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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Many Waters: floods and faith

Here on the Durham peninsula, we live with water all the time. As the River Wear, it flows round the rocky acropolis on which Cathedral and Castle sit. When it is in spate, you can hear it in the cloister, tumbling noisily over the weir between the Mill House and the Old Fulling Mill. When the river is very high it goes quiet again, for then the weir becomes just a wrinkle across the smooth fast surface of the flow.

However, all this is happening far below. The river remains confined to its gorge, kept in its place as rivers are meant to be. What we have seen in Somerset and across the south of England is water that bursts out of its proper bounds. And then it is not simply unwelcome but frightening, a power that is as relentless and destructive as hurricane or wildfire.

When I am walking past the mill, I sometimes think about one of my favourite novels, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. In that story, the mill is Tom and MaggieTulliver’s home. Never mind the plot (read it for yourself) in which river and mill play a central part. During the story, Tom and Maggie become estranged. At the climax, the river floods and the mill is swept away. Tom and Maggie’s boat capsizes and sinks, but not before Tom and Maggie are reconciled and drown in a tender embrace.

The novel is set in the Lincolnshire fens, not the Somerset Levels. But it captures so much of what people have been suffering in Somerset where life is imitating art in a terrible way. But there’s a point at which art and life differ. In the book, the flood brings about a reconciliation, and by implication, something new and better is coming to birth. It’s the same in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung where the old order of the gods is swept away by fire and flood and a new humanity is born. But in Somerset, there is no redemption, at least not yet. People continue to be overwhelmed, week after week, submerged beneath cold, filthy, hateful waters that simply refuse to go away.

George Eliot and Richard Wagner were drawing on ancient mythological archetypes in their art. The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Genesis story of the flood are among the oldest narratives in the world. The Bible is witness to the primordial fear the Hebrews had of waters that transgressed their limits and would not stay where they belonged. ‘The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice, the floods lift up their roaring’ (Psalm 93.3). To them, the flood represented chaos in its worst manifestations, monstrous, terrifying, powerful.

So it is not strange that in the New Testament, one of Jesus’ most memorable actions is to calm the storm, reassure the boatmen and instruct the waters, like a ferocious wild animal, to ‘be muzzled’ (Mark 4.35-41). It echoes the psalmist’s faith: ‘more majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!’ Or as another watery psalm says, ‘be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46.10).

But to those who are victims of the waters that are despoiling homes and farms and livelihoods at present, these words may not yet bring encouragement, still less hope. It will require a huge act of faith to hear them in any way other than as a cruel mockery. But we who are dry and warm in our own homes should 
try to pray imaginatively for the children, women and men who are on our hearts right now. We can stand alongside them and on their behalf, hold on to our belief that there is no chaos, however awful, where God is not already present, sharing in the pain of victims, knowing in his crucified self the waste and the loss and the pain. They need us to hold on to our belief that in God’s time and in God’s way, not least through the care of those who are bringing help and support, they will find hope once more, and be given back their lives. 

'Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it' says the Song of Solomon. I am writing this on Sunday, the day 
of resurrection. May it come for us all - soon.

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