This is the first of four meditative and artistic journeys, written and created by Petra Shakeshaft. We invite you to settle in, and see where she takes you on this beautiful journey of Hope in Advent. We return to Petra’s journey as we move through the weeks. You can download her original pdf at the end of the post.
Hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8. 24
Hope by George Frederick Watts 1886 Tate Britain
When I was about nine my mother inherited a book of Victorian prints from her grandmother. She invited me to choose one for my bedroom. This image hung above my bed for the next eleven years. My mother couldn’t understand this choice But I found, even then, something profoundly, painfully beautiful about it I couldn’t explain. It moved something deep inside me; something more than simply a response to visual beauty.
Hope is personified as a young woman, seated precariously on a globe, her eyes bandaged, clinging to a battered lyre. Her head bent down, she listens intently for the possibility of the music she might extract from a single remaining string. This intense isolation; this desolation, the precariousness of her position, speaks of the fragility of Hope.
There is an audacity to this Hope; what does this wretched creature see or hear or know that gives rise to Hope? Is there a glimmer of light shining in the darkness that cannot be overcome? Is it that same glimmer that keeps us going in the midst of despair, that kept Moses and the people of Israel going through the wilderness, or when they were exiled in Babylon, or Job on his pile of ashes?
At the top of the painting there is a tiny pinprick of light; a tiny vestige of Hope. It’s easy to miss. In life it’s easy to miss; easy to look in the wrong places, try to conjure it up in music of our own making. Here it is almost as though the darkness has swallowed it up, consumed it, has begun to overcome it … and yet, there it is, coming from somewhere beyond, shining on the misery and tragedy of the world. If we dare to look up, to tear ourselves away from the music we are trying to make with our own battered instruments, pull away our blindfolds, we can see Hope, and hear the soaring note ringing through the universe on the string plucked by God’s own hand.
Threshold R S Thomas
I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on
this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,
what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
How long, O God, how long? It’s the question on so many lips.
We wait for a day in some distant future when a vaccine might set us free again. Two thousand years ago in Palestine, the people waited in the darkness of occupation and corruption in a world that, in many ways has not changed. Human nature, it seems, does not. People still hunger. People still thirst for justice. There are wars and rumours of wars.
Again, Autumn leaves in various stages of decay provide a backdrop of shadows of themselves and a focus on the physical world. The Covid virus floats above, part of the corruption and darkness we find ourselves in as we approach this period of Advent. Where is the Hope?We live in the world. We cannot avoid the darkness and corruption, it is all around, but we do not have to be defined by it. By going into the darkest places with compassion, with service, with love, we find ourselves in the very same places Jesus went, and there we find him still, bringing Hope to our Advent waiting. It’s there in the many small acts of kindness and selflessness: waiting with the sick and dying, washing small hands or full grown frail bodies. It’s there driving up and down the country, bringing vital goods and medicines. It’s in the phone call, in the hand that waves – that wants so much to touch and hold. It’s in the hands that dare to plunge into life’s messiness and draw out the golden thread of Hope and hold on.
In the print, if you look carefully, you will see the golden thread. It links a dead leaf to a single seed.
As the print is moved light is reflected up and down the thread. And maybe, like the last remaining string on Hope’s lyre, we can hear it’s note ringing out through the universe, plucked by God’s own hand; the Advent of Hope.
REFLECTIONS * How do you respond to Watt's painting of Hope? Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10.23 * What gives you hope? * What are your prayers during this time of uncertainty? * Put some earth, decaying leaves, seeds and things you can find in the garden or out walking into a small bowl. Put a nightlight or small votive candle in the middle - if you have some gold thread, you might like to put some threads coming from the earth, or you could use a little foil to reflect the light. Use this as a focus for prayer this week. * Or, get some strands of different coloured wools, or embroidery threads, each colour to represent a different aspect of prayer; for example blue for lament, red for praise ... put a gold thread among them and divide into three and plait. Notice how the gold surfaces and disappears.
God of Hope,
we come to you in the darkness
and uncertainty of our lives;
transform our doubt
heal our brokenness
strengthen our weakness
for you are faithful
and our hope rests in you.