Sounds of a summer visual theology

Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, 1857-59

On holiday in France this year, I am staying with my family in an old 3-storied house in the Loire.  It is full of beams, right next door to a church. The village is quiet, the houses silent, the shop fronts closed.  The summer air hangs over the place, people aren’t around.

But the bells.  The bells ring out on the hour and every quarter between 7am and 8pm.  And, quite differently, ring out the Angelus at 7am, 12pm, and 7pm.  It is rhapsodic, an astonishing compound, reverberating sound like Millet’s liquid light spreading over the furrows.  I must have heard this call before, I must have been near bells when they’re rung, but somehow this feels new, magnifying, overwhelming.  And this was the angel come to Mary, the angel touching earth with providence and grace and blessing.  It connects the touch of God with the ripple effect into human lives and souls, and I truly felt it.  As if the church tower were a lightning rod.  It was specifically the swinging pendulum in the rocking bell, its ratcheted momentum releasing a pealing, repeat, and reflection on downswing and upswing, and caught irregularly at the pitch of both.  Not the sharp hard sound of a striking hammer marking the triple invocations ‘Hail Mary’.

I hear and see this in Millet’s painting.  The two figures who have stopped to pray mark the moment (that’s where the villagers are!). The reverence is not token, is of a piece with the land, the soil, the light, the church – and it is all held together in sound.  But it is also embodied differently, felt differently, seen differently.  The man is nearly full frontal to us, and bears the facing directionality with our frame, our personhood.  The woman is in profile, and faces the sun, her frame is her creaturehood in the landscape.  He has the vertical, darkly-outlined thrust of the fork; she has the horizontal, illuminated load of the barrow. This reminds me of last month’s reach for a description of difference. For now, it’s enough to perceive a complementarity, if not harmony, pervaded by a context of sunshine and prayerfulness.

Reflecting on ‘earth’ for spirituality

Just started reading Martin Palmer’s ‘The Sacred History of Britain’ – soon to launch his ‘Sacred Land’ book at St Stephen’s Church next week. The landscape around us in terms of geography and man’s design is a relationship characterised by sacred elements – we can’t just read it as a process of urbanisation and technology. What we look at is often shaped by what we don’t see.

I find this fascinating for my story of relating to the landscape. My memories of growing up in Malawi and Kenya are often about the land, about the details of collecting shells and stones, and about the vistas of game-parks, the Ngong Hills and the coast-lines. My prolonged interest in the landscape of the South West of the UK, from Dartmoor to the Avon and Cheddar gorges, is about recognising my home – and siting not only my physical placement here, but my spiritual and artistic leanings. For Palmer, the Bristol landscape (where he grew up exploring the land from Dundry to Wells) ‘has made me a Christian as much as have the Gospels or the traditions of the Church itself’ (p.5).

I’m interested in connecting with the Bible over this – the land was a defining element for the identity of the Israelites (and still is), and more often than not, God chose to reveal himself in ways connected to the land (for example, the burning bush, the exodus itself and the imagery of Canaan). Adam, the first man, was both made of and means ‘earth’. New creation imagery is about the land rejoicing and being renewed in Christ. What does all this say about GROUNDEDNESS? About the nature of spirituality as connected to earth? Can we read, like Palmer, our own geographical history as a similar path of revelation?

Note to self: Read up about Celtic spirituality for a particularly British connection with the land. Go to Ebbor Gorge and the Priddy Circles in Somerset, the Goat Hole Cavern on the Gower peninsula, the Wayland Smithy on the Ridgeway, and Avebury or Stonehenge.