Sermon in Wood
In memory of our friend and colleague Liam Flynn
This piece was written as a sermon and read from the pulpit of the Dublin Unitarian Church on 22 April 2012
My title comes from a couple of lines in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. In Act 2 the banished Duke is extolling life in the countryside and he says: ‘And this our life, exempt from public haunt,/ Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,/ Sermons in stones and good in everything’. I love those lines and I’ve often thought that ‘Sermons in Stones’ would be a great title for an address. However I’ve now decided to leave that one to the geologist in the family – or indeed to anyone else in the congregation who likes to run with it – and I’m taking a slightly different approach, having, with apologies to Shakespeare, adapted one of his words for my own purposes. I found today’s sermon not in stone, but in wood. Some time last spring our daughter Eleanor informed us that she was to be the curator of an exhibition to be held the following November in the Hunt Museum in Limerick. The exhibition would be a one-man show by the Irish woodturner, Liam Flynn. ‘He’s very good’, she said. ‘You must come’.
In due course we received our invitation to the opening, and down we went on the appointed day, more to support Eleanor than anything else. I had seen work by Liam Flynn before and, although I liked it very much, it hadn’t made any lasting impression. This solo exhibition proved to be, as they say, something else.
As this is the opening of the exhibition an increasing number of people crowd into the room. They move constantly, talking, laughing, exclaiming; the noise level rises and continues to rise. Amidst this throng of movement, noise and colour, the wooden vessels stand impassively, holding their ground and commanding attention. Somehow they retain a quietness, a dignity, a remoteness, a quality of other-worldliness that is unaffected by, and indifferent to, the mortals swirling around them.
I had never experienced anything quite like this before. I stood in a corner, mesmerised by the power radiating from these silent objects and almost unaware of the people. Now, when I think of the exhibition in retrospect, I remember the vessels as if they had been in an empty room. Why is this? Why should a collection of fifty pieces of wood, shaped by a craftsman on a lathe, exert such an influence, make such an impression?
The time came for the opening speeches. We were ushered into the next room and the exhibition was formally opened by Ciarán Forbes, a monk from Glenstal Abbey and himself a very fine woodturner. He shed some light on my puzzlement.
The brilliance of the work of Liam Flynn, he said, came principally from two things. The first was that this artist is without ego. He didn’t go into detail about this, leaving us to form our own conclusions. I worked out my interpretation of what he meant:
Working with wood, obviously, is very different from working with stone, as wood, unlike stone, is an organic material. Although the wood comes from trees that have been felled and are therefore technically no longer alive, recently felled wood has to undergo a process of seasoning before it becomes completely inert, so, although not alive in the full meaning of the word, it is still subject to change. Liam works with unseasoned wood, so that he is shaping something that still has a life-force in it, still obeys subtle forces of change that are not under his control. Although he is working with the wood, he absents himself completely from the directional process and sees his role as that of a facilitator. As he turns his unseasoned wood on the lathe he lets the wood itself choose the way it wants to go, and when he has finished turning it he removes himself from the equation completely and leaves his piece to dry out, and, in this process, further shifts and shrugs of the wood can cause alterations in shape, so that the final form the piece takes is, if you like, dictated by the wood itself. This cooperation with his material and this lack of personal intrusion mean that when the work is complete the viewer is put in direct communication with it and can relate to it immediately without having to filter his or her reaction through the artist’s personality. Liam has enabled what was in the wood to reveal itself and to establish its own ultimate truth.
Thinking about this I began to wonder if the whole process of woodturning, at least at this level, was a spiritual process as much as an artistic one. Could this be why, in one of the monastic orders – is it the Carthusians? – each monastic cell is equipped with a woodturner’s lathe? The monks are encouraged to spend time on manual labour so, as they employ themselves making useful objects, at the same time and – perhaps unwittingly? – they are engaged in meditative practice. But this is an aside. Let’s return to Ciarán’s speech and the second reason he gave for the brilliance of Liam Flynn’s work.
This is its simplicity. The shapes of these wooden vessels had been reduced to their simplest possible form: everything that was inessential had been pared away. Ciarán referred to the story (which you probably know) of Michelangelo who, when asked to describe how he set about his sculptures, replied that the process was quite simple. You decided what shape was imprisoned in a block of marble, he said, and then just removed all the surplus marble. As easy as that. I thought of a couple of lines I’d read recently in a poem by our friend Geraldine Mitchell describing the same process: ‘If you want to make a carving of a bear, said Henry Moore, just take away everything that isn’t bear’.
These sculptural artists, whether Michelangelo, Henry Moore, or in this case Liam Flynn, work not so much by creating something from scratch, as by seeing something that is already there, in the block of stone or the piece of wood, but that needs their imaginative perception and of course their artistic skill to remove all the extraneous material so that the rest of us can see it too. Their creativity consists not in adding but in subtracting, in stripping away every accumulation so that they eventually reveal the essential element, reduced to its simplest possible form. This artistic process is accompanied by a simultaneous subtler process: as the work progresses to its completion, to quote again from Geraldine’s poem, ‘truth emerges by elimination’.
As I thought about all this, sitting on the bottom step of the stairs in the Hunt Museum listening to the rest of the speeches, I wondered if the reason Liam’s work had affected me so deeply was that his creations were not just mere vessels made out of wood, they were in fact manifestations of truth, a truth that had emerged ‘by elimination’. Had I, in that room, been looking at truth, face to face? Without recognising it for what it was?
Feeling the need for some self-justification at this stage I reminded myself that I had at least recognised that they were beautiful. Undeniably, and inexpressibly beautiful. Then I remembered that line that we all know from the end of one of Keats’s odes and for the first time in my life felt the full force of it: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all/ You know on earth and all you need to know’.
Such elemental simplicity, the fusion of truth and beauty, must be, it seemed to me as I sat on my step, a manifestation of ultimate reality. Religious people talk from time to time about ultimate reality but I have never understood what the phrase meant. Now, I felt, I had experienced it. I went back into the exhibition room. The wooden shapes still exerted their air of calm authority. We are ourselves, they seemed to say, we are what we are, nothing more, nothing less, nothing other. Once again I was mesmerised by them. And I began to wonder: if these pieces of wood represented – for me at any rate – the expression of ultimate reality, then could my response to them be regarded as a form of worship? Rational Unitarian as I like to think I am, had I taken leave of my senses entirely to be standing in a room in Limerick worshipping a collection of wooden pots?
Worship is a word loaded down with religious baggage. In times past, and indeed still, religious worship is taken to mean the formal expression of reverence for a deity and is confined to that. This was the case in the Book of Exodus from which the reading was taken, and it is still very much the case in orthodox monotheistic religion today. When I was growing up in Dublin I remember being told that the reason I and other people went to church was to worship God. This view was firmly reinforced by the words of the hymns, prayers, and readings appointed for the Sunday service, and inevitably it followed that to worship anyone or anything else was sinful. To illustrate the truth of this one only had to refer to the story from Exodus about God’s reaction to the worship of the golden calf that we heard earlier. I can remember very clearly, at the age of about six, listening to this story in the Sunday School I attended. It’s a memorable story, dramatic and vivid like so many of the Old Testament stories, and it made a big impression on me. My sympathies were entirely with ‘the children of Israel’ whom I imagined to be rather like the children in my school playground. I remember that in my mind’s eye I could clearly see that beautiful golden calf gleaming in the sun with everyone dancing round it in a ring having a lovely time, and I also remember greatly enjoying the picture I subsequently drew as an illustration. I disliked and ignored the end of the story when God and Moses interfered, as adults so often did, and spoiled the party. Perhaps some of the seeds of my Unitarian independence from orthodox religious interpretation were sown that day in Sunday School.
Few, if any, of us now believe in the vengeful authoritarian God, as portrayed in the Book of Exodus, who demands exclusive worship from his followers and punishes them severely if he doesn’t get it. Few here would, I think, believe that Unitarian worship is confined to the formal expression of reverence for a deity, although for some that may still be a key ingredient. I would suggest that many Unitarians, myself included, may in fact have a very hazy notion of what we actually mean by the word ‘worship’, to the extent that some of us are made uncomfortable by the use of the word, and so, in the light of my recent experience in Limerick, I suggest that we might find it helpful as well as interesting to reflect on what the word means for us individually. Some of us have already addressed this topic: Madeline Stringer spoke here recently about what worship means to her, and I remember an address many years ago by John Ward in which he referred to the etymological derivation of the word which did a lot to clarify my ideas. It comes from the combination of two Old English words, ‘weorth’ and ‘scipe’ which mean acknowledgement of worth; we worship that which we acknowledge to have great worth. I once attended a conference in England for lay preachers at which we were asked to write down in a short paragraph what we understood by worship, and I remember being completely thrown by this as it wasn’t something to which I had given much, or indeed any, thought, and I found it virtually impossible to assemble any coherent ideas in the time allowed. Since then I’ve had plenty of time for reflection, so, still under the influence of those amazing wooden vessels, here is my current take on the matter:
Worship is wonder, awareness, appreciation and gratitude, or a combination of all of them. Worship inspired by art is not in competition with God, whatever we understand God to be, it is a window to greater understanding of what God might be. Worship can take many forms and can occur under many circumstances but there are a few constants. It must be simple: worship is a response which is direct, genuine and immediate and there is no need, and no room, for adornment of any kind. It must be whole-hearted: there can be no such thing as faint or half-hearted worship. It must be selfless – the worshipper must be for the moment at any rate like the master wood turner, without ego, because to be lost in worship is to have abandoned the self and to have become absorbed by something infinitely greater. It must be an end in itself – worship is not a staging post in the journey but a point of arrival. Finally, although deeply serious, it must be celebratory and joyful. You can’t have sad worship.
You can worship alone, walking in the mountains or through a forest or along the sea-shore, by day under sun and clouds or by night looking up at the stars; you can worship privately in a crowded place like an art gallery or a concert hall, or during a meal with family or friends; or collectively in community as we do here every Sunday morning. Here in this place we can worship by joining in the glorious metaphors of our hymns, by entering imaginatively into the children’s story, by experiencing the togetherness of silent prayer, by listening fully to the music, by exploring the thoughts inspired by prayers and readings, and particularly, I think, by meeting with one another downstairs over coffee.
So, in the words of Unitarian minister Kenneth Patton, ‘Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips; let us love the world with heart and mind and body . . . all life flows into a common life, if we will only open our eyes to our companions. Let us worship, not in bowing down, not with closed eyes and stopped ears. Let us worship with the opening of all the windows of our beings, with the full outstretching of our spirits.’
If we do this, then I think we shall understand the good Duke in As You Like It and, with him, ‘find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones’ - or, as it might be, wood – ‘and good in everything’.
1969 - 2017
1969 - 2017