Practiced Preparations

Last Sunday the kitchen was filled with the rich aroma of Christmas cake. Part of the counter-narrative to convenience food lies in the enduring appeal of homemade seasonal treats. Many people bemoan an ever earlier Christmas, but the truth is that timely preparations have always been a part of autumn. If I had a pound for every time someone has said to me ‘it’s only one day’ I would be a lot wealthier. While that may be true for many, there are others whose thoughts turn to Christmas early in the second half of the year. Someone I met one August, sadly bereaved of one of his few friends, wondered what would happen at Christmas? He spoke fondly of the annual visit that would see a special bottle opened, with conversation that mingled past and present. For some people, Christmas is the axle on which the year turns.

My grandmother, in a ritual practiced by many gardeners, would acquire some forced hyacinth bulbs and make sure their growth was managed in order to bring colour to Christmas. They became gifts for friends and family and filled her home with scent and brightness. The whole process takes 10-12 weeks, so this kind of preparation begins long before darkness starts to fall at an early hour. With a keen eye and careful foresight, presents were bought at various times earlier in the year and put away until needed. Sometimes gifts would be handmade, drawing on her skills in needlework. Again, this couldn’t be managed at short notice – planning was needed to ensure sufficient time to complete the project. Christmas was in mind long before it became a matter for discussion.

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And of thy meager store,
Two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

Saadi, Persian Sufi poet, in Gulistan (The Rose Garden), 1258

With trees up and decorations out, Advent can feel a bit late in the day, which is more appropriate than many might imagine. The themes, music and liturgy of Advent convey the sense that time is running out – salvation is at hand. Our progress through darkening days to the bright feast of the nativity is marked by ominous warnings that the end is closer than we think. We need to wake up and be alert because salvation ‘is nearer than when we first believed’. It can feel that the pots and pans of Christendom are being struck in a cacophony of anticipation and warning, just when the idea of hibernation is most appealing.

Advent is fleeting. Few places observe its daunting themes with sustained focus – there are understandable demands for nativity plays and carols to fill the Sundays up to Christmas. Yet overwriting of the season robs us of a purposeful time and some of our most profound liturgical moods and music.

In Advent, we set our sights toward the horizon of God’s future, and allow that horizon to reframe our present-day attitudes.

Witvliet, J. D. (2008). “Sing to the Lord No Threadbare Song”: Theological Angularity in the Face of Advent Sentimentality. Interpretation62(4), 402-417.

Preparation is part of our waiting. We are promised judgement. In contemplating the apocalypse we see a settling of accounts that could be horrific. What may appear overwhelmingly bleak is countered by the promise that love is born into the cataclysm. A non-sentimental love that knows who we are and helps us find a peace unavailable in our world, but freely given to those who seek it. The discomforting purpose of Advent is to allow the future to question our present. To ask, perhaps (in a post-colonial world riven by inequality) whether we have some responsibility for the people whose lives were lost in the English Channel last week? To consider how much we are complicit in our own misery. Even when observed only partially, Advent holds the space for this kind of reflection and, I can only hope, for action that becomes ever more aligned with a compassionate future to which we are being constantly nudged; invited and called.

When the tracks towards Christmas are well laid and long established there’s the risk that fresh insights will be missed. Practiced preparations can be a great distraction from the work of Advent to feed our souls and animate our awareness. There is so much to do, and a promised satisfaction if all our careful plans and preparation come to fruition. We might even gaze with smugness as we watch the panic of the foolish virgins who have left gift-buying to the very last minute. Surely they knew this day was coming? How incompetent!

Advent, in all its sombre glory, tells us about another day that is coming. Not the 25th of December but a far more significant and consequential day. It is a season that speaks over the fuss of festivities and asks big questions. Questions with a relevance and urgency we disregard at our peril.

Larkin Around

The Sunday after John Betjeman died Philip Larkin went to church. I was in St Mary’s Cottingham for Evensong when the familiar figure of the university librarian entered – just after the service had started. While Larkin was well known for church going, he preferred to make sure there was ‘nothing going on’ inside before crossing the threshold. I’ve no idea whether or not he stayed to the end, but his silent presence made a poignant homage to the senior poet. In death, Betjeman got Larkin into a church service, which would probably have raised a chuckle from the poet renowned for his passionate interest in all things ecclesiastical.

Like most undergraduates at Hull, I had very little to do with Larkin. He appeared during induction to speak about the library and offered the advice: ‘spending your grant on library fines is a very silly way to part with your money’. Once during a student all night work-in opposing Thatcherite cuts to higher education, Larkin stomped about in the theology and philosophy section, huffing and puffing, until a fellow student – unaware who was creating the noise – expelled a loud ‘sshhh’ in his direction. We were very studious in those days.

Although different poets, Larkin and Betjeman had a respectful and constructive relationship. In 1964 Betjeman interviewed Larkin in a BBC Monitor programme. It begins with an exploration of Larkin’s chosen context, the city of Hull. The isolation and ‘end of England’ ambiance chimed with the poet who felt so suited to its remoteness.

November often brings Betjeman to mind. His poem Winter at Home captures an England long departed. A season of quiet when the appearance of fog is welcomed as it grounds aircraft and adds to the sense of stillness. For Betjeman it is a time for reading long novels, and noting the small changes that mark the slow shift of the seasons. The moment when the Michaelmas daisies are too frost bitten for use in church and dried arrangements are put in place instead. An era when the limited supply of international goods meant people were compelled to work within the limitations – and opportunities – of the season.

John Betjeman’s devotion to the Church of England and the unique and prevailing Anglican temper of his character and imagination have been amply explored…

Gardner, K. J. (2014). Strange deliberations: John Betjeman and protestant nonconformity. Christianity & Literature63(2), 225-256.

When it came to Christianity and Church Larkin and Betjeman could not have been more different, yet the Monitor interview suggests that there were spiritual touching points despite the outward differences. Sitting with Betjeman in an overgrown cemetery, Larkin muses that ‘everything I write… has the consciousness of approaching death’. While having a very limited knowledge of churches, Larkin says that he developed a habit of visiting them (when empty). He comments: ‘I always welcomed the feeling I had going into a church’. There is a deep interest here in the liminal, the mortal, and the endless.

I am not sure whether Larkin’s silent Evensong tribute to Betjeman is recorded anywhere. Eighteen months later Larkin himself died, and two of England’s most significant post-world war poets were gone. A tribute by the English department took place the day before I left Hull for good. It was a highlight of my three years in the university city, with Larkin’s ‘loaf-haired secretary’ present along with others who were, in one way of another, caught up in his poems.

Writing about a theological approach to Larkin, Theo Hobson makes a persuasive case that the poet’s attention to the realities of life challenge a complacent secularism. At the same time, “his pursuit of ‘undeceived’ honesty… becomes a personal myth”. This leads Larkin to flirt with nihilism but not to succumb to it. For the complacent secularist as much as for those developing a deceptive ‘sub-theological gospel’, Larkin crafts poetry that disturbs seemingly self-evident narratives.

I wonder if anything in Evensong struck a chord with Larkin’s thoughts that evening? Was there the slightest lifting of an eyebrow as the words of the Magnificat cut through the blent air: ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’.

Remembering the Absence

Increasingly, I think of my grandfather on Remembrance Sunday. I can imagine that his arrival in the world would have attracted some kind and amusing comments. Thomas was a ‘Valentine’ baby – born on 14 February. So far so good, but unbeknown to his parents and family he was born in a fateful year: 1896. This meant that his eighteenth birthday fell in February 1914, and in the summer of that year he signed up for active service,

I know almost nothing about his military service. Sadly, we only overlapped in life for 11 months. I was born in the January and he died in December. I know that he enlisted with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and, because of the Battalion in which he served, he spent most of WWI in Gallipoli, the Middle East and West Africa. It appears that he continued to be in the army as a Private until 1920. As he had nothing that drew him into official records (such as injury) there is very little left to show for his six years of service. Like most other troops, he was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

I would love to have talked with him about those years. With an upbringing in a Lancashire market town, and a family trade of weaving, Tom probably never imagined that he would travel so widely or find himself in such danger. The Regiment he joined would have been full of people he knew, perhaps even distant relatives or school friends. Those years away from home probably had a number of consequences, not least marriage at the then relatively late age of 28. Equally, I have no idea either whether this experience contributed to his death aged 69. My non-combatant maternal grandparents lived into their 80s.

Across the twentieth century, and even today, people will be thinking about absent family members and friends. War has led to so many untimely deaths, and continues to do so. Given that peaceful co-existence is so clearly in the interests of humanity it seems remarkable that it is so elusive. Human greed and fear appear to be the characteristics that fuel conflict and despite all we have learned we find it impossible to resolve these feelings and live peacefully with one another. The astonishing development of technology and science is unmatched by any noticeable change in human maturity, wisdom or insight.

The father of the poet Ted Hughes served with the Lancashire Fusiliers during WWI. At Gallipoli he was one of only 17 men to survive from his battalion, giving some idea of the harrowing circumstances in which these young men found themselves. As so many of the troops were serving in the same units the consequent loss of life within the mill towns of Lancashire was devastating. As Hughes put it, ‘We are the children of ghosts / And these are the towns of ghosts’.

Hi father’s war stories were so vivid, his psychological wound so palpable that Hughes felt he himself had witnessed the apocalyptic carnage. 

Meyers, J. (2013). Ted Hughes: War Poet. The Antioch Review71(1), 30-39.

Only recently has some kind of understanding emerged about the enduring scars of conflict. The growing study and use of the concept of moral injury reflects an awareness of suffering that continues. Alongside PTSD there is recognition that terrible events in conflict reverberate down the decade and – as the quote above illustrates – even be passed across generations. When the cost of a war is estimated these kinds of injury appear to be omitted from the calculations. The lack of peace in our world comes at a terrible price.

The soldier and war poet Siegfried Sassoon imagines in one of his compositions that the devil visits a cenotaph. The prayer of the prince of darkness is that humanity will forget the damage done by war, and that human folly will be repeated. It feels that our task is the exact opposite – to remind any war-hungry politician that conflicts seldom end in less than a century, and that the greatest price is paid by ordinary men and women long after the guns fall silent. The absence of an estimate of emotional damage does not mean the damage doesn’t exist. There is no lack of testimony, like that of Hughes, showing the lasting trauma both in field participants and in the communities from which so many young people suddenly became absent.

We will remember them – and must never forget that hell on earth reaches far and wide.

Sternly Spoken

At some point during my BA studies at the University of Hull I encountered The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I was taking a degree in English Literature and Theology, and Sterne’s renowned work cropped up in a course on Augustan Literature. It felt a disorderly work compared with other writing of the period, but its many digressions are also its captivating quality. Like a fairground roller coaster, there are hairpin bends in this fictional tour de force. Little did I imagine that a few decades later I would be living quite so close to the places Sterne would have known during his life. Close by York Minster there was Sterne’s publisher. His uncle and patron Jaques Sterne was precentor in the Minster as well as Archdeacon of Cleveland. This morning I led the service at Priory Church of Holy Trinity Micklegate, where one of the characters thought to have been lampooned in his work is buried. Dr John Burton’s pioneering work in obstetrics appears to have inspired the figure of the ‘man-midwife’, Dr Slop.

It may well be that Sterne attacked Dr Burton in this way due to the religious politics of the time. Burton was a Jacobite and Catholic sympathiser, something that landed him in goal at the instigation of the Precentor. Sterne was ordained by the time he wrote Shandy and it says something about the times that a cleric could publish something so candid about the realities of life and human follies. The novel came in at number 6 in a Guardian list of the best one hundred novels.

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;” 

The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

For all the playful style of Tristram Shandy there is political weight in its portrays of 19th century life. It is a book designed to wield influence, and in its hints and winks it would have tantalised people across a breadth of classes and situations. In an edition of In Our Time dedicated to the book, it was pointed out that the fictional writings of Sterne were seen as a way to increase the sale of his printed sermons, rather than the sermons advertising the novel. It reminds us how very different times were in Georgian England and how significant preaching was considered.

While there is a lot to criticise about the way religion and politics has mixed in the past, there is also scope for concern about a church that walks away from politics. After all, politics is about the way we live – what governance permits or outlaws. It can no more be something the church should avoid than the preaching of the Gospel. The idea that Jesus wasn’t a political figure is ludicrous – in his clashes with the authorities, and teaching about the operation of institutions such as the Temple, he was entirely political.,

It has felt in recent years that the Church has had a vanishing presence in the political arena. Declining attendances combined with a focus on personal salvation have chipped away at the place the C of E once occupied. This is not the Church of Faith in the City, nor do parish clergy have the time they once enjoyed to participate extensively in civic life. Of course there’s a very good argument that laity ought to be doing this in any event, as the people of faith embedded in the community. However, the perspective of a person set aside to focus on spiritual concerns – with the experience of living and working in several communities – has a value that is unique.

Instead of providing strength, solace, inspiration, and communion, churches are decidedly human institutions comprised of the eccentric, the stupid, and the venal. 

The failure of organized religion in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy by David Dobbie Tull, 1991

The recently launched Archbishops’ Commissions may be a hopeful sign that the Church wishes to speak in the public square. Given recent goings-on in British politics surely there is a need for a moral voice (and possibly lampooning)? What took place concerning the scrutiny of MPs suggests a political leadership that is shameless of its self-interest, only responding when its fawning supporters in the media announce that things have gone too far. Today Sterne would have ample material for a new novel, without the need for very much invention. Despite all its constraints and interested parties, the Church is called to speak from its experience, beliefs and commitment – and sometimes that speech must be stern in making clear the yawning gap between the ideals of public service, and the shameless pursuit of personal interest.