About Rambling Rector

Church of England Parish Priest

Lent as relaxation?

Welcome deare feast of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is a wonderful feast of being human. Since dust we are and to dust we shall return, we might as well stop trying to be what we’re not. Ditch the personae, shed the skins, get rid of the fat. Relax into yourself.

Lent as relaxation?

Relaxation from the constraints that we tie ourselves up with, and the new clothes we wrap around ourselves to appear bigger, brighter and better than we are, to impress others. (Evagrios the Solitary, 4th century: Of the demons … there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men.)

Relaxation from the constraints that constitute addictions. I’m not suggesting we indulge them but, as it were, put them on the table in front of us and look at them full in the face. Addictions to food, booze, complaining, finding fault, having to win … and so many more. Hold them up to yourself. You can’t let go of something unless you look at it and know what it is you have to let go of. This is hard work.

Relaxation – letting go, loosening up, freedom from constraints,.moving to a wide place. If we are not constrained, if our view is not limited, we have freedom of action, we are farseeing, clairvoyant.

Relaxation – abstinence from things that hold us back. Don’t give up what you enjoy: that’s just another constraint. Rather give up what you don’t need any more. Let go of ways of thinking that you once needed but that now constrain you. Let go of hurts, resentments, oughts and shoulds. Let go of prejudices and attitudes that restrict your view of the world. Start saying ‘no’ to the expectations of others, and begin to get to know someone you’ve hardly ever met—no, not your maker, but yourself.

This Lenten abstinence has nothing to do with hair shirts, but everything to do with freeing up yourself for delight you had forgotten was in you. It’s about losing your ego, and rediscovering the Divine within. It’s about loving the hell out of you.

Welcome deare feast of Lent.

Winifred Little

Winifred Little died on 20 December 2021 aged 92. She spent her life in the Eden Valley, that gentle, understated, pastoral land between lakes and north Pennines. 

Winifred Wilkinson was raised in Culgaith, married Norman Little from Renwick, lived in Langwathby, then Lazonby, Kirkoswald and finally Penrith. She and Norman raised three children, the eldest of whom was a couple of years junior to me at Penrith Grammar School, the other two following after.

Why do I write about Winifred? 

With her death, there is now nobody left of the older generation that influenced me. Winifred’s guidance was not dramatic or earth-shattering, but gentle, enabling and kindly – words that describe Winifred herself.

Winifred nurtured my musical gifts long before anyone else.

Monkhouse life in the 1950s in Langwathby revolved around the Methodist Chapel. Sunday School at 2 o’clock followed by the main service at 3. There was the rota for entertaining visiting preachers (imagine my alarm when later on it was our turn to feed and water the Grammar School deputy headmistress). There were Kirkoswald Methodist Circuit socials in the village hall. Chapel was pervasive. My memories of Sunday School are in no way grey, dull or controlling but warm, informative and interesting to a somewhat solitary and self-sufficient boy in short pants (though I took against felt crafts),

And that atmosphere was down largely to Winifred. Don’t get me wrong – she was not mumsy, indulgent, or sentimentally emotional: fellsiders know nothing of indulgence or emotional sentimentality. She was kind, unassuming and considerate – but firm. 

Winifred played the hymns on the foot-pumped reed organ. She schooled us for the big events like Sunday School Anniversary and Harvest. She gave me my first solo “Jesus, friend of little children”. I was about eight and can remember exactly where I stood and how I felt – nervous. I made a mistake but there was no criticism, just encouragement. Winifred pushed me to play for Sunday School and later for the main service, and she made sure I could play hymns properly. Because of Winifred, I began to uncover the riches of the Wesleys’ hymns.

She shared her gifts with the surrounding area by teaching, and running and accompanying choirs, her musicianship far exceeding that to be expected in what was then a remote rural backwater.

Long before piano and organ lessons and O level music, Winifred Little opened a door through which I glimpsed enchantment and enlightenment.

To say that I am thankful for her is truly an understatement.

We need pains in the ***

Richard Feynman

The UK Chief Medical Officer is out of favour with members of the government. They need a fall guy for a bad election result, and he’s an easy target.

We assume that science is always right. Maybe so. Scientists, however, are not.

Science has to be interpreted by people – scientists – and people get things wrong. Furthermore, a group of scientists considering the same evidence might well come up with several possible explanations, some contradicting each other. So when scientists “speak science” to us, they are actually speaking science as they interpret it. This is not the samer thing at all.

We observe scientific phenomena. Observations rely on our senses and intellects. We measure scientific phenomena. Measurements rely on instruments and techniques. In biological science we, animals, observe and experiment on other animals. Animals have “personalities”. Personalities influence responses.

There are so many variables in biological science. It is messy. Mathematics may well be pure, but biology is very messy indeed. Messiest of all are things like psychology and social science where all involved – subjects and observers – are likely to be affected by moods, feelings and memories that cloud responses and interpretations. 

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to draw conclusions in biological science. But it is time consuming and laborious, and it requires meticulous work from researchers whose personalities are well suited to meticulous work: focussed, capable of paying attention to detail and possessed of almost infinite patience. 

Egos get in the way. Scientists must be impervious to pressure for their results to conform to expected patterns that suit their own ideas or those of the organisation and funding bodies for whom they work. Scientists need to be uncontaminated by personal bias. Good luck with that.

Scientists – all of us – want to be well thought of. It’s good for the sake of pay, pension, reputation, and self-esteem. But the ego of a scientist can lead to his ignoring inconvenient results, even inventing data. It can lead to a pet model overriding observed data, the latter being squeezed to fit the model just as the ugly sister’s toe was amputated so her foot might squeeze into the glass slipper. Researchers employed by drug companies are particularly vulnerable to such pressures in order that their results will best enhance company profits, and thus reputations and prospects.

In the case of covid we are dealing with a novel virus, the word novel carrying with it uncertainty and unpredictability. When a scientist comes along with a model, people latch on to it. “We need something,” the politicians cry; “this is something; this will do”. 

Well, it might not. 

We, should assume nothing. We should proceed cautiously, adjusting and refining ideas on the basis of observations, rather than on the basis of preconceived models. Instead we do the opposite: “we have a world expert modeller; we know better than the rest of the world; we know what the virus will do”. We certainly do not know what the virus will do, or how we will respond to it. 

We need skeptics and doubters. We need dissenters – people who say “hold on a minute, what if … ?”. We need constant wariness, a readiness always to adjust, refine, and question. As Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman is reported as saying, “Science is the organized skepticism of the reliability of expert opinion.”

Feynman could himself be a skeptic. Former US Attorney General William Rogers said of him “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.” 

We need more, many more,  pains in the ass.

This is an edited version of an earlier piece.

Advent 2021

I am recovering from a 6-week chest infection (covid negative), the like of which I have not experienced since the 1960s. Childhood memories of standing at the open bedroom window in the middle of the night trying to get air into my lungs. Susan is about a week behind me, as it were.

There are several reasons why I might have fallen victim to this, but what it really tells me is that (a) my lungs are 65 years older than I am in my head, and (b) viruses and other creatures that can take us over will win. It is entirely likely that these “extraordinary” times will last longer than I will. Talk of “post-covid” is well-premature. So, have no expectations other than that you’re gonna die. Get busy living, and as the well-known American theologian Dolly Parton might say, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” before you lose it.

Susan had her second cataract done early in the year. She can see clearly now the mist has gone. She drives with more confidence. Her hair has turned pink with age. Stanley’s one functioning eye has glaucoma and a mega-cataract. He expects to have said cataract attended to in the next few weeks. Will he be able to drive again? He’s not done so for over 18 months and has no wish to start again. The local taxis take him to the gym and back and – added bonus – he is picking up a smattering of Urdu. His eyesight or lack of same has provoked the great renunciation of giving away most of his sheet music, organ and piano. Liberating in a way. But what if the surgery means he needn’t have done so?

In 6 months’ time Stanley will have outlived father (he outlived mother a few years ago). Susan has yet to reach the age of her mother’s demise. Stanley’s retirement more or less coincided with lockdown 1. “What Is there now to live for?” is the question. Facebook has yielded more people crawling from under the stones of the past, and he’s struck by the number of friends now in their 70s who have said to him that left to their own devices they wouldn’t have made the choices in life that they made – or that were made for them. Him too.

We are of course not often left to our own devices: parental expectations, quirks of circumstance, economic realities, consequences of actions, all conspire to set us on pathways and before we know it we’re too far gone to go back.

Stanley was brought up at a time and in a culture when the man was expected to husband – to father and provide. We made decisions, took the consequences, made the best of it, then another decision had to be made. Repeat ad infinitum. No complaints, no complaining – he’s not – we’re born, we struggle, we die. The molecules that once made us are used again. This cosmic cycle is satisfyingly reassuring. If Stanley had to name one event that marked expulsion from Eden (garden not river though the river is appropriate), it was when he was 5 and his sandpit was tarmacked over. He still feels the outrage. He was never the same again.

Maybe going off into the jungle with a begging bowl is the answer. It might be tolerable in warmer climes, but it’s not for him. His idea of roughing it is running out of ice cubes. He could live in a community of gorillas or orangs, kind of returning whence he came, but there’s still the ice cube problem. Decluttering, giving away possessions (downsizing forces this – it’s very refreshing), having no expectations, living in the moment (eternal life – Jesus was a Buddhist), and being mischievous. Why do people take themselves so seriously? They must think they matter.

Where have we visited this last year? Some of our friends have done so much travelling they must have needed indulgences from The Holy and Blessed Greta. How they can live with the guilt I simply do not know. We in contrast have been models of environmental restraint. Leeds, Derby, Newcastle under Lyme (Susan’s eye) just about sums it up. It’s been thrilling.

We hope to be in Ireland for Christmas, though Dublin is more cautious about covid restrictions than Westminster so we’re not banking on it. It’ll be the first time in two years we’ve seen Vic face to face. Ed visited us a couple of months ago.

In many ways life is like being back in the Eden valley in the 1950s. Small world, don’t go anywhere much, a 4 mile trip to Penrith the highlight of the week. Forced onto one’s own resources. I am now thankful for a solitary childhood that allowed an inner life to grow. Neither of us has a bucket list of places we’d like to see (just as well now) and Susan has long been of the opinion that world heritage sites should be visited only through the pages of the National Geographic.

I’ve been reading a lot. I return to Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet (Jewel in the Crown) and find something new each time. He has a great line about the British in India in the 1940s who “came to the end of themselves as they were”. I feel a bit like that myself. Retirement, sensory loss, lockdown, restrictions, all forcing an end to me as I was – and therefore a beginning. What next?

The phrase is certainly true of our way of life in the west. It is unsustainable. The aforementioned Greta is right, but wrong too – it’s way too late and has been for over a century. We might as well carry on and hasten the end. The sooner we humans are wiped out so that evolution can do its job again, the better. Homo sapiens is an odious species, far from sapiens. I’d like to be reincarnated as either an octopus or one of them sea squirts that come together with their mates to make a tube that glows – pyrosomes. Glowing in the dark is something we’re both used to having been brought up within spitting distance of Windscale (or Calder Hall or Sellafield) in the 1950s.

Two MUST reads: (1) Skyseed by Bill McGuire (he lives in Brassington where I was a curate). (2) The Swarm by Frank Schatzing (he doesn’t).

KBO. Klaatu barada nikto. Happy Advent. Nollaig Shona agus Athbhliain Faoi Mhaise

A story in black and white

Here is a view from the south transept of Carlisle Cathedral looking west into the south nave aisle showing the romanesque arches distorted by settlement in the 1120s*. It’s a meticulously detailed black and white pen and ink essay dated 1970.

The artist, a lovely, gentle man by name Reg Hunt, was a sidesman at the Cathedral and his son Richard and I were choral and in my case organ scholars in the 1960s. Living as I then did twenty miles from Carlisle, the Hunts had me to Sunday lunch week by week between the morning and afternoon choral services. Kindness and generosity of spirit were there in abundance in those heady days of musical exploration and soaking up Round the Horne before heading off for Evensong at 3.

Reg by then was Head of Art at White Close School in Brampton, about 10 miles away. I’d seen some of his work, and when I went to Cambridge in 1969 I asked him if he would be willing to do something for me as a memento of those times and of the Hunt family. I was overwhelmed with this – I was not expecting anything so spectacularly luxurious.

We have moved twelve times since then and this has moved with us – until recently. It’s still in the family, though, now having pride of place at Edward’s in Co Wexford.

I discovered that Reg had once courted a Carlisle woman, Margaret Grainger.  For whatever reason that didn’t work out and he married Margaret Henderson. Together they had John, a writer, and Richard. Margaret Grainger married my uncle Philip Monkhouse, later a tenor Lay Clerk at the Cathedral.

The Eden valley was a small world where rich red sandstone reigns, but Reg had seen more of the big world’s unpleasantness than most for he had been one of the liberators of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. 

* for more information see Dr James Cameron’s excellent and entertaining site: https://stainedglassattitudes.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/carlisle-the-unluckiest-cathedral/

Smells and Middle East memories

I was back in the Middle East recently. Waiting for the taxi to bring me home, I was sat on a huge tyre outside the gym, part of an industrial unit backing on to the railway. The boiling temperature and the smells from the scorching sun beating down on tarmac, cars, rubber and metal, transported me back to the 80s and 90s, to the aromas of Jeddah. 

Some trips were for teaching anatomy to would-be surgeons. I was there for two weeks at a time, with usually a physiologist and a pathologist. Other trips were for examining surgical aspirants – these lasted about a week or so, and were more social in that there were three examiners, two exam administrators, and often spouses.

Some visits took on a political dimension. The college was keen to recruit students and gain hospital management contracts, both of which brought with them substantial government income. I remember several receptions at which we sat round the edges of vast and ornately decorated rooms in palaces waiting for local dignitaries to arrive late, then joining in stilted conversation sipping Arabic coffee and nibbling sweetmeats as the man (never the woman) in the biggest chair continued his conversations with college bosses and advisers. On one occasion in Baghdad, just after the first Gulf War, the important man was a relative of Saddam. I did not consider it wise to be provocative – indeed I might well have said nothing, which was not difficult since smalltalk does not come easily to me unless it involves railways (not trains), organs or churchy stuff. I shut down in the midst of such internal distress, aching to get out. 

Of the places I visited, Amman was without doubt the most wonderful. Lovely people, fascinating places, Roman remains, Biblical sites. I even saw Petra before it was commercialised. By far the worst was Buraydah in central Saudi. I go so far as to declare it the cosmic cloaca. 

Like any remote settlement anywhere, it is conservative. But Saudi takes conservatism to a whole new level. Buraydah is the home of the training college for religious police – the mutawa. These puritans patrol the streets with sticks ensuring that shops close for prayers. They stamp out any hint of public joy. They are on the lookout for bare female flesh that they can whack. Foreigners are not exempt. An Irish female, head to ankle covered in black, had inadvertently allowed a smidgeon of bare foot to be visible. It did not escape the swipe. The mutawa bring to life R S Thomas’s definition of Protestantism: “the adroit castrator of art, the bitter negation of song and dance and the heart’s innocent joy”.

There was thus little incentive to leave the hospital compound. 

In Buraydah we were housed in three-bedroom villas – one each – for the medical staff. They were set around a central scrubby “lawn”. You can see the compound here, with the villas at the bottom of the screen: https://www.google.com/maps/@26.3482938,43.9699666,659m/data=!3m1!1e3

Other than three hours teaching a day there was nothing – and I repeat nothing – to do. It was just like lockdown, only worse. 

Routine activities like cutting one’s nails or scratching one’s backside were scheduled and done very slowly to fill the time. One of the biggest events of the day was cleaning my teeth of a morning. It was ritualized, It became a liturgical event. Running 100 times round the square was eagerly anticipated. Together with a physician teaching physiology, I competed with myself and him. I was never fitter than in those days: Susan said when I returned to Dublin after that fortnight that I looked like a rat. A fit one.

Food was interesting. Each morning we’d fill in a menu putting ticks against our chosen items for lunch and supper. Twice a day except Friday, the meals arrived: always scraggy chicken and rice, no matter where the ticks had been. A good game. There was a supermarket on the compound, fortunately.

I don’t want to give the impression that I sailed through these ten or so middle east trips. I did not. Life at the time was fraught. I found it incredibly difficult to be working and living in Ireland with the two boys at school in England (until 1992). In addition, to be away from Susan and Victoria on these occasions helped to propel me to despair from which it took years to recover – if I have. I was delighted to be able before long to pass these duties to junior staff, and they were happy to oblige.

Baghdad was my first middle east trip. I went twice, the first to examine as part of a team from the London surgical college, and the second, I think (memory is hazy), to discuss the establishment of a new medical school. I liked Baghdad and the Iraqis. Like Jordanians they were down to earth and pleasant. I met a croupier at one of the big Baghdad hotels and wondered why I didn’t have a glamorous and lucrative job like his.

Tragic middle east politics – another cock up of partition overseen by the Brits.

What’s in a name?

I’m a regular reader of the blog Thinking Anglicans (yes, I know there are very few of them ….). It keeps me up to date with the lamentable politics of the Church of England. 

There’s been an interesting discussion about whether contributors should be allowed to use fake names, as some do. The consensus is that real names are ideal but some people must hide their identities for various reasons. For example, a cleric using his/her name might feel obliged to stick to an official church opinion. That never bothered me for so much official church teaching is utterly bonkers and needs to be changed. I rather hoped that I might be hauled up before an ecclesiastical court – it would have been fun – but alas I seemed not to have been offensive enough. Must try harder.

Anyhoo, back to names, I am William after father and his father, Stanley after mother’s father, and Monkhouse because here at present we use the patronymic. Quite why my second name was routinely used I know not. 

I wonder if there is such a thing as a “me” that can be adequately encompassed in just one name.  You see, girls and boys, there are several “mes” living in my body. 

There’s adolescent me discovering things, 6 year old me playing in the sandpit, finger wagging me that gives out shoulds and oughts, 71 year old me that is angrier about injustice and more subversive than ever before (whoever said we get less revolutionary as we age was wrong), dutiful me that serves, eye twinkling provocative me, emotional me, fearful and inadequate me, depressive me that spends money as therapy, and more. 

Add to these the millions of creatures that live in and on me, bacteria, viruses, symbiotes, even maybe parasites, many of which produce chemicals that affect my thoughts and behaviour – we’re all at the mercy of circulating chemicals from whatever source, so is there really free will?

Having three official names to choose from I give different names to these various “mes”: Stanley, Stan, Will, William, Billy, Willy, Monk, Monkey (inevitable school nickname), fat git (used by one of my sons with then some justification). I like all these “mes” and love them even though some cause problems. Interestingly, the “mes” with the problems tend to be creative and good fun, and I wouldn’t be without them. 

As I reflect on these “mes” I return repeatedly to the profound question “would the child I once was be proud of the adult I have become?”

I am put in mind of this exchange on Life of Brian between Stan and his mates.

Stan wants to be a woman called Loretta so he can have babies. 

It is true that many men as they age and lose testosterone develop tits and become more female-like. Changing sex during the life cycle is not unknown in the animal kingdom.

I’m not there yet.

Dyspepsia, gut brain and vagus (again)

A few days ago I was lying on a table surrounded by people in masks.

One of them held my head and inserted an object between my teeth to keep the mouth open. A thick rubbery object was then shoved down past my pharynx into the oesophagus. There was much gagging, but I soon got used to it.

Now, dear reader, I don’t know what you’re thinking about the kind of sadomasochistic activity in which I was willingly engaged, but the truth is that I was having a gastroscopy.

The general term for looking into tubes is endoscopy (Greek endon: internal), but yer man didn’t go much further than the pylorus so I’ll stick with gastroscopy. (Actually, Greek gaster meant pretty much anything between chest and pubes, like belly, and I can’t be bothered to find out how it came to be used for the sac where food is digested.)

Boss man, having established that I was not entirely ignorant of medical matters, kept pointing to things on the monitor, telling me where he was and what he could see. This was kind and considerate of him and I would have been eagerly attentive but for the fact that they’d asked me to take off my specs so all I could see was a mass of light pink. It turns out that apart from a somewhat incompetent gastro-oesophageal sphincter leading to reflux, and bit of gastritis with a few erosions, it was all pretty good.

This was a relief. My mother and her father died younger than I am now from abdominal cancer, probably stomach, and in the month or so before the gastroscopy my symptoms (I’ll come to them) had worsened considerably, so in my head I was already rewriting my will and sorting out online passwords for the beloveds. The fact that I consulted the GP speaks volumes.

I’ve only met him once before, a graduate of University College Dublin, so we have mutual acquaintances and had a really good chat about Dublin, Ireland, John Boyne, and life as a non-native in Ireland (me) and England (him). And the state pensions: Ireland’s is much more generous than the UK’s.

For several years I’ve had periodic dyspepsia and belching. Symptoms have gradually worsened and latterly my stomach has taken a great dislike to some foods, sending them back whence they came. My stomach is clearly very clever, since it doesn’t necessarily reject the most recently consumed, but only those it takes exception to. I often feel a queue building up in my oesophagus as if the traffic lights at the pylorus were stuck on red.

Most unpleasant were increasing gassiness, hiccups, and the feeling that unless I made myself vomit – which I had to do frequently – the trapped wind would never get out. Sleep was sometimes delayed and subcutaneous fat lost (no bad thing in itself). There were no signs of liver disease like yellow sclera, pale craps, dark piss, and the latter did not taste sweet so no sugar (not salty either which is astonishing given the amount of salt I consume). But the increasing severity meant that I was no longer able to cope by eating carefully, slowly, little and often, so I was worried. I’m not given to complaining about discomfort: Susan says I’m a stoic and should seek help sooner. But I’m a bloke.

So why such troublesome symptoms in the absence of anything much to account for them?

The GP several times asked me how long this had been going on. Back at home I asked myself when I remembered not having to think about what I ate or how I ate it. 

The answer rather flabbergasted me. It was in Texas just before the great catastrophe of 2015. It is not possible to leave an empty plate at a Texan restaurant, and certainly not Mel’s Country Café in Tomball, if one has belly issues.

Quite astonishingly my symptoms improved from then on – not disappeared, but certainly less aggravating and more manageable. 

Grief, stress, long term niggling anxiety, relief at no evidence of malignancy – all these play a part in the story, together no doubt with food intolerances that have always been there and that I never really noticed because I was so used to them.

Last November I wrote about the vagus nerve: https://ramblingrector.me/2020/11/14/the-vagus-nerve-a-journey/. I mentioned its likely role not only in enabling digestion but also in connecting head brain and gut brain. I alluded to the way in which the psyche and the guts affect one another: gut feelings, gut reactions, feeling gutted, psychiatric state, and more. I never for one moment made that link to account for some of my symptoms until I recalled the last time I didn’t have to be careful about eating. 

On the phone I told the GP of this realization. I asked him if he thought it a likely factor. “Most certainly” he said. “The trouble with you is you know too much. But we’ll do a CT just to make sure there’s nothing sinister further down to account for the weight loss.” 

I am absolutely astonished – and thrilled – at this first hand experience of the importance of the vagus nerve, the nerve of digestion, the nerve of nutrition, the nerve of the yolk sac, and the links between guts and emotions.