In which Ruth sleeps in a library

The problem about living next door to the church is that there is a lot of coming and going, people asking for food and money, choirs singing, children running around, phones ringing and it can make it difficult to concentrate. Don’t get me wrong – normally I love the sounds and the busyness but when you are trying to do some writing it can be distracting. So it seemed sensible for part of my sabbatical to come away somewhere quiet for the writing part. I’ve chosen the pieces of art I want to use in my Images of Lent project but now I have to write the meditations to go with them. (And if anyone has a good title for this book/blog thing I’m doing, please let me know.)

venue-hireSo after three train journeys and a taxi ride I arrived at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden (pronounced Harden) in North Wales. It is a beautiful building in a little village near Chester with the library taking up one end of it, and the rest being meeting rooms, lounge, dining room (where non-residents often come for lunch) and then the bedrooms upstairs on two levels. There are books everywhere! Heaven must be like this. Of course there is Gladstone’s own collection of books most of which are annotated in his own hand and makes for interesting browsing, but there is also an up-to-date section on Theology, History, Arts, Fiction etc.

After settling in to my room (small, trendy, Shaker-style with radio) I had a sumptuous home-made dinner and found the lounge where folk lounged around, as you do in a lounge, on comfy squishy leather chairs and sofas, reading and blethering. Over a week later I have learned there is an order for conversations with strangers. It goes like this:reading-rooms-web

  1. How long are you here for?
  2. Are you here to read or write?
  3. What are you reading?
  4. What are you writing?
  5. Have you been before?
  6. Yes, isn’t it lovely and how much weight have you put on?

People come and go, some only staying for one night, some for two or three (often a gift from children – hint, hint) and some for an intensive week. At the moment I’m the only one here for longer (12 days) although an American family have just left who come for a month every year. Everyone has a different story and it has been interesting hearing the reasons for their visit. The library is open until 10pm and you can ‘book’ your own desk by leaving your stuff on it so that’s handy. I am now tucked into a cubby hole between Feminist Theology and Theology and Culture which feels like a good place to be. Nice to have a browse when inspiration has dried up. There is an extensive section on fiction in the stacks but the lounge also has a considerable selection of fiction too and that was a bit like looking at my own bookshelves at home. But I’ve also found some new ones and some from my wishlist so I’ve enjoyed reading them when having a break from the project.

chapelThe day begins with a Eucharist at 8am in the chapel (Mon-Fri) sometimes taken by the Warden Peter Francis and sometimes by John, resident Chaplain. Then breakfast and a blether and discussion on what we plan for the day. Then into the library to whirr up our laptops and start the day. The only sounds then are footsteps, sighs, yawns, coughs, the occasional whistling hearing-aid and whispered enquiries. (And if that’s all too much noise for you then there are earplugs on the desk.) The librarians are young folk who are doing internships and they have all been lovely and helpful.

My project was to find 40 paintings for each day in Lent and to write a meditation to go with it. This writing part is taking longer than I anticipated and I’m finding I usually only manage two each day. But this is fine and there is plenty time to read either about art, theology or some fiction. And then there are the conversations. Although so far I have noticed that most people who come to libraries do tend to be somewhere on the introvert spectrum and are quite happy not to say a word other than a soft ‘Good Morning.’ They must all pray at meal times that I’m not going to bounce up and say ‘do you mind if I join you?’ I do feel a bit like Tigger here.

A walk into the village takes just a few minutes and there is the Post Office, the chemist, a coffee shop, beautician, handbag shop (never been open yet), tailor and dress shop. It’s all happening in Hawarden. But you can get a bus into Chester and I have done that. (It was lovely and busy and there were lots of shops and a cathedral AND a cathedral shop (my favourite) – bliss!)

Aha! I smell the scones so it must be coffee time. Speak later…




In which Ruth ponders Hospital Chaplaincy Centres…

When I was a theological student I did an attachment in Homerton Hospital in Hackney, London. It wassanctuary_interior Homerton quite a modern hospital and one of the first to have a purpose-built multi-faith Chaplaincy Centre. Of course in the old days it would just be called a Chapel, but I suppose that implies that everyone who uses it is Christian. In that part of London the rooms were mostly used by Muslims and Hasidic Jews. I remember it being gorgeous modern stained glass, modern lines and no atmosphere whatsoever.  I can’t remember the name of the nearby hospital which we visited one day but it was very Victorian and had a traditional chapel with candles to light and a statue of the BVM. I was told that none of the Muslims complained about any of it, they just faced east (with their backs to Mary) and did their thing.

Recently I was in the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank. On the way home I saw the sign for the Chaplaincy Centre and popped in for a wee nosey. The Chaplain was just coming out of his office to go for lunch but stopped to speak to us and offered us a guided tour. The focus seems to be less on religion and more on comfy sofas and armchairs. There was one dark room with an altar but I don’t think there was a cross. The Muslims had their own dedicated space. It all just seemed rather bland. And I really didn’t get a feeling of prayer at all. But that could say more about me, I’m afraid.

ForthValley chaplaincyToday I was visiting someone in the Forth Valley Royal hospital so I thought I’d pop in to the Chapel there to say a wee prayer. I wasn’t sure if I’d been in before but it didn’t look familiar so I guess not. Again it was dimly lit and there was an altar with a bible on it and some artificial flowers. In fact there was not a ledge or window sill or wee table that didn’t have some plastic flowers on them. And pebbles. Many, many pebbles. Pebbles in bowls. Pebbles on scarves. Somewhere there is a beach bereft of its pebbles. In the dim room there were lots of little circles of chairs round a wee coffee table (with pebbles or flowers, or both). It felt a bit strange to sit at one of those wee circles on your own. There was a man in there putting his shoes on who left quickly. I think he’d been saying his prayers in the corner. There was also a lovely banner in memory of the children killed in Dunblane and Books of Remembrance which I think must be for stillbirths etc. (The photo shows a candle but I didn’t see one anywhere.)

But I’ve come away feeling a bit unsettled. None of these places felt like places I’d want to go to for spiritual sustenance. I didn’t feel the presence of God in any of them, except perhaps the old-fashioned one in London which has probably been ‘modernised’ by now. Would soft music have helped? Some candles to light? The smell of fresh flowers? More books to read? Icons? The Reserved Sacrament? Or would they all offend people of other faiths? But even when the chapel did have a special room for Muslims they chapel was still very bland. Surely even people with no faith would expect to see religious symbols in a chapel, whether they believed in them or not.

What do you think?

Design your own chapel

I’ve been pondering what I’d do if I won the Euro Lottery this week. No, I don’t buy lottery tickets, European or otherwise, but it is nice to dream.  Housing would always be right up there on the list and that’s probably true for most clergy. Tied housing makes for great insecurities and fretting. As I dreamt of this house that I’d buy with my millions I allowed my thoughts to stray to the chapel that I’d build or convert.  Well you need a little holy space to go to, don’t you?

Many years ago a crowd of us used to go on Parish Outings down south. We usually travelled down on Easter Monday and then visited a cathedral city on the Tue – Thu and then travelled home again on the Friday.  As a result I have been guided round many English cathedrals (and their wee shops).  I do remember one journey where, with the help of Gin & Tonic in the back of the bus, we all designed our own private chapels.  We shared our dreams with one another and an otherwise tedious journey was transformed into great fun. (We were probably somewhere flat like Norfolk where there were no views to entertain us, we Scots needing hills to keep us sane.) I can’t remember now what my ideal chapel would look like but I’m guessing it bore some resemblance to St Michael & All Saints and reeked of incense with statues of many saints including St Rita. Actually come to think of it, I do remembering being impressed with one cathedral where the Reserved Sacrament was suspended mid-air above the central altar and that wherever you were in the building, you faced God. I’m sure that was in my ideal chapel back then.

This week my dreams of chapel design have probably been much more simple. Lots of wood and comfy chairs feature heavily. A good sound system would be important and a loud ticking clock for atmosphere in those quiet moments. Lots of art to meditate upon – or maybe just a screen upon which they could be projected. Beads to clack. A book to write in.

So what would your dream chapel look like?  What treasures lie therein?