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.

Dumb Oratories

In The Eve of St Agnes Keats created a poem that can cause a shiver even on a summer’s afternoon. Like the accrual of snow, or the gradual appearance of frost, the poet adds layer upon layer of freezing imagery. Into this icy world Keats introduces the fire of youthful passion, dangerous and agile, breaking convention and stealing away into the night. The chill of the poem goes hand-in-hand with a general sense of the supernatural and of a world that vanished ‘long ago’, but is brought to life through the magic of poetic imagination.

The poem includes references to funerary monuments: ‘The sculptur’d dead’. It is these figures of noblemen and women that Keats describes as ‘praying in dumb orat’ries’. Often we find the depictions of the deceased in our churches and cathedrals placed in a pose of intercession. In some religious understandings this may suggest that virtuous people who have died continue to support us through their prayers. Although not in church (but more significantly in heaven) the good continue to be in relationship with us through the prayers they offer on our behalf. It was the theology that powered an industry of intercession in the Middle Ages, with the sick, poor and clergy in particular, paid to intercede with the Saints for the souls of the wealthy seeking admission to paradise. Keats describes one of these ‘beadsmen’, someone typically pensioned in order to pray, using his rosary for those he was tasked to remember.

Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

John Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, 1819

For anyone who has experienced a close bereavement this may not seem to be very surprising. The dead are seldom forgotten by those who were caught up in their living. The deceased continue to be with us in our thoughts, dreams and daily living. I cannot count how many times I have heard hospital patients speak about a visceral experience of a loved one being present with them. Sometimes it takes place in a dream, but it can also be an experience that appears to be as real as anything else. It was these encounters that led me to write a paper in 2014 with Stephen Sayers, discussing these experiences and suggesting how NHS staff might support such events during a patient’s admission. Interestingly, I think it is the only paper to which I’ve contributed that remains entirely uncited. This lends support to our contention in the paper that the clinical world is inclined to dismiss experiences that don’t make sense, and categorise them as evidence of mental illness. Awareness of this culture is something people discern and it is likely that many experiences like this are never shared with anyone. It seems that we lack a narrative for experiences which are real and meaningful for many, but fail to fit in with our sense of rationality.

On All Hallows’ Eve, and with All Souls’ Day this week, people around the world will be reflecting on those who have died. Given that our awareness and thoughts about the dead are often private and internal, this week offers a rare moment for names to be spoken and people remembered in public. Despite the continuing growth of a playful and scary Halloween, the serious, quiet and moving act of explicit remembrance offers a less spectacular but deeper moment when we acknowledge our continuing bonds with the departed. Remembrance Sunday adds to the sense that November has an inclination to memorial.

We continue to have traffic with those we have loved but see no more. There are particular moments, such as a family wedding, when those attending may think of the people who are absent – but whose blessings would be with the couple and their future. Choices we make in life may lead us to ponder what the deceased would think of our decisions. For better or worse, the silent prayers of the dead circle our experience and commune with our conscience. What may seem to be dumb and frozen out of our reality is never wholly gone. In different ways Halloween; All Hallow’s; All Soul’s and Remembrance Sunday remind us of this truth and allow a fleeting moment for what is hidden to be spoken and named.

We die with the dying: 

See, they depart, and we go with them. 

We are born with the dead: 

See, they return, and bring us with them.

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

Set in a Silver Sea

John of Gaunt’s valedictory speech is one of the most famous texts left to us by Shakespeare. It paints a picture of an idyllic England – a second Eden – benefiting from natural advantages that make it the envy of other nations.

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

Richard II

Most of us remember parts of this lyrical acclaim for all that England might be. However, as Gaunt goes on to say, this vision of a country playing to its strengths is undermined by the reality of its government. The glory of ‘this sceptre isle’ has been leased out like a ‘pelting farm’. There is some uncertainty about what pelting means, but it isn’t difficult to hazard a guess. This is the kind of farm, not well managed by owners, let out instead to irresponsible tenants. Rotten deals and blotched paperwork converting the richness of the land into a shameful destruction. Feeding the greed of a few rather than the common wealth of the many.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

There is little to suggest that our island fortification has served us against infection. The recent report on the UK’s Government’s handling of the pandemic identifies a sense of resignation about widespread infection: “a policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for covid in the community: seeking to manage, but not suppress, infection“. As we journey into winter there is growing concern about the impact of an approach that appears to tolerate a high level of virus transmission. Quite what immediate and enduring damage that policy will inflict can only be guessed. Vaccination has made dramatic changes to the severity of illness and number of deaths, but very small percentages of very large numbers may still overwhelm the NHS.

Whether with COVID-19, human conflict or climate change, it appears that we continue to pose a danger to ourselves. We have turned parts of a beautiful world into pelting farmland, leased our lands and sold the future through the debt of bonds. Offering a different perspective on familiar problems, Professor Brian Cox gives us new cause for thought in his TV series Universe. According to quotes in The Guardian he believes that life capable of generating meaning may be a very rare phenomenon. It leads the paper to conclude that “the demise of Earth could wipe out meaning”.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

Whilst humanity has flirted with the apocalypse since people could create meaning, our capability to destroy has never been greater. We have focused on the development of technologies that have made astonishing strides in our ability to alter and shape our environment. A question to which we should give urgent attention is whether our moral and ethical capacities have matched this pace of development? Looking around the world it appears that the growth of wisdom has lagged ever further behind our capacity to manipulate our environment.

Even the most glancing trawl of social media reveals the scary range of human folly and denial. There are people so fed up with the BBC that they have decided not to use it anymore because it should be called the ‘British COVID Corporation’. The BBC is simply seen as a co-conspirator with the Coronavirus hoax. Another message contains a video clip of a group entering an NHS Trust HQ and presenting ‘legal’ documents calling the hospital to account for its complicity with the hoax. Earlier last week Michael Gove was surrounded by a group of anti-lockdown protesters. Following the murder of an MP I can’t imagine how frightening this kind of experience must be, both for him and the Police then required to attend.

What is infuriating for so many people working in the NHS is that despite all the evidence to the contrary, people continue to think doctors and nurses are ‘making it up’. For a decade I served on a research ethics committee made up of leading figures from a number of fields. We had the services of a professional academic statistician; a lawyer; lay members; and senior nurses and consultants from a wide range of clinical disciplines. The focus on probity and evidence could not have been greater. While on a recent holiday I watched the Matt Damon narrated documentary film Inside Job. It tells the story of the 2008 financial crash and, among its many points, draws attention to the way leading economists with lucrative links to Wall Street wrote articles about the safety of new financial products without any hint of conflicting interests. By contrast, medical research has multiple safeguards to ensure this lack of transparency doesn’t happen. I’m not saying the NHS is perfect, but it is light years away from the free-for-all that appears to go on in the financial institutions featured in Inside Job.

Political messaging in the first wave of the pandemic was clear – protect people by protecting the capacity of the NHS

Of course, I have little hope that reasoned argument will diminish the passion of resolute protesters. While it would be easy to dismiss them as voices from the outer fringes of society I am not so sanguine about their impact. The Government is listening to those who believe (or wish to believe) that living with high levels of COVID transmission and deaths is a price worth paying for an open society. Boris Johnson has quoted months ago as stating a preference for ‘bodies piled high‘ over another lockdown. Once again, it is likely to be the vulnerable and elderly who will pay the price for this policy, with the ONS reporting a range of common pre-existing conditions among those who have died in recent weeks.

How we navigate the coming months will tell a story about attitudes in the UK to the vulnerable, elderly and poor – and whether we prefer to be a pestilent and pelting farm, rather than a noble, blessed and happy isle.

Don’t Panic

It was one of the stock responses in the long-running BBC comedy Dad’s Army. Whenever there was the slightest possibility of something going wrong, and Captain Mainwaring appealed for calm, Corporal Jones shouted ‘don’t panic’. He shouted it in a way that communicated the exact opposite of his words. Perhaps this is an ingrained reaction of the British people: when we were told that fuel supplies would be fine ‘so long as we shopped normally’, car keys across the Kingdom flew into people’s hands. The instruction to keep calm and carry on seems to be heard as a clarion call to action. The perception exacerbating the problem.

Listening to Anil Seth speaking on a recent edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week I was reminded just how much of our experience we take for granted. What we tend to notice is the unusual and we therefore focus on ‘exception reporting’ to add to our understanding of the world. Without doubt, especially for people in the West, the last couple of years have been full of exception reporting. The things we took to be routine and reliable have become irregular and doubtful. It began with toilet rolls, moved through domestic flour supplies, and now rests with petrol. Rather than just a tiny part of our experience reporting the exceptional, it feels like the balance has shifted dramatically. From seeing family members, to taking holidays, a once predictable world has become fragmented and startling. The new normal is a somewhat moth-eaten version of our former reality.

This is without doubt a Western phenomenon and even within advanced industrialised nations it is far from everyone’s experience. Many citizens have lived with serious uncertainties as a part of daily life. Much of the world experiences the unreliability of supply as the norm. When I lived in Argentina for a year it was not uncommon for public employees to be paid several months after it was due. This degree of coping with uncertainty is something alien to the West. A few years ago, when there was a hiccup at the Santander Bank, it meant that account holders didn’t get their salaries on the day they were due. In the NHS the switchboards went into meltdown. Operators had never known a day so busy. Even the slightest change in a culture with very high confidence in the delivery of services causes a major wobble.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

In many respects this experience is changing a form of expectation that is novel for humanity. Across history this degree of reliability and its associated expectation has been both recent and rare. It is arguably the case that this confidence is paid for by the poorest communities on the planet. Post-colonial powers continue to leverage their advantages over other nations, ensuring that our certainty of supply is extracted at the price of unreasonable flexibility for the poorest people in the world. Added to which the emissions of the wealthy nations are accelerating changes to our climate where, once again, the most marginal communities will bear the heaviest toll.

The key question we ought to consider is whether we are panicking about the right things? Minor disruptions to rice and petrol are generally an inconvenience rather than a threat to life. The gradual shift in climate and its consequences for people living on the edge will end lives and devastate communities. However, it appears we are incapable of collective action until the consequences of disaster arrive on the doorsteps of the powerful.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

In some respects it feels as though I have gone full circle in my own attitude towards waste. My grandfather would often berate me in the 1970s when, as a child, I’d put enough butter on my toast ‘to sink a battleship’. I’m not quite sure where the phrase originated, but I always took it to mean that excess use of anything during wartime would require more ships to cross the Atlantic – with the risk of sinking due to enemy action. That was my grandparents’ experience. People’s use of materials during WWII was therefore directly connected to the amount of danger involved with resupply. Maybe we need to reinvent that phrase today, not as a call for unregulated panic, but as a reminder of the small deeds connected to great consequences. Only when we understand the implications of every action and inaction are we likely to see the changes in behaviour needed to avoid a catastrophe.

‘Enough butter to incinerate a planet’?

Send Thine Archangel

I’ve always loved Michaelmas. Perhaps it’s about the time of year when the feast of Michael falls, with schools back and universities about to start the academic year. Or it could be to do with the dedication of the church where I grew up, St Michaels’ Kirkham, and the C of E primary school I attended. For whatever reason, St Michael has always occupied by thoughts in September.

Much of the understanding of angels has shifted over the centuries under the changing winds of theological fortune. At the Reformation many physical representations of angels were lost, albeit that interest in angels continued in other ways. For Milton they were towering figures of supernatural power; of a grandeur hard for humans to gaze upon, yet also imbued with a compassion that is equally reflective of the God they serve.

Whereat Michael bid sound
The archangel trumpet; through the vast of Heaven
It sounded, and the faithful armies rung
Hosanna to the Highest

Paradise Lord, book VI

Angels persist in popular imagination and are major figures in many world religions. Especially connected with children, there have been several funerals I’ve conducted for babies where Robbie Williams’ Angels has been played and poems about angels have been read. The contemporary artist and poet Roger Wagner depicts angels across the full spectrum of his work. Often he creates contemporary scenes in which these spiritual beings are as real as the cooling towers of a power station. Through their presence in his illustrated translations of the Psalms, Wagner’s angels are given a consistent appearance across the arc of human history – hinting that human structures are temporary and fleeting set alongside the presence of these ageless entities.

Michaelmas Daisies , Museum Gardens, York 2021

And in that summer evening’s fading light
I saw his angels gather in the wheat.
Like beaten gold their beauty smote the air
And tongues of flame were streaming in their hair.

‘I Saw the Seraphim’, Roger Wagner 2019

Angels probably surface most in Western countries towards the end of the year. Whether on Christmas cards, at nativity plays, or their ubiquitous presence in carols, it feels that December is the month when we allow these strange creatures to enter our imaginations. In the child-like play of creativity that the festive season invites, these bright beings connect with a nostalgia that appears to bring wistful comfort to some. Yet angels aren’t all about sweetness and light.

When the second Adam appears, angels fly like sparks at the moment the human and divine are forged into one. The shepherds’ experience of overwhelming glory is countered by the threats of infanticide and the flight into Egypt. In the Shepherd’s Farewell by Berlioz, the lyric is tinged with a sense that even Christ must journey through a wilderness, and the shepherds petition God’s blessing on the holy child.

That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give him. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

It feels to me that angels occupy that ever-present and boundless wilderness of the unknown. As we understand more about the universe its scale seems to widen, and within human life there is an equal expanse of the yet-to-be-known. These glittering creatures may have cast us out of Eden, but they are also with us on our journey, ciphers of the realms of which we are only dimly aware. When Milton pictures Adam and Eve leaving the garden, they go to meet a world that ‘was all before them’. Into this great unknown they go ‘hand in hand with wandering steps and slow’.

This and the first picture are depictions of angels in the stained glass of the Great East Window (1405-1408). Photos by the author.

God protect you,
guide you safely through the wild!

The idea of angels and their depiction in the arts may seem far removed from our reality. What they represent still has lessons to teach us, and in their glow they carry the embers of eternity. They are in the dark places as well as the daylight, the unexpected glimpse of something wonderful and beyond our comprehension. Signs heralding life’s ultimate goodness and the hope of returning home. For all our advances in the world, Shakespeare’s words convey with simplicity what remains true today: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. The infinity of angels reminds us of a vastness which cannot be fathomed, and a God who is dazzling glory – and the faintest flicker of hope in our darkness.

Nor Wanting Nor Wasting

Many people who participate in religious worship have missed singing. Thankfully, it is returning to churches and other places of worship. Singing once again has reminded me of the rich resource of both melody and poetry that makes up our finest hymns. Last Sunday featured Immortal, Invisible, God only wise at Evensong in York Minster. The phrasing and economy of the text allows a rich vein of theology to flow throughout the hymn. The paradox of a God who is hidden in light; lacking nothing, and yet whose bounteousness isn’t wasteful. Neither growing nor diminishing.

Hymns have the capacity to connect our hearts, spirits, minds and emotions in powerful ways. The enduring presence of Songs of Praise on Sunday TV is testimony to the need people feel to hear these much loved tunes and words in their lives. Hymns continue to be sung at some football clubs before matches, and Abide with Me is a part of the traditions of the FA Cup final. Radio 4’s Soul Music has featured a number of hymns and told both the story behind their creation and the impact they have had on people’s lives.

Last week I listened to another Radio 4 programme which set me thinking about all of this. Start the Week took on the ambitious topic of consciousness and how we have a sense of self. Deep waters indeed. One of the speakers was Tiffany Watt Smith, Director of the Centre of the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. In her contribution to the programme Tiffany focused on the idea that language enables emotions. In other words, that “language allows us to notice those inchoate physiological experiences”. The implication is that if we lacked words to express our sensory experiences it could create a degree of inner tension and psychological difficulty.

This makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I think about the capacity of the language of poetry to express those feelings and thoughts that teeter on the edge of perception. So that my worship of a God hidden in light can find shape and expression in the combined effect of music and words. Nothing else will do this nearly so well. Dr Watt-Smith gave some examples during the programme of cultures that had a word to describe a feeling for which we no longer seem to have a use – and words we had in the past to express this, which have now dropped out of use. Perhaps ‘melancholy’ might be one example?

A cursory review of contemporary Western societies suggests that the ebbing of religious language does not represent the loss of religious experience. The growth of spirituality; the interest in phenomena such as eclipses; and the turn to mindfulness, all demonstrate a search for the transcendent. What the atheist Philip Larkin described in Church Going as an unexpected ‘hunger’ to be more serious. In the current edition of the Church Times the reviewer Andrew Brown notes the ‘uncharacteristically tentative article’ in The Economist about the state of the Church of England. The Economist article ends with words reminiscent of the experience of Larkin. Are some things timeless and beyond price?

The experience of working with people living with dementia provides vivid examples of the anxiety and frustration that are generated when words to express feelings elude. Following Watt Smith’s argument, this is not simply a problem in the communication of feelings: the lack of language impedes the development of feeling itself. If we cannot tell, then we are unable to experience hearing our own words being spoken, heard and reflected back to us.

“The Christian worldview is shaped by a variety of forces: community praxis, scripture, prayer, and perhaps supremely, participation in the liturgy”.

White, S. J. (2006). “Sing to the Lord A new song”: Christian Hymnody and the Scientific Worldview. Liturgy, 21(3), 41-50.

It may be that faith cannot be shared and developed when the language of belief has waned. This is not a purely technical problem in sharing faith, but a fundamental obstacle in allowing religious sentiments to grow. A hunger may be felt, but how will that appetite blossom and flourish? The resources that animated an inner sense of God were once plentiful and rich. Now it feels that there are gaps and holes in the discourses available to us, and a central theme with multiple facets has become a landscape of disparate ideas, struggling to sustain a core.

The Jewish people in exile asked how they could sing the Lord’s song when they had been ripped away from the fabric of of community and context. It is a question that is highly relevant for Christians in the West today as societies become ever more distanced from Christian culture and heritage. In the midst of exile it is never easy to see how liberation might come – yet time and again God’s people eventually found the freedom to re-establish a culture of faith.

We need the poetry and music to re-pattern the narrative of faith, even as we search for ways to live faithfully in a land that may feel unfamiliar and strange. In Susan White’s paper, there is a widening gap between a scientific world and a Church singing hymns reflecting a pre-modern world. I echo her conclusion that unless we find new ways of faith in the 21st century ‘we will find ourselves wandering directionless between the two worlds’. We need poets and musicians who can use the kind of economy , skill and depth illustrated by Immortal Invisible. This is no easy task, but unless we renew the culture of faith in the West, religious feeling will reach for words that can no longer be found.

The Aged Poor

There are many different things that can make us feel our age. From the commonplace of wistful reflection that police officers are looking younger, to the telltale bits of IT equipment in a film. ‘Look, it’s an Amstrad green screen’. In a world where the pace of technical change is ever faster this calibration of time is ever clearer. From the first appearance of computers, to the desktop PCs, then laptops and tablets, the clues to different decades are there to see in every movie. Seeing a production of Educating Rita at the York Theatre Royal last week was to behold a vanished academic setting. No computer; one-to-one tuition; books (and whisky) everywhere.

The consequences of ageing appear, ironically, to be timeless. Even as the UK government attempts to grapple with the question of how to fund social care, they are tackling a problem that is both ancient and modern. The Aged Poor in England and Wales is the title of the report written by Charles Booth and published in 1894. That was two years before the birth of my paternal grandfather who, like so many of his generation, troubled the exchequer very little (he died aged 69, having been predeceased by his wife). Yet demographics were changing and the question of how to support a population living longer into retirement was becoming more pressing.

“but for those who are not able-bodied, and these include almost all the old, each Board of Guardians is at liberty to adopt its own rules and to change them at will, or to act without any rules at all”.

Booth, C. (1894). The aged poor in England and Wales. Macmillan and Company.

In Booth’s report nearly 30% of the over 65s were receiving either indoor (Workhouse), or outdoor, relief. This sort of dependency and survival on minimal rations was not the kind of old age people wanted, either for themselves or for others. Rather than a life of comfortable leisure, the thought of retirement stimulated apprehension and fear. Not only were financial resources limited, but the NHS was decades away, leaving many dependent on charitable support and care – or to get by without health care altogether. As a curate in the 1990s I would meet older people who had harrowing memories of relatives suffering from illnesses which either lacked effective treatment altogether, or where treatment was unaffordable. It is not a situation to which any of us would wish to return.

Since social care lacks the coherence of a national service such as the NHS it can still feel potluck as to the quality of the care many receive. When I was involved in these decisions for my mother a few years ago, as her dementia advanced and her health deteriorated, the access to social care seemed haphazard. At the time when she needed to move from a care home to a nursing home I recall talking to a local manager who told me there was a room available but that ‘three people are interested in it’. What should have been a process focused on the needs of an older person suddenly took on the character of house buying. Would I get everything sorted in time, or would we be gazumped?

It is hard for people to understand the pressures and anxieties that the current situation creates for people seeking care. At a time when people are vulnerable and distressed the last thing we need is a system that is chaotic, and where there is no central co-ordination of supply and demand. Given that most of us will find ourselves in later life at some point, and in need of support, our inability to provide a decent level of care across society is symbolic either of a failure in self-care, or a fear to contemplate what we might one day need. Either way it is detrimental to us all if this situation is simply allowed to continue until it falls apart.

We are promised that later this week the UK Government will bring forward plans for social care. There is anxiety that while this may appear to be one thing it will turn out to be another. In other words, that the NHS will in fact receive the lion’s share of any increased funding. Yet instead of pitching one sector against another, we need both the NHS and social care to work together. One can never achieve its ambitions without the other; and older people can’t be left to fall between the gaps in service provision. The world has moved on since Charles Booth, but unless we have the political will to grasp this age-old challenge, we risk perpetuating a shameful dereliction of care.

It is likely that our unwillingness to resolve the way we support an ageing population reflects wider attitudes to older age. Age discrimination is frequently described as a widely tolerated part of society, and implies a failure to recognise the worth and dignity of people as they age. Just as in Educating Rita, where the student is also a teacher, we need to understand that socially constructed roles are often less clearcut than they seem to be at first sight. We should never underestimate the value of people in later life or the lessons their lives, and even their needs, can teach the rest of us.

Seasons for Everything

It always felt like the first intimation that summer had ended. When I was a vicar in north London in the early ’90s, the opening week of September brought an invitation to speak to the local Cub Scouts. After the holidays and warmer days of August this annual meeting marked the start of all those activities that punctuate the remaining months of the year. There might be warm days, or even brief heatwaves, but they always felt borrowed out of season. The trajectory of shortening days continued notwithstanding the gift of unexpected heat.

York has been exceptionally busy this month. It has been impossible to get a table for dinner at a reasonable hour even when you try to book the day before. The streets hum with the chatter of tourists discovering (or rediscovering) the charm of England’s northern capital. When the sun is out the river side pubs and open spaces fill with drinkers and sunbathers alike.

This weekend York has hosted a balloon fiesta and crowds have filled The Knavesmire. People have come from far and wide to visit the fair or hear the acts performing on the open air stage. On the whole this looks and feels like a return to 2019 normality, with little mask wearing or social distancing. The joy of these once familiar freedoms at an outdoor event no doubt adds to the delight of those attending. Yet it is hard to feel entirely at ease when so many concerns circle the globe. From the disastrous exit from Afghanistan to a UK COVID rate 26 times higher than a year ago. The problems we face show little sign of diminishing, even though vaccination has thankfully transformed the severity of the risk associated with the pandemic.

We need ordinary pleasures. During the past 18 months many of us have rediscovered a connection with nature, from walks to wild swimming. In places this has created its own pressures on the environment and local facilities, but there are plenty of less crowded locations of outstanding natural beauty. As I know from working with older people, the vivid differences we see in each of the four seasons can be both orientating and affirming. To look at a tree tells us where we are in the year. The deep greens of August promise the glorious transformation to browns, yellows and golds still to come.

The interplay of human activity and the seasons is captured brilliantly by Ali Smith in her quartet series. Here the personal, the political and the natural are meshed together in a vivid reflection of how the seasons shape our thoughts and interactions. I can’t imagine living where both daylight and weather alter very little across the year, but perhaps smaller changes simply become more significant. During a year I spend in South America that certainly seemed to be the case.

“The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” 

Smith, A. (2016). Autumn (Vol. 1). Penguin UK.

The Church’s year is clearly marked by a Christianity that developed chiefly in the northern hemisphere. As the months march on to the year’s end, gathering darkness is met by the gift of light. The imagery and significance of saints’ days, fasts and feasts parallels the natural world and walks hand-in-hand with the changing seasons. It feels that liturgy and the seasons are welded together.

I have no doubt that age and experience influence the ways in which we respond to the stations of the sun (to quote the title of Ronald Hutton’s book). While some may feel melancholy at the approach of autumn, the Cubs of Barnet were full of enthusiasm and energy as they gathered together after the summer holidays. For them, the season of ghost stories and fireworks ensures that darkness is not without excitement; and explosions of light are brilliant only because they are set against the backdrop of night.