9. More meditations
A group 6th form meditators said their most significant learning experience came from reading Chapter 4 of Michael Sadgrove's book'. The chapter is entitled Image and Presence', and explains how the tapestry is an icon that 'speaks' to him of God, which is what his book is about. In particular he tells how inner meanings may come to individuals thinking about inanimate objects. He exemplifies this, first by his personal encounter, as a tourist, with Russian religious icons, then by a biblical reference to a letter in Revelation of John the Divine who was writing to boost the confidence of the early Christians.
He explains the happening in Moscow's Arbat street, famous for its street market, as follows:
".. as I stopped by an icon stall, a young man came up, and prostrated himself in front of the icons piled up higgledy piggledy on the trestle table. After a minute or two, he began, infinitely carefully, to pick up the icons in turn, kiss them and then replace them on the table so that no icon obscured the image of the ones below. Then, once again, he knelt on the pavement and worshipped silently. The tourists gaped; but this worshipper was oblivious to us, just as I had been oblivious to the crowds on my first encounter with the tapestry. It was as if he inhabited a reality of his own; and I dare to think that it was he, and not the rest of us, who were closest to reality just then. It was a kind of transfiguration amid a City street.
This is what I mean when I call the tapestry an icon: not technically, but in the way it functions. Unlike my icon at home, the tapestry is consciously art, and art of a high order. But it seems to me that it is more even than great art. When visitors who have never seen it before and who may in fact find it perplexing, say that the face of Christ follows them round the Cathedral, it is this icon-like aspect of it they are experiencing. The tapestry is more than a beautiful decoration: it is a presence, a gateway to another world, a sacrament of divine love. Attend to it with loving imagination, and it draws me into its life, changing my perspectives, clarifying my goals. It speaks to me of God."
The next point Sadgrove makes is that once an artist lets go of what he has produced, it can go on 'living' and 'speaking' to people with many voices and messages.
"The icon deals personally with each of us. It is not a question of whether what I see is what the artist intended one to see. It is simply what is there for me; what, if you like, is God's gift to me through it; and that is as unique to me as the artist's or painter's vision was to him or her.
Strangely, the tapestry was an outcome of Sutherland's mental captures of the shapes and emotions he spied in the scenery of Pembrokeshire. Meditation produced the tapestry's icons in the first place. This kind of 'mental recycling' of icons, each passage adding new or deeper meanings, seems to be the essence of imaginative thinking and its social communication
In art, the 'objet trouve is any ordinary object considered from an aesthetic viewpoint. One of the students, Marcia Gontesi, produced a long list of symbolic artists who have time and again followed this path. Notably, the Jewish painter Marc Chagall repeatedly assembled a limited range of human and animal figures to express the powerful human emotions of melancholy and love. The sculptor Henry Moore often started with stones.
Chagall's iconography derives from the spiritual world of the community of Russian Hassidic Jews in which he grew up. Marcia feels that Chagall's notions about people and nature make good comparisons with the tapestry's Christian iconography, particularly with regards the power of love in bonding people to a God. A good starting point is that they both painted the Crucifixion, but their messages were for different audiences. More importantly perhaps, Chagall's dominant iconography of love has roots to the Song of Songs, a book of the Old Testament which has been an inspiration and support to the faiths of both Jews and Christians.
With reference to stones as icons, Michael Sadgrove introduced some lateral dreamy connections to the psychoanalyst Jung's ideas of 'soul stones'. He also brought out the great potential of stones as metaphorical blank sheets for meditation in the following biblical context.
"In the letter to the church at Pergamum, one of the seven churches of Asia to whom John the Divine wrote, there is a lovely personal touch that I relish: 'To everyone who conquers . . . I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no- one knows except the one who receives it' (Rev 2:7). That is how it is when I meditate on the tapestry, or admire a Picasso or read the Bible, or listen to Mozart. There is that unique, personal meeting between it and me, that gift with my own name upon it."
In other words we should surrender ourselves to pictures, or pebbles on the beach, as William Blake's personal doors of perception, and not worry too much about what we are expected to see.
As can be readily imagined, an innovative project such as this, which has progressed slowly over several years as an extra-curricular activity, and involved students of different ages, cultural backgrounds and interests, has elicited more questions than have been addressed in this edited presentation. Also, there was little free involvement of those with interests in science, which tended to produce a much deeper debate on subjects close to the humanities. The following questions highlight some of the loose-ends left hanging from the tapestry sessions.
Why are there not more species?
Do all living things have rights, and if so how should we should respect them in our day to day lives?
Are genetic engineers 'playing' at being God?
Do souls evolve?
How can we manage nature sustainably based on the different values of its many features?
Can religions evolve?
How did life on planet Earth begin?
Why can't we have a school subject that integrates all the important issues we have to deal with in our everyday lives as adults?