Pastoral Letter - 18th June
My dear Friends,
There is an intriguing sequence of scenes in the second of the celebrated series called The Crown, where the two Houses of Parliament commission a portrait to be painted of Winston Churchill to commemorate his eightieth birthday. The artist given the task of evoking in paint the enigmatic energy of the ageing politician was Graham Sutherland. The meetings of artist and sitter, their interactions and their tentative attempts to understand each other, take an unusual form. Both Churchill and Sutherland saw themselves as artists, one amateur, one professional. But by instinct, both used the process of painting to process and understand the world which they needed to make sense of. Thus, what could be more natural as each attempted to appreciate the complexity and character of the other man than to study each other’s paintings. This took the form of examining the choice of subject matter, the palette of colours and the technique of painting.
Beyond the conscious mind the imaginative ability of each man found something revealed to them of the mystery of the other, through looking, truly looking, at the work. Sutherland perceived in Churchill’s frequent attempts to apparently evoke the play of light on the water of a pond’s surface, a subconscious depiction of the dark depths below, a melancholy, menacing, brooding presence more dominant than what was depicted on the surface. At first it looks to the observer to be a simple garden scene, but to the artist’s eye more lurked beneath. The link was eventually uncovered, that Churchill had dug the pond in memory of Marigold, a child born to Winston and to Clem, lost to septicaemia when she was still a young child. Without quite knowing it, Churchill’s constant painting of the pond was prompted by his continuing grieving for this lost child, but it took Sutherland’s perception to reveal that to him.
Churchill, in his turn, was drawn to a painting by Sutherland called Pastoral, an avenue of trees with gnarled trunks on one side, all painted in rust, burnt sienna and black. This too evoked for Churchill something malevolent, aching, unresolved. Poignantly, this too was a painting worked when its painter, Sutherland, had been grieving for a lost child.
Through the study of subject matter, pigment and technique, each was able to appreciate something of the deeper complexity and reality of the other. By seeking to copy the style of the other in their attempt at understanding, it was almost as if each had to "become" the other in order to paint as they did.
We, most of us, learn by example: to paint, to sew, to speak, to live. In my clumsy attempts at painting, I found myself attracted to the paintings of others whom I subsequently met and in copying their style, subject matter, choice of colour, I too found myself concentrating not merely on how they worked, but rather, on who they were, the better to create a painting stimulated by their style. By focusing on their personhood, nature, character, the cadence of their speech, their perspective on life, even on their gait, I allowed the brush to move upon the canvas and in doing so, I not only managed to imitate their style, I grew to a more intimate sense of the painter.
Why mention all this to you I hear some of you ask. What has this got to do with spirituality, priesthood, faith? Why would this form a subject worthy of a Pastoral Letter? Simply for this reason: one of the most revered and celebrated books on Christian spirituality is entitled, "The Imitation of Christ." You and I are called not just to communicate with Christ in the Eucharist, but to become His body and blood here on earth today. We, in whom the Spirit of the living God chooses to dwell, are drawn into the business of continuing His work of grasping the nettles of life and fashioning them into fragrant garlands of flowers; of embracing pain and changing it into peace; of confronting the darkness and celebrating the light; of challenging injustice and establishing that which is just. We are called into the enterprise of transforming, not in our own strength, but in the strength of the Risen Lord whose Spirit was breathed into you and in me at our Baptism.
And, that we can live this life with our whole mind and soul and body, that we can focus our creative energies on evoking through deeds the works of God, that we may lend ourselves to the building of the Kingdom, that we may influence the world for good and leave it richer, deeper, kinder, more compassionate, equal, whole, enjoyable and fulfilling for others, we would do well to consider what, for us, would make us better imitators of Christ.
For me, choosing the same subject matter, deciding on the colour palette, touching the canvas in such a way as to evoke the wonder of the artist I so admired and sought to emulate, perhaps points us all in the right direction. That we may faithfully imitate Christ means that we have to not only know Him intellectually by reading the Gospel, we also have to "inhabit" Him as He seeks to "inhabit" us. We need to approach situations considering what His reaction would be, how He would read it and then respond to it. We too are called to see things, discern people, from His perspective and not merely from our own and then to know deep within ourselves in places where God’s Spirit dwells, what it must be to love them as He loves them and to reach out with that love with the brush strokes of forgiveness, acceptance, affirmation and reassurance.
Our call as Christians is to live out the life of the Christ we seek to know. And it is in those small details in the Gospel that the personhood of Christ is to be encountered: the careful washing of feet, the diligent folding of a burial garment, the gentle playing with sand as someone speaks, the individual way in which he broke bread, the deliberate way in which He touched the deaf man’s ears and the blind man’s eyes. It is in the attention to detail, the detail of an artist, that the mind and soul and passion and motivation and world-view is to be discovered.
As you and I seek to imitate Christ, to allow His Spirit to animate us, let us resolve anew to get to know who He is by seeking to act as He did, touch the world as He did, look at the world as He did. In so doing we will acquaint ourselves with His motivating love, with His passionate compassion, with His commitment to other’s fulfilment, forgiveness, freedom, peace. And perhaps in so doing He may even touch our lives with the brush stoke of His being, that we may know afresh that we live because He comes to life within us.
With blessings, prayers and all good wishes,
ZOOM AND MORE
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Please also join us for the opportunity for Private Prayer in the church 10am-11am on Wednesdays. The readings for this Sunday are: 2 Corinthians Chapter 6 verses 1-13 and Mark Chapter 4 verses 35-41. The Collect: Almighty God, You have broken the tyranny of sin And have sent the Spirit of your Son Into our hearts, whereby we call you Father: Give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, That we and all creation may be brought To the glorious liberty of the children of God. This we ask through Jesus Christ Our Lord Who lives and reigns with you, In the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN.