Saturday, 23 March 2013

A triggered memory

The post of a Facebook friend brought back an old memory.

Here and there in this last week, in the aftermath of Steubenville, mothers have been discussing their approach to raising children – especially sons, and especially with reference to encouraging their children’s instinct for kindness.

My friend linked to this article, which I read with interest.  It’s excellent, right on the money.

As I read it, I stopped on a couple of sentences that especially caught my attention.  Thinking about the responses of her own little son, the writer asks:
Would he have hurt for the girl in Steubenville?  Would he have felt her fear, and said something?”
And she speaks about the courage it sometimes takes to go against the crowd in showing kindness.

I am entirely with her in all she says, but it also sent my thoughts down a different track.  “Would he have felt her fear?” she asks.  But the girl who was raped at Steubenville was out cold – completely unconscious, dead drunk; that’s what started the whole sequence of events.  Part of the problem was that she felt nothing and showed no fear (if I’ve understood correctly).  She was just inert.

This raises a different question.  Asking “Would he have felt her fear?” is about the kind of empathy triggered by emotional sensitivity – reading the signals of how someone is feeling and responding appropriately.  That is certainly apposite to this whole discussion; but what about when a person cannot communicate?  I think that gives us a special responsibility – and this is what triggered my memory from long ago.

I used to be a Methodist minister for a number of years, and at one time I pastored a chapel congregation that included a substantial number of adults with severe learning disabilities.

They attended worship faithfully, and after a while I brought to our church council the suggestion that they be invited into membership. 

I came to Methodism from the Roman Catholic church (not out of a change of ideology, just happenstance), so I assumed there’d be no problem with my suggestion.  Among Catholics, people with learning disabilities are often treated with especial tenderness, seen as Christ in the midst, because of their innocence.  As a teenager I’d worked alongside nuns caring for people with epilepsy and a comprehensive spectrum of disability, and joined with them in pilgrimage to Lourdes, so I was used to their attitudes.  I remember in the intercessions during Mass in the huge basilica at Lourdes, and again in the open-air Mass in Rosary Square, the haunting words quoted from the gospels, pleading before Jesus, “Seigneur, celui qui tu aime est malade . . .” (Lord, the one whom you love is sick . . .).   The paralysed, the palsied, the twisted, the lame, the dying; in their wheel-chairs and on their wheeled beds they were given the most favoured places.  Everyone in Lourdes makes way for the sick; they are those whom the Lord loves, His special care.  And I assumed it would be the same in the Methodist church – the same tacit understanding would be in place.

But of course Protestantism is quite different, because where Catholicism emphasises the Sacraments, Protestantism places emphasis on the Word.  In Catholicism the Word is Jesus; in Protestantism the Word is the Bible - making words a really big deal.

The overwhelming majority of my church council rejected my suggestion, and their concern focused on the issue of our disabled worshippers’ inability to articulate faith.  They couldn't say what they believed, and in many cases couldn't understand the creeds and stated doctrines.  Some of those I wanted to invite into membership showed no recognisable signs of cognitive process – they crawled, they grunted, they dribbled and rocked, they could not speak at all.  But I (and their carers) felt sure they were capable of making their preferences felt; they were brought to church because they liked it, they wanted to come.

At the church council, some offered the opinion that making them members of the church was unimportant because they were not intellectually capable of knowing what that meant – so it didn’t matter if they were members or not.  I took a different view.  I felt it mattered precisely because they didn’t know.  The onus lay with us therefore to see that they had this thing they didn’t know to reach out for, much as they were cooked for and fed because they couldn’t do it for themselves.

I spent six months teaching on the subject of “everybody’s church” and what it means to belong.  I compiled a folder of all those applying for membership, in alphabetical order so those with learning disabilities were not segregated into a separate group.

I prepared their case, pointing out that on Easter morning when we had 8am worship followed by a breakfast then 10.15 worship, they had risen at 4am to be ready in time for the 8am worship, and they stayed to both services (most people only came to one) as well as the breakfast.  When they went on holiday they sent us postcards.  They joined in everything that was going on.  And through their ministry among us, their key-workers were also attending worship and coming to care passionately about whether they were allowed into membership.

Six months later, when the church council met again, I brought my request once more; and this time all except one voted in favour.  They were brought into membership, their key-workers kneeling beside the wheelchairs, to speak for those who had no speech.

During that time I was what is called a “probationer minister” in Methodism.  I had pastoral charge and a dispensation to celebrate the eucharist, but was not yet ordained.

Methodist ordinations happen once a year at the annual Conference, in whichever city it is held that year (it moves around).  Because there are so many people to be ordained, tickets are limited for the venue.  I was ordained in Bloomsbury, as the Conference was in London that year (in a Baptist church lent us for the occasion).  As the big day drew near I was surprised to discover that our disabled members had plans to hire a bus and travel up from the south coast for the occasion.  When I learned this, I broke the news to my family and personal friends that not they but the disabled folk would be getting my tickets.

The service was long, and it culminated in the Eucharist.  We received communion alongside our allotted guests, in alphabetical order.  My name being Wilcock, I was the last to go up. 

After a two-hour journey into London, after getting lost and hurrying in late to church with no time for supper, after sitting through a long preaching service and lengthy ordination ceremony and everyone else going up to receive communion, finally – last of all, at about ten o'clock at night, well past their bed time – I and my group came forward.  Tired, hungry, incontinence pads soaking through, after waiting and waiting, they crawled or were led or wheeled up to the rail; and there together we received our communion.  It was one of the most precious moments of my life, the chance to make clear what I believe about the Kingdom of God – that it is for everybody, no one left out.

So what I believe about Steubenville is that the fact the girl who was raped could not speak, did not know what was going on, didn’t make it matter less what was done to her, it made it matter more.  In her unconscious, oblivious condition she relied utterly on her friends for dignity, for compassion, for good care.  Their response to her was the same response I met at my church council – if she doesn’t know any better, what does it matter what we do?

People need educating, don’t they?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

"I will meet you in the morning"

I don’t know however it came about that I have not posted this song here before.  I was sure I put it up somewhere, but apparently not.  On Facebook instead, perhaps?

Anyway, the song – well I could listen to it over and over and over.  There’s something in it that satisfies my soul.

And if I did already post it here but just couldn’t find it, so that you’ve already seen and heard it, well maybe you’ll enjoy to listen again.

I love everything about this video – everything.  The beautiful ladies, their stillness, their seriousness, their unassuming humility and unpretentious way of singing.  

Well then, without more ado; “I will meet you in the morning”:

Thanks so much to Michelle for rooting through her archives to find it again for me, and for introducing me to it in the first place.  A glimpse of heaven.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Writing writing writing

For sure you will be well ahead of the curve if you pre-order this, because I haven’t finished writing it yet!!

It’s a Lent book, a short chapter to read each day from Ash Wednesday to Easter, with a passage(s) from the Bible and then a chunk from me.

It all started when I was asked to write a Lent devotional book, sat down to plan it, then had to face the reality that I find conventional devotional literature mind-bendingly tedious.  Back to the drawing board.   I reflected on how much more comfortably assimilated ideas are in a fictional format, and came from there to the idea of writing a series of encounters with Jesus in the here-and-now of the modern world, turning over in my hands some of the questions I bring to faith. 

It’s fiction in that it is a journey of the imagination; there again it’s fact in that every day of my life I really do walk alongside the living Jesus.  Well, I say I walk alongside Him, but some of our sorties involve Him grabbing me by the shoulder and demanding ‘Where the heck do you think you’re going?’ as I wander off into murky territory and shady paths.

Fiction is almost the opposite of made up: all good fiction is a carrier for truth and sharpens our focus on reality, and I hope this book does exactly that.

I’ll ask my editor a bit nearer the time if I can post one or two of the days for you to read – I guess you’ll be able to on the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ anyway.  But that’s a way off yet – we haven’t even got the cover sorted!

However, the bottom line is that I have to have it all in by the end of this month for it to be put through the mill and out the other end in time for the late autumn – which in turn lets people have a chance to have seen it and get their mitts on it in time for Lent 2014.  There are eleven more days in March, and I have eleven sections still to write!    Most books have one idea and several tens of thousands of words to expound it.  I realised once I’d embarked on this one that in proposing a Lent book with a different story and theme for each separate day, I had to come up with forty-seven ideas, not one, and write them in double-quick time too.  I’d been poddling along writing it slowly and peacefully, waiting to see if I could get a contract – then it came through in February, with a deadline of the end of March, and rocket fuel had to be applied to the whole process!

So I am writing writing writing, and as always in these circumstances, am grateful for your prayers.

In the meantime, this is out (or will be any day now) in the UK:

Available in the US in a few weeks’ time (Julie Faraway, don't you buy one, I've popped one in the post to you from Amazon).

A variety of friends have test-driven the studies with their home groups, and are coming back with heartening stories of positive experiences.  In particular I was pleased to hear that people who had previously lacked the confidence to lead a study group found this material gave them what they needed to make a successful and encouraging start.  Hooray, hooray!  What better result could I have hoped for?

I like the feel of the book physically too – it flops open nicely and is laid out very clearly – easy to find my way round the page at a glance.  The design department at Monarch have done an excellent job there!

And I am really really pleased and proud that it has lovely commendations from Malcolm Duncan, and Gerard Kelly of the Bless Network - I so admire the work of both these men.

If your homegroups decide to have a go with this book, do drop by here and let us know how you get on!

Saturday, 16 March 2013


Such a happy evening on Thursday.  

Our Rosie has a grade exam coming up, and we were invited as a rehearsal audience for her pieces.

There is something inherently beautiful about playing the harp.


Thursday, 14 March 2013

A Hermit of the Diocese of Nottingham

I want to tell you about Rachel Denton.

You can always find her here because I keep a link to her website in the sidebar, under “Links for Solitaries”.

In the same link list is Carlo Bevilacqua's wonderful photo gallery of Hermits of the Third Millennium – Rachel is at Number 8 in the slide show.  He also took these wonderful pictures of her here, here, and her home here.

Rachel is a hermit of the Diocese of Nottingham, vowed to a life of solitude and silence.  She lives in Lincolnshire – in England’s wolds.

There's a lovely photo of her in the Guardian newspaper article about her here, a bit about her time on the Plinth (scroll down to The Fourth Plinth Commission, 2009) here, and some interesting links where you can find out about her life on this page of her website.  

At Kindred of the Quiet Way we who gather represent a variety of different life patterns.  Some of us are homeschoolers, some grow veggies and keep chickens, some live in remote country places and others in apartments in town.  Some are at the centre of busy households, others live quietly alone.  Some of us belong to clearly defined faith communities, others are on the fringes.  We are Quakers, Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Community Church members, to name but a few.  But I think it would be fair to say that all of us feel drawn – at a profound level, not idly – to silence, solitude and simplicity, at one level or another.

And many of us, who congregate, read and discuss here, have had to think hard about finances.  Some of us balance life at home with a job outside, some have found home-based ways to earn a living.  Many of us have learned to be very frugal indeed, valuing the freedom that bring us to be who we were meant to be.

All of us at Kindred of the Quiet Way can quickly grasp that living in solitude and silence as a hermit must present some fiscal challenges!  Sisters in a monastery or convent might take in retreatants and attract guests and friends who would provide help and support: but a hermit withdraws from the world.  Some hermits (like Sister Wendy Beckett) live in solitude within the context of a religious order (Sister Wendy lives in the grounds of a Carmelite monastery), and thus benefit from the community provision.

Rachel supports herself.  I expect she needs little to live on, because of the inherent simplicity of her calling, but she has to pay for her groceries and utilities, and the upkeep of her home.

She is a calligrapher, designing and making stationery – greetings cards, personalised writing paper, notelets, invitations, correspondence cards, book plates, certificates and so on.

Here's one of her cards:

Her work is very beautiful, and produced on high quality paper for a really fine result.

I wanted to tell you about her, because I thought that it would delight your heart, if you need some greetings cards or headed notepaper or invitations, to know they had been made and designed in the quiet and prayerful workshop at St Cuthbert’s House, by a Diocesan Hermit under perpetual vows of solitude and silence.

You can order direct from her website (You navigate your way round the site by clicking on the icon of a cross alongside the place you want to go on the list of options).  This design is my very favourite out of all Rachel’s cards, and these ones came in the post today.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Snow Day

After a wild day of gusting wind from the east and whirling snow, and a cold night of air currents sculpting snowforms, the back yard looked like this:

The log pile is all robed in white.

The honeysuckle hedge that runs between our back deck and our neighbour's has donned a white prayer cap.

A teetering rim of snow tops the back of the garden chair.

Last night Mr Fox came hungry into the garden, digging under the drifts for the enamel bowl of scraps left out for him earlier.  Hastings came to a standstill, the buses sliding on the  steep roads that climb the hillsides up from the sea, in spite of gritting.  The town hall became home overnight for a party of German students who made it here but couldn't get out from the town centre to arranged hospitality in scattered local homes.

This morning the snow is still with us, and the wind still blowing strong and cold, but the day is bright, giddy blue with wisps of cloud, the air joyous.

My tiny room looks out on these little row houses opposite.

I love snow days.  No-one has gone out from our household today or yesterday, and right now somebody is playing the piano, the notes like clear drops of water in the quietness of the house.

I have completed a section of the book I'm writing, another one planned for after lunch.  When evening comes, we will light the fire in the stove.  Everything is peaceful.  The house is spacious and expansive with high white snowlight.  Thanks be to God for the happiness of this beautiful day.

And you?  What's happening in your neck of the woods?

Blessings on you and on your day.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Laetare Sunday: "she took pity on him".

Today is Mothers’ Day in England (thank you, my beloved daughters, for having made it such a loving and happy day).

It’s always celebrated here on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

It came to be known as Mothering Sunday (from which, Mothers’ Day) because of the (sixteenth century) tradition of domestic servants being given a day off to ‘go a-mothering’ on that day; meaning, to return to their mother church, and thus gather together with folks at home, including their mothers.

But before the development of going a-mothering and later of Mothers’ Day, this Sunday was known as Laetare Sunday, because on that day the beginning of the Mass included the words Laetare Jerusalem (O be joyful, Jerusalem), from Isaiah 66:9-10:
Rejoice with Jerusalem; be glad for her,    
    all you that love this city!
Rejoice with her now,    
    all you that have mourned for her!
You will enjoy her prosperity,    
    like a child at its mother's breast.

The portrayal of Jerusalem as the mother of the people of God perpetuates from this Old Testament vision into the nascence of the Christian faith with its vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven like a bride adorned for her bridegroom.

Laetare Sunday celebrates motherhood, but traditionally the emphasis is not on the women who are our earthly mothers but on the faith community that has nourished and nurtured us, given us life, brought us to new birth.

In the readings set for today (about mothers as you might expect) is included the option of the passage from Exodus (2:1-10) in which Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the infant Moses, and by this means his mother is able to continue to bring up her child under protection from persecution, handing him into the royal household when he is big enough to leave her.

When I heard this read at Mass today (how often in reading/hearing the Bible a familiar story suddenly and vividly opens a fresh insight), I was struck by Pharaoh’s daughter’s observation on discovering the baby, “This must be one of the Hebrews children.”

The background to the story is given in Exodus 1, where we learn of the order given by Pharaoh to slaughter all the male Hebrew children at birth.  He wanted them all dead.  No exceptions.

How intriguing, then, to read that when Pharaoh’s daughter found the basket with the baby, opened it and found him crying, she took pity on him, and in full realisation that this was a Hebrew child, she acquiesced to the suggestion that a Hebrew woman be obtained to nurse him, and gave him into the care of that woman until he was old enough to come back to be brought up by her in the royal household – presumably when he was weaned at five or six years old.

I stopped on the words, He was crying, and she took pity on him.

I thought how, as a woman, she had no say in the governing of Egypt.  She, I suspect, would never have ordered wholesale slaughter of infants.  She was part of it, implicated in it by virtue of being an Egyptian – but the decision lay with Pharaoh not with her.

Her part was to accept, to offer no criticism, to be subject to Pharaoh’s rule and command.

But when she herself was faced with one of those boy-children whose death Pharaoh had expressly commanded, in full knowledge that this baby was among the condemned, she chose a different course. 

Without a word of criticism, without protest or even ‘speaking truth to Power’, Pharaoh’s daughter simply chose to differ from her father in this matter; she conducted her own quiet revolution (and, oh my, what a revolution it turned out to be!)

Sitting in Mass this morning, turning the story over in my mind, I thought about the power of men and the power of women, about the natural aggression and warlike temperament of men, about being in power and being subject, about ways of exercising choice and expressing a different view.

In Iraq, in Afghanistan, in America, in England, in China, in Syria, in Palestine – in every war-torn place and every land where men delight in supplying bombs and grenades and anti-personnel explosive devices, where the ominous aircraft fly overhead and the tanks advance across the ground and the gunfire issues in staccato bursts from the window-holes – let there be women of whom it may be written: He was crying and she took pity on him.  And let this be our revolution.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Aggregating marginal gains

 I came across this wonderful phrase.  It was on a TV programme, I think.  As my memory’s elastic is a bit shot these days, I applied all my focus to remembering the actual phrase and didn’t leave anything over for recalling who said it and when and where.  Possibly a BBC breakfast TV interviewee.  But – whoever you were: thank you!

The phrase was aggregate our marginal gains.

I found this valuable because it applies tellingly to a life of simplicity.

If one walks the badger tracks rather than the highway, the whole lot is marginal – all gains are marginal!  Income is low, status is minimal or non-existent, one has no platform, nothing with which to impress, no strings to pull.

But the aggregation of one’s gains here in the margins amounts to a life of contentment.

For me, ‘going out’ means literally leaving the house – maybe to take a parcel to the Post Office or buy some vegetables.  My life is not quite as small and confined as Emily Dickinson’s but it ain’t far off.

Even so, my contacts are not limited or impoverished, because one of my marginal gains is a laptop and the world wide web. 

I often hear online friendships referred to in a derogatory  way, as if they were not real, a mere substitute for honest encounter – but this is a faulty evaluation.

I have friends online – in Australia, in America, in Europe – whose fellowship and perspectives enrich and illuminate my life.  Some, I have never met.  As we all share a common dedication to lives of simplicity, we are most of us not rich, so it is possible I never shall meet them; air fares are expensive.  Some, I have met in person but we live a great distance apart and nourish our friendship online.  And then there are those with whom I’ve found a way to meet up – snatched an opportunity.  One such was my friend Mary, met online, who teaches at the Daniel Academy and is part of Kansas City’s 24/7 prayer meeting.  She came to England when her daughter (as a component of degree studies) enrolled for a term at Oxford University.  So Mary flew in from Kansas for a few days, and I travelled up to Aylesbury with the Badger and thence to Oxford when he went in to work.  Mary and her daughters and I had morning coffee, complete with a plate of the most delectable pastries, in the splendid surroundings of the Randolph Hotel just opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum in Oxford.  It was such a happy meeting, and even if we never again have the chance to meet neither of us will forget.

I’ve delighted in meeting a few times with friends discovered on St Pixels online church, of which I was a member when I lived in Aylesbury.  Some of those friendships have been enduring treasures – and one is with my friend Emle (her online name, nit her real name), who lives in a very remote and beautiful part of Scotland.  BUT – it turns out she sometimes comes to visit family in York, and not a year can go by without my travelling up to York once or twice, just for  a couple of nights, for Minster evensong and tea at Bettys, and to visit Carmelite friends at Thorganby.

So here Emle and I aggregated our marginal gains at Little Betty’s in Stone gate.

Can you believe it, just for two days (the length of our stay), the grey drear broke, the sun shone and the skies were blue over North Yorkshire!

And here’s a Minster angel, newly washed and polished in the ambitious restoration of the huge (23m or 76ft) east window, saying ‘Hi’ to you online, all the way from York in the fifteenth century!

And here’s the Minster watching over the city, watching Hebe and me setting off along the city walls to the train station.

A commitment to living simply implies a lifetime of marginal gains.  But the aggregation is splendid.