which they are surrounded. And he talks to them in his native language; he is far from home, working a low-paid job. I have no idea of his circumstances, but am struck by his humour and gentleness as he jokes with the geese.

There is some sort of mutual saving going on here. But a sort of love, too, in this tiny, fleeting personal encounter between humans and creatures in the middle of the city at the break of the day.

 

THOMAS TRAHERNE, the 17th-century priest and poet, in writing so exuberantly and joyously about the natural world, invites us human beings to notice, to remain attentive, even in the middle of our working day in the middle of a city, like that man picking up litter in the early morning in London. To love the gifts with which we are always surrounded, and to take part in nothing less than the fundamental change of attitude that is so urgently needed.

One aspect of Traherne’s spirituality that I recognise is that he seems always to be reaching for something. Not just waiting for it, but yearning, stretching, almost straining for a deeper unity, a more profound union with the divine, and therefore a greater and more satisfying happiness, which was one of his preoccupations. Traherne teaches us a habitual stance towards creation that is not fundamentally human-centric.

Despite one of his goals’ seeming to be individual happiness — which could seem too self-serving — he defines that happiness as union with the divine, bound by the cords of love, as embodied by Christ on the cross. And so, in the end, it is more of a self-giving than a self-actualisation.

“That Cross is a tree set on fire with invisible flame, that illuminateth all the world. The flame is Love, the Love in his bosom who died on it. In the light of which we see how to possess all the things in Heaven and Earth after his similitude.”

Despite Traherne’s yearning for and emphasising of happiness for an individual person, there is, for me, in his focus on the central presence of the cross at the heart of creation, a de-centring of the human experience which lies underneath all his quests for happiness. And, in a fundamental way, a de-centring of the human experience is what is needed in our attitude towards the current ecological crisis.

The unequal and unjust impacts felt by different populations around the world are a matter of shame for those of us in developed nations, who have exported our carbon-emitting progress to poorer nations who now, not unreasonably, challenge us back. The politics are not straightforward. But, fundamentally, do we not require a revolution to de-centre the human from how we look at the planet, which is a God’s-eye view of creation?

It is our habitual stance to view the planet’s ecosystems as constituting “resources” which we can benefit from. We have, since industrialisation especially, viewed the natural minerals, water, animals, and plants as resources — sometimes resources that we’ve worked to make sustainable, but resources none the less.

At the Climate Change marches that regularly move down Piccadilly, often the chants and banners read “Leave it in the ground.” That is, stop viewing the earth as a natural version of a supermarket shelf, full of choices and goodies for us to eat and use. Perhaps the spirituality of Traherne can help us here in two ways.

 

FIRST, for Traherne, the relationship between humanity and the natural world is characterised by the gaze of a lover towards the beloved. And, second, he helps us recover a doxological stance towards nature. Love and praise.

Just as a lover gazes on their beloved, caught between the desire to possess and the desire freely to adore, Traherne offers us language and energy simply to love the environment we are in. Just love it. And, in loving it, weep for it, too.

“You never enjoy the world aright until the sea itself floweth in your veins . . . till every morning you awake in Heaven: see yourself in your Father’s Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air as Celestial joys.”

It is because we love God, who loves us, that we are no longer the centre of our own universe. It is Christ who is the active centre of all creation, and, as Denise Inge comments, the created world is therefore mysteriously “God’s body”.

Traherne insists that it is in the cross that we “enter into the heart of the universe”. For Traherne, God is disclosed in creation, and we are to be enjoyers of that creation, therefore enjoyers and participators in the life of God.

To lay aside our androcentric language can make us playful again, in Traherne’s language, more childlike (another of his main themes). Playing with the scene I described in the park means that we realise afresh that the bird doesn’t know it’s called a bird. It doesn’t know it’s called an Egyptian goose. It doesn’t even know there is an Egypt.

It is gloriously and unaffectedly itself. Its very beingness is in itself part of God’s love-letter written into creation, more eloquent than any word.

Traherne’s second helpful approach is that of praise. Not only are creatures and plants getting on with life without reference to our naming or defining them, they are themselves constantly praising their creator. And all of our liturgy, celebrated as it is at the crossroads between time and eternity, is offered, not as something we have created or put together, but as a moment in time when we simply join in the eternal praise offered by the created order visible and invisible.

 

LIKE listening to the angels and archangels in the book of Revelation, whenever we gather to pray, we “lift the lid” on what is a constant cacophony of praise and prayer and exultant beingness — our prayers simply join this praise, which is always happening, for a few short hours a week.

On Easter Day this year, I had an experience of this, which, for me, was an embodiment of the vision of Revelation and the singing of praise and the declaration of holiness contained in the Sanctus we sing every eucharist. It was 5 a.m. I was preparing for the dawn service at which I was going to sing the Exultet.

One of the most ancient songs of the Church, the Exultet announces the astonishing news of the resurrection of Christ. It is sung to ancient plainchant, and so I was outside our central London church at 5 a.m. on Easter Day morning. The clubs had disgorged most of their revellers, and the deafening sound of thousands of glass bottles being tipped into bin trucks was punctuating the early morning.

There were a number of people sleeping in the church overnight, keeping vigil, and I went into the church garden so as not to disturb them. It was still technically dark, although, because of light pollution, it’s never really dark. I began singing: “Rejoice heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!” As I sang, I realised I wasn’t singing alone. Just feet away from me, a blackbird was singing at the top of his lungs — much, much more beautifully than any human voice. Just because he could. Just because he was a blackbird.

I found it hard to continue my practice as I realised my voice of praise was simply joining in what was already going on every morning, making every morning Easter morning, a day of resurrection and exultant joy at being alive. My feeble attempt at praise was enveloped, held, cherished, even, within the love letter that God was writing even at that very moment — to me and to all of us with ears to hear.

Hildegard of Bingen, the Christian writer and mystic, wrote in the 12th century as an accompanying text to much of her plainchant music: “Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.”

For Christians from the 12th century or the 17th century, and for 21st-century Christians today, at the centre of the universe is the resurrection energy of Christ risen: the deathly powers of nihilism, human hubris, pollution of motive, abuse of power, all the themes of Christ’s death, are dissolved by the miracle of resurrected life after such destruction. Which is why we will want to act not only decisively but joyfully, with a playfulness of spirit as part of the living world that God has made and is remaking even today.


This is an edited extract from
Reading the Bible with your Feet published by Canterbury Press on 30 September. The Revd Lucy Winkett, in conversation with Chine McDonald, is taking part in the next online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature on 25 September, tickets available now via faithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk.

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