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Amazing grace

1. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

2. 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

3. Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

4. The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

5. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

6. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.

~ John Newton Olney Hymns, 1779

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Thoughts for the Journey

"Standing back from the events and clipping them together, it is impossible not to sense a hand at work here, to get the feeling of a gracious, gentle loving hand moving at its own pace, gently rearranging the pieces on the cosmic chess board, moving in its own time and in its own way, moving on a scale beyond human conception, working to a plan beyond comprehension."

"The angel was in the process, not the moment."

"The devil lies so often in the detail, not because it is intrinsically bad, but because it constrains and prevents us seeing what is in the distance."

"I can now detect a horizon, a separation, Ranginui and Papatuanuku, Sky Father and Earth Mother have separated, and their children have room to move, to breathe."

"An understanding forms. Cognition then Re-cognition. A reminder that duality is the battery which powers the Universe, That Light and dark need each other, as do night and day, male and female, thought and intuition."

Of Glimmerings, Horizons and Understandings

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Each year this most famous of hymns is sung 10 million times or more. Each year at continues to inspire and offer a profound hope. As Johnny Cash would say in 1990: For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.

But how many of us know the back story?

In 1748, after being abused and treated as a slave, 23 year old John Newton was rescued by a sea captain sent to find him and bring him back to England. His previous five years in the Royal Navy had not been happy ones. His rebellious and difficult nature, along with attempts to desert and threats to kill the captain had led to him being flogged and demoted. Eventually the crew of the Pegasus, the slave ship on which he was a common seaman, had had enough and abandoned in West Africa. Then the captain of the Greyhound had found him.

On the way back to England, the ship ran into a serious storm off the coast of Ireland and began to fill with water. It was at that point that Newton had had enough. He gave up, he surrendered and called out to God to save him. Later, in his writings, he would mark this moment as the beginnings of his conversion to evangelical Christianity.

I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind but now I see.

It would be nice to think that the Big Finger reached down from Heaven, there was flash of light and he transformed from sinner into saint. But that is not the way things work. These things take time. And none of us is tasked with more than we can handle. In 1778, 3 years after his conversion, Newton would write:

How industrious is Satan served. I was formerly one of his active undertemptors and had my influence been equal to my wishes I would have carried all the human race with me. A common drunkard or profligate is a petty sinner to what I was.

 It was to be many years before he gave up the sea and the slave trade. But in that storm, tied to the pump, he had made the first step away from the person who had proved difficult, profane and impossible to live with.

 He turned and said: "If this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Over the next 11 hours as he steered the ship, he would reflect upon what he had said.

From then on he sailed a gradual course towards ordination. In the beginning he gave up his notorious talent for profanity. Later he would give up gambling and drinking. Later he married Polly whom he had deserted the HMS Harwich to be with, until eventually he became the curate of the parish of Olney in Buckinghamshire. His was not an overnight conversion, where in a flash of light, everything shifted instantly, where he was instantly changed. It was not until 1754, following a stroke, that he gave up the sea.

 He would then study Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and theology and begin to work as a lay evangelical preacher. His attempts at ordination remained frustrated until 1764 when he was finally ordained and finally got his own parish.

 His preaching would become so popular that an extra gallery was built in the church to hold the extra people who came. Much of his attraction was the way in which he wove in his own life journey rather than pontificating from the pulpit. It was this ability to relate to the everyday which endeared him to his audience.

Amazing Grace comes from forming an association with the writer William Cowper, considered by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be the father of Romantic poetry. Cowper suffered severely from manic depression and a certainty that he was damned. The hymns came from Newton’s desire to produce a new work to accompany his sermons. The force of his personality and his evangelical conviction allowed Cowper some of the peace he so desperately sought. Neither man had come from a pristine, priestly background, yet between them they produced some of the most uplifting hymns of all time.

 Curiously it would be Newton who assisted William Wilberforce’s spiritual conversion, persuaded him to stay on in Parliament, and ultimately led to Wilberforce being instrumental in the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Wilberforce died just 3 days after hearing the Act was certain to pass. Newton’s journey had ultimately been a circular one which had indirectly had led to the abolition of the slave trade where he had begun his own journey.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.

Amazing grace.

Standing back from the events and clipping them together, it is impossible not to sense a hand at work here, to get the feeling of a gracious, gentle loving hand moving at its own pace, gently rearranging the pieces on the cosmic chess board, moving in its own time and in its own way, moving on a scale beyond human conception, working to a plan beyond comprehension. Perhaps this is the joy of history; the ability to step back from our own limited perception and to see things on a (somewhat) bigger scale. Newton’s journey began in the slave trade and ultimately led to the demise nearly a century later of that which had begun his journey. He, of course would never see the fruits of his labour, just as grain of sand cannot see the beach or a chess piece see the whole game.

Newton’s journey was not a flash of light, an instantaneous conversion where one moment he was a sinner, the next a saint in flowing robes surrounded by a radiant aura. No, his was a gradual journey, a shedding of the old and a series of trials which shaped him into the force for good which would allow him to be instrumental in slavery’s abolition.

His understandings came not in a flash of light but a glimmering. The angel was in the process, not the moment. The devil lies so often in the detail, not because it is intrinsically bad, but because it constrains and prevents us seeing what is in the distance. Eventually Newton was able to look up, to stare at the horizon and begin to see a bigger picture. History allows us to see beyond what is beneath our feet, to see one order of magnitude of intention beyond that. And we might ask where we fit into the Big Finger’s intention, in what way our observation and repetition is part of a plan whose conclusion we will never see but in which we are participating, whether we like it or not.

This photograph has fascinated me ever since I made it and I would like to share its conception. It was a rainy morning and the mist was layering the lake and mountains, gently wrapping itself around the undulations and intimations of the landscape. The tree under which we had parked was shaking itself in the wind, capriciously flicking raindrops from its fingertips onto the roof of the vehicle (and us when we finally left its shelter).

 For a time I stood there, looking at the monotonal scene, an unrelieved gradation of closely-packed greys that seemed to offer no way in, which seemed to offer no potential for an image. I was blind, but I wanted to see.

Then a Glimmering. A drifting in from left field, a whisper from the subconscious. This is all about the horizon. Allow. Let go. So I put my camera on the tripod, framed a composition, formatted the card and began to make exposures. As I reach the 80th exposure, a terrible ennui grips me, a tide of restlessness that rises up and threatened to swamp me, but it subsides around the 100th exposure as I shoot through it and I pass on, move off into another time and place, the soul-time realm of Kairos , while only my shutter finger remains, an Achilles-heel metronome which talks to the seconds until I emerge back into Chronos time when the card fills. I have 200 images of exactly the same composition, roughly 10 minutes of exposures a few seconds apart. Not one is the same. A brush of wind on the surface of the lake moves a texture here, a ripple of movement there; the mountainside in the distance shows itself for a few frames than retreats back into obscurity.

Even the horizon shifts between suggestion and statement. Time has passed, the Earth has turned and nothing is the same. Except it is.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

And the glimmering begins to take shape. There really is a horizon. At first it is a Lightness, an unrelieved Monotony. The horizon is invisible. There is no contrast. Then, as I work on it, it changes, it becomes a Darkness. I can now detect a horizon, a separation, Ranginui and Papatuanuku, Sky Father and Earth Mother have separated, and their children have room to move, to breathe. And then, as I contemplate it further, I see a faint light along the edge, a dim perception which forms the horizon. It is Te Po e whai ao, the 11th Darkness, where light begins to find its way in.

A Glimmering.

An understanding forms. Cognition then Re-cognition. A reminder that duality is the battery which powers the Universe, That Light and dark need each other, as do night and day, male and female, thought and intuition. The Tao Te Ching enacted and being constantly enacted.

And that the Big Finger needs sinners as much as saints to do his work.

18 August 2010