The Past; Present

‘Old age should be a crime’. Many times over the years I heard older people in hospital struggle with the implications of ageing. The oft given advice – ‘don’t get old’ – caused mixed feelings due to the implications of the alternative! However, especially when it came to illness and any loss of independence, people found the change hard.

At the same time, I have been involved in some remarkable conversations over the years. During pastoral encounters I have met the bravest; wisest; loving and insightful people. The elderly GP in hospital whose words after receiving Communion were simply this: ‘thank you; it brings me life’. The spirited woman of profound faith, now in a hospice, who was waiting with a patient faith to be called to begin the next stage of her life. The concentration camp survivor who railed against today’s politicians for failing to learn the lessons of the horrors she had witnessed.

Sometimes, my conversations with older people reminded me of the different worlds encompassed in a single lifetime. In the early 1990s, I met an elderly man with a vivid childhood memory of being lifted on his father’s shoulders in order to see Queen Victoria. In 2020 it seems extraordinary to have experienced this living link to a time that seems so remote.

At a recent funeral it was lovely to hear older mourners speak about their childhoods shared with the deceased. The husband says: ‘we used to meet in the local libraries and picture houses’. His wife responds quickly – ‘well you might have gone to the picture houses, but we couldn’t afford’. Memories of childhoods in Scotland in the 1930s and 40s told of the strength of local communities and the value of neighbourhoods. It was a different world.

Wedding, 1957

In the past century life expectancy has increased. Just as people in the West have grown used to a longer life, the pace of change has accelerated. As I meet people aged north of 90 I’m mindful of the different social and technological worlds they have known.

Today it was announced that Britain’s oldest person has died – aged 112. It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of change across such a long span of life. Born just a few years after the first powered aircraft flight, the century that followed brought both mass destruction and huge advances in technology, medicine and communication.

While the alteration in material circumstances might seem the most notable development, less conspicuous changes have perhaps left the greatest impression. Something of this is captured in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, where the poet reflects on the experience of time in earlier eras:

Keeping time,

Keeping the rhythm of their dancing

As in their living in the living seasons

The time of the seasons and their constellations

The time of milking and the time of harvest

The time of the coupling of man and woman

And that of beast. Feet rising and falling.

Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

Eliot, T. S. (2014). East coker (p. 29). Faber & Faber.

For Thomas Pfau this “contrast with modern time – abstract, linear, endlessly sub-dividing, and bereft of any transcendent dimension – is palpable”. While a bucolic reflection on an imagined past is open to the charge of nostalgia, the recognition that our experience of time has changed has merit. A whole industry exists to manage time. Time in work; time at leisure; and time in transit. We are all encouraged to worry about whether we are making the most of it.

Perhaps things are changing a little. Enforced restrictions on travel are leading many to think about time in a different way. Nature, in the form of Covid-19, is questioning our sense of control. At the same time, the consequences of modern life are putting the ecology of our habitat in extraordinary danger. In 2020 the threats to human life are both sudden, rapid and unexpected – and simultaneously slow, foreseeable and existentially dangerous. Maybe it is time we recognised the truth that our environment, in its widest sense, requires greater respect. That we need to stop rushing onwards and listen with more attention to those who have known a different time, and a different way to live with the landscape on which we all depend.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?”

Job 12: 7-10

The Flutter of God

Images of God are scattered across the books of the Bible. We are familiar with many of these but occasionally one will snag our attention and lead us to pause and reflect. Recently I was reading Psalm 39 and was reminded of one of the less common metaphors of divinity:

You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.

Psalm 39 v. 11 NRSV

I am not a linguist and my grasp of grammar isn’t strong. As I began to think about the moth-God I came across a helpful article by DesCamp and Sweetser. Here, the debate about metaphor and simile for the Divine is set out with the insights of both theology and cognitive linguistics. It is worth a read. The metaphors we use to express our experience of God are critical to the way we think about God. Understandably, the words we use to indicate God assign different aspects of character, relationship and purpose. Altering the metaphors we use can be a revolutionary act: “new metaphors mean changing our licensing stories and deep cultural roots”.

At the apex of the Great East Window at York Minster is a depiction of God the Father, Alpha and Omega, presiding over both creation and apocalypse

Much of the time images for God can be overwhelming, expansive and vast. Alpha and omega, creator and judge. The more we understand about the stars and the universe, the more immense and bewildering the idea of God can become. At best, images point to this enormity. Yet the cause of vastness is also our creator, and during our evolution human beings formed words to describe our bespoke reality. Words that encapsulated a sense of the sacred:

who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the wave of the Sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south, who does great things beyond our understanding, and marvellous things without number.

Job 9: 10-12

Alongside these images of power and creative purpose are metaphors which suggest a different story. While the span of God’s activity is boundless, there is also hiddenness and intimacy. Alpha and Omega is like a moth – hidden in darkness, tiny and unravelling the threads of our vanity.

When I worked in the NHS I was often either involved in the training of nurses or engaged in conversation with them on wards. A comment that occurred a number of times was that for them, asking patients about religious matters was more difficult and embarrassing than asking about people’s sex lives. For a long time chaplains have spoken about this with a tone of impatience, implying that nurses simply need to get on with discussions about religion and belief. However, over the years I have begun to wonder more and more whether the instincts of nurses are right. That something as intimate as a moth needs handling with the greatest care; else clumsy enquiry causes nothing but damage.

DesCamp and Sweetser suggest that “metaphors actually constitute our relationship with God in crucial ways”. As God cannot be fully known, metaphors offer a creative and dynamic exploration of the qualities people experience in their spirituality. While God may not change, our experiences alters the metaphors we use to express a deepening relationship with the sacred. As I found, even images that are centuries old can still have the capacity to stir reflections that further our journey of encounter and understanding.

Love Letters

During a recent research day with chaplains it became clear that alongside a greater use of technology, the pandemic has stimulated letter writing. This may seem to be contrary to much of what we’ve heard about the way ministers have responded to enforced distancing. Many stories have emerged about the use of Zoom and similar technologies. Yet our conversation revealed a small but significant practice of increased letter writing.

I like letters and cards. There is something both personal and enduring about hand-written communication. On our recent holiday I sent cards to two people I trained with – using the more leisured time to select a card and compose my greeting. Receiving letters always reminds me that people spent time thinking about me and thinking about our friendship. Handwriting can’t be cut and pasted.

“Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.”

Lord Byron quoted in Williams, L. (2012). Kind regards: The lost art of letter writing. Michael O’Mara Books.

All this made me wonder about the place of letters in Christianity. The Epistles in the New Testament offer an insight into the theology, experience and mechanics of the early Church. I’m not sure whether Christianity is unique in having letters as sacred scripture, but it certainly seems unusual. Pursuing this thought I came across Antonia Sari’s work on letter writing in the Graeco-Roman world. It appears that the collection and publication of private correspondence doesn’t happen until the first century BC, when the letters of Cicero were made public. This suggests that the practice of publishing personal letters develops only shortly before the emergence of Christianity.

“The same written form that forces the author to more intense reflection also provides the addressee with opportunities for unhurried reading and interpretive rereading”.

Klauck, H. J., & Bailey, D. P. (2006). Ancient letters and the New Testament: A guide to context and exegesis. Baylor University Press.

Unlike electronic communications letters feel like they send something of oneself. They convey a high degree of peronsalisation – which is perhaps why charitable appeal letters often strive to mimic handwriting. We might think of the person composing the letter – knowing their home and their walk to the nearby letterbox. The whole ritual of writing, sealing, addressing and posting emphasises the care and thought committed to the process. For the chaplains on the research day the motivation to do this was also linked to people’s limited resources. Not everyone has e-mail or affordable access to the internet. The cost of letter writing sits with the sender, not the recipient.

At the University of Leeds School of English Alison Searle is leading an AHRC study which includes an examination of the use of letters as a form of pastoral care. Set in an historic context, this research has much to contribute to our present understanding of the way letters help or hinder the expression of care. Unexpectedly for those involved with the project, Covid-19 has created a situation in which support-at-distance has gained renewed relevance.

It is a pity that sending letters has become so expensive. There is a vicious cycle in which the post becomes more costly so fewer people use it – which in turn places pressure on its viability. Perhaps this year, given our unique circumstances, there will be a rise in the number of Christmas cards sent, reversing a longstanding decline. We may need to re-evaluate the trend to substitute the cost of cards with a gift to charity, or the tendency to opt for an e-greeting. Making time to send something of ourselves to the people we care about has a value beyond the influences which have reduced the custom. Perhaps this December, the love and care conveyed by handwritten messages will be rediscovered as one of the most valuable gifts of the festive season.