Friday, 12 September 2014

the prayer

Deep in rural Gloucestershire, not far south of Cirencester, the tiny eight hundred year old church of All Saints, Shorncote is remote from it's village and reached only by a narrow country lane. Cool and quiet within, the simple interior is mostly unadorned except for an elaborately carved Royal coat of arms, and lit upon the fall of darkness solely by oil lamps mounted at intervals on the walls of the nave. Appreciative as I am of the humble grace and depthless silence of the building, it is, however, the unexpected paintings on the north walls of the chancel, and above the chancel arch that inspire within me much emotion and delighted surprise. They are mediaeval; according to the guide dating from the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuaries, and depict a regular, repeating pattern of rectangles, as though a wall had been painted upon a wall, each rectangle containing a ruddy, daisy like flower. A substantial fragment remains, despite the destructive plaster and wash of later periods, enough to be able to imagine the appearance of the chancel when the paintings covered the walls in exultant glory, crisp edged, poppy bright, surprisingly contemporary for all their naive rendering.

Each time I behold ecclesiastical paintings from the mediaeval period, I am astonished by the fervour, candour and directness of communication with which they were made, and passionately regretful that they should often have been obliterated by succeeding generations of church authorities, even though my partner has explained to me that faith evolves like everything else, and that the paintings may perhaps have come to be held as inappropriate, irreverent, possibly even blasphemous, or simply outmoded; that other interests were at work. However, I remain profoundly moved by such intensely realised evocations of faith in a God seemingly often vengeful, capricious and unpredictable, a God meting out such extremes of destiny according to one's earthly deeds, and it appears to me to be an act of desecration to have destroyed these works of art and religiosity from an earlier, unimaginably different and difficult time.

I am thankful for the exuberance of the remaining mural at Shorncote; it implies a God less exacting, one exhibiting painstaking attention to the minutae of life on earth; the very flowers at our feet, a God extending a merciful hand to those labouring in their faith and fields, One who cared enough for His creation to gift the painter thus. I feel uplifted, light of heart, grateful to the unknown and unknowable artist, or artists, as close to prayer as I have been since childhood.

When I told my mother of our intended visit to this, and other churches, being unable to accompany us, she asked of me that I should indeed pray for her, and although I usually find it difficult, if not impossible, to participate in her child like faith, on this occasion, I felt honour bound, and able,  to comply with her simple, heartfelt request.

I respect my mother's strongly held, if somewhat unorthadox, Christian convictions, finding particularly touching her belief that instead of resurection to an Heavenly afterlife, she will return to the earth following her death in the form of a modest, wayside flower; a daisy, or buttercup perhaps, her scattered ashes having nourished the soil to give rise to new life. The elegant, ancient, eight petalled blooms painted in a once brilliant ocherous red on the otherwise naked lime washed walls of the little church call her vividly to mind. She would have loved their symmetry and simplicity, would, if she had been able to be with us, have understood the intensity of the celebratory piety that had originated them. It seems appropriate, therefore, to answer her plea whilst gazing on this frieze of flowers, to offer both thanks for the endeavour of the painter, whose work remains to enchant the eye and refresh the spirit, and the prayer for my mother, whose passion is for the Creator, her children and the garden she shared with my father.

Standing alone before the innocent blooms, for my partner is gone outside, I enjoin the Lord to keep my mother from harm, ask that she should have many more years in which to care for her beloved garden, years of health and plenty, that her own, tenderly nurtured plants should flourish each in their season, that she may eventually leave the life with which she is at present so fiercely engaged in painless slumber.

Days afterwards, whilst joyously picking blackberries from a roadside bramble, she lost her footing and fell heavily on her back to the ground, sorely bruising her ribs and spilling her patiently gathered fruits on the pavement. On learning of her misadventure during our evening telephone conversation, I am conscious of an acute sense of shock, a feeling of outrage that she should have been hurt, a swift chilling of the blood in my veins, unwillingly being brought once more to recognise that she is increasingly frail and unsteady, although she retains an indomitable independence of mind and spirit.

I do not share with her my uncomfortable conviction that the prayer I uttered on her behalf seems to have failed, to have missed it's mark, that perhaps, after all, it found no recipient, but had been merely a whisper unto empty air, a hope against hope, a child's exhortation to a child's God, a God who shields one's parents, siblings and friends for all eternity, watches over the defenceless, mends broken wings and restores vanquished life; a God of immeasurable tenderness. Perhaps a prayer from one unaccustomed to worship is indeed doomed to failure, however sincerely intended. I am cast irredeemably into doubt, my mind swept agonisingly by loneliness and fathomless despair, not only for my mother, but for  those whom I also love, for the tide of all living things condemmned to suffer and to perish. In my distress, I forget the celebration of material life and of the God who makes it so evinced by the painter of Shorncote, the implication of the rightful cycle of replacement upon replacement, of evolution and extinction which embodies the drama of wordly existence, the unaffected, passionate connection which my mother maintains with her garden and her God. Instead I find myself most painfully and deeply bewildered, as much a child in my bewilderment as when a child I prayed each night for the safekeeping of my mother and father, my sisters and friends, the flowers, trees and creatures of the earth, those of the air and waters.

I ask my sister why our mother had fallen. She answers, "Because life is random".

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