If William Blake had lived today, I suspect he would have had a field day. He would have thrived as an all-round artist in our multi-media age and he would have been a vital voice for visionary sanity in our blinded days. Such is my sense amid my deepened passion for Blake on visiting the current exhibition of some of his visual art in the National Gallery of Victoria this week. For, despite the strangeness of elements of his work, what we continue to discover in Blake is an astonishing wholeness of vision, mediated by word and image, poetry and politics, religion and the secular, all held together..
The NGV has a surprisingly large collection of Blake's watercolours, engravings and prints and the present exhibition is the first in fifteen years to showcase them. Not least this includes 36 of Blake's 106 portrayals of Dante's work, striking in their myth and meaning. It was a vivid demonstration of the importance of word and image in unity. Indeed I realised how much we often think of Blake as merely a poet and wordsmith (albeit such a great one), when his visual work is so central. He began his working life as an engraver and this was what brought him the bulk of his income, small though that remained throughout his life. His biography is certainly also a reminder of that other England which is frequently overlooked and underestimated. This is the England of struggle and solidarity, of nonconformist humanity and the very best kind of eccentricity. It is the England of Milton and Shelley, with whom, with contemporaries like Mary Wollstonecraft, Blake forms a blessed genealogy, imbued with radical and generous republican hope. Blake's vision is of a world in which Albion and Jerusalem are one: material and spiritual together, alive with grace and love. In the face of today's constraining functionalism, his is still such a liberating cry for freedom, and for imagination and not mere 'reason' as the source of life and joy. As he wrote, 'prisons are built with the stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion'. Instead, we need to cultivate the contemplative, being true visionaries of word and image, understanding and doing: ''To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in a n hour.' For, in a vision as necessary today as in his own day, and demonstrated in the various interwoven facets of his life and work, Blake was right: 'A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organised and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce.' Not for nothing have I had words of Blake above my office desk for several years: 'Imagination is evidence of the divine.'
One of the most shocking aspects of many true mystics is the use of erotic imagery in accounts of their spiritual experience. Neither Reformation Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism found this comfortable and their legacy of repressive suspicion continues within much of Western culture today. In recent times however there has rightly been a gradual rediscovery of this vital tradition.
Within Christianity this has been aided by the rise of Christian feminism which has sought to honour the long despised lives and experiences of women. This has brought about a slow but significant re-evaluation of the place of the body, touch, tenderness, desire and the sensual in spiritual expression and symbolism. In the process, the very earthy nature of most biblical experience has been highlighted, including the typically sensate character of most of Jesus' encounters with women and men, even/notably in the accounts of the Resurrection. Female mystics such as Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant and Mechtild of Magdeburg have also been happily 'rediscovered' and acclaimed.
What is often less prominent, perhaps because it is arguably even more subversive to patriarchal religion, is the acknowledgement of similar experience and tradition among men. This has been greatly aided by gay men's experience but is no mere contemporary novelty or confined to sexual orientation. Admittedly somewhat corralled by Neo-Platonist and ascetic concerns, it was after all Origen (the greatest of the earliest church theologians) who was the great founder of Christian erotic spiritual symbolism and it was Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval monastic reformer, who was its greatest champion. More widely however it is also found, often in unacknowledged and awkward silences, in the experience of otherwise 'ordinary', heterosexual men. For me, this has always been powerfully expressed in Billy Bragg's song Tender Comrade, speaking evocatively of the anguish, vulnerability and bonds of love of otherwise very masculine men in the face of adversity. In St Luke's Toowoomba, it is similarly poignantly seen in the Warriors Chapel side window, where a struggling soldier reaches out to touch the feet of the crucified Christ. This is no denial of the toughness of God and of human conflict. It is however a pointer to the deeply intimate nature of love at the heart of all our being. For Christians, male and female, gay and straight, are called to be both lovers and transforming soldiers of Christ: tender comrades of deep intimacy.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.