The Turtle in the Arno

A sermon preached

Imogen de la Bere

St Saviour's
St Albans.

27th August 2000


As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells,
each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Gerard Manley Hopkins




Yesterday I got back from holiday in Italy - a riot of impressions and emotions, so you will excuse me if this sermon is a little briefer than usual. Perhaps you will even brighten up at those words.
particularly dislike preachers telling you about their hols. It reminds me of the wonderful episode in one of Tom Sharpe's South African novels where the guards hired to administer aversion therapy to sex offenders by showing them slides of nude women and applying electric shocks, get bored with the nudes and started to show the prisoners their safari holiday pictures instead, thus producing a batch of offenders who run screaming at the sight of a giraffe or zebra.
feel a bit that way about the Holy Land and other places I've never been to but have heard about often by sermon.
t is fairly inexcusable of me, therefore, to talk about what happened on my hols, since I recall having done more or less the same thing only a few weeks ago, about a synagogue in Prague. The only excuse I can muster is this: you try writing a sermon on holiday.

Of our trek round Tuscany the absolute, unchallenged highlight for the children was the turtle in the Arno.  The scene goes something like this. It is very hot, very very hot, and we are tired and cross before we even start the day.  We have spent tedious time getting to the bridge across the Arno, and no-one really wants to be there, the children because they do not want to see another artwork, possibly for the rest of their lives- they are, in their own words, frescoed-out, and we do not want to be there, because we do not want to hurry past any more glories of Western art en route for the nearest ice-creamery or shop.

But there we all are, and we start the haul across a very dull bridge over the very nasty looking Arno, and discover lo, that it is wildlife park. There are myriads of fish, there are storks fishing, swifts swirling about, the largest rat you ever saw scattering the pigeons, and then a great big turtle, swimming, diving, trundling onto land, diving again, strolling through the water, as easy to see as I am to you, and a good deal more lively. It was captivating, and we stood in the blazing heat and watched and watched.

Now the lesson from this happy accident, as I naturally pointed at the time, (preachers never stop, even on holiday)  the point is that no-one could have predicted that delight, and if we had all stayed by the pool, as was the suggested alternative, we would of course never have seen the turtle. There was no way of knowing when we set out that morning that anything wonderful would happen at all, nor what it might be. We are taken by surprise - constantly and reliably, by life; and in exactly the same way, we are taken by surprise, constantly and reliably  - by grace.

And as if the turtle in the Arno was not delight enough, there was also the kingfisher. I once spent a great deal of time looking out for kingfishers in a place they were supposed to frequent and never once saw a flash of one. Then, last week, leaning on a different Italian bridge, looking at a different collection of fish - suddenly there it was - perhaps the loveliest sight in nature -  flash, flash of an inimitable, ineffable blue, spurting along the water, faster than the eye can register, lovelier than the words can paint.

I had wanted so long to see one - and there, when I least expected, there he was. And so much more beautiful than I could have believed.

And being a literary type, I was reminded of the poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins:

 As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

it begins, and continues:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Crying What' I do' is me: for that I came:

In other more prosaic words, Hopkins suggests that each created thing has a particular nature and does one thing according to nature and asserts its essence in the doing of that thing, so the quintessence of kingfisher is the spectacular effect of its colours in flight, and in flying, catching fire thus, it asserts its self  and its meaning in the created order, and is a specific and general expression of grace. The kingfisher, he suggests, exists just to be a kingfisher and to catch fire as it flies, and that is enough.

There is more to this poem, but that will lead us away from the turtle. Read it over, it will lift your heart far more than I can do.

The turtle and the kingfisher - unexpected moments of joy - were creatures simply fulfilling their creaturely role - doing as designed by nature, and by God, and proclaiming his grace and his nature in the process. To see them at all it was necessary for us to go out; we could not have seen them sitting by the pool, nor could we have necessarily have found them by searching, as I searched and searched for the kingfisher. The moments of grace, the wormholes into heaven  -  stumbling upon them required us to be walking in the first place.  Our spiritual  journey is no different: you have to be up and about – participating, reading, praying, thinking.

That's the first thing we have to do: be proactive and not prescriptive in the search for grace. But it isn't enough in itself.  There is more to finding moments of grace than simply getting up and going about. You can sit in church every week for the rest of your life and never meet God.

we have to be looking for the right thing, and watching out for it, even though we don't know what to expect. And for this we need to the spirit inside.

St John writes:

It is the spirit that quickens: the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

You could walk right across the bridge over the Arno and never look down. You could look down and see only green sludge, vaguely stirring. You could look down and see a turtle swimming, and think 'O a turtle' and move on. To catch the moment of delight, you have to be active, you have to keep an eye open, and you have open your mind and heart and soul - to beauty and delight everywhere, and to God. To receive grace you have to be receptive to the possibility of grace.

The flesh is the thing we live by and in and mostly for. But it profits nothing, nothing nothing. Don't start me on the subject, it's a whole sermon. The pleasures of the flesh, though gifts of God, the achievements of the flesh, essential to our human nature – the things of the flesh are meaningless besides one lovely fresco or one flash of kingfisher blue. The spirit quickens - the spirit is that which, by definition, makes that fresco lovely, that kingfisher divine, that turtle entrancing - and quickens in us the response whereby we can catch sight of him in the creation. We are not alive except in the most primitive sense, unless quickened by the spirit, for without it, you cannot find delight or curiosity or beauty in anything. You cannot even hear what I am saying to you, or more importantly what St John is saying to you.

We can and must wake up spiritually. Be proactive, be receptive - be on the look out - the Spirit is everywhere, grace abounds, all that is necessary is a vessel to catch it in.