Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Posts tagged ‘heaven’

Places of Inspiration Part 2: The Heavenly City: A View of London

London View

A poster of famous London landmarks (1989 Christopher Rogers)

What is your view of the city? Is it a place you work in, and suffer all the stress of commuting? Or perhaps it’s a place you live in? In my novel Zoe emails her sister with these words: Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds… But those words reflect only one biased view of the city; and this isn’t my own view of London, living, as I now do, 98 miles away from it.

I was  born and brought up in south London (Orpington in the borough of Bromley) and so London was a big part of my life as a child and a teenager. When I returned from university I moved to live in Bayswater, London W2, with my sister, & continued to live there for seven years. After that I moved away. But last year I decided to visit for an extended periods and visit many London attractions I hadn’t been to for a long time. And those two weeks fed my reflections upon why the image of a great city is so powerful for religious and spiritual writers.

Dr Johnson said, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.  And certainly, London, with its rich history, cultural depth and vibrant life, is a source of inspiration to me.

In the Bible, we find the writer to the Hebrews saying this:For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11: 10)

The heavenly city is a city with everlasting foundations.  And a great city feeds us body, mind and spirit. From the BODY – the Tower of London – through the MIND – The Violent Universe show and the discoveries of Einstein at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to the SPIRIT – the Whispering Gallery and Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World at St Paul’s Cathedral, I was inspired, informed, amused, shocked, amazed, touched, and filled with wonder.

Living as I do in Warwickshire, I’m fortunate to have all the treasures of this great city so accessible, via the rail network (not that it’s that difficult to get to London from any major railway station in the UK!)  And in many ways, the life of London is encapsulated by the story of the Thames. As Edmund Spenser said in his poem ‘Prothalamion’,   Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.

 While looking round the exhibition in the Thames Barrier Information Centre at Woolwich, I felt moved by the human imagination, ingenuity and skill which has worked together to tame the power of the river for the protection of a city and its people. One of my own forbears was a Thames Waterman (as evidenced from a 19th century marriage certificate.)  See My Family Background page in my website. My early life was strongly associated with the Thames; the toolmerchant’s business A.D. Skillman & Sons which my grandfather started in 1901 opposite the Woolwich Ferry traded for over 100 years until my brother, who inherited it, finally had to close down in 2002. I remember being sent off to cross the Thames on the ferry to North Woolwich and back again on my own when I was about ten years old, and how much of an adventure it was for me.

 But what of that other river – the river of life flowing through the holy city, Jerusalem – a powerful symbol in the Bible?  We are told by the writer of Revelation that this river rises up from the throne of God and the Lamb and surges crystal-clear down the middle of the city street. On either side of the river grow the trees of life. This holy city is of pure gold transparent as glass, with a wall of diamond, and foundations faced with precious stones; and the 12 gates are 12 pearls. The city has no temple since God and the Lamb are themselves the temple; it does not need the sun or the moon for light as it is lit by the radiant glory of God.

 Why is this biblical image of heaven as a great city so powerful? I suggest it is because, here on earth, all the ingenuity, folly, genius, wickedness, nobility, inspiration, despair, joy and creativity of which we human beings are capable is encapsulated in a great city.  In heaven all will be made perfect. And here on earth, just as the city teems with life, so it will be in that holy city.  And that is why the image of holy city is so appropriate for heaven.

Our Picture of Heaven – Static and Changeless, or Wild and Dynamic?

a sketch of heaven

What is your idea of heaven? If asked to draw an image of it, what would you come up with?  I’ve found that people may often be unwilling to either say exactly what they think heaven is like, or to create their own image of it. And then they seem held back by ideas of “eternal rest” or heaven as static and changeless – something we cannot relate to in this world at all.

Back in December last year, during a Quiet Day at my local retreat house, Offa House in Offchurch, Leamington Spa, we were invited by our leader, Revd. Ruth Tuschling, to “draw a picture of heaven”.  I went into the garden room – my favourite room in this retreat house, which has a tranquil, spiritual atmosphere – to find art materials laid out.  I took up oil pastels and watercolour paper and began to draw sweeping lines, not quite sure what they might reveal.

To me, heaven is not heaven if it is not dynamic and creative and vibrant. I’ve heard it said that heaven is a place where God “holds our lost dreams safe for us”. My dreams involve communicating, entertaining, captivating… a rushing wind would more closely represent them. Notice these are all verbs. They are all about activity, about “doing”. Is there no “doing” in heaven?

In the past I’ve thought of heaven as if it was a celestial version of Switzerland – snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, and alpine meadows bright with flowers. I’ve imagined glorious fragrances – pine, lemon, lavender, and have seen waves of golden gorse and purple heather, and heard the tumbling water of a mountain stream, birdsong, the music of the spheres… Further back, when I was younger, I visualised heaven as a reunion with my dog who had just died, Kimmings (a miniature silver poodle). He would come running to meet me, barking gladly, his tail wagging. But now, what image would I depict? Certainly not angels with harps on clouds. And dare I even make a representation that somehow limited this most inexpressible of subjects?

A Thin Line Between Space and Matter by Tamar Frank (photo by Sophie Mutevelian)

A Thin Line Between Space and Matter by Tamar Frank (photo by Sophie Mutevelian)

So instead, I began a sketch that, to my delight, I later found echoed by an art installation at the “Lost in Lace” exhibition at the Birmingham Art Gallery: “a thin line between space and matter“. I created something that conveyed, however obscurely, how I felt about being in heaven, what kind of experience it might be, in terms of sensation and consciousness. And when my curving lines had caught me up and swept me into the space at the centre, I added  a few words – any quotation at all that I could remembe, about heaven –  because, as a writer, I believe there must be words in heaven too, as words have given me as much joy as images.

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