A writer, researcher and speaker on faith, spirituality and wellbeing. Enthusiastic about spirituality and belief in a community setting; challenged and changed by the theological questions raised in daily life. Author of 'Hospital Chaplaincy in the Twenty-first Century (Routledge)
The nose of a Springer Spaniel is a remarkable thing. Not simply the nose, but the overall capacity to find. Our morning walks now take place in darkness, and as I launch a tennis ball into a landscape of lesser and greater obscurity, I never doubt the ball’s return. It may take time – but another remarkable thing about spaniels is their tenacity. I watch as various search patterns are executed. There is always a careful eye kept on me, and if I start to head in a particular direction, the ground is swept from side-to-side in advance of my approach. Occasionally – very occasionally and after a long time – we concede defeat. However, almost always, the panting hound returns to my feet tail rotating in triumph, and discards the ball so that the whole routine can begin again.
In these shortening days we head towards the old feast day of Thomas, the 21st of December. As the Revd Richard Coles commented at the recent York Minster Carol Concerts, these are days when ghost-stories come into their own. Reading a section of Simon Armitage’s rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (‘It was Christmas at Camelot…’), as well as A Christmas Carol, there is no doubting the antiquity of humanity’s imaginings during the days of darkness. In the Northern hemisphere this sense of gathering gloom, met with festive lights, seems an altogether fitting climate for Advent and the approach of Christmas.
The Collect throughout Advent petitions for grace to ‘cast away the works of darkness’. Looking at the world today it can feel that this call continues to go unheeded. Both cold and darkness will be the experience for many people, some of whom would never have imagined a time when they would need to choose between eating and heating. In the trenches and dugouts of Eastern Ukraine, soldiers will face winter warfare away from family and friends. In a world where wealth abounds for the few, most will struggle to find the basic securities and necessities of life. There is little need for ghost stories when the grizzly realities of life are so close at hand.
Once lost, it is never easy to retrieve from darkness the things we took for granted. Nevertheless, both Advent and Christmas feed the imagination of a better time; a more just world; and salvation from our own, dreadful, folly. Churches – at the only time of year when many people attend – are charged with holding out the vision and promise of something more worthy of our potential. To speak especially to ‘the people who walk in darkness’ and to stand with those who know their need of God. During the next few weeks we shall invite people in to taste something of the ancient hope the church is called to cherish and proclaim. More often than not, it won’t be the powerful who ask for grace so that we might live in light. As the poet Stewart Henderson puts it:
Don’t miss Christmas – the splendour of it all our brittle, gift-wrapped anthem sleeps in a cattle stall as the poor and lost and starving weakly start to sing it seems only desperate subjects recognise their King.
Extract from: Stewart Henderson, Don’t Miss Christmas’
While standing on the platform, expecting a train to Machu Picchu, I noticed the sign to the waiting room. In Spanish, a waiting room uses the word associated with hope (‘la esperanza’): it is the ‘sala de espera’. At times it can feel in the UK that ‘hope’ would be a more fitting description for a waiting room on our less reliable routes. However, it led me to ponder whether there is any real distinction between waiting and hoping. Looking up the Spanish led me to an interesting thread, which includes discussion about the Bible translations of the two terms. Although there are alternative words in Spanish, in many cases – where either waiting and hoping would be used in English translations – it is the single verb ‘esperar’ that is favoured.
Perhaps the principal difference lies in the passivity of waiting. As with the example of a train station, waiting is what precedes movement and change. On the other hand, hope can be part of the journey. The people who travel from across the world to Europe, or across the border in the USA, are hoping to find safety and a new way of life. Writing about hope and waiting in the lives of migrants, Bendixsen and Eriksen ask questions about the different ways in which this can be experienced by people in an uncertain state of seeking refuge:
“What is it that we ‘do’ when we wait for something, given that waiting is normally defined as the opposite of ‘doing’ something? In what way can waiting be converted into political resistance? Waiting does in fact entail an engagement based on anticipation – an in-order-to motivation – of an improved life. How do conceptualizations of the future influence the ways in which people wait? And what can we say about people’s capacity to act in future-oriented ways even in a condition of temporal limbo?”
Bendixsen, S., & Eriksen, T. H. (2018). Time and the other: Waiting and hope among irregular migrants. Ethnographies of waiting: Doubt, hope and uncertainty, 87-112.
In his seminal book The Stature of Waiting WH Vanstone sees in the act of waiting the unfolding of Christ’s purpose. From the moment when Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers his willingness to be subject to the actions of others becomes the driving force of his mission. Here, waiting is not an absence of purpose but the only way in which salvation can come.
There are many things that can incline someone to journey hopefully. Often there is a life-long dialogue between the difficult experiences that are all too real, and the hope that is far more than simply wishful thinking. Such hope is strongly connected to the now, and sees the world as it could be and should be. Because of this connection hope itself is not static, but shifts as both our understanding and desire grow. Most often it is killed off by certainties we have decided are fixed and beyond change. For anyone finding faith difficult, Ronnie Scharfman expresses both the struggle to hope, and the hope-against-hope that faith might be found in the struggle:
I have always hoped that struggling towards You is You. But I am never sure. And that is, perhaps, You, too.
Ronnie Scharfman, ‘Prayer’ in The Poet’s Quest for God, 21st Century Poems of Doubt, Faith and Wonder, ed. Brennan, O., Swift, T., and Myddleton-Evans, C. Eyewear Publishing Ltd., London. 2016
The hope of faith during Advent requires courage. It is a time when the liturgy of the Church makes no bones about the darkness and suffering of the world, or the fact that the world as we know if will come to an end. Given the multiple crises assaulting the planet at the moment this seems less difficult to imagine. Holding any hope is an act of courage – a defiance of doom and a way to connect with others who share the idea that there is a better way. Perhaps this brings waiting and hoping back together, because our hopes are seldom realised quickly, and dissatisfied waiting can be a vocal irritant to the people who block the path to change.
In the cycle of the Church’s year we are now in the ‘Kingdom Season’. It lasts until Advent Sunday and features a lot of readings from apocalyptic Bible passages, with an emphasis on judgement and the end of the world. The season concludes next week with the last Sunday in the Church’s year – a celebration of Christ the King.
Sitting in Morning Prayer at York Minster during these days matches the appointed readings to the panels of the Great East Window. It is an experience that spans time. The Book of Revelations probably dates from the final years of the first century AD. The window was constructed between 1405 and 1408, and I ma sitting listening to one, and looking at the other, in the year 2022.
In some respects the window feels like a cartoon strip telling the story of the Book of Revelation. A way for people with limited reading ability to follow the Biblical account of the end times. The colours and depictions are vivid, with suitably grim and menacing monsters and angels variously inflicting several plagues. Each frame gives life to a passage from scripture, which can easily be followed with the excellent navigator website. Given the content of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, it is hardly surprising that it has enjoyed a very mixed reception. For George Bernard Shaw Revelation is “a curious record of the visions of a drug addict”. DH Lawrence hated it so much that he wrote his own commentary.
It is certainly true that outside the context in which it was written, the text is often puzzling and perplexing. When I did a course on the Book of Revelation in the 1980s, I recall being told that the text was meant to be heard – to be read aloud. Maybe it sits uncomfortably on the page because the visions and drive of the apocalypse is designed to be a crashing and pulsating narrative. The various sequences and repetitions suggest that this may be right.
In March 2020 many may have felt that apocalyptic events were unfolding in our own time. Perhaps there was an expectation that, however difficult, this was a trial humanity had to undergo before sunnier days would commence. Writing in the final weeks of 2022 it now appears that crises of major proportions are fact of life. Maybe there is something in the Book of Revelation that suggests an initial calamity precipitates subsequent disruptions? In choosing ‘permacrisis‘ for its 2022 ‘word of the year’, Collins Dictionaries is reflecting the challenge people are experiencing in attempting to return to turbulence of more familiar proportions. Along with the continuing lack of inter-governmental action on climate change, evidenced by the debates at Cop27, there is growing awareness of the plummeting diversity of species on the planet. It is certain that climate change and loss of biodiversity are connected issues. More and more of our planet bears the fingerprints of human involvement and, consequently, there is a vanishing number of true wildernesses in our world. On top of which, this year is likely to be the warmest on record for the UK.
Perhaps in the last 50 years we have become accustomed to a significant level of control in our economic and social order in the West. This is an exceptional experience for any human society, but there is plenty of compelling evidence to speculate that some fundamental issues may overpower us. In this respect at least, we have something in common with those who first heard the revelation of St John the Divine. Individually there is only a small amount we can do to meet the permacrises of the present. It requires a bigger and more international solution.
The apocalypse literature of this season encourages us to consider the shape of the future if we don’t change. The books of Daniel and Revelation suggest that we cannot predict the future as confidently as we should like. The dizzying imagery of these visions remind us that we sow today what we shall reap tomorrow. Both in personal faith and actions of collective responsibility, we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions. Apocalyptic literature should focus our minds and stir our spirits to work for a future where there is hope for our world.
The forced loss of land is probably the chief cause of the world’s most entrenched political and personal discord. In The West Wing, in a throwaway comment about Palestinian resettlement in the episode entitled Gaza, Admiral Fitzwallace remarks: “You know, after 50 years, one option might be to get over it”. The comment doesn’t recognise the enduring wounds of injustice which haunt people who have been forcibly removed from their land. I was reminded about this recently when speaking with some visitors from South Africa. Their families had been relocated during Apartheid under the Group Areas Act. Part of the rationale for this was the argument that they were a growing population and needed more space – which wasn’t available. However, revisiting their original home-town they had noted that many of the areas they were told could not be developed, now had housing. The forced relocation of people, accompanied by lies and coercion, leaves a stain of injustice that lasts much, much longer than 50 years.
The commodification of land is a widely accepted aspect of economic life in the West. However, this was an alien concept for many peoples around the world during colonisation. The protracted, trans-generational misery of exclusion from historic lands continues to blight the lives of indigenous communities around the world. Having land removed, or the rights to access land denied, can contribute to a disintegration of culture, customs and wellbeing that cannot be easily repaired or replaced.
“The current discussion concerning the environmental crisis emphasizes the need for a theology of land. One of the key observations of this thesis is that Indigenous communal identity includes the land, and that has underscored for me the general dislocation from the earth of modern Western people. A theology of creation must move even closer to the earth, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between people and the earth. Indigenous people understand that the Creator put them in a specific place, and this forms a vital part of their identity”.
Aldred, Raymond Clifford. An Alternative Starting Place for an Indigenous Theology. Diss. 2020p. 251
A consideration of indigenous peoples, land and theology must include the religious dimensions and complex politics of a ‘promised land’. While some territories have been ‘virgin’ (from a human perspective), most people around the world are settled on land that was once occupied by someone else. When religious legitimacy is given to the removal of people from land it does nothing to diminish the sense of anger and injustice. The Radio 4 In Our Timeseries has an episode giving attention to the debates in Spain that following the conquest of indigenous people in South America. The assumed benefit of bringing Christianity to anyone was a key ideological factor in the approach that was taken to land acquisition. Around the world religious ideas, and the Bible in particular, were used selectively to underpin and implement egregious acts of violence and land acquisition.
Land that is understood to be promised is at the heart of many of the most politically complex situations in the world. In the Middle East the desire for peace is met with seemingly intractable complexities of religion; geopolitics and history. Despite the interventions and attempts by many world leaders the situation remains volatile and dangerous (and not only for the Middle East).
“For those who might have heard about what befell the Palestinian Arabs, it is possible that they felt sorry for us, but in the great master plan of God and God’s purposes for history, the Palestinians who were killed by the Zionists in the war and the hundreds of thousands who were dispossessed and became refugees were probably considered collateral damage and a small price to pay compared with what God was accomplishing through the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland”.
Ateek, N. S. (Ed.). (2017). A Palestinian theology of liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. Orbis Books.
In material gathered before the end of Apartheid, RS Sugirtharajah’s work Voices from the Margin there is a case study from South Africa which includes the following comment by a participant:
“We want to live freely as we used to before the white man came. When I was a small boy, my grandfather had land, cattle, sheep, goats, plenty of land that they tilled and could reap good harvests and had cows to milk, And life was good. You felt you had what you wanted. But they took the land away from him; something to do with title deeds and white farmers, and that happened to other blacks as well, and the men had to work for the white farmers or come to town to work. So that’s how we came here”.
Sugirtharajah, R. S. (1991). Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World.
Our ability, or capacity to restrain our intervention, seems to leave only tiny exceptions to the general rule of conquest and assimilation. A combination of economic exploitation, religious mission and academic curiosity has put an end to many distinctive cultures and civilisations. The people of the North Sentinel island might be one of the few remaining cultures almost entirely left alone. When an American missionary was killed on approaching the island even the US State Department decided not to pursue an investigation for murder. We have no idea what ‘murder’ would mean in the culture of the North Sentinelese, or what shared framework of human perception and understanding would enable a fair trial. In an earlier colonial era such acts would legitimate conquest and subjugation.
The legacy of colonialism undoubtedly leaves many indigenous people and communities bearing a burden of injustice. Today, in a different way, it is also these communities which are often those most affected by changes to our climate. A UN independent experts panel has called on the States attending COP27 to “allow for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and civil society… Indigenous peoples and civil society play an essential role in the advancement of climate action, and their voices must be heard”. When the voices of indigenous people are absent, or go unheard, humanity’s vision is diminished. This is especially true when such voices come from people often very close to the land, experiencing and lamenting the changes that make their way of live increasingly difficult. As we continue to debate and respond to a crisis from which none of us can escape, the relationship of human beings to land sites at the centre of any meaningful action. Altering our attitudes and perceptions about land, especially its commercial use, is essential for any meaningful sense of liberation.
Peru is a remarkable country. It possesses a breathtaking combination of the natural wonders, from the jungle to the Sierra, as well as the remarkable archaeological legacy of earlier civilisations, including the Inca Empire. For my first trip abroad since 2019 there could not have been a better destination.
When travelling I always try to discover a little about life beyond the corridors of the tourist experience, and having a reasonable level of conversational Spanish certainly helps in Hispanophone countries. A few days before we landed in Lima the Government of Peru eased some mask restrictions. This meant that from 1 October mask wearing is only mandatory ‘at health establishments, and in ground transportation vehicles‘. In effect, we experienced Perus at its most ‘normal’ since the early months of 2020. Continuing mask-wearing was certainly being upheld during a train journey to Machu Piccu. Unsurprisingly, in a country where 0.5% of the population died from COVID-19, the transition to pre-2020 behaviours has been more hesitant than in countries such as the UK.
During the past couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to ask people about their experience of COVID in Peru. It is strikingly different from the situation in Europe, especially from an economic perspective. There is also a dimension that reaches far back into the history of Peru, not least in the relationship between indigenous peoples and the conduct of the state. It is a salutary reminder that harrowing experiences of conquest and subjugation have profound and enduring legacies. Often these communities are economically disadvantaged and may have unresolved reservations about medicine delivered in ways that may appear to be at odds with traditional beliefs and treatments.
Whatever quarantine rules said, it’s hard for many Peruvians to stay home. Roughly 70% work in the informal employment sector, with little job security and no sick pay. Nearly 44% of homes don’t have a refrigerator, so families must go out often to get food. Busy markets have become hubs of infection.
Ciara Nugent, ‘Why Peru’s COVID-19 problem spiralled – despite a strict lockdown’, Time Magazine, June 15 2020.
Nugent quotes Iván Hidalgo’s observation about the nature of decision-making during the crisis: ‘We’re seeing the measures designed in the capital collide with the reality of the country’. In Peru there was no state-funded furlough, at least not for those to whom I spoke. People were forced to survive as best they could. As tourism dried up, a major source of employment in the country was put on hold. I asked what that meant for various people, denied salaries and ‘tips’, and I heard about the resourcefulness of people suddenly denied their income. One drew on his early years growing up in a farm to breed ducks; another turned his hand to furniture making; and one guide returned to her family home where they opened a food shop. However, despite this resourcefulness, they all spoke about how hard the past two years had been, even if they and their families had not been affected too badly by illness and mortality. The tour guides were well-educated people, with wide networks of contacts and skill in several languages. I can only imagine how much more difficult life must have been for people with fewer resources, used to living hand-to-mouth in normal times.
The people of the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca demonstrated one approach by which traditional ways of life offered potential advantages in responding to COVID. The remarkable reed islands, constructed by the Uros people, allowed the community to sever links with the local city of Puno and focus on fishing and other forms of subsistence. Speaking to one of the leaders of a family community (pictured), known as a ‘President’, it was clear that their way of life enabled infection to be avoided. However, the loss of income from tourism, as well as a lack of access to education, left lasting damage to the people living this distinctive way of life.
Overall, my observations in Peru, and conversations with local people, have reminded me of the lamentable fact that the least-well resourced in society typically suffer repeated harm. It is entirely fitting that South American countries, with a sustained experience of socio-economic disadvantage, developed a form of theology which interrogates systemic disadvantage and energises practical responses to injustice. Liberation theology, notably pioneered by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, has had a mixed reception in recent decades. However, there is a growing interest in forms of liberation which are generated in specific communities experiencing particular forms of disadvantage. This includes a liberation theology of indigenous peoples, a constituency made up of between 5 and 8 percent of the world’s population.
‘Indigenous theology attempts to mobilize community cutting across class, caste, tribe, and gender barriers to promote values and structure that enhance life, reject the forces and practices that destroy life, and liberate them from bondage. Collective solidarity resistance with the victims of the system and people in pain is witness to the liberating power of God in Christ. The cross is the sign of solidarity. To witness Christ without resistance for justice has no meaning’.
Longchar, W. (2013). Liberation theology and indigenous people. In The Reemergence of Liberation Theologies (pp. 111-121). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
For Gutiérrez, liberation theology arose out of a conviction in God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’. It is clear that during COVID the plight of the poorest in society was exacerbated. In Peru’s capital, Lima, one district, Cantagallo, is home to the majority of the city’s indigenous population. In May 2020 tests showed that 73% of the district’s inhabitants had COVID. Following the first death due to the virus the police established a cordon around the community. Given the severely limited resources of the district this placed a significant burden on the residents. Hearing of their plight, indigenous communities across Perus responded by sending traditional herbal remedies and other assistance. In June 2020 the Archbishop of Lima filled the Cathedral with pictures of those who had died from COVID, criticising a health system “based on egotism and on business and not on mercy and solidarity with the people”. Words alone will not change this reality, even if identifying the failings and their consequences is a first step in addressing an injustice. While the attention of the world has moved on from COVID to other challenges, it remains vital that the human cost of inequality and discrimination is not forgotten – nor the deep history which shapes the continuing marginalisation of indigenous peoples across the world.
The Age of Anxiety is the title of WH Auden’s final long poem. Born in York in 1907, Auden published the work in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the following year. Its theme is human isolation, a condition indicated to be more frequent with the loss of traditions, and established forms of religious belief. Seventy-five years after its publication the presence of anxiety, isolation and purposelessness shows little sign of diminishing. Despite the rapid advances of technology and scientific understanding during the last eight decades, we appear to have arrived at a point of heightened anxiety. Within three years we have encountered unprecedented isolation due to a once-in-a-century pandemic; endured weather conditions never known before (e.g. over 40°C in the UK); and, with war in Europe, now have a global energy crisis that shows no immediate sign of abating. If there were need to add to this dismal catalogue, in the UK a new government has added to our woes with an economic policy favouring the wealthy.
Like the breakers of a storm, the past 30 months has seen a rapid succession of events largely outside the experience of most people in the West. Anxiety has undoubtedly increased during this time, with serious and debilitating consequences. Following a research report, linking anxiety-induced dreams in middle age to the eventual development of dementia, it would appear that we even have reason to be anxious about our anxiety.
Intriguingly, some researchers have identified ‘awe’ as one antidote to anxiety. While academics have divided awe into ways that are either positive or negative, it is likely that even some of the negative implications (feeling ‘smaller’) might not be detrimental to overall wellbeing. Sometimes that experience of proportionality is only a corrective to an over-estimate of our place in the universe. As we are reminded in the Book of Job: “my days are a breath”. Seeing our significance more accurately might lessen a deceptive sense that the world around us relies on us. In that correction we may feel our anxiety diminish, although – understandably – for others this truth may feel very threatening.
“Awe seems to be a complex emotion or emotional construct characterized by a mix of positive (contentment, happiness), and negative affective components (fear and a sense of being smaller, humbler or insignificant).”
Arcangeli, M., Sperduti, M., Jacquot, A., Piolino, P., & Dokic, J. (2020). Awe and the experience of the sublime: A complex relationship. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1340.
From a religious perspective awe is tied to a sense of transcendence: ‘Ultimately wonder and awe are significant aspects of the religious experience‘. This is both something about a sense of perspective linked to a divine being, as well as finding in that perspective a sense of purpose. Time and again studies have found this sense of purpose plays a major part in our wellbeing and contentment. Religions usually promote a sense of purpose across the life-cycle, and continue to anticipate purpose even in advanced age (Simion/Anna). While many activities linked with personal worth and value may disappear with age (such as employment) even in the advanced years of retirement prayer and worship often remain active elements of life. For people living with dementia, especially if they have a deep background in religious belonging and participation, familiar patterns in the year (e.g. Easter/Christmas) as well as songs, liturgy and texts, locate someone in a broad narrative of transcendence.
Holding the narrative and space for religious awe has long been a role for the Church. Yet awe is not a word used often in discussions about contemporary developments in worship. This misses a primary purpose of the Church’s life in a local community. There are occasions, including State occasions in the UK, when the Church holds a particular kind of space for people in relation to a much larger story.
A church is a sacred space carved out of nature to represent the indwelling of grace and to impart an orientation. They are pointers to transcendence. When we enter a church, we cross a threshold pointing to a communion table of shared goods… Within this comprehensive orientation there are nodes or lodes of experience that open up the space of transcendence: the sense of unworthiness and rebuke in the presence of the holy, the trustful assurance of acceptance requiring nothing beyond openness to the pure gift of grace, the awareness of a calling to spiritual and moral order and a potential for transfiguration..
Martin, D. (2021). Pointing to Transcendence: Reflections from an Anglican Context. NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion, 75(3/4), 310-336.
In his poem Auden suggests that human beings prefer to hang on to their fears, rather than risk change and risk: ‘We would rather be ruined than changed’. The experience of ‘awe’ is perhaps one of the few things that might encourage us to abandon our illusions and contemplate a greater reality. To realise that often our anxiety is generated by these self-same illusions, and are in reality shadows we need not flee. It has been the case that not only cathedrals, but even remote and seemingly insignificant churches, hold such a space – whether for RS Thomas in Aberdaron, or TS Eliot in Little Gidding. It is unclear in today’s church where the emphasis on transcendence now lies, or how people will be able to encounter ‘the bright field’, whose treasure transforms our living.
I like stationary. There are so many wonderful notebooks and watermarked sheets to choose from when the internet allows you to browse the global marketplace. I recall a few years ago standing in a street in Positano gazing at the hand-bound books of marbled paper in a shop window. Paper has been made along the Amalfi coast since Medieval times. I resisted the temptation to purchase (just) but am not so disciplined on other occasions. A new notebook offers so many possibilities, perhaps too many. The act of writing instantly and progressively reduces the options for what the book will be telling, and regret can come quickly.
“She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.”
Nicholls, D. (2011). One day. Hachette UK.
If the material to write on fails to distract, there is always the means of writing to consider. I must be towards the end of the era when undergraduate work was all hand-written – which could be a challenge. Fast-speaking lecturers, without the offer of typed notes, tested many students’ ability to record the key points. However, the ceremony of writing, especially with a fountain pen, continues to appeal. I can empathise with the irritation of King Charles when pens fail to ink, or leak their cargo when least expected. (I was allowed to return to the church where I blotted the Service Register). Despite these perils I share the delight Seamus Heaney finds in the feel and flow of a quality pen.
The nib uncapped, Treating it to its first deep snorkel In a newly opened ink-bottle,
Guttery, snottery, Letting it rest then at an angle To ingest
Seamus Heaney, The Conway Stewart, in Human Chain, Faber and Faber Limited, 2010
Other disincentives to write include the sheer volume of texts now written, and the outstanding quality of some contemporary writing. I was deeply sorry to learn in recent days of the death of Hilary Mantel. The skill Mantel manages to effect in her Cromwell trilogy is astonishing. All the more so because even 500 years later, writing about this period of English history remains fraught with ‘positions’ and continuing political implications. It is a credit to her craft that people from so many different religious backgrounds and cultures read and applaud these novels. Perhaps this is because the humanity of her characters, and Cromwell in particular, shine through so convincingly. Seldom have I been so moved by reading anything, as I was by the conclusion of The Mirror & the Light when Cromwell is taken to his execution.
“His foot is now on the step of the scaffold. His mind is quiet but the body has its own business, and that business includes trembling. His head turns again. He is not looking for pardon. He knows the king is busy getting married. All he is looking for is the source of the noise, to quell it, because he wants to die listening to his own heart, till verse and prayer fade and heart says hush”.
Mantel, H. (2020). The Mirror & the Light: A Novel (Vol. 3). Henry Holt and Company. Chicago
The splendid Slightly FoxedLtd published its limited edition of Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003), in 2017. The book is a moving narrative and addresses some of Mantel’s motivation to write.
I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being – even if the writing is aimless doodling that no one will ever read, or the diary that no one can see til I’m dead. When you have committed enough words to paper you feel you have a spine stiff enough to stand up in the wind. But when you stop writing you find that’s all you are, a spine, a row of rattling vertebrae, dried out like an old quill pen.
Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost, 2017 Slightly Foxed Ltd p. 207
Perhaps writers all need this sense of compulsion in order to succeed in seeing their story to the end. Goodness knows how many incomplete books exist, or how many finished works languish in a drawer, rejected for publication at every turn. BBC Radio 4’s comedy-drama Ed Reardon’s Week is a modern and amusing take on a long history of frustrated authors. In the nineteenth century a central character in Middlemarch, the middle-aged cleric-scholar Edward Casaubon dies with his opus magnum incomplete: TheKey to All Mythologies. Ambitious in scope and sprawling in nature, George Eliot exposes the opposite problem to the anxiety of the blank page: too many details, too many notes and references, an endless number of pages and an unending topic to study.
Part of what was so moving about Thursday’s events, was the experience common to so many families of sudden and unexpected news; the dash to a bedside; the realisation that life is ending. As a hospital chaplain I witnessed on many occasions the anxiety of families as to whether everyone would get there in time, the inevitable sorrow once the moment of death arrived, and the imperceptible shift in relationships that death precipitates. In many instances a death can be the end of an era. The moment when some familiar conversations about long-deceased relatives and neighbours are no longer possible.
The BBC series, The Hollow Crown, began in 2012 and featured several of Shakespeare’s history plays. It was a tour de force of casting and direction and will no doubt remain an important part of the BBC’s archive. One of the sublimely acted moments featured Simon Russell-Beale as the comic character, Falstaff. Sitting by a fireside at night, Falstaff reminisces with Shallow and Silence about the days of their youth. It is at once a sad and honest recognition of our mortality, and the days that pass so quickly.
Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.
King Henry IV, part II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare 1660
In the conversation about their past, the protagonists avoid detail. Although the play is set in another era, looking back over the 55 years from the date of its performance, audiences would recognise how dangerous it was to discuss history. The beliefs, convictions and actions of one period could bring plaudits at the time but a decade later put someone in peril of trial and execution. It was much safer to say simply: ‘Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen!’
We do not now live in a country that presents this kind of risk. There may be a social expectation about public conduct and comments during the period of official mourning for the Queen, but there are no punitive sanctions. We can speak about the past, and voice convictions that may be at odds with the prevailing mood. This is not a freedom enjoyed everywhere and, travelling in Cuba some years ago, I was aware of how cautious local people could be in speaking about their society and its history.
The title for the BBC series is taken from Richard III and concerns the mortality of kings: ‘within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court’. Despite all the layers of privilege and deference, sovereigns are mortal and death can come quickly. The empty crown is the enduring motif of royalty, with its void filled instantly, silently and seamlessly, the moment its last occupant dies. In the past this could be contested and fought over, whereas now the British monarchy’s succession is no longer disputed. After a reign of astonishing longevity, while its trappings and function may change, the likely succession of sovereigns appears guaranteed deep into the 22nd century.
While in no sense a presence in people’s immediate relationships, the departure of the Queen will be felt by many as the loss of a vital connection with the past. Her experience of WWII, and Prime Ministers from Churchill to Truss, highlight a consistency spanning generations. On the news of her death my thoughts went to my mother and grandmother, both keen supporters of the Queen. As an early and life-long member of the Mothers’ Union, my grandmother was an active participant in an organisation for which the Queen was Patron up until the moment of her death.
The poet John Donne was 31 years old when Elizabeth I died in 1603. His subsequent rise to become Dean of St Paul’s relied on Royal patronage, and was accompanied by the composition of some of the finest Metaphysical poetry in the English Language. Donne was very concerned with death, and one of his most memorable texts adopts the idea of literature to explore his theme.
When someone dies: “one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another”.
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; Meditation XVII.
Understandably, the Queen’s life contained a series of volumes – possibly its own library – of public interactions and comments. Not to mention the private moments, the scattered leaves, that are also part of our story. She is now being translated into posterity and, spiritually, to a better place. To give Shakespeare the final word, even a long and notable Royal reign is fleeting in the sweep of human history. Our time on stage comes to an end and, when the ‘insubstantial pageant has faded’, no grandeur alters the truth we all hold in common: that ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’.
In the suburbs of London it was odd to read a report where the cost of civic responsibility was described as the price of avoiding revolution. The article was in a local Barnet newspaper in 1910, and the revolt referred to which it referred was the French Revolution of 1789. The reference shows the very long shadow cast by that event across European popular thought. The comment arose in a discussion about the cost of poor relief in the borough. Business and property owners were moaning about the expense of looking after the poor, and it took a female member of the group to remind them that ‘charity’ was the price they paid to retain a system from which they benefitted considerably. Today, with the rapid rise of the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign – uniting all kinds of people under the banner of unacceptable price increases – it appears that the prospect of popular agitation will force the hand of the next Prime Minister. However, rather than alter the operation of an economic system that favours the wealthy, just enough money will be dispersed to appease the masses. It remains to be seen whether we can continue as we are when an ever greater number of people fall into, or hover just above, poverty.
With what seems like a void at the heart of Government, there has been plenty of space for experts to voice their concerns about this unfolding energy crisis. Martin Lewis was clearly very angry when he spoke on Radio 4 on Friday. With appealing directness he defended ‘catastrophising’ for the very simple reason that, in the absence of Government aid, the energy price rise is a catastrophe. As someone who normally advises the less well-off about ideas to manage their funds more effectively, he had reached the point where he had nothing left to give. With a reputation built on creative solutions, the prospect of a financial dead-end for countless people had pushed Lewis to the edge.
It seems unlikely that the incoming Government will be able to replace the entire cost of rising energy prices across the economy. The suggestion so far is that low and middle income household will be supported – but it’s unclear what aid there will be for industry. This matters because without support industries will have little option other than to pass on price rises to consumers. It follows that inflation will remain high and, with below-inflation pay rises, people will be poorer. For this reason, even if there are funds to offset energy price rises, everyday life will in any event become more costly. People will have less cash, and even if gas and electricity bills remained the same, households would have to achieve savings in order to make ends meet. Heating or eating will remain a pressing question, because it is unlikely that government action will wholly mitigate the price rises that will touch every part of our economic system. The cost would be astronomical.
Macron said France and the French felt they were living through a series of crises, “each worse than the last”.
Last week President Macron (according to Truss, a former ally of the UK), gave a very sombre speech. While criticised in some quarters for appearing to ignore those already suffering in France, Macron heralded the ‘end of abundance’. For the middle classes upwards this is perhaps an accurate description of recent decades and a warning that these days are over. To be fair to Macron, he described recent years as those which ‘could have seemed an era of abundance’. Perhaps, as we progress through the 2020s, there will be a growing appreciation that any sense of abundance belongs to an ever-shrinking group of people.
I have written previously that, by many measures, we are living in unprecedented times. The rise of food banks will now be augmented by the opening of ‘heat banks’. Public places where people can leave cold homes and gain some warmth and company. Quite what it will be like for people unable to leave their homes, or too far from heat banks, is yet to be seen. There are a host of medical conditions that will be aggravated by the cold, and in some cases it will lead to deterioration requiring hospital care. Once again we will have exceptional winter pressures in the NHS, whether or not COVID re-emerges as a significant issue.
One of the most worrying elements of the current crisis is the way it is impacting on households where two people are in work. When once this would have achieved enough income without support, people are facing in-work poverty. Even hospitals are contemplating hosting food banks to support their staff. A major achievement of the welfare state is that it moved support away from charity and promoted it as the organised actions of a just society. People didn’t need to feel ashamed or grateful. It was what ‘society’ meant, and offering support as a basic requirement was what people should expect. When Liz Truss, who is very likely to be our next Prime Minister, spoke about not wanting to give people ‘handouts’ it flies in the face of the post-war conception of society (but is very Thatcherite). A society which perpetuates a system excluding more and more people from a basic quality of life cannot go on indefinitely. I’m not advocating revolution – but it is something that becomes ever more likely as more and more people reach the point where ‘enough is enough’.
Former generations excelled at avoiding waste. My grandparents, having lived through two Word Wars, knew how to make sure that seemingly useless packaging, or clothes that were coming to end of their life, found a fresh purpose. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s this seemed to me to be a needless attachment to things best thrown away. I appreciate now that if more of us had living with their attitude to possessions the world now might be a better (and cooler) place. The disposable society is minting new mountains of refuse every day. By and large, we have not lived carefully with the planet or appreciated the consequences of a cultural attitude of ‘buy-and-bin’.
Living in York I am reminded of the care and thought that has gone into repurposing things that have come to the end of one life, and begin another. Whether the eroded masons’ work, now removed from the Minster, that forms a border in the garden, or the spectacular pinnace – replaced in the last decade – which sits in the grounds of the Deanery. (It is pictured at the top of this blog, lit with tea lights). In some ways this recycling can be functional, in others a curiosity, like the stonework brought down to ground level from well over 100 feet.
Last week a news report feature one of the UK’s largest centres for ‘upcycling’. Here, items that would normally have gone into landfill are careful brought back to life and refreshed so that they can continue to be used. In some cases items find a new purpose – perhaps in a garden or elsewhere around the home. Seeing the large warehouse full of items awaiting attention was a salutary reminder of how much we dispose of without a second thought as to value, purpose or potential.
“Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I haste to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Physical ruins are a visible reminder of the fragments of re-purposed ideas; conventions; and language, which are part of our current reality. Like the rubble of Roman occupation on which York Minster is built, we know that the civilisation of two thousand years ago is visible in our road system and forms of political administration. Very little is without precedent and each generation makes use of the past in its own way. Perhaps we are rather better at recycling (or up-cycling) ideas than physical items. Certainly politics seems to offer little more than various re-castings of former ideologies. The process to find a new leader for the Conservative Party – and Prime Minister – has candidates raiding the perceived ‘glory days’ of Thatcherism to curry favour with a nostalgic party membership.
Christianity is a material religion. The incarnation fuses matter and spirit, flesh and breath. God is not separate from this reality and, when discarded and destroyed, Jesus is encountered in resurrection as a physical being. As the central event of the Christian faith, this divine refusal to abide in death suggests that even our most disastrous experiences can never be wholly written-off. Like Lazarus in his tomb, we may find ourselves unexpectedly dragged back into life. Whether it be the prodigal son; a disgraced woman cast before Jesus; or the sick separated from society, God appears to be unusually concerned with what we rubbish. As the UK heads towards what the NHS Confederation this week characterised as the risk of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ it is the responsibility of the Church to speak and act to ensure that we are not complicit in forgetting people below the political horizon. Healing and restoration abound in the presence of Jesus and the Church cannot be itself without fulfilling the same mission.
“Bricolage involves skill in sewing, mending, refashioning, and building, but it also involves perception of possibilities and imagination; one must wonder what things might become once they can no longer be what they were…”
Lang Hearlson, C. (2021). Theological imagination in a throwaway society: Contending with waste. Theology Today, 78(2), 158-169. Chicago