To you all,
Long cloudless days, walking in a t shirt; you could grow used to this; but it’s fresher today, the ground wet with the night’s rain, and the blades of new wheat in the fields are tipped, each with a bead of water and light. And I’m wearing a duffel coat.
In the woods, the trees are dripping, and out along the tops, the rutted tracks are filled with reflected sky. As I climb up the banks to avoid puddles, I’m reminded of a poem by Thomas Traherne.
Little known in his lifetime, Traherne, a priest, is now generally bundled with John Donne, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, as a metaphysical poet. But the label doesn’t really fit. Traherne is more proto-romantic, more mystic than metaphysician. His poem Shadows in the Water is almost science fiction. He imagines himself a child playing by the edge of a puddle.
Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.
He populates this puddle, this reflected world, with ‘yet unknown friends’ and companions, playmates. And yet he knows
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.
Throughout lockdown, I’ve been hosting and leading Sunday worship using a well-known video conferencing platform. I always find it moving to see familiar and less familiar faces from the parishes and beyond arranged like those perforated grids of Green Shield stamps my mother used to collect after shopping on the high street in the village where I grew up.
All the little faces – second selves – calling out to one another and waving. A parishioner sent me an email after yesterday’s service, saying it made her realise how much she’s missing everyone. And after a friend’s lagging and buffering birthday ‘party’ the other day, his wife texted me to say how sad she felt afterwards.
We all feel like Traherne looking into the puddle, seeing our friends
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.
We feel – and feel increasingly – that something fundamental has come between us. The screen. The claim that video conferencing platforms or social media applications (or any media) are in the business of connecting up the world is questionable. The clue, I suppose, is in the name ‘media’: they stand in the middle, between us. The gap remains. In fact these media emphasise the gap because they rely on it. It’s a great business model, you have to admit.
One of Traherne’s passions was Neoplatonism, a set of philosophical ideas that flourished between the mid third century and the fifth. It had a formative influence on Saint Augustine’s theology.
For the Neoplatonist, the universe is a vast and essentially gapless diastole-systole movement: a procession from simpler causes to ever more complex effects, and those effects, by yearning to return to their causes, are telescoped back ultimately into the one, simple, Cause of all things.
Neoplatonism has a long, ‘rare breeds’ after life, surviving in some of the most imaginative and mystical strands of European philosophy, theology and poetry. Preeminent among these strands is the work of John Scottus Eriugena, an Irish philosopher and theologian and translator who worked at the court of the Frankish king, Charles the Bald in the ninth century. Eriugena is able to map his Neoplatonism onto Christian doctrine:
So now this is the man [humanity in Adam] I see, driven out of Paradise; from blessed to wretched; from heavenly to worldly; from saved to lost; from the prudent son to the prodigal; straying from the flock of the heavenly powers, and I grieve for him.Eriugena, On the Division of Nature, Book Five
Familiar ground, doctrinally speaking. But Eriugena goes on to describe the reverse of that process, what our return to God looks like:
a congregation, from the infinite and complex variety of things, to the simplest unity of all things, which is in God and is God; so that God might be all things, and all things might be God.Eriugena, Preface to his Glosses on the Ambigua of Maximus the Confessor
On the video-conferencing screen on Sundays you can see a congregation. It’s a word we’re familiar with and which we use without thinking. But a congregation is more than a group of people; it is a gathering, a gathering or coming together in God.
It is a way of stepping into the puddle, of finding our way home:
Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.
Our gathering together – on screens, in the thin skin of puddles – is, as Traherne suggests in this final stanza, just an image, a metaphor for our coming together in a way we can only imagine. I’m not talking about the lifting of lockdown, although that’ll be a relief; I’m talking about how:
when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end … For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.1 Corinthians 13:10,12
Bless you all,
This is a performance from the Salzburg Festival of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. Its endlessly repeating phrases with tiny variations evoke an infinity of reflections in the surfaces of mirrors facing each other. Hypnotic and haunting and prayerful. Music for reflection. Literally.
God our beginning,
inspire us continually to seek you in everything,
yearning for you above all.
God at the centre
bind us closely forever in love,
yearning for you in all.
God our end,
gather us finally as one in Him,
yearning for you as our all, your Son, Jesus Christ.