Having had a short period of sick leave at the end of February, I spent the first week of March on retreat in Northumberland at the mother house of the Northumbria Community, of which my wife is a member. Some of you will be familiar with the Community through its publication, Celtic Daily Prayer, a book of offices and prayers now widely in use beyond the Community itself.
My days were shaped by the rhythm of offices led by Community members – Morning, Midday, Evening and Night Prayer. In between, since the retreat was unguided, I was free to decide how to spend my time – walking, reading, praying, chatting or just relaxing. In the grounds of the house, a refurbished stableblock belonging to the adjacent farm, is a small wood, with a path through it leading to an old shed which serves as a chapel. One of my interests is sculpture and landscape art, and so I decided to spend each morning in the wood making sculptures (or as I prefer, ‘interventions’) from materials found within the wood itself. Over the course of four mornings I produced nine pieces, each reflecting in some way on the journey of Christian faith.
The Celtic church had a very strong focus on the Trinity and its mysteries, and trinitarian ‘blessing prayers’ accompanied every aspect of daily life, from waking up in the morning, making up the fire and preparing breakfast through to banking the fire back down and setting to sleep. Each of my pieces was very rough, using found wood, bark, stone and flower stems, combined with immaterial elements such as balance and tension. I realised, about half-way through my making process, that what I was essentially doing was symbolizing everyday aspects of my life in terms of how I am shaped, balanced and held in tension by my faith. Thus one piece – a series of sapling ‘rainbow’ arches – expresses the way I am shaped by God’s promises. Another – three pieces of wood upright in the ground ‘sheltering’ a fourth smaller piece – suggests the way I am not only sheltered by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit but actually incorporated into the very life of the Trinity (Romans 8.14-17 and John 14.17-20).
Many people like to think that their lives are not ‘shaped’ by anything except their own will – that they are free to be who and what they like. However a moment’s thought reveals that we are all subject to ‘shaping’ forces in every aspect of our lives – the liturgies of supermarket (‘Buy One Get One Free’), sport (‘We Are the Champions!) or the economy (‘Work Harder, Faster, Smarter’) all affect and shape our daily lives, how we think and feel about ourselves and others. Regular worship, prayer and study of scripture are ways of allowing ourselves to be shaped and therefore transformed by God into the people he desires us to become.
It is in the very nature of the sculptures I produced that they should start to disintegrate before long, just as we do. Fragility, being subject to gravity, and the ravages of wind, rain and time itself, mean that the physical sculptures will disappear. However, they do in a very small way gesture towards the infinite, and to our place within it.