The best lectures are always those that put into words some sort of gnawing feeling that you yourself have been attempting to capture, and that one can then witness unfolding beyond the lecture room. In short, they are those that are true. Whether because intellectual pomposity and pressure for originality have made truth scarce, or simply because I spend too much time in the safety of the library, and not enough out watching and testing what I read and hear, my experience of the truthfulness of lectures is rare. Nevertheless, I recently had the privilege of being at a lecture given by Graham Ward in Edinburgh at the SST postgraduate conference, and it was true. Unfortunately.
He pointed to the ways in which we have come to collapse time and space into an immediate present, with the result being that everything is accessible to all, regardless of their time, place, skill, purpose or virtue. Everyone has a right to everything (with a fee of course). The name that we have given this is ‘experience.’ However, what it really denotes is that we are nomadic; we wander from experience to experience with nothing but our will to tie them together. In my own words, we are coming less and less to inhabit the spatial and temporal measures of life and liturgy. We are living without rhythm.
Soon after hearing this lecture, I went home for Christmas and quickly found myself mired in two such ‘experiences.’ My husband and I were visiting some relatives and our originals plans were cancelled due to weather, so his relatives took us to something called an Omnimax. It is a theatre like an Imax, except that the screen curves over one’s head and around the sides so that the edges are barely visible. Looking at images of beautiful places, I thought to myself “Why are the most beautiful, majestic places so difficult to get to?” “What would it be like to be that poor fisherman living in such a beautiful place? Does he still think it’s beautiful if he has never seen anything else?” Then I realized, that perhaps that is precisely the point. These places are not supposed to be easily accessible. Beauty is not supposed to be easily accessible. If one wants to see beauty, one must do the necessary work to ready oneself to see it. To turn an image into an experience by making it seem as immediately present as possible is to remove the work so that it no longer matters. The beautiful place is hurled into a vacuum. It no longer determines anything. Space and time are collapsed, allowing one to add a beautiful view as an experience alongside waking, sleeping, eating, arguing, working, laughing. But it does not change or form the way one wakes, sleeps, eats, argues, works or laughs, like it does for the fisherman.
The second ‘experience’ was a visit to an exhibition on Judaism; it’s culture, history, art etc. Now, the whole idea of museums and exhibitions is strange to begin with. We seem to think that it’s normal to remove things from their intended contexts and function, collect them together in one place and display them to satisfy the curiosity of the masses (or in the case of art to actually create things without purpose for the masses). We do it to give the people an experience of having seen things that are rare, beautiful and old, and of course it’s all very nice and we walk away and say “well, wasn’t that interesting…?” But what does it mean? It doesn’t change us at all. It’s all just so easy. All of these beautiful and rare things are simply hurled into a vacuum. They no longer have any liturgical function, so they function instead as something which provides an experience. What is more disconcerting though, is that the chosen place for this exhibition was a Church. Now, when I first thought about it, it seemed very appropriate. The Church is embracing its Jewish history as well as acknowledging the history of its injustice against Jews etc., and that’s no doubt what the curators were thinking. But on the other hand, regardless of content, there is something conceptually peculiar about putting an exhibition; an idol to human experience that collapses space and time, in a sacred space.
Sir John Tavener, an Orthodox composer that I have become particularly fond of, has said that spaces such as galleries and concert halls are spaces that remind us of how fragmented and dislocated we have become, such that artists, understood Christianly, must work within and work to open an alternative sacred space; a temenos.1 What does it mean if the church; that place, which has historically been our temenos, is now becoming the concert hall and the gallery; the place of dislocation in which God’s time and space are no longer honoured, but collapsed?