Every now and then I like to go back to York to check in with my old friends — the Minster and Betty's Café, my places of pilgrimage.
York Minster gives me the oddest feeling. It is the friendliest building I've ever known. From the first time I set foot in it (forty two years ago) and still today, it has felt like a large animal that likes me. And I like it right back. It makes my heart glad.
Minster evensong is a variable experience, which has been travelling downhill for me along with a lot of other spiritual connections, during the last few years. But this week set it right again, and restored my joy. It was the turn of the girl choristers to sing, and they were spectacularly good. They also had a new (since I was last there) counter-tenor whose voice was just superb, absolutely inhabiting the note dead-centre. Simply beautiful. They sang a cappella the day I was there; soul food extraordinaire.
And I love the Book of Common Prayer. Objectively evaluated, my life has been sheltered and uneventful, but — believe me — it's had its storms and terrors. I have not lived with the horrors Thomas Cranmer knew, with his prison room overlooking the yard where his friends were burned alive, knowing his own end would be the same ghastly and cruel agony. No twists and turns made in fear could get him out of it, and his courage at the end was magnificent.
Even though my paths have been sunny and secure by comparison, nonetheless his prayers resonate with my soul like no one else's. When he begs of God that we may pass our time in rest and quietness, my "amen" is fervent. When he confesses that without God's help, "nothing is strong, nothing is holy," my spirit witnesses to it as truth indeed.
When the words of his prayer roll forth to start the Eucharist — "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name . . ." — it is exactly and completely what I want to say.
Same with the collects at Evening Prayer:
For peace: "O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen."
For help: "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen."
And intercessions for all conditions of humankind: "O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. Grant to all in authority wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve the people in thy fear."
"Yes," my heart says; "Yes." Makes a change from its habitual teeth-clenched mutterings of "No" that public worship so often draws forth.
So the visit to the Minster proved to be restoring of peace and hope.
And Betty's, in a different way, also feeds my soul — because of the excellence, the attention to detail, the kindness. Betty's is worth a visit. Worth coming to England for all by itself. In my lifetime, Betty's has survived three recessions completely unscathed, and if you've been there you'll understand why. Built on the rock, is Betty's. Integrity, wholesome goodness, cheerfulness, commitment to the highest standards.
On the way to York, passing through Kings Cross Station, I met this dinosaur (I am the one in front; the dinosaur is behind me).
I'm glad we got this photo, because a railway station is no place for wild animals and they had all legged it when we passed through on our way home the following day.
Then on the last weary stretch of the journey home, by which time I was very tired and uncomfortable, I overheard a conversation that arrested my attention entirely (cell phones have more obliterated than blurred the distinction between private and public, have they not!)
The woman in the seat behind me interrupted her conversation with a friend to take a call.
"Hello," said she, in a hard and somewhat impatient tone of voice: "What can I do for you?" An unwelcome business call, it seemed.
She listened a moment then reiterated, "So what can I do for you? Can you name a figure?"
She listened further. "But what figure do you have in mind?" She sounded cold and irritable now.
She then began to wind up the conversation in a manner that sounded as if she was overriding the person on the other end of the line, suggesting they get their facts in order and call her when they had a better handle on the situation.
The tenor of the call was reluctance verging on hostility.
But it was the way she ended it that jolted my attention:
"Love you. Bye."
What? "Love you"? Seriously?
And it started me thinking about words.
There are words, like the ones written down here, for which you have to supply your own tone of voice; and when you do that, you import and impose a level of meaning that may or may not be here.
It occurred to me that the words in the Bible are like that. When the Bible, with its insistence on love and kindness, is used to hurt and exclude, used as a weapon, used to make oneself right and others wrong, then faith becomes incongruous and its meaning ebbs away.
That woman on the train — her words said "I love you" but her tone of voice and the whole of the rest of her conversation said "No I don't."
I think she must have been talking to a close family member, and the love between them must have gradually fossilised into duty as time went by.
So much of my life has been about words; but of course words are absolutely nothing if that's all they are. If you see what I mean.