It doesn’t have to be the blue iris


Matthew 6:25-34

. . . I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

*****

Praying
from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

*****

An enduring human desire is to look behind the scenes. One of the most beautiful expressions of this can be found in the famous ballet paintings of the 1870s by Degas (1834–1917) currently on show in London at the Royal Academy.

They were popular with his customers because, apart from their obvious, simple, visual beauty, they spoke eloquently to this desire and they made available to their owners a new perspective from which they could gain an enlarged understanding about the world of ballet that was not available to them as mere paying members of the audience. A modern expression of this desire is found in the plethora of extra-features to be found on DVDs concerned to show the "making of" such and such film.

As it does in these examples, when our desire to look behind the scenes remains this worldly - by which I mean there really is a "scene" behind which you can look - then this desire, when acted upon, can be said genuinely to increase our knowledge of a subject, be it ballet or film-making.

We begin with the limited, if still wonderful and in it's own terms, fulfilling, perspective of someone sitting in the audience. After this experience, should we choose or if we are given the opportunity, we can look behind the scenes and, in so doing, we have access another perspective upon the world in which we see revealed some of the hard work and technical know-how required to produce an apparently easy and seamless production of a ballet or a film. Perhaps, at a later date, we may choose to learn how to dance or operate a camera and these activities will add a further "behind the scenes" perspective.

It seems reasonable to say that this kind of activity "deepens" our understanding of ballet or film-making and allows us meaningfully to say that we have moved towards a "truer" estimation of our subject than we had whilst we were sitting in the audience blithely unaware of what was required to make this ballet or this film possible.

However, whenever we let the phrase "behind the scenes" to go on holiday and try to use it in situations radically different from the ones in which it was doing some real work as it was in the case of Degas and in the making of a "behind the scenes" documentary we get into all kinds of difficulties. It was first packed off on holiday in the religious sphere some two-thousand-four-hundred years ago by Plato in his famous allegory of the cave found in Book Seven of "The Republic" - a story which is framed in a theatrical fashion where there is a scene to get behind.

In this dialogue Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived their entire lives chained to the wall of a cave facing a blank wall. All they can see are the shadows projected onto this wall by people and things passing in front of a fire which lies behind them. Plato suggested that these shadows were as close as the prisoners got to viewing reality and he saw the philosopher as someone who had been freed from the cave and who was now able to see "behind the scenes". This imagined view he thought revealed the true Forms of reality rather than merely the shadows he had formally seen whilst a prisoner. In short, Plato believed that only knowledge of the Forms constituted real knowledge and, from that day to this, this world has been thought of as mere appearance needing the support of a more real, behind the scenes world.

What we need to notice about the "behind the scenes" idea in Degas' hands or those of a documentary film-maker is that they are not trying to show us another world. What they are concerned to do, as I noted earlier, is *really* show us behind the scenes and, in so doing, show us the *same* world we see whilst sitting in the audience but to help us see it *differently*. They desire to show us other perspectives which, when they are added up, we may meaningfully say that we have moved towards a "truer" estimation of the world. We don't thereby have access to an absolute picture, an only picture, but we do have access to an increasingly enlarged understanding that we can meaningfully call fuller and more complete set of pictures closer to something we may meaningfully call true.

But much religion in the West after Plato developed a belief that it was showing another world behind the scenes that was/is somehow more complete and true than our own and it's stories and practices have become been understood to be about this other world and designed to help a person see it and to enter into it.

Here we can return to our reading from Matthew connected with prayer in which Jesus asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, a consideration of which he tells us should encourage us to see that, if we first "strive . . . for the kingdom of God and his righteousness" then the things we really need will be given to us. It won't put an end to all our troubles but it will help us live better today.

Now when we read this, not least of all because of the mention of "your heavenly father" and the "kingdom of God" we are predisposed to follow Plato and imagine that in this story Jesus' real focus is not upon this world but that other, behind-the-scenes heavenly world. This predisposition is so strong we are apt forget to take him at his word and to think that the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are merely metaphors for something else, to think that his words are merely on holiday. But in this story the words are *not* on holiday for they are tightly tied to a particular way of being-in-the-world which trusts in, and is thankful for, what this world naturally offers us all regardless of human wealth and rank. You might disagree with the desirability or efficacy of such a way of being-in-the-world but that is besides the point for Jesus is clearly talking about living in this world not another and he uses the illustration of the birds and the lilies to ground it in this world.

It is this grounded, embodied prayerful trust and thankfulness that is being spoken of when Jesus speaks about "the kingdom of God and his righteousness". Jesus prayerful attitude to life - which was summed up for us in the Lord's Prayer - is the practice by which he feels this kingdom and righteousness is to be made tangible here and now in *this* world.

Now think of this story - in fact the whole of the Gospels as the performance of Jesus' life - a performance that we can see as paying members of an audience, just as we can see a performance of a ballet or a film. Is there a genuine "behind the scenes" view available to us of this performance that isn't like Plato's cave but is like Degas' paintings or a "making-of" documentary? Yes, I think there is and Mary Oliver offers it.

Like Jesus she, too, looks at a flower of the field - in this case a beautiful iris rather than a lily - and then offers us the following:

Praying
from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

We look at a ballet performance and it looks to us as if the dancers can defy gravity with ease. Degas really shows us behind the scenes and makes visible the discipline and hard work that is required to pull off this performance. Degas also does not shy away from hinting at the darker elements both of  backstage  life and in the objectification of the dancers - most notably in the sculpture "La Petite Danseuse".

We look at a film, let's say Hitchcock's "Psycho", and especially its shower scene - one of the best known in movie history. But behind the scene documentaries by Bouzereau and Galluzzo reveal that although this scene only lasts 3 minutes and is a presentation which, despite its horror, seems instantaneous and done with ease actually took seven days, seventy-seven camera angles and fifty cuts to create. Like Degas they show us the discipline and hard work that is required to pull off this performance.


Mary Oliver does something similar for the act of prayer. She shows that behind acts of prayer that seem to be calling on another world and are dependent on a specific focus, words and beliefs there is to be seen - and experienced - a different perspective. Her poem is, therefore, literally a miniature behind the scenes "making-of" documentary about prayer. She shows us the discipline and hard work required to pray. As she does this she reveals that focus needn't be a beautiful iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, a few small stones or, by extension the birds of the air, the lilies of the field or an image of a heavenly Father - the point, she shows, is simply to cultivate "attention". The consequent patching together of a few words, whatever they are, is simply a response to what is seen when we attend. Then she reveals what is, I think, her key, behind-the scenes insight saying that so done this prayer *is* a doorway but one through which we are not ushered into another world but one through which we experience a different perspective on *this* world - a world of thanks and space in which we are called to be attentive to a voice other than our own. Not a voice from another world, of course, but a voice from this world that, because of the noise of our personal existence, hitherto we had failed to hear. It is in this space that we become aware of the voice of an "other" and it is only when we become aware of this other that genuine love and compassion becomes possible - can be called forth from us.

And the point of my observations today? Well, in an age and culture such as our own which has lost, rightly in my opinion, a belief in another world, we could also loose the healing practice of prayer because it is too easy to think it is tied to another world. Oliver concisely and beautifully shows us otherwise - its the practice of cultivating attention.

Thanks to Degas we see the ballet from another perspective and we understand this world better. Thanks to "making-of" documentaries we understand film from another perspective and we understand this world better. Thanks to Mary Oliver we can understand the practice of prayer from another perspective and we understand this world better.

The promise of a better life we seek in religion and in its practice of prayer is available, not elsewhere and not in belief in another world but here and now, in this world - indeed it is clear religion does not need another world. Today we have studied Mary Oliver's "making-of" documentary about prayer. When you leave here should you choose as you watch the performance of life, and better attend to its unfolding, you can listen for the voice of the "other" and enter through the doorway with prayerful thanks into this world experienced differently, more broadly, more deeply, more truly.
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