They were carved to adorn a papal tomb, but they never quite made it. Today – if I remember rightly – they can be seen in one of the churches or galleries of Florence. Four stone figures – carved by Michelangelo – with one unmistakeable characteristic: they are unfinished. Yes, a good deal of work has been done on them. The figures have shape and form. They possess a vitality, an energy, that is coming through; and – more than that – there is striving, something almost approaching pain, as though the figures are still tearing themselves out of the rough stone. There is the promise – a good deal more than just the promise – of what they might be. But they are still becoming.
There is something about those four figures that seems to me to be particularly pertinent. Pertinent – yes – at the beginning of a new term, of another academic year, but pertinent for all of us at every stage of the journey. Somehow they represent something of the truth of our experience. We are living, learning, questioning, growing. Stone figures bear the marks of the hammer and chisel. We bear the marks of our experience, and we are changed by it. We are – like the stone figures – unfinished, not complete, still becoming.
Those who are familiar with the stories of the Old and the New Testaments will know that there is something here in this understanding of ourselves that is to be found time and again in the pages of scripture. I think, for example, of Abraham, called to go from his country and his kindred and his father’s house to a land that God would show him. I think of the children of Israel, delivered out of slavery in Egypt, and discovering over long years in the desert their identity as a people, their faith, their law, their God. I think of Jesus, travelling with the disciples in the road to Jerusalem, aware – or was he aware? – of all that lay ahead; but still journeying, still travelling, still discovering for himself the meaning of his Passion. I think of the Apostle Paul who, mindful of all that he had counted as loss for the sake of Christ, could still say, “Not that I have already obtained or am already perfect, but ….forgetting what lies behind and striving forward to what lies ahead I press on towards the goal”. That’s it: straining forward, pressing on; living, learning; still journeying, still discovering – discovering that vision and the possibilities that are there within ourselves; changing; growing; unfinished, not complete, still becoming.
Many will say, Yes, of course. How can it be otherwise? But it is not self-evident as we look around that this is how people always see themselves. And even if they recognise in their personal relationships, in their working lives, the need to learn from experience, the need to change, to grow; it does not necessarily follow that this is how they approach religious faith and religious practice. How else do we account for the hard-line fundamentalism that we find in so many places, including at times some parts of the Christian Church? How else do we account for the quiet, untroubled acceptance of pieties and platitudes that are simplistic, nostalgic. How else do we account for the disregard, even the disdain, with which some people – in all other respects fair-minded people – treat religious faith?
What happens to that spirit of openness, of free enquiry, of adventure, that we judge to be appropriate – necessary even – in so many other areas of life? What happens to our critical faculties, to our honesty, to our awareness of mystery, to our sense of wonder, to whatever modest reserves of imagination, of patience, of courage we might possess? Why are these things so often left behind, abandoned, not thought to be relevant when it comes to faith, to prayer, to discipleship?
Perhaps what I am pleading for – and I go back to those stone figures – is a faith which is sufficiently honest, imaginative, self-critical, robust to live with incompleteness: the questions that we cannot answer; the ambiguities that life presents; the contradictions of our experience; the absence – certainly the perceived absence – of God. There is that marvellous sentence in Doris Lessing’s book The Golden Note-Book, in which she reflects that life is crude, unfinished, raw tentative. But then she insists that the “raw unfinished quality in my life was precisely what was valuable in it”. And what is true for life must be true for faith.
Of course, the rock on which we stand as we approach all these things is what we have seen of the truth and the grace and the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Some will say that for them faith is too tentative, too elusive; but I can only rely that I don’t know any other kind. And that’s why I go back to Michelangelo’s stone figure. They have shape and form. They possess a vitality, an energy, that is coming through; and – more than that – there is striving, something almost approaching pain, as though the figures are still tearing themselves out of the rough stone. There is promise – a good deal more than just the promise – of what they might be. But they are unfinished, not complete, still becoming. And there – in those words – I find the only approach to the Christian life that makes any sense to me: not just at the beginning of a new term, a new year, but at every stage of the journey.
Stone figures, I said earlier on, bear the marks of the hammer and the chisel. We bear the marks of our experience. And that is where God’s meaning is to be found: where we are now in the world. It is in the world that we find God. It is in the centre of life that we find the meaning of faith. And that is why we can say, “It is in the grit of earth that we find the glory of heaven”. Yes, our time is the present. Our place is the world as it is. Our first resource is the gospel. Our basic stance is of one faith seeking understanding.
Of course, we have no authority to speak about God unless it is with the mind and in the spirit of Jesus Christ. And, as we journey, dare we ask that we might claim for ourselves something of his integrity, something of the quality of his obedience, changing and being changed into his likeness, so that finally we might say, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”.
Very Rev’d Dr. John Moses, Dean Emeritus of St Paul’s Cathedral
8th October 2006