“The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” So begins Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem The Grandeur of God, and it is easy to call to mind on a day like today as I’m writing, having just walked through the college grounds, feeling the sun on my face and smelling the blossom and seeing and hearing the signs of spring all around. But Hopkins doesn’t allow us to bask in this glory for very long, soon he reminds us through generations of trampling the earth through toil and for trade we have lost the grandeur of God, worse we have become disconnected from the created order, “the earth is bare now, nor can feet feel being shod.” Elizabeth Browning sounds the same notes of awe and disconnectedness in her poem Auror Leigh: “Earth is crammed with heaven,/ and every common bush afire with God;/ But only we who sees / Takes off his shoes / While all the rest gather blackberries.”
Both poets feature the image of our feet being shod, of us somehow protecting ourselves from nature and thereby losing our connection with it. We are out of touch with the earth, we have left behind the garden for the cities, we flee the desert for the beach, we have our feet well and truly shod.
And yet for those of us who follow the liturgical year, we cannot help but be reminded of the connection, especially in the Eastertide season. “Through him dark death has been destroyed and radiant life is everywhere restored,” is an opening prayer to Evening Prayer in this season. And as we take in the warmer days (sometimes) the more occasional dry days, the lighter mornings and evenings, as we push our winter coats further to the back of the wardrobe we sense the beginnings of life again around us.
It is easy to concentrate all our resurrection joy on Easter Day, to sing the great resurrection hymns, to marvel at the empty tomb. And then we put our shoes back on and go back about our normal business. Yet this season reminds us that Easter is ongoing, it is not limited to one day, it is the reality in which we live the rest of our lives, the reality in which we will live beyond life.
This imagery of our shoes preventing us from connecting to the awesomeness, indeed the holiness, of the world around us is striking. To me, it speaks of protecting ourselves, of not being completely present to the potential of creation, of not being present to our own worth as part of the created order. We are embodied because God has created us that way, not as a mistake, or as some kind of compromise but because that was God’s intention. And God meets us through our own embodiment, through the world around us, through the sacraments, through the sheer physicality and sensuality of the world and the Word, who was made flesh.
And when God does meet us, we need to take off our shoes, we need to be present, not only to the awesomeness of God’s holiness and grace, but being present to ourselves. Rowan Williams wrote, “to be present to myself before the risen Jesus is to be present to God, and to know that the presence signifies mercy, acceptance and hope.”
They are easy words to write, easy words to read, harder words to live. Especially if we have had the opposite experience, if when we have dared to attempt to come into God’s presence we have heard the voices of others telling us that there is no mercy, there is no acceptance of who we are, there is no hope unless we change. And those words can be the shoes that prevent us from seeing the glory of God, that keeps us gingerly and fearfully picking the blackberries on the outside. We can have our feet shod when we feel that the body that has been given to us is worthless, not the right shape, size or guilty of impulses and desires that we have been told are wrong. We keep our shoes on when we cannot, dare not, allow God to see us and speak to us as we really are.
I’ve had quite a few friends who have recently been Confirmed, and in their cards I have written, as a reminder, the words the Bishop speaks to us as they lay their hands on our heads, “God has called you by name.” In this season of resurrection, we need to remember or realise that God has called us by name, and in faith respond to that. Paul Tillich said, “faith is the acceptance of being accepted by God.”
One of my favourite films is Pretty Woman, and I’m old enough to have seen it when it was first released! Apart from almost being able to recite the entire script, and having a deep unfulfilled desire to repeat the scene in the expensive shop, a scene that has always made me smile is when Julia Roberts has forced Richard Gere to take a day off and at some point she takes off his shoes and socks so he can walk barefoot on the grass. She also throws his mobile away as well, but that’s for another time.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” Can we dare to believe that despite the deaths we may have gone through day in day out, that despite of the death of our hopes and dreams, despite the death of being told that we can never love or be loved, that Jesus, the crucified and risen one, stands at our tomb and calls us by name. Can we dare to hear the call and take off our shoes and walk barefoot into his amazing grace?
Lee is an ordinand at The College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, in a Civil Partnership with Charlie (who isn’t an ordinand…) and buys too many books. He is a good friend of Soho Gathering, being one of our first Thursday evening attendees over 18 months ago! You can follow his Anglican exploits via @brileetaylor.