There is a great little art exhibition at the moment: in the Crows Nest Art Gallery. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so before it ends (on 3 August). The exhibition is by two talented local young artists, one of whom is our own Katherine Appleby. Katherine’s subject for this exhibition centres on fairytales and she has created some wonderful works, not least a powerful piece called ‘Fear’. In this, we see what appears to be a young girl walking into the midst of a dark forest, where wolves and wolf-like heads, eyes and mouths glisten in the darkness. Even the trees are dark and bare, devoid of foliage, symbolising the darkness and threat of fear itself. Isn’t that a powerful picture of how fear can feel to us? Look again though, and perhaps you may see other things. What, for instance, is the really fearful thing in the painting? Is it the dark woods? Is it the closure of the path and of the light? Is it the wolves? Or is it the girl herself? Is she, so central to the picture, actually the true source and figure of fear? Why, for instance, is she walking into the forest, into the darkness away from the light? She stands very self-possessed. So is she afraid of the woods and the wolves? Or are they afraid of her? The painting you see, like any fine work of art, reveals more as we look at it. It asks us not one but many questions, some of them surprising. It is an invitation to mystery, rather than a mere description or proclamation of the straightforward. Indeed, if you look very closely at Katherine’s painting of ‘Fear’ you will see that the girl’s face is also partly an old and partly a young face. As such, it expresses the awesome ambiguity of life, truth and our human condition. Which way of looking, being and living will we choose?
Religion at its best is in many ways akin to art at its best, especially in its capacity to invite us into the awesome ambiguities of life. It is an invitation to mystery, not a mere description or safeguard of the straightforward. It is a means, like great art, by which we can hold our fear and our suffering and not be overwhelmed. It is a path on which we can walk with courage, through the darkness around and within us, through the grace of God, into the light and love of God...
I was fascinated to hear what Katherine had to say about fairytales in launching her recent exhibition. Fairytales, she said, are so much more than we often take them for. There is so much more to them than meets the eye. They are far from being simple children’s stories. Such tales actually began life as stories for adults, not children. Rather like parts of the Bible, historically they were ripe with sex and violence. Indeed, in the original tales passed down through oral tradition, every single character was capable of terrible cruelty. An early version of Red Riding Hood, for example, had the heroine unwittingly eating the flesh and drinking the blood of her grandmother and even performing a strip tease for the wolf. In many ‘peasant versions’, both the grandmother and the child are eaten by the wolf with no one to rescue them. In more recent times, such folk tales became sanitised. Even in the fairytales of the brothers Grimm, some of the more disturbing elements were removed, although Grimms’ tales still retain powerful elements of fear and violence: elements which are missing in most adaptations by the Disney corporation.
Now, hear me clearly, Jesus’ parables are not fairytales, certainly not in the sense of being mere fables. Jesus’ parables are an expression of the reality of God, and the reality of the kingdom, or realm, of God: the reality which Jesus embodied in his earthly life and in which he invites us all to live. Yet Jesus’ teaching is like the great folk tales of the world in the way in which it also invites us into the full reality of life, with all its mixture of fear and trust, despair and hope, death and resurrection, hate and love. The kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading; or like a merchant who sells all he has to buy the one pearl of real value; or like a net thrown into the sea which gathers fish of every kind. Do you see, what Jesus is doing? He is teasing us into seeing, hearing and living things in new ways. Katherine entitled her exhibition ‘Twist of Imagination’ for that is what great folk tales are: twists of the imagination, inviting us into deeper understanding. In a much more profound way, that is what Jesus was doing with his teaching. Parables are twists of the imagination, inviting us into deeper understanding and participation in God.
It is hard, isn’t it, to face up to fear and despair and hate and death? We may sometimes feel like a terrified little child, surrounded by fruitless trees, wolves, and deepening darkness. We may sometimes feel the fear in ourselves which we cannot conquer ourselves and which we project into our world onto others, who themselves are full of similar fear and despair and hate and death. Like the people of Nazareth in Jesus’ day, we may feel unable to move, unable to respond to God’s wonderful, but also scary, invitation to new life. Indeed, we may even at feel at times that the way of Jesus is just a mere fairytale, and not the path, the way, to eternal life. Yet the reality is much deeper. God in Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are called beyond our fear into that eternal Love.
The central figure of Katherine’s painting ‘Fear’ is, as I have said, a figure of ambiguity. Is she the one who is facing fear, or the one who is generating fear? What do you think? Maybe she is something else, though? Maybe she is a bit like Jesus, a Christ figure. Maybe, like Jesus Christ, it is not surprising that she has two natures: that she is both old, prone to ageing and death and all our human conditions, and also young, full of hope and life and all the possibilities of divine encounter. Maybe she is a figure of what we are as disciples, however fearful, or weak, or troubled we might be. In her reflections on folk tales, Katherine observes that it is not until very recently that we we find strong, independent females characters beginning to return to the stories we tell. Can you see that in Katheerine’s painting? We can see the girl as fragile and vulnerable, yes. We can even perhaps see the girl as sharing her own fear and frailty among others too. But can we also see the girl as a figure sharing in salvation, facing the horror and violence of her world head on: the horror and violence without an within? I do, and that is why I love this painting. For it also reminds me of the truth, and the power, of the Gospel: that fear, and suffering, loss, and death, are not the end; that we can walk through the storms of life, for Christ is there with us. The path is not to be feared, for the light is behind us and ahead of us, and with us. All that matters is to seek the hidden treasure, to let go of everything to grasp the pearl of greater price, to trust that we and all whom God loves are caught up in God’s net. Trust then, to the Way, as the great Liverpool anthem has it:
When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on/ With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
In the name of the One who called us to see, to hear, and to live, more deeply: the One who showed us the way, is the Way, and walks with us on the way; the One who takes away all fear and brings us into the very heart of Love itself, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.