Homecoming

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Eden Valley looking to Blencathra. No, I think it’s Wildboar fell.

A homily for Proper 19, Year C

Here is Jesus talking to the religious jobsworths and nitpickers, the people who put duty before compassion. He uses two stories about people losing things, searching for them, and finding them.

Is this a message for me to spend my time in places of ill repute, talking to the lost, rather than propping up this strange manifestation of the Evergreen Club? I have sympathy for this view but it makes me a bit uncomfortable for it seems to imply that I am not lost, and am making judgements that they are.

Yes, we must feed the hungry and tend the sick, but maybe there are other messages here that we need to apply to ourselves as individuals. What is Jesus telling those who put rules before people? Is he hinting that they themselves have lost something? Is he trying to tell them that in their punctiliousness to keep rules and tick boxes, they have lost themselves, their humanity, their sense of joy and fun – all lost amongst regulations; lost amongst their amour propre, their pride.

Luke’s two short stories come immediately before the story of the man with two sons, the gracious father, and the so-called prodigal son. Another story of lost and found. In the father and two sons story, both sons are lost: one lost in recklessness and wilfulness, the other lost in envy and resentment. Both of them have a twisted relationship with their father. Sometimes we are like the son who goes off, deliberately sticking two fingers up at some authority figure. Sometimes we are like the son who stays at home, begrudging others’ successes, others’ good fortune, and angry with our friends for having things we lack. In sermons, my guess is that we hear more about the son who went a-wandering and a-squandering, probably because the church was much into trying to control people rather than help them develop. Jewish commentators, on the other hand, concentrate just as much, if not more, on the stay-at-home, sulky son.

If we’re honest, it’s easy to think of ways in which we are like one or other of those sons. But I think that it is our calling to move beyond that. We will find eternity and peace (a quality of mind, and nothing to do with idleness or sitting having pious thoughts) when we become like the father: compassionate, forgiving, welcoming home.

And that – homecoming – is what this is all about. It is about what Christianity is all about. Homecoming, forgiveness, shalom, reconciliation, salving, HEALING. Coming home to the Divine – or rather recognizing that it is there in the middle of us all the time. We can identify what we have lost, and make our way back home, through what the church calls repentance, re-turning, RETURN.

Getting lost is a good thing. Keeping young people attached to apron strings, or parents’ purses, always ends in tears. We need to be lost in order to realize what it is we need to seek, or re-seek, or re-turn to. And it’s not a matter of going back in time to things we used to love, or to things that take us back to our childhoods, but rather a matter of going home to our real selves, to that inner sanctuary of the soul that we shut out through wilfulness, recklessness, pride, self-importance, resentments. We can’t see that inner self, that bit of the Divine within, unless we have been lost, and have ditched ego, amour propre, and the dignity on which we are so keen to stand.

T S Eliot, Little Gidding

         We shall not cease from exploration

         And the end of all our exploring

         Will be to arrive where we started

         And know the place for the first time.

In my pastoral ministry, I find that nearly all our spiritual sickness comes from a sense of guilt or shame about the past. Such guilt and shame often—not always—come from our not having accepted ourselves for the maimed humans we are. Guilt and shame come from our thinking that we are in charge of our natures. We are not. We are simply bags of hormones and emotions, and constantly at their mercy. I don’t think there is any such thing as free will. We are, every one of us, potentially able to do the most horrid things to other people. If we haven’t ever committed such atrocities, it’s just because we haven’t been in circumstances that have tested us. Deliver us from the evil part of ourselves. When we acknowledge our shame, longings, guilt, we feel a great liberation, a great sense of coming home. RE-TURNING.

The shepherd seeks out the lost sheep, finds it, places it on his shoulders, and brings it home. Look at sheepdogs. They don’t run barking after the sheep. But, as the sheep wander off, they watch, then run like hell, and get in front of the sheep. Then they lie down across the path where the sheep were wandering. So when the sheep come up to them, they are gently turned in the right direction.

That is the challenge for us: to care not for our own cosy club, but for the lost. First, observe and think; second, run like hell; and third, be found lying about. And the lost includes our selves. We are no use to anyone else unless we recognize our own need for homecoming.

John Henry Newman

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me.

 

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;

I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead Thou me on!

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

 

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on.

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone.

And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I 
have loved long since, and lost awhile. 

 

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Rail Europe

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Werfen. The cable car was magicked on

A Great Rail Journey trip to Austria is in the offing for 2017. London, Cologne, Rhine, Munich (whether via Stuttgart or Nuremberg I know not), then five nights Innsbruck. It’ll be our third GRJ jolly. The first was 11 years ago to Meiringen, with trips to Lucerne, Jungfrau, and Brig (through the old tunnel). It was delightful. The GRJ guide was a deputy lay clerk at Lincoln Cathedral, so there was an abundance of gossip to be had.

Our second was to Venice and Bled. The Venice Carnival was on: not my cup of tea – sinister in fact, but the snow in Slovenia made Bled quite magical. We went out by Paris, Turin and Milan, but returned through Villach and Salzburg so I was able to point out the castle at Werfen used in Where Eagles Dare. We were beside ourselves with excitement.

Actually, that stretch of the line was not injun country. Back in about 2004, also in winter, a friend and I did a do-it-yourself trip taking in Lindau, Salzburg and Linz, so we’d seen Werfen before. The trip was memorable for two main reasons: first, the journey through the snowy Tirol in a carriage with a glass roof, and second, the stop off in Passau on the way back. Passau: setting, architecture, history. I must take Susan. There is so much loveliness in central Europe.

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Lindau

Susan and I had our first DIY train holiday in north eastern France: Strasbourg, Metz, Reims, Laon. Then it was Prague and Nuremberg. Next came northern Germany taking in organs in Norden and Stralsund as well as Weimar and Erfurt—we loved Erfurt. Then Lindau and Augsburg (Christmas markets featured), and finally Koblenz and Limburg with more Christmas markets.

There’s one other trip that’s worth a mention—to Kiel. A Dublin work colleague and I were off to a meeting about an EU grant application, and we decided to do it by train. Our arrival at Waterloo (as it was in those days) at 5.30 am was greeted by the announcement that the first train of the day to Brussels was cancelled. Yours truly, being not entirely ignorant of trains and timetables, marched up to the gentleman behind the Eurostar information desk, who quite clearly was still having wet dreams, to ask what he was going to do about this. Upon being told of our destination, he said, quite correctly, that Keele was in Staffordshire. Given that we were being met at Kiel Hbf at 6 pm that evening, I wasn’t in the mood for a leisurely discussion about whether or not we should trudge to Euston for a train to Stoke on Trent or Crewe, then a taxi to Keele. In complete silence I lunged over the counter, he took a step or six back, I grabbed the Cook’s continental timetable from him, turned to the appropriate page and demanded that he book us on that one to Brussels, that one to Cologne and that one to Kiel. Whereupon, also in complete silence, he did. We parted company.

We’ve reached that age when going on an organized holiday is more attractive than a DIY one. I costed both and really they’re pretty similar, so someone else doing the bookings and organizing the trips is worth paying for. Mind you, just as I’m not old enough to play golf, I’m not old enough to go on an organized coach holiday. I don’t think I ever will be.

What is it about rail travel? Spending the first 18 years of my life in sight of the Settle-Carlisle line? Langwathby school next to the station? Penrith Grammar over the road from the West Coast Main Line? Or was it the fillums? The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest (coo, Hitchcock liked trains), Some Like it Hot. Ah, the wonderful, wonderful train scenes on Some Like it Hot. All of the above.

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Kutná Hora

Before we settled on Austria, the Norwegian coast was a possibility. That turned out to be too long and too expensive. I have a yearning to go to Spitsbergen but that’ll be difficult by train. The Glacier Express came to mind too, but you can do that on YouTube. Places I’d quite like to visit include Kutná Hora (the other side of Prague)—it looks lovely on the pics, Karlovy Vary, though I’m not bothered about taking the waters, Bratislava, and oh yes the Italian lakes, and … and … and … We shall see.

I’ve recently discovered the novels of Barbara Pym. With great joy I’m immersing myself in them. Reading through this blog before pressing the ‘publish’ button makes me realize that in comparison they are full of excitement.

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A medical student at work

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St Michael’s, Chester Square

Somerset Maugham’s short story The Verger came to mind recently. It’s about a snooty new vicar in a snooty London church sacking the faithful verger because he couldn’t read or write. It was filmed in the 50s and you can watch it here. It always conjures up St Michael’s Chester Square, where for 18 months or so I sang in the choir while I was a clinical medical student at King’s in south London.

Chester Square is in Belgravia, the area bounded more or less by Knightsbridge, Sloane Street, Buck House and Victoria station. It’s an area, as you might imagine, that is amongst the most deprived in the country, past and present inhabitants including such poor unfortunates as Margaret Thatcher, Nigella Lawson, and Roman Abramovich.

Sometimes I went in by bike. From the flat in East Dulwich that involved cycling up the hideously steep Champion Hill over to Camberwell. After that it was pretty much plain sailing up Camberwell New Road, past The Skinner’s Arms of abdominal scar notoriety (see here), then through Vauxhall and over the Thames. However bad I thought Sunday traffic was in those days, it wasn’t as bad as it is now. I rather enjoyed cycling in London, and did a fair bit of it, along with getting first hand experience of the south London rail network. Susan was slaving away at this time at a school in north Peckham, so I dare not let on that I was not as diligent a student as she thought I was.

The church was 19 century Gothic, rather ugly but with fine stained-glass in the east window so that gave me something to look at during the sermons. Two previous vicars, W H Elliott and Charles Roderick, had been famous for their radio broadcasts, but by the time I got there the glory had departed and it was just another dull low church set up. Never mind, the music was good. The then vicar sticks in the memory for a sermon he preached at the funeral of a nanny. The church was packed with her former charges whose upper lips didn’t move when they spoke, all dressed in Crombies and Aquascutum and Harrods and dripping with jools, a bit like Nancy Mitford’s Lady Montdore expounding the virtues of ‘all this’. The theme of the address was that nanny had returned to the big Norlands nursery school in the sky. Not a model that I’ve found useful in my clerical career.

I saw the advert for a choir man in the Musical Times. I’m turned up for what I thought was an audition with the organist Guy Eldridge. Turned out I was the only applicant. Eldridge was ill and music was in the hands of his assistant, Leonard Henderson, a most gifted organist equally at home in light, cinema and classical genres. The organ was pretty interesting: formerly a Hope-Jones and tarted up in the 50s by Walkers (anoraks will understand), and former organists included Arthur Sullivan and Reginald Goss Custard. Guy Eldridge resumed the reins after a couple of months or so, but for less than a year, for then he retired after a distinguished career in various London churches and academies. By then I was a kind of unofficial assistant and I had the temerity to apply for the job. I was interviewed.

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St Silas, Nunhead

After I didn’t get the job, St Michael’s had no further use for me, so it was back to Musical Times adverts. St Silas Nunhead was my next appointment, much handier for East Dulwich—only about a mile away. The church has gone now, demolished for structural reasons but the organ was good and had some (anorak alert) fantastic reeds. I wonder if it was salvaged. We had a trebles only choir of local oiks, and I remember some good fun, a couple of concerts with visiting musicians, and a carol service that was very decent, though I say so myself.

All good things must bow to the inevitable and my double life came up against the reality of Victoria’s birth and looming Cambridge exams. Quite how I passed them—well I failed pharmacology but it didn’t hold me up since the first sitting was months before other subjects, so I did the resit along with Medicine, Surgery and Obs and Gynae—I shall never know. It must be something to do with knowledge by osmosis. I’ve always felt that the act of holding a book or article results in the absorption of the wisdom therein contained.

I wonder where I’d be now if I’d got that job at St Michael’s.

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Life moves on

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Bristleworm mouth. These creatures of the sea bed can be a foot long

Type “coping with the death of son/daughter” into a search engine and you will be rewarded with a host of material. But most of it is directed at mothers, and nearly all concerns the death of an infant or a child. There is next to nothing about a father coping with the loss of his adult son.

In writing what follows, it’s inevitable that I’ll be accused of wallowing in it, or drawing attention to myself. I don’t think either is true, but who am I to judge? Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some observations on how I felt and feel. It might be helpful for someone else.

Within days of returning from the funeral, I took up weightlifting again. I’m glad I did, and I intend to carry on. But the interesting thing is why? Physical activity is of course an outlet for energy and anger, but I can’t in all honesty say that I felt angry. I felt drained, despondent, scraped out, exhausted, flattened, destroyed, sad—overwhelmingly sad at such a waste. But not angry. What I certainly did feel was the need to test my own physiology, particularly cardiac, since that is what failed Hugh, to see if it would stand up to extreme provocation.

About four months after the funeral I became aware of a nasty creature roaming my subconscious. I didn’t know how to get it to show itself except by waiting. So I waited. And one day, it poked its head out of the sea bed, and then its bristly carcass followed. It was this. (1) A father’s job is to protect his offspring. (2) I had failed to do this. Therefore – and this is the important bit – (3) I deserve to die.

Note the word deserve. I can’t think of a better one. I did not wish to die: I deserved to die for having failed him and his wife and daughter and sister and brother and mother. And, ye gods, for having failed myself.

Understandable, I think, from a biological point of view. I’ve passed on my genes and had a vasectomy, so I’ve had no biological function for over 30 years (I have views on the effects of vasectomy, but they can wait). And since one offspring has gone before me, I might as well do the honourable deed and bugger off myself. There the logic breaks down. Logic breaks down in other ways too, of course. I have two other offspring alive and kicking and lovely; parents do not own their children; parents are not responsible for their children once the latter have reached adulthood; and so on. But logic is not much in evidence in these circumstances, and I still felt that I deserved to die.

Maybe the wish to provoke my cardiovascular system was the first manifestation of this malignant worm that was, as I say, gobbling its way through the floor of my psyche, but it has gradually faded. Not completely, but substantially. And since I rather overdid it at the gym and tore my right gastrocnemius (almost better now), I hope that it and I can settle down to a less frenzied modus vivendi.

Then there is the matter of allowing a new normal to develop, and a new vision for the rest of life. This is a work in progress.

I used to rail about stupid parents who lived through their children, and now see the extent to which that is what I was doing. My plan for retirement involved at least annual trips to the US to explore, I dunno, the north east, the west coast, the Great Lakes, the east coast – whatever – in his and his family’s company. Trips to the US will continue, but on a different basis. Part of the plan was a response to my not looking forward to retirement. What will I do? How will I occupy my brain? This forces me to ask what I want, and frankly, after a lifetime of—so it seems to me at present—pleasing parents, teachers, bosses and ego, and providing for and ministering to others, I’m not sure what ‘I’ is any more, let alone what it wants. So it’s back to the drawing board, and let’s hope that whatever blueprint emerges is built this time upon reality rather than escapism.

I’ve coped with the last ten months by doing very little. At a review meeting with the area bishop recently I said that since two of my urban colleagues were leaving Burton soon, I would consider going if that would help diocesan strategy. He said no, they wanted me to stay as long as possible. So I said OK, but I’ve no intention of looking for work. I’ve watched a lot of films. I find that I still have little to spare for other people, and as far as parishioners are concerned they seem to have sensed that: they have been gently supportive and got on with things without bothering me. Long may this continue. I did rather lose it at a meeting last April at which I, in the throes of major exhaustion, was gravely provoked by people who wouldn’t shut up and I said that I was sick of this and I was going to bed and they could all go forth and multiply. But apart from that, we’ve done quite well. (I offered my resignation, but was told that I should never apologize for being human).

What of Susan? I learnt long ago never to put words in her mouth, or into the mouths of my children, so all I shall say is that different people cope differently. We talk. It affects us differently and at different times, unpredictable and sometimes debilitating. But as she says, you just can’t maintain that level of grief. Eventually it dissipates, until the next time. And while the distress is on me, there is nothing I can do but wait. Getting used to that impotence has to be done, and I venture to say that it is more difficult for men, who are in general used to solving problems, than for women.

And finally what of God? Hollow laughter. That’s something for another blog. If I were wise it would not appear until after I retire, but since I’m not it will appear sooner.

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Poor biological material?

srgry02Hearing’s not great. Euston-station tube orifices are patulous. Left tympanic membrane has a large retraction pocket (medics will understand). I blame all this on glugging too much cows’ milk when I were a lad. Cows’ milk is snot- and allergy-inducing poison. My left retina became detached about 10 years ago and an attempt to stick it back on failed so my left eye is useless. And, now, oh joy oh rupture, I’ve got suspected glaucoma on the right.

So off we trot to ophthalmology outpatients. I’ve joined the ranks of the shuffling Zimmer frames, the arthritics, the blue rinse cardys (that’s the men), and the even-more-obese-than-me. Interesting to note how many patients bring the family with them for a day out. Put me in mind of families checking in at Heathrow for flights to the far east, with mountains of luggage.

If I weren’t already a member, I’ve joined the ranks of the poor biological material. This highly politically correct phrase was much used by us medical students to describe those whose inheritance, life circumstances or personal choices left them just a bit—how shall I put this?—poor biological material. The ‘strawberry jam complexion’ (my term) was a pretty good indicator of a diet rich in white bread and sugar. Of course, there isn’t a machine that measures this, so as a diagnostic tool it’s limited.

Sitting in the ophthalmology waiting room and having exhausted the stamp collecting magazine (5 seconds) and Woman’s Weekly (let’s say 10), I was pondering the differences between the general population in Ireland and England. Here are my preliminary observations.

The Irish are healthier and look more alive. They are closer to the earth—many of them work on the land—and so are more physically active. They are less obese. There are fewer mobility scooters in Ireland, in fact I don’t remember having seen one in 19 years there. Can their burgeoning presence here be put down simply to the popularity of Benidorm?

Why not tell people to take up their beds and walk? There is precedent for this, I understand. Give them all a gym subscription and make them go at least three times a week. Think of the savings on arthritis, joint replacements, mobility scooters, diabetes, obesity and more. Then they too could have a body like mine. It won’t do much for eyes and ears though.

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Asperger vicar

a-word-01I’ve been watching some of the TV programmes about Asperger’s syndrome. Here are some of the qualities and gifts that people with Asperger’s have.

  • They seek truth, not sham; reality, not opinion.
  • They say it like it is, with no hidden agendas.
  • They’re not limited by what others think.
  • They’re direct; single-minded, focussed.
  • They think in different ways.
  • They are loyal, not scheming.
  • They’re not interested in selfish gain.
  • They persist.

Made me think that maybe Vicars could learn a thing or two from them. Made me wonder if Jesus was a bit Asperger.

I resolve to be more like them. Imagine what will happen when I tell some old trout to get her mangy old flowers out of the sanctuary. Or tell Mr Halitosis that his breath could strip the paint off the Forth Bridge.

Funny, I always thought I was Tourette’s. Maybe I should not be a Vicar.

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Five months on

DancingNobody told me about the exhaustion. And if they had, I don’t suppose I’d have believed them, or thought it would ever apply to me.

It’s now almost 5 months since the great catastrophe. After the “excitement” of getting to Texas in a hurry, the emotional events of that week, returning for the Irish funeral and then the dreadful day of doom scattering on the Sugarloaf—after all this comes the daily grind of grief.

Much of the grief is self-serving; did I love him enough? did he know? did he love me? why did I do such and such when he was 10? did he know his time was limited? is that why he said such and such? why did I not pick that up? why did he feel he could not confide in me? … you can imagine the little stories I invented – without any evidence.

The self-pity has more or less worked itself out. Slowly I deal with autopsy findings, intellectual processing, picking up broken ends, revising expectations. I am beginning to sleep through the night thanks to Nytol. And the sparkle has returned to my eyes, people tell me. I begin to recover mischief and iconoclasm.

Four months ago I said that I felt as if I’d been struck with the greatest imaginable physical force. And so I did. But the exhaustion goes on and on and on. I do not wish to leave the nest. I do not want to be in situations where people might ask things of me. I barely have enough energy for myself and certainly none to spare for others. People hammering on the vicarage door at 11 pm swearing and spitting leave me unmoved. Those who claim to need train fares to Birmingham are likely to be dismissed ungraciously. Conserving energy is difficult when people are wanting to touch the hem of my garment in all sorts of ways. They sympathize, they mean well, they don’t mean to steal my energy, they don’t know they are doing it. I need to rethink how I deal with it.

A friend of similar age was discussing getting older with me. He was lamenting the lack of intellectual oomph. But, you know, I rather like that. After a lifetime of living by my intellect and striving to prove myself to parents, to colleagues, and to ego, I find it liberating to renounce the multiple seductions—academia, music, church, to name but three—to which I fell victim. Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.

These last few weeks I’ve been very glad of films on Netflix and YouTube. I’ve been enjoying violence as never before. But the thing that always revives the drooping spirit is—wait for it—Benidorm. As I make the great renunciations I begin to come down where I ought to be …

… the gutter. The valley of love and delight.

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