The moon had never been so close to so many. This morning, it hovered above heads, silent yet screaming out, I’m here! I’m the moon in the room!
Sometimes, you need to see the extraordinary to be able to appreciate the ordinary.
The Church of St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate is one of the largest parish churches in the country; it needs to be, to accommodate the Museum of the Moon – artist Luke Jerram’s famous work. It is also the only grade 1 listed building in Harrogate. But whilst the church is big on space and reputation, like so many it is short of money. However, sometimes help comes in strange forms.
There may be questions on some lips as to why the moon is in a church – is the house of God the right place to view an art installation? Is it lunacy? (Consider the origin of this word – as well as affecting our tides and enriching our culture and art, the moon also influences our language). Is it the thin end of some great unseen wedge, which, left unchecked, could lead to the church being turned into some northern Tate gallery, or worse still, a coffee shop? Possible, but not likely. A house of prayer is for contemplation, for celebration of all things created in the universe, and of an appreciation of something bigger than ourselves. When one looks at the installation in these terms, suddenly it begins to seem perfectly fitting and appropriate.
Not many choristers get the chance, as I have, to sing by the moon, to pray by it and be able to measure its proximity to oneself in tens of feet rather than thousands of miles. Of course, there has long been an association between classical music and the moon. One thinks immediately of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata; the sense of suspended awe and contemplation as the C sharp minor chords wash over you. (Those who stick around to hear the more frantic final movement are richly rewarded by a somewhat darker, stormier side to the moon). Then there is Debussy’s Clair de Lune with its impressionistic quality, a sort of mottled and ambiguous reflection of the heavenly body. For Schoenberg, his Pierrot Lunaire explored the madness supposedly induced by the moon (and by his work, some might argue). In the world of popular music, too, old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra sang about a Blue Moon – that ‘You knew just what I was there for, You heard me saying a prayer for someone I really could care for’.
In its other-worldliness, quite literally, the moon seems to stir in us some reflection of Self, and of Other.
In July, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first moon landings by humans. On the television we saw the black and white footage which came to define the zenith of scientific achievement in the twentieth century, and perhaps in all human existence. We glimpsed a landscape alien to our very human minds, born of mother earth. Our radios played back the words of the three remarkable astronauts who piloted the spaceship and the lunar module, and we entered a totally different soundscape, of crackly feedback, of trajectories and orbits. But we might reflect on another aspect of this most famous of journeys, one which transcends the scientific and human endeavour, and instead marks out the start of a different sort of consciousness, a subtle but epoch-defining sense that our place in the universe has shifted. Christians believe that God created the world, and indeed the universe and everything in it. For so many thousands of years we have clung to mother earth as a child to its mother; it has nurtured us and has become our only horizon. But as we lifted our eyes further and summoned the courage to look up through increasingly powerful telescopes, we saw that in the sky of our earthly horizon, another horizon beckoned us; that of the moon. Now, our place in the universe need not be tethered to earth – (indeed, perhaps by necessity in our increasingly unstable world it may have to be untethered) because now we might travel and colonise – and who knows who we may encounter?
The unifying aspect of this breaking of our planetary bonds cannot be overstated – Americans stepped on to the moon, but they were representing the human race, now an inter-planetary species. When we go to Mars, and we will, soon, who knows what nationalities the astronauts will be, and in some ways, who cares? They will be representing humanity. Space travel and religion seem not so dissimilar in that regard.
We do not have all of the answers yet, and indeed, we may never have them. Science and religion have not always been the easiest of bedfellows, so that sometimes the will has not been there to consider and debate issues of cosmology and time. It has been fifty years since Armstrong and Aldrin took humanity’s first steps on any ground other than that of planet Earth. Progress has been slow since then, and there will be challenges and difficult questions of ethics, funding and the environment to consider. But we have not lost the power to be rendered speechless, and thank goodness we have not. There are still moments which stop us dead in our tracks; when Michael Collins took his picture from Apollo 11 of our distant world partially illuminated above the surface of the moon, and captured in one shot every single human being who was alive on Earth (apart from one, himself). His one thumb could obscure all of human life. Moments like these cause us to consider a quickly-mushrooming array of questions – who we are, who created us, why we are here.
But what of our earthly wonders? A church has to remain relevant, a vibrant and living part of the fabric of our societies. Viewing art in one not only brings much needed footfall and (hopefully) donations to a church, it also allows the public to see splendid art in a new and contemplative setting. More importantly, perhaps, it allows them to appreciate a splendid space – the wonder and awe inspired by viewing the inside of St Wilfrid’s or hearing a service sung there is, I feel sure, equal to that felt when viewing the moon installation itself. When the thousands of visitors who came to St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate walked into the church and saw the moon, gigantic and silent and Other, I like to think that it allowed space in busy lives for reflection on how far our understanding has evolved, how far it has yet to develop, and what our place and God’s place is in the world, the universe and beyond. That’s why when the moon came to my church, I was glad. How often do we make time to think about the fundamental questions it raises, I wonder?
Once in a blue moon, perhaps.