Friday, 10 December 2010

Seeing words

I thought about writing this post and decided against it. Then I changed my mind. I am a visual learner, and this most recent experience has brought this home to me more powerfully than any other.

Mary Cassatt
There is a preacher I have been particularly attuned to over the last twelve months or so. For me, the thing about listening to someone particular, is that gradually I build a picture of their theological landscape - a visual image. Each preacher has their own; it reflects their pattern of thought, the way they stand, their body language, the words they use, the images they paint using language. Although friends and acquaintances often have colours and images attached to their words in my mind, with preachers the way scripture is reflected upon provides the contours of a theological worldview, a framework, a landscape. Sometimes I see an impression of their thought, as if a colourful Monet or Cassatt, at other times, someone might evoke just pure and simple colour, like Malevitch, for example. Rarely, very rarely, a realist scene can be conjured up, but more often than not, that is a one off occurrence, for a feast day or a famous scene, not an impression built over a series of homilies. Different preachers have different foci - liturgy, the love of God, the purpose of the Church, the theology of the Gospels, social justice, forgiveness, redemption, living with other people, etc, etc; their own trials and struggles reformed for the public audience. I once heard a preacher who had a gift for creating images which moved and reformed as he spoke - he was talking about the 'becoming of humanity', trying to explain how humanity was reaching out towards an eschatological perfection. His thoughts became an upward moving waterfall; images and concepts forming and falling, only to be replaced by new thoughts which reached above the first, but fell just the same. Bizarre and beautiful.

The first time I ever heard the preacher that inspired this post I was shocked, repelled even. He seemed flat. Black and white. I could not fathom my way through his words, or find a place within them to share the theological vision he presented. Everything, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation was there, presented in one short homily, but it had no depth, only a hollow authority - 'this is it - learn it, get used to it'. I couldn't handle it. I felt like someone with no imagination looking at an architectural drawing on a board. I couldn't see what it represented, or find any future hope through the words.

Over the last twelve months however, I have begun to see something new. The architectural diagram I had first seen and disparaged has grown to become a vision I am able to peer into, to enter and walk around. A detailed cathedral model of theological meanings has emerged: the fall intricately united with the resurrection, Adam connected by a spiders' wisp to Christ. My black and white linear model persists, but now it has jumped off the page. Corners which once seemed dark, and without salvation, have been lifted up and shown to be an intricate web of fine interconnections, filled with light. That light was at first clinical, as if in a hospital theatre, but more recently it has changed to the natural sunlight of a summers' midday. I can see a friendliness and happiness in something I previously imagined could have only been severe and monochromatic. Every sermon preached still seems to be a whistle stop tour of everything that has happened from Adam to Christ, it passes through the present days and whisks you on to eternity. But now, I am beginning to be able to share in a beautifully detailed theological vision, constructed from delicate fine lines and flooded in soft and golden light.

Leonardo Da Vinci - a bit like it is in my head.

My own theological landscape remains like a sunlit, bright foggy day. I can see the shadows of ideas in the distance, sometimes suffused with bright colours, like a rainbow. As I draw closer, concepts and understandings become firmer and can be seen more clearly. But, they often disappear again - a mirage all along. Listening to someone who is, I think, so theologically different from myself has presented excellent challenges and new horizons for exploration. For that, I am very grateful. One thing in particular has caught my attention: if I had walked away on the first day, I would not be able to see now the way I do. I have not learnt to agree with everything this preacher says, and I would be worried if I had. I am quite sure, if we sat down to talk it through, we would find many a theological knot to wrangle with. But staying has leant me his eyes to see with, if that makes sense. It has given me a perspective I would have never had before. And, it has drawn my attention to the riches that can be gained by listening in to a series of thoughts and allowing them to develop. 

Now, it is quite likely that many of you might believe that none of that makes sense. But, for the visual learners out there - that is how it has been for me.

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