Anvil journal of theology and mission
The empty pool: persistent presence
by Ian Adams
It’s just a space – concrete painted in a bold blue – and it is slowly fraying.
But what I saw one morning in the empty pool, what I felt, as if for the first time, sparked something within me.
A desire first to see, that became a need to remain, and a yearning to return.
For over two years now I have been returning to this paddling pool on Lammas Land – a park near the centre of Cambridge – taking photographs, making prayers, anticipating the day to come or reflecting on the day drawing to a close.
In summer the shallow pool is enjoyed by families with children and grandchildren.
It’s a joyful, noisy place.
But my interest is primarily in the pool out of season, emptied of water, the families long gone.
No longer the centre of attention, its quiet, persistent presence draws me in, calling for my quiet, persistent presence.
And so I have returned there throughout the year, in all weathers, in changing light, from dawn to dusk.
Often in a pause on an early morning run – itself an act of body-prayer – through which the pool has become a sanctuary, a sacred space, even a place of encounter, and so perhaps the site of some small transformation in me.
When [Jesus] had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.1
I wash my eyes in this empty pool, so that I may see.
In this article and with these images I want to reflect what might become possible when we prayerfully and creatively engage with a particular place over a prolonged period of time. I will share my experience that such persistent presence can reveal what is true – about ourselves, about our world and even about the nature of God – and open us up to encounter.
I will suggest that such persistent presence, shaped by the making of art, theological reflection and prayer may have a prophetic character, beginning to reveal new possibilities of what may yet be.
And I will reflect on how such persistent presence may enable our participation in the bringing about of those what-might-yet-be possibilities, in God’s healing of all things, in mission. In this way art can act as a kind of sacrament, reshaping us and transforming our world.
I will conclude by suggesting that such persistent presence is a way of being that both requires and inspires devotion.
THE EMPTY POOL: PLACES OPEN UP SLOWLY
What might become possible when we engage prayerfully and creatively with a particular place over a prolonged period of time?
My experience is that places open up slowly. Rather than constantly moving on, we need to root ourselves in a particular place, to tune ourselves into a place, to allow that place to be and to speak.
And we need to keep turning up.
At first glance the pool out of season is unremarkable. Without the splash of its water it can be ignored, or missed altogether.
But as I committed to returning to the pool, it slowly began to reveal its being, its beauty, its truth.
I sense that the truth of everywhere is to be found by going deep somewhere.
It does not matter too much where that somewhere is. What matters is that we give ourselves to the place that catches our attention.
And that we engage with that place, allowing its being to shape ours.
And of course the first thing that any engagement with a place does, if we are attentive, is to reveal to us something about us.
My response to the empty pool has revealed much about my fears and losses, and about my hopes, yearnings.
The pool has asked me to engage thoughtfully and lovingly with my own life at this stage.
How will I face empty pool experiences in life?
The pool, of course, is going nowhere.
It has reinforced in me the need for me to be still, to be attentive, to be prayerful, to be present.
So I return to the everchanging pool, noticing new shapes, angles, textures; the accumulation of leaves, of debris, of discarded things.
I find it revealing my questions; helping me to reflect on the nature of the struggles I face; bringing to the fore my sense of wonder and of gratitude; reshaping my prayers.
But if persistent presence reveals something about me, it reveals much about all that exists.
The pool becomes the world.
Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away.2
How these times seem like a pool whose waters have run away.
And to be powerless to change the empty pool in its gradual decay is to experience something of the powerlessness we all feel at the challenges we face in this time of COVID-19, populism and environmental crisis.
But within this powerlessness something else begins to emerge.
THE EMPTY POOL: REVELATION OF WHAT MAY YET BE
“Why are you taking photographs of the pool?” said a fellow early-morning runner.
“It’s a beautiful place,” I said, “even in slow decay.”
He seemed unconvinced;
we talked a little more, of the passing of all things, of the beauty all around us,
of the mountains near his home in the Congo.
And then of the goodness of God,
and of the kingdom of heaven that is all around us.
He ran another circuit around the pool and as he passed me again, and the pool filled with light, we blessed each other for the day.
I sense the divine presence here; and hints of what may yet be.
It has been interesting to notice how my engagement with the pool seems to have permeated different areas of my life, breaking down barriers between them.
Persistent presence (the being there), the making of art and prayer have merged into one. And that has been a hopeful experience.
The apparent plight of the pool is just one aspect of the truth.
And I’ve come to realise that the pool has its own story beyond my personal knowledge of it.
The pool has clearly had seasons of vitality in times past. It now knows a season of abandonment and neglect.
There are other priorities in the season of COVID-19.
So it is slowly corroding.
And I don’t know what future it has.
But, if I can personalise a painted concrete space for a moment, it seems to be happy with that.
In making the Empty Pool photographs I’ve realised again that all things shall pass.
And it has become clear to me that I need to do more work on the letting go of my own agenda. But I have been reminded too of Mother Julian’s words that “all shall be well”.
My experience of persistent presence at the pool has been above all a hopeful one. Despite the cracks in the concrete, the peeling paint, the growing weeds and the accumulating rubbish, the beauty of the pool seems to continue, and even deepen. The empty pool hints that transformation from form to form will continue.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.3
Lammas Land has long been a place of joy, a source of restoration and site of celebration.
The empty pool hints that this will continue to be so.
One day this past summer we took our nearly-three-year-old grandson to the pool. Empty of water and empty of children because of COVID-19, he stepped right down into it, and began to splash in the muddy puddles, oblivious to the pool’s usual or hoped-for state. Before we knew it, he was skinny-splashing. It was a moment of great joy for him. A moment of all shall be well.
A revelation of what may yet be, a hint perhaps of the healing to come.
THE EMPTY POOL: A KIND OF SACRAMENT
Lammas is the Celtic festival of midsummer and the first harvest festival of the year, a time of great celebration sometimes celebrated on 6 August – the Feast of Transfiguration.
The pool has become for me a place where transfiguration seems possible, a glimpse of paradise, here and now.
In the process of making art here through photographs I have found myself in collaboration with the pool, receiving lessons in learning to see, in learning to be. In some small ways I have been changed.
The Empty Pool project has lent weight to my instinct that art can act as a kind of sacrament, bringing into being what it points to – transformation of individual, of community and of the world.
In spending time with the empty pool I have found my internal landscape being quietly reshaped.
I would go as far as saying that spending time with the pool changes me.
I sense that I may be kinder, more loving and a more creative person through engaging with it.
Taking one of the stones of the place, [Jacob] put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”4
Unexpectedly, the empty pool has become a place of holy encounter, bringing change.
And my hope is that through my images and writing on the Empty Pool, something of that experience may also become a gift to others.
In making this suggestion I am aware of the gap that can seem to exist between such hints of the divine and their possible effect upon us, and the apparent specifics of divine revelation recorded in the texts of the tradition.
Of course, this gap may be the essence of art.
Art seems to be most persuasive when it opens up possibilities, rather than specifying exactly what the artist wants to say or how the work should be received. In my pictures or poems I don’t want to attempt to spell everything out – in any case an impossible task – but rather to invite exploration.
Art is at its best when it hints, when it gives it a glimpse, when it opens up possibilities.
Nevertheless, there is a received quality to the Christian tradition in which I am rooted, and which continues to sustain me. Theologian, academic and musician Jeremy Begbie is sceptical about our ability to “fill in the gaps” with the Christ story after the infinity suggested by artists like Rothko. How does the Christ story, the Triune God story, fit in and shape our understanding of and approach to art? He makes a plea “that when we make claims about the arts affording an awareness of divine transcendence – or meet such claims made by others – we should be prepared to explore, and where appropriate, make explicit and assess, the theology those claims presuppose”.5 Begbie also offers an invitation “to enter far more deeply into the peculiarities of… a “scriptural imagination”.6
There remains more work for me to do in this area, but my attempts to understand what is happening in my engagement with the pool seem to take on new clarity when they sit within a pattern of prayer, of engagement with the texts of the faith, and of devotion.
THE EMPTY POOL: LOVE AND DEVOTION
I love being at the pool.
I invariably have my camera or camera phone with me when I visit.
And I always arrive with a sense of anticipation.
Art inspires our deep attention, even our devotion.
The more we give ourselves to art
the more it will offer to us.
As we give ourselves, we may discover a burning within us beyond art;
a renewal of our love and devotion for God and for neighbour,
for the earth and for the cosmos.
Richard Rohr has a lovely phrase about the eucharist.
But I believe that it may equally apply to great art.
If you can see it here, you’ll see it everywhere…
If you can see in bread and wine the life and love of God you’ll begin to see the life and love of God everywhere.
If you can glimpse in a piece of art the life and love of God you’ll begin to see the life and love of God everywhere.
The task of being present to the empty pool encourages me to be present with love to the pool, to the moment, to others, to God.
It encourages me to love.
It draws me deeper into devotion.
And it reminds me that, in God’s grace,
love will prevail.
About the author
More from this issue
1 John 9:6–7 (NRSV).
2 Nahum 2:8 (NRSV).
3 Rev. 22:1–2 (NRSV).
4 Gen. 28:11–12, 16 (NRSV).
5 Jeremy Begbie, Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts: Bearing Witness to the Triune God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 184.
6 Ibid., 185.