Monday, 30 September 2019

A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity (2016) - Free Full Documentary

Really interesting and inspiring documentary of a year-long Australian exploration of simple living and permaculture.










Saturday, 28 September 2019

Sharing

Climate change is — rightly — the foremost concern of our age. I think about it a lot, as everyone else does. I'm interested in the forays into zero waste living, and technologies that need less fuel, in lowering food miles and finding wiser farming methods. I admire, and I am so grateful for, the work of Allan Savory and permaculturists like Geoff Lawton (see here and here). I continually explore into the lives of such people as Dee Williams and this Australian family. What they are doing lifts my heart and gives me hope. 

I was so blessed to discover the life and influence of St Francis when I was only fifteen. Life is lived moment by moment, and I had no idea then how slow I would be to learn and how little I would achieve. And yet in so many ways the influences I have found shaped my life, and my children's lives, made a difference to the family and home we created, the choices we made.

Ina May Gaskin's book Spiritual Midwifery came out in 1976, four years before my first child was born — in good time to radically shape my approach to childbirth and mothering, and give me the chance to find Frederick Leboyer and Sheila Kitzinger and Michel Odent as well. And then as my children grew, I found the work of John Holt (of all his books I loved How Children Fail the best. So wise) and A.S.Neill, and so it went on. Studying, thinking, learning as I went, following the trail of simplicity, peace, health and faithfulness to the gospel, looking into the Catholic way, the Methodist way, the Anabaptist way, the Quaker way, the Taoist and Buddhist ways, growing gardens and making music and finding new friends and writing and teaching, padding along the trail . . . 

And always himself was with me:



He still is.

Then the other day, thinking about climate change and social problems, about poverty and environmental degradation and all the challenges we face, I realised that of all I'd learned and read and seen and discovered, there is one outstanding, simple, accessible powerful, life-changing thing that any of us and all of us can do; and that is nothing more sophisticated or spectacular than sharing

Sharing is revolutionary. Of itself it doesn't necessarily cost any money, so you can start right in and it doesn't matter how poor you are.

Sharing fosters humility and simplicity — you have to put up with other people and you don't have all the space to yourself. Sharing information by learning and teaching is life-changing, and it is in encountering those who are different from ourselves, sharing life with them, sharing our perspective and letting them share theirs, that we acquire wisdom.

The tiny house movement is lovely, and the little dwellings delight my soul — I like anything small! But in terms of loving the earth, sharing is better. On a winter's day in a northern climate, you could have 6 tiny houses all in a row, each with their propane heater or log burner keeping the 6 inhabitants individually warm, — or they could share one house with a fire in one room, gently warming the whole house and there to sit round together in the evening.

Loneliness and isolation are huge problems to people growing older, and the practical tasks of life don't get easier with the passing years. If people share, living together in households, old and young, then strength and knowledge unite and the possibility of maintaining a garden and carrying firewood and fetching groceries all extend — plus the money goes so much further. One fridge, one freezer, one furnace, one TV, one kettle, one car — four or five people.

I love the possibilities of what's called grace/gift economy; of sharing what you have in a John the Baptist kind of way. If you give away anything you can spare — give it, not sell it — the exchange generates joy and gratitude, in yourself as well as in the recipient. Giving freely makes life flow easily.

Sometimes, though, there's a good reason to sell rather than gift what you have, whether in a steady ongoing pursuit of your trade or in moving on to others what you no longer need. And when you do that, if you give over and above what the money you are paid should buy, again it generates joy. 

In an era of mass-production, buying and selling (or giving away) second-hand belongings is a vital aspect of slowing down the demands we place on the earth, giving the forests and the land a chance to renew. And this, too, is a form of sharing, even if money changes hands. The same winter skirt can be bought and sold numerous times if it's gently cared for. People lose and gain weight, change their style or taste, move into different climates and occupations — clothes once appropriate are no longer so. Then they can be donated or moved on, and be just what someone else is looking for. 

If ever you are feeling despondent about the dying of the earth and the disintegration of society, then you can maybe think of one act of sharing as a candle you can light in the holy space of your life. Sharing brings hope and generates joy; it also develops the muscles of patience and humility. Sharing is a fundamental element of the gospel. It's the way of love. It's the root of revolution.


Friday, 27 September 2019

Cabbage Whites and other creatures

We have two kinds of Cabbage White butterflies in England — the Small White (Pieris Rapae) and the Large White (Pieris Brassicae).

The Small White looks like this:



Its eggs look like this:



Its children are green, like this:



We have these. 

I planted kale in our veggie plot in the spring, and it started well but there has been adversity. First the cats dug over the earth where I'd planted it, minimising and disordering the kale rows. Then the seagulls came down to see if we had anything they could scavenge there. But I nurtured along what grew, watering it assiduously and replacing some of the lost and destroyed plants with new ones that also grew well.

Then in recent weeks, when the weather has been dry and the bugs and worms have gone down from the surface to where the earth is damp lower down, the badgers' nightly visits have included excavations in search of bugs and grubs to eat. So I wound garden wire as trip wires around the kale patch, and stuck multiple stakes in the earth there, because they kept digging up my plants and there's only so many times you can dig up a kale plant and expect to replant it successfully — especially in dry weather.

Because one of our horticultural ambitions is to make a kind of mini eco-system, with lots of animals and birds, insects, worms, snails and toads and anything else that lives, like Noah's ark really, we are happy to have woodlice on our apples and little green caterpillars and bright yellow butterfly eggs on our kale. We had plenty to eat ourselves these last couple of months, and we just put the caterpillars back in the garden (though I did accidentally steam one with my lunch on Tuesday) and avoid the leaves with eggs on.

We get some fruit and veg to eat, and so do the birds and other creatures. It was a delight to see our crow sitting high in the cherry tree in the summer, contentedly sampling hard-to-reach cherries at the top, lovely and ripe in the sunshine.

But when I went to get some courgettes (US, zucchini) yesterday, it became apparent that in addition to the Small White butterflies, the Large White had also been visiting to widespread effect.

The Large White butterfly looks like this:



Its eggs look like the same as the Small White's:



but its children are rather more exotic:



And this, today, is our kale patch:














I have conceded defeat and left them to it. One of many things about climate change that grieves us sorely is the decline in insects, butterflies and birds that go with the hideous pesticide spraying and loathsome Roundup in and on the plants. So right at the top of our list of objectives in developing our garden was the provision of a haven for all these creatures. 

Evidently they feel welcome. Good. And we did manage to get a reasonable share of kale for ourselves before our butterfly population explosion occurred.

We also have plenty of evidence of Codling Moths in our apple ad pear crop. There's a very nice botanical illustration of their appearance and activity here:


We have to look suspiciously at our apples all over before eating them — it's no good just munching in with a great incautious bite. If there's even the teeniest hole, it's wiser to cut them up first. And even then you have to be careful not to inadvertently chop any resident Codlings in half. 

And then there are the snails who like to doze off in the spouts of the watering cans, and the Leopard Slugs who live in the compost bins.

Not only that but our cat Miguel was having a laugh at three o'clock in the morning, playing excitedly at hunting the speedy teenage shrew he'd dropped inside our Alice's duvet cover. She ended up out on the front doorstep unpacking the duvet from its cover, shaking first one then the other, wondering where the shrew had gone — and then she saw it clinging on tight with its little hands to the cover she was shaking up and down.

Life is never boring, is it?

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Words

If you look up what makes humans different from other animals, the world will rush to tell you.

Religious speakers and writers like to make the point that "We alone . . . etc", that the human race is distinct from and elevated above the rest of the animal kingdom.

The Age of Enlightenment (should really be called the Age of "Enlightenment") ushered in the mechanistic world view that still plagues the scientific and therapeutic community to this day. It strongly influenced Christian thinking away from the biblical understanding that all creation is in a covenant relationship with the living God, depends on God, responds to God and lives according to the commands of God. Instead we got the idea of absolutely everything that is not ourselves being "natural resources" — a giant store cupboard/playground for us to use in any way we please. Which has gone badly, as we are discovering.

I do think there's a difference between humans and other beings, but I don't agree with the modern development in Christian thinking that says humans have souls and nothing else does. This is why animals are called animals, of course — they are alive, by the same breath of God that enlivens us, they have souls. That's what "animal" means; ensouled.

In relating with other living beings (animals, plants, birds, fish, etc), I find that they usually know what I mean and what I'm thinking, but I typically struggle to understand what's on their minds. I'm not the exalted, clever one; on the contrary, in their company I appear rather dim. I do sometimes hear them loud and clear, because I've practised a lot, but often I fail completely.

And yet they do speak — just as the bible says, for example in Psalm 19.

After a great deal of thinking about it, my perspective on the matter is that what divides humans from the rest of creation is words. Not language, because there are many different kinds of language, and plants, animals, birds, fish — and even rocks — all certainly have language and will speak to you if you listen. They are surprised and interested when you hear them. But, apart from some primates and birds (parrots, corvids, etc) and dolphins, they don't generally have words.

The acquisition of words as a form of communication is a two-edged sword, of course. It both empowers and disempowers, especially if we include the written word. If you can't read, if you don't know the spoken language (or even the lingo), you are disenfranchised and made vulnerable. A friend was telling me the other day of Chinese people taking advantage of the Western fashion for putting Chinese words on objets d'art and clothing — leading to manufacturers producing garments with Chinese characters translating as "I'm too stupid to know what this says." Apart from feeling mildly irritated at the usual tendency to misidentify lack of knowledge as lack of intelligence, I also felt sad that Chinese manufacturers should respond in this way to Western celebration of the beauty of their logograms. That someone should buy a t-shirt they thought said "Peace and Kindness", and discover it said "I am stupid", seems a very hollow victory to me. Each to his own.

My friend Julia Bolton Holloway has an Alphabet School for the Roma in Florence, because their traditional illiteracy is one of many barriers to social acceptance. Words are currency as well as communication in the human race.

Oliver Sacks did some interesting work, written up in his book Seeing Voices (well worth reading) about verbal language, sign language, deaf communities, and deaf people I hearing communities. Nora Groce also wrote a wonderful book on Martha's Vineyard, studying this, Everyone Here Spoke Sign. At the time of the early settlers in America, a whole lot of people from one small area in the Weald of Kent settled in the fishing territory of Martha's Vineyard. They came from one separate and isolated situation to another very similar one, bringing with them a gene for deafness which developed into a significant feature as this isolated community intermarried. They relied heavily on signing, which proved very handy on the fishing boats where they earned their living.

In Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks writes about the importance of language (verbal or sign) for the development of abstract thought. Words do not merely allow us to express our theology, philosophy and ideology, but are prerequisite for their development. People without words are found to have a peculiar immediacy  to their thinking, dealing with what is concrete and at hand, not what is speculative.

This can be important in changing people's thinking. I found it most interesting to see in action what Sacks described, back in the 1990s when inclusive language (in respect of gender) was becoming a thing. Again and again I encountered people who, as they told me, couldn't see the problem. Tellingly, a friend of mine more open-minded than some, described how she had never been able to "see the problem", until on one occasion she attended an act of worship where she felt uncommonly welcome and loved, accepted. As a social worker, her first reaction was to try and analyse why. Eventually she realised, the officiant at the service was using inclusive language; for the first time, as a woman, she felt welcomed in from the margins to belong. She became enthusiastic about inclusive language from that moment on. Our ideas change after, not before, we put the words in place.

So words can be both powerful and unifying. Words create beauty ad take us on voyages of the imagination, and there are may advantages to them.

One of the severe disadvantages, though, and this is a great loss to our species and sets us apart, is that we have become so heavily reliant on words that we have lost the ability to communicate with other species — apart from impoverished variants, like saying "Sit!" and "Heel!" and "Walkies!" to a dog.

Not only has enclosure in our world of words lost communication with other species from our experience, it has also lost from our awareness that communication is happening that we don't understand.

In all kinds of ways, bodily, telepathically, by sounds and movement, by smells, myriad means, creation intercommunicates. By and large the human race remains deaf to the conversation. 

That's what sets us apart.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Two homely poems

As a teenager, I came across a poem that took my fancy. I found it written on a prayer card at the Bible bookshop in Frinton, when I worked there in the school holidays at a home for geriatric blind people with my friend Jan. Back then I did a lot of sewing, and when I got home I embroidered this onto linen:

Lord of the pots and pipkins,
Since I have no time to be
A saint by doing lovely things and vigiling with thee,
By watching in the twilight dawn  
Or storming heaven's gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals 
And washing up the plates.

Now the world is all different and we have Google, I've been able to discover that it has two more verses, was written by Klara Munkres, and that the words I had weren't quite right. It's here.

In fact, the version I originally had started "Lord of the pots and pitikins", but pitikins aren't an actual thing. The only use of the word is the archaic oath, "Od's pitikins", which is a contraction of "God's pitikins" and would have meant something like, "Oh for pity's sake!"

I was thinking about the poem recently, and how these days I do in fact have loads of time for vigiling with Thee and watching in the twilight dawn. Life has moved on. There was a patch in the middle when the art of multi-tasking became an urgent necessity, trying to write books and look after five children and get the groceries in and cook the meals and make sure the house was clean and the laundry done, while also finding time to write sermons and correspond with prisoners and generally help out at church — but those days are long gone. 

Now that everything has gone quiet and not a lot happens, I'm unsure if I do the vigiling and whatnot or I don't. I spend a lot of time thinking, and I constantly weigh up possibilities and practicalities in the light of faith and truth, trying to discern where the boundary line lies between what I want to do and what the Lord is asking of me. I talk to him. I try my best to listen to him. In all honesty I don't know I'm any the wiser most of the time, but he is patient with me and ever present.  

There was another poem, that I came across after my first child was born. It went like this:

Cooking and cleaning can wait 'til tomorrow,
For babies grow up, as we've learned to our sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs, dust go to sleep,
I'm rocking my baby,
And babies don't keep.

In my twenties I loved that poem, but I've done a whole lot of editing since then, and now the "quiet down cobwebs" annoys me, because cobwebs aren't loud, are they? And dust is already fast asleep. It never gets up and walks unless there's a violent gust of wind. Also, I appreciate that "sorrow" rhymes with "tomorrow" and that's why it's there, but I was never one of those mothers (though I met plenty) who enjoyed babies but went off them once they became ambulant, adventurous and able to express an opinion.

In fact, I found babies and small children rather frightening, because they are so uninhibited. I'd never spent time with people who screamed loud and long at the slightest thing and kept being sick, before I became a mother. I didn't find it easy, and I was scared of being left on my own with them. What I looked forward to more than anything was the time when they hadn't yet left home but were old enough to discuss faith and politics over supper. Ha! We hadn't quite reached that point when their father did the most surprising thing that ended up with us losing our home and our jobs and we were all scattered everywhere. I worked hard to get it all back together, but they were adults with lives of their own by the time I achieved it, so the bit I specially wanted never happened.

But today, for no reason I can identify, those poems came back to my mind, and I asked myself if I was sorry my children had grown up — no; if they'd stayed babies forever it would have implied some kind of serious brain condition — or if, now I have more free time, I do use it constructively in the Lord's service; not sure, but I doubt it.

I think often of the words of Jesus, "Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’" (Luke 17.7-10 RSV)

It sounds tiring and hard work. And then there's the parable of the talents, where he says: "His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’" (Matthew 25.23 RSV)

Those words, "Well done, good and faithful servant" — oh, my goodness, how I would love to hear Jesus say that to me!

But then the story goes on: "He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’" (Matthew 25.24-31 RSV)

And I am horribly conscious that, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours’, resonates with me all too well. I get tired and discouraged, I give up and want to leave, want to be left in peace.

"Do not grow weary in well-doing" (Galatians 6.9) the Bible says; but I certainly do. 

I've read carefully what the Bible says about heaven, too, and it sounds hard and crystalline, made up of minerals in one form or another, and they never turn the light off and the sun never goes down. But I love the dusk and the dawn, love the end of the day when it's time to go to bed, love the firelight and the candlelight and the starlight. And my favourite thing is conversation with the people I love. And I like the garden and the birds, the flowers and the moving light. Will that all be gone, in heaven?

Sometimes I feel marooned, here on earth. The way back isn't easy to find, and I can believe with no trouble at all that "Here we have no abiding city". But it what sense, once you weigh it all up, will we ever come home? Where is the place of rest, where you don't have to worry any more and things will just be all right? 

Thich Nhat Hanh says, "There is no way home; home is the way." 

I see what he means. Coming home to ourselves is a foundational skill of living; it's no good thinking in terms of destinations, we have to arrive where we are, be at peace with what is (whatever that might be).

Sometimes in the past when Jehovah's Witnesses have called at our home on a mission, and I've been unwary enough to open the door, they've asked me what I think will happen at the end of the world, what will happen to me after I die, and if I think I'll go to heaven. And I've always said to them that it's an unnecessary question; that if I live now with goodness and truth, with faith and integrity, then what happens after I die will take care of itself. The future is the natural consequence of the present.

Which I think is the thing I liked in those two poems — the one about rocking your baby and the one about finding meaning in mundane daily tasks. That's what I believe, really. Life is big and eternity impossible to conceptualise. I am smaller and less important and more mediocre than I thought I would be when I was younger. In one sense, what I am and can do is almost immaterial. But it's like that thing Martha Graham (the dancer) said, "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost."

I suppose if God does really allocate a number to every single hair on your head, then nothing is lost or wasted, nothing is pointless. Being really present to it with love — the daily chores, the unseen tasks, mothering a little child with all the mopping of sick and tears it entails — is what matters in the end. And the chance to be part of this earth — with everything from oak moss to sunsets to chocolate eclairs to crochet — is something I wouldn't have missed.


Tuesday, 24 September 2019

September

Such a sense of the year turning! The feast of the Holy Rood on the 14th is when the Passion Flowers bloom — our neighbour grows these along her fence, and they have been opening their faces to the sun these last weeks; the bees love them.

The last couple of days have been wild, as the barley set winds that come every year around the equinox have been tossing the trees. St Matthew shuts up the bees, and his feast, which was on Saturday, brings the rain and the dew — and so it proved to be. I'd been using our stored rain water for the parched fruit trees standing in earth like dust, and the fall of new rain was so freshening and welcome. I'm so glad we made a moment to go out and gather bags of fir cones and fallen twigs for the winter kindling; we got loads up at the burial ground, all as dry as bones, and I feel very smug about it now.

Then this Sunday coming is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, a good time to take note of the wind direction which will prevail from then until Martinmas on November 11th. St Michael sets the tune they say, so if it's fine on Sunday there's a good chance we'll enjoy mild weather prevailing in the main through to Martinmas. The Michaelmas daisies are blooming in the garden — we sent some up to the chapel for last week's harvest festival. Folk say the devil puts his foot on the blackberries on Michaelmas day, so pick them while you can if there are still any to be found on the bushes near you.

St Michael the archangel stands pointing down the year, towards the coming dark, and his word is "Prepare!" We had the same message from St John the Baptist, likewise a herald, whose feast is at high summer alongside the solstice at the xenith of the year's wheel turning. John, the herald, is there where the year is glad and the days are long, to point past the harvest to the winter coming, with the dying of the old year and the birth of the infant light. And now it comes again — "Prepare!" — at Michaelmas.

Michaelmas is also the proper time for harvest in my opinion. It begins with the barley harvest at Lammas right at the beginning of August when the men put the sickle in and slay John Barleycorn, and then Michaelmas concludes it, when all is safely gathered in. It's the time to think on the harvest of our lives and the work of the grim reaper, the gathering in of souls to God's garner.

This is one of my very favourite times of year, and in this turning of the seasons the wings of the angels brush the hair of our heads. A wild time, a golden time, a fruitful time. September is a blessed month.

UK TV — Inside the Vatican

I think probably people outside the UK won't be able to see this yet, though I expect it will eventually find its way to you (I've linkified the picture).




But for UK friends, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

I watched it with great curiosity, realising that though I've read about the Vatican and heard a lot about the Pope, I've never seen inside.

I was delighted by Episode 1 (Episode 2 airs on Friday). The members of staff came across as so genuine and thoughtful, and the whole place has an ambience of gentleness and humanity that took me completely by surprise. There are a couple of places in it where one of the (adult) choristers is interviewed. Reviewers speak of this as him expressing his religious doubts, but I heard more humility than doubt — "What do I know? I'm a baritone." He spoke of how, when he sings, he senses himself to be part of something greater and deeper. I thought what he had to say made the effort to be realistic and truthful, such a refreshing relief from the sententious piety he might have been expected to offer.

And the snippets (all too short) of Pope Francis's addresses had depth and originality; a wise and humane soul. I feel blessed to be here in this time that he is head of the church.

My introduction to life in the Vatican has mainly been from books like Robert Harris's Conclave and Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, both brilliantly written and entirely absorbing, but leaving me with a sense of a place characterised by intrigue and uneasy relationships, competitiveness and jealousy. This TV series doesn't give me that feeling at all. I felt intrigued and delighted by the women who worked there — how they seemed such genuine people and so at ease with themselves, not trapped in the tight-skirt-high-heels-and-make-up masked ball of the business world, nor yet formed and shaped primarily by taking refuge in carbohydrates as is so often the fate of women who work for the church.

If you haven't seen it and you have access to it, I do recommend it.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Gadding about

I rarely go out. The discipline and practise of simplicity and frugality confer many benefits, among them the quietness of a secluded life. I don't delude myself that my days resemble monastic life, but undoubtedly there are certain similarities.

However, I have been out to a concert, not once but two Saturdays in a row! My very darling and indulgent husband paid for our tickets, both times.

The first concert was staged by a member of our chapel congregation, drawing together the village choir, a local band and some local children (including my wild grandchildren) to perform songs from the show Joseph. The event was cheerful and good-humoured, well-attended by an encouraging audience who applauded with enthusiasm and obeyed when instructed to join in. A happy occasion, the result of several weeks' very hard work (not mine — I only went to see the performance).

Then, the following week I went out again, once more to see local performers, grown-ups this time, united by a love for opera. 

I enjoyed the music, and it was an interesting evening for other reasons beside. Evening dresses had to be sourced by the performers, some of whom were more joggers and t-shirt people left to themselves, included a dear friend of mine who was in it, and came to tell us all about her adventures in obtaining not only an evening dress but a bra to go underneath it. Her daughter had advised her that her regular choice of a sports bra wouldn't do. My loving husband wisely kept quiet as he underwent this initiation into the complexities of balancing off cup against band to get a good fit. My friend had discovered that, like many women, she had been wearing too large a band and too small a cup for years and years and years; and I was able to recommend to her the trusty Miss Mary of Sweden.

The performers at this particular concert were, for the most part, folk I have known for decades. We have chatted before on the threads of this blog about the curious phenomenon of invisibility, and once again at the concert I experienced its unsettling effects — I don't mind, it isn't unkindly meant, but it does feel strange.

The conductor was at university with me, a good friend of my first husband. When I moved to this town by the sea, he was the first person I knew socially. He invited us to dinner, and came to our home once we had one. We saw him moderately often and were on very friendly terms. When his first marriage sadly ended, we invited him round, and again when he found his lovely second wife. I think you could say we are old friends; except that he doesn't recognise me — doesn't appear even to see me.  

One of the singers in the concert was likewise someone I've known many years. He belonged to a theatre group I welcomed to rehearse in our chapel when I was a Methodist pastor. He and I were never close friends, only acquaintances, but though he has changed his appearance radically since those days — the mop of corkscrew curls has been swapped for a neater cut — I would know him anywhere. But he no longer knows me. 

Sometimes, I realise, people drop you if you are not socially advantageous to them (which I am not, to anyone), and pretend not to know you when they really do. But there are always tells, especially that flicker of the eyes when they recognise you then decide to pretend they haven't. But nothing of that in this instance; I was no more present for those men than the chairs in the row or the darkening windows of the church as night fell. They just looked through me without the slightest hint of recognition, as if I were not there.

The same happened last Sunday when I went to a chapel to preach.  I found my way to the pulpit and began to set out my papers, when the steward discerned from my location that I must be me. She had greeted me courteously when I came in to the building, so I hadn't realised she didn't recognise me until she came through the church to apologise. As always when this happens, the other person feels caught on the back foot and feels the need to explain that this is my fault not theirs. Usually they tell me I've changed my hairstyle, or my weight has fluctuated. This can happen, but I usually recognise them when it's the other way round; they look the same but fatter or thinner, with shorter or longer hair.

It's kind of them to apologise, but unnecessary really — I'm so used to it. I missed my vocation; I should have been a spy.

By contrast, to my surprise and delight, on the occasion I travelled to America to hear Diana Lorence of Innermost House speak at Stony Brook Quaker meeting house in Princeton, New Jersey, when my host for those three days was dear Rebecca, a Friend and an online friend, she recognised me at once.

My flight to New Jersey had been cancelled, and I was anxious to get there before night fell, because it was mid-winter and Rebecca lives down a track in a wood. So I hopped on the next flight that had a seat, which took me to JFK airport instead of Newark Airport where I was meant to be going. It was exciting and quite a challenge finding my way by foot and bus in a country where I'd never been, improvising my way to Penn Station and finding a train. Everything is different in America — the trains, the buses, the rules of the road, the people, and also the officials. American officials take themselves very seriously, but in those days I wore Plain dress, and their behaviour to me was markedly gentle and respectful. Interesting.

I had been assured my phone would work in the United States. It did not. As I wasn't where I was meant to be at all, at the time I should have arrived, I had no way to get in touch with Rebecca except the kindness of strangers, who let me use their phones to update her of my progress. The last call I made was in the station car park at my destination, where an African American sheltering from the snow allowed me to use the last dregs of her battery to tell Rebecca I'd arrived.

And, walking across the wheel ruts in the heaped snow, looking through falling snowflakes, we knew one another at once. I had the happiest time staying in Rebecca's home.

People say, do they not, that internet friendships aren't "real", that to experience "real life" you need to get out and mix with people who are "real". I understand why that seems plausible, but it doesn't match my experience. Friends I've met online have become very dear to me, and I have never been disappointed on those occasions we've found a way to meet in what Buzzfloyd calls "meatspace".

What is real and unreal, what is enduring and what fades, what is as you expected and what is decidedly not, can be surprising at times.


Sunday, 22 September 2019

Garlic

Garlic. I recommend it.

For about three years now, I and the other women in our household have every day taken some mashed raw garlic, and a tiny amount) less than a quarter teaspoon of very powerful Manuka honey, the really good medicinal sort. I buy the honey when Holland and Barrett put on their Penny Sales. One pot costs well over fifty pounds, but the second one costs a penny.

I have not had a cold in all this time. Other people around me caught colds, but I never did.

Recently, we changed our eating rhythm in a way that didn't work so well with our garlic-taking rhythm, and our dance of life got wrong-footed. We began to miss out the garlic, and in the last month I have taken garlic and honey, but not very often.

And now I have an absolute corker of a cold.

Not last night but the night before, I could feel I had this germ travelling round my body, visiting one place after another — first my feet and ankles felt ill and painful, then my hips, then my head, bit by bit it travelled round, and I was very tired. The germ settled in my pharynx and made it very sore, then moved on purposefully to my left tonsil, which seems to act as Older Sister for them both. I went to bed early and slept twelve hours. In the morning I did my usual cleansing things, and emerged feeling better, so I thought I was okay.

Last night I went to a concert, and I do hope I haven't spread germs to everyone I met. By bedtime I felt distinctly coldy, and by the time I lay down to sleep my nose was — quite literally — running like a tap. I had to lie on my back or wind a hanky round my nose!

And this morning I have a humdinger of a cold! In fact I'm not sure this even is a cold. I'm wondering if I haven't somehow contracted Man Flu.

I suspected something like this was travelling my way, because last week I was by myself at home for several days so I took the opportunity to prepare everything for my preaching appointment next Sunday, where normally I wouldn't begin to prepare until the Monday before, not the best part of a fortnight in advance. In general I find when things like that come about, it's to make space for something I haven't foreseen. So I was a bit worried in case a calamity was travelling towards me — but no, only this cold, which will put me out of action for two or three days I think, and I'll need to have hymns and order of service ready for the steward tomorrow morning. 

Well, that's taught me a lesson! Right now I'm in bed, but in a minute I'll go downstairs proclaiming "Unclean! Unclean!" and commander a clear space in the kitchen to mash myself some garlic. 

Back on the daily menu, then. Raw garlic and high strength Manuka honey.  

Oh, look!

My family has put together a Healing Tray for me. It has the mashed garlic (hooray!), a BIG emergency-sized spoon of Manuka honey, some (fresh) lemon and (fresh) ginger tea with more honey, a cup with dilute cider vinegar, turmeric (anti-inflammatory) and cayenne pepper (stops me getting venous clots), a cup of bone broth, and a lovely glass of chilled water from our spring, with a slice of lemon. Ha! Makes me feel better just looking at it.




I hurtled out into the garden and picked some apples from the tree, and got a little bowl of nuts to eat, and a toilet roll for mopping my eyes and nose. 

I changed our bed linen and put it on a hot wash in hopes of defending my hubby from germs, because he has swampy lungs and is prone to pneumonia (Noooooo!).

And now I'm happily ensconced in our Fiona's bedroom — she's in Dorset; waving, Fi, if you're reading this — and I'm going to watch the first Strictly Come Dancing of the season on catch-up TV. Could be worse, no?



The world of money

I'm always interested in the stories of people who live simply and lightly and frugally, and last night I watched a few YouTube videos on this topic. They took me into a world so different from mine, a way of living I had never even thought of.

The first video I saw was about a young British couple who had both been made redundant from their work at the same time. One was a young woman, who had about £2,000-worth of debt, which she has since managed to clear, replacing it with an equivalent level of savings. Her partner took his redundancy money and used it to buy a Transit van and convert it into a delightful home for them to live in. He had no relevant DIY skills when he started, and did a magnificent job. After that, they went on the road and began a travelling life, so their methods of earning money to pay their way had to be appropriate for travellers. The young woman said she now made her living from "matched betting". I had never heard of this, so I looked it up. 

I found what I read a bit complicated, but if I've understood correctly, matched betting takes advantage of loss-leader freebies from bookmakers, who allow you to place a free bet — therefore you can only win or not win, there's no possibility of a loss because you haven't put in any of your own money. Apparently bookies keep a sharp eye out for people working this system to their own advantage, so I suppose the young woman in the van must have a long list of bookmakers, going only occasionally to each one (I don't know; just guessing). This was entirely new to me; it struck me as a rather barren, sterile occupation, but she found it reliable an effective, and I suppose she derived actual satisfaction from other things in her life than the occupation earning her living. I felt uneasy about it, though, because I have a belief that one's occupation should be also a contribution. As Frederick Buechner put it, "The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger coincide." That's been my rule of thumb, and matched betting seemed not to fulfil those criteria. I was interested to learn about it though, and I admired her determination, resourcefulness, ingenuity, and ability to make what is normally an addictive and rapacious system work in her favour.

The other videos I watched were by a young man called Peter Bush, who had turned his life around from addiction to consumerism to commitment to frugality. He was intent upon making enough money to retire at a very young age as a self-made man. He has produced a range of videos both on living very frugally and on ways to make money. Financial investment, home ownership, and running his YouTube channel with affiliate links and a patreon donation base seemed to be his main things. Again, a world I had never ventured into.

The whole experience left me feeling as though I had walked through a strange and surreal land — maybe some caves with interesting rock formations or something — witnessing marvels.

It made me reflect upon my own approach to money, which I had previously thought through and carefully strategised, but not revisited for a while as my conclusions are settled and I'm happy with them.

I am interested in "grace economy", sometimes called "gift economy", where goods, services, money and any other benefits are given freely on the basis of need and we all support each other without trade. However, I also need money to buy food and clothes, books and gifts, bus fares and all the usual things, and to pay my contribution towards the costs of the shared house in which I live but do not own.

My path is of pursuing excellence in the areas where I am gifted, and doing the very best job I can for a modest return, so I can pay my bills — and help others in need. I make sure that I also do some work for free, just for the love of it and to help people and because Jesus said, to his disciples, "Freely you have received, freely give".

I believe capital is useful, but the ability to earn is also essential, as a store of capital can dwindle away but the ability to earn stays with you. Like St Paul and his tent-making, a pleasingly nomadic skill that he took with him to earn his way. I once met a hairdresser who wanted to travel the world. She saved and saved until she had enough to take off, at which point she travelled to Australia and Indonesia, taking along her roll of hairdressing tools. She would set up on a street corner and offer haircuts to passers-by, and so earned enough to keep travelling. That makes me happy in a way that playing the stock market, or matched betting, doesn't.


I have had some capital in my life, because I grew up during the years of the UK property boom. My mother, a shrewd woman who invested her time and skills wisely, did not have a job outside the home, but bought and sold her way up the property ladder, increasing her capital store. We live extremely frugally, and she kept hens for eggs, grew a garden and orchard, and reared orphaned lambs for the freezer. When she reached old age, she began to downsize, passing on to me and my sister the money she had accumulated. I faithfully copied what she did, investing the money in my home, buying a little cottage to let, and growing a garden for my food. I added to that the Franciscan principles of frugal simplicity and sharing, and put into practice in family life what I'd learned from monastic friends. My idea was to take what I needed from what my mother had given me, while at the same time growing it, sharing it, and passing it on — so that I could give my children what I had received plus what I had added — and this has worked well. I have tried to practice both simplicity and generosity in my financial interactions with other people. It is after all, not my money but God's. 

Now that I am coming into old age, I no longer need the big income to build a life, only enough to supply my daily requirements which are very few. So over the last ten years I have been gradually dismantling and distributing what I built up. 

My way of going about things feels like a completely different neck of the woods from either the matched betting of the nomadic van-dweller, or the YouTube channeller living like a barnacle on the rock of giant corporation. I think perhaps his methods have more integrity than hers, because he is coaching other frugal-living people free on YouTube, using affiliate links, Patreon and investment as intended, where she is taking advantage of a quirk in the betting system in a manner bookmakers actively try to stop. It isn't illegal, though, and I think she has done well in a sense. It's a form of gleaning, isn't it?

I do still work for money, but I have a pact with my soul never to involve myself with undertakings where I am asked to be dishonest, or where someone is taking advantage of someone else in the situation. For example, very recently, a publisher asked me to do some editing, but wanted me to sign a contract indemnifying both the publisher and the author against any litigation for defamation etc — I, as the structural editor, would have been the one liable in such an unfortunate event! Both the publisher and the author are well known to me, and I am entirely confident neither would intentionally defame anyone. But the book was a novel. What if, unwittingly, the writer had created a horrible character with the same name as a real person in the public eye, and neither the publisher nor I had heard of that individual so didn't spot the coincidence? In such a circumstance — which could easily happen — the structural editor, as the last person to work on the book, despite the publisher and author having to agree changes, would be held responsible. So I declined the opportunity to sign that contract. It lost me a job worth several hundred pounds (and many similar that would have followed), yes, but being sued for tens of thousands and ordered to pay court costs would ruin me.

And such errors as I have described do arise. Just after the new millennium began, when I first got email, I had to pick an address. At the time I was working on my book The Clear Light of Day. A church congregation I'd previously pastored had a member with Jabez as his second name, which drew my attention to it — and I love that name. So I called one of the main characters in The Clear Light of Day Jabez. He needed a surname, and I enjoy sourcing names and other little references from my family background. One of my grandmothers had the maiden name Bunting (no, I never use it as a security password), so I thought I'd use that. Jabez Bunting. I liked the sound of it. 

When I had to create that first email address, I thought it would help me keep focus on my work in progress if, every day when I checked my email, I was reminded of that character. So I chose the address jabezbunting at freeserve.co.uk — long defunct!

Then, to my surprise a Methodist ministerial colleague asked me, "Why on earth would you want Jabez Bunting of all people for your email address?"

"What?" I said. "Why?"

"Jabez Bunting was horrible," said he.

"You mean . . . Wait . . . What? Jabez Bunting is a real person?"

Yes. Indeed he was. Look. A conservative churchman who strenuously opposed allowing women to preach. I had no idea. So I changed my character's name to Jabez Ferall, but I was stuck with the email address.

So what if, for example, our author conceived a hideously ugly murdering minor character with no conscience and gave that minor character the name of Kim Kardashian — and I, living in my tiny reclusive world with my orchard and my veggie plot, writing stories at the edge of the sea had never heard of such a person? And what if the author was a scholarly elderly man with a passion for medieval history, uninterested in modern celebrities who never watched telly or read the gossip columns? And what if the commissioning editor was not very thorough and only skim-read the text, and the copy editor was a retired academic who also never watched telly or read the gossip columns. That could stack up some big trouble for us when someone's diligent lawyer was combing the internet for litigation opportunities, could it not? And whose fault would it be? The structural editor's, employed to weed out any problems. Which is why I didn't sign that contract. I would have been happy to edit the book, but I wasn't going to put my hand in that bag of weasels for anybody's money. I'm not rich in the things of this world, but I have kale and courgettes in the garden and apples on the tree. I'll manage somehow!

And, dear me, this article has grown to rather gargantuan proportions, I'd better stop! Blessings on your day, my friend — may it be a happy day. May you be peaceful, may you be blessed.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Anna Wintour's masterclass





Friends, I keep looking at a trailer online for Anna Wintour's masterclass on creativity and leadership.

I think it looks really good. As I no longer lead anything and it costs a lot of money, I won't be signing up to it personally, but I think it looks inspiring — very worthwhile, and a woman who certainly has a great deal to teach.

So I just thought I'd pass it on in case you take a look and think — "Ooh, yes, that would be for me!"

Articles telling you more about it here and here.

Let me know if you decide to do it! I'd love to hear all about it.


Thursday, 12 September 2019

Yoshiko Jinzenji — I love her!

76 years old and spent 8 years building her own house, which is basically a kitchen with a tea room off it. And that fabric!



Personas of the imagination 5 — learning to love in darkness — Father Peregrine

I wanted to write something about the imaginative territory explored in the character of Father Peregrine in The Hawk and the Dove stories.

I've been taken aback by the number of readers who've responded to Peregrine as a Christ figure — seeing him as representing Jesus, a man full of wisdom and love; which intrigued and surprised me.

By contrast, the first editor for The Hawk and the Dove described him as "a bad-tempered old man", and she couldn't see why anyone liked him at all. But they did.

So I was turning over in my mind what it was exactly that drew people to Peregrine  . . . when I got an email. 

I recently subscribed to a site I came across and liked, run by an Australian woman called Leonie Dawson, here. She's cheerful and inspiring and encouraging and makes me smile, and she has some wonderful freebies on her site. So I subscribed for her updates and I've been enjoying reading her mailings. And then, today, what a jolt. Where she lives there's been a forest fire, out of control, people being evacuated from their homes. Thank goodness, the emergency services responded quickly and thoroughly; the helicopters circling over her neighbourhood dropping water bombs have succeeded in putting out the fire. 

She wrote about the importance of acknowledging when something in life — yourself, even — is broken, and being honest about your distress. Since I got her email, she keeps coming back to my mind.

And when I got to thinking about Father Peregrine again, sort of fused together with thinking about Leonie, I thought — yes — that's the imaginative territory he personifies; how to live in and through the things that are just unbearable; how to keep going (because you have no choice) when you don't know what to do; how to transform circumstances that terrify and defeat you by immersing them and yourself in the presence of Christ.

Father Peregrine is only in the first three novels of the series. While he's there, he spends almost all his time out of his depth, trying to cope, not knowing what to say, and clinging tight to Jesus whom he loves with every fibre of his being. And Jesus clings tight to him, too.

He dies at the end of Book 3, The Long Fall.

After his death, Brother Tom (unwillingly) has a conversation about him with Father Chad:

Tom passed his hand across his face and sighed. He decided that he might as well give Father Chad what he wanted simply in order to secure his escape.
‘How I felt about him? I loved him. Sometimes I was angry with him, at my wits’ end with him. Sometimes he made me feel very small, very ashamed. Sometimes he tore my heart open with pity. He taught me to love in darkness, showed me that it is possible to find a little spring of hope in the most arid place of despair, just by loving; by consenting to be defenceless … permitting the pain and the wonder of loving and being loved. All that … but mostly I just loved him without knowing why. 
I loved his crazy smile and the way his eyes could dance with laughter. I loved the way he looked like a bad-tempered bird when things were going wrong. I loved his faith.
‘And what hurts most is facing up to the fact that I will never hear that slow, careful voice struggling its way back to speech—“T-om. Th-ank y-ou, T-om.” Never. As long as I live, never again. Never see those eyes smiling, “T-ell m-e about it.”
‘What else did you want to know? Memories? I remember the night we went out to look at the stars … the hunger and ecstasy in his eyes, the sigh in his voice, “Oh, mon Dieu; oh le bien.” And the scent of rosemary. I remember lying with him in the grass below the burial ground, talking about his death, about God…I remember him lying on his bed naked in the firelight, the oil shining on his body, the sound of him weeping, and Brother Michael talking to him, quietly. I remember another time he wept, holding him in my arms, and I felt as though his pain would divide my soul in two. Those wretched blackberries. I remember holding his hand, before he learned to speak again, and the extraordinary cost of caressing it with real tenderness, such a simple thing, but it took courage to do …
‘I remember how Martin used to drive him to distraction … I remember how jealous I was that it was Theodore, not me, who taught him to speak again … silly…’
Tom looked up at Father Chad, all the extravagant torment of unbearable grief in his eyes. He felt the pain of it swell relentlessly inside him; the by now familiar agony of hurting so intense he felt it would split him apart, dislocate his reason.

And then at the very end of that book, Brother Tom sits with Father Theo, who says this to him:


‘He… he was worried about you. He spoke to me about it one day. He said that he never knew when he might be taken ill again, and he was worried once Brother Francis went away to the seminary, that if he died while Francis was away you might have no one you could turn to. He told me to look after you. He said I was to remind you, if you needed some comfort, that you’d helped him to start living again. He couldn’t have faced it without you. He said that the breath of God in you is a gift of life, a holy kiss to be passed on. He said you’d know what he meant. And he said to tell you that the sorrow of grief is a bitter crucifixion, but that the loving had been joyous, and one day would be again.
‘He told me to behold your grief without embarrassment, to help you not to run away from your pain. He told me… he said that it would be the comfort of my love that led your anguish out into compassion, instead of it festering to destruction. He said to tell you that a man in grief is like a man with bedsores. It costs him to reveal it, but he needs help with it. He said you’d know what he meant. And he said to remind you of the thing you said last night. That love has no defences, and you only know it’s love when it hurts.’

I think Peregrine personifies that capacity — to behold grief without embarrassment and not to run away from pain; he personifies the cost of allowing the intimacy of authentic encounter. Much of what I wrote in Peregrine's stories I learned in palliative care contexts with people who were dying or bereaved or living with life-limiting illness and profound disability. He personified the way the soul shines through, no matter what.

And today as I thought of Leonie and her family facing the terror of out-of-control fire, that fused together in my mind with reflecting on Father Peregrine, a vulnerable human being like all of us, who also, in his way, walked through fire. It's that thing Tom said: He taught me to love in darkness, showed me that it is possible to find a little spring of hope in the most arid place of despair, just by loving; by consenting to be defenceless.  That territory.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Personas of the imagination 4 — kindness — Abbot John

It was my prayer partner Margery who alerted me to the emerging theme of kindness in The Hawk and the Dove books, thirty years ago when the first volumes in the series were written. She read the first two volumes, in which Brother John came onto the stage as the infirmary assistant, and said of him, thoughtfully, "John was kind, wasn't he?" And I realised that, yes, I supposed he was. That set me off thinking about it, and sowed the seed for articulating the gospel imperative of kindness in the character of John Hazell, who became abbot of St Alcuins after the death of Father Peregrine.

The unfolding narrative proposes that kindness expresses the heart of God, and is transformative in the path of discipleship. Kindness is what enables people to get up and start again, allows them to feel heard and understood and develop moral strength. Kindness more than severity shapes and grows disciples. It needs boundaries and backbone, of course. John, both as infirmarian and abbot, challenges and rebukes his brethren when necessary; his natural and firm exercise of authority forms the framework within which kindness is lived out. Particularly in The Long Fall, when he has to manage the care of his sick and disabled abbot, John has to counter the turmoil and chaos into which Peregrine is thrown, by requiring something of him as well as supporting him. But though he is honest and direct, he is always kind.

The novels where William's story takes centre stage explore the cost of kindness, and the difficulty of espousing kindness as a principle within the unyielding structures of church discipline. Sometimes a man has to choose between ecclesiastical regulation and the practise of kindness, and where the road forks John always chooses kindness. The novels propose that this is the risk and the cost of love, and you can see it in the life of Jesus in his encounters with the Pharisees and Temple authorities:

This is what life and responsibility do to you, he thought; this is the terrible power of human love. It dissolves all certainty. You make adjustments and modifications. Love and religion are uneasy bedfellows, over time. It’s hard to forget the screams of the man you burn at the stake. The act may have been accomplished in all righteousness, but you still lie awake at night, remembering the livid agony. So here he stood, the guilty accomplice of kindness.


In the eighth book of the series The Beautiful Thread (from which the above quotation is also taken), Abbot John offers his brethren a Chapter address about kindness:

There was this nook out of the wind’s way, tucked between the bellying out of the octagonal chapter house and the buttressed wall of the main body of the church. Here William sat on the tufting grass, smelling the fragrance of lavender, sage and rosemary growing there. Herbs were planted everywhere at St Alcuins – because they were useful and beautiful, healing and fragrant, low maintenance and extremely easy to grow. Absently, he stretched out his hand and rubbed the leaves of the lavender . . . the rosemary . . . breathing in the clean, wholesome scent. 
Screened from view in this discreet cleft, he listened to Father Gilbert reading the chapter of the Rule set for today, his voice carrying out through the small door that this morning stood wide open, propped back with a rock. 
‘“Behold, here I am”,’ Benedict quoted Psalm thirty-three. And Father Gilbert concluded the portion set: ‘“Behold, in His loving kindness the Lord shows us the way of life.”’
William was by now familiar with the effect the place had on him, and experienced without surprise the curious reaching forth, the yearning hunger that called from the very depths of his viscera to the unknown blue mystery of the infinite. Amen, his soul in silence saluted the words.
And then, what he wanted to hear: Abbot John addressed the sons of his house.
‘In loving kindness, the Lord shows us the way of life. My brothers, opposing contrasts are often used to guide us. One such is perfecta caritas foras mittit timorem – perfect love casts out fear. What an interesting opposition. At first thought we incline to perceive hatred as opposed to love. Yet often hatred turns out to be wounded or distorted love, the result of abuse and rejection. It’s a steep task, turning hatred to love, certainly – but the true opposition is fear.  You cannot love where you fear – you cannot. Fear is inherently self-concerned, where love of its nature looks outwards, self-forgetful. Fear wants to get away where love wants to connect. 
‘Thinking of kindness, then, of loving kindness – I asked myself, for our guidance, the deepening of our wisdom – what is the opposite of kindness. The first thing that springs to mind is cruelty, naturally enough. Or meanness – mean-spiritedness, maybe. But cruelty . . . well . . . it is, you might say, a secondary thing. A fruit, not a root. The same with meanness. They are what we see. They are the behaviour, not the attitude.
‘Tentatively, I want to propose to you, the root attitude in opposition to loving kindness is scorn – contempt.
‘Kindness sees vulnerability, sees someone at a loss or disadvantage, and reaches out to shelter, to help. Kindness sees where someone is hurt or angry, and wants to listen, to understand; if it may be, to heal.
‘Scorn sees the same things and sneers. Scorn turns away where kindness turns towards. Contempt sees someone struggling or out of their depth, and blames them. Contempt sees someone angry, smarting under an injustice perhaps, and punishes them. Above all, kindness draws people together into community, where scornful contempt isolates and divides them, keeps them forever apart.
‘Christ was of no account, once. He was the child of a poor woman, born in shame, homeless. He was a prisoner brought to stand and answer for his words – he who had said “Tear down this temple and in three days I will build it again.” He, the healer, nailed to the cross, attracted derision – “Messiah? Save yourself!”  
‘He died. But when he rose again, he didn’t come back with a list drawn up of his enemies. Even in dying, what he said was “Father, forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing.” He understood, you see. Even then.
There’s a fair amount about scorn in the gospels. I’m thinking of the older brother of the prodigal, of the Pharisee and the republican, of Simon the Pharisee and the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, among others. We identify hypocrisy as the sin Jesus spoke out against – but just like cruelty, hypocrisy is a secondary thing. Hypocrisy, like cruelty, proceeds from contempt. The Pharisee held the publican in absolute contempt – as so did the older brother regard the returning prodigal. He scorned him. And Simon the Pharisee looked down on the woman of ill repute; she was beneath him. Or so he thought. He made the mistake of expecting Jesus would look at her in the same way. Contempt belittles people, sees them as nothing, as insignificant, where kindness restores dignity, helps people grow.
‘There’s something going on here about the predilection for always being right that afflicts religious people. Wanting to be right and feeling guilty and ashamed when we get things wrong. Anxious to be in the right, we hold in utter contempt those who fail, who fall below the standards we have set. We make them into a ladder we climb, thinking to elevate ourselves. But, in heaven’s name – doesn’t everybody make mistakes? Isn’t that how we learn? Should we not shelter our fallen brothers with kindness? Should we not overlook their follies and lift them up gently when they stumble? Guilt, shame, contempt – this becomes a morass of rancour feeding off itself. It’s a knot you can untangle only with kindness.
‘Kindness. Such a homely, ordinary thing at first glance. But so majestic, so spacious; the thumbprint of a generous God. “In loving kindness, the Lord shows us the way of life.”’ 


Later in the same book, John gets into deep water himself, and again has to address his community in Chapter:

Tom raised his head and looked across the room at his abbot, concern in his face. This didn’t sound too good. But John, his hands held loosely in his lap within the big sleeves of his habit, sitting quietly straight, did not meet anyone’s gaze. His eyes seemed to see nothing.
‘And I prayed, “Help me, Jesus,” as I so often do. It’s never let me down, you see, that prayer; never once. “Oh, help me, Jesus.”
‘And what came to mind was two thoughts that have threaded through the last few weeks, for one reason and another. I’m sorry; I’m not putting this well, am I? Anyway: the first is, that whatever’s going on in my own life – whether my faith is soaring and I’m overflowing with inspiration, or whether I’m in despair; whether others look up to me or I am disregarded, of no account – whatever – I have the option to be kind. It’s a small thing, you would think, would you not, to be kind? Well, it is in the sense that you don’t have to be rich or important, or very bright, to be kind. Even a little child can be kind. Even a dog. But it’s no small thing to be on the receiving end of kindness. And the withholding of simple kindness is a root of bitterness and the seed of war; it causes the most terrible suffering. To look without compassion on another’s life; to be unkind. Making the choice to be kind prays “Thy kingdom come,” even when you feel past praying and past caring. 
‘Kindness, I have found, for all it is small and ordinary, has a way of leading me out of safe territory. There’s nothing like kindness for compromising righteousness and getting my religion and propriety all in a muddled knot. Kindness makes hay of many plans. But it is, I have come to believe, the currency of Christ’s kingdom, the stuff out of which new hope can be made. Where we push a sprig of it into the earth in whatever place we are, life springs anew. 
‘So when all light is gone and the horrible sense of pointlessness overwhelms me, showing me my own inadequacy, I can at least make the choice to be kind; and that’s my prayer, my creed, my way of anchoring myself to Christ. 
‘And the other thing – it caught my attention when someone said it to me a few days ago – is about offering the gift of happiness. That having the power to make someone happy might be seen almost as a charism. Like working miracles. Like healing. 
‘In once sense, of course, you cannot make anybody happy. Each of us is responsible for developing contentment and gratitude, appreciation, as a state of mind. Happiness – we all know this – is not a destination to be reached or a goal to be achieved; it’s the choice you make, the path you tread, the attitude you embrace. And that’s no small thing, either. Happy people make the world happy, are good to be around, lift others up. Cheerfulness; it’s a kingdom thing: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’
‘But a friendly word, reaching out to include someone, knowing their taste in food and offering a nibble of something they enjoy – even leaving them in peace, sometimes; there are so many ways to offer ordinary every gifts of happiness.
‘So I thought, between choosing kindness and offering happiness, I could find enough to be going on with, a ladder up out of inadequacy and despair. It didn’t matter what I’d been or done, or who I was or who cared, who saw or who knew. I could still do it. The thing is, when I feel really low, vision and inspiration are beyond me. But, you know, even when almost everything seems too much to manage, perhaps I can at least try to be kind. And I thought, that could give some meaning, something worthwhile, even to the most impoverished life. Even to mine. Sort of life compost, kindness and the giving of happiness could be; something in which faith and meaning could potentially thrive. It is only a small thing – I understand that. But sometimes I have to hope it will be enough.’

His friend sounded bleak and enduring, William thought, as he concluded with complete absence of √©lan: ‘There’s no big scholarship there, no expositions or dissertations or any of that. It just seemed useful to me; and so I thought it might be to you, as well. Anyway, let’s keep silence a moment.’

Abbot John also, in the same book, has to speak at a nuptial Mass:

Hannah, Gervase, this mass is celebrated in honour of your nuptials, and really these words are not for everyone else but for you.
‘Not long ago, a friend commented to me that the idea of love baffled him at times. There were days when he felt an upwelling of affection towards his wife – delight in her – and others when, frankly, he wished she’d leave him in peace and he found her profoundly irritating. Here and there he came across fellow human beings whom he esteemed and with whom he felt a sense of fellowship, harmony. But not many. Mostly he preferred to go his own way and let everyone else go theirs. And guilt stirred in his soul, because he loved little, loved few – sometimes stopped loving even the one he had vowed and pledged to love, to have and to hold. And yet, he took seriously the command of Christ – to love and go on loving, to make that the mark of his discipleship and the work of his life.
‘And my friend – humbly, neither cocksure nor evading the issue – put it to me that though he could not always find it within himself to love, he thought he could try to be kind. He said, in the course of his life he had been loved but rarely; and because of this, he valued with real gratitude those who had treated him with kindness. He said, sometimes he found it hard to tell whether someone actually loved him – cared for him with genuine friendship – and when they were merely being kind to him. So, knowing himself to be a shrewd judge of men, he concluded love and kindness must be so extremely similar that the division between them is porous – where one ends and the other begins cannot readily be detected. He said this gave him hope; since, though love felt so often remote and mysterious, he knew how to be kind. Because, he said, everyone knows what kindness is. It means giving the other person the benefit of the doubt; including them, not cold-shouldering them; offering a smile and a cheerful greeting; making them a hot drink when they’re tired and cold at the day’s end; overlooking their shortcomings and their harmless – but intensely annoying – little mannerisms. It means giving them another chance. My friend also mentioned that it means trying not to swear at them too often, and forbearing from actually hitting them, however much you want to. He doesn’t always find it easy to get on with his fellow man, or his wife – as you can tell.
‘I thought – Gervase, Hannah – you might find it useful to hear about that conversation I had with my friend. Though today I hope you feel you are head over heels in love and will never be anything else, well, these vows are for a lifetime. I sincerely hope that means a substantial number of years for both of you. And maybe even today, you may be tired, you may feel somewhat strained; this is a big occasion, and family events always carry many resonances. Not all of them are easy.
‘So I thought I’d put my companion’s musings before you – that even when he runs out of love, forgets what love is, finds love impossibly difficult, he knows what kindness is; love’s humble, less exalted, identical twin.

‘God bless you in your life together. May you be happy, may you know bliss, may you be fruitful and content. And may you always at least try to be kind to one another – remembering that one of the most everyday habits of kindness is the willingness to try to understand, to forgive and begin again.’


In The Beautiful Thread in particular, kindness is explored as a spiritual path, along with the difficulties of its inevitable choices to compromise, as well as the casual cruelty and equally destructive unbending severity with which it contrasts. The story ends with William praying for Abbot John:

‘He asked me if I had a rosary,’ said her husband: ‘and I said no. Well – there’s yours, but I no longer have one of my own. So he took his off and gave it to me, asking me to pray for him; that Our Lady’s faithfulness to the call of God on her life would pass into his heart forever. That the steadfast perseverance of the Lord Jesus would keep his feet in the path of salvation. That the practical soul of St Benedict would keep watch over him. That his fingers would find the thread of life and loving kindness, and never let go. So that’s what I was doing.’