The care taken by George Macleod of Iona in the writing of his prayers is evident in his small collection, The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory. Written as prose poems, or as poetic prayers, they have the rhythms of the waves, the mood and colour of Scottish moorland, the rustle of leaves, or the varied vistas opening up for the hillwalker.
Almighty God, Creator:
the morning is Yours, rising into fullness.
The summer is Yours, dipping into autumn.
Eternity is Yours, dipping into time.
The vibrant grasses, the scent of flowers, the lichen on the rocks, the tang of seaweed
All are Yours,
Gladly we live in this garden of your creating.
But creation is not enough.
Always in the beauty, the foreshadowing of decay.
The lambs frolicking careless: so soon to be led off to slaughter.
Nature red and scarred s well as lush and green.
In the garden also:
always the thorn.
Creation is not enough.
These are the first lines of one of his prayers. Often Macleod is accused of being a romantic visionary, trying to recover a spirituality called Celtic, which has little historical foundation in fact, but which is more of an exercise in nostalgia and wishing what might have been. That sells him short. Macleod was a realist, but that included being a theological realist. Reading his prayers, and his other writing and sermons, this was a man well aware of sin, not as mere moralist harking on about sex as commodity, drink and gambling to excess. All three of these he understood in their hold on human weakness; and all three of them he encountered in the folk he cared for, whom he always treated with respect, compassion and a hopefulness that for them life could be better.
Reading his prayers there is a realism about what in old fashioned theology is called a "fallen world". Sin is more than the sum of all acts of human disobedience, brokenness, weakness, wickedness; more than the evident consequences in lives broken, hurts unhealed, cruelties unanswered with justice, hopelessness in the face of a life too hard to live without the downward haul of despair on the heart.
Sin is the inexplicable violence that erupts and consumes the innocent; sin is the turning of the fundaments of matter into nuclear bombs; sin is the decay of what is beautiful when exposed to greed, cruelty, pride or hate; sin is that power of uncreation that seeps into our deepest hopes, the spoiler that betrays our most treasured loves, the question the tempter always asks that undermines our basic trusts and best purposes. Sin is evil, and it is there and it has to be resisted in prayer and trust in the One whose purposes are redmptive and whose love is eternally determined in the face of all that threatens the life and light of God's creation. But. "In the garden also: always the thorn."
Walking on Brimmond Hill the other day I noticed the gorse beginning to bud and burst, and alongside the path, hedging in the gorse, barbed wire. There was a moment's clarity, and I recalled that line from Macleod's prayer, "always the thorn". Some of those thorns are the natural protection of plants, and they provide protection too for various birds that nest in gorse, including goldfinches, yellowhappers, chaffinches, and at one place on the hill, a robin. And the barbed wire is also to keep animals in the field, much less natural but used as a restraint for farm animals - though in my childhood at least two farmers refused to use barbed wire because "it would hurt the beasts". The juxtaposition of gorse thorns and barbed wire, glimpsed on the calendar journey towards Holy Week, jolted memories of those pictures we have all seen of barbed wire used to imprison people, a tool of the justice system. But at a darker deeper level, tools of the oppressor, the capacity to tear flesh and hinder escape, reaching the nadir of evil in Auschwitz.
"In the garden also: always the thorn." But Macleod wasn't prepared to leave it there. Sin isn't the last reality of the universe, the Cross as the embodied love of God is the penultimate divinde word followed beyond the divine anguish by the ultimate cry of God's heart, the cry of resurrection, "He is risen!" And thus Christian faith sees, and prays, and hopes, and works with patience and cost for the coming of God's kingdom, in God's time.
"Till that day when night and autumn vanish:
and lambs grown sheep are no more slaughtered:
and even the thorn shall fade
and the whole earth shall cry glory at the marriage feast of the Lamb.
In this new creation, already upon us,
fill us with life anew."