No one could have predicted it, I suppose – the effect that the installation at the Tower of London has had on people and upon the public imagination. But over 4 million people have now been along, patiently queuing for a glimpse of the 888,246 ceramic poppies that form ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. It is dramatic and it is beautiful and I think that seeing quite so many poppies makes the number of those who died from the UK and from across the empire very real. It is hard to understand what that kind of number means until you see it so vividly illustrated. And as the moat has filled up then the effect has become ever greater.
When I first saw the installation during the summer it was impressive but there was still along way to go with the planting. Now that it is all but complete the effect is amazing.
I know from talking to Fr Bertrand Olivier, who is vicar of All Hallows’-by-the-Tower and who writes in the latest edition of the Church Times, that as the neighbour to the installation they have been drawn into the ‘poppy phenomenan’. So many people have come from looking at the poppies into church that they have had to make extra provision for them. For, when they arrive, they want to do something as their response, such as light a candle. Though we at Southwark Cathedral are across the river from the Tower we have noticed a surge in visitor numbers and not just wanting a cup of tea!
It has reminded me of what happened when Diana, Princess of Wales died. I had not been in London very long and so felt very much caught up in the events, realising that for once, rather than looking in on something happening in London I had the opportunity to take part. So, on the Friday evening, the evening before the funeral, I made my way via St James’ Park and ended up at Kensington Palace. Crowds were everwhere, there were candles lit and pictures and messages placed everywhere, a national outpouring of grief and a grasping at what to do in the face of the pain of death when you don’t have the religious vocabulary to articulate any message of hope.
For the Church of England it was one of those growing up moments that come along every so often. During the First World War we had to grow up about praying for the dead. At the Reformation praying for the dead was something that was no longer permitted and though the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century revived it, it was still not in the mainstream of the life of the church. But during the war people wanted to pray for those who had died – and why not. It was a human, catholic response deeply embedded in people – and the church (or most of it) eventually responded.
Similarly, there were many churches that did not have places where people could light votive candles – but when Diana died people wanted to. They lit them in the streets and they wanted to light them in church. So provision had to be made and now I know of no Cathedral that does not have votive stands galore for people to do such things. The reformers might not like it but I believe that the church must respond to those deeper places of spiritual need that exist within people and the truth is when you don’t have the words with which to respond then actions come into their own.
The installation at the Tower seems to have drawn from the British people that same visceral response and that same need to express grief, express remembrance, to express deep gratitude and to act as a people united in something which it is hard to put a name to. But they do it without the religious language with which the church works but at the same time they know what they should do. It is a strange secularism and it is not true secularism – there is a latent, often hidden, often denied spirituality deep in the hearts of so many that, sadly, the church cannot connect with – but God does.
Perhaps people know deep within them the truth that is in John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ which ends
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Jesus takes three of his friends to the top of a high mountain and in front of their eyes he is transgfigured. Moses and Elijah appear with him and a voice is heard from heaven proclaiming ‘This is my beloved son.’ It would have been hard for them to put words to the experience and so as the Evangelists tell us they seek to make a practical response.
‘Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said.’ (Luke 9.33)
He didn’t know what he said for he didn’t really have the vocabulary. Who can blame him, he was in the presence of the divine, and there we should all fall silent. But instead his response was to try to set the experience in aspic, to build booths, so that they could stay there, at the top of the mountain, in the good experience, with the beauty, with God. But they couldn’t and they had to go back down the mountain with Jesus to everything that awaited them.
The calls for the installation at the Tower to remain are understandable but they come from the same desire that affected Peter, that we should try to preserve that good experience, to stay with it for longer – and we can’t. There is something as powerful in losing the poppies as in planting them. Those lives were lost – young lives that should have been held on to for longer – they went all too quickly. Letting go is the hardest thing, the hardest lesson that we learn, but we have to. ‘Don’t cling to me’ says Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden following his resurrection. She wanted to hold him there, with her, as Peter wanted to hold on to the mountain top experience, as we want to hold on to the power that the poppies have had over us – because we just don’t have the words.
These few weeks have yet again been a challenge to the church and to other faith communities. Spirituality is alive and well – but how do we connect with it, because people make their own connections with God and God makes connections with his people and where are we – organised, institutional religion – in all of this? The Diana phenomenon has now had the poppy phenomenon added to it. Will the church learn the lessons and speak a language that can be heard?
teach me when to speak and when to keep silent;
teach me when to act and when to keep still;
teach me when to weep and when to rejoice;
teach me your word for today.