Acquired Invisibility

Many people know what it is to be ignored. It can stem from a range of attitudes about value and significance; learned behaviours or explicit choices. In the days when a bar could be crowded some people would find instant service, skipping ahead of others who had waited with patience. Not everyone is seen.

At some point this is an experience which we may all undergo as ageing changes our appearance, health and vigour. In Bleak House Krook quotes the despair of Tom Jarndyce that lengthy court proceedings are akin to being ‘drowned by drips’. Not all change is sudden, rapid and overwhelming. Usually our circumstances alter by small degrees, until we realise a bigger change has happened almost without our knowing. For the most part ageing follows this pattern until an event or illness makes us aware of both time and mortality.

A recent issue of the TLS featured a poem which captured the disparities of age and experience with insight and skill. Jamie McKendrick imagines meeting his younger self in a bar. Contrasting the two states of being – youth and maturity – McKendrick concludes with this assessment of his younger self:

All the fool seemed utterly sure of

was never in his life would he be me.

McKendrick, J. He Be Me The Times literary Supplement, 6 November 2020

Assumptions are dangerous things, especially when it comes to decision making in a pandemic. Care homes might often be regarded with benign indifference. Liminal places that sit at the edge of society’s thinking; policy-making; priorities. If ageing lends people invisibility then care homes find themselves similarly flickering in and out of the public imagination. For many years either a green or white Government paper has been promised. Yet, despite moments of recognised need, it seems that social care can recede into the background of political life with remarkable speed.

Matt Hancock at a UK Government Daily Briefing, 15 May 2020

The degree to which the importance and operation of care homes can be sidelined was nowhere clearer than in the BBC documentary Lockdown 1.0 – Following the Science. During the programme the interviewer asks one of the key pandemic modellers why the scientists thought care homes were shielded. It is a question that clearly causes Dr Ian Hall some difficulty and his reply is couched among pauses; a slightly anxious look away from the camera; and, finally, commendable honesty:

“… We were.. erm, erm … That’s a good question… We never checked…”

Dr Ian Hall, speaking during the BBC documentary Following the Science at 54 minutes

It appears that a number of casual assumptions were made about the circumstances and daily reality of how care homes work. It is hard to see that any critical enquiry was made, or any steps taken, to contact the wealth of people who would have been able to spell out the risks within a few moments.The fact is that the detailed operation of care homes was all but invisible to the scientists and politicians making decisions about the impact of COVID-19.

As with so many of the assumptions and behaviours that mean people are left in the shadows, this is not necessarily deliberate. The slow drip of ageist attitudes eventually sinks places of care for older people under a swell of political indifference. We either assume that we shall avoid these places ourselves, or fear that one day we’ll need them – and consequently prefer to shun them from our thoughts. Given the age of most senior scientists and politicians it is hard to imagine that many of them don’t have relatives in places of care. How could they have personal contact with care homes and yet remain so oblivious to the ways in which they work?

Perhaps the key post-pandemic task will be to shed the cloak of invisibility which appears to have covered care during advancing years. To lift the sector out of its obscurity and have a frank conversation about the provisions we would want to see as we age. This will be hard, as our desire to look away from this reality runs deep. Nevertheless, as the full picture of events within places of care emerges – probably during a public inquiry – there may be a moment to achieve a lasting change in our attitude to ageing.

Stirred – Not Shaken

Long ago I made a trip across Chile. Staying in a hotel in Santiago I was awakened by a sudden awareness that everything in the room was moving. Startled by this unexpected event, and only used to mild and infrequent UK earthquakes, I opened the door anticipating alarmed guests pouring out of their rooms. The corridor was empty; the shuddering stopped; the local TV made hardly a mention of the tremor.

As anyone watching the BBC documentary Following the Science? will appreciate, predicting approaching danger of global proportions isn’t easy. Especially when decisions need to be taken before the full force of an event is clear. Yet if you wait for the in-your-face evidence, it’s a sure sign that you’ve left it too late. In humanity’s history apocalyptic events overtake us rapidly, and our inability to exert control and mastery is laid bare.

In the 1980s I studied theology and English Literature at the University of Hull. It was a combination I’d recommend as there’s a very natural traffic between the two – not least in poetry. I recall reading WB Yeats’s The Second Coming while looking out over the wolds from the top floor of the Brynmor Jones library. Of the various apocalyptic prospects during my life there have been the Cold War; Climate Change; and now Coronavirus. Writing about the Yeats poem in the context of the current pandemic, Dorian Linskey is right that world-ending prospects aren’t infrequent. The real one will be unique in leaving a complete absence of literature.

That’s why it is a poem for 1919 and 1939 and 1968 and 1979 and 2001 and 2016 and today and tomorrow. Things fall apart, over and over again, yet the beast never quite reaches Bethlehem.

Dorian Lynskey, ‘Things fall apart’: the apocalyptic appeal of WB Yeats’s The Second Coming The Guardian 30 May 2020

Today is the final Sunday in the Church’s liturgical year. For centuries the Collect read on this Sunday has begun with the request to be ‘stirred up’. It is a reminder that as we plod on from day-to-day we risk getting lost in detail and weakening our sense of purpose about what life is for. The petition to be stirred concerns our ‘will’, the engine of desire that drives us for good or ill. When our will rests in God, Jesus suggests that we’ll remain unshaken even by those events which may seem life-changing. Jesus takes a measured view of Millenarianism. He pictures those who follow his teaching as the calm within the storm; the stable points of hope in a landscape of panic and pessimism.

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs… Beware, keep alert for you do not know when the time will come.

Mark 13: verse 8 and verse 33 (NRVS)
Book of Common Prayer, Collect for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity

A week today the Church’s new year commences with Advent Sunday. Often the themes of Advent are lost in the run-up to Christmas. In parishes there are nativity plays, toy services, Christingles and more: but not this year. As we continue to live in a time of pandemic the serious themes of the season deserve our full attention. Traditionally these are death; judgement; heaven and hell. York Minster is running four online reflections with excellent speakers starting at 3 pm on 26 November. The first contributor is Professor John Swinton, who will be introducing a discussion about death. Each talk is linked to a panel of the Great East Window, which portrays images based on texts from the Book of Revelation.

The Great East Window – ‘Behold I make all thing new’ Revelation 21: 2-5

It appears that apocalypses come and go. Each generation can feel that it teeters on the edge of fragmentation – only to survive. In the Gospels Jesus warns his followers against getting too eager about the prospect. These things will happen, until the final and decisive time arrives. As we continue to journey through adversity it’s important not to confuse the temporary with the ultimate.

As we approach Advent there is an opportunity to engage afresh with the theme of God’s will for the world. In the book of Micah this requires mortals ‘to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’. It is a theme reiterated in the New Testament and lies within the family prayer of the faithful: ‘your will be done’. A call to action and a way of living which can change the world if we have the grace and generosity to live as things will be – not only as they are. On a Sunday when we ask for our wills to be reanimated it is a call to be stirred, not shaken, in apocalyptic times.

(Heading image by Gerd Altmann)

Peace in Mind

Although I’ve only lived in York for a year I’m already familiar with the flooding. Twice during that time the Ouse has risen, filled the riverside paths, and lapped at the walls of nearby homes. For long in the tooth Yorkies, this is an all too frequent experience. It may not happen on the day heavy rains fall, but as the waters landing further north gather and merge, a coming flood is certain.

On land adjoining the Ouse there is capacity to absorb this inundation. Paths, parks, and grassed meadows become temporary lakes. On the whole the roads remain open, bridges are passable and people can circumvent the inconvenience. However, in exceptional years the rise in the river’s level exceeds the available capacity. Slowly but surely water seeps into the foundations of buildings and even palaces aren’t immune. It’s only when the waters abate that the true cost, damage and distress can be assessed.

Narrow-gauge railway line that once connected a wharf on the Ouse with the nearby barracks, for the purpose of munitions transport

The majority of people can absorb unexpected pressures, and have the capacity to stretch their resilience. Whether it is difficult relationships, an unexpected bill or uncertainty at work, we can withstand a rainy day. In human terms, we may well find that 2020 is a year of inundation – a constant precipitation of difficult news, personal or family illness, and a precarious economy: and that isn’t even the half of it. As with the Ouse, the full force of this deluge may not arrive until the skies clear.

A long time ago I trained to be a Samaritan. It led to many nights on call, available to listen to anyone, and there were some drop-in meetings in person. I’ll never forget one of those shifts. A man came in and, after introductions, we both fell silent. I can’t remember if I asked him if there was anything he wanted to talk about, but the silence became extensive. We simply sat together. At some point he asked how I was – and I then asked how he was, and he left. I’ve no idea what it meant to him, but there was something both profound and moving about that time spent together without words.

Mental health illnesses are seldom suffered alone. Families are affected by the consequences of altered personality, depression or unmanageable anxiety. As I know from family experience as a child, the pressures and expectations of Christmas can be a flash point for mental illness and its impact. It’s hard to imagine what that will be like this year.

We cannot begin to calculate what the consequences of the pandemic will mean for people’s mental health. In many respects the UK was not in great shape before the virus. This will not have been made better. While the focus last week might have been crossing the 50,000 death tally, we mustn’t forget how many people have been seriously ill, frightened and struggling. There is an extensive literature on the psychological legacy of being in intensive care.

This increase in population mental distress was not simply a continuation of previous upward trends

Pierce, M., Hope, H., Ford, T., Hatch, S., Hotopf, M., John, A., … & Abel, K. M. (2020). Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7(10), 883-892.

I imagine that some of the negative impacts of COVID-19 for mental wellbeing won’t emerge until things begin to normalise. At this point, for many people, it isn’t ‘safe to be unsafe’. There are leaders in many fields of work who have been trying to hold everything together through a crisis. As and when that critical period is over, we’ll need to make sure that these leaders can recover from the demands of their role carefully, safely and peacefully. If we can achieve that then they will be better placed to support their teams – the people who will turn to them in a crisis.

Afternoon walk after the waters have receded

It is unlikely that there will be enough training therapists, clergy and counsellors to cope with the demands that emerge. Alongside those who have been ill there will be people experiencing complex bereavement. People whose life-chances for employment have changed for the worse. All of this is within a broader context in which hugs have been missed; holidays cancelled; team sports curtailed; and church services stopped. It is impossible at this point to calculate the cumulative toll of these difficulties.

This can all feel very daunting, even as the direct affects of the pandemic continue to be present in our communities. In the weeks approaching Christmas it’s probably not surprising that many of the adverts focus on ‘kindness’. The marketing agencies have done their homework – they know the sort of message people want to hear.

We all need kindness. We also need people able to stand inside the story of our suffering. The phrase I remember from my Samaritan training was to ‘steer into distress’ – not run for cover when the conversation becomes too intense. Compassionate listening by those willing to hear and accompany our recounting of the flood will be vital. People able to support a conversation about what the deluge took; what it changed; and what it has left behind. Only as we do that work with a skilled listener – when the time is right – can we begin to rebuild our spiritual home.

What is in the Darkness

I once paid good money to look at the sky. It was at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, one early December day, in the bitter cold and at that darkest hour before the dawn. With a small group of people I walked to James Turrell’s Deer Park Skyspace. Sitting on the stone seats around the inner walls, gazing at an aperture in the ceiling, it felt as though some ancient rite of humanity was awaited. In a sense that is exactly what unfolded – people offering the sacrifice of their attention to the emerging light. Sat in silence and spellbound wonder we watched as darkness became day.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:5b

There are many distractions which encourage us to miss the everyday miracles of life. Recently I needed to find some reflective footage to support an online space during a large conference. At a time when physical meetings are curtailed, we wanted to offer the kind of opportunity online which would normally occupy a side room to the main event. This led me to search YouTube for something serene and spacious – a visual experience where it’s easy to find calm and inner peace. There’s a lot of this sort of material on the internet. We settled on a springtime woodland scene, with birdsong in the background. During the search I also came across a woodland track in autumn, lasting 10 hours! I didn’t watch it all, but the real-time transition of day into night reminded me of the Turrell Skyspace.

Sunrise January 1 2020, York, England

Until the closure of churches for services last week, the interplay of sacred art with the daily occurrence of daybreak was something I enjoyed during morning prayer at York Minster. Starting at 07:30 we had arrived at the moment when a clear sky meant that during the service darkness was transformed into vibrant colour. The vast expanse of Medieval glass was slowly lit, turning monochrome panes into vivid reds, blues and greens. For more than six hundred years this ritual of light and art has taken place daily – observed or not.

The Great East Window, York Minster, England

At Morning Prayer last week the Book of Daniel was being read. In the second chapter Daniel gives blessing to God and includes the following: “he knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with him”. It echoes the theme reiterated in several passages that whether in darkness or in light, God is both present and involved. Nothing is hidden and nowhere is beyond God’s reach. As we continue to contend with COVID-19 and the evolving crisis of our time, we can take comfort in that assurance which is carried in Scripture and revealed in a history of faithfulness stretching across centuries.

We don’t always find that kind of comfort when we are most intent on finding it. While prayer may prepare us and invite our spirit to be closer to God, it can be the ordinary and unexpected where we find a moment of connection and joy. All too often we pass by ordinary miracles and miss the things that can both feed and stimulate our souls. Jamie Baxter’s recent poem imagines a very preoccupied office manager filling every moment with work and efficiency but, consequently, denying others a moment of wonder:

I’m always being asked for advice. how did youget a job herehow do you define failure or success When the red of the clouds fades to pink during the 4 o’clock winter sunsets and everyone gathers by the windows to take in the view I tut and shout make sure they get back to work…

Jamie Baxter A Profession London Review of Books 8 February 2020

I hope that in the week ahead, as we all live with the altered lives of a new reality, there will be time to turn aside to the everyday sacred. To have the capacity to stand by the window on a winter’s afternoon; or walk in woodland. These things feed the soul and, for people of faith, I hope and pray that they remind us of a God whose presence in the light and shade of life “is as sure as the dawn”.

Empty Plinths and Silent Saints

Exposure to different cultures often stimulates insight. Familiarity can create a lack of observation and reflection. Many years ago, visiting the Cathedrale de St-Pierre in Geneva, I was struck by the empty side chapels and alterations to the sanctuary. Familiar with cathedrals in England and elsewhere, the presence of both similarity and difference was disconcerting. Seldom have I seen a new theology so reshape and inhabit a physical space.

What I saw in Geneva may, however, be an experience shared by visitors to the Anglican cathedrals of England. The empty plinths on the outside of church buildings reflect a change driven by the shifting sands of theological conviction. For many the vacant niches may hardly raise an eyebrow, whereas for others they token a loss which continues to be felt.

Saints who survived the Reformation reshuffle; St Peter, York Minster

The Church of England took a pragmatic approach to religious change. The wholesale removal of statues in many European churches was not repeated in England. Just as liturgy made a selective combination of words from different sources, architecture reflected a middle way. Some saints remained – as St Peter today towers over the many unoccupied niches of York Minster. While these changes to church buildings may feel ancient history, in 2020 the issue of who we place on pedestals has never been more discussed or contested. The privileging of the powerful, even when wealth was built on the atrocities of slavery, led to the forced removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.

Far too slowly we are challenging and changing the stories our forebears set in stone. It is hard to imagine that future decisions about public sculpture will ignore the need to accelerate a wider representation of people in society. Westminster Abbey’s modern martyr statues illustrate the changes that can be made and the impact this has upon the community. With figures such as Manche Masemola and Janani Luwum the Abbey witnesses to a much more inclusive company of saints.

Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

We are mostly unaware of that “great multitude that no one can count”. However, the Book of Revelations tells us that they come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”. These are the saints whose faith and love for God is absent from the pages of history. The people whose unseen care and courage has changed the world without drawing wider attention. They are countless and uncounted – but their unlooked for reward will surely come in the blessing God has promised. Occasionally, with wisdom, the Church recognises one of this great company as an example to inspire – but such examples must speak to the reality that saints come from the whole of humanity.

Perhaps today would be a good day to ask ourselves who we would put on a pedestal? Who has touched and inspired our lives and brought the hope of God’s love to others. The people who have kept company with the persecuted and refused to abandon those in need.

I am sure that many saints pass among us unnoticed. In every age there is injustice to challenge, and in the days of Covid-19 we need as many saints as we can muster. The people who will not allow the poor to be left behind as economic hardship follows hard on the heals of rising infection, illness and death. Those who challenge the casual ageism that bats away the significance of a death with the words ‘they were elderly’; ‘they had an underlying condition’; or ‘they were obese’. It is the distancing-language that separates you from me; us from them.

Maybe we need empty plinths around our cathedrals. Spaces that remind us that most saints pass through this world without comment, and that God calls the people we think are the least likely bearers of faith . On some pedestals there are saints in later life – continuing to live out a love that knows no end.