One of the images which has stuck with me after my visit to New York was the bronze sculpture we saw in the Cathedral of St John the Divine. It was created by Meredith Bergmann, a sculptor, feminist and poet and invited contemplation which held me when I was there and I’ve gone back to time and time again. It shows a woman with her eyes closed, holding up both hands, palms towards her face, stopping two planes. It made me think of stigmata. You can read what she says about it here.
And so to Washington DC, after a hearty French Toast breakfast, on the Greyhound bus. But this time our journey was not quite so uneventful. Instead of 6 of us rattling around a huge coach, this time the bus was full. Foolishly I kept walking up to the back of the bus looking for two seats together and there were none, which left us sitting at the back of the bus, next to the loo and the ‘bad guys’. It began with a long and loud phone call between the man behind me and the love of his life, in graphic detail. More knowledge than you ever wanted to know. Then a young guy got on, just out of prison we learned, who spoke at great length to the mother of his child about how she ought to get herself together and accept she was a mother and should get on with it. Reading my kindle became impossible as a real life soap opera was played out all around us, including some shady drug dealing in the back row. At one point an older man turned to the phone guys and told them to keep it down as G could be an undercover cop! All very exciting but lead us to agree that we’d get the train from now on and hang the cost!
We made it to our new apartment alive and unscathed – another basement but very nice indeed on Capitol Hill. Dumped our stuff and wandered down to Barracks area where restaurants of every nation jostled with one another amidst trendy boutiques. Had lunch in an American diner and opted for the healthy sounding ‘Rachel Sandwich’ which turned out to be fried bread and enough filling to keep me in calories for a week. Took the Metrol into town and what a difference from NY and Phillly. DC is clean, white, low enormous and grand buildings which take up a whole block themselves. The roads are wide avenues with 8 lanes and not a skyscraper to be found. Much more up-market and very few shops. This town is geared towards business and politics. We wandered round a sculpture garden next to the art gallery, found a book shop and then staggered home.
Tried a Cheese Danish for breakfast this morning. I’m nothing if not adventurous and they have been intriguing me ever since we got here. Didn’t really get the cheesiness of it which is probably a blessing.
Got the hop-on hop-off Tour Bus and did the Capitol North and South, the White House (smaller than you might think but never meant to be as big as a palace we were told), Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial (they go in for memorials in a BIG way in DC) where we changed bus, sad to lose our hilarious guide. From there we did Constitution Avenue, the Arlington Cemetary (big and tidy and sad), Pentagon City (and it was enormous) and then back to the Martin Luther King Memorial where we had a wander and ponder.
In the afternoon we went to the National Gallery of Art, and I was glad to be out of the hot, hot sun. Sitting on top of an open-air bus does leave you rather exposed to the elements – wind, rain and snow in NY and now scorching heat. So much Dutch and Renaissance art that you wonder how much of it has come over here. Some gorgeous Vermeers to ogle and then we had a look at some American art and I discovered an artist called Andrew Wyeth and fell in love with his painting of an open window. So simple but it draws you in and I adore it.
My legs are now screaming at me to STOP PLEASE STOP! I’m tired and conscious that there is still so much to see but really feel exhausted. So much for going to the gym to get fit before I came away. 15 minutes on the treadmill has not really prepared me for walking 10-12 hours each day. I’m aware that there are huge chunks of these galleries that I’m not even looking at. Can there be such a thing as too much art?
Staggered out to a Sports Bar for large shrimp (and I mean large!) and crawled home with my swollen ankles. G went out to watch a boxing match in a local bar and I was asleep in minutes.
Sunday again and I get to go to Church. Yay! I haven’t visited as many churches as I normally would on holiday but I’m looking forward to being pew fodder today. Later I’m meeting with an old friend who is a priest here but her church is having its AGM today so she suggests I meet her husband and go to his church – St Paul’s K Street. And gosh, was it high! Nearly all sung, accompanied by a wonderful organist and fabulous choir of 25, mostly men. Lots of anthems and very CofE. Or Anglican from 50 years ago, or more. Over coffee I was introduced to lots of arty folk, and met one of the more eccentric guides from yesterday’s bus tour – an out-of-work actor. The talk was all about their new priest who is about to join them after an interregnum of two years and it turns out to be Fr Gordon’s curate from St Clements.
It’s funny being a priest in someone else’s church. The temptation is to sit and watch with a critical eye, noitcing the practicalities of how the liturgy is done and why. I’m trying not to do that, but to enjoy being in the pews and being fed myself during this sabbatical time. It reminded me of the time I spent Holy Week at Mirfield months before I was ordaining and thought that this would be the last time I’d get to sit and be fed for a long time. Although I adore leading worship it has been nice to not be responsible for checking the rotas, organising all the bits and pieces before a service, and all the rest. However whenever I am sitting in the pews my own little flock comes to mind and I remember them far, far away and wonder how they are doing. Prayers are offered and candles lit.
After church we went to meet Elizabeth Orens at a lovely Greek restaurant where finally the portion sizes were more manageable. Perhaps we should have done this all along and not gone ‘American’ for all our grub. Lovely meal washed down with a few Bellinis. There is such a difference between DC and NY and we had long conversations about art and the church which was just perfect.
Met up with G after and had to go into town to buy another suitcase for all the booty we’ve bought. Mainly prints, books and posters for me. Where I’m going to hang them is another matter altogether.
Up early, fruit salad for breakfast, and on to the Amtrak train back to NYC. Comforable, leg room, no drug deals, no noisy phone calls, just three hours of shoogliness. Not sure why American trains are more shoogly than ours but there we have it. Stepped out of Penn Station to the noisy hubbub that is NY and it was hot. Now I understand why they all leave the city, if they can afford it, and go to the hills or the coast in summer. Fortunately our hotel for our last night is just over the road and up we go to the 25th floor. Sadly our view is of the hotel next door.
Find out the other galleries I’d wanted to visit are closed today so we just go for a wander. Back on the street with the thousands of yellow cabs and tooting horns and shouting of Scripture or phone calls or inner voices, I realise I’ve missed New York. Healthy sandwich from nearby deli (half did me so I gave the other half to a homeless guy who immediately asked for money instead!) and we sat in the park soaking up the exhaust fumes and sounds of the city. Pottered about, going back to Rockefeller Plaza and then to John’s Pizzeria again at Times Square. The sun went down, the lights went on and the noise didn’t abate one bit. We watched the hip-hoppers, the women painted in stars and stripes, the police and all of the big melting pot which makes up this exciting city. I never really wanted to come to NY but find that I love it. I will miss the buzz, the excitement, the people and the friendliness. I’ve never felt scared, except perhaps in Philly briefly, and amazingly have not witnessed one crime. How we have not seen a car accident is truly a miracle. I’ve been asked if I was Australian and my purple hair has been appreciated by about a thousand folk who told me so. I’ve learned that nobody seems to make and drink coffee at home but buys it out and drinks as they walk and work. It has been a trip of a lifetime.
Our last day so we had a long lie and then ate at the diner in the hotel. I’ll miss the continuous coffee and the maple syrup on everything. My legs look I have blown them up with a pump and painted them red and I show them to the pharmacist who couldn’t care less. We wander around taking it all in until it is time to head back to Newark airport. Security is much less strict and not a sniffer dog in sight. Nobody cares what we’re taking out of the country it seems. G’s suitcase is too heavy so we have to do a bit of jiggery pokery to get it all through. Duty free is not terribly exciting so we enjoy a last snack before boarding our plane to take us home. This time we’re leaving early evening and will be home in the morning so it seems as if it will be a longer flight.
Sadly there are not enough headphones so I don’t get to watch a movie on the way home. We have a grumpy lady sitting next to me and it is all rather low-key really. So I drink lots of water, jiggle my wee fat legs incase a clot settles in and kills me, and doze off and on with my bright pink I LOVE NY neck pillow. We arrive in Scotland at 7.30am where it is pouring rain and freezing cold. Eddie is there to pick me up and allows me to chatter all the way home to Falkirk.
And then it was Sunday. Church. Which Church? So many to choose from. On the advice of Fr Kelvin, I went to St Mark’s in the Bowry where they are doing exactly what I’d love to do if I had a big enough space and a courageous congregation. Altar in the middle of the church with chairs in circles around it. Really mixed age congregation and lots of Wild Goose music along with some modern inclusive stuff. Kind of jazzy, folky, soul feel to it. Notices at the Peace and I was welcomed and applauded. Some went up to be prayed for because it was birthday, anniversary or someone they knew was sick – just like us at The Pig! We brought our gifts to the plate on the altar and then stayed standing around the altar for Eucharist. Glorious AMEN sung at the end, gospel style. Relaxed, prayerful, catholic, musical, inclusive, glorious.
G had gone off for a wander while I was at church and met me after and we went to sit in a wee park he’d found where some guys were playing basketball. I sat and wrote pages of my thoughts on the service. A church came by to hand out food to the homeless in the park. One of the homeless women said she had a Glock in her pocket so we took that as our cue to leave. Visited the New Museum which took modern art to the nth degree. G took part in an interactive thing where you put on goggles and you could imagine you were in a rain forest.
Then we crawled to the South St Seaport and sat in a waterfront bar for grub and a drink. The sun was out but it was cold in the shade. Then on to the Water Taxi for a birl round the island again before limping home. Sore foot is improving. Legs are not. Rush hour traffic on a Sunday seems weird. This city really never sleeps.
Lazy morning then brunch at our favourite diner. Omelette this time. Really trying to find non-carbs today. Went to the Guggenheim for more culture – $25 worth, in fact. Lovely building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and that’s about all I can say really. (No photos allowed.) 4 floors of dates on card and numbers on bits of paper and postcards all saying ‘I’m still alive’. Finally found some paintings in a side room and discovered a Picasso that I loved (Woman Ironing). Outside a busker was singing Stevie Wonder songs so we sat and listening for a while. He was the best thing about our visit.
Wandered along 5th Avenue looking at the posh shops and had an expensive coffee. Back to 42nd St and found John’s Pizza place which was recommended in all the guide books. Well worth it. Massive place, massive pizzas, massive drinks. Lots of local people and a great buzz. Then home to pack for tomorrow we leave for Philadelphia.
Heard on the news that the rabid coyote had been caught by the police. Feel kind of sad for the wee critter.
Greyhound bus to Philadelphia which was quiet and took just over an hour. Our house in Dickinson St is in the southside and was lovely inside, very modern with a small roof terrace. Still no kettle. Becoming experts now with strange showers and plugs. Weather has changed and it is now hot and sunny so we decided to just wander through the neighbourhood and find out what’s going on. Bad idea. One street nice, next street scary. No way of knowing which is which. Finally found a main road and grabbed a taxi into town. Lots of graffiti on buildings which is really quite beautiful. Got my nails done by a Chinese girl in a face mask who spoke rarely but communicated by pointing and we got on fine.
Wandered round the shops and then had the obligatory Philly Cheesesteak which seems to be mince on a roll with cheese. Nice.
Did the Hop on Hop off Tour bus round Philly. Smaller than NY but some grand buildings and a great sense of history. One road had flags from all the nations that they have a good relationship with – saw the Union Jack as well as Scottish Saltire and Welsh flag. Lunch in the hippy area, sitting out in the sun and leaving half a plateful again. Why, o why?
In the evening we had been invited to Fr Gordon Reid’s for cocktails so jumped in a taxi uptown. Really chatty taxi driver who sang God Bless America for us and on being told he had a great voice, confessed he used to sing with the Delfonics – the Philly Soul group in the 60s/70s. Then he put on his new CD and we all sang along! Now that’s what I call a taxi ride.
Fr G has recently retired as priest at St Clement’s there and once upon a time was Rector of St Michael & All Saints, although I’d never met him because he left before I joined. We have since become Facebook friends so it was good to meet him in the flesh. He has a most beautiful loft apartment in the heart of the city and had some great friends for us to meet. Even G, who had been a tad reluctant to spend the evening with ‘churchy’ folk, met some interesting people. Probably drank too much gin and ate too much smoked salmon but had a wonderful evening.
More pancakes. Just to check Philly ones were the same as NY ones, you understand. They are.
A morning in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and found the Tanner Annunciation which I love and love even more now I’ve seen it. The photo of course doesn’t do it justice. Discovered lots of American art which was new to me, as well as a host of Monets (how many paintings did he do?!), Renoir, Cezanne etc. Came out at the top of the Rocky steps and joined everyone in having my photo taken like Sylvester Stallone. No I didn’t run up them first. Really.
On to the Franklin Institute for the Art of the Brick exhibition for G. It was an incredible selection of pieces of art made from Lego. Each one even had how many bricks it had taken to make – tens of thousands in most cases. Fought our way through the thousands of teenagers in school parties too. That was fun.
Wandered back into town to find helicopters hovering around. There was recently a death of a black guy while in police custody in nearby Baltimore and Philly were holding a peaceful protest we found out. One after another police cars arrived and blocked all the streets out of town. We jumped in a taxi, cowards that we are, and couldn’t find a road that wasn’t blocked off. Looked like we were never going to get home but eventually we managed a detour and were happy to pay $13 for his trouble!
To be continued
You never know who you are going to meet at airports. You can be on the other side of the world and it somehow doesn’t seem strange to bump into your nextdoor neighbour. So when G and I were queuing up to board our flight to New York it wasn’t unusual to bump into Fr Tim Morris on his way to the same place. Small world, eh? It was a bumpy flight in bits but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Into The Woods, some reading and some dozing. Then, as if by magic, we arrived in New York at lunchtime, having left at 9.20am. That time difference really messes with your head. Getting through Security took some time and was rather intimidating but we finally made it to the bag carousel. G went off to the loo and left me to find our suitcases which drew the attention of a rather cute sniffer dog and a rather not-so-cute police officer. As my life flashed before me and I wondered how I’d cope in San Quentin and was the uniform purple or lilac at a push, she asked in a rather unfriendly tone whether we had brought any nasty, poisonous food to her beautiful country. Well, she didn’t exactly say that, but that was the implication. And yes, G had indeed brought in half a baguette with ham and cheese. I was not allowed to touch his bag, or her dog, or speak until he returned which seemed to take forever. Meanwhile every other passenger smirked their way out into the open air. On G’s return we had to go through Security all over again and he had to put the offending baguette in a bin ready to be nuked as soon as our backs were turned.
Our accommodation throughout our stay in the USA was through AirBNB so we never quite knew what we were going to find. In New York we were actually staying across the River Hudson in Weehawken, New Jersey in a large mansion, but in the basement. Our hosts were from Goa but had lived in the States for over 40 years and had filled the fridge with all sorts of goodies for us and chatted about what we could do and see and where to get the bus into Manhatten (10 mins). At the end of the road we have the most wonderful view of the Manhatten skyline, a magnolia tree in the front garden, and peace and quiet so nothing really to complain about.
Dumped our bags, hopped on the bus and reached 42nd St in just a few minutes. First stop was BB King’s Blues Club for popcorn shrimps (enormous portion) and a drink with the friendliest bartender who offered to charge my phone and offered lots of advice. Then we did Times Square, nearly getting run over several times (must look the other way when crossing the road) and walked to 5th Ave and the Rockefeller Centre. By then I was exhausted – 8pm there but my legs are convinced they should be tucked up in bed. “Honey, I LOVE your purple hair!” “Aw gee look at your hair, its so cute!” “Love that hair – it matches your whole outfit!” And if I had a dollar for every time someone called that out to me, I could afford to go back tomorrow.
Crawled home to bed. All those workouts in the gym have not prepared me at all for this marathon of walking.
An interesting night of wakefulness and strange noises and excitement so up early and we were out at the bus stop at 8.50am. Applebees on 42nd St for breakfast of pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, eggs and potatoes. Enough food to feed both of us! No kettles in American homes so had to stock up on decaff coffee while I was out. We had a 3-day ticket for the Hop-on Hop-off buses and a New York Pass for 5 days which got us into all the main attractions free and it was really worthwhile. So we hopped on the bus and did the Theater District, the Garment District, Empire State Bulding, Chelsea, West Village, Soho, Tribeca, and the Financial District where we got off. It was hot and sunny and we were feelin’ goooood.
Walked to the 9/11 Memorial where there was still work going on but we gasped at Freedom Tower and the wonderful water memorial with names carved all round it. Met some nice police officers who allowed me to have my photo taken with them. (I’ve watched the programmes so I felt I knew them well enough to ask.) That whole area is very strange because it is really busy but everyone speaks in hushed tones. Yes the carhorns are tooting in the distance and the sirens are going but in that square it is strangely calm. The Museum was quite incredible, cool and moving. Really interesting displays and memories and not ghoulish or tacky as I’d feared. Some things stick in my mind… mangled metal, fire engines worn out, comments and words and people, what colour of blue was the sky that day? and a whole host of shades of blue paper filling a wall.
After that we popped in to Trinity Church, Wall Street, one of the wealthiest Episcopal churches in the world. I was surprised at how traditional it was. In the Sacrament Chapel there was a woman weeping, candles burning, Jesus and me. I hadn’t found anywhere at the 9/11 site where you could light a candle or say a prayer so I did that there. We found a wonderful bronze statue dedicated to 9/11 – a woman holding up her hands and stopping two planes, like stigmata.
Pizza in the sun for lunch – a slice the size of a whole pizza.
Back on the bus and off to Chinatown where the rain fell down. And did it ever! We were handed out yellow ponchos but G was too cool to wear it. I am off the age where I don’t care what I look like so on it went and the hood went up and I didn’t care that I looked like a demented duck. When the thunder and lightning began G gave in and casually shrugged it on. And we got soaked through Little Italy, Greenwich Village, Broadway, 5th Ave, and back to Rockefeller Centre where we got off for shelter. Had to buy a lovely Monet umbrella in the Met Gallery Shop and G lusted in the Lego Store before we tried to go up The Rock but because of the lightning they wouldn’t let us. We didn’t argue. There was nothing for it but to go to Macy’s. Not cheap but everyone in the world seemed to be buying designer handbags.
Walked back to Times Square for the bus, cold and wet and very tired. Dinner at Ruby Tuesdays with a Marguerita. Left about half of it. When there’s so many people begging on the streets, why do they give such huge portions of food?
Freezing cold today. Up and out early and breakfast in a deli. Needed something healthy so had bananas on my pancakes this morning. Of course there were about 6 massive pancakes and butter and maple syrup and Nutella to go with my fruit but I’m now getting the hang of it. I did draw the line at omelette on a croissant though.
On the bus again with a great guide who sang us songs from the musicals as we went through the West Side (Mariaaaa, I’ve just met a girl called Mariaaaa!) “Oh you’re from Scotland! Do you know Susan Boyle?!” We were sorry to get off but the cathedral of St John the Divine was calling. It’s a huge place, empty and chairs in only about 1/4 of it. No flowers or Easter gardens. There was a modern installation inspired by Dali’s St John of the Cross and some very modern Stations of the Cross. Said a prayer for my little flock.
Then round Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I think it would take a month to see everything in it, it is so immense. We did European Art, Modern Art, American Art and that took over 3 hours and we were fairly romping through most of it. I fell in love with a painting called St Joan of Arc. G learned that he really doesn’t like modern art. “I could do that.” Hobbling with sore foot now and begged to go home at 6pm while G went to look at the Comic Shop. Toe seems to be infected and the news says there’s a rabid coyote on the loose in New Jersey. Time for bed says Zebedee.
The temperature has plumetted and there is news of snow on the hills. It will be like our summer, they’d said before we came. And I packed accordingly. Have now worn the same lilac hoody for days now and am wishing I had brought my gloves. G wanted to shop so today was allocated a no-art day but a trip to Woodbury Common – the designer outlet village. Everyone was getting on the bus with suitcases which seemed strange but then we discovered that they literally wheeled them around and filled them with designer goodies! I was forced to buy cheap Ugg boots and a North Face jacket because it was snowing by then.
Breakfast at Evergreen Diner: football on TV, packed full of people going to work, just how you imagine a diner should be. Tried Cinnamon Toast this morning and it was delish. More maple syrup and way too much but I struggled my way through it. Infected foot is so sore I refuse to walk and we hopped in a cab to the Museum of Modern Art. A morning of Picasso, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, Warhol etc along with some very weird stuff. I’ve never really got modern art before but I found myself liking some of it very much. G didn’t. There was an exhibition of black American art which was good.
Then down to Pier 78 for a boat tour round Manhatten Island which gave great views of the city. Got off at Pier 11 and wandered round the financial district and watched some hip-hoppers doing their thing. Went up Empire State Building and did the Skyride – a simulated ride over the top of NYC where we screamed. Well one has to, doesn’t one? Looking down on the city was quite incredible but the concrete is starting to pale a little. Found myself hankering after some mountains and green fields. What is happening to me?!
Wandered through the posh part of town where there were lots of spooky tulips in beds. Had to have some Dunkin Donuts to make me feel better. Exhausted, foot sore, and don’t know how I’m going to carry on. Melodramatic? Moi?
to be continued…
It seems such a long time ago. Months, maybe a year or more? Certainly the notion of a sabbatical has been bubbling away for ages and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the time. For ages I’ve wanted to put together a Lent book/blog with 40 paintings or pieces of art along with a wee meditation. I’m a visual person, you see. Yes, I love words but especially if they paint pictures. And I love art. So my plan was always to visit lots of art galleries and rummage through all my saved pics and postcards for 40 images that I could use as a guide for Lent. Something that I never have time to do when daily ministry gets in the way: the phone calls, the visiting, the liturgy, the meetings, the prayers… all the things that make up my life. So about a year I spoke to the Bishop and started making the plans, applying for grants, speaking to arty people for advice.
I’d thought perhaps a trip to Florence and the Uffizi and perhaps Paris or Amsterdam. But the advice I was given was to go to New York and Washington. Now I shall share with you that the USA has never held any appeal for me. Nothing against them but its just not a country that I needed to visit. Give me Italy any time. But one friend after another told me how much I would love New York. And they have a great collection of art, especially Dutch and Renaissance which are probably my favourites. Gradually the excitement grew and now that Lent and Holy Week are over I am fairly bursting with alleluias and anticipation. I spoke to Son #2 about New York some time ago because he’s been twice and now he’s coming with me too which will be lovely. That will help me find our apartment again, my sense of direction not being great. Then when we looked at the map and found out that Philadelphia is in between NYC and Washington we thought we might have a few days there too.
This week is for planning and packing. Then next week we fly to NYC then Philly and Washington, traipsing round art galleries and museums and looking at lovely paintings. Huge joy! After I get back I shall head south to Gladstone’s Library to do some writing and choosing the art I love best. Perhaps there might even be a trip to Amsterdam too. Then 12 weeks from now I shall be back at work once more. 12 weeks!
I have some lovely clergy friends who are looking after my wee flock while I’m away, and I know my wonderful ministry team will take care of each other. And it will be good for them too – having a break from my preaching and nonsense. Of course, there’s always the risk that they won’t want me back…
Thanks also to the Alistair Haggart Bursary Fund, the Sons of the Clergy and my own diocese for grants, and my lovely flock and friends who have been so generous with gifts enabling this trip of a lifetime. I’ll be blogging, tweeting and FBing as I go so look out for those. Now back to the lists…
Tomorrow we enter Passiontide. The statues will be draped with purple cloths and my heart will soar. Yes, I know it is meant to take away any distractions but I love the shape and colour of those purple bags. That one hides the processional cross – a fleurette cross, I learned recently. That one covers the crucifix which looks over me as I preach. I feel its presence still. I can almost hear the solemn pounding of a drum as the build up to Holy Week begins.
A scream rings out. It was me! I’m sure if my GP was to look back through my notes he’d find that I visit round about the same time every year telling her/him that I can’t sleep, I’m really stressed, I’ve come out in a rash, I can’t breathe. One day they will suss that there is a pattern to this and they will wisely nod and say, “It’s okay Ruth. It is just Holy Week coming. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again. Practice mindfulness, make a list (many lists), pray for your photocopier and all shall be well.”
It is also at this time that I want to make my little flock promise that they won’t miss a single service. The drama of the most wonderful story is about to unfold before your very eyes and you really don’t want to miss any of it. If you miss a bit it would be like someone had cut a chapter out of that fabulous book you’re reading, or had removed all the blue bits from that intriguing jigsaw. Please promise me you won’t miss a bit of it.
There will be much to feed you. Processions with palms, a pilgrimage of Stations, silence and music, study and chatter, feetwashing and a shared meal, drama worthy of the greatest theatre, and a gruelling three hours of Passion. And hot cross buns too! All of this we must undergo before we can truly ‘get’ the joy of Easter and the Resurrection.
I’m excited that this year we also have the Bishop visiting on Holy Saturday to baptise and confirm. Some of my little flock have said they’d like to affirm the vows they made at their own confirmation because of the Pilgrim Course we’ve been doing. I well remember my own Confirmation classes with Fr Emsley… there was much Church history, as I recall. But at Candlemas I felt like a nun making solemn vows to promise something beyond my comprehension. And it is still beyond my comprehension…
I’ve always encouraged Vestry Away Days. However, I can tell that they’re not always as enthusiastically met as I’d hoped. I know that when you work 9-5 Monday to Friday the last thing you want to do on a Saturday is go off with a bunch of churchy folk and talk even more church than you do at Vestry meetings. And I realise that not everyone is as mad about the church as I am. So I was very conscious that there may have been a few wee grumblings about our Away Day yesterday. But not on the way home, I am delighted to say.
Over the years I’ve taken some myself but I know its always better if I can get a facilitator to lead the day. An outsider always brings something fresh to the proceedings. Usually this means sitting down with that person and discussing what we hope to get out of the day. This year I sent out an email asking the Vestry what they wanted from our Away Day. I got two replies. And one who said all she could think of just now was boilers. (She’d been having a tricky time with the Gas Board, I seem to recall.) Like I said, they are busy people. So I sat down with our lovely Facilitator Claire, and told her what I hoped we’d get from the day. She came back to me with a plan and after a little tweaking it looked all good.
I know that my Vestry are busy people. They are all folk who are doers. This is a bonus in a Vestry, let me tell you. And a lot of their ‘doing’ involves food. They bake for our Afternoon Tea Services for the housebound and elderly, they cook for our Soup and Pud Lunches, they provide food and crafts for our Sales. They are always doing. So when Claire said she’d provide lunch as well for our Day, so that they could be served instead of serving that seemed just right.
So we headed east, I think, and arrived for coffee and cookies and looked around the hall where areas were marked out for worship and inspiration and writing. In the morning we thought about what was good in Christ Church, what we loved about it, where God was in it and in our community. We did this by praying, by walking, by drawing pictures, by talking and by scribbling thoughts down. We sparked off one another and one thought led to another.
Lunch was homemade soup and homemade bread and the conversations continued. Then we looked at how we could share our enthusiasm about Christ Church with our community. Small groups went off to talk about our new Noticeboard, the Website, the Church appearance, and PR. We came back brimming over with ideas ready to be put into action. Then came the delightful Kelpie-shaped scones with jam and clotted cream. I don’t think there were any left over. We finished by going over to church for a Eucharist where we served one another the bread and wine.
On the way home one person said she really wasn’t looking forward to the day and had swithered about calling off. But she was so glad she hadn’t as it had been fun and she felt really inspired. There were lots more positive comments – especially about all the hard work our facilitator had put into making the day a success. And of course we all got to know one another just that little bit better too. And I can’t wait to get all our many flipcharts back all typed up so that we can begin the work of being Christ Church in Falkirk.
Dear Margaret, my deliciously eccentric organist, passed on some Lenten reading to me after a conversation about our shared love of Timothy Radcliffe. There were some worthy Lenten books in there but the ones which really caught my eye were two little books both called The Minister’s Cat. One is full of delightful Scottish words like ‘bogshaivelt’ = knocked out of shape, and ‘kirkie’ = enthusiastically devoted to church affairs. The other is full of gorgeous poetry about cats.
The Minister’s Cat is…
Obadiah’s on the sofa;
Obadiah’s on the chair.
No, he isn’t there in person;
But they’re covered in his hair.
Obadiah’s on the carpet;
Obadiah’s on the mat.
He’s perpetually moulting,
That infuriating cat.
Obadiah’s on my sweaters;
Obadiah’s on my suit.
When I’m going out on business,
I could kill the little brute.
Obadiah’s on the bedspread;
On the pillow as I sleep.
If he doesn’t keep his hair on,
I shall shear him like a sheep.
I’ve been asking Obadiah,
As he grudges me his purr,
In the name of all that’s feline,
Why he’s prodigal with fur.
Obadiah, to his credit,
Has a reason for the hair:
He’s afraid he’ll be forgotten
Any time he isn’t there.
It’s a token of his presence,
When he’s temporar’ly gone;
And a comforting assurance
That his mem’ry lingers on.
by Douglas Kynoch, Scottish Cultural Press, 1994
(For Obadiah read Lucy Pussy.)
Yes, it is that time again. This week was the Diocesan Retreat at Whitchester led by Barbara Glasson, Methodist minister and author. I first came across Barbara when I read her books I am Somewhere Else and Mixed-up Blessing and loved them. Barbara set up the ‘Bread Church’ in Liverpool which was a perfect example of what seems to be called Fresh Expressions – an alternative way of doing church. The title of the Retreat was ‘Why Bother?‘
Now, dear reader, you will know that I find these retreats a mix of agony and ecstasy. Agony because of the enforced silence and the struggle which extroverts find without an audience and unable to get to know the other retreatants better. And ecstasy because I get peace and quiet to read and knit and watch people.
Many years ago I was convinced of the notion that diocesan clergy should retreat together. You get to know a lot about people in silence. And when the bishop comes too it shows that our leaders take it seriously too. I’m told in years gone by all the clergy came – all. Those days are long gone. Each year the numbers fall as more and more clergy find their own place to retreat – some abroad, some in convents/monasteries, and some who just don’t. The venue was blamed so it was changed and that made no difference to numbers. This year there were 2 stipendiary clergy and 2 retired NSMs signed up (and one had to cancel because of ill health) and the lay retreat at the weekend was not much better, so both clergy and lay were combined with a total of eight of us.
Next year I take over as Retreat organiser so any suggestions for encouraging folk back would be most welcome.
But back to ‘Why Bother’ and Barbara Glasson… On arrival we had a discussion about how we wanted the retreat to be. In the past we have had two addresses each day along with the Daily Offices and Eucharist. The rest of the time, including meals, have been in silence. This year we were asked if we wanted the same or something different. I really had to hold back on this one. Let others speak first, Ruth (I said to myself). Don’t bully them into what you want. Someone even said that it was the complete silence which put some folk off coming – especially people who live on their own. So it was agreed by the majority that we would have a discussion straight after the address on that topic, and that we could talk at the evening meal. If you wanted silence you could avoid the discussion and sit at a separate table and I think that worked okay. Well it worked beautifully for me. What glory, what joy. Often I’ve found something in the addresses that merited a good blether after and have been left to go and journal about it instead. Not always satisfying. This worked so much better for me. And as someone who eats alone it is such a joy to have company during the evening meal and the chance to chat. (And yes, I can hear my introvert friends silently screaming at their screens.)
Barbara based her addresses on being ‘bothered':
- Who/what do we bother about?
- Who/what should we bother about?
- About clergy living with being bothered.
- About bothering being part of the Christian vocation.
- About bothering being caring and soothing but also unsettling and provoking.
- About being partners in bothering.
- Why bother to be/stay Christian?
- How do we resource ourselves to bother?
- How to be-other.
- About being God-botherers and Gospel-botherers.
- Is Mission bothering?
- About finding confidence to bother.
There was a lot of bothering going on and it was all good. In fact, I know I will never hear the word ‘bother’ again without some of the retreat coming back to me.
I also dreamt about my dream retreat house which would have double beds, working en-suite toilets, meals on time, good decaff coffee and tea, beautiful chapel with gorgeous, cared-for things, lots of candles, decent showers and hairdriers, large fluffy towels, reclining or rocking chairs everywhere and an up-to-date library. For starters.
I’ve been on holiday this week for my post-Christmas ‘and relax’. Of course it never is a total relax because you have a whole house to tidy which has been ignored for weeks with all the comings and goings of the Christmas season. There is forgotten mail to deal with, letters to open, filing to be done, the Archers to catch up with, the photocopier to repair, and a whole host of other thankless tasks to undertake.
I had plans of course. Oh yes, I had plans. Of art galleries to visit, movies to see, family to visit. Not one of them happened. And they didn’t happen because I had to wait in for parcels to be delivered, photocopier repairmen to arrive, a new church noticeboard to arrive, and a son who hasn’t got his Christmas presents yet to visit. That left one day in which I was free to go out and it was blowing a hoolie and all I managed was a visit to papa in the Twilight Home for the Bewildered.
First I finished Fathomless Riches by The Revd Richard Coles, he of Saturday Live fame. The sub-title of the book is ‘Or How I Went From Pop To Pulpit’ and tells of his life as part of the duo that was the Communards with Jimmy Somerville to CofE Vicar and media darling. Of course there was drug taking, unsafe sex, parties and naughty behaviour before his ‘conversion’ experience and a huge shift into the world of religion and then ministry. To his credit he doesn’t talk about others in his book, well not in a kiss and tell way which so many memoirs do. Nor does he hold back on his own ‘sordid’ past and I found so many ways in which this could have been my story too. (Without the pop star bit of course!) The conversion and subsequent journey to priesthood was almost identical to mine, although I never did ‘go to Rome’. So I enjoyed reading his pilgrimage immensely.
I read two Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny, one before my holiday and one during. I am reading them in order and trying to savour them but I always reach for them when I know I will have time to read them in one go, or at the most over two days. I read Bury Your Dead (no 6 in the series) which was quite different from the others in that very little was set in the village of Three Pines (which is a bit like Midsomer where a small village is struck by a million murders a week, or so it seems). I think reading them in order is essential because the you get to know the characters gradually and that knowledge is so important to the storyline. There are three stories going on in this book, one linked closely to the previous book which is another reason to read them in order. The next book A Trick of the Light is set back in Three Pines and revolves around the art world and also continues the development of all the characters we know and love. I loved this book especially the Alleluia moment at the very end, which will mean nothing if you’ve not read the others. I’m not sure exactly why I love these books so much. Usually I prefer something much more bloodthirsty but I think they create such visual images for me, and who could resist the descriptions of the wonderful food? And there are some lovely spiritual messages in them, although they are not overtly religious.
Now the next book is highly recommended – The Bees by Laline Paull is a most extraordinary book, full of religion and fierce courage and feminism and spirituality and… bees. You will never look at a bee in the same way again, and if you’re not a huge fan of bees then you will be by the end of this book. If World Book Day was giving away this book I would beg to take part and thrust it into everyone’s hands and plead with them to read it. If I say it is a bit like Watership Down I don’t want to put you off if you don’t like books written from the perspective of a creature, but it is worth trying something you might not normally read. Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, born into the lowest caste of bees, only fit to clean. But Flora is different. She is a fierce bee who wants to learn, to explore, to challenge the hive’s mantra of ‘accept, obey and serve’, and she does with exciting consequences. Some have compared this book to The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale but it is much more. I really couldn’t put this book down.
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne was another Christmas book which I’d wanted to read since I heard the author speak on radio of his reasons for writing the book. I was a huge fan of his Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but this is much more adult and set in Ireland from the 1970s to the current time and explores the child sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a sad book and makes uncomfortable reading, but there is honesty and truth within it which makes it a must-read. If you are in any way concerned about the celibacy issue then this will confirm all your suspicions. And it highlights starkly the loneliness of ministry which many clergy suffer. It is a novel which surprised me and at the same time made me very sad.
So there we have it. My post-Christmas reading list. I’m trying to squeeze in the next Louise Penny one before I go back to work tomorrow. Greedy, or what?