THINGS THAT PASS ALL UNDERSTANDING

Last week we had the pleasure of a visit from my daughter Joanna and her husband and children.

We girls went on an outing to Uckfield, a small Sussex village near us. At one point, a few shops are recessed back from the street and up about 6 steps, and as we approached them a motley assortment of persons were setting up what turned out to be a Good Friday service, using the pavement in front of the shops as the platform, while the ‘congregration’ stood in the space between the ‘platform’ and the road. There were no barriers, nothing was cordoned off… they were creating rather a hazard to navigation, but it’s a free country after all and one has to respect the views and beliefs of others.

We went in to the shop behind all this curfuffle (the shop was not connected to the service) and got on with our business.

Some considerable time afterwards, we approached the exit of the shop to leave, but the clergy had backed in to the doorway, which was now blocked. I’m not sure of the fashion rules of cassocks and clerical garb – people were sporting different colours but I don’t know whether this has any significance – or if the service was multi-denominational. Anyway, we stood politely waiting for an exit moment while a man who couldn’t play guitar accompanied a woman who couldn’t sing on some modern happy clappy hymn I’d never heard of.

It became apparent to me that we could stand there to kingdom come for all the clergy cared. Eventually we sent out the children, who were allowed, grudgingly, to pass, but were treated with great disdain.

I’m still standing with my trolley that assists me to walk, when the caterwauling stops and one of the ‘be-cassocked’ launches into a very long prayer. I have been well brought up, so I remain standing silently, though I do get to the How long, O Lord, how long stage before he mercifully draws to a conclusion. I tap (very gently and when he himself is not speaking ) on the shoulder of the officiant nearest me, who turns and glares at me with undisguised venom. I am slightly taken aback by the unchristian ferocity of his look, but I smile, standing there with my trolley, and I mime silently that I’d like safe passage through their midst. He is about to issue some clerical reprimand, when something in me stirs slightly, and I think, firstly, that if he says a single word, I’ll point out that this is a public highway and he’s causing an obstruction. But then hard on the heels of that, the killer remark offers itself. Whatever he says, I think, I’ll just smile and say, And may the peace that passeth all understanding encompass your heart also on this Good Friday, dear brother.

But it’s not just the peace that passeth all understanding; so does the ability some of us possess – including him – to hear that which has not been actually spoken, and he thinks better of saying anything and, grudgingly and ungraciously, stands aside.

Then I do wish him peace from my heart, unloving brother though he may appear to be, let me not be an unloving sister, and I think (Dune fashion) that I can thank him for giving me the opportunity to practice forbearance. Perhaps he stood there in physical pain; perhaps he had suffered a loss of faith and wondered what the point in his labours was; perhaps he was distressed at the loss of influence and lack of interest and respect what he believes in now receives; perhaps someone he loved had passed away and he was in despair. Perhaps he was just an unhappy, grumpy, ill-tempered, bad mannered, ungentlemanly man who leads a miserable life.

We have all found ourselves at some point wandering in distress, and some unknown person appears from nowhere, and merely by recognising us in our unhappiness, and perhaps saying a kind word, carrying our bag a little way, giving us a cup of coffee, tying our shoelace, has lifted our spirits and sent us on our way recovered out of all proportion to the small gift they appeared to give us; occasionally I have wondered (not very seriously, you understand) whether these people, who appear out of the mist when we need them, give us aid, and disappear again forever, are perhaps what was meant by the phrase ‘entertaining angels unawares’. Is it not possible, I wonder, as I wander down the streets of Uckfield towards a coffee shop, which my daughter who I am sure is fortunately thinking along much more sensible and practical lines than I am has sourced so that I do not have to walk too far – is it not possible that Fate as well as sending us ‘Angels of Mercy’ also sends us these little trials – trials of our faith, of our fortitude, of our loving kindness? I must in my lifetime have failed such trials far too often. The deadly javelin of hurtful words has always leapt unbidden to my hand. I have, with my capacity to aim for the jugular, mea culpa, flung it many many times, stepped over the fallen opponent, and walked on with barely a backwards glance. Perhaps thirty years ago I first recognised that though there was no amulet in life which would protect you from falling a little in love with some man who laid siege to you, never-thre-less, you were in no way obliged to do anything about it.    You just walked on by.   So it has taken me 60 years to understand that it is not necessary to destroy everyone who crosses you.   You have your lethal weapons, should it prove essential to deploy them, but in most cases, you can just walk on by.

I say a little prayer for my poor brother, the priest. May he find comfort. I say a little prayer of gratitude for my loving daughter, who has had thought and consideration for my comfort. I say a little prayer for the village of Uckfield: may it grow and prosper.

As we walk away, on the street behind us, the caterwauling begins once more. But if I listen very carefully, I can just hear, very faint and far away, from the farthest outpost of my imagination, the angel choir behind it.

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KEEPING THE QUEEN’S PEACE

Watching the Queen’s recent attendance in parliament as part of the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee, it appeared to me that she reacted with distaste to The Speaker, John Bercow’s ill-considered remark that she was a kaleidoscope queen of a kaleidoscope country.    I do not think her (assumed by me) disapproval was in any way a rejection of our multicultural society and commonwealth, over which the Queen has presided with discretion and dignity for six decades.   Rather it may have been because the word kaleidoscope suggests that the colours were constantly changing, whereas she nailed her colours to the mast long ago and has remained true to them ever since.

I also recently watched an old film about the English civil war and reflected what an extraordinary period of history it was, and how it illustrates certain characteristics of the English.     (I must remind readers in my observations below that I am a Scot which is an entirely different thing to being English in ways both obvious and subtle.)

I am not an historian, but let us consider here four pivotal points in English history:   their conquest by Rome;  their fall to William the Conqueror;  their challenge to papal authority under Henry V111;  and their rejection of the unimpeachability of kings in the person of Charles 1.

Of Ancient Rome, whose conquests have been labelled ‘glorious’ by those who had no distaste for their ruination of other nations, nor their profit through the misery of those whom they enslaved, I shall say little.   When, briefly, I studied Latin, I was surprised by how impoverished a language it appeared to be compared with the great subtlety of English, and wondered why for generations we have wasted time studying an unusable language of an unedifying people, unless perhaps among our educators were descendants from this doubtful patrimony.

William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne of England had no legitimacy whatsoever (supposing such a thing exists), except by that bully’s charter, Right of Conquest.   I recently warmed to General the Lord Dannatt when he listed William the Conqueror as an enemy of England.

Henry VIII challenged the authority of Papal Rome and although his motives were entirely dishonourable, he freed his countrymen from the tyranny of submission to an external religious authority.   He challenged the notion that one section of Christendom was a true instrument of the divine, and chose to nominate his corrupt and venal self as a suitable head of the church in England, which peculiar state of affairs last until the present day.   (NB: In England only.  The Queen is not head of the church in Scotland.)    He then set about achieving the real objectives of his ‘heresy’ which was less to do with religious theory and more about getting rid of a wife of whom he had tired, and getting his hands on the wealth of the church, both of which aims he accomplished with speedy efficiency.

Charles 1 had not considered carefully enough the nature of the people over whom he was, for a time, king.   They were pragmatic enough to survive under tyrants when there was no alternative, but they were of an independent spirit.   He assumed that because he was king, he could claim to be anointed and chosen by God (whereas in fact kings hold their position due to an accident of birth, the aggression of their ancestors possibly long ago, and crucially by acceptance of the inhabitants of their kingdom.)   However, it appears that he could have held on to his crown (not to mention his head), had he only been sensible.

The religious choice of kings appears to me to be largely pragmatic, though not many are as frank as Henry of Navarre,  later Henry IV of France, (‘Paris is worth a mass.’)   Henry VIII had at different times cast into doubt the legitimacy of both his daughters.   Mary Tudor was daughter of a catholic queen, and according to that religion she was the only legitimate heir, so her loyalty to the church of Rome was never likely to be in doubt.    Had Elizabeth espoused Catholicism, that would have been to declare herself a bastard and ineligible to be queen, so she had no alternative but to support the Protestant cause.   James VI of Scotland, later lst of England, had seen his mother lose her head over her claim to the English throne by Catholic legitimacy, plus he came of the Scots brand of Protestantism which is an entirely different thing to the English.    But by the time it came to Charles 1, his legitimacy in terms of birth was not an issue and he appears to have been catholic in all but name, and indeed Charles II declared himself catholic on his deathbed.   Of course an individual’s private faith should be his own business, but Henry VIII had left English kings in the invidious position that they were head of the established church, and therefore their view was of national significance.   It appears that the majority of the king’s subjects wished to practise protestant variants of Christianity, while being prepared (mostly) to tolerate individual practising of personal belief.   I suggest that the attraction of Protestantism to the English was that it left you much more free to think for yourself, and certainly not in a position where foreign clerical authorities could interfere with your affairs.   Charles should have pondered this conundrum with caution.    As it was, he appeared to believe that he could not be challenged on his assertion that he was chosen and anointed by God, and was answerable to no other authority.   It appears that what angered his opponents into accusing him of treason against the people was discovering that he was prepared to open England’s gates to foreign armies in order to subdue his own people;   for this they declared him unfit to be king;   and they had found him to be so arrogant, dishonest and perfidious that his word was worthless;  and so he was executed.

Whereas Henry VIII and Cromwell appear to be opposites – one enhancing his personal power through the monarchy, and the other king in all but name for so long as he lived but refusing the crown; in fact what they had in common was that, broadly, the majority of the English were in support of their actions.     The English have long memories; and after their experiences with Rome and Roman Catholicism, perhaps they were no longer willing to accept that any unimpeachable authority could be applied to them.   (Exerting authority over others was of course a different thing.)  Charles I either never saw this, or he forgot it.

This is why, some time ago, during the recent visit of the present Pope, I was absolutely astounded to hear the Speaker of the House of Commons, still the sorry John Bercow, who is supposed to speak as the House wills him, refer to Charles I as ‘Charles the Martyr’.   Charles the Martyr, I thought.   How dare he?    Charles I was not a martyr to anything but his own arrogance, selfishness, intransigence and stupidity.

If ‘The Speaker’ is supposed to be a man of cautious and accurate words, as befits one who speaks on behalf of the English (and that’s not counting the other nations of Britain) then I think in his giddy attention-seeking silliness the incumbent has proved a poor choice.   Perhaps the House of Commons should remember what Cromwell said in addressing an earlier House.   ‘Consider, in the bowels of Christ, that ye might be mistaken.’     Then with that swift action after long deliberation which characterises the English, they might chose another Speaker who might better speak on their behalf and by extension, represent us all.

Meanwhile we should follow the good example of the protestant Queen Elizabeth 1 and the (presumably) catholic Charles 11, and follow our personal beliefs with gratitude that we are free to do so, and in mindful tolerance of the alternative views of others.

Keeping the Queen’s peace, one might say.

JUSTICE!

JUSTICE!

I was thinking of those people whom we occasionally meet, whose behaviour is breath-takingly awful, yet who seem to have an impenetrable armour of self belief and can justify all manner of sins in themselves – see only virtue in their most selfish actions – and lay the blame on others while letting themselves off scot-free.

You wonder, do these people actually believe their own lies?   What does it cost them in psychic energy to maintain such a delusion?     There must be some chamber in their inner house, where the dreadful truth shines out like diamonds glinting among the cobwebs and dirt, and at the entrance to which they have to maintain a 24 hour armed guard, lest they stumble upon this lethal knowledge by accident.   If they saw themselves as the worthless trash they are, would they just nod into the mirror – they always knew they were a knave – or would they recoil in horror from the repulsive individual who squinted back at them?   Although they cause great hurt to others and damage everything they touch, we can all walk away from them.   They, on the other hand, have to live with themselves forever.

Someone I know once showed me a letter from a former spouse, whose record of behaviour had been far from exemplary.   They had however taken up religion with considerable zeal, and from their pinnacle of newly found virtue, they graciously offered to pray for my friend’s salvation.    I am sorry to record that this generous offer was not at all well received.    ‘Does God answer the prayer of such as these?’ (employing a word I could not use here.)   I said it was never clear whether prayer was answered at all, and certainly rarely in the way the petitioner wished, but if you believed all prayers were heard, then the answer was Yes.   God was not partial and we were all sinners.   Engaging in a vigorous bout of hand washing as if to remove all traces of the contaminating letter, its ungrateful recipient snorted that some of us were more sinners than others.

As I reflected on these matters this week, I thought, while the sinning obviously does matter, some of us know we are sinners, while others believe they are gods, accountable to no-one but themselves.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia, having found no justice he could apply to in this world, and thereby laid his case before a Higher Authority, despots and tyrants on his continent probably did not immediately perceive their danger.   Yet some of them are already gone, their reputations destroyed, their evil actions exposed, whereas this previously unknown fruit seller will be a hero of many republics.   The tragedy is that he had to lose his life in the process.

There is a Roman proverb which goes:   Fiat justitia ruat caelum.    Let justice be done, though the heavens should fall.   Heavens appear to be falling all round about us.

Justice!

P.S.   Elisabeth and Rob are safe and well in Tokyo, although having to climb 27 flights of stairs to their apartment.     Clearly though there are difficulties ahead for Japan and we are anxious about developments in a nuclear plant to the north of Tokyo.

ON BEING ONE OF THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT

BEING ONE OF THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT…

One of the interesting things about travelling elsewhere is what you learn about yourself.   I did not realise how much I loved Britain until I first went abroad.

What amused me on our recent trip to Japan was how, although I regard myself as an original and independent thinker, holding to no particular body of opinion, it appears I am in fact just the product of my background the same as everyone else.

Because my father had, as I used to tease him (and not absolutely without malice either), his own hot line to God and an urgent desire to persuade others to his opinion, which I found irksome, I myself have been careful not to express my personal philosophy to others and to leave everyone alone to form their own religious view (or not, as they please.)     I found it surprising that at least one of my children had an antagonistic attitude to religion of any description, considering that no religious issues of any kind had ever been presented during their growing up.    I think the actual objection was ‘other people telling you what to think’, a view with which I had the utmost sympathy.

I would regard myself as being, in the widest possible sense, within the great body of the Christian – well even here I hesitate to say ‘church’ – Christian ethic, though I accept no creed or instructions from anyone and make no visible external demonstration of my inner belief.    I suppose one could be put in the category of Do It Yourself religion that the present Papal incumbent so disapproves of, though a greater authority than he is did say, My father’s house has many mansions.     To those persons of such poor judgement as not to recognise the inadvisability of summoning an irritable householder to his own door to ask fatuous questions at inconvenient times, eg what do you think God’s plans for world peace might be, I resist the temptation to reply:  Actually He was talking to me about this only last week; and deliver a 30 minute oration along the lines of ‘God’s idea is this’…     I politely say that I’m comfortable with my religious philosophy and don’t wish to discuss it, and wish them good-day.

If visiting a Stone Circle, I hail the gods of long ago; and I never undertake so much as a river crossing without making a (mental) genuflection before the altar of the god Neptune.    My father had a beautiful well, 9 rings deep, and every summer before we left to return to the South, I would say to him, Let us visit the Temple of Neptune then, and we would ritually walk with the little children and the two cats trailing behind us down the hill to the place of the well.     We would pass through the meadow, waist high with summer Scottish flowers, and larks would sing above the other moorland fields.      My father would solemnly unlock the well shed, and then remove the well covering.    I would kneel at the edge and stare down into the still depth of the crystal clear water which miraculously seemed to remain full to near the brim however dry it was or how much we used it.   My father, who, in the kind light of retrospection, sometimes did know when to be silent, shared my reverence for the bountiful planet which gives us life;  what does it matter to what name you offer your expression of gratitude?

You will perceive therefore that I regard myself as enlightened and tolerant (though I held it against a woman who once called me ‘pantheistic’; and in the case of another ‘christian’ who said to me once that ‘for a pagan’ I was well educated in religious matters, I doubt if I ever exchanged more than the minimum of polite greetings with him thereafter.)

So I am completely surprised by my hostility to non-European religions.     Buddhism.     Although I find the beauty and simplicity of a Zen garden attractive, and the faces of some monks have an innocent joy, I do not find it an appealing philosophy.   Fat man sits under a tree and gets enlightenment.    And in his writings, ‘It is very difficult for a woman to walk the path  to enlightenment’.    I think, could this be because she might have too much to do, not being able to sit under a tree all day?

And a Shinto shrine…   beautiful, of course, and generally wonderfully set in the landscape.   But I find this religion difficult to understand at all.    It’s as if we had made Memorials to former kings and worshipped them as gods.    Henry VIII as a god.   Well, I’m sure he would have approved.

 

So it would appear that European gods I can accommodate.   Confronted by non European religions, that Scottish Presbyterian I didn’t know I was rises up in righteous disapproval.   Heathen gods and superstitious nonsense, I find myself think, and then wonder, did I say that?   I am ashamed of my reactions and would disown them if I could, but it seems an unfortunate truth that though I may masquerade as a moderate modern woman, in fact there lurks in my secret heart a creature of covert Scottish prejudice.   

Daughter of John Knox?   I fear I am, monstrous regiment of women though he said we were…