A reflection shared at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 2 September 2020 in our Bread for the World Service by the Revd Jonathan Evens
Reading for this address: Genesis 1.1-3, 27-28, 31a, 2.1-2, 19-20
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light …
God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply …
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good …
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done …
the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field …
At our recent Parish Day the poet-priest Malcolm Guite shared many insights with us about the imagination of God and ways in which we can participate in God’s imaginative work. Some of what he shared began with words from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
‘The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.’
This description of the way in which imagination works is about noticing and naming. It begins with the poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, glancing from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven and, therefore, noticing aspects of what is in heaven and what is on earth, as well as connections between them both. Grayson Perry has said that his job as an artist is to notice things that other people don’t notice. When we really pay attention to what is around us and notice things that others don’t, we are being artists.
What the eye notices, the poet’s pen then turns to shapes, giving a local habitation and a name. With our eyes we see what no one else has seen and with our words or speech we name what it is that we see. When we do so we are poets. That is how imagination works; by noticing and naming. We can all pay attention, so that we notice, and can all describe and define, so that we name. In other words we can all be artists and poets.
I wanted to explore this further in terms of the creation stories in the Book of Genesis, as these are where we see the imagination of God most clearly at play, and by doing so see the way in which a movement between seeing, speaking and silence enables our noticing and naming.
The Book of Genesis and the Bible as a whole begins in silence. Speech first happens in verse 3 when God says, ‘Let there be light.’ In the beginning there was silence and in the silence God saw that the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Before creation began God was there in silence and stillness, the Spirit hovering over and seeing a realm of possibility yet to be realised, a realm of possibilities waiting to bodied forth, shaped and named by imagination.
Silence enables sight because sight precedes speech. The child looks and recognises before it can speak and so it is here, in this description of the time before time. Therefore, we need to regularly return to silence in order to see afresh, as we will also see God doing in this story.
Then God speaks imaginatively, embodying possibilities, shaping and naming possibilities as realised and actualised entities – let there be light, let there be sky, let there be land, let there be seas, let there be vegetation, let there be creatures, let there be human beings, let there be … After the speaking, the shaping, the defining, the naming, after all those things there is rest; the return to silence and stillness in order to see. God saw all that had been made, and indeed, it was very good and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that had been done.
In the time of God’s sabbath rest, we are invited to become sub-creators – co-creators – with God to continue this pattern or process of contemplative creation. The Lord God brought every animal of the field and every bird of the air to humans to see what we would name them; and whatever we called every living creature, that was its name. We gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field.
God was no longer creating by bodying forth, shaping and naming, but, as he rested, wished to see how his creativity was shared and replicated within his creation. We were asked to co-create by naming all other creatures. Names in ancient times described the essence of the creature or object so named. That is what we did in this story. We looked for the essence of each creature and then named that essence. Naming is a key human speech-act. Describing and defining is a tool for navigating existence and is the basis of scientific discovery, and it all begins with seeing. In order to accurately describe or define or map, we have first to see what is there. That is the sequence within this story. God brought animals to us. We looked at each one and then described or defined each by naming them.
We come to know the essence of a thing by imaginatively exploring its various possibilities. This process of paying attention to an object and using our imagination to explore its possibilities in order to realise its distinctive essence is what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called instress. He called the essence that we identify the inscape. Ultimately, ‘the instress of inscape leads one to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it.’
Hopkins wrote about this in a poem called ‘Kingfishers catch fire’:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
When we do what Adam did – when we notice and name – we are being creative, we are artists and poets, we are fulfilling the potential God created in us when he made human beings in his image as creative beings. When we notice and name we are seeing sacramentally because we are seeing the divine essence in all things.
This is the purpose for which we were created and for which the creation itself is crying out. James Thwaites has suggested that this is what Paul, in Romans 8, suggests creation is crying out for from us as human beings (Romans 8: 19-22): ‘It must be crying out for its goodness to be fully realised and fully released. The creation cannot be good apart from the sons and daughters because we alone were given the right to name it; we are the image bearers who were made to speak moral value and divine intent into it. We were created to draw forth the attributes, nature and power of God in all things.’
Instead of the selfish and wasteful exploitation of creation’s resources – the domination and abuse – which characterises human engagement with the world, we are intended to creatively realise the inherent possibilities, the essential goodness, of creation through our imaginative ability as those who notice and name. As God did when resting on the seventh day, it is as we return to silence in order to contemplate that we see more clearly and can notice and name once again. So, may we realise our inherent creativity as human beings in order that we learn to care for creation once again.
We end with more from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.