All the World’s a Stage
If supermarkets had been established in the sixteenth century I might have hazarded a guess that the image of mankind moving as actors through seven developmental stages as described in that oft quoted speech in “As you like it” came to William Shakespeare as he sat in Sainsburys waiting for Ann Hathaway to complete the weekly shop. As the twentieth century was well advanced before large serve-yourself grocery shops appeared, the poetic inspiration must have been sparked off elsewhere.
As I think I have mentioned before, I act as chauffeur, packer and porter on our weekly household shopping trips. Whilst the actual process of selecting goods from the shelves and ticking off the list is taking place I am sent to the café out of the way. After a bowl of soup and a bread roll, only varied occasionally by a cup of tea and a toasted teacake, depending on the mood, for I am a creature of fixed habits, I wait patiently on a chair opposite the tills until my services are required once more.
Thus it was, a week or two ago that the lines of Shakespeare came into my head. On a busy Saturday you may see a pretty fair sample of the population of the land, milling in the aisles between the shelves and the freezers. They are all there, from the mewling and puking infant to the old man with his clothing “a world too wide for his shrunk shank”. All stages from numbers one to seven are represented. The elderly, rather bemused grandmother is being patiently guided round the shop by her dominant daughter, whilst her partner tries to appease the whining schoolboy who is insisting that a packet of sugary cereal flakes should be in the shopping trolley, complete with its free gift of a dinosaur. I mused that in next to no time the mewling infant would have reached stage six, struggling to walk, supported by two walking sticks, whilst trying to remember what she came for, and the whining schoolboy would be sitting on the chair in my place, reading the paper and racking his brain to think of a word with four letters beginning with “x” to fill the remaining empty squares in 8 down.
“How do you set about writing a sermon?” one is sometimes asked. I suppose a traditional answer would be, you choose a biblical text and then use it as a framework building a structure based on analysis, developing an idea or ideas, comparing ancient history with contemporary events, finally extracting a moral message.
By this test I fail miserably as a sermoniser. My biblical knowledge is too shallow, my ability to develop an argument suspect, I all too readily allow myself to meander down side roads instead of sticking to the main highway, drifting with the stream instead of driving resolutely ahead. Oh yes, and I am prone to mix my metaphors, losing the thread whilst chasing after wayward thoughts.
So my rambling remarks this morning owe their genesis, not to a quotation from the Old or the New Testament, but from a routine shopping trip to Sainsburys a day or two after Easter.
A common theme of our worship is the wonder of the world around us. Many of our hymns are of the beauty of the world in which we live. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small”, we carol. The mysteries in the skies above, the secrets of the atom, the teeming life of the pond or the compost heap, help paint the images in our prayers, and are the subject of our readings.
Creation is awe-inspiring, and we feel deeply reverential as we observe it. As we leave the chapel this morning, spread around us, above us and below us are subjects for countless sermons and orders of service. In rural areas and open countryside, springtime and harvest, leafless winter and summer blooms lead to thoughts of God. Death and resurrection in field and woodland engender thoughts of immortality. Looking at the sky above us, that unbounded space through which the stars and planets speed is an invitation to reflect upon eternity.
But one of the most intriguing of mysteries is that of life itself. A young lady pushed her trolley past me. Perched on the top, above the plastic carriers and the pack of disposable nappies, in a special basket that shops thoughtfully attach to their shopping trolleys for the purpose, was a sleeping child, at most three weeks old, maybe less, certainly not more. The tiny newborn was utterly dependent up its mother, unable to stand or sit, talk or communicate other than with a cry, relying on others for food, warmth and protection. Within the year, I mused, that babe will walk, speak a word or two and start the journey to independence.
I remembered that baby as I sat on the platform in a secondary school a few days ago as sixteen-year-old young adults were presented with certificates their learning had earned. The journey made by the newly born child to independent adolescent, and on to be a craftsman, a nuclear scientist, a teacher, a skilled worker, a shop assistant, an artist, a writer, a poet, a parent, a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, a beggar man or a thief, is staggering, and as awesome as any of the mysteries in the universe.
Of course human beings are not unique in moving from birth to death in a cycle of life. All living things, whether plant or animal have a birth, then a period of maturity, followed by decline and death. All animals reproduce, the offspring grow, developing strength and mobility, enjoy life as mature adults for a time before aging and dying. But uniquely, humans also develop the power of thought, of imagination, an ability to interpret, to foresee, to recall, to use tools and invent machines, to record experiences that will inform the unborn, to translate emotions into works of art, and to do much more besides, because they grow not only in body but in intellectual powers.
It is observing this intellectual growth that hits the senses like a thunderbolt. The breathless miracle of it all leaves one bereft of words to describe the wonder. At least it does me, and, I suspect, I am not alone.
The letters DNA are commonly referred to in news reports today, often in respect of a criminal investigation, or describing a search for cures for medical conditions. Each of us carries a unique code, our DNA, which determines our physical characteristics. I don’t pretend to understand the science of it, except knowing that it is the basis of life. This code, written in the cells of our body, is infinitesimally minute, and fiendishly complicated. So much I do know. What humbles me is that a tiny, helpless child, as the one on the shopping trolley, grew in the space of a few years to be a scientist with a mind able to discover, unravel and understand the basis of life itself. Some may describe the growth of intelligent thought as a mechanical process, for me it is one of the great mysteries of life.
And there are what one might think of as more mundane processes in the developing mind, but are in truth far from ordinary. The newborn child will shortly gain a vocabulary, be able to construct sentences, select the appropriate word according to the circumstances. Even very young children will recognise the subtleness of tone that reveals whether the words comprise a statement or a question, a command or a plea, a reprimand or a word of praise, a joke or a warning. Little time passes before the inarticulate infant grasps the absurdity or contradiction that is the essence of most verbal humour, and laugh out loud as the words are spoken. The world over, folk spontaneously dance with joy, sing in exultation. But the mind that choreographs and composes music and song is a phenomenon that fills me with awe.
Further, unlike flesh and bones, the mind continues to grow when the rest of the body has reached maturity. An eminent Victorian, Sir John Lubbock, wrote,
“Few of us make the most of our minds. The body ceases to grow in a few years; but the mind, if we will let it, may grow almost as long as life lasts”. Others will disagree, but the crowning glory of creation for me is the human mind, a mind that programmes us to laugh or cry, to reminisce and to dream of the future, to appreciate and to worship.
We have an intelligence that empowers us to share the suffering of friends as well as feel our own pain, which is the base on which compassion is built. Sometimes that mind turns itself to rather mundane tasks like composing an advertising jingle or building a supermarket.
Alternatively other minds may produce a Shakespearian Folio of plays, or design St. Paul’s Cathedral. There is no end to the scope of the mind of mankind; there are no bounds to its magnificence.
A voice brought me back to earth. “Aren’t you going to help me pack these boxes?” it chided. So the train of thought was broken, the shopping was finished, the boxes packed and taken to the car.
In the car park the tiny scrap of life had woken up and was making what any mother will recognise as a hungry cry. The carrycot was placed in the car. The car drove off, the mother anxious to satisfy her infant’s need for food. We drove home to unpack our stores.
Before her mother knows it, that helpless babe will be driving her own car, picking up that mother, a little older now, to take her to the shop, and then, after taking her back home, prepare a meal whilst mother dozes in front of the television. It doesn’t take long to count from one to seven.
So that’s it. The greatest mysteries are found in the everyday rather than in the unusual. Residing between the ears is the greatest glory in a universe of wonder.
I told you at the beginning I was no genius when it comes to writing sermons. I couldn’t think of a moral message to deliver. If I am asked again, I promise to try harder next time.
C.J. Rosling 24th May 2007
Hucklow 27th May 2007