Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Silent Joy of Advent

Today is Advent, the day in the Christian calendar which is the first of four Sundays which look forward to the coming of the Christ child. But need we view this day as exclusively Christian? The word advent simply means an arrival – any arrival which we might view as significant. In this broader sense the word advent also contains the idea of anticipation, and that anticipation in turn contains a sense of joy and wonder. We wait in joyful anticipation, which could mean the coming birth of any child. 

Those of us who have children, who have borne children, will know that once that expected child has arrived into the world then it is impossible to imagine our world without the presence of that little soul in it. The universal period of advent is not four weeks, but nine months – although the sense of anticipation quickens, becomes more keenly felt, as the expected time of the birth approaches. During this time of advent we make preparations. We decorate the new nursery, we acquire the necessary furnishings – the cot, baby bath, and suitable decorations in the form of mobiles, cuddly toys and other items. We, as it were, prepare the nest. And this becomes another aspect of our advent: it is also a time of preparation. We lay the way for the expected new arrival.

But while advent implies all of these things, and whether we have children or not, it still is a term, a state of being, which can apply to us all. In our hectic world we constantly face a barrage of distractions, from the chattering voices of social media with which we constantly keep in touch via our ubiquitous smartphones, from the pressures of commercialism which urge us to buy, buy, buy, at the very time of the year when we should be retreating into ourselves in silent contemplation and reflection. For this also is an aspect of advent: it is – or should be – a time of quiet reflection.

If only we can manage to be silent in ourselves, to still all those chattering voices which distract us, then we allow the true spirit of advent to reveal itself. That sense of expectant wonder is always present. Advent is in every moment. And that moment is universal. “Peace, be still.” were the words we are told Jesus spoke to calm the storm on that far Sea of Galilee. If we allow those words to echo in our hearts, whether we are Christian or not, and whether we celebrate the Christian day of Advent or not, we allow the true spirit of a universal advent to emerge, and we find ourselves filled with a renewing spirit of anticipation, wonder and silent joy.

Detail of Joseph the Carpenter by Georges de la Tour

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Knight in Gold

Clad in armour of shining gold, an elderly knight carries two children across a river on the back of his black charger. Both children are barefoot: the little boy who clings to the knight carries a bundle of firewood almost as large as himself, the girl fearfully clutches her crimson shawl, yet trusting that the knight will carry them both to safety. This haunting painting, set in a peaceful rural landscape by Sir John Everett Millais, is very much a product of the late 19th-century when such evocative narrative paintings were the fashion of the time. The full title of the painting, ‘A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford’, provides us with the name of the knight.

But in spite of his accomplishment, Millais found his painting greeted with protests and derision. It seems that nowhere in romantic literature was there a ‘Sir Isumbras’. The suggested narrative behind the painting proved to be non-existent. This painting which so strongly seemed to tell a story actually had no story to tell, and the entire incident was, after all, a fictional fabrication. The gallery-going public felt cheated, and protested accordingly. 

But what the public of the time seemed not to have realised was that the painting was actually an invitation: it invited each viewer to create her or his own story. The artist had provided an evocative image, and the viewer needed to do the rest. The painting does not lack in suggestions: in the background, on either side of the river’s banks, we see the buttress and arches of a bridge, but the central span of the bridge is missing. Clearly this is the reason for the children’s difficulty: they needed to cross, but had no means to – until the chivalrous knight appeared upon the scene to carry them across to dry ground on the other side. So the picture is about a crossing, and the crossing is made in spite of difficulties. 

We can find another narrative clue in the obvious age difference between the knight and the two children. Sir Isumbras clearly already has a lifetime of experience behind him. It is age lending a helping hand to youth. This, then, is a painting about contrasts, and we can see a further contrast in the difference between the ornate gold of the knight’s armour and the humbleness of the unshod children’s clothing. It is not just about age helping youth, but about someone of means helping those who clearly are less well-off than himself. It is about compassion and simple human kindness.

So often in our lives we find ourselves faced with such a ‘painting’ as this. We might be able to see every detail of the situation in which we find ourselves – but the details do not form a coherent whole, and the meaning of what we are going through, and why, remains perplexing and elusive – even distressing. It is then that we feel that we ‘cannot make sense of things’. Or we might be able to see over to the ‘other side’ of a situation, but cannot work out how to get there. At one time or another we all have wished for a kindly Sir Isumbras to come riding up and carry us across to safety when the bridge is down. But faith, compassion and simple kindness do exist, and if sometimes we feel like these two poor children, we also can remember that it is we ourselves who also have the capacity to be the kindly knight in armour of gold.

A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford’ by Sir John Everett Millais, 1857