This painting, by the artist Howard Hodgkin, is entitled Morning, and was painted in the year before his death in 2017.
You can see all his paintings and other works here – should you so wish,
I can still remember wandering into the Hayward Gallery, almost by chance as I was waiting for a lunch date at the National Theatre nearby, and seeing Hodgkin’s paintings in the flesh. I was transfixed by one painting at the far end of the gallery. It seemed to call to me, invite me, draw me closer. I am not sure now which it was. Not this one below from 2006-8 entitled Hello Again – as the exhibition was ten years earlier but something very similar, as indeed all his pictures are.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the colour and the vibrancy of that picture. Later, after my lunch when I no doubt bored my companion with the exhibition catalogue and my new-found enthusiasm, I came back and spent the whole afternoon swimming in the colours and the shapes.
Now some of you will just look at these (admittedly only) reproductions and say – is that all? I could have done that. In fact my six year old nephew often does! What is he on about? I like a picture to be a picture – of a horse, a woman or a landscape. Not these daubs. Others may say, ‘yes it is colourful. I can see that. But what does it mean? What is he trying to say?’I don’t know the answers to those questions. I have no idea what was in Hodgkin’s mind as he spent two years painting Hello Again. ‘Two years?’ I remember asking an artist friend. ‘What does he do for two years?’ Her answer stays with me. ‘He likes to keep looking, I suppose.’
Last week in my sermon and this blog spot I talked about ‘contemplating’ God in the sacrament; of worshipping Him. Catching a glimpse of the awe-full, absolute good, absolute love which we call God. And that is what happened to me, I suppose, that lunchtime when I saw whichever painting it was, at the far end of that long gallery, and I became transfused with joy.
How to explain what happens?
It is a beautiful day, the sun is shining and the sea is blue; you are warm, relaxed. You stand on the edge of a pool (David Hockney’s might do) or by the sea and in a moment drop straight in. The sensation wraps expectation, exhilaration and bliss together in a mindless moment. I say ‘mindless’ as the experience is not at that second something to be observed and analysed. You could not calculate how long it lasted because you are out of time. You become the splash, the frisson of cold, the light, the water, the tingling energy on your skin. There is no ‘gap’ between ‘you’ and the ‘now’.
Such moments are rare. And it has been the task of the mystics, saints and artists, and lately gurus and meditation teachers like Fr John Main to urge us and inspire us to try and find such times of deep ‘nowness’ (or attentive prayerfulness) in our busy lives.
The whole point of practising how to ‘be in the now’ – which is most certainly rooted in Jesus’ own teaching very directly* – is to separate the time-based organising, analysing machinery of the mind from its other timeless capability for wonder and adoration; amazement at the beauty of God and His creation. But – and here is the hard bit – not to be ‘amazed’ in terms of our rational perception and comprehension of things but with a ‘mindlessness’ which just opens up to wonder for its own sake.
So, to take the ‘jumping in the water’ analogy above, it is not a case of standing by the pool and saying ‘I note that it is a lovely day, the sea is very blue, I will enjoy jumping in the water as this will be refreshing. I am hot, it is cool. This will be amazing.’ But rather of simply jumping in and experiencing that moment of joy and exhilaration in and for itself. Jumping into God with our ‘mindless mind’ is what we call meditation or contemplation; one form of prayer. And it takes practice: for some (like me) more practice than for others.
If we are to practice this sort of prayer – and I really urge you to try, as the rewards are more beautiful ‘than even Solomon in all his glory’ – then first:
You must be on ‘red alert’ to the mind’s habit of dodging either to the past or to the future and so avoiding the present, the now. Nearly always our thoughts switch and slip, as Jesus warned us [Matthew:6], to ‘the morrow’. To what might be. What could be. What we are going to make jolly sure will be
Otherwise our thoughts are reacting (‘if only’; ‘I wish’) to the past: what could have been, what should have been. And these movements to past or present are not emotionally neutral. They are usually filled either with fear or pain or with excited anticipation – and they can take up a great deal of our precious lives and cause immense suffering, or pointless, futile distraction.
But – and this is the point – neither the pleasant nor the unpleasant fantasies are real. This is because (if you think about it) the past has now gone (and was in fact only experienced at that time and in its own specific way in the now of that past moment). Or our thoughts are just fantasies about a future which may or may not come to pass but which we will only – and indeed only can – experience for real when we get there – in the now that is then. Why waste energy on a fantasy if all they do is make you unhappy or delude you with false promises?
So, in order to clear our minds to be mindful of The Lord:
We need to practice the putting aside of these future and past daydreams (nb. we are not talking here of necessary things – planning a journey or organising your diary). We need to put aside these emotionally charged and draining times when we let the mind run on and fantasise about what was or might be and be in the NOW. This being wholly in the present moment is a profound practice of prayer. It’s a deep, spiritual (and sometimes rather difficult) ‘letting go’- and ‘letting God’.
God is eternal. God is timeless and thus out of time. Time is a human framework and God cannot be bound or constrained or even understood wholly within it. But God is eternally present in the here and now, out of time. The great C14th writer Meister Eckhart wrote that,
The aim of man is beyond the temporal [beyond time] — in the serene region of the everlasting Present. [Sermon VII: Outward and Inward Morality]
In other words trying to live totally in the present, the everlasting present, the only moment which exists (the only moment we can know we are in fact experiencing: the now), yes, living in this present moment is living in God. To live totally in the present is to be totally in the ‘here and now’: which is eternal; which is ‘heaven’; which is GOD.
Tell me about the moments you have stepped out of time and into the eternity which is GOD.
*e.g. Matthew 6:25-34 King James Version
25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof