Hereness and nowness: bicycles and benches - on the "more-than" of things


The new bench in the Memorial Garden 
The service at which this address was given concluded with a brief ceremony to dedicate the bench in the Memorial Garden of the church where I am minister given by Tony and Katie in memory of their son, Mark Ethan Burns (1972-2011). The reading was from 1 Corinthians 13.

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The desire to give a memorial bench is a good thing and, because of this, it is also something often done. But it seems to me that something primordial about this kind of gift is missed because of a general underlying belief in our culture that, in the end, a thing (like a bench) is always just a thing. However, as this address tries to show, I think this is to miss something very important about the nature of things. It's tempting, perhaps, to think I'm going to be speaking of what we call the "sentimental value" of things but I'm not. I'm talking about the strange "more-than" that things can themselves gift us when they are being most fully what they are.

The Pashley Guv'nor at Toft
To get us closer to what I mean, and what I'd like us to hold in our hearts and mind when we dedicate Mark's bench, I introduce you to exhibit No. 1: A Pashley Guv'nor, handbuilt two years ago in England and based on a Path Racer made by the company during the 1930s.

Shortly after I became the minister here in 2000 a lady called Agnes Gabriel started to come to the church. I quickly discovered Agnes was someone with whom I shared many, many interests, historical, literary and theological. In our conversations I also discovered that her husband - who sounded just as interesting she - was less than well and that he had to spend a great deal of time confined to their flat over in Chesterton. In consequence I offered to pop over to see them together at some point if, of course, she thought it appropriate. It was deemed so and so began a long friendship. The vast and arcane range of subjects (I exaggerate not) we discussed both here in England and in France over the next decade is not necessary to go into here but one which came up every now and then was my own passion for cycling and, in particular, my love of cycling between the two World Wars. It was a golden age for cycling not least of all because there was then little motor traffic on the roads, there were many inns and tea rooms still open and a club and association culture was still very much alive. Given that both Agnes and Ronald were born in the 1920s this was a period about which they had had direct experience - some of which was, I discovered, had on the glorious winged wheel itself. Over the years Agnes and Ronald bought me a couple of small cycling guide books from the 1930s and 40s which brought me, and still bring me today, a great deal of pleasure.

But time moves on and Ronald died two years ago and then, a year later so, too, did Agnes. I miss them greatly. In Agnes' will she kindly gave some money to the church but she also left me a small amount as a gift from them both to get something I wouldn't otherwise be able to afford. Now, because I had had to conduct both their funerals and their combined memorial service I became aware I had, myself, had little time neither to grieve their deaths nor to reflect creatively upon their remarkable lives and my extraordinary luck in being able to count them as friends.

I do most of this kind of thinking and reflecting on my bicycle and because, during the last year of Agnes' life, I had stumbled across the fact that Pashley had made the Guv'nor, based, as you heard, on a design created during Agnes' and Ronald's own lifetimes, getting hold of one seemed like a good thing to do. It has so proved - those of you who follow my blog will have seen a photographic record of a few of my more memorable rides out on the Guv'nor.

It is the kind of classic bicycle with its functional simplicity and elegant form which draws many admirers and has, not surprisingly, spawned a couple of internet sites dedicated to dedicated to its charms. It has to be said that, although these sites are useful for obtaining certain obscure but important bits of technical information about the bicycle, a lot of what gets posted is, of course, ephemeral nonsense - written mostly by men who are still really boys (mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). Yet one post struck me as going way beyond the usual fare and said something in a brief and concise way that is, I think, theologically and philosophically important that also speaks directly about the bench which we will dedicate in a short while.

In the midst of a possibly pointless technical and aesthetic discussion over the merits of either single- or three-speed (which you will note I still read through to get to this and, for those interested, I'm strictly a single speed man myself . . .) a chap called James posted the following comment:

". . . what the bicycle should do best is remove itself from your concerns, and elevate itself as a companion. The single speed Guv'nor achieves this through functional simplicity and elegant form.
This changes your relationship with the machine. Elevated from mostly-reliable transportation tool, it becomes a device to manifest spirit and joy, an enabler of human contact, a channel for enquiry and solution, a deliverer of nowness and hereness just when and where it is needed" (James March 28, 2010 at 9:12 pm).

I thought then, and I still think now, that this is a quite wonderful expression of a truth about certain apparently inanimate things in the world. Although it is clearly true that a bicycle can certainly be felt to be just a bicycle, when it is most perfectly being a bicycle, as James says, it disappears from our concerns and becomes more like a companion. When you mount it it is not, therefore, for merely functional reasons (i.e. to get from A to B) but, connected with the straightforward joy that shows up (shines) when one spends time with a good companion. So, in consequence, the bicycle also helps manifest spirit and joy. The simple fact of being together - you with the bicycle - is beginning to say something over and above the purely functional stuff which is, of course, still going on. A bicycle such as this also certainly enables human contact. In an obvious way it is, as James says, a transportation tool and can take you to visit friends but, almost magically, it also has the ability to draw around it all kinds of people who want to stop and talk about, not only the bicycle, but also the kinds of dreams and hopes it evokes - in this case, mostly for a simpler age. Taken all together, the companionship, the manifestation of spirit and joy and the making of human contacts one can clearly see why it also becomes a channel for enquiry and solution. In my case this was an enquiry and meditation upon Ronald and Agnes' life and our many conversations about life, the universe and everything. Wonderfully, I don't even need to get on the bicycle for some of these things to happen - I can just think about it or go to the shed simply to look at it and I find that, again almost magically, it becomes a "deliverer of nowness and hereness just when and where it is needed." Thought about this way the Guv'nor is most certainly not just a bicycle.

Now it should be clear that all I have said can be extended to many other kinds things that have a similar "functional simplicity and elegant form" and today I'm thinking particularly about the bench Katie and Tony have gifted us all. This bench is, likewise, most certainly not *just* a bench.

It, like my bicycle, was bought after the loss of someone hugely loved and missed by many of us here - Mark. Although the bench is clearly a reliable and functional example of its type it, too, has already encouraged companionship and become a device to manifest spirit and joy. Walking past the garden dozens of times daily I have seen many, many church members, parents of children attending drama classes, the children themselves, dancers (in our case Scottish and Tango) and members of the AA fellowship enjoying the joyful, uplifting experience of sitting in a secluded, beautiful and carefully tended Memorial Garden. It most certainly has enabled human contact. I know, too,  that it is also proving to be a channel for enquiry and solution and could tell you of a couple of important conversations that have taken place on this new bench. And, whenever I have taken the time to sit on it, on my own, all these things - spirit and joy, human contact, enquiry and solution - gather round and I find that this bench is more than capable of delivering nowness and hereness just when and where it is needed.

When we take time to sit upon the bench we open ourselves up to these gifts of love - which as St Paul reminds us is the greatest gift - then we truly begin to engage in the healing and hopeful process of which St Paul also speaks. Upon this bench, in company and engaged in enquiry, we can begin grow into a more mature spirituality, a more mature and authentic way of being-in-the-world, moving from "childhood" to "adulthood". Often, when we first sit down, things will often feel to us as if we are looking in a mirror dimly, or as the King James Version more expressively puts it, "in a glass darkly." But over time, with a companion and engaged in a process of enquiry we find that we are beginning to move slowly towards things that feel like solutions. True, upon this bench we will almost certainly only ever know in part but the hope that our bench helps us express is that, somehow, somewhere there is a full a understanding and that in this fullness what we are is fully "understood". (This fullness need, not of course, be "God" it could simply be nature itself).

On this bench we are helped to see that St Paul's may well be right in saying that always faith, hope and love abide, these three; but that the greatest of these is love.

This bench is, therefore, in the end a symbol of this worldly love, for Mark and for all of us who will use it in the coming years. On it's seat love abides and for this we are profoundly grateful.

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Prayer of Dedication for the new bench:

O God, may this bench, a gift of love in memory of Mark, be for us a place where spirit and joy are made manifest, where companionship is found; may it be a channel of enquiry and solution, a deliverer of hereness and nowness when and where it is needed and, lastly, a place where love itself abides. Amen.
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