Sermon for Matins: Learning to Dance

26 November 2006 at :00 am

It was good to be reading Michael Mayne's fourth book, Learning to Dance, in November. Each of the twelve chapters begins with an evocation of the countryside in one of the months of the year. Now, in November, 'The nights are closing in, the landscape is muted and the woods are silent. Maples continue to show flashes of orange and scarlet and gold. The old Saxon name for November was Wind-monath, wind-month, when the fishermen drew their boats ashore and stopped fishing until spring arrived' (p. 208). As Michael moves through the year, he evokes the feel of each month, and through the book he builds up a stronger and stronger sense of the cycle of time. For each month, he tells us what were the themes of the pictures in the medieval prayer-books: for November, it is 'gathering acorns for pigs'. We may not have done much of that, but if we stop to look around us, even in central London, we can see that nature is making the last preparations for the winter sleep, while humans are beginning to think about making sure there is good food for the celebrations during the darkest days. We may be able nowadays to buy daffodils in November and eat strawberries at Christmas, but there is still a rhythm to the seasons and when we stop and observe we can see it and hear it and smell it. And, to take up Michael's metaphor, we can dance to it as well.

Michael always believed that sermons, like books, should be a little 'personal' - as were his books and his sermons, so I thought I would reflect a little personally on the past week, in the light of some of his favourite themes. My week began with dancing, literal dancing. Last Sunday, after Evensong I made my way to Notre Dame de France Refugee Centre, near Leicester Square, where the celebrations for its tenth birthday were in full swing. In the throng of people enjoying themselves you couldn't tell who was an asylum seeker, who was a helper, who was destitute and who had refugee status. The Congolese band was irresistible. We danced together, white and black, Catholic and Protestant, young and old. For a brief moment the barriers we human beings erect to divide ourselves from one another, the man-made barriers that mean one goes back to security and hope, family and friends, and another to loneliness, destitution and fear, didn't exist. It was salutary to read Michael's comment that on certain holy days until the twelfth century the priests danced with the people, but then '(predictably) the priests would only dance with priests and deacons with deacons' (pp. 201-2). Given the fragile state of official relations between Anglicans and Catholics, I savoured the moment when I found myself dancing, not with a priest (male or female) or a deacon but a Roman Catholic nun. We managed to overcome our European clumsiness in laughter and shared joy at the African sense of rhythm. When the band stopped, despite all our applause and protests, we were ushered out of the theatre double-quick as the Royal Shakespeare Company was due to start a masterclass. Outside, there was a huge queue of young people, avid for Shakespeare and fame and the RSC. Michael would have liked that.

On Tuesday, I went to visit a Jamaican friend in detention (in a bluntly named 'removal centre' - so there's no mistaking what it's for). No maple trees or fishing, pigs or acorns there: no wonder the detainees say it 'does their head in'. I have been my friend's surety on and off for five years, but we seem to have come to the end of the road and now he is facing deportation. He tells me his family has pooled all their savings to pay a huge sum of money to a lawyer to help him, but the lawyer has been useless. We talk about the lost money and how he could have used it to set up a business - now he is on the verge of losing wife, stepson, college course, and perhaps his life. Together we agree there's only God left, and we begin to wonder what God is going to do. It's so bad we start to laugh. I think of the end of Zorba the Greek, a book Michael doesn't mention though it fits his theme perfectly, where all Zorba's plans come crashing in ruins. And all there is left to do is to dance. My friend and I are laughing now and beginning to see his situation in a new light. As I leave, we hug each other and he gives me a massive Afro-Caribbean smile. Inside, I am weeping and dancing at the same time.

On Thursday I had the privilege of chairing a lecture given by George Steiner, one of the great cultural prophets (and pessimists) of our time. Steiner, a Jew, brought up in Paris, until his family had to flee from the Nazis, reminds us that the SS guards at Auschwitz listened to Beethoven and Schubert in the evening and went to work in the morning. Like Michael, he offers what he calls 'a working metaphor': that we are 'guests of life', a phrase full of imaginative possibility. For me, there is a special joy in being a guest of the synagogue: a Christian, standing in the sanctuary to welcome a truly great scholar and to pay a debt of gratitude from almost thirty years ago. In 1978, as a graduate student, I heard Steiner give a lecture that held me riveted, the memory of which excites me even when I think of it today.2 In a packed room, he showed a picture by Chardin of a man reading, and bit by bit, with minute attention to all the details of the picture, unfolded one by one, he expounded to us the wonder and the sanctity of the act of reading. He was talking about what Michael calls 'the dance of words': the magic of discovering what the writer Derek Jarman spoke of as 'the word become goose-flesh' (so exciting, that it gives us 'goose-flesh') though for Steiner 'the word become goose-step' is never far away). With delight, Michael quotes Steiner on 'being possessed by that which we come to possess' (p. 127); he then quotes Joseph Brodsky's acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, asserting that 'a man who reads poetry is harder to prevail upon than one who doesn't' (p. 131). After the lecture I drove Steiner home to Cambridge, reflecting on the dance to the music of time that had brought me to the point where after thirty years I could listen to him once more and tell him, face to face, how much his earlier lecture meant to me.

Much of Saturday I spent with Learning to Dance. In it, Michael distances himself from the Augustinian tradition which has dominated Western theology. For Augustine, the effect of sin is to render human beings hopelessly lost until the divine redeemer seeks them out and finds them, opening the way to salvation by his suffering on the cross. Following Irenaeus, Michael takes a characteristically more hopeful view of the human condition: he sees human beings as shot through with weakness, cruelty and loss, but never without hope and never without the possibility of growth in love. By his life and death Jesus shows us the Christlikeness of the God who is love, though there are many who know God well, who would not relate that knowledge in any way to the life or death of Jesus Christ. And amongst those who communicate their intuition of God to us are poets and novelists and scientists and painters and musicians. All of them play their part as we learn the dance of life. 'My theme', wrote Michael, 'is the dance: the dance of life; the dance of the cosmos, of the natural world and of the tiniest particle of matter; the dance of music and paint and words, whereby artists may make journeys into the unknown in order to recapture lost parts of themselves for our mutual healing; of those cruel times which feel like dancing in the dark; the dance of relationships, of forgiveness, friendship and love; the dance of faith; and finally, that hidden dance that some call heaven' (p. 15).

I thank God as I think of him dancing now.

Learning to Dance

Michael Mayne, Learning to Dance (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001)

See George Steiner, 'The Uncommon Reader' in No Passion Spent, Essays 1978-96(London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 1-19.

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