From the top of the downs there’s a view across a wide landscape; these are the valleys through which the upper reaches of the River Kennet flows. The Kennet rises at the sacred Swallowhead Spring, near Silbury Hill, fifteen miles west of here, and joins the Thames at Sonning, a long way east.
Closer is the River Dun, a tributary of the Kennet. On hot days local children migrate to the ‘dog hole,’ a deep pool in the Dun ideal for swimming. In the summer the rivers are full of little crayfish which I’ve occasionally trapped in a mesh-lined supermarket trolley, and fried with chilli and garlic. Quite tasty. Quite.
At the end of the eighteenth century the tiny Shalbourne Stream was diverted to feed the newly constructed Kennet & Avon Canal. In 2000, the Shalbourne was returned to its original course through the marshes, debouching into the Kennet at Hungerford.
From where I’m sitting, the downs above Shalbourne are steep and wooded. But on one shoulder there stands a single tree all on its own. In our house this tree has taken on a new significance since lockdown. Aggie calls it the Lonely Tree. She and her friend, Anwen, who lives in Shalbourne, have worked out they can both see the tree from where they live. When quarantine was at its strictest, both girls would communicate on social media using the image of the tree as a shorthand code for: I’m missing you, I’m thinking of you.
In the background of Rublev’s icon, The Hospitality of Abraham, there’s a solitary tree. It’s under the shade of this lonely tree that Abraham’s visitors are eating. In 1969 the Russian film director, Andrei Tarkovsky released Andrei Rublev. The whole film (all three and a half hours of it) has been shot in black and white, telling the story of the early fifteenth century iconographer. Until right at the end. Suddenly in colour, the camera pans lovingly in close up over the surfaces of Rublev’s surviving icons: the flaking gold leaf, the cracks and abrasions, the granular texture of the ground pigments, here and there the exposed grain of wooden substrate. And then we come to the Hospitality icon itself…
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.Genesis 18:1
We have a very clear, detailed picture of Abraham and Sarah’s whereabouts when God visits them in Genesis 18. We’re given the name of the place, the time of day, the prevailing conditions. We’re even given a menu (or rather God is): freshly baked bread, veal, cheese. This writing is a camera in close up, revealing all the wrinkles of sensuous experience, the light and shade, the heat and the feel of refreshing water.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1978) argued that human beings are beings whose very being is to be open to interpretation: for us to be is just for us to be interpreting and being interpreted. This is existence: Dasein. And we do it partly and unavoidably by situating ourselves in landscapes: our physical, emotional, cultural surfaces.
In his essay Towards a Definition of Culture, T.S. Eliot offers a list of specific examples of cultural artefacts to point us towards an understanding of who, when, and where we are:
Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.Eliot, Towards a Definition of Culture
What is wonderful about this list is its geographical and historical specificity; it’s like the cracked and worn surface of a much-loved icon. To non-British readers, many of these references will be meaningless. They might well ask, what is cultural about the twelfth of August? Or beetroot? To younger readers – I tested this on my own teenage children – many of these ‘cultural artefacts’ are now (assuming my own children aren’t peculiar in some way) dead letters, defunct. But to Eliot, there and then, they are triangulation points, ways of interpreting ourselves. To use a modern word, these cultural markers constitute our ‘identity.’ Abraham and Sarah have delicately drawn identities in the biblical text.
On Wednesday we approached the passage at the beginning of Genesis 18 from the point of view of Abraham. Yesterday we concentrated on Sarah’s response to the encounter with God. Today I want to look at how God appears in these verses.
Vaguely, is the short answer. For a start, it’s not clear if God is a He or a They, singular or plural. How many guests have come to visit? Sometimes it’s three men, sometimes it’s one Lord.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him.Genesis 18:1-2
Notice how God does not approach. God is already standing there when Abraham looks up. God is present in the scene in an entirely different way to Abraham or Sarah. If Abraham and Sarah and all of us live on the surface of the icon, in the context of all the colours and textures and triangulations of lived experience, in the heat of the day, then God is Tarkovsky’s camera, slowly, lovingly, knowingly panning across us all, seeing everything.
Does that mean God is divorced from the scene, on the outside? Quite the reverse: there would be no scene, no context, no surface were God not there – always – to make the scene possible in the first place. You can’t make a film without a camera. Or a painting without a painter.
We are all Abraham at the entrance of the tent: emerging into the world, born into the heat of the day, and with God standing before us, waiting. The whole of every life is this sentence:
When Abraham saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them.Genesis 18:2
God bless you all,
Below is a link to the epilogue of Tarkovksy’s Andrei Rublev. It is, I think, a homage. A debt being honoured – from the greatest artist of the twentieth century to the greatest artist of the fifteenth. Poets of light and space and time. Both profoundly religious artists.
My dear friend Babak had tea with Tarkovsky in the Polly Tea Rooms on Marlborough High Street in the early 80s. The director had come (with his KGB minder) to talk to the students at the College. And Babak was given the role of host for the afternoon.
For me, sitting at a tea table with Andrei Tarkovsky would be akin to Abraham waiting on his guests at Mamre. Not freshly slaughered calf, and curds. Walnut cake and Earl Grey.
The extraordinary music in this clip is by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov who died last year.
A Collect for Mamre
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
come, meet us at our Mamre, in the midst of our lives,
in the heat of the day;
grant us the openness of Abraham to receive you,
the willingness of Sarah to serve you,
and the courage of both to look up and run to you.
Give us grace to give ourselves, and in the giving
may we receive the promise of your eternal Kingdom
through our Lord Jesus Christ, the Redeemer
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.