Grief work: for when the Spirit is black – by Steve Taylor

adult art conceptual dark

Photo by Pixabay on

A few weeks ago I posted a condolence card to a friend. Looming was the one-year anniversary of the death of her mother. A year on – after the funeral, after the mourners and well-wishers have left and the condolence meals in the freezer are eaten – one-year anniversaries can be a void and a card seemed a practical way to express care and concern.

The condolence card I chose to send depicted an image from The Saint John’s Bible. This Bible is a remarkable achievement – the first handwritten Bible since the invention of the printing press around 1450. St John’s Abbey and University, in Minnesota, commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson, to handwrite using turkey, goose and swan quill, natural handmade inks and hand-ground pigments on calfskin vellum. The result is monumental, standing two feet tall and three feet wide when opened, with over 1,100 pages and 160 illuminations. While the complete Bible sits at the University, reproductions of various illuminations are available, including as gift cards.

This particular card offered a full-page artistic illumination of the story of Genesis 1. It’s not easy finding words for someone in grief… so I paused, avoiding the void, only to be struck as I pondered the illumination. My eyes began with the dominant colours: blues and greens depicting the colours of earth, sea, sky being made. Next the gold leaf illumination referencing the stars, moon and daylight pouring forth speech: showing the ordering of time. Finally, hovering over the unfolding of creation was a bird, depicting the Spirit, etched in black.

Colours matter and the Spirit is usually portrayed as white. Most of the baptism art that references Jesus being baptised has the Spirit descending like a bird etched in white. Doves are white. Missiologist Kirsteen Kim notes that in Christianity the “dove is very white”. Colours matter and Kim observes that this white dove sometimes “looks like the fat turkey of consumerism or the eagle of empire”. (Kim, The Holy Spirit in the World, 2007, 180) She is uneasy with the Spirit depicted as white. Instead she suggests that because colours matter, the Spirit should be rainbow coloured – “a multi-coloured fire-bird” – that radiates the colours of creation in all its brilliance and varied hues (180).

Artists choose colours with great care. The St John’s Bible involved constant dialogue between Donald Gordon and the Biblical scholars. This included a weekly gathering of scholars and theologians to develop the theological content behind the illuminations. Most are priests in the order of Saint Benedictine, who live by a simple rule: “listen … with the ear of your heart”. This is an approach to Scriptures that has guided Benedictine communities in shared spiritual practice for over 1500 years.

“Listen with the ear of your heart” guided Donald Gordon as he began to depict the Bible’s opening story… in which the Spirit is black.

Opening the condolence card, I slowly found words. Listening with the ear of my heart, I began to connect the Spirit in black with the dark tunnel of grief: in the beginning… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1.2 NRSV).

Wherever there is unformed chaos, there is the Spirit.

Wherever there is a void, there is the Spirit, swooping to offer divine strength.

Wherever there is creation not yet flourishing, there is the Spirit, soaring in the offer of divine hope.

This is how the Spirit is portrayed in Romans. The Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, present in the void (Romans 8.11). The Spirit intercedes, groaning with the whole of creation in the pain of labour (Romans 8:22). The Spirit shares in solidarity, longing to soar not with those who soar strong, but with those who are weak (Romans 8.26).

The card was posted and a few days later, the friend messaged, thanking me for the words. And noting the date: March 15, 2019.

A day that will be forever etched in the New Zealand soul as one of our nation’s darkest days. A day of wrenching void for the families of those who lost their loved ones’ in the mosque shootings in Christchurch. A day of unformed chaos for the first responders. A day in which we saw a glimpse of how far New Zealand is from the flourishing of all creation imagined in Genesis 1 and Romans 8.

In Presbyterian history, the Spirit has been a source of controversy. For some, the
Spirit is the forgotten person of the Trinity. For others, the Spirit is for personal sanctification or the agent of charismatic giftedness. In each case, theological attention is focused on the individual and the Christian, on the life of faith inside the Christian story.

But as Genesis 1 and Romans 8 remind us, the Spirit is in the world. She soars in unformed places of chaos and the void of death. Maybe in the months following the tragedy in Christchurch, we as a Church will need to listen (afresh) with the ear of our heart, to our wider world in which the Spirit, depicted in black, hovers in grief.

Where was God on March 15, 2019? In the presence of the Spirit, hovering over the chaos, groaning with all those in pain, empowering all those who work for justice.

The wounds of Christchurch will be the grief work of our nation for years to come, as we contemplate the painful void that is racism, xenophobia and fear of difference. Thankfully we are not alone, for the Spirit is black.