We’ve thought a good deal in these reflections about place, the importance of place, its value. I want to think a bit about the opposite of place today.
Perhaps on account of Rev’d Tim Novis’s reflection earlier in the week, I’ve been calling to mind the chapel where he works at Marlborough College. And it’s prompted me to go back and read John Betjeman’s lines about that ‘glorious’ chapel with its ‘noble walls hallowed by prayer’ in Summon’d by Bells.
My school chapel wasn’t like that at all! Our chapel was tucked into the eaves of an ugly 1950s science block. Carpet tiles, white-painted wooden rafters and joists, dusty dormer windows, a few Christian images dry-mounted and warping in the damp air, a simple metal cross set in a block of lead. Forgotten, up a flight of concrete stairs, the chapel was rarely visited. But as a boy in my early teens I’d regularly climb those stairs, dispirited and baffled. I was too young, already too institutionalised, to call into question the hand-me-down ludicrousness of minor public school mores and norms.
For me, the chapel wasn’t part of the school. It’s wasn’t a place in the school. Even, it wasn’t a place at all, but a space between places. For the troubled (and frankly troublesome) schoolboy, place meant the pecking order: know your place. My days were diced up in timetables, my progress measured in exam marks, test results, and batting orders, my life numbered – I was B832. I can still remember. I was well and truly placed.
In the Marlborough College chapel the ‘noble’ walls are covered with memorials to past students who have won glory in various fields (mainly battlefields). There is history here. There were no names in my old school chapel, no hatchments or memorials; there was no traditional message coded into its (non-)architecture. There was no history to hold me, no tradition in which to earn my place. This was freedom, briefly.
And as we face a further three weeks at least of lockdown, unable to gather in our places of worship, it now seems to me that those early experiences of solitary worship and prayer are a real resource; they’re coming in handy. In a Marlborough College chapel or a cathedral or even in our village churches, it’s easy to feel the presence of God. Like us, God has been summon’d by the bells and the vaulting and the glimmer of gold leaf. But in my sitting room or study, or at my kitchen table? God hasn’t been summon’d here, surely? This is… nowhere. Nowhere special, at least. A bit like that old school chapel above the science block.
On Mount Tabor, Peter is so overcome by the Transfiguration of his Lord that he offers to build shelters or tabernacles for Jesus, Elijah and Moses. In offering to house them, to place them, Peter falls back on an almost comically human gesture, a human response, sweet but silly. Or think of the young Samuel repeatedly answering ‘Here I am’ to Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-10), assuming the voice he’s hearing comes from an expected place. But the voice is not coming from the expected place, or from any place at all; it is coming from beyond place. Just as Jesus and Elijah and Moses are beyond place, God is beyond place:
What is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place?Isaiah 66:1
God cannot be placed or housed, however hard we might try. In a way our cathedrals and temples and mosques are all glorious, colossal failures. You can gauge the success of an office block or a shopping mall by the revenue it generates; you can measure the aisles in a supermarket and calculate the value of the goods you can display there. But what do you measure in a cathedral – how much of God you can fit in?
An architectural afterthought, a bursar’s grudging concession to the chaplaincy, the chapel at my school allowed God in completely, completely by mistake perhaps. This room was all door. In a way, it was nowhere.
‘Where shall I be, then?’ you ask. ‘Nowhere, by what you tell me!’ Now truly, you are right: that is where I would have you, because nowhere in the body is everywhere in the spirit.from The Cloud of Unknowing
I love our churches and cathedrals; I love Marlborough College chapel. But they all share something – deep down – of Peter’s tabernacles on Mount Tabor. Sometimes we don’t need places as much as we need spaces, to be nowhere (special) in the body in order to be everywhere in the spirit. As Augustine asks God:
So where did I find You, that I might learn of You, except in the fact that You transcend me? For there is no place – whether we withdraw or approach – there is no place at all.Augustine, Confessions, X.26 (37)
As we embark on the next weeks of isolation and lockdown, let’s try not to make a place for God in our days, in our homes. Let’s try to make space for God in ourselves.
Not somewhere, not even nowhere. But drawing us on, drawing us deeper, drawing us elsewhere…
This piece is by Edmund Finnis, one of the most interesting and creative contemporary composers, I think. It is called Elsewhere.
The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is! or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is amongst you.Luke 17:20-21
God above us,
draw us from our heres and theres,
from our places and patterns,
into the spaces and silences where you wait for us.
Make Samuels of us all, standing in the dark and calling out,
‘Here I am.’
God among us,
help us find your Kingdom not where we expect, or when,
but elsewhere and elsewhen:
as surprising as the news of the angel to Mary,
and with Mary, give us the courage to declare,
‘Here I am.’