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Gaps, and the need to step over them

by
18 March 2022

Watching the isolation in his country parish convinced Colin Heber-Percy of the need for connection

istock

AT THE end of the First World War, Helen Turrell travels to northern France to put flowers on the grave of her illegitimate son, Michael, one of the fallen. To those travelling with her, she describes Michael as her “nephew”.

This is the simple, touching basis of a short story by Rudyard Kipling (who had lost his own son during that conflict). The story ends: “A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand.

“He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’ ‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew’, said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life. The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

“‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’ When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.”

Delivered by Kipling so subtly and tenderly, Helen makes the same mistake as Mary Magdalene going to visit the tomb of her Lord and teacher on that first Easter morning. For me, this is one of the most moving verses in the Bible: Jesus said to her, “Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20.15).

Helen’s “mistake” goes uncorrected; Kipling’s story ends. But in John’s Gospel, “the gardener” reveals his identity to Mary. And she rushes back to the other disciples with the most extraordinary news you could possibly imagine: “I have seen the Lord” (John 20.18).

John doesn’t record their reaction. But Luke tells us her words “seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24.11). How could she say such a foolish thing at such a moment? Had she completely lost the plot? Plots proceed according to an accepted and believable order and structure. Plots are habits of thought, traditional, time-honoured conventions.

 

WRITING screenplays, I was always terrible at plotting. Plots felt like an imposition somehow. My writing partner and I usually found ourselves being asked to develop dramas based on historical research.

We lost ourselves in Edwardian Whitechapel, or in the boiler rooms and coal bunkers of RMS Titanic; we lived in the Dutch East Indies during the 1880s, under the shadow of a famous volcano, or on the streets of Ancient Rome.

We loved the worlds and the characters we encountered there. Squeezing them into plots that had to fit around advert breaks and “serial arcs” and the whims of witless producers broke my heart in the end.

What I love about parish ministry is its plotlessness. Happily, like Mary, I’ve lost the plot. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argues that science does not proceed or progress in an orderly, plotted fashion.

“Normal science,” he says, “the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” The assumption “what the world is like” is open to question (not least, open to question by science), and it is periodically demolished, orthodoxies overturned, resulting in what Kuhn calls a Paradigm Shift.

The old models don’t work any longer; new models make better sense of the world, are less leaky. What’s more, it’s our errors, our mistakes, our ignorance, Kuhn argues, that often point us in this new direction. When Jesus returns briefly to his home town, he finds he “could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6.5) because the people dismiss him, take offence at him. Isn’t this the carpenter?

In short, the people of Nazareth don’t need to believe in Jesus; they know him, or assume they do. But Jesus’s miracles all take place in a context of confusion, loss, and searching. The people he is able to help need him; they can’t afford to question him or dismiss him. Faith is much closer to needing than to knowing.

When Mary Magdalene realises she’s standing in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus, her desperately moving first impulse is to cling to him, looking, and touching, and loving. All her assumptions of what the world is like crumble away.

What the story of Mary’s encounter with Jesus offers us is a perfect example of how to lose the plot, how to be blessedly mistaken, and how to break through the old, hard-won habits of knowing, to needing.

By not trying to bend the world to how we think it ought to be plotted, we are able to emerge authentically into our story, living in the unruly reality of a risen, uncontainable love, the gardener’s infinite compassion.


Lord, when we fail to recognise you,
                 call our name.
When we fail to acknowledge you,
                 call us yours.
And, when we fail to follow you, call
                  us back.
                  AMEN.


My friends and companions stand
   aloof from my affliction,
and my neighbours stand far off.
                                        Psalm 38.1

 

WE SHARE so much with the Psalmist these days. How long is it since I hugged my friends? Distance and separation and loss are deep stresses on how we experience the world, and a painful alteration in how the world discloses itself to us. We yearn for connection, but real connection, we feel, is impossible at a distance.

According to Aristotle, we can lose our sight, or our hearing, our sense of smell and taste, and go on living. But if you can’t touch or feel touch, then you’re not alive. Almost: I touch therefore I am. Tango ergo sum.

Our ingenious attempts to deny the power of distance — printing, tele-communications, social media, Facetime, or just waving — all serve to illustrate how distance is the obstacle. I’ve heard it said it takes a newborn some time to be able to conceive of itself as separate from the world. For the first few weeks of her life a baby can’t tell where she ends and her mother begins. There is no separation, no distance.

We yearn for that state, I think, for the rest of our lives, anxiously, broken off from the whole, isolated, self-isolated even. And yet there’s a secret gift in this, too. In a posthumously published collection of notes and journal entries, the French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil (1909-43) offers this fragment, a perfect parable: Two prisoners whose cells adjoin. They communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing that separates them, but is also the means of communication.

It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link. What divides us, distance, the gap between us, is actually the medium by means of which we’re connected to one another, and to God. Generally, we think of all gaps as bad news: gender pay gaps, funding gaps, gaps in our knowledge. Gaps are shortfalls and failings.

To the opportunist, there’s a gap in the market. Gaps imply something’s missing, or something’s fallen out: a tooth, perhaps, or the three of clubs. Or been forgotten. Or deliberately redacted; gaps can be suspicious, a withholding. Gaps leave us at a loss, and, when we grieve, we talk of a gap in our lives.

None the less, the last thing we look for when we grieve is “closure”. I don’t find grieving people want to close these gaps in their lives; they know healing isn’t in closing, but in remaining open. These gaps, as Simone Weil’s parable suggests, are precious if painful. Our lives are richer for the gaps, the separations.

A life without gaps wouldn’t be a human life any more than a comb without gaps would be useful to a hairdresser. In fact, all our human arts and sciences depend on the gap. Gaps are life-giving, like lungs, those gaps in the middle of ourselves where life goes in and out.

So, when the atheist describes God forced into retreat by the advance of science as a “God of the gaps”, they are offering not so much a dismissal, as an accurate description. For me, the most moving passage in the Bible, the passage that contains everything which consumes me about the Christian faith, is to do with distance, a gap, and crossing it.

A son has left home, spent his time and his inheritance foolishly, selfishly. Desperate and full of regret, he decides to return.


I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15.18-21,46).


“I will get up and go to my father . . . ” “When he was still far off . . . he ran to him.” That mutual yearning — as a parent for a child, a child for their parent — is the dynamic of the whole of creation. Creation is personal. And there is a call that runs through all things, across the gap: to connect.

This is an edited extract from Tales of a Country Parish: From the Vicar of Savernake Forest by Colin Heber-Percy, published by Short Books at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-78072-497-3.

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