It’s mid May, and it’s hot. A freshness has gone from the air. The barley is already waist high and wispy. The puddles are gone.
Living close to Salisbury Plain, I am quite used to traces of a military presence all around: flares hanging ghostly over the downs at Market Lavington, ‘tanks crossing’ signs on isolated lanes, sometimes actual tanks crossing, the rumbling of ordnance on summer nights – like a storm that never hits.
But even I was shocked yesterday when a chinook helicopter thundered low – very low – over the beech clumps at the top of the hill, shadows of its rotors scything madly at the maize. I stopped in the middle of the rutted path that runs between the fields and felt the helicopter pass overhead. Everything shudders.
The ungainly thing tilts slightly and I can see up into its body. A soldier hangs in the back, looking out over the open loading ramp. He waves down at me. I wave back.
And he’s gone, heading north-west, towards Martinsell and Marlborough, but the wave stays long after the clattering has faded into the afternoon. I sit down on the bank and feel overwhelmed, feel like weeping for some reason.
What is it about that brief shared moment that moves me? Perhaps, in part, it’s because I’m thinking about the Ascension which falls on the following day, all those depictions of the disciples looking up into the sky at their departing Lord. The helicopter as enormous, deafening deus ex machina, extracting our Saviour from the stage? Not quite.
I think it’s that the soldier’s waving brought us briefly close, but at the same time emphasised the distance separating us. Airborne / earthbound, hurtling / motionless, above / below. Like we’re in different worlds. We’ve all had to grow used to different and distant.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction,Psalm 38:11
and my neighbours stand far off.
We share so much with the Psalmist these days.
For some time after my grandmother died I was troubled by a recurring dream. I’d be visiting a cinema with friends. We’d come into the auditorium noisily with our drinks and popcorn, and take our seats. Then I’d notice a person sitting alone a few rows in front, facing the blank screen. And from the back of her head, I knew it was my grandmother. Unusual, I think, to see her in this setting. I couldn’t recall her going to the cinema in her life before. But then I remember, this isn’t her life. And although we’re separated only by a few metres, the gulf between us suddenly seems unspannable, vast, metaphysical. I’m with my friends. Living. She is so alone and I can’t reach her.
She never even turned to face me. I couldn’t even wave.
It was, I suppose, a dream about distance. The distance opened up by loss. That’s certainly how it felt at the time. I’d wake with a sense of severance that would follow me around for days.
Distance and separation are deep stresses on how we experience the world and how the world discloses itself to us. We yearn for connection, but real connection is impossible at a distance. According to Aristotle, we can lose our sight, or our hearing, our sense of smell and taste, and go on living. But if you can’t touch or feel touch – you’re not alive. Almost: I touch therefore I am.
Our ingenious attempts to deny the force and power of distance (temporal and spatial) – printing, telecommunications, social media, Facetime, or just waving – all serve to illustrate how distance is the obstacle, even an adversary.
The devil is in the distance. And that’s not a good thing.
I’ve heard it said it takes a new born some time to be able to conceive of itself as separate from the world. For the first few weeks of its life a baby can’t tell where she ends and her mother begins. There is no separation. We yearn for that state, I think, for the rest of our lives, anxiously, broken off from the whole. Fallen. Almost our first and abiding response to the world is to try to close the gap.
For me, the most moving passage in the bible, the passage that contains everything which consumes me about the Christian faith, is to do with distance, and closing it.
A son has left home, gone the distance, but spent his time and his inheritance foolishly, selfishly. Desperate and full of regret, he decides to return.
I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.Luke 15:18-21
‘I will get up and go to my father…’ ‘When he was still far off… he ran to him.’ That mutual yearning – as a parent for a child, a child for their parent – is the dynamic of the whole of creation. Creation is personal. And there is a call that runs through all things: to connect. ‘Come to me.’
And at the last –
Your eyes will see the king in his beauty;Isaiah 33:17
they will behold a land that stretches far away.
Make for Him, even as He is making for you.
And in the meantime, wave.
God bless you all,
It occurs to me we haven’t had nearly enough country music in these selections. So, in an attempt to redress that balance, this is the great, great Willie Nelson singing a song about loss, about separation and then in the final verse – the most moving evocation of a future togetherness.
We’ll stroll hand in hand again
in the land that knows no parting.
God the Father, always running to meet us,
give us the courage to turn around,
even in our unworthiness,
and come to you.
God the Holy Spirit, inspire us to reach out,
to close the distance between us,
even in our faithlessness,
and come to you.
God the Son, in whose Image we are made,
draw us closer and closer to you,
even in our separateness,
and come to us.
A M E N
PS. Please remember, Pewsey Deanery Prayers and Reflections are going from seven days a week to five. So, there’ll be no reflections going out on Saturdays or Mondays from now on.