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Reflections

The Religious Stuff

A year ago I was leading a retreat in Yorkshire. Always challenging but rewarding, it was an opportunity to address Christian ministry in a changing world. At that point few of us knew quite how changing. The attendance of one person was doubtful because he had just returned from the Far East and needed the outcome of a coronavirus test. It arrived in time; it was clear; and he attended. The innocence of a crowded room, all unmasked, with many people over 70, seems like another world. We sang hymns heartily and shared the peace. Some small measures were beginning to appear, such as the bottle of hand gel amongst the silver and wine, but otherwise things felt fairly normal.

I wrote last week about the changing place of the Christian faith in the UK over the past six decades. It was a Lenten theme, focusing on the BBC plays making up Jesus of Nazareth, shown on the Sundays leading up to Easter Day in 1956. A world where such a production was a landmark event drawing high level viewing figures. A story already known to most people was given flesh and blood, costume and context. It had a powerful impact. Yet the decades which followed have seen the continued ebbing of the ‘sea of faith’. In Arnold’s poem containing this famous phrase, it is perhaps the language and rituals of faith which have been most marked in their regression. The recognisable outer shape of faith which touched and connected so many aspects of Britain’s common life. The moments in particular when, as Larkin wrote, human compulsions are ‘robed as destinies’.

I have often felt that there is a valuable study to be made into the vanishing presence of civil religion. By this I mean those times when the church presides, often fleetingly, over collective moments. We still have these on the national stage, such as Royal weddings and funerals. However, at a much more modest level there has been a long history of momentary religious observance. Until at least the year 2000 the chaplain at a fairly ordinary West Yorkshire General Hospital would say grace before the canteen sittings for the staff Christmas dinner. In the Leeds Teaching Hospitals a Christmas Day consultants’ carol service continued until about 2008. Doctors gathered with their families on the morning of the 25th of December for a tradition which went back to the days when they would have then gone to the wards to carve the turkey. Like many other such moments, it has gone.

The Chapel, Leeds General Infirmary

It seems very unlikely that these days will return, even if we thought that was a good idea. The Church appears to teeter on the edge of moments in our personal and collective lives. An increasing number of funerals are presided over by civil celebrants and little is of automatic right for the clergy of the Established Church. Today humility is not only a desirable spiritual quality; time and again the Church has been shown to have much to be humble about.

Hopefully, as we emerge from lockdown and the restrictions made necessary by COVID-19, there will be fresh opportunities to serve and witness. As people move to a place where the pandemic is neither approaching nor raging, there will be time to take stock. When COVID-19 is firmly in the rearview mirror I have no doubt that there will be deep moments of reflection, even distress, as we comprehend what has happened. We have been shaken, and the ground may never quite feel the same again. The aftermath of the virus will be with us for years in many spheres of life.

One of the continuing strengths of the Church of England is the extraordinary stock of spiritual places in its care. As things begin to open up again, what an amazing opportunity to make these places open and available. To allow all and sundry to use these largely ancient places as somewhere to be; to reflect; to ponder. With creative purpose there can be opportunities to remember who or what has been lost in people’s lives. Knitted hearts to hang on tree branches; thoughts and prayers to write; and the simplicity of silence. The stillness of ‘a serious house on serious earth’ – a place Larkin felt would always be needed when we experience that surprising hunger to know a wisdom at peace with our mortality.

The Church, Little Gidding

The title for this Blog came from a recent conversation with a chaplain who was extolling the chance to be involved in things that were not simply ‘the religious stuff’. One of the challenges for the church is that religion has come to be seen very narrowly. This is a sad development with which we should not collude. In reality religion is all those things that bind us together within a sense of being loved, guided and created. I’m quite sure that some of the most truly religious things ever done have not needed the labels of religious language. In an age when it has become ever harder to speak without misunderstanding, or being reinterpreted, perhaps our open and patient presence is, and should, be enough. On a Sunday when we remember Jesus clearing the Temple, I can do little better than conclude with the passionate words TS Eliot put into the mouth of Thomas à Becket:

Unbar the doors! throw open the doors!

I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,

The sanctuary, turned into a fortress…

The church shall be open, even to our enemies.

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Reflections

Support or Illumination?

Numbers have never really been my thing. However, a few years ago I knew I needed to learn more. Having joined an NHS research ethics committee, I wanted to understand more about health statistics. Fortunately I had the opportunity to complete a postgraduate course in health research – which included a module on statistics. Despite my misgivings about data this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the course, shedding light on the use and abuse of figures to further an argument.

“Most people use statistics as a drunk … uses lamp-posts for support rather than illumination”

Attributes to Andre Lang

Now, in the light of the pandemic, the world is trading statistics like never before. Government scientists present graphs and tables each week, sometimes daily, to explain the R number (transmissibility); exponential growth; and much, much, more. Even where it might seem that there should be greatest clarity, for example the number of people who have died, there are typically three figures offered. The nuances of criteria and methods reveal just how much the nature of the question influences the form of the answer.

Dorothy Bishop’s bishopblog is one of many sites on the internet that have interrogated the presentation of data and called for greater clarity. Using the example of the difference between relative risk and absolute risk the case is made for the importance of accuracy when communicating data to the public. What might seem to be a huge increase in risk (e.g. 30%) may make limited difference in actual cases depending on the total numbers involved.

“we might hope that, in a pandemic, where public understanding of risk is so crucial, particular care would be taken to be realistic without being alarmist”.

Dorothy Bishop, bishopblog, accessed on 27 January 2021

When I was a curate on placement in a rural church near Lancaster I took part in a service in which the Bishop confirmed 25% of the population of the parish. This meant about 15 people, and it was a fairly rare event for the bishop to come to confirm – so several years’ worth of candidates were gathered up together. It seems astounding that in England in the 1990s a quarter of a parish’s entire population was making a declaration of faith all at once – context is everything.

There appear to be more opportunities for people unaccustomed to interpreting statistical data to find accessible information. Radio 4’s More or Less is a good example of how academic expertise can engage with the questions people are keen to interrogate. In response to the emergence of ‘alternative facts’ there has also been growth in the independent reality checking for which there is an increasing demand. Nowhere could this be more important than in the need for accurate information about the vaccines being offered to combat COVID-19.

It seems to me that one of the problems faced by the desire for both clarity and accuracy is that the truth isn’t always simple. What is the difference between something being ‘safe’ and ‘completely safe’? When vaccines have been developed so quickly there are understandable questions about both immediate side-effects and longer-term consequences. Even a very good sample of people used in the testing phase of the vaccine development cannot be representative of every human characteristic. The question for me is not about the absolute safety of vaccines to be used on billions of people, but about their likely safety and the common good.

Born in a vicarage in the mid-1700s, Edward Jenner is usually seen as the founding figure in the development of modern immunology. At a young age he was given the maxim of William Harvey: “Don’t think; try”. We must be thoughtful, enquiring and considered in our choices – but there comes a time to act. It may be possible to wait for the complete clarity we desire, all the data weighed and balanced, but sometimes we need to make a judgement-call before we know as much as we would like. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that if you wait until something is blindingly obvious you have left it too late. There is a stage in every pandemic when the damage being done is stealthy and silent – yet the foundations of tragedy are being laid comprehensively and irretrievably.

Perhaps one of the legacies of COVID-19 will be to create better systems of public education about risk and probability. Not that any of us will know everything, but – importantly – that each of us might be better able to ask the right questions. Numbers cannot tell us how to live. They provide illumination enabling us to see more clearly the context in which our choices are made. Used well, they support the priorities we have chosen based on our values and moral commitments.

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Reflections

Lonely Sits the City

The Book of Lamentations can hardly be described as a fun read. The concept of lament may seem old and irrelevant – a crying over spilled milk, rather than the ‘can do’ attitude needed to manage a crisis. Yet scholars have argued that this caricature misunderstands Lamentations. Rather than a self-absorbed despondency it is a book that reflects an accurate perception of tragedy. It names experience and seeks to convey the visceral reality of exceptional trauma in all its horror.

My eyes are spent with weeping;;

my stomach churns;

Book of Lamentations, 2: 11

Several writers have explored the meaning of Lamentations and its relevance for other situations of overwhelming loss. Certainly the writer of the book is engaged with an experience of catastrophic destruction, where a community has been ripped apart. It is common in many such experiences to search for meaning and interpretation, as well as to apportion blame. Garber has written about the relationship of this kind of literature with reference to trauma studies. He quotes O’Connor’s understanding of this type of text as an ‘ancient poetry of “truth telling”‘.

For vast as the sea is your ruin;

who can heal you?

Book of Lamentations, 2: 13

There will be many who will not link this kind of traumatic lament with the experiences of COVID-19. While much has changed there remains a level of functioning in Western societies which suggests huge stress rather than catastrophic collapse. Nevertheless the level of human loss, especially considering the many mitigations which have been put in place, is remarkable. In some families and sections of society the cost of COVID has been dear, with deaths, severe illness, reduced income, disruption to social structures and lost education. To name these experiences accurately will give rise to lament.

“there may yet be hope” Book of Lamentations 3:29

Lamentation has a number of consequences. It begins to articulate experience, putting words and sound to voice the inner turmoil when the immediate crisis is passing. In the Book of Lamentations it wrestles with both God’s presence in disaster, and simultaneous silence in the face of the people’s prayers, pleading and petitions. It may have the effect of affirming a sense of community and shared experience that lays the foundations for recovery. At the time of lament this may not be apparent but it may be a consequence of putting words to a crisis which might otherwise disband the survivors of a common trauma.

Lamentation is a form of stringent speaking. It sees through the gloss, the veneer of interpretation, and names the truth of desperate times. It is not a counsel for despair but a cri de coeur for accuracy and understanding. In this there is a prophetic edge. It challenges the superficial discussion of events that shatter communities and wreck the lives of individuals. The loss of life and suffering with over 2 million worldwide COVID-19 deaths, is surely worthy of lament.

“We’re grieving the world we have lost: normal life, our routines, seeing our friends, going to work. Everything has changed. And change is actually grief – grief is a change we don’t want”.

David Kessler quoted in an interview with Joanna Moorhead, The Observer 17 January 2021

David Kessler, who has spent his career in palliative care, describes us as a ‘grief-adverse society’. The consequence of this is the failure to recognise and experience post-traumatic growth. Only by exploring the parameters of loss can we begin to see any meaning which may emerge from tragedy. As many of us have known through the pastoral support of the bereaved, as well as in our own experience, it is unhelpful to speak of hope in the midst of crisis. Yet even unspoken, hope is often present, and although straggling and diminished it has a remarkable capacity to grow.

I hope that there will be a willingness for society to lament. To trace the sharp edges of grief and in doing so, encounter unexpected gifts. Gifts that will arrive in their own time. I have already seen, as people write and paint and create in response to their suffering, the kind of lament that may yet lead to new meaning. The risk is that we will try to rush past this crisis and its consequences and silence the voices of those who recall us to the suffering that has been all too real. Hopefully, wisdom will remind us that a future of greater promise, fairness and compassion, cannot be built successfully on a buried past.

I pray that we shall both lament and learn.

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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

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

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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Reflections

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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Reflections

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.

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Like a Thunderbolt

Once, writing a Passion Play for a church, the only text I felt happy with was the opening line: ‘I can tell you nothing about anything from the time before telling’. The words came out of reflection on the Gospel of John and the opening words of the Bible. It struck me that Genesis is not so much an account of creation, as an act of creation. When people took to their hearts a shared narrative of their beginning, they ceased to be individuals and became a community bound by a story. Even as the words were spoken, shared and ingested, the shape of a nation was being fashioned. Genesis may not be the account of creation so much as an active (and ongoing) process of creation and renewal.

I’ve written previously about the power of stories to mediate our understanding of the world in which we live. In particular, the way a story can help us make sense of calamities and begin to find a way to cope with events. As the twentieth century demonstrated, the power of our stories can also be used to generate horrendous division and destruction. Not all stories are good. Like the discoveries of science, the way we connect events and interpret intentions, can be used in ways that are profoundly damaging. Language is technology, and probably the most useful skill humanity has developed.

The moment I became aware of the power and capacity of language was in primary school, aged 7, rummaging in a corner of the classroom. Goodness knows what I was supposed to be doing! I came across a book of poetry byTennyson. One in particular struck me then and the memory of its impact has remained with me ever since. Called simply The Eagle it is the briefest description of an eagle’s plunge towards its prey. Yet in its six lines something was switched on in my brain and I saw how words could bear the impress of reality. Words which, arranged in a particular way and rising out of a depth of feeling, carry within them a visceral sense of experience.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls, He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson The Eagle, 1851

Over the years my appreciation of poetry has changed, but I owe something to those few lines which inspired a passion. The poetic use of language can shake us out of the tram lines of prose and jar us into startled attention. It allows words to be placed in unexpected associations, often with a hint of playfulness mixed into the experience, all of which lends itself to creative thought.

In recent months I have been reflecting on the way our choice of words reveals a lot about our response to the pandemic. Among the swath of texts about the new virus are signs that say much about our evolving thoughts. Countries where people spoke warmly about how well they had weathered COVID-19 now find that the virus has returned. There was an assumption made to see this as a single event passing around the world, whereas we now see a picture which is more complex, dynamic and repetitive. By now we know it would be wrong to think COVID-19 simply arrives and leaves. The language used a few months ago reveals how our understanding has changed.

In the early days of the UK’s experience Simon Armitage wrote a poem featured in The Guardian, and this weekend there is a piece published by Barbara Kingsolver in the same paper. Entitled How to Do Absolutely Nothing it’s a ‘shape’ poem capturing in its form the gradual loss of things, concluding with the word leave standing alone. As we all continue to face restrictions in response to the virus this poem resonates with different experiences of loss. In the life changes enforced by COVID-19 we may all be trying to ‘Find out what’s left’, and see with a new sense of value what we once took for granted.

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Categories
Reflections

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.