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Idleness and Inspiration

April 14, 2013

Last week I took a little time out and went to the big city. I went with Viv to see the exhibition of Ice Age Art at the British Museum. It was breathtaking, go to see it if you can but you’ll need to remember to book first as it is sold out for weeks ahead. 

The oldest of the art dated from about 45,000 years ago, but art seems to have boomed from about 40,000 years ago and onwards. This wasn’t primitive art. There were meticulously observed carvings in stone, ivory and bone, that were anatomically correct and obeyed our modern laws of proportion. The natural slope of a horn was used to accurately represent the tapering back of a bison. There was also abstract art, where proportions were distorted to emphasise or distract from on feature or another. These too were skilled and seem were important inspirations to famous artists from more modern times such as Picaso, who had a collection of such ancient art.

There were pictures of cave carvings in relief, that utilised the fall of light and shadow to complete their effect. I have seen some of these before at Cresswell Crags in Nottinghamshire. This art was breathtaking. It showed an engagement with the natural and spiritual worlds as least as sophisticated as ours today.

When trying to understand why this art blossomed 40,000 years ago the only obvious factor seems to be the presence in the North of modern humans for the first time and the return of The Ice. Some of the guides speculated that it was the stress of these changes that forced our ancestors to be more creative. That could be so, but I’m not sure that can be the whole story. You see, when stressed we tend to focus far more on the practical necessities and far less on the deeper meanings: The exact opposite of what happened.

No I think that enforced idleness played an important part in this explosion of creativity. The ice forced people into relative inactivity for large periods of time. Time to wonder and seek explanations for the big questions of life. Time to express these explorations of the spiritual heights and depths through the art that I saw exhibited at the British Museum. That realisation made me very worried for people now.

We have become too busy to wonder and seek for meaning. This is so true in our schools, where more and more is expected of fewer trained teachers. Measurable results are all that counts outside of the school, so no matter how much a teacher wants to encourage real growth of their young charges as human beings this is constrained by the need for the right SATS results. The good teachers still manage to inspire but only as an added extra. It is true in our hospitals where paperwork and lack of staff is reducing the capacity of nurses to care for their patients.

Then I thought of the Church of England that I serve. We are being squeezed by serious financial pressures. We are starting to grow again, but we are never likely to be financially wealthy again. This is probably a good thing but it will depend upon how we react to these changes. Will we just try and forge ahead in our own strength or will we take the time to explore the landscape? Will we allow ourselves, our priests and our bishops the space to listen to the voice of the Divine; the still small voice of the Spirit? Or, will we insist on the few doing more and more work to try and fill the gaps?

Two simple choices.

Without space to listen, I believe we can only decline. If God through the Spirit is not the architect of our future then we build in vain. I am not advocating idleness but a sense of balance. This is a message to me, a priest who rushes to do more and more, as well as to all Christians, because it is only together that we can build the future for us and our Church that God wants for us.

In John 21 it was the enforced inactivity that preceded Jesus visit to those early apostles. It was only after time to reflect and pray and go fishing that Peter was ready for his great commission by Jesus. In Acts 9 it was only after being blinded by God that God could force Paul to rest long enough to hear him. I don’t want God to have to strike me down to make me listen; I don’t want that for anyone. So, I need to make sure that I waste a little time by the world’s standards in order to meditate, listen and learn from the creator of all.

If you get the chance go to that exhibition before it closes on 26th May. Be inspired by what your distant ancestors could achieve, spiritually and artistically. Then, together lets see how we can blow the minds of the people that we meet with the our perception of what God is calling us to be and do. Let us be the priests that this world needs. The priests that find the meaning for lives lived without depth, hope for lives lived only for the next pleasure.

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