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.

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

Easter freedom

An Easter homily if I were giving one. It’s based on the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Easter Sunday 1609.

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty tomb) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics – phrases to help one remember things. 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 in the past. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up sports club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements decades ago 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.

Can you 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 let go and move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. It is forgiven.

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 condemned 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? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them?

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

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, or blindly followed the crowd. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, yours and mine, NOW. It’s about death of pride and ego 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—if there is one—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, turning masochism into an art form. But life is to be lived. 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 any skill. We have to keep telling ourselves that we are forgiven. We have to brainwash ourselves. This is important as we get older, for it’s easy to dwell on the past and less easy to imagine the future. At least, I find it so.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of — that is to say, confront — the hole you’ve got yourself into. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old.

The penalty for living in the past is that we become wizened, resentful, odious, and mendacious. We risk becoming deeply unattractive miserable gits. If we behave like that, people will avoid us, and rightly so. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

As Andy and Red say in Shawshank, “get busy living or get busy dying”. The choice is yours.

Happy Easter.

What’s your little helper?

drugs-and-addictionSo, girls and boys, out we go for a walk with Bella the Staffy.

As we approach the Trent and Mersey canal, a young man walking purposefully in the same direction overtakes us. We exchange pleasantries. Then, surprisingly, he stops. We catch up with him just as another young man approaches from the opposite direction. With sleight of hand the two guys exchange something. They retreat whence they came.

User and supplier, we mused? Which was which?

What does it take you to get through the day?

  • Nicotine/tobacco. The sense of calming and release can be blissful, I gather.
  • Alcohol? At a funeral of a wealthy 40-something year old who died of alcoholic liver disease, I said from the pulpit that anyone who ever encouraged him to “just have one more” was complicit in his death.
  • Exercise, fitness? The endorphins released are addictive.
  • Sex? Porn? Likewise.
  • Golf? I’m not old enough to play golf, but I’m told that it’s quite popular amongst the brain dead.
  • Other drugs? Cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol. Cannabis rice krispie cakes are delicious.
  • Religion? Yes. The ecstatic trances of mystics are well known to be comparable to—even equate to—orgasm.

Am I saying that for many people religion is merely a prop to help them get through the day, on a par with smoking or drugs or booze?

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Here are some other things we can be addicted to: money, power, controlling others, pleasing people, wanting to change people, gambling, internet, social media, books, buying stuff you don’t need, gossiping, criticizing, moaning, being miserable.

Some are financially more expensive than others, but there isn’t one that’s any worse than any other. They can all destroy us. It’s as hard for you to let go of your addiction to new clothes, or whatever, as it is for someone else to put down the drink or the syringe.

They’re like demons. They steal our personalities and stop us being ourselves. They deny us our freedom. They make us obsess about ourselves instead of serving others.

We’re all wounded because of stuff that’s happened to us. We all need something to dull the pain. We develop patterns of behaviour to protect us from these hurts. Whatever “pain relief” we choose—substances, attitudes, activities, religion—can be dangerous. We become addicted to them.

We’re all addicted to something—several things in my case. Look at your addictions. If you think you haven’t any, you’re blind.

All the vain things that charm you most—accept that they are part of you. Think of them as controlling different versions of yourself. Then give that version of yourself a cuddle. You begin to love the hell out of yourself. You might have to accept that some will stay with you till you die.

This is not easy. But even beginning the process is a kind of renewal. Nobody is perfect. Nobody has a perfect upbringing.

We are all in recovery.

Hugh would have been 42 today

Hugh2I find his birthday more affecting than the anniversary of his death—in three days’ time. I don’t know why, it just is.

Hardly a day goes by without him cropping up in my thoughts, but then that’s true for Gloria (Victoria) and Ed too. With Hugh, though, it’s not what he might be doing, or hoping that the cold is a bit better, or the marathon training is going well, or whatever, but rather an emptiness.

There was a time when the overwhelming malignancy of loss blotted out any possibility of hope or delight or joy. That is not so now. The loss is there, certainly, the waste of a good and heroic man, father, husband and son, but now mingled with memories of mischief, boldness, pugnacity and perseverance. A smile on the face and a tear on the cheek.

I suppose this is progress. It’s interesting to observe and note my feelings and, as it were, cuddle them. And I do. For months after the catastrophe, maybe even a year, the lament of King David at the death of his son was always with me: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!  And it still is, but periodically now, not constantly. Unpredictably, but temporarily.

HughAs I’ve written elsewhere, the death of a son affected this particular father in some interesting ways. I no longer waste my time on things I don’t have to or won’t enjoy. The exhaustion that came with the devastation—like being assaulted by the greatest imaginable physical force—has not quite dissipated, and indeed is prolonged by tiredness that comes with the culmination of 43 years of ministry to students and parishioners. But I am hopeful.

I’m still not sure what to do with the rest of life, and as I retire officially in five days’ time, the sense of uncertainty is heightened. It’s a modern disease of course, this quest for purpose. It’s not helped by a society that measures success according to rank, qualifications, wallet, and size—none of which matters when you’re in the coffin.

Familyl’m sick of doing. Maybe it’s time for a bit of being. SWMBO has tended me for forty six years, so now I shall do my best to tend her. I’m free of having to organise and administer and chivvy a bit, so I’ll be better able to think, to write, to spread lovingkindness with eye-twinkling mischief in all the ways I can to all the people I can. Doubtless along the way I’ll continue to provoke and irritate and exasperate.

Hugh had PhDs in those qualities.

Angels and demons: a farewell

MichaelS Michael and All Angels 2019

Revelation 12: 7-17. Matthew 18: 1-10

Rambling Rector’s last Sunday homily as Vicar of Burton upon Trent

When you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.

He was a terribly bad hobgoblin, a goblin of the very wickedest sort and, in fact, he was the devil himself. One day the devil was in a very good humour because he had just finished a mirror which had this peculiar power: everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it seemed to dwindle to almost nothing at all, while everything that was worthless and ugly became most conspicuous and even uglier than ever. In this mirror the loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the very best people became hideous, or stood on their heads and had no stomachs. If a person had a freckle it was sure to spread until it covered both nose and mouth. If a good, pious thought passed through anyone’s mind, it showed in the mirror as a carnal grin.

“That’s very funny!” said the devil, who, laughed aloud at his invention. 

The hobgoblin’s apprentices scurried about with the mirror until there was not a person alive that had not been distorted. Then they flew up to heaven itself, to scoff at the angels, and our Lord. The higher they flew, the wider the mirror grinned. They could hardly manage to hold it. Higher they flew, and higher still, nearer to heaven and the angels. Then the grinning mirror trembled with such violence that it slipped from their hands and fell to the earth, where it splintered into billions of bits, or perhaps even more.

And now it caused more trouble than before it was broken, because some of the fragments were smaller than a grain of sand and went flying throughout the wide world. Once they got in people’s eyes they would stay there. These bits of glass distorted everything the people saw, and made them see only the bad side of things, for every little bit of glass kept the same power that the whole mirror had possessed.

A few people even got a glass splinter in their hearts, and that was a terrible thing, for it turned their hearts into lumps of ice. Some of the fragments were made into spectacles, and evil things came to pass when people put them on. The fiend was so tickled by it all that he laughed till his sides were sore.

But fine bits of the glass are still flying through the air.

Like the passage from Revelation that we heard earlier, it’s a fairy story about the origin of the human propensity to sin, to do bad things, to do things that harm others and ourselves. It’s the beginning of Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

It makes the connexion between devil and diabolic. Diabolic, in contrast to anabolic, means splintering, and here we have splinters of evil glass that pass into eyes and heart to distort vision and turn the heart to ice. You don’t have to look too hard to see these twisted characteristics of world leaders: Pyongyang, Damascus, Khartoum, even Westminster, for this nation is being splintered asunder. It is diabolical.

But this applies not just to “them”. It applies as much to “us”. It’s our tendency to hard-heartedness, lack of compassion, forgetfulness of loving-kindness, determination to see the worst in people and situations. It is egocentricity. It is self-obsession. It is total self-indulgence. And that is Satanism.

Am I deluded to use such terms? Listen to S Paul: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Revelation, Paul, and Andersen tell vividly of what Michaelmas is about: the battle between good and evil, the “force fields” in which we exist. It’s a personal battle, in my experience often lost in a fit of temper or a surge of adrenaline: the things I do in the heat of the moment, no chance even to consider consequences, leading to regret and shame.

The question is: how to deal with this? Does Scripture have anything to say?

The Common Worship lectionary for Michaelmas does not: it gives the story of Nathaniel with Jesus telling him that he’ll see angels ascending and descending. I can’t make anything of that. But the historic lectionary of the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, comes spectacularly to my aid for Michaelmas with these words of Jesus:

Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

There are other wonderful bits of today’s gospel, not least that anyone who harms a child should be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck. With all the church scandals, I sometimes wish we took that literally. But for Michaelmas the message is that the forces of evil within are more likely to be vanquished if we assume the mantle of a child.

Here are some of the characteristics of childlikeness that we might use in our struggles: innocence, trust, fearlessness, imagination, having fun, making the best of things.

I spoke of some of this last week, particularly at S Modwen’s where I urged you to approach the future with imagination and without fear. Fear is the opposite of love. Fear leads to hatred. Graham Greene wrote that hatred is failure of imagination. Fear leads to suspicion, name-calling, abuse, oppression, cowardice, failure to fight injustice. And fear leads to death of the spirit in both oppressor and victim. We harm ourselves every bit as much as we harm others.

Am I suggesting, then, that we should become like children in order to fight wickedness?

I am.

But I’m not so naïve as to think that we don’t need to be careful. Our world is one of suspicion, cynicism and selfishness as much as it is of beauty, delight and joy. We need to be watchful. We need 360° vision. We need to consider likely consequences of our actions. But the more we can adopt the attitudes of childlikeness—not childishness—as a starting point, the more likely it is that good will follow.

This message is hammered home in The Snow Queen. It’s the trust of a child, Gerda, that helps her confront adversity. It’s the persistence of a child that keeps her going. It’s the prayers of a child that defeat the demons around the Snow Queen’s ice palace. And in what is quite the most moving part of the story, it’s the tears of a child that melt Kay’s heart of ice and wash out the evil splinters in his eye.

And the result? Reunion, restoration, rescue, healing, salvation, Make no mistake, the two characters in the story are in truth parts of you and me. Oh, how our splintered souls long for wholeness.

Unless you become like a child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This has nothing to do with the afterlife. The kingdom of heaven—eternal life—is a quality of life here and now. It’s an attitude of mind, a way of looking at the world. It is life abundant before death. This is not a matter of appeasing an irascible sky pixie, or collecting nectar points for a seat in heavenly club-class. It’s a matter of making the world we live in more like the kingdom of heaven by fighting injustice and spreading loving-kindness.

Some people believe in angels. I like the idea of Michael the fighter, of Gabriel the messenger, of Raphael the healer, of Uriel the bringer of light. I like the idea of hosts of angels surrounding us, protecting and directing us. But for me it’s just more poetry, and it doesn’t affect my basic Michaelmas message about childlikeness bringing a glimpse of heaven.

Sunday worship is about precisely that: giving us a glimpse of heaven. Before mass, the vestry prayer often includes the words: “may our worship be a vision of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, so that others may be brought closer to you”. Good sounds, beautiful sights, inspiring words, lovely smells. One of my descriptions of the thing people call God is beauty in all its manifestations, and I have tried my best to cultivate that.

BurtonOnTrentPaul06We’re in S Paul’s, and for me to come into this place several times a week, and bathe in its glass, its furnishings, and the sense of the numinous they help create, has been a real joy. When I came to Burton six years ago with a view to applying for the job, I’d already seen the cool elegance of S Modwen’s, and I knew the moment I stepped in here that I could be at home. And then when a year or so later we unearthed that glorious altar frontal, I recognised it as the Bodley/Watts original: it’s the same design as in the Bodley-designed chapel at Queens’ College Cambridge where I was an undergraduate. What a delight!

This all contributes to the beauty of the liturgy in which relaxed ritual, with contributions from others, give a real sense of “numinous in community”. The party line is that in our services we honour the Lord, but since there is a bit of the Divine in each of us, in truth we are honouring ourselves, we are honouring the best of humanity. And that is a exactly as it should be: we refresh ourselves so as to enable us to feed the hungry, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and comfort the oppressed—and remember that unless we do that, all this churchy stuff is utterly meaningless.

It’s not only in church that we can experience this “numinous in community”. Some people, I’m told, have such a feeling at a rugby match. I gather that there is a popular sport in this country in which a round ball is kicked about, and millions of people find spiritual refreshment in that, however implausible I find it. Does this mean that church is merely a hobby for us, like sport for others? Maybe so, but I leave my successor to explore that. Meanwhile, let me tell you a story from my past that at least one of you here will recognize.

About 20 years ago when I was Professor of Anatomy in Dublin, I was standing with a colleague in the Dissection Room – a huge room housing 20+ cadavers and 200+ students and staff. The Anatomy course I was responsible for was acknowledged as being first rate, and the atmosphere was buzzing. Some students were dissecting, some chatting, some looking at x-rays, some considering symptoms and patient stories. Some staff were talking, some listening, some dissecting. For a brief moment I was overwhelmed: I felt as if I were in the presence of something Divine. My colleague must have felt similarly, for he turned to me and said: “you have made this happen”. It is my most treasured memory of sixteen years at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Since July 2014 I have tried to provoke you to think, to shake you up, to let you see how right Diderot was when he urged enlargissez Dieu! I’ve tried to get you to pluck out eyes that offend—that is, to see differently, to move beyond the Sunday school pap of “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”. And I hope our liturgy has enabled us to glimpse Divine grace and glory.

Sisters and brothers, I thank you for the fun we’ve had together, the joy and delight. Since my heart is in large part in Ireland, and since I’d like my ashes to be scattered on an Irish mountain, where almost four years ago I scattered my elder son’s, let me say:

Go raibh maith agaibh. Slán agus beannacht leat. Bail ó Dhia ort.

Thank you. The grace of God be with you. God bless you

Let me leave you with one question, a most profound question that takes us back to Revelation, to The Snow Queen, to today’s gospel:

would the child you once were be proud of the adult you have become?

Coping, or rather not coping

LUP03510Happy pills ran out two weeks ago. Sertraline. I thought I’d try and do without it: I’d halved the dose a few weeks earlier. Today it became painfully clear to me that I can’t. The emotional lability is something else – listening to a friend playing Fauré, I can hardly remain upright. Or the end of Guilmant’s first organ sonata where the big tune is like the sun coming out.

I wrote in a previous blog that music melts my shell, leaves me unprotected, removes me from time and place, and that I would do almost anything for a fix of more of the same, to stay in that place of delight. But the effect of music doesn’t account for the disabling emotional lability, the psychic turmoil, the near despair of this morning.

There’s plenty that could contribute to all this: brexit, the fuckedupness of this country, the frank corruption of its “leaders” and their cronies, the cruelty of the church—oh, the putrid church—and so much more. But none of it accounts for the feeling that life shouldn’t be like this.

I thought that it’ll be over soon when I retire, when people no longer want some of my energy. Then I’ll be able to cope. But today I realised that I need a helping hand now. What did it in the end was another friend, well familiar with psychosis, telling me that what I was describing, no matter how I rationalized it or what euphemisms I employed, was “mental” and was “illness”. That struck home.

Now the fun starts.

I ring the GP surgery. No appointment today. “Ring tomorrow”. No guarantee that I’ll get one tomorrow. This went on for some time. I was surprisingly calm. I did not lose my kool. Eventually I said “so what you’re really saying is that I’ll see a doctor sooner if I go and play tag with HGVs on the A38”. Silence. “No definitely not. Hang on a minute—I can give you an appointment at 4.50 pm today. Is that any good?”

So that’s what it takes.

It was Chesterfield I think where I started long term SSRIs. A decade of parochial ministry. What is it about parochial ministry that is so emotionally draining?

  • Feeling the energy drain from me as people touch the hem of my garment.
  • People dumping their problems on me, and my not knowing how to get rid of them, especially the horrendous ones involving young people.
  • People dumping their neuroses, anger and aggression on me even though it has nothing to do with me. “Get the violence off the streets and into the Church where it belongs” said Michael Bland, a notorious former incumbent of Buckland, Gloucestershire.
  • After ministering for 30 years to open-minded and intellectually supple young people, now to be dealing with those, no matter how lovely, in their autumnal years, lacking vision or intellectual curiosity.
  • Having legal responsibilities but neither authority nor funds to manage them.
  • The feeling that however much I do, it’s not enough. This comes from diocesan staff, the assumption being that church decline is my fault, personally, and my responsibility, personally, to reverse. Bollox. As I’ve said before Lichfield is by no means as bad as Derby was.
  • Observing that ministry to non-church goers is nearly always appreciated, while that to churchgoers is often, in their eyes, inadequate. One group no expectations, the other more than making up for it.

That’s enough for the moment.

Of course, there are joys and delights that I shall miss very much. But it’s a funny old job that requires one to take happy pills.

Words from the heart

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From our Tree of Life carpet (Qum)

In my last blog I berated the Church of England for the abuse scandals; I coruscated the bishops for their apparent lack of compassion not only for victims but also for us foot-soldiers who day by day bear the shame; and I wondered if I’d wasted the last 13 years of my life as a Clerk in Holy Orders.

Never for one moment did I imagine that my words would reach a wider audience than my three regular readers. In the event, the blog was highlighted on Thinking Anglicans—a liberal blog (though I’m more radical than liberal)—and US blog Episcopal Café. It has thus been widely read, although to say that it “went viral”, as one colleague did, displays an endearing ignorance of e-jargon.

I spent my first 18 years in east Cumberland in a somewhat bleak society where compliments were almost unheard of, so I find myself brought to tears by the responses to the blog. They have been almost entirely positive. Comments have included “I think he is a breath of fresh air. Would there were more like Fr Stanley in our Church”; “Fr Monkhouse’s congregation is lucky to have someone who speaks such naked truth and whose sincerity is so apparent.” And most moving of all: “I have just sat and wept at your piece about the state of the Church. What comes home to me more than anything is … what amazingly important Godly words you are speaking to us all in Church … I am grateful for your wisdom, courage and deeply loving heart.”

I say all this not to boast, but to show how much people appreciate raw honesty from the heart. As a priest I’m struck by how when I open my heart to a parishioner, and more often vice versa, without barriers of politeness or compromise or fear of consequences, healing always follows. Liberation. Tears flow. Cleansing tears. Tears from the heart. The tears that wash Jesus’ feet. The tears that in Andersen’s The Snow Queen melt the heart of ice and bring restoration. Luther’s herzwasser.

Of course there have been one or two less approving responses. One commenter wrote “For his sake and [his congregation’s] I found myself fervently hoping that none of those congregations ever read his blog.” Sounds like a threat, perhaps, but then the commenter is the partner of a bishop, so uxorial solidarity might be a factor. As to my parishioners, many do indeed read my blog, and tell me how much they appreciate it, and others read the pieces as magazine articles.

This brings me to the reaction of a local colleague. His response put me in mind of a “jolly hockey sticks” kind of gal who’s just been made a prefect and is nail-bitingly fearful of losing her shiny new badge by being seen to associate with the winklepicker-wearing Teddy boy skulking at the school gates ready to lead her astray. (This imagery is pretty accurate for 1960s Penrith. Add in the Dunrobin café and the picture is complete.)

Here we have two models of priesthood.

On the one hand, non-confrontational, refusing to acknowledge elephants in rooms, unwilling to upset apple carts or frighten horses, unwilling to challenge complacency and hypocrisy, fearful of incurring the boss’s wrath. Desperate to be liked. Superficial.

On the other hand, the prophet, willing to open his or her heart, speaking truth to power, delving into the psyche to expose as much as possible of the grubbby base instincts that live there. An Old Testament prophet like Amos or Isaiah (when he’s not being boring) or John Baptist. Or, dare I say, Jesus.

These are many more models of priesthood. It’s up to every priest to work out which is the appropriate model. I’ve no doubt that the model one chooses is affected by genetics, background, upbringing and life experience.

I know which model is right for me and my gifts. The trouble is that it comes at a price. Emotional digging is hard work, especially when I encounter pernicious, malignant roots that threaten to strangle all else. Trawling through my psyche is utterly exhausting—much more debilitating than running or pumping iron in a gym. Like it or not, berating bosses comes with a frisson of fear, as whistleblowers well know. And, perhaps most importantly, the management of rage requires great care and judgment if it is not to destroy me.

Give me courage.

Deliver me:

  • from the desire of being esteemed;
  • from the desire of being praised;.
  • from the desire of being preferred to others;
  • from the desire of being approved;
  • from the fear of being humiliated;
  • from the fear of being despised;
  • from the fear of being rebuked;
  • from the fear of being ridiculed;
  • from the fear of being wronged.

from Rafael Merry del Val (1865-1930)