Mind the Gap

At the end of the First World War, we are told, Helen Turrell traveled to northern France to put flowers on the grave of her illegitimate son, Michael, one of the fallen. To those travelling with her, she described Michael as her “nephew.”

This is the touching background for a short story by Rudyard Kipling. The story ends:

“A man knelt behind a line of headstones — evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand.

He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: ‘Who are you looking for?’ ‘Lieutenant Michael Turrell — my nephew,’ said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life. The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh sown grass toward the naked black crosses.

‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘and I will show you where your son lies.’ When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.

Subtly, Kipling intimates that Helen made the same mistake as Mary Magdalene as she went to visit the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, Mary said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” (John 20.15). As Kipling’s story ends, Helen’s “mistake” goes uncorrected. But in John’s Gospel, “the gardener” goes on to reveal his identity. Mary rushes back to the other disciples with that most extraordinary news: “I have seen the Lord” (John 20.18).

The evangelist Luke, we heard on Easter morning, tells us that her words “seemed to an idle tale, and they [the men] did not believe them” (Luke 24.11). How could she say such a foolish thing? Had she completely gone off? This was not what was supposed to happen. Storylines are meant to proceed according to a set order and structure. Plotlines should represent habits of thought, and for writers especially, they should follow traditional, time-honored conventions. Mary’s tale was not the established plotline.

What I love most about parish ministry is that it seldom follows such pre-established plotlines.

In a senior philosophy seminar, I was introduced to the thought of Thomas Kuhn. In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he argues that science does not proceed or progress in an orderly, plotted fashion. Kuhn maintains that the assumptions of science are continually open to question and are periodically demolished as accepted theories are overturned. What results is what Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift.” Old models no longer work; new models emerge that make more sense of the world. Kuhn argues that it is our mistakes, our ignorance, which send us in a new direction seeking truth.

When Mary Magdalene realizes that she is standing in the presence of the risen Lord, all her assumptions about what the world was supposed to be like crumble. The story of Mary’s encounter with Jesus offers us is a perfect example of how to lose the plot, how to be blessedly mistaken, and how we can break through the old, hard-won habits of knowing, to confront our need for a new way of thinking, a new way of being.

We share so much with Mary these days. The pandemic has made distance, separation, and loss common and deep stresses on how we experience the world. We still yearn for connection. But what we realize is that it must not be superficial but real connection. Such connection seems all but impossible when we must keep our distance as the pandemic compelled us to do. According to the ancient philosopher Aristotle, we can lose our sense of sight, or hearing, smell, or taste, and still go on living. But if we can’t touch or be touched, he contends, we are less alive. During our long COVID winter, we developed ingenious ways to cope and even deny the negative power of this separation. Tele-communications, social media, ZOOM, and Facetime sought to bridge that separation. Instead, they only showed us how enforced social distance can be an obstacle to a fuller life.

And yet, another philosopher, Simone Weil, offers a parable that may teach us how we can transform how we perceive the world – how to undertake a paradigm shift: There are two prisoners whose cells adjoin. They communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing that separates them but becomes their means of communication.

It is the same with us and God. Every separation we experience can become a link if we view it in a different way. What divides us, the gap between us, can become how we connect to one another … and to God. We think of gaps as dreadful things: gender pay gaps, funding gaps, gaps in knowledge – shortfalls and failings. But a life without gaps wouldn’t be a human life any more than a comb without gaps would be useful to a hairdresser. In fact, as Kuhn understood it, growth in knowledge depends on such gaps. Gaps thereby become life-giving, like our lungs, organs that provide necessary gaps in the middle of ourselves where life breathes in and out. If our lungs did not contain gaps, we could not breath.

So, as we continue to emerge from our COVID inspired separations, I hope that we have learned a new way to look at those gaps. Rather than bemoan how things are not “going according to plan,” I hope that we can see that such disruptions present real opportunities – opportunities to grow, to change, to transform. As Mary learned to see Jesus in a new way, so may we begin to see things anew and remain open to what yet lies ahead.
Source: Rector’s Blog

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