A Sacred Lady in a Service Station

Part-way through a long tour of our southern communities, I’ve come to a stop at our Swan Hill campus where a group of students have enrolled in a twelve month course called a Certificate IV in Christian Studies. Tomorrow I’ll be talking with them about what it looks like to communicate faith, hope and love to our society (in fact I could translate that as ‘reminding people that their work is sacred, that they are sacred and in fact that [ultimately] they are not made for this world, that we are all supposed to be helping each other on our way to ‘becoming creatures so magnificent that we might be tempted to fall down and worship, or so awful that we might run away in terror’ as CS Lewis says. But right now I’ve found a cup of tea and settled—with my laptop—into a lounge chair under a ceiling that’s rather too radiant with powerful white lights.

The lounge across from me is draped in a homey-looking patchwork quilt with heavy black stitching holding the pieces together on smooth, grey, fabric-upholstery. A tall blonde in black overalls sits on it reading The Brothers Karamazov,1 and next to her—on another lounge of the same kind but with a less chunky patchwork quilt—a shaggy-haired young man sits reading the book Future Shock 2. The young man wants to know if I’ve read it. I explain that I haven’t but I’ve heard good reports about it. Our conversation moves to another book The Gamble 3 (on the Iraq war) and soon we’re talking about strategy and what it actually means.

While we speak, one of the community leaders, a wiry-looking man with a young boy following him, walks into the room. The son is quite distressed and we realise that the two of them are on an urgent mission to find the boy’s Classic Car, which has gone missing. While we rattle around in the room searching for the car, the father—sharp-witted as ever—announces in a playful tone that this ‘strategy’ talk of mine (as depicted in The Gamble) is never going to make any sense to him, and before I can defend myself he challenges me there-and-then to give him a definition of the strategy of our organisation.

I shoot back that our strategy is ‘Well-trained, well-supported, well-supervised, committed missional communities.’

‘Here’s a piece of strategy gone wrong!’ he says, holding out a snapped D-bolt link from a recent accident with a piece of heavy farming machinery—of which he is the minder and master in this community. ‘Great object lesson for you to use,’ he adds.

‘Perfect,’ I tell him and laugh. ‘Definitely not well-supported.’

‘But amazing commitment,’ he points out.

‘Yep.’

‘And,’ he continues. ‘It’s the committed ones who get broken first.’

‘Cause we think they’re so amazing they don’t need support,’ I add.

The poetry of what just happened makes me think of the gospels. Somehow when you read them you can’t escape the feeling that Jesus—the main character—behaves as if every bit of time, space and matter is impregnated elegantly with meaning and poetry. He expects that everything is alive with this kind of thing: not in a clunky, religious way but in a natural, easy-going kind of way, so that he can—in the same breath—look at a seed and tell us that life is about dying every day and lift up a child and tell us about the greatest thing in the world. In his understanding, everything counts. And when we listen to him we feel that perhaps it’s true after all that we were made for another world. In fact, three days ago I asked an unhappy-looking woman in a service station what she thought about it.

‘If it’s true that our deepest longings will never be fulfilled in this world,’ I said. ‘Is it fair to conclude that we were made for another world?’

‘We must be,’ she said, looking even more unhappy. Then, in a tone that sounded like she was about to cry, she added, ‘There must be hope. Don’t you think?’

Somehow, this ordinary lady working at a job she hated, broke my heart as I walked away and thought about the competing voices in her world telling her that all that stuff about being beloved of God is a crock and the sooner she gets it out of her system the better. An excerpt from Farewell To Arms (quoted by Nancy Pearcey) puts it this way: ‘ “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice,” says a character who clearly represents Hemingway himself. “Only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates … Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates.”4

Such twists and turns in the world of art, in its search to cope with the embarrassment of God, are always being ‘tried out’. Centuries before Naturalist artists (such as Hemingway) tried to undo the influence of the gospels—the world was astonished when the sacredness of ordinary people was brazenly displayed in art galleries. ‘Realism broke with this prevailing tradition,’ Pearcey says, ‘by emphasising the dignity of the ordinary, even humble, people. Where did this new style come from? From the doctrine of the incarnation.’

‘ “It was the story of Christ” that broke down the classical rules of style, writes literary critic Erich Auerbach, through its “mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy.” The world-changing events of the gospel took place among everyday, ordinary people. Jesus welcomed sinners and prostitutes. He invited humble fishermen to be his disciples and ate with tax collectors (despised collaborators with the Roman occupation forces). These characters would never be considered suitable for representation in classical art. But amazingly their lives became the locus of the great climax in God’s plan of salvation. As a result, for the first time in history, it became “possible in literature as well as the visual arts to represent the most everyday phenomena of reality in a serious and significant context.” Moreover, because Christ died the ignominious death of a criminal, Auerbach adds, it became possible to portray, in a sympathetic way “even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base.” ‘

‘Thus Jean Francois Millet, a devout Catholic, became the first to give peasants a Michelangelesque grandeur,” according to art historian Frederick Hartt. “Before his time peasants had been portrayed as stupid or even ridiculous.” They could be used in comedy or even genre painting, but not in serious art. Initially people were shocked by Millet’s paintings because they accorded dignity to humble figures. He broke new ground because of his Christian perspective. As one historian puts it, Millet gave daily life a biblical gravity, painting the human being as “ the lifelike icon of the invisible God.” ‘5

Somehow, I’m feeling more than ever that the extravagant demand of the lady in the service station —that any other hope than the one which speaks of us being made for another, better world—is not worthy of being described as ‘hope’. And thanks to Jesus and artists like Francois Millet, she might one day fully embrace the thought—without being intimidated—that she is a sacred being, one to be cherished in fact: really cherished in the only proper way that honours all those longings for friendship, family, love and grace.

  1. Dostoyevsky F.
  2. Toffler A.
  3. Ricks T.

    4 Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo pp: 156, 157 B&H Publishing 2010 5 Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo pp: 113 – 114 B&H Publishing 2010