August 23 2020

Negative Capability

I have always been a big fan of the concept of negative capability. It means the capacity of a person to pursue a path even when it leads into confusion and uncertainty, and to prefer that method of proceeding to the alternative ways of deliberate fact and detail. Admittedly it is a concept to be followed more by artists and composers perhaps, rather than engineers or financiers. John Keats coined the phrase and applied it especially to Shakespeare.

Negative capability: perhaps it appealed to me because I have no confidence in my own ability to organise things rationally. But I have noticed that that does not mean I can’t be productive and creative. I just don’t know what I am doing until I have finished it! Perhaps you feel much the same about some of your own undertakings.

Although it seems to go against the grain in our modern technological world, there are still places where innovative improvisation is welcome.

When the greatest of all German poets, Goethe, was asked, “What is the meaning, the secret of life?” he replied, “To do that which the plant does unconsciously …” that is, to grow.

A young student once went to  George Bernard Shaw for advice on what he should do with his life. He was told, “Find out what life wants you to do, and do it with all your might.”

Life does not conveniently give us specific directions as to whether we should become a bus driver or a bishop, but life always wants us to grow; and in so far as we are growing, the direction of our life will become clearer, and its meaning will unfold.

Early on in our development, as a child or young adult, we see worth and value in only a limited number of things. But as we slowly mature, we gradually broaden and widen our appreciations.

People sometimes come to chapel, and after a service they may say that the sermon had been particularly applicable to them that day. The temptation is to think either that the preacher has preternatural foresight, or (and this is more likely) that it was a  happy coincidence. In fact the third explanation is probably the correct one. We interpret the sermon in the light of our experiences, and make sense of it in just the same way as the fortune-teller reads the cards, the palmist reads the palm, the way we sometimes see a familiar shape in the clouds, the way in which our dreams sometimes seem to tell a story. We unconsciously  make sense of the materials we are presented with in the most appropriate way for ourselves.

The capacity for perceiving meaning varies not only from age to age but (as we would expect) from one individual to the next.

You may remember me using the example before of the lady standing in the Post Office queue during Shakespeare week, when the anniversary of the Bard was celebrated by a special issue of stamps. “Making an awful lot of fuss over him, aren’t they?” she remarked to the person beside her. “I never saw anything in him myself…”

J.M.W. Turner was once at a gallery where his work was on display, when a gentleman acquaintance turned to the artist and said, “You know, Mr Turner, I never see sunsets like yours.” To which Turner quietly replied, “No, but don’t you wish you could?”

[Incidentally, this shows us again why it is such a blunder to dismiss art because we do not like or understand it.]

The diversity of gifts in individuals is absolutely immense and never-ending, as are our equally illimitable different and changing capacities for growth.

May I read to you from the late Rev Francis Terry: “In these moments, I would open my mind towards the prospects which are too large to be thought of often. … The future points to unimaginable possibilities and unforeseeable changes..

“May we trust ourselves again to the power which put us where we are, and settled the conditions of life. God gave us the knowledge we need, and the ignorance that is good for us; and leads us together upon a true path into the light.”

Negative capability may on the face of it seem to be a chaotic way of proceeding. But the broader and wider the view you take,( in the way Francis Terry has described) , the more obvious it becomes, that while we think and behave in as ordered a manner as we can, there is no other authentic spiritual way of behaving than to follow the path wheresoever it leads. Amen.


Prayer adapted from Theodore Webb:

Eternal Spirit, we come to this hour, reassured by the remembrance of our discovery of beauty, even in dark corners; and the discovery of presence, even in the silence of night, with its shroud of isolation which covers us.

We come to this hour, and will leave, having learned about ourselves, as about all men and women: that all are  uncertain and surprised, and hurt and lonely; and that we with all others, share a faith which comes from the discovery in ourselves, of strengths we did not know we had, and of the capacity to transcend incidents of despair…

We come to receive from each other, from the silence within, and the word without, the joyous realisation that we are all One; and that we can give to each other, only out of the abundance, of ourselves.   Amen.


Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period