‘Faith begins with questions’, says the poet Thomas Lynch. Lynch is an undertaker, and his writing is deeply informed by the insights gained in a lifetime of service to people in the grip of bereavement. The Church Times interviewer Jo Browning Wroe recently wrote, ‘As a poet, Lynch relishes paradox and mystery. Too much certainty about matters of faith seems to him almost sacrilegious. As a funeral director, he knows more than most about the mortal flesh-and-bloodness of humanity, and also that, when confronted with the limits of our physical existence, we inevitably ponder the nature of our souls. Curiosity and doubt are ingredients, not enemies, of faith.’
As Thomas Lynch puts it, ‘In my imagination, all the religious impulse of the species began with questions, and questions notably around the corpse. I think of the first Neanderthal widow wakening to the dead lump of a guy next to her, who's been a serviceable mate for 20 or 30 years. Suddenly, she wakes up and finds him still in a way she's never found before; she knows after a while she's got to get rid of the corpse, because he begins to rot.
‘So, she begins looking for some oblivion - a ditch or a cliff or a pond or a fire - some way to get rid of him. And I think it is looking into that oblivion, whatever it was - the grave, the tomb, the fire, the sea, the scavenger birds, the breeze. Looking into that is when she asked herself the signature human questions, and this is, to me, incipient religiosity. Faith begins with questions.’
This spirituality which Lynch describes, fostered by existential questions of earth, flesh and bone, is one shared by those who live close to the land and its creatures in our countryside. This insight comes at harvest-time, a time of endings, a time for taking stock. I question whether Harvest is primarily a time for those closest to the land to give thanks to the deity for his provision; I suspect that it is firstly a time of questioning. Having worked intensely for many weeks to bring in the crops, now is the time for the farmer to quantify the results, to judge whether it has been a good or bad harvest, and to begin to make plans and projections based on what he or she finds. Thanksgiving will come if the land has been generous; but if the farmer is facing a situation of loss, if the farmer is looking into a sort-of oblivion, then if they address the deity at all at that point, it is to utter urgent questions, to make petitions about survival. ...
From Questions of faith at Harvest-time - my latest article for local parish magazines. Inspired by my anticipation of seeing the inspirational poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch perform his work at Greenbelt next week.