Things of Mourning

Often bereavement leads to a major task of sorting. Deciding what to do with the stuff of long lives – items acquired over decades – can take a lot of time. Not only because of the volume of items, but also because each can stir a memory. In some cases there may be little that remains, as the work of sorting has been integral to moves from family home to smaller house, to a flat and maybe, finally, a single room. Yet this can also mean that the little which remains is the most moving.

It is tempting to become pious on this topic and tut at a materialism which many in the West take for granted. Yet tangible things have a potency when they are linked to lives we have known and loved. A simple item can be a connection across generations and remind us of an enjoyment they inspired in someone no longer here. The photo above is of my grandfather’s fountain pen – which I’m guessing was a gift for his twenty-first birthday in 1922. There’s no one still alive to ask, but its gold band bears his initials and it’s a lovely keepsake.

These reflection on the ‘Things of Mourning’ were prompted by a few words from Acts chapter 9. Following the death of Dorcas we hear that Peter went with the mourners to visit the deceased. On arrival the women were ‘weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made’. There is a sense that in showing these items of creativity and skill the personality of Dorcas is evoked and honoured. ‘Things’ can aid our grieving as they bear the imprint of someone’s personality.

Painting by Stan Swift

My father was a prolific watercolour hobbyist. Retirement didn’t halt his enthusiasm and he continued to paint into his 80s. He was midway through a new picture when illness overtook him and his life came to an end. I still have this uncompleted work. After he died we found paintings everywhere. Some on the walls, others in boxes and some in bags. There were even unframed paintings behind the sofa. Every time we went to look for something we found more! So, at his funeral, a room adjacent to the church became a temporary exhibition where friends and family could help themselves to something for both memory and enjoyment.

For all these reasons it is easy to understand how people become so distressed when a burglary results in the loss of something with little financial value. The anguish has nothing to do with price, but everything to do with value. As Thomas A Kempis wrote many centuries ago:

A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver.

Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Gifts and the things we inherit have a power to token a love which continues to be lodged in our memory after someone has died. The things of mourning matter for the connections they enable. What they may be made of matters very little: what they mean can touch the depths of our soul.


Know Thyself

One of the scenes in Much Ado About Nothing sees the friends of Beatrice describe her faults. Beatrice supposes she is hidden, but the friends know full well that she is listening. When they have left, Beatrice steps forwards and concludes: “how happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending”.

Self-knowledge and identity are themes that run through today’s readings in church. Isaiah’s message to those who seek the Lord:

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.

Isaiah 51: 1b New Revised Standard Version

Our origins can be a significant part of our identity. In the Letter to the Romans members of the Church are urged “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3b). Having an accurate self-understanding requires work and commitment. Lastly, in Matthew 16, Jesus questions the disciples about his identity and, in the same moment, we learn of Peter’s role as the rock on which the church will be built.

Understanding our own incompleteness is a prerequisite for growth. Only when we recognises our strengths and detractions can we be open to learn and to change. Like most people I always hear criticism more loudly than praise. Peter may have felt lifted up by the words of Jesus but it’s only a moment later that he is rebuffed as he attempts to intervene to prevent the suffering Jesus will undergo.

While Beatrice may have heard her faults discussed in an ad hoc manner, modern approaches to understanding personality are more systematic. There are many tools available to help us learn in greater depth about ourselves are how we can become more constructive in the way we work with others. We can’t change the “quarry from which we were dug” but we can learn to understand what that means for us and the ways we behave.

All of this has something to say about the way our formation as people can be furthered. For Christians the values which inform our understanding are orientated towards community and service. Like St Peter, we’re called to be ourselves in God’s presence – warts and all – and to discover more fully who God calls us to be.

It is already clear that the Covid-19 pandemic is testing people’s capacity to cope with a world that has become suddenly more dangerous and less certain. It seems that everyone is anticipating a rise in problems of mental health and wellbeing. In 2013 the successor of Peter addressed bishops in Brazil and spoke about human formation:

it is important to devise and ensure a suitable formation, one which will provide persons able to step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearings; able to listen to people’s dreams without being seduced and to share their disappointments without losing hope and becoming bitter; able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity.

Address of Pope Francis: Archbishop’s House, Rio de Janeiro Saturday, 28 July 2013

Impetuous Peter always took the plunge, as he did in declaring Jesus ‘the Christ’ and leaping into waves in order to meet him. Sometimes we feel we are sinking, and when we do, we need the hand of someone set on firmer ground. Someone able to “step into the night without being overcome by the darkness”. As the consequences of disruption in 2020 reverberate across the world we need those who feel at peace with their origins. People who do not think of themselves more highly than they ought and who, more than anything else, know themselves well enough to help in all the mending that will need to be done.


Ennobled Fractures

In some ways I took it as a mixed compliment. When I left the parish where I served as curate some good friends gave me a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. If you’re unaware of this book, it’s a charming morality tale of how love brings us alive and makes us ‘real’. Centred on the toy of the title, we learn that in becoming real we tend to get rather well-used and worn.

by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

Margery Williams, 1881-1944. (2003). The velveteen rabbit : or how toys become real. Leesburg, VA :GiGi Books

Like many children our daughter had a favourite toy. Not a velveteen rabbit, but a cotton one named ‘Vicky’. As the years went on, grandmothers had faithfully repaired bits and replaced parts, but the love for this rabbit never diminished. Sadly, on a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales the toy was left on a bus – traumatising her parents even more than our daughter! I still think of Vicky Rabbit riding around the beautiful landscape in a bus full of children.

Repairing much loved things is an activity as old as humanity. Very often we aspire to ‘invisible mending’, and attempt the great skill required to conceal a fault. Sometimes it can be done – but for those who know what happened it may never seem the same. When a visiting vicar commented to my grandmother on a fine new piece of needlework hanging in her hall she couldn’t suppress the need to tell him where the fault was in the tapestry. Invisible to everyone else, Bessie felt that any admiration needed to be qualified by her knowledge that it was imperfect. The picture needed to be truthful.

A small handmade tea cup repaired using the Japanese art form of kintsugi and a gold powder.

Not everyone aspires to this kind of good-as-new restoration. Reading Andrés Neuman’s new book fracture I was reminded of the ancient art of Kintsugi, when a pottery repair is accentuated by the use of gold. Rather than concealment, the crack becomes a rich vein within the ceramic work, adding interest and individuality. There is a lot of fracture in Neuman’s novel, set as it is against the backdrop of the 2011 tsunami but also connected to other events. It’s a book that feels very pertinent as we begin to see the scars exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A question that emerges as we live through this extraordinary health, wellbeing, economic and political emergency concerns the way we respond to these multiple assaults. Perhaps we could try to conceal some of our unlooked-for experiences, and rush back to a limping version of our former ways? Alternatively, we could learn something important about how we live and relate to others. Learn to become more realistic in our living by stopping the pretence that we can behave as if we are unconnected to others on the small planet we share. To recognise that some of the things which shatter our self-assurance are not imperfections, but necessary interruptions in the smooth glaze of our story.

As the months roll on there will be much to repair and to heal. Perhaps some of this cannot be put to the good, reconstituted or restored. Yet there will be moments when we can choose to ennoble our repairs – to make life and the structures of society fairer and more caring. There will be glimmers of good amongst the pain that many are feeling, and we need to reveal the fractures that have allowed things to change for the better. Whether it’s a growing recognition of how support for older people has been neglected, or the daily injustices that have energised ‘Black Lives Matter’, there are some fractures in our common life we should seek to repair – but never conceal.