Ordinary Wednesday: Nature’s Hat-stand

Today would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most important people in my life: my maternal grandfather James Savage, known to his friends as Jim and to me and my cousins as Pep. Born in 1921 to an Irish Australian father and Scottish Australian mother, he grew up in working-class Sydney during the Depression, and the death of his father when he was nine due to the after-affects of mustard gas in the trenches of WWI saw his mother raise him and his two sisters alone with very little to live on. When she remarried and he clashed with his step-father he ran away to fight in WWII, flying in Number 10 Squadron with the RAAF. Returning to Sydney after the war, he eventually started working for a photographic company and as a result also became a respected photographer, especially for his architectural work for the National Trust. Forced to leave school young, he never realised his desire to be a History teacher but he inspired me with four of his great loves: history, great books, good tea (always Twinings) and photography.

My grandfather, inside the old copy of Ulysses that I inherited from him.

Pep piled photographic equipment on me like he showered me with books. He introduced me to Dickens, Orwell, Camus, Brave New World, Joyce and Hemingway. And he taught me something that never made sense to me at the time: a picture needs something to hang its hat on. An enthusiastic reader of early Richard Dawkins and angry at the Catholic Church of his childhood, Pep subscribed to the “blind watchmaker” view of the cosmos, but believed up to his death that God was love and saw order and beauty in nature that was not easily explained by his scientific determinism. The way I look at the world has my grandfather’s stamp on it. When I see a dazzling array of light and grab my phone to capture it, Pep has prompted that sense in me. When I photograph an interesting doorway or the curious shape of a tree, Pep again. He taught me to see all the places where God hangs His hat in the world’s form and wonder, though he would never have put it that way.

Bible scholar John Walton speaks of the seven days of creation as a process of God building a home for Himself. The first six days He spends ordering His home. On the seventh day, He comes inside, hangs up His hat, switches on the lights and puts His feet up. In every arm-like tree bough I see God carving a dwelling for Himself with us. I do not know where my grandfather stood before His creator when he died – in his last days he took great comfort in remembering the Lord’s Prayer – but I know that he taught me how to see God’s world with an eye attentive to beauty and order. And my faith is the richer for it.

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