Guildford Cathedral Lent Talks - Faith through Art: Storm
This talk given as part of a series on Thursday 1st March
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The storm is a great metaphorical image. The storm represents a variety of things: amongst other things tumultuous times in our lives; the desire for serenity and peace when there is none; it represents our hope that we will come through the other side intact and not be dashed against the rocks. For Christians as much as anyone the storm is a real threat: we know that the death of a loved one; a dreadful medical diagnosis; unforeseen financial loss; or loss of mental faculties all create storm conditions in our lives. Metaphorically Churchill spoke of the Gathering Storm, the Americans unleashed Operation Desert Storm upon Iraq.
So what might we say of the storm? The psalmist is pretty emphatic:
1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, 3 though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam (Psalm 46.1-3)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…
|‘Northeaster’ (1895) Winslow Homer|
Winslow Homer’s 1895 painting called ‘Northeaster’, named after the prevailing winds on the coast of Maine on the eastern seaboard of the United States, which hangs in the Met in New York, luminously captures the relentless pounding of the waves: the waves of the storm brewing and swelling out in the deeps before racing into towards the coast; waves that break over rocks, smashing into them; and then, in those moments between the waves, the foamy backwash that hints at the outbreak of tranquillity, a sense which is quickly superseded by the next wave breaking.
The power of the storm cannot be diminished literally or metaphorically. The surging primeval image of the storm is far from a tranquil one, and yet this tranquillity is what I want to reflect on this evening. This is not to deny the nature of the storm, but rather to suggest that even in the destructive force of a storm is redemptive power, and that we see this in the Stilling of the Storm, attested to in Matthew (8.23-27), Mark (4.35-41) and Luke’s (8.22-25) gospels.
Just as the storm can be used allegorically, so can the boat. The church has often represented as a boat. The emblem of the World Council of Churches is a boat. The Roman Catholic Church is sometimes known as the Barque (b-a-r-q-u-e) of Peter. This can be an allegory of the embattled church fending off the storms of the secular world, or it can be a more positive image of Peter putting out into the deep, as Jesus says, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your net for a catch’ (Luke 5.4). This is a missional image of the church sailing into the world, vulnerable and yet with something most precious to offer, an ark of hospitality that the nations may enter two by two, and a sign to the peoples of the redemptive power of God that following the destruction of a flood a rainbow signals hope and new promise.
This evening’s reflection takes us into some storms and then to the tranquillity that Jesus Christ brings after the storm and even in the midst of it, embodied in the Sleeping Christ.
|Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842) JMW Turner|
First let us think more about storms. In art, few people ‘do’ storms better than J.M.W. Turner. Painted in 1842, this painting has two titles. One is the rather topical Snow Storm. The fuller title is Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth.
This painting captures powerfully the disorientating swirl of the storm. Turner is showing us how nature overwhelms even the most cutting edge technology of its day, in this case a steam boat. Nothing is immune from the damage of the storm. We see it regularly now in footage of tropical storms and cyclones, and on the mainline at Dawlish station a couple of years ago.
Those storms most often affect the poor. But the rich are not immune to them either. Storms are inclusive and non-discriminatory! They afflict any people, properties or communities in their path.
We cannot tame the raging of the sea, but we can now perhaps harness it. And this brings a good ecological lesson to us as a species. We are not against nature, but as part of God’s creation, we are caught up in it, albeit we are given insights to make use of it such that it can help us. We need to grow in wisdom too, so as not to confuse harnessing the power of nature with seeking to make it our servant or thinking that we are invulnerable and unassailable.
It is famously said that Turner conceived this image while lashed to the mast of a ship during an actual storm at sea. According to the notes at the Tate Gallery this seems to be nothing more than fiction, but the story has endured as a way of demonstrating Turner’s full-blooded engagement with the world around him. The story conveys the reality that it is only the one placed at the centre of the storm can gauge its full inner impact. It reminds us too that storms make us vulnerable.
Watching the storm from the harbour is not the same as being caught in the storm. I find that looking at Turner’s storm - such is the swirling, racing, blurred vision - that I am not sure if the viewer is safely on land watching the steam boat seek the haven of the harbour, or is out at sea looking back at the steamboat approaching the harbour. In which case is the view from the lifeboat, or even the debris in the water? How often do we look at the storm in another person’s life as if we could not be touched by it? The answer is that we don’t want to be, because storms frighten us.
Irrespective of one’s perspective storms are destructive. The storm begs grave questions of our own sense of our circumstances and our ability to control them. The Tate notes describe what Turner was trying to do in this picture, ‘Turner painted many pictures exploring the effects of an elemental vortex. Here, there is a steam-boat at the heart of the vortex. In this context the vessel can be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s futile efforts to combat the forces of nature’.
|Stilling of the Storm on Galilee (1633) |
Rembrandt likewise can ‘do a storm’ if this painting of the Stilling of the Storm on Galilee of 1633 is anything to go by. Here we see the column of water rising up tossing the boat on the Sea of Galilee in the air, almost exalting or elevating it. It looks like a Tornadic waterspout which, I can assure you, is the phenomenon of a tornado over the sea which sucks up a great pillar of water into the air. It also evokes the Red Sea being torn apart, with banks of water either side, so that the Israelites can make their way through the sea on foot.
The lack of control that these experienced sailors have is terrifying. Ropes are flying off. The bow is being beaten by a colossal wave. Hands are grabbing at the torn, loose sails: if they go in the water the boat is doomed to capsize and go down. The sailors are holding on for dear life. The figure in yellow on the left is even trying to assuage the storm, holding on with one hand and raising a hand in vain in a desperate attempt to stop the wave striking or to placate the storm.
|Detail - Stilling of the Storm on Galilee (1633) Rembrandt|
Look at the bow, which interestingly is where Rembrandt puts the light, and hear these words from Psalm 107:
23 They that go down to the sea in ships : and occupy their business in great waters;
24 These men see the works of the Lord : and his wonders in the deep.
25 For at his word the stormy wind ariseth : which lifteth up the waves thereof.
26 They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep : their soul melteth away because of the trouble.
27 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man : and are at their wits' end.
The light is at the bow. Yet there is something going on in the shadows and deeper colours of the stern. Here the figures are gathered around Jesus who is now awake. Gone are the anguished, desperate faces of the bow, but rather there are calm, almost smiling figures. Granted there is one poor character suffering from seasickness, but the rest are taking on the assurance that they are saved. It is as if Psalm 107 is narrating this scene:
28 So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble : he delivereth them out of their distress.
29 For he maketh the storm to cease : so that the waves thereof are still.
Jesus is wakened and will rebuke the storm making it ‘to cease’, and ‘the waves thereof are still’. It is the oldest figure who retains some kind of serenity, other than Jesus himself. He is holding the rudder; he has been in storms before and has the wisdom to know that they pass. But is he looking wistfully too, having seen former shipmates go overboard, drown and be washed away?
One mariner, in blue, on the port side, with one hand on a rope, is running his hand through his hair gazing beyond to what we can only assume is the safety of the calm waters and the Fair Havens.
Psalm 107 again:
30 Then are they glad, because they are at rest : and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.
31 O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness : and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men!
32 That they would exalt him also in the congregation of the people : and praise him in the seat of the elders! Psalm 107.23-32
Jesus Christ has been awakened from sleep and is rebuking the storm. As St Mark puts it, He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! be still”. Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.’ (Mark 4.39).
Is this the still small voice, the silence after ‘the earthquake, wind and fire’? Is God in this voice?
The figure who intrigues me most is the one who is barely visible, although he has been spotted! He has gone into the hold. In this Rembrandt is echoing Jonah’s behaviour on the boat he was on that was caught in a storm as he fled to Tarshish.
4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (Jonah 1.4-6)
Jonah hid from the storm and wouldn’t face it. He turned in on himself and the storm, allegorically, is of his own making.
In Moby Dick the local pastor, Father Mapple, preaches on the scourge of the whale and takes Jonah as his text. He judges Jonah’s flight and behaviour in the storm very harshly. Mapple sees Jonah as ‘most contemptible and worthy of all scorn’.Mapple then describes the chaotic scene on the boat and says ‘every plank thunders with trampling feet right over Jonah’s head; in all this tumult, Jonah sleeps his hideous sleep’. Mapple’s judgment is harsh. Jonah is acting as everyman; you and me. What what we do see in the Jonah story is that the storm will catch up with us at some point.
11 Then they said to Jonah, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quieten down for us?’ For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’ 13Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. 14Then they cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.’ 15So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. 16Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
The tranquillity that Jonah seeks is transitory. He cannot escape the storm. This takes us to the storm on the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospels Jesus isn’t described as being in the hold but he is asleep. As Mark reports:
‘But Jesus was asleep in the stern asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm’. (Mark 4.38-39)
This is what we seek in the storm, and this is perhaps the most difficult and challenging aspect. Storms don’t just cease in our experience. They didn’t just stop for the experienced fishermen on the boat with Jesus. Rather than deploy their skill and experience they turn to Jesus to awaken him to their plight.
This was an urgent plea: don’t you care? Why are you asleep. I often speculate that they woke him up using the words of the Coverdale psalms from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Up Lord, why sleepest thou? Awake and be not absent from us for ever’. (Psalm 44.23)
|Icon : The Stilling of the Storm|
This icon conveys both storm and tranquillity. It lacks the realism of Rembrandt, or the fog and confusion of Turner, but it’s trying to tell us something different. It shows the divine power of Jesus Christ the Word made Flesh, one with the Father, the Creator. He has it in his power to awaken and rebuke the storm. So we see Christ in two places in the icon, asleep and rebuking the storm. He stands and rebukes the storm, represented, or personified in the figure on the shore blowing the wind through a pipe. We know the gospel scene and the icon invites us to ponder its different aspects. On the left we see Jesus asleep in the stern.
The question posed is why Jesus was asleep in the storm. Is this the most hopeless sign of the human predicament hinted at by Turner, that we are caught up in the vortex of the storm with no agency or possibility of redemption?
The response to that is best put, I think, by Ben Quash, Professor of Theology and Art at King’s College, London, when he suggests that '[Jesus'] sleep is not an expression of casualness; it is an expression of peace. He rouses from the serenity of sleep and then restores a calm evocative of the Sabbath rest’.
It is that peace that we seek in the midst of the storms and that we awaken as we call upon Jesus in prayer.
I weave a silence on to my lips
I weave a silence into my mind
I weave a silence within my heart
I close my ears to distractions
I close my eyes to attractions
I close my heart to temptations
Calm me as You stilled the storm
Still me, keep me from harm
Let all the tumult within me cease
Enfold me, Beloved, in your peace.
David Adam, Edge of Glory