A Kilpeck village conker, Herefordshire 2022
Every season brings bounty that we often take for granted. Indeed, it is all so regular, so predictable, at least within its variation on a theme, and therefore perceived as ‘ordinary’. Regularity and reliability tend to 'normalise' things to the extent that intrinsic beauty can become hidden in plain sight. As a young boy, every autumn was heralded by the arrival of the laden horse-chestnut tree and the fortuitous fall of the treasured fruits. I have very clear memories of the ‘conker season’ over several years in my boyhood. On school days I habitually chose to spend my return bus fare on sweets or a comic and pay the price by walking for about an hour ( at lingering boy’s pace) to reach home. The journey took me from the far eastern edge of the town to the far western edge where I lived. I got to love that walk and I believe it gifted me with a deep sense of place, people and space. The journey took me past the ‘Common’ , an extensive open space that was inhabited by a row of majestic horse chestnut trees. It was our joy and delight to routinely collect the trees’ fallen jewels. We even accelerated nature’s pace by dislodging them with carefully aimed missiles. But one day something different happened, or I should say, my experience of a routine event was different.
I must have collected many hundreds of conkers over the years but as I harvested a particular specimen on that particular late afternoon, enticed by the lovely, bright, shiny, red/brown fruit invitingly peering at me through the slit in the husk, I was halted in my routine deliberations by a sudden piercing, overwhelming realisation. I was the very first person, perhaps even will be the only one, in the whole of the universe, to see, hold and own this treasure of nature. Through the mists of time I can now re-live something of that deep sense of unique privilege, an unfamiliar sensing that was powerful in its suddenness and unexpectedness. My mind and emotions were arrested in a flow of awe. I also think I incubated the question “How on earth could a massive giant of a tree come from such a small thing that I can put in my pocket?”
Now, I am fully aware that I am narrating this event over seventy years later, and can only use the language of an octogenarian with a crowded spectrum of adult experience. I simply cannot speak with the voice of the boy I was. This is always the autobiographer’s problem – narrating NOW about THEN. Incidentally, this was also the Gospel writers’ challenge, in partnership with the Spirit, recording in large part the testimony of others, many years after the events, in concert with their own existential spiritual understanding and experience. This does not invalidate the narrative but it does emphasise the importance of sensing , feeling the deep meaning, inferences and emotional content of a narrative. The words can be different, but the transmitted and internalised SENSE received is what only matters.
I now believe that on that rather dark, misty November afternoon I experienced a rare moment of juvenile TRANSCENDENCE, a very brief moment of stepping outside the sheer intensity of the here-and-now, the world of the ‘ordinary’, into a brief intellectual and emotional space of ‘OTHERNESS’. Wordsworth the poet coined the phrase ‘spots of time’, small moments that on the surface are ostensibly ordinary and trivial, yet invade our person in what can only be called ‘other-worldly’, and which we subsequently carry as persistently recurring memory throughout life. There appears little logic to it, perhaps because these experiences are more emotional than cognitive. Mind you, the moment was transitory. I soon stuffed my pockets with conkers, skewered holes, attached strong string and the next day proceeded to bash the living daylights out of other boys’ specimens! But that brief moment of philosophical, and I believe spiritual, revelation stays with me, even today. It has become for me a living parable. So much so, I confess that even today I hardly ever pass a fallen conker without picking it up and cherishing its beauty!
Now, PROMISE and PRIVILEGE are common, everyday words, but they have strong religious and spiritual connections. My boyish moment of transcendence carried both the PROMISE, by virtue of a mere glimpse of an emergent beauty through a hard, tough prickly shell, and the PRIVILEGE of acquisition and personal ownership of a new treasure. The Old Testament and the New Testament texts are rich in these twin concepts, and often each is embodied in the other:-
“See, I have engraved you in the palms of my hands”. Isaiah 49:16
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11: 28
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” Luke 23:43
In short, Christians are a people that are in large part defined by a sense of Divine promise and privilege. However, this privilege is granted by Grace, open to all, free access to the Divine through Christ and the abiding presence of the Spirit. Because they are graces, not rewards, not earned, not achieved by our own endeavours, not manufactured, they lie firmly within God’s love and purposes. The promise and privilege offered in Christ is always open, never closed, open and free to everyone. It is our response through acceptance of both that brings fruition. But there is a cautionary note here. Promise and privilege demands a special responsibility. It requires us to reflect upon the deep meaning and latent power of both concepts, in how we live, how we relate to one another, Jew, Gentile, religious, non-religious, humanist, atheist, agnostic and everyone else! Access to relationship with the Divine is eternally open, and that is the greatest privilege and promise of all.