Last Saturday I was shopping in Newcastle and I bought a copy of Madelaine Peyroux’s album ‘The Blue Room’, but as a user of a music streaming service I also have access to that album and all of her previous recordings (which I also own) and a lot of other music besides at, as they say, the click of a mouse. So what is the difference between owning and streaming? I think it comes down to ‘the thing about things’. Owning music is (as my wife often tells me) is more a matter of space than of cost, but it is also, for me, about the physical thing as opposed to the digital download. It is about the cover of the vinyl record, or the admittedly smaller CD sleeve, the newspaper in my hand and the book in my bag- these ‘things’ are far more valuable to me than some data stored in a ‘cloud’ somewhere!
But there is more; no doubt I would survive without the copies of the Ray Bradbury anthologies ‘R’ is for Rocket’ and ‘S’ is for Space’ that I bought in 1972. Or my vinyl copy of the Bill Evans’ trio album ‘Explorations’ which I bought in a record shop in Underbank, Stockport in my late twenties, and which was my first ‘grown up’ jazz record. I would survive, but my life would be poorer. It is not defined by these ‘things’, nor does it, to use a word from the bible’s discussion of possessions, ‘consist’ in them. Kept in their proper place they are souvenirs (from the French ‘to remember’, and the Latin ‘sub venire’ to come to mind, from ‘sub’ ‘up to’ ‘venire’ ‘to come’) with which I can look back at my journey through life thus far.
The fascinating thing about ‘things’ is that you can both look at them and value them for their colour and variety, or for the memories they evoke, or simply because they are attractive in themselves. Yet if you look beyond or through them you can access a completely different experience. Maybe ‘things’ are a little bit like ‘icons’ in this respect, icons are wood, gesso and gold paint yet they are at the same time more than that, my Bill Evans vinyl record is cardboard, paper and plastic, and my Ray Bradbury books paper, yet at the same time they are so much more.
‘Icons allow us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, a vision of the Word of God in human form, of humanity deified in the saints, of matter transfigured by the power of the Spirit. Icons are windows onto aspects of reality we cannot normally see, and help us awake our spiritual senses so that we become more vividly aware of the Divine energies that suffuse and uphold all Creation’.
It may be stretching the meaning of the word ‘icon’ to use it with reference to the cover of a long playing record or any other treasured possession, but icons anchor us in devotion to the unseen God; they never become simply ‘graven images’; they remain things yet they speak powerfully to encourage memory which leads to thanksgiving, which I take to be a religious activity. They also trigger reflection on the creative process, something that I believe is a divine as well as a human prerogative. This is something that speaks to me of the poems in the book of Genesis, the sublimity of a fine jazz piano trio or the power of the short story!
Finally, just think about the way we use ‘things’, how we discard them without thought, or destroy them when they have outlived their usefulness. You only have to buy a second hand book with someone else’s name in the flyleaf to wonder at this glimpse of another life (for example; my treasured copy of an anthology of Evelyn Underhill’s writings ‘An Anthology of the Love of God’ (published in 1953) contains the following dedication ‘With my love and best wishes Christmas 1961 Betty R. Burnett).Or go to a recycling centre (what we used to call, and still do, the ‘tip’) and watch the attendants sorting through all the things that people have finished with. Some ‘things’ clearly have more than one life; a second hand (or pre-owned) coat can be used again after cleaning, an old chair can be ‘as good as new’ (a fascinating phrase!) after a new coat of varnish, books can be rebound, recordings remastered to reveal hitherto unknown qualities. Part of me wonders about this in relation to resurrection- the resurrection of Jesus is something unprecedented but it also builds on what went before as the accounts of the risen Jesus testify; his friends recognized him in some unexpected way.
Every ‘thing’ we come to value can function as a trigger to memory, or remembrance, just as the bread and wine do in a liturgical setting. Perhaps our perspective depends on whether we “see with, not through, the eye” as William Blake observed. Vision can stop at ‘things’ that are just trophies of status and power but if observed correctly (“through the eye”), is it too fanciful to think that they can become icons through which we glimpse the maker and lover of every ‘thing’?