Ennobled Fractures

In some ways I took it as a mixed compliment. When I left the parish where I served as curate some good friends gave me a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. If you’re unaware of this book, it’s a charming morality tale of how love brings us alive and makes us ‘real’. Centred on the toy of the title, we learn that in becoming real we tend to get rather well-used and worn.

by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

Margery Williams, 1881-1944. (2003). The velveteen rabbit : or how toys become real. Leesburg, VA :GiGi Books

Like many children our daughter had a favourite toy. Not a velveteen rabbit, but a cotton one named ‘Vicky’. As the years went on, grandmothers had faithfully repaired bits and replaced parts, but the love for this rabbit never diminished. Sadly, on a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales the toy was left on a bus – traumatising her parents even more than our daughter! I still think of Vicky Rabbit riding around the beautiful landscape in a bus full of children.

Repairing much loved things is an activity as old as humanity. Very often we aspire to ‘invisible mending’, and attempt the great skill required to conceal a fault. Sometimes it can be done – but for those who know what happened it may never seem the same. When a visiting vicar commented to my grandmother on a fine new piece of needlework hanging in her hall she couldn’t suppress the need to tell him where the fault was in the tapestry. Invisible to everyone else, Bessie felt that any admiration needed to be qualified by her knowledge that it was imperfect. The picture needed to be truthful.

A small handmade tea cup repaired using the Japanese art form of kintsugi and a gold powder.

Not everyone aspires to this kind of good-as-new restoration. Reading Andrés Neuman’s new book fracture I was reminded of the ancient art of Kintsugi, when a pottery repair is accentuated by the use of gold. Rather than concealment, the crack becomes a rich vein within the ceramic work, adding interest and individuality. There is a lot of fracture in Neuman’s novel, set as it is against the backdrop of the 2011 tsunami but also connected to other events. It’s a book that feels very pertinent as we begin to see the scars exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A question that emerges as we live through this extraordinary health, wellbeing, economic and political emergency concerns the way we respond to these multiple assaults. Perhaps we could try to conceal some of our unlooked-for experiences, and rush back to a limping version of our former ways? Alternatively, we could learn something important about how we live and relate to others. Learn to become more realistic in our living by stopping the pretence that we can behave as if we are unconnected to others on the small planet we share. To recognise that some of the things which shatter our self-assurance are not imperfections, but necessary interruptions in the smooth glaze of our story.

As the months roll on there will be much to repair and to heal. Perhaps some of this cannot be put to the good, reconstituted or restored. Yet there will be moments when we can choose to ennoble our repairs – to make life and the structures of society fairer and more caring. There will be glimmers of good amongst the pain that many are feeling, and we need to reveal the fractures that have allowed things to change for the better. Whether it’s a growing recognition of how support for older people has been neglected, or the daily injustices that have energised ‘Black Lives Matter’, there are some fractures in our common life we should seek to repair – but never conceal.

Erratic Legacies

Thousands of years ago a glacier melted and deposited the Norber Erratics. Time and erosion then exposed these cuckoo slabs of sandstone and slate. High above the lush farmland of Austwick the vast boulders teeter on tiny limestone plinths. They are one of many examples of the way defining natural events in one era can shape our landscape for millennia.

My visit to the erratics comes at a point of psychological and spiritual recovery. As with many others working in areas massively impacted by COVID-19, events since March altered normal patterns of life. For about 100 days I woke everyday between 4 and 5 am. In the crisis of coronavirus this was part of how life was, in what the British Psychological Society call the active phase. The unbroken days of being in a state perhaps best described as ‘ready alert’; living in a rapidly changing situation, with frequent and sometimes contradictory information, and the need for instant response and action.

Like countless others caught up in these events the virus stimulated emotional need while simultaneously denying consolation. People have been bereaved – but unable to hug; families traumatised but unable to meet; prayer sought, but the faithful denied the opportunity to worship together. Prayer can take place anywhere, but there are places of spiritual significance that matter to many, and sometimes we want to sit among those who pray when we feel least able to pray ourselves.

prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Eliot, T. S. (1944). Little Gidding. Four Quartets. Collected Poems 1909–1962.

I walked to the erratics during a couple of days away. That should sound a very unsurprising sentence – except that I haven’t stayed away from home for several months and the novelty of the experience, face masks and all, was striking.

Events come in different shapes and sizes. Sometimes they may bring temporary change, like the tug of a breeze on the boughs of a tree. However, if there is a prevailing wind – if the gusts are more often a gale – then nature’s persistence has lasting consequences. It’s something I think of every time I walk from Whitby to Staithes and see the long suffering thorns. Over the years they have been sculpted by the wind into flame-like shapes, their branches drawn out towards the sea.

COVID-19 is a long way from its conclusion. It is a gale that has blown around the globe with astonishing speed, leaving devastated communities and economies in its wake. Already we know that this is more than a troubling breeze. The consequences for individuals, societies and economies will be part of our landscape for decades to come. At the moment it’s hard to discern what new shapes are forming. Only time will tell, but we all have something to offer as we support each other through this storm. Consolations may be interrupted, but the desire for the good of those around has never been stronger. Perhaps we need, now more than ever, to make the effort to communicate that care – in whatever way we can.

Surgery for the Soul?

It’s great to be back in a church building, sharing in services ‘in the flesh’. Yet the strangeness of our times is reinforced at every turn. From leaving my track and trace details on entry, to the procession of visored clergy, and the silent, sanitised, distribution of Holy Communion. Nothing is quite the same.

The elements of protective equipment have been familiar to me across 20 years of service in the NHS. In more recent times any visit to a care home involves a routine of infection control that includes the constant wearing of a mask. In the context of COVID-19 the delicate balance of homeliness and clinical safety has shifted resolutely in favour of the latter. How to help people live well while being safe is a vexing question for anyone operating places of residential care.

The appearance of ministers as medico-clerical hybrids reminds me of the way the sacred and secular co-existed in the Middle Ages. The physical served as a continual source of analogies for the spiritual. For example, the act of confession was compared with various elements of physical healing:

As the best physician, Christ ‘orders therapeutic baths through our outpouring of tears’ and the healthful diet of ‘fasts’. And the strongest and most effective medicine of all was penance.

Swift, C. (2016). Hospital chaplaincy in the twenty-first century: The crisis of spiritual care on the NHS. Routledge.

This correspondence of the physical and spiritual is sometimes startlingly visceral. In the York Mystery Plays the Barber Surgeons were allocated the section of the story dealing with the baptism of Jesus. Their contribution ended with a prayer addressed to the Lord, ‘as Sovereign Leech’, curing our ‘sore’. It feels very strange to exalt Jesus as the spiritual leech, yet it is entirely fitting with this Medieval desire to connect the physical and spiritual realms with unflinching determination. Why would Jesus not be equated with the key healing technique of the time, used for purging infection and restoring health?

The Shambles, York
The Shambles, York

Much has changed since York’s Medieval plays saw pageant wagons trundling through its narrow streets proclaiming the stories of the Christian faith. Fewer people today would see the spiritual world so closely aligned with the physical realm. Nevertheless, the realities of human sin; of greed, inequality and war, remain as real as ever. What we do with the material world, whatever we understand it to be, is a question of more than material consideration. Our beliefs allow us to turn a deaf ear to the consequences of climate change. We tolerate inequality in life not because the physical world tells us to do it – but because we choose to accept it. We choose to do less than we might to alter the ever expanding wealth of the rich.

Perhaps some radical surgery should be prescribed? Human beings require comfort for the damage we all carry, but also challenge for the damage our choices bring to others. Inequality is not a concern only for the powerful and the oppressed. It’s a concern for us all. Maybe the sight of clergy in visors should remind us that religion can be dangerous, in the best sense. Dangerous because it should not leave us alone, content with the injustices of which we are a part. Religious belief is designed to change us, to provide both consolation and, when needed, incision.

The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Dillard, A. (2016). Teaching a stone to talk: Expeditions and encounters (Vol. 57). Canongate Books.

Liturgy is full of symbolism, often ancient. As we witness the innovation of clerical PPE perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on what this physical barrier says to our spiritual insight. To be reminded that, like everything with the potential to transform, there is both power to create and power to destroy. We need to ‘handle with care’ the gift of faith and ensure that we live it in ways that strengthen the weak and weaken the mighty. To develop our belief as a remedy for the casually tolerated ills of our age, and allow the God-in-us to heal the terrible sores that are part of human life.