As we are beginning to venture out a little more, we thought we would pay a visit to Ely, and the vast indoor space of its ancient cathedral. They often have contemporary art there, which helps the old stones continue to sing, giving a new perspective on ancient truths. We knew that Gaia, an installation by Luke Jerram, was going to be there in July, and so we went and saw this beautiful, astonishing sight. The comparative emptiness of the cathedral space made it all the more powerful as it floated above us.
And as the space is vast, and it takes time to walk up to, around and beyond the piece, you do have time and space in which to allow the work to speak to you, to stir up responses, and to pray. I am sure that one of the intentions is to give us all an opportunity to experience something like “earthrise”, when the astronauts first saw the whole of the Earth from space, and how that shifted their perspective, and began to change the way all of us are able to see our home. The staggering, indescribable beauty of the whole called out my sense of awe, which sat uncomfortably alongside my awareness of the damage we are doing to our precious, unique home.
In the setting of the cathedral, as Gaia hangs in the nave under the painted ceiling which tells the long stretch of the Bible’s story, I found the language of repentance surprisingly, and helpfully, came to mind. Repentance both in our more familiar understanding of sorrow for wrongdoing, and desire to amend, and in the possibly more ancient meanings carried in the old texts, of returning home, and of undergoing a profound change of mind – a paradigm shift in the way you see.
Much of my writing celebrates the beauty of the natural world, how lovely, precious, and vulnerable it is. But sometimes, that love spills over into grief. So the old stones, and the old story, seemed illuminated by our current crisis, and, in turn, those ancient words seemed to express something necessary, and powerful, and, in the end, with the potential for hope.
Gaia at Ely Cathedral
She seems to float, lit up with her own light,
slowly turning, blue and blooming with clouds
as we walk up, look up, small before her.
While above our steps,
the familiar painted roof
rolls on, telling its painted story,
from the tree, and the garden,
on towards this
fathomless shining beauty,
the ‘all’ that was so very good
in that beginning.
Now as she turns
we see how she hangs
below the story’s last scenes –
the gift of a beloved child
held on his mother’s lap,
held forward towards us,
loved and given and giving,
and the wounded golden king,
who gives still.
And below, below hangs the whole shining Earth,
dazzling, vast with sea,
turning and flowering with clouds
from the southern ice-shine,
melting although we do not see her weep,
And the land, those small green swathes
and swags, are dressed in white too,
a veil of vapour,
while the deserts spread brown
and red above our eyes.
The lands are small, countries
seem tales we tell.
What is certain is this one great
flow – ocean and ice and cloud –
and the unseen winds that bear them
through our blue, breathing air.
And the people stand beneath her,
lit by ice, and hold up their hands
as if to carry her, or hold her,
or save her from falling.
How beautiful it is.
How strange and wondrous
that we should be creatures
who live within so much living perfection.
And as she turns slowly
under the child and the king,
I wonder, what do those
familiar words mean now,
‘the sins of the world’,
as the stain of our reckless harm
seeps through the blue and green,
through all this living glory,
And is there any hope in our
waking up to beauty with grief
and loss, even as dust and ashes
float across the sky,
across us all, late as we are
in our repenting?
And is there hope,
hope that we might be granted
this grace – time
for amendment of life,
to tend the garden
with its leaves and fruit,
shining and greening,
to take part in the work
of loving and healing,
of making all things new.