Hiraeth … and “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (T.S. Eliot)
During Bristol Pride in July I experienced an unexpected moment of total disconnection and desolation. Enjoying the music and festivities on the Downs with perhaps 40,000 people I should have been in my element with ‘Chosen Family’. Pride is a political march, but is also a party with a joyous, inclusive and friendly vibe running through the day. On the main stage Boney M was singing the words of a psalm (137) I knew all too well and I was totally lost.
My work as a specialist community public health nurse involves the joy of greeting new babies and seeing them progress in their development until they reach school age, offering families who would like it support around issues of health, wellbeing and child development. It also involves child protection work and work with families who are struggling with domestic abuse, substance misuse, poverty, issues of mental health or health or behavioural problems and sometimes working where necessary with other agencies and the courts when children may be taken into care or have suffered significant harm. It was during Pride that I finally realised how exhausted I was; I couldn’t re-lax and enjoy the party. At a point of total bewilderment, Ginny suggested that I should go to a convent for a few days. While I was there, again I heard the words of psalm 137 but this time read in the context of worship and again it struck a chord.
Despite having been hesitant about going to a new place, I valued the encounter with God in worship and the si-lence. Having been brought up in the CofE the words and rhythms of its worship are familiar and seemed to enable me to catch my breath again. I think I just expected the words to wash over me – I was struggling to focus, but Psalm 139 was also read, and was difficult to ignore. I didn’t have to concentrate as the words are part of me. This psalm spoke of my past and present; it had been important to me as a young adult during the process of coming out to my family when things were difficult. These days it speaks to me of the work I do antenatally with families and whilst in the convent reminded me again that no experience is beyond the love of God, who remains faithful in all places, in darkness and in light. The simple things of faith – prayer and scripture – opened up a space for God.
Above all else while I was there, I found that I valued the daily Eucharist. I realised what I have in fact always known – that I am at my most human when regularly participating in the sacramental life of the community. The Eucharist was a central feature of our family life. I will never forget going with my aunt to collect my grandmother from a nursing home towards the end of her life. Her dementia was such that she didn’t recognise her family – yet she sat with us in the church – profoundly deaf and unable to hear – quietly concelebrating the mass. She may not have known her family at that point but she knew whose child she was. I remain very grateful that we were able to have a Eucharist at Cotham the same day as our civil partnership. The only stipulation by the Bishop was that there would be no sermon – honestly the only day in my life the church has had nothing to say to me. So – since coming home from the convent I have tried to return and am grateful that Cotham remains a place of generous and un-questioning hospitality. I do not find the Church of England an easy place – every time I think I can manage within the church family some faction of the national church throws a spanner in the works. A priest I worked with in the Diocese once told me to leave Jeni – the irony is that while I may sometimes struggle to understand the uncondi-tional love of God – my understanding comes closest through my marriage. During the last 2 decades Jeni has loved me unconditionally despite being well acquainted with my idiosyncrasies – I have no picture of what the love of God might look like other than that experienced through her love. I am a better person because of her.
I saw the request from Helen asking people to write for Connections about the “still small voice of calm” and real-ised a couple of things. The first was that the silence of the Convent allowed me the time and space to hear again that voice in a prayerful atmosphere. Parts of T.S Eliot’s Little Gidding poem seem to have framed my stay “You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid”. Silence in a community setting was a different experience to solitary silence. Total disconnection from tech-nology (no mobile signal) was surprisingly delightful and the silence I encountered was vibrant and powerful. The Society of Friends who have silence at the heart of their worship, advise us “the ministry of silence demands the faithful activity of every member in the meeting. As, together, we enter the depths of a living silence, the stillness of God, we find one another in ‘the things of the eternal’, upholding and strengthening one another” and that “words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcom-ing acceptance of the other” (Quaker Faith and Practice).
The second thing was that Helen’s request took my mind to 1 Kings 19 – which has some echoes of my experience of the Eucharist at the Convent. Elijah feared the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel and ran away to the wilderness. He curled up under a tree and wanted to die. An angel touched him and invited him to eat and drink. He laydown again “The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” Elijah meets God at Horeb and discovers him not in wind, earthquake or fire. “After the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” God then talks with Elijah. For me this passage speaks of how I might get through difficult days – joyful hopeful days are easy – but tired dread days of fragility, brokenness and torn hearts are harder. On days when I am tired or afraid like Elijah – when I have done what I thought was right but things have gone awry, a messenger from God bids me to eat and drink or else the journey will be too hard. It would be helpful if I could remember this more often but, like Jacob at Peniel, there are times when I am more likely to wrestle with my Angel all night than sit and eat.
Returning to Cotham I was struck by the Rainbow Flags. To an extent I have seen this before – St James, Piccadilly has a stunningly beautiful Rainbow altar frontal – but it seems much more powerful to find it in your own church. There are some Christians who would be deeply affronted that they are there. As that conversation played out in my head, I recognised the journey I have been on to get to this point. When I first met Jeni in 1998 the rainbow flag for me meant pubs and clubs that were safe, hospitable and fun – and a sense of community for someone who was lost and finding their way in a new City. For Jeni it was a sign of Gods Covenant (Genesis 9). She has taught me so much, and through God’s grace I hope she will continue to do so.
It was strange to be joined by Cotham at Pride and I was a little discombobulated to tell you the truth; but on re-flection I am proud of all that Cotham works so hard to achieve. Also, it seems, my ‘chosen family’. I remain slightly uncomfortable advertising any church as a ‘welcoming’ place while we remain unable to bless relationships. The redlines of the church mean that our civil marriage has implications for our acceptability within the institution. So-ciologists suggest in labelling theory that negative labels are stronger than positive ones and the national church and the Anglican Communion remind us on a regular basis that they see our loving faithful lifegiving relationship – the most precious thing in the world to me – as a negative. I find that hard to live with. I am deeply tired of argu-ments between different factions of the church over sexuality, gender identity and related issues – and am espe-cially cautious of those who treat it merely as an academic exercise of scholarship. I am extremely wary of the Liv-ing in Love and Faith process (Christian teaching and learning about human identity, sexuality and marriage) in General Synod at the moment. You will, I hope, forgive my anger and frustration at such times. I pray that amid all the noise and business of the world we may continue to seek and listen to God together. You may find me in the pub when Synod publishes the LLF report.
Editor’s note For those who are as ignorant as me Wikipedia tells me that Hiraeth a Welsh concept of longing for home. ‘Hiraeth’ is a word which cannot be completely translated, meaning more than solely “missing something” or “missing home.”
The Wit and Wisdom of Calm
Between Friday 23rd August and Tuesday