I have spent most of today writing, a rarity for a dean these days. Today is dubbed 'Blue Monday', i.e. the most depressing day of the year when post-Christmas, with bills piling up and the days still short, you are at higher risk of committing suicide than at any other time, or at the very least will struggle to get out of bed in the morning. None of this was in my mind when I put a line through the diary to stay at home and write today. But although the sun has shone brilliantly from its rising to its setting, I have felt the listlessness of this low time of year. It has been a day when I have not ventured further from the Deanery than my stall in the Cathedral, and I can make that daily commute without even going outside. It is too easy when you live and work in a cathedral close not to go outside the enclosure for days at a time. Here in Durham where we live on a peninsula with water on three sides, it is especially important to venture off this privileged almost-isle and show your face in the big wide world beyond.
But back to writing. I am trying to finish a book called 'Lost Sons' which, the publisher patiently reminds me every so often, was due over a year ago. It started life as a series of Holy Week addresses I gave in the Cathedral two years ago (or was it more?). I took five stories from the book of Genesis about sons who had become 'lost' to their fathers in various ways: murder (Abel), abandonment (Ishmael), binding (Isaac), supplanting (Esau) and betrayal (Joseph). I linked these with the passion narrative where, I suggested, Jesus was himself 'lost' at the cross in all these ways (betrayal, supplanting, binding, abandonment and murder). But this Lost Son is 'found' again through resurrection, and being found is a theme in some of the Old Testament narratives too. The other controlling story in all this is the parable of the prodigal son. Having worked up the original addresses into full-length chapters, my task now is to write new chapters on the characters I did not include in the series. Today I have finished Canaan, the cursed son. Next up will be Adam the banished son, and finally Moses the hidden son.
Does this work? Not as a formal theological scheme. Only Adam, Isaac and Moses feature significantly in the New Testament as in any sense 'types' of Christ. So it is important not to claim too much: in one way, this is simply an essay in biblical inter-textuality, identifying stories with suggestive cross-references, whether these are sanctioned by the text or simply evident as narrative themes with elements in common across different texts. Yet it is interesting to see how the passion story 'gathers up' so much that is present in the Genesis stories, consciously or unconsciously. Its first readers would have known these stories intimately and perhaps (who knows) made intuitive connectons along these lines: 'it's thought-provoking that Jesus is portrayed as the abandoned son left to die alone ('my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?') just as Ishmael was left to die in the desert, abandoned by the father who had taken such pains to beget a son and heir'.
It is easier to write afresh than to work up existing material. For one thing, new writing on a blank canvas flows so much better; for another, it takes some effort to re-enter older material in order to bring it to life in a different milieu and for a different audience (which is why recycled sermons do not usually work, even when preachers admit to this practice which is not often). Perhaps this explains the struggles I have had in writing this. Or maybe it is to do with the content. After all, I am somebody's son, and I have a son of my own. These themes of being lost and found touch our human lives as a profound level. It is out of that awareness that I want to write, and such writing comes slowly at times because it can feel like a costly personal commitment. Which is good, if not always comfortable.