Nostalgia – excavating memories
Not so long ago, I found a song on YouTube that I had not listened to for ages – since my childhood in fact. Hearing just the first few chords transported me back to Portsmouth, 1988, where I grew up, and back to a particularly poignant moment; a moment which was one milestone marking the beginning of the end of thinking as a child thinks.
It’s not just music, either. I am blessed with a startling sense of smell (perhaps to make up for my second-rate vision!) I was recently in a block of flats in the parish, and the smell of the flooring took me back instantaneously to my third year at College. Again the sheer power of the reminiscence was breathtaking, almost emotionally winding me.
We are a complex of our memories, a woven fabric of genes, experience, and conditioning. But curiously enough, nostalgia is something people can be rather sniffy about. To revisit old pleasures, and paddle gently in our past, can be seen as self-indulgent – unhealthy even. We are taught that to be as St Paul was, when he writes: ‘when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things’ (1 Cor 13.11-12).
But psychologists tell us that nostalgia is good for us, and indeed can help our mental health, coming as it does often at times of loneliness, or when we seek order in a world so often defying meaning and reason. As psychologist Neil Burton puts it movingly: ‘the hauntings of times gone by, and the imaginings of times to come, strengthen us in lesser times.’
And yet, those two memories that caught me entirely unexpectedly were bittersweet. Alongside the intoxicating reality of being back in a place and time long gone, there was an gentle ache of loss. Nostalgia is paradoxical – an indulgence in past times, and the sharp reality that such times are past and gone.If we’re not careful, we can either rose-tint our historical memories, or worse still, create a utopia of past-times, to which the present can never compare,and make ourselves open great disillusionment.
Burton compares nostalgia to the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which he translates as the ‘pathos of things…a heightened consciousness of the transience of things coupled with an acute appreciation of their ephemeral beauty and a gentle sadness or wistfulness at their passing’. He also likens it to the German Sehnsucht, which C.S.Lewis called the ‘inconsolable longing.’ This longing is the heart recalling the sensation of beauty and joy at some event, relationship, or time, and the longing both for its repetition and permanence. Lewis was almost certainly rooting his thought in St Augustine’s great work, the Confessions, where Augustine writes: ‘God you have created us for yourselves and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’
St Augustine, in his Confessions talks at length about the power and complexity of the memory in human beings, and he suggests that our lives are, in a way, the exploration and excavation of our memories.
Modernity has tended to suggest that we are continually on a road of progress, learning more, acquiring more skills, literally loading ourselves up with experiences, facts, knowledge and earning. We are painted as pilgrims on a journey going outwards into a world, and collecting, like baggage, things on the way (ecstatically, going outwards, like an empty vessel being filled). Augustine suggests that our real discovering, though, is learning to journey inwards, into the centre of our minds, memories, and personalities, where riches, even the divine, can be found. Here we find who we really are, who we shall really become, who God is, all by mining within ourselves, our individual memories and the corporate memory too. Even time’s great three-column division – past, present, future – is conquered when we journey into the mysterious depths of our memory, which is fashioned by God, and contains within it the essence of us, and the presence of Him.
Nostalgia is more, I think, than a psychological form of self-defence and protection. When we experience nostalgia, we plunge deeper than we know, into the depths of our minds and into the pools of our memory, in which God can be located, and in which the barriers of time, and even the great division between heaven and earth dissipate. It is that longing Lewis wrote about, which so often filled with the bittersweetness of pathos, that we can almost taste the feasts of our memories, breathe the perfumes of our past, and most importantly touch again the sensations of joy, loss, and love that makes us creatures in God’s image.
It is another tiny foretaste of the banquet of heaven. It is by no mistake that at the heart of the Christian faith we bring alive a meal, and at the heart of that meal is memory, rooted in command from the Lord of Love himself, Jesus Christ: ‘do this’ he says ‘in remembrance of me.’ And when we do, he is with us, defeating, time, tide, and even bettering even memory’s vivid, tangible recall.
Truth, love and civility
11th July 2016
I know it’s a fault, but I can tend to take things rather too personally. It’s one of the reasons that I would have made a poor politician. That’s particularly true in the political landscape of recent years, and even more so, recent weeks. Even in recent days, politics seems to have become ever more personal, and we are impoverished.
It is a significant downside of the personality politics in a media-driven age. I was shocked, for example, by some of the language being used about Tony Blair on mainstream and social media after the publication of the Chilcott report – raw, ugly, visceral hatred, and sheer, crude personal aggression. Don’t get me wrong, you can be deeply passionate in expressing your belief that a politician has made a very bad choice, but to attack him personally – his looks, his character, his motivation – when we only know him in his professional capacity, seems misguided, dangerous, and cheap. A more frivolous display of the personalising of civil life was the booing of the Prime Minister at Wimbledon: the political become personalised, civil society got snarky.
It testifies to something deeper and darker: a breakdown of the important boundaries between personal and civil life, which can endanger the possibility of clean politics, vigorous, lively and good disagreement, which furthers the common good. It also shows a shying away from robust argument, rationally framed, and it drags us down to something much more emotional and, at times, irrational.
I have a friend from University with whom I disagree on almost everything, and particularly politics and religion. We would argue endlessly over a pint or two, and often late into the night. We still do when we get the chance to meet. And yet, one of my fondest memories is listening to a song together on my last day at university (Belle and Sebastian’s We Rule the School, if I recall correctly). Contented in each other’s company, enabled to disagree. We knew that we could argue like a long married couple about almost everything, but sit contented listening to the same song; a real testimony to not taking arguments personally, not allowing a reasonable level of disagreement to become an irrational anger, resentment or even hatred. If you can disagree on everything but listen to the same song together, good can emerge, even if sometimes we would need a break from each other when the disagreements meant more…
Until relatively recently, our political life seemed to be bumbling along quite well, based on market economics and economic growth – at least materially, although perhaps not so smoothly culturally and socially. All seemed well in the West. But sometimes foundations shift suddenly, and a great cloud of dust obscures all that we seem to believe about who we are, and where we are going. I’m not sure that this is true of others, but to me, this is how the West feels to me at the moment.
But with the challenge, comes the opportunity. The foundations perhaps needed a little work, and perhaps we have a chance to build a better basis for our body politic. Instead of being driven purely by economics, and financial growth, we might instead return to a politics of virtue, where our politics is built around aspirations, hopes, virtues. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, first talked about a ‘civil society’, built around the engagement of all in the life of society, rather than a world driven and dictated to by a political class. And that’s what ‘civility’ means. It doesn’t mean a bland politeness, but rather a responsible citizenship, which came in time to be associated with a certain standard of engagement, argument, consensus, and disagreement. A virtuous political life, Aristotle suggested, was one in which we all take part, with respect, and operate outside the boundaries of our own families and friendship groups to seek a common good.
Interestingly, this drive to return to a politics of virtue and civility has been led in recent years by the Church and by theologians. The original (pre-party-political) idea of the Big Society originated with a theologian, Philip Blonde. This drive towards a politics of virtue rather than market economics is becoming increasingly spoken about. Another political-theologian, Dr Adrian Pabst, wrote recently after Brexit that the European and British political cultures both urgently need to be reformed and with hope he wrote: ‘This can be done by developing a politics of culture, belonging and mutual recognition (duties beget rights) and by making reciprocity (contribution and just desert) the governing principle of both society and the economy. ‘ (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/07/05/4494670.htm)
The Church, and all of us who are participants in it, or sympathetic to it, are ideally situated to contribute to a new way of doing politics, a ‘virtuous’ way. The Christian church added its own contribution to Aristotle’s virtues: St Paul outlines the central Christian virtues of ‘faith, hope, and love’. Arguably all three of these, exercised liberally (excuse the pun), and alongside the central Christian scriptural injunction to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Ephesian 4.15), give us a profound hope for a new ‘civil’ way of doing politics, and a renewed sense of ‘civil society’ in which we can all take part, and for which we all take responsibility.
17th June 2016
It’s so very easy to get dragged down by the endless grim tragedy and sheer evil of the world, and who hasn’t been this past week?
But at times of great sadness, shock, and horror, I’m still amazed and humbled by how many other, often quiet, wonderful, good people there are; how many kindnesses and solidarities seem slowly to rise out of savage evils; it’s striking how strong the desire remains too for a common life, and sharing the triumphs and tragedies of human living, however strangulated it is by circumstance and sin.
I really hope, and earnestly pray with that hope, that the good can indeed conquer – the powerful, revolutionary, common good.
Harry’s coming to All Saints’ – some FAQs about Curate and Deacons
8th June 2016
What is a Curate?
In just a few weeks time we shall be welcoming Harry Lamb, our new Curate. But you might well be asking what an earth a Curate is? It’s a fair question! After all, All Saints’ hasn’t welcomed a Curate for over forty years.
Like so much in the Church, Curate is an old word with a history. It refers to a priest (seemingly rather immodestly!) as a ‘Cure of Souls’. The actual Curate of the Parish is the Vicar. If you read the older service book, the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll see in the prayers that we pray for ‘all Bishops and Curates.’ The Vicar, traditionally, holds the Cure of Souls on behalf of the Bishop, who can’t be in every church at once. That’s where the word ‘Curate’ comes from. Indeed in France, the local Parish Priest is not called a Vicar as they are in Britain, but ‘Monsieur le Curé’.
In reality, Harry will actually be an ‘Assistant Curate’, working alongside me. But, over time, we have come to call these training posts ‘Curacies’. Harry’s Curacy is a training post, and a time when he is enabled to learn the practical aspects, and spiritual necessities, of pastoral ministry. This complements the academic and theoretical learning he has been undertaking for the past three years at St Mellitus’ College in Central London, where he has managed to do a degree alongside a full-time job!
So what will Harry do?
A bit like a plumber might train as an apprentice, learning alongside a fully qualified colleague, or a lawyer might train as an articled clerk alongside a fully qualified lawyer, so Harry comes to train alongside me as a Vicar. He learns the job, as he does the job. He will do much the same as I do, but on a part-time basis, but with time to reflect on his new role, and with our care and support for him. Certain roles like weddings, baptisms and funerals, he will observe and participate in before leading himself.
So if he’s Curate, what’s this Deacon business all about?
Being a Curate is, if you like, Harry’s job title. But he will be ordained a Deacon – this is his ‘order’. Being a Deacon is not a job title, but an order. It’s a bit like being qualified as a doctor: you are always a doctor, but you might work as GP, a surgeon, or a researcher. Whichever specific job you do, and wherever you do it, you are always a doctor. Harry will be a Deacon, whether he worked as a Curate or not.
Every priest in the Church of England, Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church, begins as a Deacon, and as well as being priests, remain deacons. The Bishop remains a Deacon as well as being a bishop. Some people remain deacons for the whole of their ministry, rather than becoming priests or bishops. .St Francis was a Deacon as well as being a Friar. He never became a priest.
The role of a Deacon goes right back to the New Testament. St Stephen, the first martyr, was a Deacon. They were there from the earliest days of the church, and they shared in the work and ministry of the apostles from those earliest days.
The name ‘deacon’ comes from the word for servant in Greek, diakonos. The role of the deacon is one of service. In the early days they made sure that the sick, the poor, widows, orphans and those who were disenfranchised were looked after, and that those who could not come to communion for any reason, had communion brought to them. In a very different world their role remains as servants, albeit their specific tasks might be a bit different.
What has not changed is the way in which their practical role of service is also shown symbolically in the Eucharist. When Harry comes to join us, he will help in the Eucharist, performing the traditional role of the deacon at our Sunday Parish mass. He will say some of the greetings – inviting us to confess our sins; he will read the Gospel aloud; prepare the altar for the Eucharist by laying all the gifts out; he will bid us to share the peace; bid us to leave in peace at the close of the service, and he will take the sacrament to the sick at times, too.
Harry will spend three to four years with us as a part-time Assistant Curate, learning the ropes, and growing into his role as a deacon. In a year’s time, it is his hope and ours, that he will be priested. Our task is to nourish, cherish and develop Harry as a priest and deacon, so that when his time with us comes to a close, he will be able to go from being an Assistant Cure of Souls, to one who holds the Bishop’s Cure of Souls for himself. He will teach us and learn from us, and it is our task as God’s people to teach him, and to learn from him. These are exciting times – please pray for Harry and for Maggi, his wife, that they might be inspired and sustained by the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit..
30th May – Embracing ‘R&R’
I write this on a Bank Holiday, and you’ll note the irony if you read on, but hey-ho. This time tomorrow, a small group of the parish will be at the wonderful, and quite magical, Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, to begin our annual parish pilgrimage. It’s a mix of pilgrimage, relaxation, and rest. In the army, they call periods of rest from service ‘R&R’, or ‘Rest and Recuperation.’
Western Society is pretty poor at ‘R&R’. It’s probably something to do with our success, and that is probably something to do with the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’. Amidst all the statistics flying around during the seemingly interminable warm-up to the European Referendum, I discovered that the country with the longest working hours in Europe was Greece, with an average working week of 42 hours (according to the OECD). Britain was not far behind (with an average week of 36.5). I know many people in our parish and beyond who work far longer hours than this average suggests. Part of it is dedication, part of it is probably organisational and to do with guilt, and another part is that we have forgotten, or rejected, the importance of rest.
Although it is extreme, the Sabbath observance on the Outer Hebrides, where we have holidayed for years as a family, is really quite welcome. All shops are closed, taxis and bus services do not run. The only time of busyness is in the morning, as people go to their various kirks. In my lifetime in Britain, which is not yet that long, I have seen the almost complete erosion of Sunday as a day of rest. It is now filled with work, and other activities, but rarely rest.
Sabbath rest is not an old tradition of the Bible, it is a commandment – alongside not murdering, stealing, or philandering. God knows that we can too easily forget to rest, and that we need to. Indeed, the Genesis story of creation even tells us that God rests from his creative outpouring. As the Book of Common Prayer (which was the Church of England’s only service book until the mid-twentieth century) renders the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.9), God’s command that we must rest can be seen as both paramount and absolute:
'Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.'
We are very quick to remember the negative commands from Holy Scripture, so wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take the rather more positive command to rest into our hearts and live restfully? God orders rest, he demands that we, like him, retreat from frenzied creation and freneticism, and embrace rest, which is nothing other than embracing God’s re-creation.
Christians now in the minority – 24th May 2016
As I heard the reports crackling out of my clock radio, my heart sank. A voice of doom to begin the day. Lots of commentators queuing up on the Radio 4 Today Programme to tell the world that the Church, and Christian belief ( which are not always one and the same!) are not what they once were, followed by Richard Dawkins gleefully telling us about the almighty power of evolution (crafty editing, I thought). Clearing the morning fog from my eyes and head, I thought to myself, are the findings of this report really that shocking? And gradually, as I thought more, three things came to my mind.
Firstly, we live in an age of remoteness – at least we do in the modern West. The more successful you are, the bigger, more remote, and more cut off your house is likely to be. We relate remotely: online dating, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, or any of the social media that is reshaping the western world. Our relationships are increasingly primarily electronic, and not social. The problems of membership are hitting social groups everywhere – think of the decline in pubs, the death of working mens’ clubs, or the haemorrhaging of members from political parties. The only memberships we see rising stratospherically are customers joining mobile phone companies, internet providers, and other online worlds. Relationships are remote, often virtual, electronically social, and also transactional (financially, mostly).That we still get 60-70 gathering only to pray for the world, each other and themselves is a staggeringly counter-cultural statement, and it is done without any financial reward, and often at some cost, be it a lie-in, standing in a freezing cold piece of national heritage, or enduring well-meaning but dreary sermons. That people of all ages and backgrounds and races still do this, is worth noting.
Secondly, there is a strong difference between church-going and faith. This has been explored at length by Professor Grace Davie at Exeter University. The relationship of British people to faith and its practice, is complex to say the least. If the current percentage of people saying that they were Anglicans regularly went to church, we probably would not have room for them in current churches. Also, there is a great myth propagated that in years gone by everybody went to church, unlike nowadays. Robin Gill, in his excellent book, The Myth of the Empty Church explores the dangers of ‘golden age’ history and demographics. That’s not to say that there is no decline, but it is to say that mapping demographics of faith is complicated, and even mapping religiosity is not simple, spirituality and faith still harder.
We must not be complacent, and the church does indeed have to change if it is to become perfect, as John Henry Newman suggested. It is not useful for us to sit and arrogantly prophesy about the status quo. We cannot always deride and despise modernity. There are plenty of churches that are growing; they have learnt the best of modernity, whilst rejecting the worst.
And thinking about where we are going, a third point struck me: the Church began with an often muddled, often mistaken, but faithful twelve. It was often at its strongest when it seemed at its weakest. My initial reaction to this rather depressing statistical summary has morphed, for we are people of faith and the Our Lord said to Peter: ‘…I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’ (Matt 18.18). They have not yet, despite many failures and persecutions, and I do not believe that they ever shall. But like Peter, we shall have our humblings, and we shall be changed by circumstances, and yet the household of faith will remain built on a firm foundation, on a rock.