The novelist Ernest Hemingway reckoned that his greatest story consisted in its entirety of just 6 words: “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.“
Thus he unknowingly issued a challenge that continues to inspire many generations later. A 2012 author won with the oblique: No taxidermist loved his daughter more
Then there’s the intriguing: See that shadow? It’s not yours.
Or how about the social commentary: The modern fairytale: frog; snog; sprog
Alexander McCall Smith contributed: Humorous book. Critic died laughing. Sued.
I rather like the potential behind this: Megan’s baby. John’s surname. Jim’s eyes.
Actually, the opening 6 words of the Book of Genesis are pretty impressive: IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD….
A good story – whether 6 words or 90,000 - draws us in, almost against our will, plants a picture deep into our mind and, unbidden, starts to add detail, to tell a wider story. Such is the power of literature.
It’s a little over 12 months since Fr Gerard Irvine’s Memorial Service was held in this church. Gerard was Vicar for some 17 years including the 1980s restoration after the fire.
Previously, in a brief period as Vicar of St Anne’s Soho, he’d introduced a parish magazine that would often include a new Betjeman poem or a review of new books, religious or secular. He was well-known for Sunday open-house teas with the most eclectic cross-section of people with discussion that flowed seamlessly into Evensong and when he eventually arrived at St Matthew's he continued those soirees. That probably went no small way to paving the Ministry of Hospitality for which St Matthew's continues to be, dare I say, the toast of many travel-weary across the world.
Gerard had an extraordinary gift for curiosity and exploration and for the unexpected: Harold Macmillan’s brother Arthur for example found himself at afternoon tea with a group of Japanese topless dancers. And Prince Leopold of Loewenstein - after his wife’s funeral in this building - remarked “Never could the Christian message of Life Everlasting which Gerard Irvine chanted in clear, almost triumphant, tones as he walked ahead of the procession along the sunlit path, have rung more true.”
Those tea-soaked discussions often drew famous writers of the time exploring the interplay between great literature, storytelling and faith. TS Eliot was a frequent participant and his words from Little Gidding are inscribed as Gerard’s testament:
“You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.”
CS Lewis; Agatha Christie; Rose Macaulay; Dorothy Sayers; John Betjeman; Iris Murdoch – all took part. And at some point in their writings most introduced a character or an idea based around those soirees.
And it’s the literary side of Gerard’s ministry that I want stay with on this anniversary. Gerard had noticed something significant – the importance of the dialogue between literature and faith. We continue that by having our own Writer-in-Residence, Jonathan Aitken. Jonathan’s books, ranging from the Psalms to William Wilberforce and John Newton, remind us that the great figures of the past were not only themselves motivated by their Christian faith but also have lessons to teach us about ours today.
We still live in a society where the pre-eminent mode of communication is storytelling. Listen to the conversations going on around you on the Tube, in the coffee shop, over the dinner table. Consider that cinema attendance is at an all-time high. Television drama is thriving. And with the advent of Kindle and its progeny there’s even resurgence in the printed word. Admittedly, 50 Shades of Grey is never likely to enter history as a work of literary genius alongside the Brontes, Austen or Shakespeare. But the allure of story is surely undiminished.
So it’s no surprise that literature is enriched (some would say – riddled) with a rich vein of the religious. From the classic stories of Trollope (male and female) and Dickens, through the popular TV comedies of All Gas & Gaiters; Dawn French’s Vicar of Dibley and the contemporary Rev, not to mention profoundly moving films such as Of Gods and Men.
Even the ubiquitous X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent can’t attract viewers solely on an actual performance and must tell the stories of the lives behind the performances.
So in future years we’re planning to keep alive that rich tradition of storytelling between literature and faith by an annual Gerard Irvine Literary Festival. Its shape is still a little indistinct but 2013 might well include a Westminster Mystery Play performed around the Parish; a talk and then question-and-answer session with a well-known writer and a workshop for local residents to pen stories.
Today’s Lectionary passages read rather like a cross between Dante’s Inferno and a graphic novel! We have fire, pestilence, earthquake, famine (and that’s just the Gospel!). We have unprecedented distress and the awakening of the dead who sleep in the dust (Daniel); even the writer of Hebrews has to remind us to persevere in the face of unparalleled discouragement!
I suppose the theme is of Hope in the face of whatever may befall us, however difficult the circumstances, however illogical faith might feel to be. And in the midst of these passages there shines a story, an image – strikingly familiar to Jesus’ listeners: that of the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple.
At the heart of that Temple lay The Holy of Holies, the very dwelling place of God, a place so holy that no-one other than the High Priest might enter it – and only then once a year. It was veiled off from the rest of humanity by a massive curtain. Jesus at his death tore this curtain apart and now takes our hand, each of us, and walks us directly into The Holy of Holies, the presence of God. With clean conscience & pure body. No intermediary. Simply a companion.
But this is no longer a solitary activity; it’s a community one. We are a people in community. That community exists to help support us, to be the symbol of Jesus’ presence. And within that same community we have a ministry of encouragement to one another from which we - and they - can draw strength to overcome.
Interestingly, in those readings we have most of the classic themes of storytelling: ordinary people on a quest during which they must face extraordinary obstacles; just when all seems lost, along comes someone whose actions encourage that ordinary person to an extraordinary effort so that the obstacle is overcome, the goal achieved and the community can celebrate together.
So ultimately I couldn’t resist the challenge to distil the 3 passages into 6 words to take us into the coming week: Hope unswervingly. Meet together. Encourage others.
But I think I’m probably trumped by a line from today’s Post-Communion Prayer: “You give substance to our hope”…
To the One who does indeed give substance to our hope and is able to do infinitely more than we could ever imagine or desire, to Him be glory, power and dominion, now and forever. Amen.