Melancholy

Last Sunday, as I begin to fill in the Register at a church where I’d just lead a service, my fountain pen broke in two. It was quite dramatic. Large blots of black ink formed on the page; my hand was doused in the stuff; a small amount pooled onto the floor. As far as possible, using tissues and wipes, I remedied the damage – but left an indelible mark of my (first!) visit to the church.

Returning home I turned to Google to see if I was alone in my experience. Apparently not. This trusted model from a good brand was known to suffer the occasional failure of a welded section, causing the split I had just experienced. I also learned that it is reparable, and during the week I parcelled up the parts to send to a UK agent for assessment and onward travel to Germany. Like many items we might have as we get older, not only was it – until this point – a reliable mainstay of my writing, it was also a gift from my father for my 50th birthday.

Although I have only caught glimpses of the BBC series The Repair Shop, it isn’t difficult to understand the popularity of the programme. Things that have aged and become damaged are brought back to their former glory. Through the process of repair we are connected with the past as heritage skills are used by the experts to restore the items. Of course, in the process, the person who has presented the treasured artefact tells us the story about its origin and arrival with the current owner. Often these accounts will involve bereavement and the role of the heirloom has a tangible connection with a vanished world.

The Repair Shop

It may be that this programme appeals to younger people – but I suspect the larger audience will be at the older end of the scale. People who have inherited items or been gifted them by friends or relatives when inevitably downsizing as the years advance. Perhaps some personalities are more invested in such things than others, but I imagine that almost everyone can recognise the feeling that an item from the past evokes a sudden sense of connection to a world where we once lived, and which is now past. Watching Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast last night led us to remark that it was like watching our childhoods, not because of the circumstances of growing up in Northern Ireland, but because of the consumer products, Christmas decorations, gifts and furnishings that were featured in the film.

Now in his late 80s, the unconventional former leader of the Episcopalian Church in Scotland, Richard Holloway, has been reflecting on melancholy in his latest book, The Heart of Things. Holloway’s writing in recent years has been a great blessing, not least because he is sharing with us considerable insight, intelligence and feeling from what might be called ‘the front line of later life’.

“Melancholy has become a kind of grateful sadness at what life has given us but which we can never cling to, because it is constantly passing, disappearing into the past. Melancholics find it impossible not to keep looking back at what time has wrought as it slips away behind them like the wake of a ship”.

Richard Holloway, ‘The Heart of Things: An Anthology of Memory & Lament’ Canongate 2021 p. 9

It is little wonder that so many of us enjoy repairing things from the past and re-lustering what has become dull over time. Through these physical fragments of heritage we achieve something we know is impossible for ourselves. We can pass on these keepsakes in near mint condition, while recognising that we share with their first users the reality of our own change and ultimate demise. Like Holloway, I don’t find this a depressing thought, and will be glad to receive back my fountain pen in one piece and use it for a while longer.

Religions typically invite their adherents to avoid investing excessive attachment to things. Whether it is putting wealth into barns or clinging onto power, the behaviour of Jesus in the wilderness is to reject the beguiling shortcuts to food and sovereignty. In his life and teaching Jesus makes clear that false attachments become a barrier to a spirituality that endures. We can live well with ‘things’ but need to be mindful that everything is lent to us for a time. Jesus doesn’t reject possessions entirely, but questions what his hearers ‘treasure’, aware that material things are not eternal. Living at ease with an awareness of irretrievably passing time can help us all live each day well. It is folly, like the example of Cnut, to think that the sands of the hour glass can be diverted or prevented. We live within their falling, and might live better lives if we were at peace with this reality – and our custody of things for a season.

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