To you all,
At some point I’d like to think about the extent to which we inherit faith, how faith is passed on. The following piece is written by Bob Simmons. Bob and Anna Simmons are very special people in all sorts of ways. Not least to me because they knew a late and beloved grandmother of mine from whom I inherited a precious and particular faith. I can detect echoes of my grandmother’s exploratory, questing, and questioning faith in this piece by Bob. She loved Shakespeare too. And would have loved this…
I have been studying how I may compareRichard II, Act 5, Scene 5
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous,
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts;
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix’d
With scruples, and do set the word itself
Against the word.
Shakespeare’s Richard II is in prison, isolated. He thinks he might ‘people’ the prison with his thoughts, but those thoughts are confused: the better thoughts, as he puts it, of the divine are entangled with thoughts of lower worth (‘scruples’).
Richard must have known that his life was in jeopardy, so all the more reason for him to address the divine. In the play he dies two pages later, violently, taking a couple of his murderers with him. But he never gets to grips with the divine.
What about us? In our present seclusion we expect to be released one day. And meanwhile we can ‘people’ our prison through the phone, Skype, internet, radio, TV. But there’s still the divine to be considered.
In my case (82, dodgy lungs, dicky heart), if I get coronavirus I will probably die. So I seem to be a prime candidate for squaring up to the divine. How then should I go about it? Prayer, meditation, scripture, devotional exercises? I was never big on prayer (‘big on’ comes courtesy of my grandchildren); I can’t seem to get quiet enough nowadays for meditation and I have the attention span of a gnat; I’ve read far too many holy books; devotion is something I hardened my heart against long ago.
I’ve had a theory for many years (by no means original to me) that, spiritually, we are in a prison, or at least I am. It is a prison of my own making. The bars are my prejudices and preoccupations, my failures and successes, my loves and hates, my illusions. I have a disturbing thought that my efforts in a spiritual direction are directed at making the prison more comfortable. And as for the key to the door, the end of Richard II’s speech is quite shattering:
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleas’d, till he be eas’d
With being nothing
In my terms, clear out the metaphorical prison, pull down the bars, and reign-in the ego.
But just the other day I found something I wrote many years ago, written when I must have understood something about the prison. It is this: actually, there is no prison.
I interpret this now to mean that the divine is already present in my every-day perceptions, but for some reason I don’t often see it. Yet it’s Spring, and just by soaking up the newness of things, the colour, the smell, I can get a taste of the divine:
Thy bountiful carefrom the hymn ‘O worship the King’
What tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air,
It shines in the light;
It streams from the hills.
It descends to the plain,
And sweetly distils
In the dew and the rain.
How do you get to see the divine full-on and live in it for ever? That seems to be something that is given, not grasped. Maybe Richard was right that the self had to go, but I suspect there’s the little matter of trusting in God. After all I may have to trust my life to the NHS; I might even have to trust them to stuff a tube down my throat to help me breathe. As for trusting my life to God, I don’t really know what this entails but I sense danger ahead. There is an old Jewish story which Rabbi Lionel Blue used to tell, which runs roughly like this:
A man fell over a precipice. As he fell he managed to grab hold of a slender branch of an overhanging tree, and he dangled there. He realised that the branch would not support his weight for very long, and there was no way of climbing up. In desperation he cast his gaze up to the sky and called out: “Is there anyone up there who could help me?” A voice came from above: “Yes, my son, I will help you. Just let go of the branch and I will bear you up”. The man considered this for a while, and then he raised his head again and called out: “Is there anyone else up there?”
Bob ends his reflection hanging. Hanging on a question. Sometimes I think questions are more helpful than answers. Answers are endings, questions openings. Here’s a beautiful song from Spacemen 3 that poses a question: Lord, can you hear me?
God of all care,
we live in prisons of our own making,
hammered out with prejudices and preoccupations.
Grant us the wisdom to find freedom
not in answers, but questions,
not in our strengths, but in your grace
not in knowledge, but faith,
for there are more things in heaven and earth
than are dreamt of in our philosophy,
but no things in heaven or earth
that aren’t dreamt of through your Word
in whom all things are made.