Stone the crows!

A man from my own place, known as a liar, but more accurately a man of imagination, telling his stories in the pub.... “I cocked my gun and brought down nineteen crows with one shot!” 

“Why didn't you make it an even twenty, Jimmy?”

Indignantly, “Would I make a liar of myself for the sake of one crow, would I?” 

He held court, nightly, he was figure of fun, he was King of Imagination.  He was the antithesis of Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times who would not have floral patterns on the carpet, “because flowers do not grow on carpets.” 

I remembered them both as I accompanied a visitor to the Sistine Chapel.  He was a difficult proposition: full of depression and irritability; but his most distinctive attribute was his addiction to maps.  It began to seem that his sole purpose in visiting places was to verify his various maps of the city.  For this very purpose he came armed to the Sistine Chapel with a guidebook.  There above us was spread out Michelangelo’s majestic ceiling, newly cleaned, perfectly lighted; here below, many hundreds of visitors stared up in admiration, but my visitor’s head was bent over his guidebook as he scrutinised photographs that were taken long before the cleaning.  Occasionally he would glance upwards quickly to check that something was according to the book.  I mentioned to him that his book dated from before the cleaning, but this made no difference, he said.  What does make a difference, then, I wondered?  If not colour, nor particularly the theme, then it must be shape.  In his case it would not be Michelangelo’s freedom of line – not that but position, extension, measurement: a mathematician’s interest.  Even in regard to line, I tried to say, the camera always lies, but he was already fully engrossed and not listening.  How strange we are!  We would rather look at photographs even when the reality itself is standing before us. 

Was he checking that everything in the world was in its place?  Was he reassuring himself that the received description of the world was the correct one?  What pleasure could this reassurance have, unless for someone haunted by fear? 

When the book is not a book of photographs but a text, the problem is deeper.  Photographs are of material realities, but the printed word is able to chase you all the way into your hiding places; it can tell you not only what to look at, but what to think and say and feel, and what not to think or say or feel.  And when it is a sacred text, the problem is deeper still.  A cleric became famous for refusing to look into Galileo’s telescope; he thought that if he saw the moons of Jupiter he could no longer believe Aristotle nor the Bible.

When my visitor had satisfied himself with his guide book, we left through the sala clementina of the Vatican Library, discovering an exhibition of 14th-century illuminated missals on the way.  He went eagerly towards them, but instantly lost interest when he found he could not read them.  They could not tell him how things should be, they were not maps, and he had no interest in them as objects in themselves.

What must it be like to see the world without imagination?  Even mathematicians, according to Bertrand Russell, cannot do without it; as much as anyone they have to imagine what is not yet visible.  And they are involved not only with truth, he said, but with “supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture...sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show....”  But my troubled visitor is trying to live in a world far colder, more austere and less beautiful than a mathematician’s; a world the opposite of sublime, a world that keeps him bent over maps and texts and faded photographs. 

As we emerge, a swarm of pigeons sweeps past, having got wind of a food-source at the far side of the piazza.  I am reminded of the man who claimed to have brought down a record number of crows, and of his creative mathematics, his colourful imagination, his playful freedom.  What can account for the difference between him and this tense man beside me?  This fifty-year-old beside me must have known freedom in some period of his childhood, and I must try for a moment to imagine him as a frightened ten-year-old schoolboy with old-fashioned clothes and skinny legs, in terror that he will not remember the names of the rivers of Spain.  Instead of a teacher he may have had an enforcer.  He may have learnt then his drowning man’s grip on guidebooks.  Some such early terror may have entered his soul and helped to shape his feeling about the world to this day. 

We sorely need You.   You have to reach back and lay a fatherly hand on that fretted forehead.  Calm the small pounding heart, the storms of terror.  Set Your people free! 

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.