A midsummer night’s dream

15163038101103088973a-midsummer-nights-dream-clipart.medFor St Paul’s Magazine, July 2018

I wake about 4 am sweating, heart thumping. I’ve been dreaming of some disturbing event, often at school, often involving exams I felt sure to fail: physics usually. Sometimes at medical school, with doom-laden foreboding that I am to fail physiology or biochemistry (the one subject I actually failed was pharmacology, and that doesn’t seem to feature). I’ve even had to go back to Cambridge for resits—here’s the curious thing—despite knowing in the dream that I had spent 30 years as a medical school academic.

In last night’s dream I told a few home truths to parents. I wish I’d done that when I was younger. It was gratifyingly violent.

Such a lot of insecurity. Such a lot of anger, never openly expressed, but smouldering, occasionally erupting at inconvenient times. It’s very tiresome. I wish I could remember pleasant dreams. As it is, I wake feeling as if I’ve done several rounds with Mike Tyson.

Why am I telling you this?

Some people expect clergy to be perfect, to be free of the problems that affect ‘normal’ people. Some people who don’t know me apologize for swearing in my presence, presumably on the ground that my thoughts are so pure that my psyche will go into meltdown if exposed to too many profanities. If only they knew. I could teach them a thing or two about swearing. It’s impossible to live and work in Dublin for almost 20 years without becoming adept at the handling of profanities, given the infinite creativity of Dubliners in that regard.

Mixtures of past and present. Mixtures of sacred and so-called profane. We are all mixtures. There is nothing pure about any of us. We are mixtures of genes from ancestors. Do you realize that each one of us carries around particles from the big bang? Do you realize that every one of us has something of the primordial swamp in us?

It’s hardly surprising that past memories are part of us too. In fact, they are stored in the brain more securely than more recent memories, which is one reason that old people find it easier to remember what happened 30 years ago than what happened yesterday. You might have heard me use the analogy of a snowball rolling down a hillside, picking up with each revolution some of the snow it has rolled over, getting bigger as it descends. Not a bad image of the human condition—except that there comes a point when we realize that we don’t need all the snow that we’ve collected, and it’s time to get rid of much of it. Trouble is, this isn’t easy, and some of the bits we’d like to get rid of are reluctant to go.

Dreams are just dreams. They don’t foretell the future, but in my experience they can point to stuff in my head that needs sorting out. If it niggles, sort it. Examine the emotions you feel in the dream, try and figure out why they bother you. This is called prayer. Prayer is not about presenting the sky pixie with a shopping list. It’s a journey into yourself. And the further into yourself you go, the closer you get to the Divine core—God in the middle of you.

When you cut yourself, blood particles called platelets gather at the site to plug the hole in the blood vessel and help the blood to clot. These platelets are broken off bits of huge cells called megakaryocytes, which is Greek for—wait for it—huge cell. You and I, all of us, are broken off bits of God. We too can plug gaps and mend cuts, metaphorically speaking, by doing things that help to heal and restore people and events. Life’s destination is to be reunited with the Divine megakaryocyte. This is the doctrine of theosis as interpreted by the Vicar. Look it up if you’re interested.

Ponder these:

  • God the Logos became what we are, in order that we may become what he himself is.… The glory of God is a living person and the life of man is the vision of God. St Irenaeus
  • It is most kindly to take part with Him in that which He took part in with us, and that, to no other end, but that He might make the receiving of it by us a means whereby He might “dwell in us, and we in Him;” He taking our flesh, and we receiving His Spirit; by His flesh which He took of us receiving His Spirit which He imparted to us; that, as He by ours became consors humanae naturae, so we by His might become consortes Divinae naturae, “partakers of the Divine nature.” Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, Christmas Day 1605.

Accept the upsetting dreams, and take what you can from them. Go easy on yourself—there are plenty of gobshites out there who are quick to find fault with you, so you don’t need to join them—and remember your destination.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:

And whatever else you do this summer, have a rest.

Easter freedom

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Easter homily 2018

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics beloved of medical students. The stories in the gospels about Jesus expelling demons from men living in the tombs are for me about freeing them from living in their memories, from living in the past.

People who live in the past cling to resentments, unable to let go, unable to forgive, unable to move on. They are entombed. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up golf club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements before their hairy bellies started hanging over their belts.

Now think of the Easter story. Never mind if it’s literally true or not. Never mind if it’s a fable based on more ancient folk tales. It’s utterly psychologically authentic. The stone is rolled away. The contents of the tomb have escaped, flown away.

Can you not see that this is an invitation for us to let go of the past? If we are to live life abundant then we have to learn to to move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. Forgiven.

People make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness will just happen. It won’t. It’s hard work. We have to practise it like we have to practise the piano. We have to keep telling ourselves. We have to brainwash ourselves. But the penalty for not forgiving is that we become like Miss Havisham or like Gollum, wizened, miserable, resentful, odious, mendacious. We think we are sticking two fingers up at the world, but in truth the world doesn’t care a jot. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

Think of people who refused to support Jesus, who deserted him, who told lies about him to save their skins or to curry favour with authority, who joined the chanting mob. How many of the Palm Sunday supporters joined that baying crowd? Now think how shocked they must have been to hear that the man they’d betrayed wasn’t dead and gone, but might meet them in the street. It’s like gossiping with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who, just as you’ve made the most utterly bitchy remark, appears round the corner and cheerfully greets you. You want the ground to open up and swallow you.

How does Jesus react when he meets his so-called friends again? Does he berate them for their calumny? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them? Does he plan some even more horrid act of vengeance?

No, none of this. All he says is “Peace to you”. It’s like he says, “never mind the past, friends, let’s get on—we’ve work to do.” Forgiveness.

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, blindly followed the crowd—every time hammering another nail into the wrists and ankles. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, you and me, now. It’s about death of pride and self in order that selflessness can ascend.

We need to, we must, forgive and let go, otherwise we become entombed in living death. This is not about an afterlife—it’s about life abundant before death.

The most difficult person you’ll ever have to forgive is yourself. Some of us like wallowing in it like Miss Havisham. We turn masochism (all very well in its place, I’m told …) into an art form. But life is to be lived. So, girls and boys, practise forgiving yourself. Moment by moment. It doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of them for the benefit of others. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old. It helps you to live life to the full by laying down all the vain things that charm you most.

Forgive yourself. Live for the future. Happy Easter.

Plagiarized from the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Sunday 16 April 1609. 

http://anglicanhistory.org/lact/andrewes/v2/easter1609.html

Monday in Holy Week: letting go

hot-air-balloons-1422702946OcWIsaiah 42:1-7. John 12:1-11

The events in tonight’s gospel take place before the Palm Sunday procession. I’m going to take the stories in the Biblical order.

Here are some themes that strike me.

  • Preparing for death: Mary’s anointing Jesus with oil normally reserved for anointing the dead.
  • Hypocrisy and dissimulation: Judas pretending to object to the waste of oil because of what it might have bought the poor, whereas maybe he wanted it for himself.
  • Jesus doing the unexpected: riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey).
  • Jesus facing the future squarely: his cheerfulness, and the crowd’s acclamation. Faces are important in this story.

Preparing for death

We live in a society that refuses to look death full in the face. People pretend it won’t happen. They go to great lengths to try and delay it, even when it’s obviously inevitable. The medical profession doesn’t help. We spend money on seeking a cure for this or that disease as if there’s some hope that we can live for ever. We may be cured of cancer today but as sure as eggs is eggs we’ll die of something else tomorrow.

This always leads to trouble. If you pretend it won’t happen, you can’t set things straight before you go. There’s unfinished business. If you can’t set things straight, you are left with regret and guilt. You can’t say that you wished you’d not said so-and-so, and you can’t say, before it’s too late, what you should have said years ago. And all that is the overwhelming cause of grief and weeping and family tensions at funerals. It’s in contrast to the death of a friend of mine, who knew she was dying, told the world, and wrote her funeral homily, and characteristically witty it was too. Our refusal to be straightforward about death results in grave disappointments.

For six months of my life I worked in a children’s hospital just off the Brixton High Road in south London. I saw there babies with incurable conditions having operation after operation, and I was required to insert drips into their tiny veins whilst seeing their eyes looking at me. The inhumanity and cruelty of it. I plucked up courage to suggest that baby Anthony should be allowed to die with dignity. The reaction was swift: I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms. He died the next week after yet another operation. It is not my intention to start a debate tonight on end-of-life issues—that’s for another time maybe—but I’m using this as an illustration of how many of us refuse to confront one of the realities of animal existence on this planet. Death comes to all≠. By pretending otherwise we cause grief for ourselves and for those that love us.

This sanitisation of death, this refusal to look it full in the face, is a consequence of urbanisation. In Derbyshire and Ireland, my parishes covered large rural areas. Rural folk have a robust attitude to death. They see it day by day. Animals are killed so that we might eat. One of my churchwardens thought nothing of shoving her arm up a cow’s vagina to pull out a dead calf. Now, I acknowledge that my attitude to death may be peculiar: not only was I brought up in a farming village, but for 25 years I was using human cadavers to teach anatomy: cutting them up, examining them and handling them.

I’m convinced that our attitude to death needs realigning. Tonight’s Gospel and the Palm Sunday procession seem to say likewise. Our Lord faces death full in the face. Face: earlier in the gospel Jesus came down from a mountain with a shining face. Then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And now acknowledging to Judas—I rather like Judas by the way—that he is being anointed for death. The Easter message is that death leads to new life. If you want to build on a new site, it is wise to clear it of rubble so that good foundations can be laid. This is new life following death of the old. And so, of course, is the resurrection story.

Biologically speaking, death is part of life. The cells of our bodies are dying all the time, and new life replaces them. Skin cells are constantly being shed and replaced. Blood cells past their sell-by date are replaced all the time. There are lots of other examples, but here is a startling example of the necessity of cell death. When a fetus is developing in the uterus, the hands and feet start off as spade-like things, a bit like fists. You might think that fingers and toes grow out from the spades, but you’d be wrong. What happens is that rather than digits growing out, four strips of cells are programmed to die, leaving digits remaining between them. If not enough cells die, we get webbed fingers and toes. If more strips die we get more fingers than usual. Here is another example. When a bone is fractured and reset, the two ends are rarely aligned properly. The body copes with this by killing off bone cells in the wrong place, and laying down new ones where needed.

Biology has no hesitation in killing off the old in order that the new can flourish. We can’t move on if we try to preserve the past. That is why, despite my love of architecture and liturgy, I oppose the conservationist lobby. We must face death when necessary. We can’t engage with the present if we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, because we will be tempted to put off things that need attention before it’s too late.

No dissimulation

As the donkey procession (allegedly) arrives from the east, history books tell us another procession arrives from the west. At Passover the Jewish people celebrate deliverance from the Egyptian oppressors. But here they are now under Roman oppressors. A recipe for civil unrest. The Romans were nervous. So the Roman governor rode to Jerusalem from the ‘capital’ Caesarea on the coast, with military reinforcements in case of trouble. The procession from the west was one of Roman imperial power. Pilate rides a war horse, Jesus rides a donkey. Empire versus individual. Mockery of imperial power. Turning the tables of convention as much as turning the tables in the Temple. Wisdom from a donkey. There’s a scene in Attenborough’s film Gandhi which always catches my attention, and that is when the ship docks in Bombay, some British bigwig is disembarking in full dress uniform to the sounds of bands and military display. At the same time, Gandhi dressed as a local is disembarking further up the quayside. The crowds are with Gandhi.

I wonder which procession we will be part of? Will we part of the naked emperor’s procession that lusts for power, that fawns over those who have it? that fiddles expenses claims? Will we like them go for the puffed up image like an overstuffed balloon that will soon burst? Or will we be part of the procession of straightforwardness, of humility, of service? Will we be in the procession that faces stark reality, that embraces death in order that something much more glorious can rise? Death of worldly ambition. Look at the contemporary church and see how the power-lust of bishops leads them to put the needs of the institution before those of the individual.

Renunciation

Facing the future mindfully means killing all that holds us back. It can be very painful. We begin to see ourselves as others see us. We realise that we are not as good as we thought we were. We realise how we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We need to grieve our lost attitudes, our lost expectations, our lost dreams. We need to let go of what we want, or wanted, and accept the grace of God to resurrect us. We must die in order to live. Death of our self-obsession enables us to rise:

As larks, harmoniously / And sing this day Thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

As I grow older, I look back on some of the things I used to be so passionate about and wonder what it was about them that so obsessed me. Obsession is the right word, because these passions blinkered my vision and limited my action. A couple of humdrum examples. I once had a huge collection of books: they were my friends. I came to see that they limited me. Not only did they cost a lot of money, they also dictated the type of house we could move to. And after all, when one has sucked the marrow out of a book, one might as well pass it on! (How many books do we all have for show, unread and likely to remain so?) In my teens, cathedral music introduced me to beauty, lifting me from a drab village existence. I allowed it to rule my choices for too long. Now it sustains me without, I hope, dictating to me.

These are not evil things in themselves (though many clergy harbour evil thoughts about church musicians—or is it the other way round?) but they limited me, they narrowed my vision. They stole some of “me” and prevented me from being fully me, in a similar way to that of any addiction. I am still afflicted by things—we all are—but now I’m slightly more aware of the symptoms of addiction. As we get older we find ourselves attached to fewer and fewer things. Our vision becomes less restricted. We are moving into a wide, unfettered place. The view from the road from Sleaford to King’s Lynn is an image that I have in mind for this wide view. This notion of being in a wide place is one of the Hebrew images of salvation, and it is one that Jesus teaches. If we die to earthly attachments, we are in this place, and we can focus on what matters: love of God, and love of neighbour. I like the Buddhist idea that all disease is caused by attachments—or hatred, which is just negative attachment.

Eternal not everlasting

There is a kind of renewal in all this, and the key to it is to live in the present. Our Lord’s teaching again and again emphasizes that we need to do just this. Learn from the past certainly, but don’t live in it. Look to the future, but don’t waste time laying up treasures. Live now, in the moment. This, actually, is what eternal means. When we hear ‘everlasting life’ in church services, we often get the wrong idea, and it would be better, and more accurate a translation of the Greek, to use eternal. It’s not quantity or length of time that matters, but quality. Eternal, timeless, out of time, in the present, Divine. Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now. Trust the teaching of Jesus: live in the present moment, and do your best in that moment. We can do no more, and we need do no more. In one sense this is easy to do, and in another it’s extraordinarily difficult when we are surrounded by the petty irritations that life throws up day by day, when we see the injustice that surrounds us, and when we are governed, as we are, by prejudices and faulty behaviour patterns bred into us by our upbringings. But see all these for what they are, and trust and hope.

Back to death

If we are to attain eternal life, here and now, we must face death and die to worldly trivia—the vain things that charm us most. Having divested ourselves of these burdens we walk off lighter. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – light in both senses, light because of the light of the world, and light because we are less burdened by weighty impedimenta from the past.

Jesus’ last hours complete the incarnation. Our Lord gave up a divine dwelling for human frailty, and now he suffers the stripping away of dependence on self to fall into he arms of the divine. ‘It is finished’. This is a renunciation that we recall every time the priest utters the consecration prayer at Mass. It is a renunciation that we join in this week, and every week. And the task for us, sisters and brothers, is to accompany the Lord on his journey of death in order to fall into the arms of the divine.

Saints and souls

800px-Votive-candlesHomily for All Saints and All Souls

Colossians 1: 15-20. Matthew 5: 1-12

Today’s gospel, the Beatitudes, takes on a startling immediacy in The Message. I shall read it to you.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your tether. With less of you there is more of God. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inner world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or spread lies about you to discredit me. It means that the truth is too close for comfort, and they are uncomfortable. Be glad when that happens, for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets have always been in that kind of trouble.

This is how to be a saint. It’s not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, carrying through, determination, self-knowledge. It’s about disturbing the comfortable and not being swayed from the cause of right. It’s about being real and authentic, and giving your self away.

I’m not keen on saints. They’re too perfect. The nearest thing to saints I’ve come across are those who live with the most awful grinding problems day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, yet still manage to keep their heads above water, if only just, smiling and glad to be alive.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Humility is the key. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right, because one day you’ll be dead – and it could be very soon. Live life to the full. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place are saints in his book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, you’ve no chance. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be—if that matters which it shouldn’t. It’s trite to say that every saint has a past and every sinner a future, but its true. Prophet Stanley goes further and says that you’ve no chance of living life to the full unless you’ve cocked up in the past. Often. And learnt from it. The words of the hymn we shall sing in a few minutes—we feebly struggle, they in glory shine—are wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because they and we have feebly struggled, and are feebly struggling.

As I say, humility is the key. Humus, earth. Feet planted firmly on the earth, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your imagination, or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young and vicars knew how to be vicars. Earthed. We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return.

In Colossians we hear of the cosmic Christ, present at the moment of creation with the creative force. Begotten of his Father before all worlds. The Christ that comes to show us the way, who in the Greek comes to save not just you, not just me, not just humanity, but the cosmos. The Christ, that is the anointed one, the Messiah, who is always and everywhere present.

We are creatures of the cosmos. The Christ is of the cosmos, always and everywhere. We come into being as biology gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. A frightful sight, I know. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. It’s the same for everybody and everything. Always was, always will be.

Think about that. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Whatever. Certainly, nothing is wasted. But however you look at it, people come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. Importantly for today, we are never not in the presence of the particles, atoms, and molecules of those we mourn. The particles, atoms and molecules that constituted them are all around us. We are never not in the presence of those whom we remember today.

We are never not in their presence, and they are never not in ours.

Their names will be read out. Candles will be lit. What do we think we’re doing? Praying for their safe crossing across the sea of purgatory? Well, if you like. That doesn’t float my boat though. There might be some kind of reckoning in which we see ourselves for what we really are, naked, rather than as what we in our delusional pride think we are, but I doubt that a few scrappy mutterings on days like today will make much difference.

No. What today’s about is us, not them. Reading out names and lighting candles is about our coming to terms with loss. Today’s ceremonies are intense. And so they jolly well should be. Our love for the dead was—and is—intense. Our grief is—should be—intense and painful.

The grief will of course have different hues. Loss of a spouse, loss of a parent, loss of a son or daughter, loss of a friend: different shades of intensity. Recent loss, distant loss: different shades of intensity. Different people have different feelings today, and cope differently. You can’t judge another person’s grief by the standards of your own. Susan and I know that full well.

As well as all this, there’s something else, and this comment comes from deep within me. When somebody dies we lose not just them, but also part of ourselves. That is particularly so with the loss of someone younger than us. We have had ripped from us the emotions we projected onto that person. In my case, I wish I had been more like Hugh in his fearlessness, so I saw him as making up for my own inadequacy. We have had ripped from us the plans we tentatively made. No chance now of driving with him from Denver to Las Vegas. Loss of potential, waste of life, destruction of dreams. All this we must grieve—for them and for us.

Finally, I ask you particularly today to remember a group of people often forgotten. Remember women who have lost embryos through miscarriage or induced abortion. Pregnancy, however brief, changes a woman. It is not widely known that fetal cells invade the mother in the first week of pregnancy—before she knows—and change her ever so subtly. The notion that her body is the hers to do with as she likes is biologically questionable. The loss of an embryo should never be trivialized, and we should treat women who have suffered such loss with utmost compassion and tenderness. There are countless numbers of them, many of our nearest and dearest.

When you light candles, remember that you’re lighting them for yourself as much as for the dead. And remember that they are never not in our presence.

Homecoming

Eden valley 2

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. 

 

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.

The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man

dionysiusmonastery_athosEaster is early so Lent is upon us almost before the last of the Christmas chocolate cherry liqueurs disappear ‘down the little red lane’. We turn from crib to cross at the last great feast of Incarnation/Epiphany/childlikeness: Candlemas, or Presentation, or Purification, or whatever you want to call it.

Simeon holds the divine child and says ‘this is enough, I need no more’. Ich habe genug—if you have not heard Bach’s Cantata of the same name, it’s not too late. Find the first movement on YouTube here sung by the glorious Dietrich Fischer-Dishcloth as at least one member of my family calls him. Words can hardly express the satisfied gently swaying longing that Bach conjures up. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

euston 030-1The old man carried the child, but the child governs the old man: you might reflect on how spot-on that is psychologically. The child is the father of the man. We are governed by thought patterns laid down in childhood. Childhood innocence, willingness to explore and ability to have fun are, as we grow up, so easily perverted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that life throws at us. The supermarket trolley of the psyche becomes more and more wayward, and less and less inclined to head for the target we once thought we were aiming for.

We need the 3Rs: repent, recall and recover the childlikeness we’ve lost. Is the child you once were proud of the adult you have become? Examining that question is worth the Lenten discipline of spiritual spring-cleaning. If the answer is no (and I doubt that anyone can truthfully answer otherwise), what are you going to do about it?

The Orthodox call this great festival The Meeting – Simeon meets the infant that changes everything. We meet again the child we once were in order to change what we are. We are changed by encounters.