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.

Saints – who needs them?

In the church calendar, it’s All Saints.

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.

Being a saint is not about piety and being seen to do the right thing. It’s about persistence, perseverance, 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.

Prophet Micah says do justly, be merciful, walk with humility. Prophet Stanley says Micah is right. One day you’ll be dead, and it could be very soon, so live life to the full: justly, mercifully, humbly. Those who do that, who use their gifts and lives to make the world a better place, are saints in Prophet Stanley’s book.

If you want to be remembered as a saint, forget it. If you don’t care how you’re remembered other than as someone who did their best, then you might be in with a chance—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—cocked up often, and learnt from it. The words of an All Saints hymn “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine” are wrong, wrong, wrong. They shine, and we shall shine, because we have feebly struggled, and continue to feebly struggle.

We are creatures of this earth. From the earth we come and to the earth we return. Nature gathers up particles and atoms and molecules into what you see when you stand with no clothes on in front of the mirror. And when you pop your clogs you disintegrate as molecules and atoms and particles return to the cosmos for reuse. Some might say it’s a kind of reincarnation. Certainly, nothing is wasted.

Earth. Humus. Humility is the key. Feet planted firmly on the ground, living in the here and now, not in some la-la-land of your or someone else’s imagination, or of how things used to be when you were young.

People come, people go, but particles, atoms, molecules remain. And, get this: 

we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who’ve been before us; we are never not in the presence of particles, atoms, and molecules of those who will follow us: we are never not in the presence of past and future.

One of my former churches was often visited mid-service by a vagrant. He tended to arrive “tired and emotional” during the sermon. I welcomed him from the pulpit and told him to sit down and shut up. After some chuntering he did. He enjoyed the wine. We chatted afterwards.

That man suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more than I shall know, for he died recently. He coped with life as best he could without the insulation I enjoy that comes from stable relationships, employment, a roof to sleep under, and a pension. His addictions more often got the better of him than do mine of me. His courage was all the greater. He added colour and earthiness to a narcotic and entitled church community. I shall miss him.

Is there a saint in this story?

NHS encourages irresponsibility?

For Church Magazine, November 2020

You might remember Terry Waite, adviser to a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who was captured and kept in solitary confinement for over three years in Lebanon. He speaks with some authority about how to survive in difficult times. 

He has in no uncertain terms told us to stop being so pathetically wuss (my words not his) about dealing with the privations arising from efforts to stop the spread of covid. We should stop moaning and be constructive about organising our lives. We could read more, be creative, use technology to chat to people. However bad we think it might be, it has to get a lot worse before it compares with being on your own in a Beirut shithole for years. In short, we should take responsibility for ourselves and not expect someone else to come along and sort us out.

Amen, amen.

It applies to every aspect of life, not least health.

Actions have consequences. If you stuff your face with cream cakes from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, don’t be surprised if you get fat, develop diabetes, have a heart attack, and suffer from joint disease because your joints weren’t expecting to have to support a ten ton truck.

Part of the blame lies with the NHS—or rather the way we have allowed it to develop. Having it as a safety net is one thing, but now we expect it to deal with the consequences of our stupidity. We think that we have a right to feel as good at 70 as we did at 30. We refuse to take responsibility for ourselves in the expectation that the NHS will sort it out for us.

It’s a bit like praying to a sky-pixie to sort out problems that we have brought on ourselves. Indeed, it is exactly like that. The Dalai Lama has pointed out how silly it is: “humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” 

And so with health.

Make a weekend visit to a casualty department (after covid, if it ever ends). Wade through the vomit on the floor caused by alcohol overconsumption. Is this what the NHS is for? Why should doctors be non-judgmental? When I was a teenager, my GP told me I was too fat and should do something about it. He was right, and I did. 

None of this is easy to manage. Some of us eat to make us feel better about ourselves. At least the food loves us even if nobody else does. Some of us have genetic predispositions to certain conditions and there is little we can do other than manage them. Life is difficult. We are at the mercy of our obsessions and addictions – and don’t kid yourself that you don’t have any because we all do. Here’s a list.

Nicotine/tobacco. Alcohol. Exercise, Porn. Golf (I’m not old enough to play golf, but I’m told that it’s popular amongst the brain dead). Recreational drugs (cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol; cannabis rice krispie cakes are delicious). Religion: ecstatic trances of mystics are orgasmic, and for some people religion is merely a prop like smoking or drugs or booze to help them get through the day. Some people are 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.

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

You hear people compare themselves to others: “if she can eat it, why can’t I?” The sad truth is that as with everything else, our bodies and our metabolisms are unpredictable. We are not all the same. Swallow a handful of paracetamol and see what happens. Some of you will have no detectable symptoms; some of you will die. Or covid: some people have mild or no symptoms, some have serious symptoms that last ages; some die. 

And all of you will die sooner or later. The longer you live, the more likely you are to die. Life is not fair. Life is uncertain. Get over it. 

One of the first things that medical students do is study a dead body. It is a ritual that helps define them as trainee doctors. All their patients will die, and so will they. As a priest, at every funeral I took I pointed to the coffin and said “every single one of you is going to go in a box like that, and it might be later today, so get your affairs in order, make peace with those you need to, and if there’s something you need to do, do it now. And stop moaning”. I had more complimentary remarks as a result of that stark advice than ever I expected.

My reading of Scripture tells me that we are to be responsible for ourselves. You are no good to your neighbour if you don’t look after yourself. The NHS encourages some of us NOT to take responsibility for ourselves, instead remaining as infants expecting nanny (NHS staff) to deal with the consequences of our idiocy.

You could say that the NHS is UNChristian in tolerating irresponsibility.

The British Army: being thirded

Following my blog Avoid the stupid and hardworking about the Prussian Army types that Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord encountered, a friend has written an updated version for today’s British Army. My correspondent is an Army Officer so is well qualified for the task.

Some thoughts from a more modern perspective – about 1952, which is where the Army is stuck. 

The Army is a firm believer in investing in people and maximising talent [pass the sick bag already], which mean that the MOD can pay a consulting firm millions to develop glossy on-message brochures, which they then roll up to sodomise you. The Army’s version of maximising talent is putting the big lads first to act as a human buffer against razor wire. 

The personnel appraisal system has mysteriously endured through successive defence reviews and budget upheavals, I imagine because it is now so entrenched in our language that the thought of changing it would have senior officers reaching for the sal volatile—or the nearest NCO to give him a good lashing. 

We in the Army are “thirded”. Top third, middle third and bottom third. All three are used as a form of introduction, though never in the presence of the subject. “Did you know that Capt Suchandsuch is joining us next month? I’ve heard he’s a solid middle thirder.”

Bottom thirders are referred to in a number of ways. Lizard, melt, creature, and cluster are the most common. In the officer’s cohort insults abound: “I wouldn’t follow him around a supermarket”; “he has all the depth of a car park puddle”; “he has the breaking strain of a soggy kit-kat”. These chaps tend to go to the logistics corps, although there is a smattering of them across the Army. They tend to have utterly unfounded yet deeply held self-belief, and often fall in to the bracket of the dangerously incompetent [von Hammerstein-Equord type 4]. The best thing you can say about a bottom third officer is that he’s bottom third but he knows it. Sadly, a lot of the senior leadership are bottom thirders. They have survived by dint of ‘staying on the log’ – more on that later – and have been promoted simply by remaining alive long enough, but certainly not through merit.

Some of the more progressive, or soft and “caring”, officers have pointed out that “bottom third” is a rather humiliating term – bad for morale – and have suggested alternatives such as “lower third” or “other third”. Needless to say this silly wokery hasn’t caught on, and those who suggest it are shunted off to bottom third jobs where they can’t do any more damage. 

Most people – 90% – constitute the middle third. Synonyms include “won’t set the world on fire”, “bit of a grey man” and “I honestly can’t remember anything he has ever said”. They won’t fuck-up but they bring no glory. They are officers who would make it through a war without firing their weapon or dying. They are generally content with their lot. They aspire to retire on a Lieutenant-Colonel’s pension somewhere in the Cotswolds with a spaniel, a couple of kids at uni and a spouse in a Barbour jacket, Alice band and solid employment. As soldiers, these are the guys you want: reliable, competent, and usually extremely good company. 

Top thirders are either extremely effective or the absolute worst. The worst are the thrusters, those who know how bum-snorkel like a champ, reliably absent when any actual work needs doing, but appearing like a shapeshifter moments before the CO shows up. As officers they epitomise the Sandhurst ethos of “run fast, shout loud”. You can have all the substance of candyfloss, but run fast and shout loud, and well, you’re in the top third, my lad. Thrusters know they are thrusters, and don’t care. They would happily sell their granny for facetime with the boss, and they would just as fast throw that boss under a bus for some crotch-sniffing with a general.

The good top thirders are referred to as genuinely good blokes, gleaming, or golden. They are rare and valuable, both extremely competent and self-aware, and for that reason usually lift the curtain of the Army sooner than most and have all left within six years of joining to earn gazillions in the City. The ones that stay do well, they are the ones who normally make Chief of General Staff level. 

Earlier, I wrote of “staying on the log”. This refers to the log run. On arrival in basic training every recruit is given the necessary kit to survive the impending course, including, ominously, a short length of rope. The purpose of this becomes clear a few weeks in – you knot with another, slip it underneath a horizontal telegraph pole, and as a team, all with your little rope holders, lift the log and run with it forever. There is always a rotating reserve and when your hands begin to bleed or you feel you cannot hold on for much longer, you rotate out and get a bit of a breather, until the next sorry sod raises their hand, at which point you rotate back in. If you fall back or fall over, you get the honour of a place in the jack wagon, the slow moving landrover which follows behind such activity for health and safety reasons. Going in the jack wagon is a heinous sin – you had best be dying, but more likely you are a malingering bottom thirder with an ouchy leg. Staying on the log at the front, setting a ridiculous pace and bellowing “keep it up, chaps” every few minutes is a top thirder’s role, thrusters and good blokes alike. But as long as you are still on the log by the end, even if that means getting out of the jack wagon because your ouchy leg feels a lot less ouchy now the end is in sight, then you pass. Hence the term, stay on the log.

Here ends my correspondent’s text. The parallels with the church are striking.

So there we have it, girls and boys. There are lots of ways to classify people. Perhaps you like von Hammerstein-Equord’s taxonomy. I do. Perhaps you see merit in the Army’s thirding. I do. Perhaps like me you can see lots of overlaps. Invent your own taxonomy. I used to classify people as fxxkers, wankers and buggers. Then I added tossers. But this isn’t really adequate since for me wankers and buggers (as in silly …) are terms of endearment, and none of them sufficiently describes the scabbiest specimens of the species.

In any case, have a good laugh. And for goodness sake, look in a mirror and laugh at yourself.

Avoid the stupid and hardworking

Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord

I have recently – too recently – come across a rather splendid way of putting people into pigeonholes.

It’s based on the quite brilliant taxonomy of the Prussian officer class by Generaloberst Baron Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord (1878-1943).

“I distinguish four types,” he wrote. “There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage.”

Marvellous!

Here is my take.

Clever and hardworking. Reliable, meticulous, imaginative, industrious. They get things done. Inclined to be workaholics. Good friends.

Stupid and lazy. They work to live. Don’t think too much. Not over bothered about standards: “it’ll do”. Good fun.

Clever and lazy. Strategists who see the big picture but have the sense and humility to know that masterly inactivity is often the way. They don’t need to bolster fragile egos by waving their willies about. They are aware of all possibilities, all the “what ifs?”, but they don’t waste their or anyone else’s energy by imposing silly tasks. They are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and welcome wise advice – indeed they seek it. They can be firm and courageous in making difficult decisions, and neither stand nor impose nonsense. Without doubt, these people should be, but so rarely are, in charge.

Stupid and hardworking. The most dangerous. With their misplaced self-confidence linked to a combination of intensity and density, they fool people into appointing them to senior posts. Because of their arrogance and the ignorance of their own limitations, they wreak havoc and endanger others. They are like black holes, sucking the life force from all they come into contact with. They stifle initiative and surround themselves with even stupider yes-men so as not to be challenged. 

It’s not difficult to categorize people thus. The fourth group is stuffed full of politicians. I guess that most bosses fall into the first (good) and fourth (not good), whereas ideally they’d be in the third – clever and lazy. Doctors are easy to categorize too. And so are clergy. Use your imaginations, but suffice it for me to say that being a member of the fourth category seems to be a prerequisite for preferment.

Baron von Hammerstein-Equord was an interesting man. Aristocrat, Prussian then German army, and plotter against Hitler (how did the Baron survive?). At home he openly talked of planned anti-Jewish action so his many children could warn their Jewish friends. Two daughters passed information to the Soviet Union by means of the German Communist Party – indeed the whole family was somewhat cavalier about their own safety in the increasingly repressive Nazi state. He knew the Gestapo were onto him, but he bashed on.

He died of what might have been parotid cancer having ignored symptoms – typical man – for years. I suppose the cancer got him before the SS.

Two months before he died he said to a visitor “I am ashamed to have belonged in an army that witnessed and tolerated all the crimes”. 

A good and decent man, and clearly an extraordinarily shrewd judge of people.

Conversion: church and gym

A bit churchy but don’t be put off.

The Church of England is, to put it mildly, wetting its knickers about attendance. No punters, no moolah. In a bid to save money it’s dumping ordinary clergy and leaving posts unfilled. It’s still appointing bishops and administrators, but that’s modern management for you.

Church hierarchs – and let me assure you that I yield to no-one in my admiration for and loyalty to the church politburo – think that mission initiatives will sort it all out. There’s a whole series of blogs I could write on the idiocy of this, but though I’m convinced that there are too many people on the planet and humanity needs culling, death from boredom reading this blog is not the way to do it. So let’s move on.

In a recent Church Times piece, a senior cleric suggests that missions could be held in gyms and cafes. A retired colleague, Dean Henley, pointed out on the blog Thinking Anglicans some of the difficulties of this in a gym, bearing in mind “the sound of the thumping treadmills, the pop music, the grunting and the slamming metal of the weights machines” and that most of the participants wear headphones. “It might not be the right time to ask if someone is saved as they attempt the downward dog in a yoga class.”

He is absolutely right. I go further.

People who don’t use gyms often have a mistaken view of what goes on in them. Perhaps they see them as social clubs with people chatting, gossiping, making deals, arranging dinner parties, having a pint or a gin after sitting on a bike for 5 minutes in the latest designer gear, peering into mirrors saying “does my bum/belly look big in this?” Like a golf club, I suppose (I’m not old enough to play golf, so I wouldn’t know for sure).

I’ve been a gym rat for over 40 years on and off. What I see are people with focus, determination, discipline, and commitment to healthy living. They mind what they eat and drink, so church functions with their farinaceous and sugar-laden fare are for them (and me) evil. 

For us, gym = church. There are all sorts, conditions, faiths, races, ages, shapes and sizes. The atmosphere is businesslike and purposeful. No gossip, socialising or preening – there just isn’t the time when you’ve got to be back at work. The admiration of someone with a fine physique is not accompanied by snide remarks or by belittling those without, as would often be the case in equivalent circumstances in church where cattiness can be woeful. On the contrary, in gyms there is acknowledgement of the courage it takes to start a journey: mutual encouragement.

So I ask myself: what would anyone who takes physical wellbeing seriously enough to be a gym regular want or need of church? What does church have to offer that gym does not? 

Every good thing that church provides is available at the gym: companionship, common purpose, community, ritual, discipline, time out from the daily grind. People mind their own business but are happy to help when asked. No bossy interference.

And the gym provides one thing that church does not: a sense of achievement.

Does the church offer anything that gyms do not?

Yes. The threat of damnation. Indeed, the church harps on incessantly about this: after a good sing, it has people grovelling for being miserable sinners. Now, given that many of us use the gym as therapy for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, being brought down low by this medieval control-freakery (control is what it’s all about) is not conducive to mental well-being.

Gym wins hands down.

The church politburo has it the wrong way round. If they are serious about spreading the message of Jesus Christ – life abundant – then rather than running mission initiatives in gyms, they’d be better off making gyms of all the churches. A different sort of conversion.

Nobility in lockdown

At first, the virus signalled the end of the world. Now we know it to be neither particularly lethal nor particularly infectious.

We have been led to hysteria.

Opinions differ about the lockdown. Evidence is equivocal: its effects, however, are not. The economic consequences will be felt for generations, and the geopolitical maelstrom is only just beginning. 

But whatever about the big picture, the lockdown has been desperately cruel for many, especially the chronically ill, the dying, the grieving, and those in sheltered accommodation and care homes. 

The purpose of this piece is not to provoke discussion about the handling of the pandemic or the nature of the lockdown, but rather to let a dear and longstanding friend tell the story of how it has affected him and his wife. They are examples of the heroism that has emerged from this terrible wound that our society has inflicted upon itself. 

Over to you, friend.

I already look with horror at the misery caused not by the virus but by our response to it. My wife, sadly, has dementia and Parkinson’s disease, and has lived in a care home for over three years. I was excluded from visiting her altogether from the day lockdown started and left her the day before that wondering if I would ever see her again. Her capacity precludes any meaningful contact by telephone or video calling. 

The home has been visited by the virus with proportionate fatalities, but she has not so far been infected as far as I know. But over the first two months she gave up eating and drinking properly, lost more than half a stone in weight and has not been out of doors other than to make two trips to A&E following falls with injuries. Without saying how, I have found my way round the restrictions on visiting though I am limited to one visit per week at present. She is now showing more interest in eating and her mood has lifted at least some of the time.

I am slightly nervous, as lockdown is lifted, that my access may perversely be blocked again for reasons of preventing virus spread in the interests of others. The national policy has been one of panic rather than reasoned risk assessment with measured responses.