This Doubtful Day

In Austria, on Palm Sunday, branches of pussy willow are used instead of palms to honour the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the parish church of Viehhofen, in Hinterglemm, I found a spray of pussy willow attached to a processional cross as part of the Christmas decorations. I am unclear about the reason for this, and a search of the internet turned up little. However, it seems a fitting nod towards the passion of Christ and serves as a reminder that events in the Christian year are interlaced in ways that are sometimes surprising.

In 1608 John Donne wrote about the coincidence of the Annunciation (25 March 1608) falling on Good Friday. (We don’t need to worry about that happening in our lifetimes, no matter how young you are, as it occurs next in the year 2157. It happened last in 2016). Donne reflected on ‘the head Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead’, the day when news of great joy lands on the remembrance of deep sorrow. News about the same person – anticipation of new life held simultaneously with the pain and suffering of that life being extinguished. In the calendar, the Church transfers the celebration of the Annunciation to another date. It is almost impossible to attend fully to both these extremities without experiencing some kind of theological breakdown.

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

The conclusion of Donne’s poem: On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day

As a hospital chaplain there were many occasions when joy and sorrow were held in the same time. I shall never forget working in the neonatal units at Christmas, when all attention in the outer world was fixed upon a particular birth but, tragically, I was baptising and blessing lives that would not last the day. Every Christmas I think of those parents and families, for whom this date of joy in the world had become a time of painful recollection. Our annual baby remembrance service was held in early December in order to allow families a ritual of acknowledged loss, and then proceed to keep Christmas as well as possible for other children in the family.

We tend to think that Christmas should be a time when we are shielded from the harsh experiences of being human. Sadly, as the UK has witnessed, violent deaths have taken place over the festivities. Families have been devastated by loss when so much public narrative focuses on being together; reunited. Police officers speaking about these events have often said words to the effect that: ‘while this would be appalling at any time, it is particularly difficult coming at Christmas’. The remembrance of families will forever be made in a context of public joy and celebration.

It is the work of the Church to hold these things together. It is always both ‘our duty and our joy’. The word death is spoken in front of the family and friends of a child brought to baptism; in the joy of a wedding we are reminded it is ’till death do us part’. In a funeral we hear the language of a life to come, and resurrection. The wonderful life which Mary brings into the world is destined for abuse; mockery; humiliation; and a criminal’s execution. Donne called the coming together of joy and sorrow in 1608 ‘this doubtful day’. He knew not whether to feast or fast.

The crucifix doesn’t leave the church to make our Christmas feast more palatable. Neither is it wrapped in tinsel to pretend that suffering can be masked, so that our carols might be more joyful. Pussy willow seems a fitting decoration. A foreshadowing of the Passion that begins on Palm Sunday – but also one of the first heralds of Spring, and a reminder that in the death of winter, new life is promised.

Bet Leḥem

A long time ago I spent a year working as a bread-wrapper – in an ASDA store on that U-bend in the Thames, the Isle of Dogs. This was back in 1988, when the Docklands Light Railway operated, but the foundations for Canary Wharf were still being dug. It was a time of transition, and the supermarket was rumoured to have an annual staff turnover of 110%. The old East End was giving way to a flood of wealth and gentrification that would soon alter the character of the local community, and move low-paid workers elsewhere.

Working in the bakery at the store was an education. It enlightened me about the misleading nature of marketing, as the photo heading this blog illustrates. People might imagine that ‘baked in this store’ equates with ‘made in this store’. Little could be further from the truth. Frozen and chilled goods would arrive, produced in a factory far, far, away. The purpose of the bakery was to finish these products while filling the store with the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread.

As Christmas approached I opted for two overnight shifts. This only ever happened at Christmas. On the nights of 22/23 December, and 23/24, one baker and I staffed the bakery on a shop floor devoid of everyone bar a security guard or two (these were the days before 24/7 opening). The purpose was clear. Anything wrapped after 00:01 hours bore the date of the day yet to dawn. By 8 am whole stacks of baked goods were on the shelves ready for the deluge of shoppers eager for their festive essentials.

At this time of year special foods are synonymous with the season. Dodgy adverts also tend to proliferate, and we are lured into imagining that this gift, or fragrance or food, will enable us to have the perfect Christmas. More often than not, these illusions arrive part-cooked, and never deliver everything the advertising appears to promise.

Bethlehem comes from the Hebrew name ‘Bet Leḥem‘, meaning ‘House of Bread’. In the Bread House Jesus is made human, with all the pain and risk that any birth at that time might occasion. Wesley may be right, following George Herbert, that here is God ‘contracted to a span’, but incarnation isn’t the creation of a bite-size divinity. In Bethlehem and after Bethlehem, Jesus is being made flesh, and fashioned into the saviour he becomes. Bread that will feed the hungry and energise those seeking justice, but sticks in the craw of vested interests, and those bent on retaining privilege and power. I’m not always sure that the Church is advertising accurately the kind of God-incarnate who is ‘bad news’ for some, and a stumbling block to others.

But the child that is Noble and not Mild
He lies in his cot. He is unbeguiled.
He is Noble, he is not Mild,
And he is born to make men wild.

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) From the poem ‘Christmas’

To Break Every Yoke

I have been fortunate in my life to know very little of war. It has been a distant experience, vicariously brought nearer by television, conversations, films and books. Only once have I ever felt the uncertainty and apprehension that comes with sudden military action. This was in Argentina in 1987, while spending a year in the country working with a mission organisation. I was based in Córdoba where, in April of that year, a Major in the army began a mutiny. A few days later this was followed by a military revolt in Buenos Aires in support of the Major’s action. It was Holy Week, and in the student hostel where I was staying in Córdoba a man in plain clothes took up sentry just outside the property. Some of the students asked who he was and phoned the local police station to check his credentials. Back in the UK my family saw film on BBC News of tanks rolling through the streets of the capital.

Thankfully what became known as ‘the Carapintada’ mutiny was short-lived. The elected President regained control and peace was restored across the country. In places unfamiliar with recent armed conflict it seems unimaginable that life can change so quickly. Yet, in Ukraine, we are witnessing the terrible cost of war in Europe in the 21st century. Destruction is so quick and devastating – building and establishing civil society takes much more effort and far more time. Even if there was a permanent caseation of hostilities and withdrawal of Russian troops, it would take years for Ukraine to be restored to what it was just couple of weeks ago. Given that the conflict is unlikely to end soon I wonder whether I will ever see that country return fully to peace, stability and prosperity in my lifetime.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:6 NRSV

Religions as a whole have a mixed track record when it comes to conflict. Many people don’t describe themselves as ‘religious’ due to the way in which religious groups have behaved when it comes to war. More often than not people in the West see religious differences as part of the problem rather than the solution. Without doubt there is truth in the view that just as religions can be brilliant at binding people together, shaping their identify and offering a sense of purpose, so too that cohesion can come into conflict with other groups holding different convictions. Even now we see two Orthodox churches each supporting leaders who are commanding their nations in a war. There are certainly dissenting voices, but the leadership of the churches appears to be supporting the Governments of both countries.

A student from Ukraine speaking at a demonstration in York UK on Saturday 5 March 2022

Speaking at a rally in York yesterday the Archbishop of the city suggested that we have taken peace in recent years for granted – and that ‘peace is something you have to work at’ (BBC Breakfast at 1:18 minutes). Undoubtedly this is a Western perspective as many part of the world have been mired in conflict in recent decades, but it has not been at our door. The challenge for us is to reflect on the extent to which racism has shaped our responses to various crises, which must prompt soul-searching and a change in our attitudes. There is no question that our response to Ukraine is the least we can do – but in many other conflicts there is almost certainly more that we could have done.

For Christians attempting to observe Lent this year there are plenty of passages in the Bible that tell us God is uninterested in token sacrifices. Isaiah describes God’s fast as an active confrontation with the injustices of the world. When you loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free not everyone is pleased. Pursuing God’s call for us to confront the evils of our age will bring us into conflict with the people doing the oppressing and keeping people captive. This Lent let us recognise injustice and heed God’s call to confront it so that people are freed from suffering. Let us also ask in our hearts why we do not always feel equally motivated to do this for all peoples around the world. Maybe, this year, Lent will begin to break the yoke of our prejudice and allow us to become the people who let the oppressed go free, irrespective of who they are.

Peripheral Vision People

A long time ago I worked as a bread-wrapper at ASDA. It was on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End and the rumour was that the store had 110% staff turnover per annum. It certainly felt a very transitory workforce, and my own employment lasted just under a year. From the Docklands Light Railway I would gaze down from a train to see work underway on the foundations of Canary Wharf. It was a time of huge upheaval for the local population and the East End as a whole.

In my work of wrapping and stacking I experienced something a lot of people will recognise. Wearing my bakery uniform I noticed that people never looked at me. Workers doing basic (but essential) jobs know how easily they become peripheral to people’s attention. The scope of this disregard is extensive and is manifested not only in personal interactions but in pay, conditions of service and benefits. With rising inflation, a hike in National Insurance payments and spiralling energy costs, many of these workers are now facing an unacceptable decline in living standards. MHA is one of many charity’s and operators calling on the Government to do more to support the sector and help employees be given the recognition they deserve.

My own experience of being peripheral was minuscule and fleeting. For many people, including women; people living with a disability; and people whose ethnicity is in a minority; being peripheral is part of everyday living. I am as susceptible as anyone for allowing ingrained attitudes to influence my looking and the way I value other people. It is something we all need to struggle to overcome. At ASDA the only people who gave any real attention to me and my co-workers were children. Children who found the world fascinating and intriguing and hadn’t yet learned the kind of seeing that channels our gaze to the people and things we have been taught to see as important. In her recently published collection of essays Esi Edugyan discusses race and identity with reference to works of art:

Perhaps my ambivalence also comes from certain threads I sensed missing. For these exhibitions represented renditions of the same Western story, a story of wealth and expansion. Black people are present, but as footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi… Black bodies are less living, breathing people than repositories for cultural anxieties. Blacks are an expression of status, of Christianity’s reach, of white morality. They are rarely, until the twentieth century, just human beings, living human lives.

Esi Edugyan, Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race, Profile Books Limited 2022

While we cannot see everything all of the time, we need to be aware that we all face limitations to our vision. However, that doesn’t mean we should accept our outlook or leave it unchallenged. When Jesus extolled the virtue of childhood to his disciples I wonder if he had in mind the capacity of children to be engaged in the world without acquired prejudices. To remove the blinkers we are given, or choose, in order to see people as central to the mission inspired by the statement that ‘God so loved the world’. A world containing a remarkable variety of people. To be born again surely means – if nothing else – to grow again and to see again. The ability to expand our vision of the world is the condition which precedes our capacity to be changed. Only through our transformation can we then be of any use in building that Kingdom which is rooted in a peace the world cannot give.

We must always contest our inclination to let people drift into our peripheral vision. It is good that many of us are being stirred into action to support the people of the Ukraine. Yet there have been many wars in far-away places for which many people we have felt too little concern. It is likely that our sense of identification with the people under attack is the key to the different responses the world makes to various disasters. Ensuring that we are in dialogue with a rich variety of people, and reading and watching things that expand our horizons, acts to prevent a tendency to insularity. As Christians head towards Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, it is a good time for each of us to ask who is in our peripheral vision – and why are they there? We may discover that zoning-out people with certain characteristics, including those carrying out minimum wage jobs, is robbing us all of a richer life. Life in a community that is radically different from our accepted models, where no one is peripheral, and the gifts and distinctiveness of everyone are valued and affirmed.

Sternly Spoken

At some point during my BA studies at the University of Hull I encountered The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I was taking a degree in English Literature and Theology, and Sterne’s renowned work cropped up in a course on Augustan Literature. It felt a disorderly work compared with other writing from the period, but its many digressions are also its captivating quality. Like a fairground roller coaster, there are hairpin bends in this fictional tour de force. Little did I imagine that a few decades later I would be living quite so close to the places Sterne would have known during his life. Near to York Minster there was Sterne’s publisher. His uncle and patron Jaques Sterne was precentor in the Minster as well as Archdeacon of Cleveland. This morning I led the service at Priory Church of Holy Trinity Micklegate, where one of the characters thought to have been lampooned in his work is buried. Dr John Burton’s pioneering work in obstetrics appears to have inspired the figure of the ‘man-midwife’, Dr Slop.

It may well be that Sterne attacked Dr Burton in this way due to the religious politics of the time. Burton was a Jacobite and Catholic sympathiser, something that landed him in goal at the instigation of the Precentor. Sterne was ordained by the time he wrote Shandy and it says something about the times that a cleric could publish something so candid about the realities of life and human follies. The novel came in at number 6 in a Guardian list of the best one hundred novels.

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;” 

The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

For all the playful style of Tristram Shandy there is political weight in its portrayal of 19th century life. It is a book designed to wield influence, and in its hints and winks it would have tantalised people across a breadth of classes and situations. In an edition of In Our Time dedicated to the book, it was pointed out that the fictional writings of Sterne were seen as a way to increase the sale of his printed sermons, rather than the sermons advertising the novel. It reminds us how very different times were in Georgian England and how significant preaching was considered in this era.

While there is a lot to criticise about the way religion and politics has mixed in the past, there is also scope for concern about a church that walks away from politics. After all, politics is about the way we live – what governance permits or outlaws. It can no more be something the church should avoid than the preaching of the Gospel. The idea that Jesus wasn’t a political figure is ludicrous – in his clashes with the authorities, and teaching about the operation of institutions such as the Temple, he was entirely political.,

It has felt in recent years that the Church has had a vanishing presence in the political arena. Declining attendances combined with a focus on personal salvation have chipped away at the place the C of E once occupied. This is not the Church of Faith in the City, nor do parish clergy have the time they once enjoyed to participate extensively in civic life. Of course there’s a very good argument that laity ought to be doing this in any event, as the people of faith embedded in the community. However, the perspective of a person set aside to focus on spiritual concerns – with the experience of living and working in several communities – has a value that is unique.

Instead of providing strength, solace, inspiration, and communion, churches are decidedly human institutions comprised of the eccentric, the stupid, and the venal. 

The failure of organized religion in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy by David Dobbie Tull, 1991

The recently launched Archbishops’ Commissions may be a hopeful sign that the Church wishes to speak in the public square. Given recent goings-on in British politics surely there is a need for a moral voice (and possibly lampooning)? What took place concerning the scrutiny of MPs suggests a political leadership that is shameless of its self-interest, only responding when its fawning supporters in the media announce that things have gone too far. Today Sterne would have ample material for a new novel, without the need for very much invention. Despite all its constraints and interested parties, the Church is called to speak from its experience, beliefs and commitment – and sometimes that speech must be stern in making clear the yawning gap between the ideals of public service, and the shameless pursuit of personal interest.

Send Thine Archangel

I’ve always loved Michaelmas. Perhaps it’s about the time of year when the feast of Michael falls, with schools back and universities about to start the academic year. Or it could be to do with the dedication of the church where I grew up, St Michaels’ Kirkham, and the C of E primary school I attended. For whatever reason, St Michael has always occupied by thoughts in September.

Much of the understanding of angels has shifted over the centuries under the changing winds of theological fortune. At the Reformation many physical representations of angels were lost, albeit that interest in angels continued in other ways. For Milton they were towering figures of supernatural power; of a grandeur hard for humans to gaze upon, yet also imbued with a compassion that is equally reflective of the God they serve.

Whereat Michael bid sound
The archangel trumpet; through the vast of Heaven
It sounded, and the faithful armies rung
Hosanna to the Highest

Paradise Lord, book VI

Angels persist in popular imagination and are major figures in many world religions. Especially connected with children, there have been several funerals I’ve conducted for babies where Robbie Williams’ Angels has been played and poems about angels have been read. The contemporary artist and poet Roger Wagner depicts angels across the full spectrum of his work. Often he creates contemporary scenes in which these spiritual beings are as real as the cooling towers of a power station. Through their presence in his illustrated translations of the Psalms, Wagner’s angels are given a consistent appearance across the arc of human history – hinting that human structures are temporary and fleeting set alongside the presence of these ageless entities.

Michaelmas Daisies , Museum Gardens, York 2021

And in that summer evening’s fading light
I saw his angels gather in the wheat.
Like beaten gold their beauty smote the air
And tongues of flame were streaming in their hair.

‘I Saw the Seraphim’, Roger Wagner 2019

Angels probably surface most in Western countries towards the end of the year. Whether on Christmas cards, at nativity plays, or their ubiquitous presence in carols, it feels that December is the month when we allow these strange creatures to enter our imaginations. In the child-like play of creativity that the festive season invites, these bright beings connect with a nostalgia that appears to bring wistful comfort to some. Yet angels aren’t all about sweetness and light.

When the second Adam appears, angels fly like sparks at the moment the human and divine are forged into one. The shepherds’ experience of overwhelming glory is countered by the threats of infanticide and the flight into Egypt. In the Shepherd’s Farewell by Berlioz, the lyric is tinged with a sense that even Christ must journey through a wilderness, and the shepherds petition God’s blessing on the holy child.

That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give him. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

It feels to me that angels occupy that ever-present and boundless wilderness of the unknown. As we understand more about the universe its scale seems to widen, and within human life there is an equal expanse of the yet-to-be-known. These glittering creatures may have cast us out of Eden, but they are also with us on our journey, ciphers of the realms of which we are only dimly aware. When Milton pictures Adam and Eve leaving the garden, they go to meet a world that ‘was all before them’. Into this great unknown they go ‘hand in hand with wandering steps and slow’.

This and the first picture are depictions of angels in the stained glass of the Great East Window (1405-1408). Photos by the author.

God protect you,
guide you safely through the wild!

The idea of angels and their depiction in the arts may seem far removed from our reality. What they represent still has lessons to teach us, and in their glow they carry the embers of eternity. They are in the dark places as well as the daylight, the unexpected glimpse of something wonderful and beyond our comprehension. Signs heralding life’s ultimate goodness and the hope of returning home. For all our advances in the world, Shakespeare’s words convey with simplicity what remains true today: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. The infinity of angels reminds us of a vastness which cannot be fathomed, and a God who is dazzling glory – and the faintest flicker of hope in our darkness.

Older Age: A Time of Truth

The title for this blog echoes a publication celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In 1971 Michael Wilson’s The Hospital – A Place of Truth was published by the ‘University of Birmingham Institute for the Study of Worship and Religious Architecture’. The snappy title of the Institute does little justice to the work it sent to print. Wilson’s study is the first thorough, academic and professional enquiry into the role of the hospital chaplain. It took place between 1967 and 1971, and is well-written, with a scope that is broad and deep. Inevitably couched in the culture of its time (and a national church which didn’t enable women to be ordained), there is a wealth of valuable insight and evidence in its 385 pages. For example, we learn that the first Muslim chaplain had been appointed the year before publication. This landmark research remains a seminal example of an approach which is still relevant to chaplaincy today. In particular, Wilson asked all constituencies in the hospital and local community about what they found important concerning the presence of a chaplain. If you wish to know more about the publication James Woodward’s “The relevance of Michael Wilson’s chaplaincy research for healthcare chaplaincy today” is well worth reading.

In the 1960s institutions had very clear boundaries. In many cases staff lived on the site of the hospital. Today those boundaries are more porous and there is a constant but incomplete drive to make health care about a pathway rather than a place. For example, it has long seemed inequitable and undesirable that the experience of end of life care should depend so much on location. The contrast of final days spent on a busy general medical ward and those spent in a hospice bedroom, could not be starker. Despite all the efforts of skilled and committed staff, we are still working to make palliative care equally excellent in all settings.

Nevertheless, I would argue that place in now relatively less important when it comes to care than it was in the 1960s. While still significant settings, hospitals are not the kind of ‘total institutions’ once described by Erving Goffman. When considering older age I’m inclined to focus more on the experience than on the location. Whether in homes or places or care, many characterises of ageing remain the same.

Nearly a year ago I reflected on the conundrum of how institutions embedded in almost every community seem to be politically invisible. Despite the fact that most scientists and politicians have visited these communities, or have relatives living in them, it appears that we choose not to think about the realities of their complex operation. In March 2020 wild and wholly irresponsible assumptions were made about the safety of care homes in a pandemic. In September 2021 the supposed solution to the funding of social care almost entirely misperceives the needs of these vital care settings.

“Staff are dealing with their own ageing whilst also observing the ageing of their patients and the reaction to this of the relatives. None of this is particularly easy and spiritual practices seemed to help staff manage these complexities”

Mowat, Harriet. “Gerontological chaplaincy: the spiritual needs of older people and staff who work with them.” Health and Social Care Chaplaincy (2013): 27-31.

Ageing confronts us with truths about ourselves, and about our neighbours. These truths are not always easy to contemplate. It can feel in contemporary British society that we side with Shakespeare’s characterisation of our final years: ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’. Yet this is to allow our fears to avert our gaze before we can take the time to understand ageing and its effects with greater insight. It is the time of truth in as much the mastery of self, and in particular the suppression of desires, may give way as our cognitive capacities change. While relatives may often say their relation is ‘different’, sometimes that transformation reflects a clearer sense of identity and personality. Unsurprisingly we may fear this kind of truth for ourselves as well. A controlled temper may lose its restraint as the years progress. The truth is not always easy or comfortable. Yet ageing may equally well diminish a sense of fear and trepidation. There has been more than one centenarian sky-diver.

Last week I was reminded in one of the reading options for Morning Prayer that ageing can be seen in a number of ways. There is not, and never has been, only one interpretation of getting older.

“For old age is not honoured for length of time, or measured by number of years; but understanding is grey hair for anyone, and a blameless life is ripe old age”

Wisdom 4:7

It feels that in the UK Government’s settlement for social care an opportunity has been missed to learn the truths of the experiences of older people. The focus has been on finances and asset-preservation, rather than the understanding and retention of wisdom. The elderly are a political problem to manage, not a wealth of personality, love and experience to value. Somehow we need to achieve a breakthrough in how we relate to older people in our society. The cloak of invisibility needs to be removed so that we can see ageing as an important time of truth for us all – and not just for others.

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.

Virtually Being There

As I mentioned in my first pandemic blog, the issue of a chaplain’s presence in the context of distress has long seemed important. An embodied participation in events as they unfold is seen as critical to the practice of spiritual care. When God doesn’t appear to answer the deepest desires of human beings – for recovery or healing – the absence of a chaplain might feel like the confirmation of experience. Being there conveys pastoral response; compassion; and witness. This tragedy is not ignored – it has been seen.

During a recent conference on theology and Covid-19, I presented a paper on the topic. It is by no means a finished article, but rather a field report reaching towards theological reflection. The pandemic has provided plenty of good reasons to concentrate on the day job and shelve intellectual enquiry for better times. However, this suggests that theology is a task only for tranquil times and cloistered concentration, and I don’t believe that’s true. Theology needs to be done in difficult places and at difficult times or it risks becoming an irrelevance. Not only data gathering, but some of the thinking needs to be started in the compressed moments of critical times.

The conference reminded me of the existence of ‘trauma theology’ and the inspiring work of Shelly Rambo. Her seminal work, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, offers valuable material for anyone seeking to relate catastrophe and a theology which is engaged with people’s experience. At the moment the world continues to experience the sea-swell of sickness washing over every continent and island, leaving in its wake illness, death and all kinds of fear – from physical vulnerability to a paralysed economy. Rambo’s book takes its point of departure from hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans by a different kind of natural disaster. As she describes, while the critical time will come and go, the ‘after the storm’ remains. Global events of death and disruption linger long in the lives and memories of those affected, as we continue to see in the various ways by which WWII persists in both personal and public experience.

The impact of Covid-19 is already the subject of active contestation and dispute. Official narratives will be created alongside the stories of individuals who live this experience as a personal encounter with their mortality. As I observed last week, these stories have considerable power and can become something separate from the event itself – a mutating memory with the potential to shape and inform the present, for good or ill.

As a health care chaplain I often said that I tramped the familiar path between Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Usually, the resurrection was a distant possibility and the chaplain’s work oscillated between the moment of death and the experience of absence. Each death a figure swept from the landscape of someone’s life, very often creating the yawning gap of a potent presence. There was no magic which made this ‘alright’ but a painful living with what these defining moments of human existence mean for each of us.

Take courage; the time is near for God to heal you; take courage.

Book of Tobit, chapter 5 v. 10

The picture which heads this blog is of the Archangel Raphael, and was painted by a friend who gave it to me during my time as a chaplain in the NHS. These strange figures flit too and fro in the scriptures of the world’s religions, greeting and warning, announcing and healing. Raphael is associated with the latter and can be found, amongst other places, in the Book of Tobit. Here Raphael both announces that a time of healing will come and offers to be a companion and guide on the journey which lies ahead.

In time we shall all live with the ‘after storm’ and wrestle with its consequences. There will be those keen to shake the dust of Covid-19 off their shoes and spring forward into a bright tomorrow. Yet this event will not be dismissed so easily. In health, the economy, psychology and spirituality, the question will not be ‘shall we continue to think about it?’ but rather how that thinking will be done. Faith affirms the persistent promise of hope – there is a greater good to which we move – while offering to stay with us while we make this journey. As in the Bible, angels may appear at first as strangers, but in time those who stay with us and guide us come to be known for the hope which they embody, and the transformation they bring.

“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.