There is a famous painting by the 18th century Scottish painter, Henry Raeburn, that depicts a Church of Scotland minister skating on a loch. It is called the Reverend Robert Walker on Dudingstone Loch and it hangs today in the National Gallery in Edinburgh. Robert Walker actually existed, he was the minister of the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. He had learned to skate on the canals of Holland when he was boy and, by the time he was a minister in Edinburgh, had gone on to found the Edinburgh Skating Club, the first figure skating club formed anywhere in the world.
The picture is extraordinary. The background is misty and grey, the foreground is the jet black clothes of the minister skating on the Loch, he is skating arms folded in what is known in the skating world as the travelling position. But he cuts quite a dandy figure – wearing his black top hat, his black frock coat and his white neck ruff. He looks as if he is going out to dinner rather than skating on a loch.
The picture then and now is a triumph. Raeburn paints even the small details with precision - the laces on the minister’s shoes + the scratches on the ice where the minister’s and other skaters’ blades have cut through the ice. But it is the figure itself which is so striking. He is oblivious to our gaze, to the fact we are watching him, he is in a world all of his own, the black figure cuts through the icy, vaporous wilderness at high speed. But even more surprising is what the figure suggests, although well dressed and every sign a respectable minister, perhaps another side to his character, that of a free and romantic spirit.
As a minister and priest myself I can’t quite imagine myself doing the same as him. On skates I can hardly stand on the ice, let alone fly through the air or move at great speed. I can however imagine that it would be an exhilarating experience.
In the winter Olympic Games, closing today, we have seen some of that free romantic spirit of those wonderful skaters on ice. But it is not only the human agility that is a marvel, nor even their athleticism, its something more. For them its not just about keeping your feet, its about flying through the air, its about moving gracefully even on thin ice.
Maybe we could transfer of all of this to the life of faith. The life of faith is sometimes like learning to skate on ice. Difficult to get your footing, difficult to stand without falling, difficult to move forward or sideways without losing your balance. The life of faith is like that its sometimes difficult to begin without feeling that you are falling and without feeling the temptation to give up because you seem no good at it. But like anything there are skills to be learned and at the end of the day once those skills are learned then you move forward confidently, you fly through the air, move gracefully like any skater on ice.
The first reading of today’s mass speaks of the temptations and trials of Abraham. A trial which he succeeds in.
When you are learning anything these trials and temptations, almost always make you feel that you are no good at the things, you should give up and not waste your time. But these are part of the learning process in anything and so it is in the life of faith. When trials come it would be easy to give up, to think you will never be any good at it. But maybe these are part of the manual that teaches you just exatly how to be good at it..
How many times in the life of a skater do they fall, but the good skater rises to try again. Likewise when trials and disappointments come we too rise to be stronger, to be more resolute and to learn how to be better. To keep our balance, to move forward, to walk, then to sun.
In Raebrurn’s painting of the skating minister, Robert walker moves confidently and high speed across the frozen ice of Duddingstone Loch. He soars and moves gracefully. But we can well imagine he has many bumps and bruises along the way to get to this point. Is that not always the case for one who wants to learn something well.