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

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.

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.