Some readers will remember that I like St Aloysius’ Church near Saint Pancras station in London. This window, with Mary at the centre of the Apostles on Pentecost morning arouses mixed emotions though. It is good to see a clear theology of Mary’s place in the Church, receiving the Holy Spirit with – I wish I could say ‘with everyone else’ – but it is with the Apostles only, not the 120 people who were gathered together. Perhaps the artist felt that the picture was crowded enough already, but where is Mary Magdalene, Johanna, the other women and where is John Mark, Paul’s future assistant that he would call his ‘son’ (Colossians 4:10)? He is usually identified with the boy who ran away naked from the garden on Maundy Thursday night, as well as with Mark the evangelist. It was to his mother’s house that Peter went after the angel sprung him from prison. (Acts 12.12) She was another Mary.
The window is not diverse enough to represent the first Church, though a few minutes looking through the clear glass out into the street would assure any visitor that St Aloysius’ is in the midst of diversity today. But there should be more women and more young people in that window!
Saint Aloysius was a Jesuit novice when he died in Rome aged 23, after catching plague from nursing the victims of an epidemic. Not an inappropriate neighbour for Saint Pancras, who was martyred for his Christian faith at Rome on 14 May 304, at the age of fourteen. John Mark, Aloysius and Pancras, young men who were saints. Worth remembering them, and young women saints like Agnes, Lucy and Therese, as we approach the great Synod of Pope Francis. Today’s young Christians are as capable of witnessing to the Gospel message as their parents, grandparents, distant ancestors, and the clergy. Let’s hear their voices.
Alice Meynell was much happier in London than either Mary Webb or Elizabeth Barrett, but she and her family spent plenty of time in the Sussex countryside, where the clouds can be seen and appreciated. London is different in this regard, possibly more so than in the late 19th Century. Today’s buildings cut the sky into ever smaller packets. Greenwich Park allowed us to take a step back and see the clouds of summer.
Needless to say, the cloud of a thunderous summer is the most beautiful of all. It has spaces of a grey for which there is no name, and no other cloud looks over at a vanishing sun from such heights of blue air. The shower-cloud, too, with its thin edges, comes across the sky with so influential a flight that no ship going out to sea can be better worth watching.
The dullest thing perhaps in the London streets is that people take their rain there without knowing anything of the cloud that drops it. It is merely rain, and means wetness. The shower-cloud there has limits of time, but no limits of form, and no history whatever. It has not come from the clear edge of the plain to the south, and will not shoulder anon the hill to the north. The rain, for this city, hardly comes or goes; it does but begin and stop. No one looks after it on the path of its retreat.
From The Colour of Life; and other essays on things seen and heard.
Do we take gifts for granted, without asking where they come from, without gratitude? Have we lost our sharpness of vision and imagination? What can we thank God, or someone for, today?
Mrs Turnstone likes to remind us that this is the day of the year that the Sun first appears in Greenland. It is also her birthday. While our son is happily settled in London, she feels she has lived there for as long as she ever wants to, but she’ll visit the town, take Abel to an exhibition, or meet up with friends.
After Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who left London to elope with Robert, here is Mary Webb who moved to London to foster her career as a writer. The move brought her little joy, for she was a deep-rooted Shropshire Lass. So here is a melancholic poem from her pen, but one that looks to the ‘stately sun’, symbol of undisdainful death as well as of new life. One of the symptoms of the hyperthyroid Graves’ disease that she endured was swelling of the face which made her feel ‘unlovely’, and aware of ‘slights and lies and unkindnesses’ that more robust souls would have shrugged off.
Despitethe melancholy, the blackbird, who is now in good voice, transports Mary to the Shropshire Hills, landing there in Spring, aware in her whole being of Shropshire under the rain and sun. Her kinder life, will it be in heaven only, or also in the golden air of the Welsh borders? I like to think it was experienced on this earth as a gentle preparation for life eternal.
Sing on, dear bird! Bring the old rapturous pain, In this great town, where I no welcome find. Show me the murmuring forest in your mind, And April's fragile cups, brimful of rain. O sing me far away, that I may hear The voice of grass, and, weeping, may be blind To slights and lies and friends that prove unkind. Sing till my soul dissolves into a tear, Glimmering within a chaliced daffodil. So, when the stately sun with burning breath Absorbs my being, I'll dream that he is Death, Great Death, the undisdainful. By his will No more unlovely, haunting all things fair, I'll seek some kinder life in the golden air.
I dwell amid the city, And hear the flow of souls in act and speech, For pomp or trade, for merrymake or folly: I hear the confluence and sum of each, And that is melancholy! Thy voice is a complaint, O crownèd city, The blue sky covering thee like God’s great pity.
. From The Soul’s Travelling by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The City of God is a common theme in the Bible, Zion or Jerusalem, the earthly place where he lives among his people, or the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. A city was, and remains, a convenient setting for a more cultured life that would not have been possible in the hinterlands. Although the airwaves bring us radio, television and the internet – and of course internet shopping – the city remains a magnet for entertainment, dining out, medical care, employment. What is Elizabeth’s problem?
Perhaps it is the flow of souls looking for pomp, trade, merriment or folly: self indulgence in other words. But whether in her 19th Century London as in the first picture, or the 21st Century city, by no means all arrivals flock there for the extras London has to offer, at a price. The city may be a relatively safe haven from war or other troubles but people still have to find a welcome; somewhere affordable to live, familiar food or the sound of their mother tongue.
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
The sky in both of our pictures is more iron cope than blue cloak; we can well believe that it grows darker yet as the sea indeed rises higher. It is for each one of us to have joy without any apparent cause, and faith in God when all comfort is taken away from ourselves or the people we meet. Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom!
Talking of trees as we were yesterday: the L’Arche garden where we were listening and looking for the robin was blessed and opened by the then Bishop of Dover, Trevor Willmott. I found this quotation from Bishop Trevor the other day.
‘If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today’. Of all that Martin Luther wrote and said, these words resonate strongly with me and, I would hope, with the whole Christian Church as we continue to seek and to bear out witness to Jesus Christ and to serve the needs of His world.
A world that badly needs trees! At the Glebe the other day we saw a squirrel planting nuts – or storing them for future use. Squirrel won’t remember them all. Some may well germinate and grow, in which case we gardeners will pot them on and think about where to plant them. If you don’t know where to plant yours, the Woodland Trust will do that for you in the UK; other charities will help people plant trees overseas and make sure they are watered and survive. Last December we met the Happy Man Tree in Hackney, London, which did not survive despite local pressure to keep it and build around it. It was felled earlier this year to make way for housing.
I thought it was a while since we’d heard from Eddie at the Irish Chaplaincy, but lo and behold, here are three Autumnal posts waiting to appear in Agnellus Mirror. We are grateful to Eddie for allowing us to share his wise words with our readers.
One of the most uplifting images I’ve seen recently was of a 100-year-old religious sister in Dublin looking at and listening to, via a screen, her 90-year-old sister in London.
Mamie, who lives in Archway in North London and who has been supported by the Irish Chaplaincy Seniors’ Project for many years, was one of the first recipients of a pre-programmed Tablet as part of our ‘Keeping Connected’ campaign. Back at the start of the pandemic I’d had a conversation with Paul, the Seniors manager, about how we might be able to use technology to help people who were going to become even more isolated in lockdown. We were both a bit dubious about it initially but it became clear that there was a need for something, with people telling us they would find it a comfort to attend Mass or to listen to their favourite Irish radio station. Along came Joe who had being involved in a project in his native USA whereby senior banking executives who were not very computer literate were enabled to use devices like Tablets. Declan was also instrumental in the project by, amongst many other things, helping us to get around the issue of no wifi facing most of those we were supporting by means of dongles and Giffgaff-activated SIMS!
The key, as with so much of life, is to keep it simple! And that’s precisely what ‘Keeping Connected’ has done. All that’s needed is a swipe or a touch of the screen and somebody can be watching Mass from anywhere in the world, or tuning into the radio, or speaking to a familiar face. Anne told us how she loved listening to her favourite (Drogheda-based) LMFM; and John from Galway told me every week when I called how he loved hearing Galway Bay FM in the evening and how the Tablet had changed his life!
Mamie was equally delighted with her Tablet and was far quicker than me to see the possibilities it offered. She declared that she was going to attend Mass at St Gabriel’s in Archway, as well as in Ireland, and she was going to speak via Google Duo to Fr Ugo, her parish priest. She also, in the event, joined Facebook on her own initiative. And she, a then 89-year-old woman who had never previously used a computer.
Mamie had said as well at the outset, “I’ll be able to speak to my sister in Dublin next September when it’s her 100th birthday.” She was true to her word. Joe was with Mamie in her flat on the big day, and a carer in the home where Sr. Joseph lives was on hand at the other end. I listened to a recording of the call, in which Mamie says to her sister, “I wish I could hold your hand. I love you; I always have, and I always will.” Sr. Noreen in Dublin wrote, “Sr Joseph’s niece and the four Good Shepherd Sisters who celebrated her 100th birthday with her yesterday all agreed that the highlight for Sr. Joseph was the video call which you facilitated with her only living sibling Mamie Williamson. Sr. Joseph (Rita to her family) became more animated when she saw Mamie and though she did not speak it was evident that she was touched.”
Whether it’s supplying phone credit and writing materials to prisoners so they can keep in touch with family in Ireland or by providing seniors with easy-to-use technology like Tablets, I’m so proud of how the Irish Chaplaincy team has, in spite of a pandemic, helped people to keep connected across the Irish Sea.
By Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish Chaplaincy, always happy to share his wisdom with us.
Having now attended, in person, my first hybrid conference I had a chance to compare the experience of attending virtually and attending in the flesh.
It was the AGM and annual conference of CCA, Community Chaplaincy Association, of which Irish Chaplaincy is an associate member, and it was being held at the Royal Foundation of St Katherine, a charity founded in East London in 1147 and described on its website as ‘an extraordinary urban oasis’. It truly is! There is an immediate sense of calm upon entering, with lots and lots of lovely, tranquil spaces, both inside and out. I had a little explore before joining the group and found in the grounds the old chapel which was reconfigured so that a huge floor to ceiling window was created in one of the side walls giving a view of the beautiful garden and a giant oak tree. And right outside the chapel is a little enclosed terrace with fountains. It really was my kind of place, somewhere where I could just sit in peace for hours.
One of the most valuable elements of conferences for me has always been the informal conversations that take place in between the formal sessions. This one was no disappointment in that respect, and the conversations were well fuelled by mid-morning coffee and pastries, a tasty lunch, and tea and cakes in the afternoon. You just don’t get any of that when you attend ‘virtually’, which many people did. There they were on a large screen, and they even got a bit of gentle teasing from Jackie, the Chair: “Sorry, we’ve got to leave you now to go for our coffee and pastries!”
There was yet another little treat in store, with an opportunity to go to the chapel for a mid-day prayer at 12.45. I was the only one who went and the man there lighting the candles as I arrived seemed pleased that he wouldn’t be conducting the service on his own. We got chatting after the prayer, and my ears pricked up at the clear trace of a Belfast accent. He had heard of the Irish Chaplaincy and said how much he liked our website. “How do you know about us?” I asked, pleasantly surprised. His wife, it turned out, was Debby, CEO of London Gypsies and Travellers, with whom I’d had some contact. Kevin told me that she spoke very highly of our work. We could have talked all day but I had to go for lunch where I ended up sitting next to Jackie who, it emerged, had once worked as an actress and had appeared in Casualty!
Those encounters with Kevin and Jackie and everyone else during the day; so too simply going to a different place and observing people and life on the way: it was so stimulating. It was a very different experience to attending virtually, which I have done several times over the last eighteen months. I sit there in my chair on my own and I really do try to concentrate but I end up turning the camera off and checking and sending emails; and then I get fidgety and walk around the room; and then I lie on the floor to listen; and then invariably I fall asleep! How many virtual conferences have ended for me in sleep! And I feel a bit rubbish come the end of the day.
By contrast, I was still buzzing the day after the CCA conference as I travelled up to London again for our first hybrid team meeting at the Irish Chaplaincy! There were six of us there in the flesh and three people on my laptop screen and it worked just fine and there was plenty of good-natured banter and laughter. All were agreed that we would all come together once a month for an in-person meeting followed by lunch together. And we’ll continue to do certain other meetings via zoom. One of those who had been on the screen came in to the office a little later and the seven of us headed over to Temptation Café for lunch to mark Fiona’s birthday. Dessert was taken back in the office in the form of chocolate cake, and it was a welcome return to an old Irish Chaplaincy tradition. Several people contacted me the day after to say how much they had enjoyed it. I also had found it immensely uplifting and energising.
And then the week after that there was the CSAN Directors conference, which had been due to be in Rome but because of continuing Covid uncertainties took place at Hinsley Hall in Leeds. As said already, I find immense pleasure and value in the informal encounters that take place between sessions. And I was delighted with the reunion in the evening of Sean (whistles), Jim (bodhrán) and myself (guitar). We were in fine form, and we were joined at one point by Jo and Andrew of CJM music who had given us such fantastic musical input during the conference.
In the middle of one tune I noticed a woman enter the bar who wasn’t part of the CSAN group. I gave her a little smile and she explained to me later that it had encouraged her to come in and stay. She had been up in her bedroom, the sole person there that night who was not part of the group, and had hear the music from below and had felt drawn to it. She stayed right to the end and sang a couple of old Irish songs herself, beautifully, and told a bit of her story. Amongst several various or potential things in common, she and I knew somebody at Taizé where she’d once spent a couple of years. I told her that she would be getting a mention in my latest blog, which would be making the point that some things just aren’t possible via a zoom screen: things which may be considered dispensable but which are in fact vital to our innate human need for connection. And so Sorcha becomes the second person living in London but born in Belfast to appear in this particular piece!
It will be interesting to see how the hybrid working culture develops. Zoom is here to stay and we couldn’t put that genie back in the bottle even if we wanted to. And indeed it makes certain things possible that we never could have imagined, for example people in different countries or cities being able to meet together without having to hop on planes or trains. Mind you, in-person can be hard to beat, especially if it involves live music, coffee and pastries or chocolate cake!
It’s holiday season, and was so in August 1780. Johnson writes to invite a Scottish friend to come and enjoy the bright lights of London, but a little later perhaps, when winter is drawing in.
To DR. BEATTIE, AT ABERDEEN.
More years than I have any delight to reckon, have past since you and I saw one another; of this, however, there is no reason for making any reprehensory complaint—Sic fata ferunt*. But methinks there might pass some small interchange of regard between us.
If you say, that I ought to have written, I now write; and I write to tell you, that I have much kindness for you and Mrs. Beattie; and that I wish your health better, and your life long. Try change of air, and come a few degrees Southwards: a softer climate may do you both good; winter is coming on; and London will be warmer, and gayer, and busier, and more fertile of amusement than Aberdeen.
More news I have not to tell you, and therefore you must be contented with hearing, what I know not whether you much wish to hear, that I am, Sir,
Your most humble servant, SAM. JOHNSON.
August 21, 1780.
Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780 by James Boswell.
Good Morning! I’d like to share an old family story that has a bearing on our lives during the second summer of covid-19; we hope you enjoy your holidays, but please let other people enjoy theirs in peace!
We looked around for somewhere to eat our picnic and my young daughters chose the spot between the paws of one of the sphinxes that guard Cleopatra’s needle, an inscribed obelisk associated with the Queen, on the Embankment in central London. Here we were out of the way and could watch the river traffic and the passing tourists.
In the half-hour or so we were there four different families or groups swarmed up beside the girls, posing for photographs; there is another sphinx on the other side of the Needle. Only the last family asked permission, and that was when we were leaving, otherwise there came no apology or acknowledgement of our family at all.
This extreme case of bad manners poses two questions. What, first of all, do we go away for? These people did not appear to be looking at or appreciating the monument at all. I guess they too were near Charing Cross, and had to tick the Needle off their list, and take a photo to prove it. In fact the second, unoccupied sphynx was better lit and unoccupied, so why intrude on us?
Which brings up the second question: do we consider other people when on holiday? The first time I ever felt ashamed to be English overseas was when a couple of middle-aged compatriots smuggled two Yorkshire terriers into a Galway restaurant and fed them titbits on their laps. It was not the last time!
It’s not just inebriated football supporters who get us a bad reputation abroad; it can be you or I, when we don’t take trouble to learn foreign ways, whether tipping, using the buses, or even the plumbing. The ordinary courtesy of consideration and neighbourliness are important, even in London.
Don’t spoil your holiday – or someone else’s – with bad manners!