In the Spring 2011 edition of the St. Francis-in-the-Wood Parish Newsletter, Rev. Angus Stuart reflected back on the experience of beginning the Testament of a Naked Man project, and what has happened since!
The idea of memorizing the whole of the Gospel of Mark has been hidden away in my subconscious for a number of years. I remember my father had once sent me a notice while I was still a university chaplain in Bristol about someone who was offering the Gospel of Mark as a one-man performance; he suggested that I might think of inviting the person to Bristol to present it to students. As with so many other things that come across my desk, it went into the pending tray as a good idea to be acted on later…. I had heard of others too over the years who had memorized the entire gospel and offered to recite it for groups and churches, and though I never acted on it, on reflection there was always an inaudible question in my head: “Could I do that?”
There must have been a similar interior question in my head when I heard my colleague Neville Boundy speaking about how he had begun to recite the passion gospel in church on Good Friday. Neville was the Rector of Cotham Parish Church and chaplain to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, being a bit of a thespian himself. I remember him saying that the words just didn’t seem to be getting through when that long gospel passage was read on Good Friday, even when it was read well (as I am sure it was, if he was reading it). He came to realize, he said, that there was “a text in the way.” Somehow, even if it was read well, there was still the text, like a veil, impeding the message from getting through. So he decided to learn it and recite it by heart. The effect was dramatic – literally. The words came to life.
Sadly, I never got to hear Neville recite it, but I remembered what he had said when it came to Palm Sunday some years ago (2007), and I thought about seeing if we could present the Passion Gospel in dramatic format. My initial idea was to get a number of us to learn relatively short passages, and to present it almost like a number of news correspondents reporting on the story, or perhaps a number of the disciples telling the story of what happened to their friend. Maybe one day we’ll do it like that, I still think it’s a good idea, but at that time I couldn’t find anyone willing to do it. So, I thought to myself, I wonder if I could learn the whole passion story, that year from Luke’s Gospel, and present it from memory.
It was Spring Break 2007; Christine, Aaron and Anna and I had driven down to California for a week just south of San Francisco. We were blessed with some sunny March days, so I began learning the passion narrative from Luke’s Gospel on the beach! I remember lying there with my Bible, reading a sentence at a time, then covering it up and saying the sentence again, gradually adding sentence to sentence. Then I’d get up and walk along in the surf, reciting aloud the part I’d just learned. I found it quite hard at first, and I wondered if I could really do this.
But slowly it became easier; the trick I found was to keep doing it, repeating it over and over in odd moments – walking down the street, driving the car, in the bathroom, even in the shower and, later, on the chairlift at Cypress (being careful to get a chairlift all to myself!) – and not to be afraid to look it up if I couldn’t remember. I kept a photocopy of the relevant passage (about four pages of the Bible) in my pocket so that I could check that I was getting it right, or to prompt me if I forgot.
So, in trepidation I did it, beginning with those four pages from Luke’s Gospel on Palm Sunday in 2007. Then in 2008 it was Matthew’s Gospel that we took the passion story from on Palm Sunday (same as this year), so I learned that; and in 2009 it was Mark’s turn, and I learned the four pages of the passion narrative from Mark in the weeks following my return from my sabbatical “on the road.”
Then after Easter 2009 I didn’t want to let go of the passion story from Mark that I had memorized. As in previous years, it had become part of me; I had entered the story in my mind, and the story had entered into my heart and was alive there. The thought emerged from my subconscious, where it had been all along, could I learn the whole of Mark’s Gospel? How hard could it be? I had learned the passion story from each of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and knew that I could do that. I knew that it requires no particular skill, just the willingness to pay attention, and to learn from my mistakes – getting it wrong over and over again. So, that spring and summer of 2009, in my breaks and days off, I began learning and reciting Mark’s Gospel from “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ….” On the beaches, in the woods, on the mountains, on the train tracks and the trails, with a photocopy of the current passage in my pocket, I gradually added verses, just to see if I could do it, if it would be possible for me.
I always had the intention to offer it for public performance – if I could actually do this, I was not going to keep it to myself; if God enabled me to do this, then God must have a purpose in it. These words have power, as I had found in my own life; if I could be a channel for these words to reach others and bless them, then it seemed to make it all the more worthwhile. Very quickly I knew it had to be called “Testament of a Naked Man” – just had to be! An arresting and (I admit) a slightly mischievous title based on those mysterious words in Mark 14:51-52 after Jesus is arrested: “A certain young man was following him wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” No one knows who this young man is – we are not told – but the tradition has grown up that this is the otherwise unknown author of the Gospel himself, Mark. That seems reasonable to me, it’s like an artist painting himself into the picture, and it suits my purposes!
But he’s not the only naked man in the Gospel of Mark: there’s the Gerasene demoniac who lives among the tombs (with the dead) by the Sea of Galilee and is always howling and bruising himself with stones; after Jesus has cast out the demons, we see him sitting “clothed and in his right mind.” In a way, I like the idea of the man being a parable for our experience of the transition from the insanity of our crazy lives filled with all those legion things that are not really important, to the sane clarity of a mind cleansed of everything but the “one thing necessary” (to quote from one of the other gospels!). Then of course, there is the naked man on the cross; they stripped Jesus of his own clothes and cast lots for them while he hung naked on the cross; this Gospel is really, most of all, his testament. Jesus is the naked man; the Son of Man, humanity in all its suffering and nakedness; naked before the world, and innocently naked in all his glory before God. The shame of humanity hangs naked on the cross; the Glory of God hangs naked on the cross.
I too am the Naked Man – not literally naked, you may be relieved to hear – but naked in spirit as I abandon myself to this role and let it become one with me; I am the naked man that ran off in fear in the dark, and later put it all down for posterity; I am the naked man raving by the sea; I am the naked Francis performing the gospel life in poverty of spirit and radical impetuousness; I am Jesus – I hesitate to say such a thing – but when I speak his words it’s almost as if it is him, speaking those words through me. I can say this, not out of any sense of being special, or unique, or different from anyone else, but because these are living words; somehow whenever the speaker, whoever he or she may be, abandons themselves to these words and allows them to permeate one’s heart and soul, when they allow themselves to enter into the world of the reality of the words, then their identity becomes one with the one whose words these truly are.
On Maundy Thursday last year we had a “trial run” when I recited the first thirteen chapters of Mark’s Gospel after the evening Eucharist – the story up to just before the passion narrative, having recited the passion from Luke’s Gospel four days earlier on Palm Sunday. Then in October we had the first public airing of the entire Gospel of Mark from start to finish. On that occasion Carol Coulson was present through the invitation of her daughter-in-law, who is a parishioner at St. Monica’s. Carol is a professional acting coach and dance teacher; she was also the director of “Scrooge” in which I played the part of Jacob Marley at St. Monica’s Christmas production. So, after Christmas she offered and I asked (I can’t remember which happened first!) for us to get together and for her to give me some help with the presentation. It’s one thing to learn the words, it’s another thing to present it in a way that can hold people’s attention for over two hours; and that’s where Carol has been able to help me. Those who witnessed the performance at St. Francis in October and then what I did in the Cathedral in February can attest to the improvement this work we have done together has made. And it’s not over yet.
With each performance (not sure what other word to use) I hear new things, or sometimes familiar things in a new way; every time there have been one or two surprises when I hear what is coming out of my mouth, and the story opens up in a new way for me. I still make mistakes, probably always will, but I take comfort from the hope that we learn from our mistakes. Generally I find that having made a mistake, I don’t tend to repeat it; so it has the effect of making me more present the next time around, for it is lack of attention that causes the slips. The danger, I find, is that making a small mistake can distract me so that then I make a bigger mistake; when that happens I have to get a grip of myself and really focus! It’s all about being present in the moment, and from this point of view, the experience is deeply contemplative, such that it has enriched my life as I have continued to recite it, whether on my own or in public.