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Reflections

Being ‘for us’

During a year I spent in South America I got to know a university student of roughly the same age as myself. Apart from that single similarity, our lives could not have been more different. His childhood and youth had been very tough and appeared to offer only limited prospects. At the sage of 15 he’d left school and worked for his uncle in a car body repair shop. Yet he harboured the vocation to be a doctor. Eventually he got to university – when I met him for the first time. During a conversation about his situation he told me that he lacked ‘respalda’. It wasn’t a word I knew and I needed to look it up. It means ‘support’ or ‘back up’. Unlike many of those he studied alongside, there was no avenue of parental support; no community from his past which could offer help; little that enabled him to keep his head above water. Thankfully, at university, he found the support of a church, and friends: today he is a well-established surgeon.

Baptism expresses the Christian theology of our worth and calling: “As children of God, we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.”

In Pulp’s song Common People we hear how the story of a woman wanting to  ‘live like common people’ is challenged in several ways. However, the definitive obstacle to her achieving her stated ambition lies in the parental support she enjoys: “If you called your dad he could stop it all”. In reality this desire to experience the life of ordinary people is nothing more than a passing fad. As the lyrics bluntly put it: “Everybody hates a tourist”.

Knowing an emergency rescue is available alters our feelings about difficult situations. So long as it’s there we can never experience what it means to have no one to call – no emergency fund, get-out-of-jail free card or saviour. Sadly, all too many people in our world know what it is to lack ‘respalda’. Sharing something of ourselves to be support for others is one of the most constructive things we can do to make this a better world. At times it may cost us material effort, but mostly it will be our silent presence in someone’s life which reduces isolation and affirms both their dignity and worth. Without show or heroics, it can be transformative.

As we journey through Advent and draw nearer to Christmas, there is the opportunity for us to give thanks for the love and support we enjoy. When “the Word became flesh” it was not God among us as a tourist of mortal experience. On the cross there is no answered call which made the pain of life and death disappear. Jesus is truly and fully given into human experience, and shares life with us without a privileged route of miraculous removal. God is among us as our support, longing for us to use our gifts well and be at our best. This help is offered to us from within the experience of human living, not apart from it.

Walter Brueggemann calls Advent the “season of yearning”. It is the time when we hear of God’s desire for us to flourish as human beings – and learn to share that same longing for those around us. The late David Jenkins summed up the whole of the Bible with the simple phrase: ‘God is; and is for us’. As we come to the final weeks of an unimaginably difficult year, let us seek to know again what God’s being with us means, and how we need to live as those committed to the well-being of others.

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Reflections

Framed

Given the direction of modern art, a question has persisted about the basis of what constitutes a ‘work of art’. From pickled animals to an unmade bed, there have been plenty of voices to criticise works that fail to follow traditional approaches. It has long seemed to me that the question is best answered by the decision to frame something. A frame places a boundary which invites the gaze of a viewer, separating one thing from another. It adds human intent and purpose even when the contents of the frame may appear to be naturally occurring or pre-existent. While some artists may eschew a frame in a formal sense, there remains the boundary of the canvas, block or space, which delineates what we are able to see.

The frame is the necessary condition for perception being possible, for any kind of structural perception.

Kemp, W. (1996). The narrativity of the frame in ‘The Rhetoric of the Frame’, Cambridge

It would be misleading to suggest that frames have a consistent meaning across the history of art. Kemp’s thesis, quoted above, addresses the role of the frame in the creation of Medieval altarpieces. Kemp argues that for approximately a thousand years frame-making was the task of leading artists and had a critical role in organising the elements within the frame to enable perception. For Kemp a previous understanding that art brings the frame to life, is inverted to become: “The frame brings the work of art into existence”.

In 1999 an exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park featured a work by a Japanese sculptor which set a gold frame just in front of a curved white surface. The frame echoed the shape of the object but also allowed space for shifting perspectives as the viewer changed position. It suggests the possibility that some frames can be permissive, allowing us some element of choice about what is encompassed.

Sculpture exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 1999

The picture at the header of this blog was painted in the Outer Hebrides by Ruth P’Dell. Entitled Peatcutters 3 it seems a timeless depiction of something that would have been a part of island life for centuries. When I bought it the gallery let me leaf through a number of unframed paintings of the same subject by the artist. In some of these the workers wore baseball caps – a detail which suddenly transformed an image that could have belonged to any era into something contemporary. During recent filming in York, I was similarly reminded how a simple detail can change the perception of the viewer (below). The crew of every period drama expends a great deal of effort excluding items which would otherwise shatter our illusion of another time.

Decisions about including and excluding content are a basic part of being human. I imagine that as we look back on the start of the pandemic, documentaries and films may focus on some initial detail. Something which seemed trivial at the time, but which in hindsight would have made clear the pressing and urgent need to act. We cannot see everything simultaneously, nor can our picture of unfolding events ever be complete. Perhaps, like the piece at the Sculpture Park, we need frames that allow some flexibility. Frames which give us the capacity to adjust our position just enough to allow a fresh perspective – and see the critical detail which transforms our recognition of what lies before us.

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Reflections

Acquired Invisibility

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

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

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

All the fool seemed utterly sure of

was never in his life would he be me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections

Stirred – Not Shaken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Heading image by Gerd Altmann)

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Reflections

Peace in Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afternoon walk after the waters have receded

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

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

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

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Reflections

What is in the Darkness

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

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

Genesis 1:5b

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

Sunrise January 1 2020, York, England

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

The Great East Window, York Minster, England

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

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

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

Jamie Baxter A Profession London Review of Books 8 February 2020

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

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Reflections

Empty Plinths and Silent Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Flutter of God

Images of God are scattered across the books of the Bible. We are familiar with many of these but occasionally one will snag our attention and lead us to pause and reflect. Recently I was reading Psalm 39 and was reminded of one of the less common metaphors of divinity:

You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.

Psalm 39 v. 11 NRSV

I am not a linguist and my grasp of grammar isn’t strong. As I began to think about the moth-God I came across a helpful article by DesCamp and Sweetser. Here, the debate about metaphor and simile for the Divine is set out with the insights of both theology and cognitive linguistics. It is worth a read. The metaphors we use to express our experience of God are critical to the way we think about God. Understandably, the words we use to indicate God assign different aspects of character, relationship and purpose. Altering the metaphors we use can be a revolutionary act: “new metaphors mean changing our licensing stories and deep cultural roots”.

At the apex of the Great East Window at York Minster is a depiction of God the Father, Alpha and Omega, presiding over both creation and apocalypse

Much of the time images for God can be overwhelming, expansive and vast. Alpha and omega, creator and judge. The more we understand about the stars and the universe, the more immense and bewildering the idea of God can become. At best, images point to this enormity. Yet the cause of vastness is also our creator, and during our evolution human beings formed words to describe our bespoke reality. Words that encapsulated a sense of the sacred:

who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the wave of the Sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south, who does great things beyond our understanding, and marvellous things without number.

Job 9: 10-12

Alongside these images of power and creative purpose are metaphors which suggest a different story. While the span of God’s activity is boundless, there is also hiddenness and intimacy. Alpha and Omega is like a moth – hidden in darkness, tiny and unravelling the threads of our vanity.

When I worked in the NHS I was often either involved in the training of nurses or engaged in conversation with them on wards. A comment that occurred a number of times was that for them, asking patients about religious matters was more difficult and embarrassing than asking about people’s sex lives. For a long time chaplains have spoken about this with a tone of impatience, implying that nurses simply need to get on with discussions about religion and belief. However, over the years I have begun to wonder more and more whether the instincts of nurses are right. That something as intimate as a moth needs handling with the greatest care; else clumsy enquiry causes nothing but damage.

DesCamp and Sweetser suggest that “metaphors actually constitute our relationship with God in crucial ways”. As God cannot be fully known, metaphors offer a creative and dynamic exploration of the qualities people experience in their spirituality. While God may not change, our experiences alters the metaphors we use to express a deepening relationship with the sacred. As I found, even images that are centuries old can still have the capacity to stir reflections that further our journey of encounter and understanding.

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Love Letters

During a recent research day with chaplains it became clear that alongside a greater use of technology, the pandemic has stimulated letter writing. This may seem to be contrary to much of what we’ve heard about the way ministers have responded to enforced distancing. Many stories have emerged about the use of Zoom and similar technologies. Yet our conversation revealed a small but significant practice of increased letter writing.

I like letters and cards. There is something both personal and enduring about hand-written communication. On our recent holiday I sent cards to two people I trained with – using the more leisured time to select a card and compose my greeting. Receiving letters always reminds me that people spent time thinking about me and thinking about our friendship. Handwriting can’t be cut and pasted.

“Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.”

Lord Byron quoted in Williams, L. (2012). Kind regards: The lost art of letter writing. Michael O’Mara Books.

All this made me wonder about the place of letters in Christianity. The Epistles in the New Testament offer an insight into the theology, experience and mechanics of the early Church. I’m not sure whether Christianity is unique in having letters as sacred scripture, but it certainly seems unusual. Pursuing this thought I came across Antonia Sari’s work on letter writing in the Graeco-Roman world. It appears that the collection and publication of private correspondence doesn’t happen until the first century BC, when the letters of Cicero were made public. This suggests that the practice of publishing personal letters develops only shortly before the emergence of Christianity.

“The same written form that forces the author to more intense reflection also provides the addressee with opportunities for unhurried reading and interpretive rereading”.

Klauck, H. J., & Bailey, D. P. (2006). Ancient letters and the New Testament: A guide to context and exegesis. Baylor University Press.

Unlike electronic communications letters feel like they send something of oneself. They convey a high degree of peronsalisation – which is perhaps why charitable appeal letters often strive to mimic handwriting. We might think of the person composing the letter – knowing their home and their walk to the nearby letterbox. The whole ritual of writing, sealing, addressing and posting emphasises the care and thought committed to the process. For the chaplains on the research day the motivation to do this was also linked to people’s limited resources. Not everyone has e-mail or affordable access to the internet. The cost of letter writing sits with the sender, not the recipient.

At the University of Leeds School of English Alison Searle is leading an AHRC study which includes an examination of the use of letters as a form of pastoral care. Set in an historic context, this research has much to contribute to our present understanding of the way letters help or hinder the expression of care. Unexpectedly for those involved with the project, Covid-19 has created a situation in which support-at-distance has gained renewed relevance.

It is a pity that sending letters has become so expensive. There is a vicious cycle in which the post becomes more costly so fewer people use it – which in turn places pressure on its viability. Perhaps this year, given our unique circumstances, there will be a rise in the number of Christmas cards sent, reversing a longstanding decline. We may need to re-evaluate the trend to substitute the cost of cards with a gift to charity, or the tendency to opt for an e-greeting. Making time to send something of ourselves to the people we care about has a value beyond the influences which have reduced the custom. Perhaps this December, the love and care conveyed by handwritten messages will be rediscovered as one of the most valuable gifts of the festive season.

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Autumn – Another Beauty

Today I had one of those salutary moments, when something simple makes you pause. For the first time in several month, with a slight chill in the early morning air, I put on a winter coat. As I reached into a pocket I pulled out a face mask. In an instant I was reminded just how long the pandemic is enduring and how, half a year later, we are once again looking at a curve that is rising at a vertiginous rate.

Most of the cost of this protracted crisis will not emerge until after a point of solution or stabilisation is reached. We are now living through what a friend describes as a ‘chronic emergency’, which will no doubt have more and less acute phases. A recent two week holiday in the UK had occasional moments when it felt as though I was on furlough from the front-line. Still hearing the reports of struggle and danger but removed from its immediate impact.

Spending time in the depths of rural mid-Wales had much of the benefit of being on retreat. The weather was an unexpected gift of warm days and comfortable nights. Across a landscape of hills, woodland and waterways, the turn of the year was coming into view as foliage showed the first signs of autumn. Sitting by the River Wye just above Rhayader I was reminded of a reflection which took place much further downstream. At Tintern Abbey, more than two hundred years ago, Wordsworth’s contemplation of a bucolic scene led to thoughts about the changes brought to us by the passage of time:

While here I stand, not only with the sense

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts

That in this moment there is life and food

For future years.

Wordsworth, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 1798
The Wye River above Rhayader

In current circumstances we may all be drawing on ‘life and food’ laid down in past years to help us navigate turbulent waters. A Western tendency for several decades has been to assume a degree of certainty about the future. Only when viewed at a distance can we see how this is an aberration in terms of both human history and the reality of life in other parts of the world. If a pay cheque doesn’t come at the end of the month it is an outrage which leads to prompt correction and a shamefaced apology. Yet in the 1980s, while spending a year in South America, it was an accepted reality that sometimes pay might be delayed for one or more months – especially in the public sector. We need to be circumspect about what we take for granted. Will 2020 be viewed as a scary year that departed momentarily from story of economic growth and prosperity, or will we look back on it as the beginning of the decade of Covid? We don’t know – and we shouldn’t assume.

Emerging autumn colours

In uncertain times we can all benefit from contact with things that convey a sense of continuity. The seasons arrive with reassuring regularity, and each one with its own riches. Autumn has often been a metaphor for later life, and it is a reminder that even change which may not always be welcome comes with its own beauty. We may mourn the loss of summer’s rich canopies and expansive days of warmth, but in the transformation of the season there is a spectacular display of colour. Its fleeting nature, combined with the change in climate, can intensify the pleasure we take in a beauty made all the richer by our knowledge of its brevity.

We enter autumn with questions about the future which are unusual for many of us – but not for all. Living wisely with uncertainty can be a tall order, and finding reserves of reflection matter all the more when our footing feels less sure. Pausing to recognise the beauty of today, or recalling those past moments that have grounded and fed our spirit, will perhaps be more valuable now than we imagine.