The ‘Hiddeness’ of Landscapes
View on the path from Lynton to the Valley of Rocks (North Devon)
Photograph by the author
It is an inescapable fact that our eyes cannot allow us to focus on close and distant views at the same time. We have to make a choice and sacrifice one for the other. Landscape images result from choosing the big picture at the expense of close-up focus. In this sense landscapes hide as well as reveal. As beautiful as the above view is, it effectively ‘hides ‘ so much; - the small mammals, reptiles, insects, birds, flowers, stones, rocks and a host of other things . We cannot even be sure that a resident mountain goat or walker is not lurking behind the gorse bushes in the foreground! Every landscape has a deep structure. Artists know this well when they choose the perspective and focus they wish to explore. I can only imagine the painter Paul Nash wanted to illustrate the apparent ‘hiddenness’ inherent in a landscape when he produced an unusual painting of a downland landscape with white cliffs in the far distance. Surreally, the foreground is incongruously dominated by two seemingly detached and ‘out-of-place’ objects – a large, loose stump of a tree and a tennis ball, both of which could feasibly be hidden somewhere in the landscape? I suspect Nash is reminding us that there are many things ‘lost’ in a panoramic perspective. We simply cannot see into the deep structure by taking a distant view. Incidentally, the novelist is perhaps in a more advantageous position, as she/he cunningly works to shape the fine detail of individual characters, whilst also weaving them into the all-encompassing ‘big picture’ of the story. A literary masterpiece achieves both.
This idea of the ‘macro’ perspective necessarily obscuring the ‘micro ‘ view seems to be fundamental to our perception of the world that we encounter through our senses and thinking. We need both perspectives in order to maximise the validity of our understanding and judgment. It is well known that some people are especially good at focusing on fine detail , whilst others are particularly gifted at seeing the ‘big picture’. A healthy organisational team will include both.
And I think this can relate to our personal spiritual formation, our growing as we make our journey with God. We need to focus on separate occasions at both the near and the distant, the close detail and the sweep of the big picture. And the Christian faith does have an enormous panoramic sweep , from the first century through to today, from early small bands of believers meeting in modest homes to our great institutional denominations with a vast array of dedicated worship buildings. And the accompanying theology and spirituality also has an expansive sweep, from evangelical to catholic, from Biblical literalism to metaphorical interpretations, from fundamentalism to liberalism, from heavily formalised and traditional worship to charismatic exuberance, from Protestant to Roman Catholic and Orthodox, from tiny chapel congregations to vast cathedral gatherings. The spiritual landscape available to us is truly extraordinarily expansive. It is by any measures a massively ‘big picture’. However, there are pertinent questions that need to be asked. Is it possible that this vast panorama of religious landscape can actually ‘hide’ the most crucial elements ? In other words, can the ‘fundamental particles’ of the Faith be unwittingly obscured by the sheer scale of this religious panorama? Conversely, we might also ask whether the particular niche in this landscape that we individually inhabit obscures the richness of other locations.
Jesus of Nazareth told a very short story that might be relevant to these questions. A man accidently stumbled upon buried treasure. Being very honest he knew that he could not own the treasure unless he also owned the field in which it was found. Such was his desire for the valuables that he hid them again and then did a remarkable thing. He sold all that he possessed in order to purchase the field ang gain ownership of the treasure. Perhaps Jesus had in mind the ancient practice of burying valuables for safe keeping in dangerous times, with the express intention of retrieving them in later safer times. Perhaps he had in mind treasures that had been hidden in the landscape many decades ago , abandoned and unclaimed. Only later discovery could reveal such bounty. Indeed, ‘spiritual formation’ - the gaining of new insights into the Gospel of Christ, the Church and discipleship – depends upon both our Intention and divine revelation through discovery. But in order to discover we need to actually walk the landscape and be open to the nearness of the Spirit’s enlightenment. Walking the landscape is always walking with Jesus, the Christ. Christ is the deep structure.
So, perhaps this Advent we could intentionally expose ourselves to new ways of meditating on the Word, trying different ways of praying, learn about the hidden riches in different approaches such as Celtic, Charismatic, Evangelical, or Orthodox spirituality, visit a church of a different tradition, embrace the discipline of reading a challenging book, join a Lent group, or reflect more deeply on the advent and birth narratives . The possibilities are very personal and various. It is worth reminding ourselves that EXPECTANCY is a golden thread running through the New Testament Birth Narratives, and the challenge before us is to truly expect personal enlightenment this Advent season. It is a journey that we can make in companionship with the cast of the biblical narrative, and also with one another.
This Advent Season, may the Spirit widen the scope of my searching.
May I discover anew the ‘deep structure’ in the Christmas story.
May I enter into a focused understanding of Christ as Lord, the eternal treasure that lies at the deep centre of all faith, and indeed, all things.
NOTE : Paul Nash’s painting “Event on The Downs” (1934) is not
Illustrated as there would be possible copyright issues.
However, appropriate web searching should enable viewing.