Address given at a Service for Queen Anne's School Caversham
25 October 2013 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist
The Southbank Centre over on the other side of the Thames is currently running a Festival called “The Rest is noise.” Drawing on the title of a seminal book by Alex Ross, throughout 2013, the Southbank Centre has adopted a characteristically imaginative and inspirational programme which, through music, examines some of the great upheavals and cultural, social and technological changes of the twentieth century.
We live in a world where there is an overflow of information. 24-hour news, the speed of communication, and the sheer relentlessness of much of twenty-first-century living all contribute towards a noisy dynamic which threatens to overwhelm us. In our efforts to avoid this overwhelming, genuine looking and genuine listening are frequently replaced with glancing – we glance at our emails, we glance at the time, we glance at the other, hoping that these accumulated glances will keep us on balance. We cease listening, stop evaluating, and become comfortably swamped by the noise just in case we are forced into a responsible change of heart. Such accrued cultural habits have affected the way we look at the world around us, and indeed for many people how they look at faith. Unless something grabs us straight away or discloses its secret immediately, we move onto the next thing; for many people unless faith answers the demands and questions of the immediate present, there is little point in committing to it. So we move on, at speed, to the next thing, in our relentless lives of glancing, half-listening, and shallow information-gathering. But our Gospel reading today somewhat blows the whistle on all of this, as the Risen Jesus gently and gradually discloses his identity and reality of his risen life.
Jesus encourages us to shed the glance of suspicion, the peek at the real situation, the habit of buffering up our own security by only allowing ourselves a glimpse at best of what we are afraid of, by engaging in deep-looking. The signs of God’s promise are all around us – they are in the act of forgiveness that we once thought impossible, they are in the dazzling colours and patterns of the natural world, they are in the complex memory which appears sometimes to be healing, they are in the small generosities of spirit and time which allow communities to flourish, they are in the longings for justice and peace which are stronger than the forces of oppression and hate. Look, insists Jesus, don’t glance, but look. Then, you will see the kingdom bubbling up – the kingdom of Christ’s resurrection – relentless in its pulse, and insistent in its victory.
For many in our society, it’s just easier to skate on the ice of complexity and depth than it is to engage with what might overwhelm us. This would have surely been so for Moses as he first glimpsed the Burning Bush, and for those disciples fearing for their own lives and livelihoods as they walked the Emmaus Road. Soon after the passage we heard from Exodus, Moses hears the instruction which is the most repeated sentence in the whole of the Bible – do not be afraid. We can engage in patient deep-looking at created reality, at the complexity of creation in its fragility and vulnerability, and in deep, humble searching for God, because God himself has irrevocably turned his face towards us. The theological underpinning of this need to be alert and unafraid, is that God has not simply glanced at the world, in the coming of Christ, he has turned his face towards it, looking, loving, implicating himself so thoroughly that the whole cosmos is shot through with an insistent longing for healing and redemption.
So, our patience in allowing events, relationships, conversations and ordinary experience to truly disclose their meaning, is a thing of true Christian discipleship. Such a way of looking at the world has been encouraged by many great mystics and teachers, but particularly by those theologians intent on establishing a good natural theology. It is something best understood by the poets, some of whose wisdom we have already heard this afternoon. The great priest-poet R S Thomas expresses how we might look and how we might listen as people serious about faith, serious about our own transformation and serious about our capacity to love, in his poem The Bright Field,
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
It takes real wisdom and real courage to appreciate these simple truths. But a combination of wisdom and courage is surely at the heart of any holistic education. We know that education is not simply assembling facts after facts – to identify one discipline alone, history is not, as Alan Bennett’s blunderous character Rudge in The History Boys, just “One [jolly!] thing after another.” It is culture, people, intention, belief, pattern, narrative – we could go on. It demands careful analysis, and rooted, open minds. There is actually no such thing as monotonous repetition, if only we have ears to hear and eyes with which to see.
To encourage looking and seeing, deep listening and true hearing. That is our role as we seek to shape the outlook of our young people. That is at least a large part of the root of a kind, generous, serious, just society. The community of the Church accompanies us in this because she can do no other. The journey of faith, in dialogue with academic disciplines and human experience, helps us to slowly realise that as we appreciate the full dazzling, overwhelming reality of God’s love shot through creation, it is something that we can no longer resist. To resist it is to choose the shadows of half-living. To embrace it, is to choose life, vision, and God’s eternity that awaits us.