The first image is called the mandylion. The story of the mandylion is that the image of Christ was transferred onto a towel, which he had used to wash and dry his face, and became the source of healing for the king of Edessa, who had asked Jesus to visit and cure him of leprosy. Is this how you imagine Christ when you think of him? Or is he likely to be more like the Victorian Christ, with fair hair and white skin?
This week many of us have been made aware of our preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices. There is a general civic assumption that we live in an egalitarian country where democracy means that all are treated fairly. But events in America have given voice to the everyday experiences of many living in Britain.
When I was growing up, my parents banned the word ‘lucky’ because they felt that as people of faith, nothing was left to chance. Recently I have had cause to reflect on this in the context of lockdown. Talking to locals, a deep thankfulness for where we live is often couched in terms of being lucky. But I have realised that we are not lucky in the slightest: we are privileged. We can afford and so choose to live somewhere rural: a choice that many people simply do not have. Similarly my whiteness, although not of itself a privilege or a choice, allows me many privileges should I choose to take them.
The second image is the Madonna of the Tides; a very early work of mine that explores the layered understandings we bring to the idea of the female and the divine. Early on in lockdown my husband and I had a huge row because he said that he wasn’t feminist but ‘equalist’. I am still angry with him because I feel that it’s easy to say that when you are not a woman. A man does not choose his sex of course, but certain unspoken rights come with it: the possibility of a career unbroken by childcare duties, the possibility of walking home in the early hours without being harassed or worse; and more.
In the same way, being white is not a choice. And many white people experience huge injustices today in this country. But saying ‘all lives matter’ even though this is essentially true assumes the same lack of understanding that my husband saying he is an ‘equalist’ does and is a belittling, if not a denial, of the real experiences of black people.
The mandylion was transferred by the simple act of washing. We are washing a lot at the moment and our faces are often covered for our own safety. Maybe we can consider how we wash our hands of issues that don’t affect us personally, how we mask injustice with an assumed equity, what privileges we have that we don’t even recognise and how we can take the image of the divine into our communities as a source of healing.
Take time to look at the picture and consider these questions:
- How has the news this week affected you?
- Do you experience prejudice or injustice in your own life?
- What are your privileges?
- Is there anything you can do to bring healing to your world?
You will need: a bowl of water, a towel
- sit quietly with the bowl of water in front of you
- become aware of your breathing, in and out
- once you have done this for a few moments, try holding your breath, perhaps pinch your nose. How does this feel? When do you give in and take a breath? How does that breath feel?
- Next, when you are ready, place your hands in the water and use it to wash your face, and dry off with the towel. What would you like to wash away from society right now? What new vision would you like to see?
- Is there anything you can do going forward to work for justice and equity in your community?