We’ve been living with Angela Glajcar’s Lent art installation, ‘Within the light’ for two weeks now. I use the phrase ‘living with’ purposely because with this sort of art that is what you do, you live with it. We sit in our stalls and say our prayers, we sing the Offices under the brooding presence of this expanse of white material. So over time you get to know it, you discover things about it. For many people, of course, their encounter with art is a one-off experience. You visit a gallery and see a picture or a sculpture or an installation and then you move on to the next room or the gift shop or the cafe and that is it. You will probably not be in the gallery for a long time – if ever again – and that piece of art may not be there when next you visit. So it’s a privilege to live with art as we do over Lent.
As with anything there are a variety of reactions to Glajcar’s piece. Some people love it, it doesn’t do anything for other people. You have to come and make your own decision, your own judgment. For those who find it more difficult I think that the issue is that it is not immediately obvious when you come in at the west end what it is about – if ‘about’ is the right word! The face it shows from the west is perhaps not the most exciting. So this means that you have to make the journey from where you enter the Cathedral to the chancel and encounter the piece, you have to make the effort to move around it and look at it from a variety of angles and then, I believe, the experience is transformed.
For me the best experience is to stand beneath it and to look up through it. The artist has worked the material until it is in shreds in places, yet the fabric still holds together. You get amazing views through the eight layers of material, you can see into the structure, through the threads into some distant place and because of the way in which light and fabric play together the view has something of an ethereal quality.
One person said to me that what came to her mind as she stood there was the second verse of the hymn we sing by George Herbert, ‘Teach me my God and King’
A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.
The clever thing about this observation is that the fabric is actually made of glass, thin fibres woven together. So you are actually looking on and through glass and then seeing this distant image.
Before the work was installed I was having to think about how we would interpret it and my thoughts were around the gentle overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, about the ‘feather on the breath of God’ of Hildegard of Bingen. I had wondered if it would remind me of the shroud in which they wrapped Jesus’ dead body, or whether it would say anything to me at all. But seeing it for real of course has made me think other things – though all of those other thoughts remain live to me.
It’s that tattered nature of the piece that I have been thinking about.
I can remember my grandmother was a great one for making do. So when bed sheets were getting worn in the middle she did to them what I was told was called ‘sides to middle’. It involved her cutting the sheet in half lengthways and sewing the outer edges together to form a new middle. I have to say it might have got more life out of the sheet but it was horrible having to sleep on a thick seam! But that was one way in which she managed to keep things going in post-war austerity. But you can’t do ‘sides to middle’ in life; when living has made us threadbare, when it looks as though things are about to fall apart you can’t simply make a new seam. And any priest sees a lot of lives in tatters and recognises the fragile nature of the fabric of so many lives, including their life. And viewed from some angles it looks solid, it looks as though all is ok but move in closer and things look so different.
We get so skilled at showing a solid face to the world but get close and look closely and you see where the wear and tear is, where life is fraying, where the threads are just hanging together. And you think, ‘this can’t hold together much longer’ and for some people it doesn’t.
In St Matthew’s Gospel we are told
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Matthew 27.51)
As Jesus died, as his tattered body gave way, heaven was exposed and the curtain which had stopped people seeing the Holy of Holies in the temple was ripped apart. Heaven was ripped open in the death of Jesus and we glimpse God in the fragility of life.
In a debate on suicide at the last meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod we were told some disturbing statistics about the numbers of suicides, especially amongst younger people, in society today. We look at each other as we look at ‘Within the light’ and see a solid face but the truth can be so different. All I can hope is that God can hold the weave of my life together, the weave of your life together and that in some mysterious way the fraying and thin parts might be glimpsing places of heaven. I don’t quite know what that means yet, which is why I’ll be sitting beneath Angela Glajcar’s amazing work in Southwark Cathedral and looking through the thin places to see what lies within.
God of light,
shine through the thin places of life
that I may see heaven on earth.