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Reflections

Our Trespasses

I have no doubt that it is the first set of words I learned by heart. Not only a poem, but a prayer taught to me by parents, as their parents had, receding into a pre-Medieval time when some landowner, or Lord or Laird decided to accept the new religion. A curious collection of words first spoken two thousand years ago in Aramaic and translated into every language on the planet. Words said in every place where human beings have walked..

At a time when public knowledge about Christianity in the UK has certainly declined, along with the number of active worshipers, the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the final vestige of faith for many. When I once attended a Delivery Suite to bless a still born baby the mother and her mother discussed with me what to include. ‘Oh you know’, the mother said, ‘what was that prayer gran liked?’ I wondered for a moment what collect or unusual prayer might be named but it was – as you’ve guessed – the ‘Our Father’.

From the poem Dead End by Nancy Mattson in The Poet’s Quest for God ed. Brennan et al.

I have been reminded of this while reading Stephen Cherry’s excellent Lent book Thy Will Be Done. It is a timely reminder of the centrality of this prayer in the life of both individual believers and the Church. During 20 years working as a hospital chaplain there was hardly an occasion when I would not use this prayer. At the bedsides of the dying, from the hours old to patients over 100. In emergency marriages with young people to the celebration of a Chapel’s 150th anniversary. Nor will I forget the patient who told me that he always began to say the Lord’s Prayer silently when he was finding it difficult to sleep – a mantra that would still his mind and bring rest.

At times it feels as though the prayer fits in my mind like a much turned stone sits in the hand. It is strong and enduring yet also fitting and weathered. Hard and weighty, it is familiar and comforting. As much a part of me as, I hope, I am of it and the God it addresses; the Son who taught it; and the Spirit that is the vital bridge between then and now, here and there; creator and created; me and us. One of the early reflections Cherry offers is a focus on the repeated us of the adjective ‘our’ rather than ‘my’. A key feature of the prayer is that reiterates the Christian understanding of our place in relationship, both with God and with our neighbours. The approach we make to God is in company and never wholly alone.

A ceramic hand-piece by Antonia Salmon

Perhaps for these reasons, at a moment I can no longer recall, I began introducing the Lord’s Prayer as ‘the family prayer of the Christian Church’. This became my practice when I was with people who may have been unfamiliar with the prayer or its place in the Christian faith. It brought into the isolation of a clinical room a sense of community and companionship. Links that were both local, to the homes and churches round the hospital, as well as offering connections to the past, a worldwide company of faith and the future. At many of these critical moments none of this was unpacked, but the prayer’s familiarity and depth travelled with those who left the hospital carrying their grief.

While spending a year in South America in my twenties it was one of my greatest frustrations that I couldn’t keep up with the congregation in saying the prayer in Spanish. At every service it felt like a moment when my separation from the other worshippers was most marked. However, in time, I learned and internalised the words and appreciated the new insights gained from the altered phonetics and different accent.

Visiting the Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives is an unforgettable reminder of this uniquely universal collection of words. Across the Church and its surroundings the prayer is written in over 140 languages. It would be easy to think that this familiarity generates a certain contempt, or failure to feel the heft of a form of language shared so far and wide. However, it navigates a set of relationships and obligations that continue to be radical and soul-shaping. This small piece of linguistic luggage travels with us with the reminder that humanity is about ‘our’ and not simply ‘my’. That daily needs cannot be taken for granted. nor the needs of our neighbours ignored. In seeking and addressing God we hunger for the Kingdom that is both different and better than our reality. As we talk to God about its coming rule, we express the desire to share in that ‘will’, playing our part in a world more aligned to God’s love.

If we are nearing the start of this pandemic’s ending, here is the prayer that will remind us that picking up where we left-off isn’t good enough. This is an experience we cannot leave without first seeking learning and wisdom. The pandemic has revealed the evils and disastrous consequences of allowing injustices to thrive in our world. Only when we can understand the trespasses that continue to sustain a frighteningly unequal world, can we begin to work with greater determination for that more perfect will for which we pray.

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“When thou shalt look us out of pain”

During 20 years of chaplaincy in the NHS I faced all kinds of questions which might be grouped under the simple, short, yet daunting word: ‘why?’

It wasn’t only a question for people who might have seen themselves as religious. When I was present with families in traumatic circumstances there were often non-religious people among them. It seems that there is a basic assumption in life that there should be some reward for virtue, or at least a balance between the rain and sunshine. The suffering of the innocent, especially children, resists any attempt to attach constructive meaning. Occasionally a family member would venture something along the lines of ‘perhaps it’s for the best’, but when this happened it was often met with silence and muted rejection.

Time and again I was aware that in life-changing situations, when words were wholly inadequate to the experience of loss, the role of the chaplain was not orientated towards a solution. There was no good outcome, and in this context spiritual care was far more to do with helping shoulder pain than in any attempt to make things better. In my ethnographic writing about the experience of being a chaplain, offering compassionate presence in small spaces of great suffering, the simple fact of being there, bearing a particular group of associations, appear to be core components of the role.

There was more to this than pastoral empathy, valuable as that can be for people in distress. I was conscious at times that I was bringing the outside in. Even while being a member of staff, the religious identity I carried spoke of the wider community. When meeting a chaplain for the first time perhaps the most frequently asked question is: ‘where is your church?’, or mosque, synagogue or gurdwara. People of faith are linked to places of faith and the connection flows to and fro. In an institutional setting this can mean that the chaplain has a particular role in bearing the symbolism of community; connections to the past and the future; and a broad association with shared beliefs, culture, heritage and identity.

Yet there is a further dimension to this role – that of witness. The longer I worked in institutional settings the more aware I became that seeing what takes place, and holding that in the perspective of prayer and ritual, was part of what was expected. People cared that their experience, perhaps taking place at the dead of night in a large city, was not happening in seclusion. In their presence, words and actions, chaplains are personifying elements of the faith they profess. As I wrestled with this experience – and still wrestle – there is something in it about the God who doesn’t look away. I am not there to promote a God who can be bargained with in order to grant our wishes. The very least I can do is to behold this suffering, to touch and bless a life which is ending, and share the sorrow of the grieving whose lives are changing irrevocably. In the current circumstances of Covid-19 this can be experienced as a deprivation for both those in spiritual need and the chaplain tasked to provide it.

This element of pastoral ministry, the chaplain’s gaze, occurred to me again recently while reading Mark Oakley’s reflections on the poems of George Herbert. In The Glance, Herbert writes of a time when God “shalt look us out of pain”. It seems an odd notion, but I know from experience that looking has its own quality, and that in the silent relationship of beholding, much can be transacted. Following Herbert, this might be seen as a foretaste of a time when clarity of perception between God and humanity will dissolve the hurts and pains we all carry.

Maybe, in the request to witness those moments, and to be present with loved ones as they say farewell, there is a sign that this kind of seeing, and being seen, truly matters. That when we sense God’s presence with us, beholding our pain, there is hope that in the end this suffering will be lifted from us. It doesn’t diminish the experience we are passing through, with all its calamity, but it offers an unspoken hope that suffering is not – and never is – the last thing we see.