Last Sunday, as I begin to fill in the Register at a church where I’d just lead a service, my fountain pen broke in two. It was quite dramatic. Large blots of black ink formed on the page; my hand was doused in the stuff; a small amount pooled onto the floor. As far as possible, using tissues and wipes, I remedied the damage – but left an indelible mark of my (first!) visit to the church.

Returning home I turned to Google to see if I was alone in my experience. Apparently not. This trusted model from a good brand was known to suffer the occasional failure of a welded section, causing the split I had just experienced. I also learned that it is reparable, and during the week I parcelled up the parts to send to a UK agent for assessment and onward travel to Germany. Like many items we might have as we get older, not only was it – until this point – a reliable mainstay of my writing, it was also a gift from my father for my 50th birthday.

Although I have only caught glimpses of the BBC series The Repair Shop, it isn’t difficult to understand the popularity of the programme. Things that have aged and become damaged are brought back to their former glory. Through the process of repair we are connected with the past as heritage skills are used by the experts to restore the items. Of course, in the process, the person who has presented the treasured artefact tells us the story about its origin and arrival with the current owner. Often these accounts will involve bereavement and the role of the heirloom has a tangible connection with a vanished world.

The Repair Shop

It may be that this programme appeals to younger people – but I suspect the larger audience will be at the older end of the scale. People who have inherited items or been gifted them by friends or relatives when inevitably downsizing as the years advance. Perhaps some personalities are more invested in such things than others, but I imagine that almost everyone can recognise the feeling that an item from the past evokes a sudden sense of connection to a world where we once lived, and which is now past. Watching Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast last night led us to remark that it was like watching our childhoods, not because of the circumstances of growing up in Northern Ireland, but because of the consumer products, Christmas decorations, gifts and furnishings that were featured in the film.

Now in his late 80s, the unconventional former leader of the Episcopalian Church in Scotland, Richard Holloway, has been reflecting on melancholy in his latest book, The Heart of Things. Holloway’s writing in recent years has been a great blessing, not least because he is sharing with us considerable insight, intelligence and feeling from what might be called ‘the front line of later life’.

“Melancholy has become a kind of grateful sadness at what life has given us but which we can never cling to, because it is constantly passing, disappearing into the past. Melancholics find it impossible not to keep looking back at what time has wrought as it slips away behind them like the wake of a ship”.

Richard Holloway, ‘The Heart of Things: An Anthology of Memory & Lament’ Canongate 2021 p. 9

It is little wonder that so many of us enjoy repairing things from the past and re-lustering what has become dull over time. Through these physical fragments of heritage we achieve something we know is impossible for ourselves. We can pass on these keepsakes in near mint condition, while recognising that we share with their first users the reality of our own change and ultimate demise. Like Holloway, I don’t find this a depressing thought, and will be glad to receive back my fountain pen in one piece and use it for a while longer.

Religions typically invite their adherents to avoid investing excessive attachment to things. Whether it is putting wealth into barns or clinging onto power, the behaviour of Jesus in the wilderness is to reject the beguiling shortcuts to food and sovereignty. In his life and teaching Jesus makes clear that false attachments become a barrier to a spirituality that endures. We can live well with ‘things’ but need to be mindful that everything is lent to us for a time. Jesus doesn’t reject possessions entirely, but questions what his hearers ‘treasure’, aware that material things are not eternal. Living at ease with an awareness of irretrievably passing time can help us all live each day well. It is folly, like the example of Cnut, to think that the sands of the hour glass can be diverted or prevented. We live within their falling, and might live better lives if we were at peace with this reality – and our custody of things for a season.

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

Acquainted with Grief

Handel’s Messiah was performed for the first time on April 13th 1742.  Easter Day was towards the end of March and the premier of the new oratorio fell within the 40 days of Easter celebrations.  Its majesty and scope take the listener from the words of the prophets, to the incarnation and on to resurrection.  Hearing the work again this year the words that stood out for me came in the text of the prophet Isaiah chapter 53 verse 3:

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief

Grief seems an apt emotion in the continuing turmoil of Covid-19.  It is grief at the loss of human life; the devastating impact on economic activities; dramatic social change and physical isolation; the severe restriction on cultural life and sporting events.  The world has been put on pause.  For the moment, we have come to grief.

At this most peculiar Easter, churches cannot even offer the consolation of people gathered together to say familiar words or sing joyful music of celebration.  Much will be done on-line and not in our usual places of worship.  For some even the theme of Easter Day may jar.  The suffering and isolation of Good Friday echoes our experience, as does the absence and silence of Holy Saturday.  Resurrection hope may seen a remote expectation for many.  The greeting between Jesus and Mary in the garden, a wishful reunion of the dead with the grieving; the lost with the living.

The biblical accounts of Good Friday describe events that shake our taken-for-granted certainties.  For the bystanders, soldiers and scattered disciples, the experience of the young rabbi’s death disturbs every complacent truth.  The solid earth moves; the daylight is darkened; the dead do not rest at peace in their tombs.  Profound grief, the loss of someone through whose eyes we saw and made sense of life, can shake and break and darken every point of reference that gives us our sense of place and purpose.  As one person said to me about her partner: ‘he was the landscape in which I lived’.

Many times I have stood or knelt beside those whose mourning is forever tied to a day when others are celebrating.  The times I have been in a delivery suite or neonatal unit on Christmas Day.  The conversation with a woman one Good Friday when her terminal diagnosis had re-framed the world and she found herself in that strange land between knowing an event is coming and the time of its arrival.  Grieving suddenly for all those moments of which she would never be a part – mourning the impending loss of what it means to be alive.  This Easter, perhaps more so than in previous years, many people will be reminded of the confluence of a special day and the experience of loss.

We can never move from Good Friday to Easter Day at a prescribed pace.  Telling the tidings of resurrection when people are still living with the pain of crucifixion or the absence of a loved one is worse than folly.  These journeys are made at their own speed, and for some it may never arrive in their lifetime.  For them it lies on the other side of mortality when ‘death thy endless mercies seal, and make the sacrifice complete’.

Easter is celebrated because of the one who was ‘acquainted with grief’.  It is marked by those who place their faith in a good shepherd who was killed without good reason.  A faith which should have remained shut up in the garden tomb; sealed and guarded against any possibility it would ever again see the light of day.  Yet I am sitting here, writing this, a disciple of a faith that was destined to die two thousand years ago.  Still believing that there is more to life than what we see; following in faith and doubt a path trodden by countless people before me.  Not perfect souls – people acquainted and damaged by grief – who dare to hope that when we least expect it,  we are greeted by a moment of resurrection.

At dawn the women made their way,
with spice and sweet perfume,
to where their Lord and Saviour lay
enshrouded in the tomb.
But, wonder and amazing grace
to those whose hearts were grieved –
they saw their Saviour face to face,
and with their love believed.

Mary Louise Bringle