Today it has been a whole year since I was advised to go into self-isolation, as it was called back then, because of Covid19. I had been ill with a chest infection and my GP said that this new virus would be too risky for me. In a few weeks the rest of the country followed suit. In that year I have only left the house for hospital or doctor’s appointments, and for a brief period took church services in a mask and with all the safety regulations in place. I haven’t been to a shop, or a gallery, or even to Marks and Spencer (except for the wee foodie one at the Royal Infirmary).
In that year there were many downs and a few ups. I think if I was more of a garden person I could have been much happier as friends and members of my congregation were. But I’m not a garden person, I am a people person. So the worst thing was not getting out to visit folk, have lunch, visit a gallery, meander round the shops… all the things we used to take for granted. Usually I’d pop in to see my sister for a coffee because she is stuck indoors but I couldn’t do that.
But in time I learned how to use Zoom and suddenly my world opened up a bit. It wasn’t quite the same, and conversation was a bit stilted, but at least I could see faces of friends and colleagues. I so looked forward to them. The Bishop set up a weekly Zoom so we could bring concerns and share ideas and that was good too. Then the Support Zooms started up – groups of friends who were struggling and offered or needed pastoral support. They have been invaluable.
At Christmas we moved our services from emailed and posted sheets to Zoom gatherings. There are still some in the congregation who can’t manage Zoom, or prefer to watch a recorded service online, but we are getting pretty much the same numbers on Zoom as we were in person when things were ‘normal’. But its not the same. My tech skills are not great and I’ve had to learn from others, and I’ve also learned where my limitations are. Zoom services can be messy and I don’t like messy. There is a hiatus while I fiddle about trying to get the hymn shared. Taking communion on my own feels weird when nobody else can have it. Internet signals can misbehave just when you don’t want them to and not everyone knows how to work the Mute button. And motivation is still something to wrestle with. I like being creative in church with visual displays for the seasons, but despite the many groups I have joined where people share their exciting plans for an Easter walk around the village and Lent Bags going out full of sand and ash and homemade candles made from last year’s Paschal candle just depress me more because I don’t have the motivation to actually do them. Then the Bishop says in an email not to beat ourselves up and compare what we are doing with other people and that feels like good advice. Not always easy to do though.
So what can we now live with? Pastoral support by phone, while not ideal, I can now live with. It is different, the conversation and stories don’t flow in the same way, but it does keep us in touch. Messy liturgy is apparently okay. My little flock don’t mind at all, and it is only me who struggles with it. One hymn instead of 5 is just fine, but today our Lent Group did say they miss singing together dreadfully. Shopping online is not satisfactory unless it is for mini palm crosses which I found this morning and they will fit into a C5 envelope and arrive by the weekend. That was definitely a high moment! I would love to wander round a book shop though, and be tempted by nice things in a supermarket or the local delis. But I’ve lived with it for a year and even found Schop who will shop in the local delis for you and bring them to your doorstep. How I would manage without an income though is another thing entirely…
If you usually read my intermittent blogs you’ll know that I lost a few months last year with anxiety/depression. I got through it with the help of medication and a good GP and my family and friends. I can now live with the fact that people know about that and it doesn’t have to be a shameful secret.
I do wish that I had kept a regular blog or diary during lockdown, but for some reason I couldn’t. Similarly I have a case of craft materials which would have been so helpful to while away the hours of isolation, but again for some reason I couldn’t do that either. Now I can live with that too. It will come back.
When I read back to the last blog I wrote in June 2020, I seemed to be doing okay. Our church building was closed along with every other one, and we were managing to worship together at home ‘in communion’ with one another. Some churches were streaming live services, some were recording at home and then in empty church buildings and some were Zooming together. My tech skills weren’t up to much and with nobody allowed to come and show me how, and an elderly congregation not all of whom had computers or tablets, I carried on emailing and posting services out each week.
I was taking part in more Zoom meetings and it seemed so easy really. I thought that perhaps I could do something online after all and with the help of some friends remotely, I put together a midweek service to practice. Folk were invited to come along and 12 said yes, they’d like to have a go. I was up half the night worrying about it, and up early to get dressed as a priest once more, balance the pile of books on which the altar would be laid, and adjusted the camera many, many times to allow folk to see the holy elements. Finally I was ready with minutes to spare. I opened Zoom. This was the first time I’d hosted anything but it seemed so easy before when I’d talked it through with folk. But I did something wrong. I don’t know what. But there were two of me in that meeting, one as host, one as participant. And where was this elusive Waiting Room? There were no buttons for Waiting Room. I pressed buttons, I swiped back and forth, I started to get hot under the collar, and the minutes ticked by. To cut a long story short, I lost my mind, as the song goes. The phone began to ring as people said they were waiting to get in and why didn’t it work? Was it them? They were so looking forward to it. I felt as if I’d really let them down. The service was cancelled.
And that is the day I became ill. Not physically ill. Mentally ill. The failed Zoom service was the catalyst. I started to cry about letting those folk down. And I couldn’t stop. Every time I thought about it, and yes it did come back to haunt me many times, the burning tears would fill in my eyes and overflow. I had let them down. Some of them lived alone and had been so looking forward to seeing their friends again, and I had let them down. I was too old for learning these new skills and so frustrated that nobody could come round to my house and just show me. The isolation became a black hole and I stood on the edge of it looking down into crippling anxiety. For a happy, optimistic extrovert this was a very new experience. I know about anxiety because some close to me suffer from it, but I never knew it was like this. The fear was overwhelming. Kind words were of no consolation whatsoever.
On top of the Zoom anxiety came the Coronavirus anxiety. I’d been shielding since March and was kind of getting used to it. Statistics were improving, the sun was shining, and we were told to go outside for exercise. Everyone I knew was on social media showing photos of their daily hike, boasting of how many steps they’d taken, getting more tanned in the summer sun and I was bitter. Exercise is hard for me because I have lung disease, and a host of other illnesses which make me overweight and in pain but I made the effort. I drove to a lovely, quiet place and got out to walk. Withing minutes joggers had elbowed past me with no masks, puffing with effort, cyclists sped past with no masks breathing heavily within a few feet. I jumped back in the car and came home. If I get this virus I don’t stand much of a chance. I’m one of the ones they talk about who died ‘with underlying health conditions’. I added that worry to the pile in my head and it was a bit of a squeeze.
Where was God in this? I’m sure s/he was there somewhere. At least I’ve told others that. Praying with others made me cry so I stopped doing that. I had a few clergy support groups going on Zoom and I couldn’t face them either. I withdrew. How could I tell them I was ill? I mean, I’m usually the life and soul of the party. That’s a role I used to play well. So instead of God I turned to my GP who knows me quite well. She told me it was anxiety and not depression and offered me medication which I grasped with both hands. Then for over a month I sat in my chair in the kitchen and did nothing. If I wasn’t in that chair, I moved to my granny chair in the lounge and slept. And slept. I slept all night and had to force myself to get up in the morning. The only reason I got dressed was in case someone came to the door. But really I didn’t care and all I wanted to do was sleep and hide. I managed to do the service sheets and the sermons and the newsletters full of fun stories to go out each week, but that was all I managed. The other things I had to do or plan lay in my in-tray. It was such an effort to phone my little flock and see how they were and it felt as if I was putting on a mask to be someone else, someone they used to know, just to get through it.
My GP changed my medication and I stopped sleeping. This was good, I thought. But it was just more hours to sit and ponder. I was able to return to my prayer group and support groups, but I didn’t want to say anything other than hint that things were difficult. You don’t want to bring it up in case it makes you cry again and what if you can’t stop? For once I didn’t want the attention.
In August the church buildings were allowed to open again but there was a lot of work involved in doing that. Things would be very different. I worked hard in preparing Risk Assessments and I realised that I was frightened to go back into the church building. I was worried that, despite all the new safety restrictions, I would be at risk. I knew that a few of my little flock were not quite as careful as they might be when out and about. I was worried that I was going to have to hand over control to other people to ensure our safety and I’ve never liked handing over control. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you. Would our Sidespeople make sure everyone was wearing a mask properly? Would people always fill up church from the front or would they want to sit where they usually sat? Would they get up and go and chat to friends because they couldn’t hear through the masks? Would I have to tell them off if I saw a mask pulled down from their noses because their specs were steaming up? Why was I doing it? Why open when some others weren’t? But those who decided to play it safe had good established online communities by that time. I didn’t. It turns out my GP was right… I did have anxiety. My pills were put up.
Being back in the church building was actually okay. Yes, there were a few hiccups and as weeks went by the strict rules seemed to relax a bit. We reduced the length of the service, and sermon, and our lovely organists pulled out all the stops to make us feel in the mood, even if we couldn’t sing along. It looked as if the ‘new normal’ was working okay. Nobody was complaining about no biscuits with coffee now. That was the least of our worries. No coffee after and a quick exit was the new way of leaving church. We were full to our capacity of 22 folk spaced out 2 metres apart most weeks. And gradually more folk who had been worried about coming back, gradually came and joined us. My new increase of anti-anxiety meds had started to make me shake and feel worse so the doc suggested another kind which involved slowly coming off the current ones and having a break of a few days before starting the new ones. But when I did come off them I felt so much better. The trembling hands stopped, my diabetes sugar levels sorted themselves out, and I felt more like myself. And I had energy once more. I got my Income Tax Return done with minutes to spare, I cleared out the in-trays, I was up and down off that wretched kitchen chair tidying and cooking and feeling normal again. It was such a relief that I didn’t bother starting the new tablets.
It was only then that I felt able to tell some people what had been going on. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it before but that’s how it was with me. I told the Vestry and some friends and of course they were all lovely. My GP was fine about me not taking the pills any more but is there if I need to talk again. Yes, I’m still anxious when I see people breaking the rules but not any more than anyone else. Well, perhaps just a little. I haven’t been out for months now and would dearly love to go into a shop once more but I daren’t. Not when we are so close to getting a vaccine. My only outings for months and months have been for medical reasons and I so miss seeing people but that’s how it is.
Then last week it all flooded back when mention was made of a new strain of the virus. This strain was 80% more virulent. Yes, it was mostly down south but it wouldn’t take long for it to reach Scotland. Not while people were gadding about the country because the Government are unable to make difficult and decisive decisions. We’d been promised a few days at Christmas for limited numbers to gather indoors and all of a sudden that was withdrawn. Now only 3 households can gather on Christmas Day. And even then, said our First Minister, it would be better if we didn’t. She went on to say that if she had her life to live again one of the things she would change was not locking down sooner. So, on Boxing Day the Scottish mainland would enter Level 4 which is pretty much lockdown again. I thought about my little flock, the vast majority of whom are over 80 and many live alone. If the First Minister was saying we could only meet a limited number of family on Christmas Day, how could I open my church for two services and encourage them all to come and sit indoors with others? I phoned some clergy friends for advice. There was not a universal opinion, of course. Some had spoken to medical experts in their congregations and had been advised to close immediately. Some felt they were going to be okay and would be open on Christmas Day and then wait to see what the Advisory Committee said about it. We looked for advice from our Church experts but it took some time and the answer was to make the decision ourselves and they would support us. I felt quite shaky again. A text message came from the Scottish Government because I’m on the shielding list which told me from 26 December I should be extra careful. But what’s the difference between 25th or 26th December? Why is it okay one day but not the next? I decided that it was too risky for St Fillan’s to meet in the building on Christmas Day. But how to tell them, knowing how much people were looking forward to it, especially when I knew for some it would be the only contact with other people?
I didn’t sleep much on Saturday night. Then at the end of the service on Sunday I told them that we would close from now. I could see the disappointment in some of their eyes, but I also saw one person nodding in agreement. That gave me hope to carry on. I explained how this new strain made things completely different and much riskier. If we couldn’t spend time with our beloved families why could we come to sit in a church building? Then a voice from the back shouted out, “Ruth, you’ve made the right decision. Don’t worry. We know you’re doing it out of love for us.” And then they clapped. Nearly everyone clapped. My anxiety levels dropped once more. That’s where God was!
Then the next day someone on Social Media started bleating about how ridiculous it was to close churches at Christmas. A responder said clergy who did that shouldn’t call themselves priests. And so it went on. And still goes on. Social media is definitely not good for your mental health. I worry that a wee knock like that will set me back again, and I really don’t want that to happen. So it seems that I’m still fragile underneath the bravado. If only we could all love one another, and respect others for making decisions that are right for them and their context.
So there you have it. It took longer than I planned to share my thoughts with you. As someone wise used to say to me often, “It’s difficult loving Jesus.” He was and is right. And let me share one last piece of good news… we had a practice Zoom yesterday and it worked so we may gather virtually on Christmas day! Of course it may all go wrong again and Zoom may collapse because everyone in the world will be using it, but I shall give it a try.
Today marks 90 days since I went into self-isolation and then shielding. I’ve said before how difficult it has been for an extrovert who loves being around people to be locked up with only a few scary outings to the hospital and doctor’s. But I also know how fortunate I am because my youngest son lives with me and is a very strict protector and shield. (He’s the introvert son btw, so life in lockdown hasn’t been any noisier than it would have been were I alone!)
My ministry has changed and adapted, as others have, and while phone calls are good and Whatsapp groups are fun and this old woman has learned some computer skills she never thought she needed, it is just not the same. There is always a feeling that I could be doing more.
I don’t feel as frightened now as I did at the beginning. Maybe 3 months indoors has taken the edge off that fear while I am in the house. But there will come a point when I am allowed out and whenever I do think about that I realise I am just as scared. Why?
Because I hear the stories, I see the photos, and it doesn’t look like many people are sticking to the rules of social distancing. At the weekend we were told in Scotland that people could travel 5 miles for exercise or to meet with other small groups as long as social distancing was heeded. Personally I know 3 families who broke those rules. That’s why I’m scared. Even if I could go out, I’d be too scared to. And I never used to be a scared person. I used to be a risk-taker. You should have seen the size of my platform shoes, then you’d know how dangerously I lived. But now I’m older and wiser and I’m not ready to die yet. I have so many plans for my retirement and while people break the rules I might never get there. I might never get to write that memoir, learn how to paint in watercolour, wander round art galleries, read Wolf Hall and the sequels, meet up with old friends regularly for chat and coffee, learn how to cook and bake… all the things I can’t do now.
You who break the rules are taking that away from me. I know you don’t mean to. It may be that you’re older than I am and you figure you’ve had a good innings so what the heck. It may be that you’re desperate to see your grandchildren and bending one wee rule doesn’t make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. It may be that you’re a risk-taker like I used to be and you’re prepared to take your chances. You’re fit, you’re healthy, you walk, cycle, run and you don’t have any other illnesses so you’d probably have a good chance of survival if you did catch it.
So I wait in a little longer, maybe a lot longer. And my poor son has to wait in with me. I wait in fear when I think of going out so I try not to think about it. I try to focus on today only. Lord knows, I’ve given that advice to many over the years. Today brings phone calls, admin, emailing out Sunday’s ‘spiritual communion’ service and newsletter and sermonette, and perhaps a Zoom catch up with clergy friends. That’s what I shall do today.
But may I ask you to be careful today? Then I will feel safer when the time comes.
Today is Good Friday and the year is 2020. There will never be another Good Friday like this. I hope. Our churches are closed because of the Coronavirus and we are all trying to find ways of keeping the Triduum at home. Some have created prayer spaces with symbols that mean something, some have watched a hundred videos on Facebook and YouTube and some clergy have felt inadequate at the expertise of others. Why didn’t I learn all this IT stuff before the lockdown began? Why didn’t I prepare better? And if someone said that to me I would tell them that doing your best is just fine. But today I’m not hearing it. Today I’m grumpy, and in a bad mood, and I’m missing my Good Friday.
From the first year that I became a Christian Holy Week has been so very special for me. The sights, the sounds, the smells all take me to that place far, far away and long, long ago. Since being ordained I have tried faithfully to share some of that life-changing week with my little flocks. Through Stations of the Cross, art, fasting, meditations, candlelit Compline, preaching the Passion, the Veneration of the Cross, foot-washing, shared meals, prostrating at the Garden of Repose, and the joy of Holy Saturday and cleaning the church and preparing it for Easter Day. I love Holy Week. Yes, it makes me cry. But after the tears come Hot Cross Buns. And you know you have to go through the agony to appreciate the joy of Easter.
Today I’ve been thinking about death. My own death. I am ‘shielding’ at the moment which is the strictest kind of self-isolation for those who have an illness that puts them at high risk of catching the virus. Some people have one illness which puts them at risk. I have a few! I have COPD (lung disease) and Asthma, Diabetes, Liver disease, and I’m on steroids which lower my immune system. So I am being very careful indeed about staying indoors and washing everything over and over again. But there is still a chance I could catch it – when I’m at the doctor’s for blood tests, or at the hospital as I was on Monday. And I know that if I do get Coronavirus I might not survive it. For once I’m not being dramatic, for this is my reality. Usually I am a glass half-full kind of person but today I’m not. Because today, Good Friday, is a day for thinking about death and I can’t help but think of my own.
Many years ago, at the beginning of my ministry, I led an evening on Preparing Your Own Funeral and I’ve repeated them time and time again. It is a subject I am passionate about. I’ve met families who have not even considered that their parent or loved one might die and are totally unprepared for thinking about hymns or burial or cremation or what readings or any of the questions a priest might ask the next of kin. Prepare your own before you go! I’d shout. And people did. And I did. And I told my son where to find it. And I showed him where all my papers are. I could relax. All was in hand.
But things have changed. My hope for a full Requiem with clergy in black vestments and twelve favourite hymns just won’t happen if I should die while restrictions are in place. It may be my boys and a priest at the Crem. It may be short and, I’m sure, sweet but nothing as I’d planned and hoped. And that’s okay. To be honest, I think my boys might prefer it that way.
Speaking to a friend this week who is also ‘shielding’ she told me her GP had phoned to check that she was taking all the instructions seriously to the letter, and did anyone have Power of Attorney, and did she want a DNR put in place. She was shocked and upset. She hadn’t thought about that. And I haven’t either. I know I hope for a good death, a happy death but I also know that not everyone gets that. My mother didn’t. My father didn’t. I don’t want to be resuscitated if there’s no hope. But I haven’t done anything about that yet. I don’t want to die alone or with a stranger holding my hand in their gloved one. I’m not frightened of dying but I am frightened of the physical aspects of it and the emotional ones. Then I listen to the Passion story again and again and wonder why I’m afraid and feel rather silly.
So that’s where I am this Good Friday. I know it will pass. But this is where I am today. Thinking, probably over-thinking, about death. It has been a struggle this Holy Week. I pray that Easter will make it better.
It seems that it might be time to revive the old blog. However, don’t go expecting nice pictures and thoughtful prose. The reason? My study where the computer is is freezing, my new laptop doesn’t work, so I’m doing this on my trusty tablet using Swype so there will be spelling mistakes and nothing fancy.
Now, why the blog revival? The world is in the midst of a pandemic called Coronavirus. We are about 6 weeks into it here in Scotland and I have been housebound since 3 March 2020 as I had a chest infection at the beginning and was told to self isolate. No warning that it might go on for a while. No time to stock up on stuff. I had to get cover for church services and turn my ministry into the phone kind once I was feeling a bit better. My son lives with me so he became full time carer, shopper, messenger, along with all the rest he does for me at home. I started online supermarket shopping and with reasonably good grace we got used to being home all day.
Things got worse. The College of Bishops started issuing guidance to keep us safe during the crisis. First it was no intinction at communion (yay!) then nobody to receive the chalice except the priest, no shaking hands at the Peace, no biscuits after the service, and finally our churches had to close for who knows how long? That was when clergy up and down the land had to rethink ‘church’. And quickly. If church isn’t the building, what is it? And soon there were priests popping up on Facebook saying Morning Prayer in immaculate studies while I wondered how long it would take to find a tidy yet erudite bookcase to sit in front of and look holy and thoughtful. That’s when I discovered my laptop wasn’t working so ditched that idea.
The doc told me i had to begin 12 weeks of self isolation which would take me to June as i have a few health issues which make me high risk. I had 1 wedding in June and 2 in July so contingency plans had to be made. One of my little flock was seriously ill in hospital and I couldn’t visit. I enjoyed phoning my congregation, when I could get them in… these lovely elderly people were not going to stop going out until the day came when the government put us into lockdown. That’s where we are now, only allowed out to shop for necessities or short exercise.
On Sundays we gather for a Spiritual Communion, me in the rectory with a candle, a cross, and my home communion set. During the week I email or post the service sheet out, along with a weekly newsletter, and on Sunday we all say the service ‘in communion’ with one another. The same folk are late. We all miss the hymns. It’s all over rather quickly. But feedback has been good. For the past 2 Sundays Bishop Mark and Bishop John have done an online eucharist which we can watch on Facebook or YouTube. So few of my congregation are on social media so they are missing out on that, and it’s also why I haven’t done any services myself that way. I feel that I should. I don’t know how but I could learn. I’m living with that guilt at the moment.
Social media is my lifeline at the moment. I can’t get out. Nobody can visit me. I’ve not been well. I’m an extrovert who needs people around me for energy, for stimulation. But i have a good circle of friends who will chat online when i need it. I have low days, very low days, and good days. Like everyone. And we’re told this is normal. I’ve stopped watching the Prime Minister’s daily bulletins because they are bad for my mental health. I can’t shop online any more because the whole world is doing it and supermarkets are doing the best but just can’t cope with how to prioritise the most vulnerable. That can take up a few hours each day just phoning or searching online and it does nothing for my mood. But heh, we’re not starving as many are. I need to keep remembering that.
Oh that’s enough for first isolation diary. Let’s see if I can upload this… more to follow on plans for Holy Week…
I love church buildings. It has become a bit of a hobby – trailing round churches when I’m on holiday and visiting somewhere new, or gazing up or around at new and familiar buildings. And if you haven’t read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett then please do now. It will transform how you view cathedrals in the future.
My Lent reading today was from Michael Mayne’s Lent book Pray, Love, Remember which is his personal account of this time as Dean of Westminster. The building itself features heavily as inspiration, as an invocation of stories and memories and memorials. And that made me think of buildings in which I have worshipped and become familiar with throughout my ministry.
My home church of St Michael & All Saints is a beautiful wee church where the stones just reek of incense and a million prayers. It is the church where I first learned about God and heard the stories, and steeped myself in high-church liturgy. I have my favourite pews, and a host of colourful images to contemplate if I need to think on higher things. It is a church of the senses and if I think carefully now I can see the light coming in that window and creating ‘angel ladders’ down to the sanctuary floor where the smoke of the incense can be seen swirling and moving like the Holy Spirit.
Then there is St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth where I was ordained and did my curacy. Standing at the altar underneath the most grand baldacchino and the people in the pews far off in the distance, was a terrifying prospect at first. Daily Prayer in the Lady Chapel with beautiful stained glass of the Annunciation where I said my prayers just before Ordination. It was the first cathedral built in Scotland after the Reformation and I remember it being absolutely transformed at Easter with flowers galore, and smell the damp greenery now if I try.
From there I went to be Priest in Charge of two little churches but both with a delightful character. St Peter’s in Linlithgow is one of the smallest churches anywhere but is made to the grandest design with dome and pillars and about 50 seats all crammed in among them. They used to say you came in the door and almost tripped over the altar, it is so small. I loved the shape and proportions and the fact that everybody had to sit next to someone because there were no spare seats. It was painted hideous colours when I first went there but was re-done in my time in delightful shades of lilac and white. (This has since been remedied! but I loved it.) It was only 75 years old but looked much older and was terribly cramped that everything had to be curtailed to fit the space, including celebrating mass. And then there was St Columba’s in Bathgate, a warm church with (glory of glories) loads of toilets. Oh how I loved that church and its toilets. It was beautifully looked after with lots of polished pine and comfy chairs, and a little meeting room adjacent which was well used. When the pews were removed someone at Falkirk made a font out of the old wood so the past became part of the present. It was a family church with many generations of the same family in attendance, and each was proud of that little building and its beautifully kept gardens.
Then I moved to St Mark’s Portobello which was a strange church architecturally. Strange because from the outside it looked like a large Georgian house with a carriage driveway and the story was that it had been built like that in case it didn’t last as a church and could be transformed into a house. As a result it was wider than it was long, which made for a very different feel. The sanctuary was a beautiful big space so I could stretch out my hands orans as much as I liked. There was some nice stained glass, including the rather racy David and Jonathan. And it was there that I learned, after I had my cataracts removed, that the rather dirty grey glass above the altar was in fact shades of lovely lilac! Downstairs there is a crypt chapel which was used for mid-week services and was a lovely intimate space with a very prayerful feeling. But the church itself could be transformed into so many different worship spaces because of its size. Outside in the garden in front of the church stood a tall wooden cross with a bench in front of it which looked down to the sea, and a graveyard surrounding the building. At Easter the cross was covered in daffodils. I once had a dream that we planted daffodil bulbs in the grass in front of the cross which would appear at Easter like a shadow of the wooden cross. I told my secret dream to one of the Junior Church leaders and they planted the bulbs but we told no-one. The next year shoots appeared and what popped up? Not daffodils at first, they came later, but a host of purple crocuses which made me cry.
Christ Church Falkirk was different again, designed by the same architect as my home church, it felt almost familiar in a way. It was a dark church, with wooden paneling all the way round and some lovely stained glass. My favourite window was the one opposite my chair with the Blessed Virgin Mary stamping on a snake with stars round her head. There was a rood screen and a wonderful sense of moving up into a holy place when you came to the altar. All of this could be transformed with candles all around the wood panelling and fairy lights on the rood screen at Festival times and it always took my breath away. Below the church was another crypt chapel which was in a great state of disrepair so we renovated it, painted it white, acquired an altar and chairs from a church which had just closed down, and it became a lovely intimate place for worship and prayer.
And now we come to St Fillan’s. Home for me for the past 21/2 years and more to come. It is not Westminster Abbey by any means. It is a small simple church, white outside, and like a community hall inside. And it is used by the community all week from morning to evening by every group imaginable. Because of this it is not in an immaculate state of decoration. It has some wooden panelling scuffed by footballs and plastic chairs knocking against it, with primrose walls and a sort of brown colour behind the altar. There are heavy tapestry curtains which screen off the altar space during the week, and at the west end of church to keep the draughts out. Four simple walls, no lovely statues or pricket stands or stained glass for they would all be damaged during the week. The chairs are old grey plastic bucket seats which are light for stacking and that’s important but they are cold and uncomfortable. There are some comfy ones with padding for the elderly and infirm and they are much sought after. One lovely tapestry is brought out on Sundays, but is taken down and hidden away after the service, as is everything else behind the curtains. It doesn’t often feel like a sacred space to me.
Yesterday we had a guest preacher who had once been the rector here at St Fillan’s many years ago. As he preached I was listening and looking around the church. That’s when I realised this church is not about the beautiful building but about the beautiful people. I rearranged the chairs during Lent so that we are facing one another instead of the backs of heads. I brought a wee table in to use as a nave altar so we could be closer to the ‘action’ at the Eucharist. It is not a gorgeous table, not a beautifully carved altar, but it allows us to be close to seeing the bread and wine – the most important things. The building really belongs to the community, to the groups who use it, the children who play and learn in it. And all of the people who come on Sundays have in the past been part of those groups, have led them, have taken their children to them. Children now grown up and far away around the world. But the people who come to St Fillan’s belong not just to this church, but to one another. They are close to each other because they’ve come for such a long time, some since the building was first put up. It is in the people that I encounter God, not in the architecture. Of course, this is true in every church I’ve worshipped in, but even more so here because there is no other gorgeous architectural feature to distract.
So this Lent I am giving thanks for the beautiful architecture which points to God, but also for the people of God. Both can inspire and bring me closer to God. Pay attention to what is around you and pay heed to where God is.
Pray, even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.
Prayer is hard and it is one of the questions I get asked about a lot as a priest. I teach different styles of prayer, conscious that not all people pray the same way. That was one of the best things I learned early on – different personalities need different ways to pray. Some need stillness, a candle and perhaps an icon. Some need words and bibles and a format. Some need a blank piece of paper and lovely colouring pencils and pretty craft things. Some need music to accompany them. Some need beads and some need certain postures.
And some give up because they don’t get the answer they prayed for. And some give up because they’ve done it for so many years with no feeling of the presence of God.
Lent is a good time to come back to prayer if you’ve drifted away. Even if you find no joy in it, God does.
Today’s lent reading brought me to this prayer by Fr James Martin SJ
A New Serenity Prayer
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.
At least not the last time I checked.
And while you’re at it, God,
please give me the courage
to change what I need to change about myself,
which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.
It’s better for me to focus on changing myself
than to worry about changing other people,
who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying,
I can’t change anyway.
Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.
Basically, God, grant me the wisdom
to remember that I’m not you.