An Ash Wednesday story

Last week, on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, I went to visit D. I was taking her communion at home because she has been housebound since October when she had a fall. She can now walk around the house and back garden but she has lost her confidence in going out the front door. She has been waiting for months for a 3 wheel zimmer thingy but the wheels of the Social Care Dept seem to grind rather slowly. (Yes, I’ve written about her before and she still hasn’t had a bath or shower but is making do with a ‘dicht’.)

As it was Ash Wednesday I thought I’d take some ash along with me and use some of the liturgy we’d used in the morning. (Transporting ash is not easy, let me say, and I forgot the lemon.) We sat in her lounge looking out on to the garden where St Francis and a stork look down upon the pond. D is a third-order Franciscan, living a Franciscan way of life in her own home. She is eternally optimistic and never complains and I see St Francis in her every time we meet. After the service we spent some time in silence listening to the birds outside and then D said she wanted to get something. She came back with a bible and opened it up to the front cover. Then she took her thumb and rubbed it on her forehead and transferred the smudge of ash into the front page of her bible. There on the cream paper were rows of black and grey smudges from Ash Wednesdays past with the year underneath. One year there was a bit of paper stuck in with a smudge on it because D had been away that year but she didn’t want to miss it.

It was a beautiful sight, those rows of smudgy crosses. They represented all the prayers for repentance, the reminder of ashes of hopelessness. Remember child that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Some were quite dark, some barely visible. Thumbprints of ashes past.

I came home and did the same in my bible.

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Quaking with the Quakers

So you have a Sunday off and where do you go to church? Always a tricky one for clergy. You want to go. You want to receive the Sacrament, if possible. You want to check out what your sisters and brothers are doing out there in the vineyard. One of the difficulties I have here is that I am next door to two parishes where I used to be Rector and it is rather frowned upon to ‘go back’. Especially as they have a new Rector this year. I used to go back to my home parish in Edinburgh but things change and at some point it doesn’t really feel like home again. And if I was a bit braver with driving then I would venture west and try out a certain cathedral there, but that day hasn’t come yet.

quaker-peace-gardenTo digress a moment, one of my little flock has just left us to go to the Quakers. She has always wanted to be a Quaker since she was a teenager and as she is now retired she feels that she can finally do that. (There were a host of other reasons why she couldn’t do it sooner.) We have given her our blessing and she returns once a month when she is on the coffee rota and keeps in touch with old friends. Over a coffee she was explaining to me the preparation process and I heard myself saying, “Can I come with you on Sunday then?” (Well that’s receiving the Sacrament done for, I thought.)

I should perhaps say at this point, that I have worked in the past with many Quakers. When I worked for the Rock Trust with young homeless people we always had a Quaker on our Management Team and they were great contributors. Renowned for their interest in Justice and Peace, I met many in the Voluntary Sector and always had great respect for them. I always intended going to a meeting one Sunday but it just never happened. (Of course, I do know that they do silence rather well and I am not exactly renowned for it.)

And off we set on Sunday morning to the local Quaker Meeting House, which happens to be in a local community centre. As it was the first Sunday in the month my friend told me that the meeting would be slightly different. There would be silence but there would also be a discussion after so there would be an opportunity to talk. However as the group gathered a young woman arrived with two very young children and announced that she was meant to be doing the discussion but hadn’t been able to get anything together so there wouldn’t be one. It was all very relaxed. (How different in our church, I thought. Imagine if I turned up at 10.30am and said I hadn’t had time to do the sermon… Round of applause, perhaps?) There was a low coffee table around which the chairs were set. On the table there were some books about Quakers or Quaker sayings which I was invited to read if the silence got too much. There was also a plant which I took to be the equivalent of an icon or cross – it was our focus for the meeting. We numbered about 9 plus the kids.

The meeting began with no announcement so I nearly missed it (and spoiled it because I was going to ask where the loo was) and suddenly Quakers praywe just lapsed into silence. I was kind of hoping that the Holy Spirit might encourage somebody to ‘witness’ or ‘minister’ or whatever it is they do but sadly She was very quiet herself that day. Some sat with eyes closes, some with eyes open. One man read almost everything on the table. Another woman clutched a small piece of paper with something written on it. The rest of us sat and tried to avoid eye contact. The elderly woman next to me got very quiet and then did some gentle snuffly snoring before going completely silent. So silent, in fact, that I took to checking she was still breathing. The others took it in turns to go and look after the children in the room next door. Near the end the new Evangelical church which also uses the community centre struck up with High Five for Jesus, or at least it sounded like that. It was very jolly. And loud.

An hour later, during which I may have dozed off myself and dreamt or was visited by the Holy Spirit who showed me some birds of prey (? I know, go figure) a woman shook hands with the person next to her and we all joined in and that was it over. (You only shake hands with the person next to you, not like the Peace and go trying it with folk opposite. Oh no.) A wee bit of an anti-climax, I have to say. And then it was coffee time. I expected lots of conversation and interest as to why I was visiting but no. Not one person spoke to me other than to offer me coffee (no decaff available. Who ever heard of Quakers with no decaff?). Now, as you know, I am used to being the centre of attention so it did not sit well with me to be so completely ignored. Perhaps it is not part of their ethos to welcome the stranger. Maybe they don’t do Mission. (How refreshing, not to have to worry about Mission… ) Anyhow, they chatted among themselves about Quakery things and local concerts and Christian Aid. And then we left.

Now one must not make generalisations after only one visit and with only one group… you sense a BUT here, don’t you? No, I shall resist. But I will say that I was surprised that the hour passed quicker than I thought. I did manage some prayer. My observations lead me to believe that most, if not all, Quakers are probably introverts. I missed all the trappings of church to look at : icons, statues, smell of incense, pictures, etc. I missed the liturgy. But I’m glad there are Quaker Meeting Houses for quiet people to go to. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask lots of questions, like Do you still quake before God or are you more on speaking terms now? Why is nobody wearing a stove-top hat? Why no sacraments? You could do them in silence, if you wanted. Why was your bible the Good News version and have you ever tried something better? (oooh, get her! I’d make a dreadful Quaker.) What’s with the silence anyway? Is it for prayer? Dialogue? Listening? Waiting? How often does the Holy Spirit lead you to speak up?

If you know the answers, please do comment below. I have bought a copy of Quaker Faith and Practice so one day I may get around to reading it myself.

1 star from this mystery worshipper. (If you’d spoken to me you’d have got a whole lot more.)

Walsingham bites back

You may remember, dear readers, that a wee while ago I was reminiscing on visits I have made to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Many people made some interesting and supportive comments. Today I received this comment from Fr Dominic:

I found all this very interesting and very one sided. The rant of M/s Ruth seems to ignore the hurt that she and her “ordained” friends have done to the English Church.As an Anglican priest I am expected to be polite to the priestess but she can be as rude and nasty as she likes to me. And I have experienced this at Walsingham. They see Walsingham as the last bastion that they must break into and are doing all they pushing well can to achieve this.

Let me make some comments here, in the open, in response.

Fr Dominic, you say it was one sided. Yes, indeed I gave my thoughts. There is one of me. The fact that many of the comments agreed with my opinion perhaps reflects the views of the majority in our Church. But thank you for offering another side.

You say that M/s Ruth (that’s me) ignores the hurt me and my ‘ordained’ friends have done to the English Church. Let me respond by saying that far from ignoring the hurt felt by those opposed to the ordination of women, I have been instrumental in bringing about dialogue in many places between the two ‘sides’. In fact, many people who were once opposed (and I include myself in that group) have got to know women priests and have come to accept their ministry. By putting the word ‘ordained’ in inverted commas I am presuming that you do not believe we are actually ordained. Do you not hold with the Canons of your Church then? Do you not believe that I was called by God to the priesthood? Did I imagine it? And please believe that I have not been near the ‘English’ Church. I am a Scottish Episcopalian, and proud of it.

Next, you say that you are expected to be polite to the priestess… Em, you do realise that using the term ‘priestess’ is not polite at all, don’t you? You can’t have it both ways. And as far as I am aware I have never met you and try not to be rude or nasty to any of God’s creatures.

Finally you say that we are trying to break into that last bastion – Walsingham. Did my wee comment indicate a siege mentality? It is interesting that you use the word ‘bastion’. I have always thought of it as a Shrine to Our Lady. Perhaps you are projecting your own images on to that holy place. I am not sure what you mean by ‘are doing all they pushing well can to achieve this’. Please believe that I have not pushed anyone, nor have I said a peep to the Shrine staff.

I shall continue to pray that one day, Fr Dominic, you and I may stand side by side and share in the presiding of the Holy Mysteries at the altar. Until then, I shall hold you in my prayers.

May St Francis, who recognised the value of women’s ministry in St Clare, pray for us all.