Tag Archives: Sussex

January 28, Review: Extreme Pilgrim

Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul

Does sitting in one place qualify as being a pilgrim? Perhaps it does if you are a Sussex vicar, and that sitting place is a grotto in the Egyptian desert, home to hermits, monks and nuns since the earliest days of the Church.

Peter Owen Jones borrowed the cave of Father Lazarus, forty-five minutes’ walk from the cell of Saint Anthony, first of the Desert Fathers, to ‘live a very strict life of prayer, eating only one full meal a day.’ (p. ix) And part of this life of prayer was the writing of letters to people who helped make him the man he is today.

These include our would-be master and prince of this world, Satan, who rules by fear. Owen Jones’s signing off with, ‘all my love, Peter’, suddenly makes sense if we remember that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1John4:19).

Many things seem to have made sense when seen from the perspective of the desert, though at times a sense beyond logical thought, a sense of wonder. What was it you went out to see? A memory of a hedge sparrow’s (or dunnock’s) nest, described in a letter to God.

As you know, for their nests they weave  grass and hair precisely into a small deep bowl, which they line with moss to the point where it shines. And there they were  four varnished blue eggs sitting in this deep smooth green … we were both in a state of wonder and whilst I was alone, I realised I wasn’t alone – you were there in that state of wonder, you were present.’  (p45)

To his adoptive father he writes, ‘It was only when your eldest granddaughter was about three years old that I realised that being a father was something separate: it is a love all of its own’ (p15)

What did you go out to see? A good deal of seeing, of realising, is recorded in this little book. Every chapter represents a challenge that Owen-Jones faced; a chance to realise how other people had influenced his life for better or worse, and to accept himself, his own mortality as well as the loss of family and friends.

My wife read Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim through and enjoyed it almost before I had brought it into the house. I know who I will pass it on to. She’ll have it in time for Lent, and so will you if you buy on line now.

WT

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October 25, Month of Mission: Beachy Head Chaplains

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William Blake lived near Beachy Head in Sussex, part of the range of chalk cliffs he drew as a background for this verse.

Virginia Woolf was to drown herself in the nearby River Ouse a century and a half later, but today it is the cliffs themselves that attract the lonely, depressed and overwhelmed who are tempted to take their lives.

The Beachy Head Chaplaincy team are Christians from local churches ‘and although we reach out with the love of God, we never impose our faith on the people we seek to help.

‘We believe that by receiving skilled crisis intervention support at their time of crisis, people in suicidal distress can be awakened to the hope that there are other ways forward to address the problems they face.’judas

The Apostle Judas went out and hanged himself after seeing Jesus arrested and condemned, but the artist of Strasbourg Cathedral’s west front shows us the Lamb of God coming to release him from his noose and away from the mouth of Hell to go in at Heaven’s Gate.

In their different ways, the well-to-do and well-connected Virginia Woolf, and the disciple who was trusted by Jesus, were both privileged, yet both knew despair. It is not for us to condemn them, or any other suicide; rather let us support with prayer and alms brave good neighbours like the Samaritans and the Beachy Head Chaplains, not forgetting the official first responders, Police, Ambulance, Fire, Coastguard and Lifeboats.

And may we be ready with small talk or even a just a smile for anyone we meet.  Lead, Kindly Light!

 

 

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April 29: Sussex Folk Through a Poet’s Eyes.

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Edward Thomas, The man that loved this England well,1 wrote about The South Country before he became a poet. Wandering through Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, he recorded what he saw and felt along the way. Here he is in a Sussex village near where the poet Shelley was born; he has just been discussing the romantic poets.

Edward Thomas died this month in 1917, leaving a wife and family.

Note how he values the two villagers, Robert Page and his presumed descendant, as equally worthy of consideration as the poet.

In a churchyard behind I saw the tombstone of one Robert Page, born in the year 1792 here in Sussex, and dead in 1822 — not in the Bay of Spezia1 but in Sussex. He scared the crows, ploughed the clay, fought at Waterloo and lost an arm there, was well pleased with George the Fourth, and hoed the corn until he was dead. That is plain sense, and I wish I could write the life of this exact contemporary of Shelley.

That is quite probably his great granddaughter, black-haired, of ruddy complexion, full lips, large white teeth, black speechless eyes, dressed in a white print dress and stooping in the fresh wind to take clean white linen out of a basket, and then rising straight as a hazel wand, on tiptoe, her head held back and slightly oh one side while she pegs the clothes to the line and praises the weather to a passer-by. She is seventeen, and of such is the kingdom of earth.

And bearing in mind all those saintly women, Agnes, Agatha, Eanswythe, Tydfil, Mildred; we should perhaps affirm that ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ Despite his melancholy, Edward Thomas can lead us to the gate thereof this Eastertide.

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So too could William Blake, who also lived in Sussex. Surely this little engraving shows the cliffs and downs of nearbyBeachy Head?

MMB

1 WH Davies’ description of his friend. The poet Percy Bysse Shelley was born in 1892 and died at the Bay of Spezia in 1822.

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17 April: Stations for Peter XI: Jesus speaks to his Mother.

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Jesus spoke to his mother, but Peter was not beside him and Mary. Jesus asked John to care for his mother.

Scripture references: Peter a long way off: Luke 22:54-55; 23:49; Mary and John at the Cross: John 19: 25-27; Peter’s mother-in-law: Matthew 3:14-15.

I was not there, not really there. Back in the crowd I was.

I don’t think he could even see me, and no way could I hear his gasping words, but young John was there, John was listening closely.

Jesus knew John was there, and his mother, Mary. He told John to care for her.

I would have done it.

Didn’t he care for my mother-in-law?

I let him down again.

Let us pray for everyone caring for other people’s parents, and their own; for adoptive and foster children and parents, and for all who work with children.

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom!

Window, St Mary, Rye, Sussex, MMB.

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10 February: Not through vainglory: a response to Virginia Woolf

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Saint Paul never tramped the byways of Palestine with Jesus, but he knew the Jewish Scriptures – to love the Lord your God with your whole being and your neighbour as yourself. He put it this way:

If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

Philippians 2:1-4.

You don’t have to be a Christian believer to look to the things of others, to work towards being of one accord with your neighbours. In a diverse society such as the United Kingdom today, that should be obvious. But that sense of solidarity does not predominate in everybody. I feel that it was what Virginia Woolf missed by trying to live the illusion – her own word – that she was somehow superior to others. Vainglory sums it up precisely.

And realising that it was vainglory to affect such superiority – or so I read her ending – she filled her pockets with stones and waded into the river. Woolf was certainly struggling with despair in her last months. The Hamilton Star recently told how researchers from Canada and Brazil created word clouds from her writings in happier times and those last months.

In the cloud created from her final months, the words include: little, miss, war, nothing, never, can’t and don’t. The researchers write that these “negative words” may indicate Woolf’s “thoughts of lack of efficacy, self-criticism, worthlessness, nostalgia, melancholy and mainly hopelessness.”

This is not to deny the mental illness that blighted Virginia Woolf’s life, which surely contributed to her thoughts of melancholy and hopelessness, despite her many privileges. Nor is it possible to compare her suffering with Paul’s time in chains and prison, nor to deny the power of God’s grace to work in her heart. Suicide is an extreme form of repentance, and Woolf was aware, perhaps morbidly aware, of causing suffering to others, and as her last letter shows, she wanted to end that. Let us, for every one who takes their own life, 

be … confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:6.

 

And let us remember, with thanks, that there is now formal and informal help for those in great distress that was not available to Virginia Woolf.

MMB.

 

 

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2 February: The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

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The Nunc Dimittis Canticle is recited every night in the Catholic Church; in Anglican churches, such as Canterbury Cathedral, it is sung during Vespers. It is originally the Song of Simeon; the old man was overcome with joy and peace when he met the little scrap of humanity that was ‘the Salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.’

That was the easy bit when I was asked to play Simeon in a mystery play at Canterbury Cathedral three years ago. My grandson was already too big for the part but the doll we borrowed did not steal the scene. I could concentrate on the Baby, the Father -and then Mary.

It is a massive shift of key as the prophetic revelation finds utterance, and yet we know it is true: a sword will pierce her heart – indeed there is a tradition of the seven sorrows of Mary. I had to come down from my great joy in an instant and look into Mary’s eyes with an overwhelming compassion that was neither mine, nor yet Simeon’s, but the Father’s.

Thirty years after the Presentation that compassion would be brought to practical life by John.

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This window from Saint Mary’s in Rye, Sussex shows Mary, almost blind with grief, following her adoptive son by the hand. She turns her back on the apple tree of temptation and stumbles trustingly towards the Vine.

The empty Cross is a point of light against the night sky: sorrow will be replaced by joy, overturning the order of Simeon’s vision. This is a John’s Gospel window. We also see the Great Bear in the stars. If a star told of his coming, this constellation points to the North Star by which we can find our way to him.

I am the way.

Anyone who wants to follow me must take up their cross daily and follow me.

 

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12 December: Beautiful killers and the greatest love.

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September had turned warm again, it was a good day to enjoy a sandwich in sight of the sea near Rye Harbour, and watch the world go by.

There were fewer humans than the last time I was this way, which was in August, but there were plenty of birds, as always. What first caught my eye was a small group of sand martins, swooping and swirling, stirring themselves up for the long flight to Southern Africa. Not quite ready to go yet! Was it a family group, the parents imparting their final advice before taking off in earnest?

A cormorant passed by, purposefully facing the light westerly breeze. A different spectacle altogether: its flying looked like hard work, though we know the grace they acquire as soon as they are in their watery element.

It must have been the frequent sightings of fighter planes this Battle of Britain month that set me comparing the martins to Spitfires, all speed and aerobatics and the cormorant to a ponderous Wellington bomber: killing machines both. So are the martins and cormorant killers, but not of their own kind and no more than necessary to feed  themselves and their children.

We humans know better than that of course.

_______________________________________________

Redemption? Half a mile away is an abandoned wooden hut, the former lifeboat station. It was from here that seventeen men sailed and rowed to their deaths early last century, setting out in a storm to rescue the crew of a stricken ship. They did not know that the men were safely on shore before they set out. Their monument says they were doing their duty.

It was rather the greatest love.

(Another day at the same place.)

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8 July: Sister Rose’s Winter Sleepover

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I finally caught up with Sister Rose the other day: do you recall her sleep-out to help homeless people in Sussex? (see January 18th and subsequent posts). Well, I managed to walk out of St Thomas’s Church with her and have a short chat. Between herself and Sisters  Clare and Anne, they raised nearly £3,000. I guess they could have paid that for a West End Hotel, but the money has gone to a much better cause.

Well done, sisters, and thank you and well done to all who supported them. If you did not manage to help the sisters back then, spare a thought for your local food bank, as parents have to find an extra meal per day to make up for the dinners their children would have eaten if they had been in school.

Will Turnstone.

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7 April: The Passover Sequence IV. The Evening.

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Saint Mary, Rye, Sussex.

It was darkness

When Nicodemus finally turned up.

With permissions.

With lights,

With tools,

A ladder,

Men.

Helpers so needed.

We had no strength, were exhausted,

Standing for hours

Waiting,

Watching.

It had all been waiting, these past days,

Our conversations muted.

Just being.

And what he seemed to want.

To be.

To be with us.

The love palpable,

Needing.

See …. they have almost released his hands.

When these Romans do a job,

They do it well.

There is no blood left to flow.

These men,

How delicately they support him.

How silent,

The chink of a tool,

A whisper,

As he is laid upon the ground.

So stony,

So blood-soaked

An execution ground.

See …. they remove those thorns,

No blood.

What possessed them to do that to him?

Why ……..?

So near now to Mary’s feet.

She doesn’t stir.

Watching, absorbed within herself,

Gathering her son,

Her pain,

All he has left to her,

Her sorrow.

See …. they clear as best they may

The detritus of the day

And wrap him in the cloth they brought.

They thought of everything!

We can think of nothing,

Except that he is gone

And the great chasm of loneliness we bear.

She moves as he is borne away,

Takes my arm.

Come home,

It will soon be dawn.

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A message from Sister Rose

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(From the Newsletter of St Thomas’ Church, Canterbury).

I would like to thank all those who sponsored me for the Sleep Out in Littlehampton last month. Twenty people took part. I don’t yet know the final sum raised. It was bitterly cold – minus four degrees – but we survived!

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