MAKING A CROSS
Recently I made a cross.
I love carpentry, and have spent hundreds of hours sawing and sanding, measuring and chiselling. My workshop is a dusty happy place full of wood and machines. Above the bench dangle the clamps. Shelves hold circular saws. To the right of the door a long straight rule is suspended from a nail. A large blue metal rack is home to pots and bottles of stain, paint, beeswax, oils. The bottom shelf has been colonised by drills.
All of us garden, and so the walls are hung with forks, spades, trowels, dibblers, long-handled pruners and the miscellaneous trivia, the ties and gloves and balls of string, which every gardener accumulates. Right in the middle, and right in the way, stands our lawnmower.
In one corner live my golf clubs. In another hang my fishing rods.
In December, at a ministry team meeting, my church agreed we needed a prayer cross which could be carried in procession: our existing cross was too heavy. I volunteered to make something suitable, and after Christmas retired to The Shed.
It started with the selection of suitable timber, and the sourcing of cork sheet. I puzzled over the design of the foot, which needed to be both elegant and detachable. Gradually, as the cross took shape, with plywood to support the cork and many coats of varnish, I started to pray, sometimes in tongues, sometimes in muttered phrases.
The spookiness crept up on me. As I opened the door each morning the slender cross, tall and wide, dominated the space. After a couple of days I began to cross myself, forehead to heart, shoulder to shoulder, at the start of each session. It’s a recent discovery for me, this practice, but has grown in significance: a mark on my body of the One to whom I belong.
My shed, a most functional retreat, was growing more holy. I have intermittently prayed over my laptop, at the start of a working day, but – a low churchman on pilgrimage to a higher location – I have never set great store by religious objects or locations. The wood for the cross had been leaning against my shed wall with other bits of lumber. The cork sheet came in a tube from Amazon. Nails from the box, screws from the screw collection. Yet some spiritual alchemy was at work.
The prayer cross now stands at the back of our large church, festooned with scraps of paper, a focal point for prayer and thanksgiving. Once a month it is carried up to the front of the church so the whole congregation may lift the supplicants and their pleas before the Lord. My workshop is filled with other projects, but the cross has left a trace, a hint of mystery. The homely tools and brushes seem slightly touched by grace.
My working day, as an editor, is similarly homely. Occasionally there are spurts of creativity and streaks of holiness, like the bright core of a glass marble. The tools are paragraphs and logic, word choices, sentence structure. The day is built from emails and phone calls, contracts and spread sheets. But the mundane is no protection. On the screen the cross takes shape.
It’s dangerous, this religious stuff. It invades. You start with a cross, you end with idols. Is that a cherub?
Tony Collins is Editor at Large with SPCK, and author of Taking My God for a Walk, a book on the experience of pilgrimage.