The actor Alec Guinness, by his own account, was a lonely child. He was sent off to boarding school on the south coast of England as a young boy and spent many hours walking alone along the beaches near to his school. But he once wrote of these experiences that he never felt entirely alone. He wrote in his autobiography, “I always found the sea to be good and sufficient company”.
I wonder if you identify with that. It could be the sea, a mountain, any special place, or even a particular tree. Sometimes you can feel the presence and companionship of certain places, or objects. It is almost as though they call out to you, making their presence felt. There is a word for this, “numinous”. The root of the word means to nod or beckon. Have you ever felt a place or an object nodding to you, drawing your attention, beckoning to you?
In his autobiography, Edwin Muir, the poet wrote of an experience he had during a time when his wife was seriously ill and he was very anxious about her. He was standing outside the doctor’s surgery waiting for her and weighed down by his concern for her wellbeing. He happened to glance over at a tree not far away and on one of the twigs he caught sight of a little robin. It was sitting, “looking at me quite without fear, with its round eyes and its bright breast liquidly glowing in the light”. In the midst of his worry this little bird took on an “unearthly radiance”, pouring light into his darkness. He found it astonishingly reassuring. It seemed as though this tiny bird was carrying away some of his anxieties.
I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of walking by the sea, or through the hills and you have tried to “read” or interpret the landscape. People who know me well know that I am a disaster when it comes to identifying the names of trees or plants or birds. It is tempting to try to read the geology too, but again I can never trust myself with getting the difference between igneous and sedimentary rock right. And when it comes to reading the weather, my children regularly mock me for seeing a wee patch of blue sky and heading out optimistically without a coat, having failed to notice the giant lump of grey cloud that is looming in the background ready to deliver a massive downpour.
But sometimes, out in the wild and the green a strange thing can happen. The landscape can begin to read you. As you walk or journey through a place and get into a meditative state, you can find the landscape interrogating you, holding you and asking things of you. The landscape is no longer an object it becomes a subject, a participant in a dialogue and you have a relationship to the land or the seashore or an animal. In other words, it can take on that numinous quality, calling out to us, beckoning and nodding. You feel a presence that demands a response.
I believe this to be the work of the Holy Spirit. I have long been of the view that God is not an “out there” sort of God, beyond the stars, inhabiting a distant realm and watching over us from a sapphire throne. Rather, he is in us, and through us and around us. I believe that the Holy Spirit has been seriously overlooked and is frequently misunderstood, for it is the Spirit that nods to us and summons us to awareness, if only we lift our eyes and open our hearts. As more than one of our poets have said, “cleave the wood and God is there, turn but a stone and an angel moves”.
There are moments, not confined to holy people, when we can be struck by the fact that we are! We can be overwhelmed by the “tree-ness” of the tree, or the mountainous quality of the mountain or the humanness of another human being. I believe that this is what happened when Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms. The identity of this child owes little to Simeon’s seeing, reflecting and analysing. Certainly, he was knowledgeable about the scriptures and was a devout man waiting for the consolation of Israel, but I believe that little could have prepared him for this encounter in the Temple. I reckon that seeing this child did not just endorse his former opinions, instead he has a transforming moment, an epiphany, a moment of fresh insight, where he begins to see the world with new eyes. He encounters the truth of Jesus, not just the truth about him. It is the same idea of the numinous quality of things that go from being objects to becoming subjects, interrogating us, relating to us, not just confirming our opinions. It was the great mystical writer George Macdonald who wrote about the truth of the flower, not being its botany that could be analysed on laboratory bench, but the gladdening glowing quality of the flower, the impeller of smile and tear.
Simeon’s response to the infant Jesus is one of joy and of being moved to the core of his being, he can depart in peace. Does that mean he can die content, I wonder? In this encounter he becomes aware of a presence, a child who manifests the presence of the living God. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.
So, take yourself in your imagination to a beach, to a mountain scene or to some place that you love dearly. Let me set the scene for you with a wee bit of poetry about a beach in Lewis from a wonderful Gaelic poet, Derick Thomson who wrote this:
The atmosphere clear and transparent as though the veil had been rent
And the creator were sitting in full view of his people
Eating potatoes and herring,
With no man to whom he can say grace.
Probably there is no other sky in the world
that makes it so easy for people to look in on eternity.
You don’t need philosophy when you can make do with binoculars”.
It is so easy to deploy our philosophy, our scholarship and learning and to analyse and strategize and imagine the way in which we have to go in order to find God. We often imagine that the way to find God is the great work for us to accomplish, and many of us go off in search of the divine failing to realise that we are actually found by the God’s Spirit who comes looking for us.
The problem is that we constantly run the risk of turning a divine initiative into a human enterprise. But reflect for a moment on Simeon’s words when he holds the infant Jesus in his arms and is quite disarmed by the presence of this child and what he will mean for the world.
“Now Lord lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel”.
God nods and beckons to us through every stone and star. He is present, filling the universe as the waters cover the sea and is made manifest in this child that Mary and Joseph brought to the Temple at Jerusalem. Sometimes we have to wait, to be still and switch off so that the Spirit might begin to read us so that we can see the truth of things, not just articulate what we imagine ids the truth about them. God working silently in things and places and in people and in this little child Jesus, “the beyond in the midst”. So, the next time you are out in the green or are holding a little child in your arms, switch off your antennae, the background chatter of your inner analysing, and let the numinous quality of things, the wonder of the child in your arms, speak to you. And then you too might be able to depart in peace.
Richard Frazer – 2 February 2014