THE American poet Wallace Stevens once said that we ought to like poetry the way children like the snow. Whatever he meant by that, I always picture myself, years ago, as a small Shropshire lad, pulling back the bedroom curtains to see the countryside that I knew so well covered by a night fall of snow. I would dress quickly, tripping over lifeless toys, and run outside to play with our equally excitable Irish setter.
Years later, might Lent be like this? The landscape of my life can be viewed, uncurtained, from its six-week window. Everything is open to being reimagined, ready for a different adventure or a new way of being alive.
I hope this year’s snowfall in the soul will help me to see my own breath, the miracle and gift of life given to me, and, by its warm chill, will help me to carve out paths never previously seen or followed. In the past, I’ve tried to make Lent address the serious, wants-to-be-better side of me; now, perhaps, it’s time to let it bring out something much more childlike and playful.
ON WHICH subject, the world is a worse place for having lost Desmond Tutu just after Christmas. I’m currently planning a series of sermons for the students here in college called “No Shame in a Tutu” — not that many here would feel too great about getting a 2:2. The sermons will take up the passionate themes of the Archbishop’s life and ministry to see what we can learn from him.
I met him only once. We were preaching on the same day at the annual St Albans Pilgrimage. I was the warm-up act. Standing in the pulpit, before I began, I told the packed cathedral that I just wanted to register the privilege that I felt, being in the presence of both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dean Jeffrey John, because these two people had been an inspiration and, at times, a lifeline to my faith — two people unafraid to uphold the dignity and beauty of all of us, even when political and religious leaders have done their worst.
All these years later, I can still hear the applause for them both. I really thought it would never stop.
IT WAS a pity that Laurence Sterne couldn’t have joined us that day. In 1760, his collection of sermons was described as “causing the greatest outrage against sense and decency that has been offered since the first establishment of Christianity”.
Recently confined to bed with Covid (again), I decided to read Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It was wonderful to be immersed in the world of Corporal Trim and Parson Yorick, as well as the “concupiscible” Widow Wadman, and Dr Slop, with his “sesquipedality of belly”.
Sterne learned, he said, to celebrate life’s digressions as “sunshine” — and that isn’t a bad project for Lent, either. At the end, his body is said to have been stolen from its grave for anatomists to delve in to, here at Cambridge University; but he was recognised by one of them and sent back. For him, even death had a digression.
IT WAS good to be interviewed by my old friend Pádraig Ó Tuama for a programme on John Donne’s faith for Radio 4. We chatted about how the younger poet’s love of his body being naked contrasted with the older priest’s fear of his soul being naked.
We were held spellbound by some of Donne’s imagery — and somewhat tortured self-dramatisation — as he tries to find a language for both God and the “contraries” that make up the riddle and paradox he finds himself to be.
Thanks to the wonderful work of Peter McCullough on Donne’s sermons, I will be holding on to some of Donne’s preaching imagery this Lent. Surely there is nothing more beautiful to those of us whose spirits are “wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed” than his reflection that “in Heaven it is always autumn, His mercies are ever in their maturity.”
Lo and . . .
I WILL miss hearing the comedian Barry Cryer on the radio, although, having recently died at the age of 86, he has left behind him a wonderful collection of one-liners. He once said that analysing comedy was like dissecting a frog: nobody laughed, and the frog died. The same is true of some theology that analyses God and forgets that God is not an object of our knowledge, but the cause of our wonder.
That is why I’m sad that “Behold!” is omitted from many contemporary translations of the scriptures. In the Authorised Version, people are always being told to “Behold!”, and we could all do with a bit more of it. To look, look again, and then really look is a spiritual exercise that can be applied to the creation, to politics, to relationships, and to ourselves, for instance, but one that our distracted generation can — well, overlook.
I’m back at the window of Lent, I guess, and that snowfall that quietens the air and entices us out of the door. I wish you a playful Lent.
The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.