Angels in Our City

The Angels in Our City Project is now taking off. I have to ask the angels to give me and the project a bit of a shove from time to time, hence this blog. The idea behind all this Angels stuff is to make people think about angels and think about creating an angel for Brighton and Hove, an angel that could only represent this City.  The competition we have launched is also designed to help us appreciate that angels feature strongly in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, not to mention others, like the Baha’i and the Zoroastrian.

It seems that angels were flying around long before the Abrahamic religions. They swooped into the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian and Greek traditions and played an important part in their mythologies. Possibly they have been around for as long as we thought about things in a spiritual way.

The Peace Statue

The Angel Project has been a real adventure from the start, but once it got going, it took on a life of its own, as if helped along by a few divine beings. After the idea had been mooted, myself and a couple of other executive members of the IFCG (Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove) zipped off to the Brighton Museum and put it past a curator, who loved the idea, and gave us a date for the project and competition launch – February 10th. Angel Day at Brighton Museum was a resounding success, things have never been quite the same since. Do have a look at the film on the front page of our website.

Now we need lots of people to create an angel for our City. What about you? Take a look at the IFCG website – http://interfaithcontactgroup.com

In Memory of Jean Kelly

 

I have just taken a cursory look at my blog and noted that nothing has been pasted up in six months! I did start to write a blog when I was ill last September but is there anything more tedious than people writing about how unwell they feel?

Now I am writing something only a shade better, I have decided to return to the blog to write an obituary for a friend – Jean Kelly Castillo. Jean, as she knew only too well, was anything but boring overall… but like all very interesting people she was capable of being a monumental bore at certain moments. She was an adventure seeker — fun, and at times dangerous. I hope to honour all her lovely and scary characteristics amidst these few words.

I lost touch with Jean shortly after I carried out the funeral of her partner and husband Francesco Castillo in May 2009. Jean and Chico had married a few days before his demise. They had been together for a good while, but I think the issue of a previous wife from many years back had stopped him from marrying her.

Losing touch with Jean was a regular happening that occurred in moments of strange uncertainty, and also the formation of interesting assumptions on her part. This last assumption, I suspect, was that she thought that my decision to become an interfaith minister was synonymous with becoming a Catholic bishop — she assumed that I had become seriously and deeply judgemental on a variety of moral issues.

Jean’s fear of being judged was because she was a Catholic, but like many good Catholics she was a spectacularly lapsed Catholic. Her father was an alcoholic and violent, and she was an alcoholic and an addict, but none of this stopped her from being an inspired and daring person. She was great company, and if one introduced her to someone she didn’t like, she made no hesitation in expressing herself in such purple and shocking prose as to scare the living daylights out of everyone around. It was fun, but it could be scary.

I met her in a women’s club at a time when she was in a same sex relationship, something she did on and off in her youth, but later liked to pretend never happened. I think her first same sex relationship was with a prison warden. As a young person she went to art school, where she discovered the joys of heroin and cocaine. She later got herself a job working as a doctor’s receptionist, where she discovered the art of writing her own prescriptions, something that secured her first spell at her Majesty’s pleasure, in Holloway. Later she did something equally silly, and returned to do time again. I spent many hours chatting with her about the joys and horrors of doing time, and Jean often had me in paroxysms of happy laughter as she took trips down memory lane. Two examples of her unique sense of opportunism and fun come to mind – one was to go to jail, and not only lose out on her Monopoly money but to get a job in the prison library at the first chance, which allowed her to read just about every book she could get her hands on, with the result that she was wonderfully cultured and well-read. The second memory was the time when she was sent to an open prison, far away from all her cronies in Holloway. In order to ensure that she returned to her favourite prison as soon as possible she took to writing letters to the world beyond saying that she was getting messages from outer space encouraging her to set fire to the open prison, whereupon she was returned to Holloway post-haste.

When she came out of jail the second time she made an extraordinary effort to get off the stuff, but took an interest in alcohol. She then decided to take up a career as a nurse, and thanks to having the sort of name that allowed her to skip under the radar, she succeeded in gaining her State Registration, something that I think served her well. For a while she did some very specialist nursing in both the Hospital for Nervous Diseases (which she referred to as the Hospital for N-n-n-n-nervous Diseases) and also the Marsden. As a nurse she was both clever and practical in her approach, taking pride in saving the life of a patient who suffered sudden and extreme anaphylactic shock, and writing detailed and unexpected notes and observations about cancer patients that fascinated the Consultant she worked with.

But Jean became bored easily. She gave up nursing and for a while she worked as a bar-maid in the 606 Jazz Club, at the time when it was still in King’s Road. She would do some agency nursing if necessary, and even trying her hand at some of the more exotic aspects of ‘the oldest profession’. Then one day she realised that by using her nursing qualification she could put herself forward as an English nanny serving the rich and famous of Europe, and this is what she did.

For a number of years she lived in Italy, looking after the children of some very well-known fashion designers, including the Missoni family and also Laura Biagiotti. She also worked in France for a while, in Paris, building up a close relationship with the child of a wealthy American publisher. It was here that I visited her, and we spent an amazing couple of days looking around some of the more unusual art galleries and feasting out at one of Paris’s most stunningly pretentious hotels, and having great fun in the process.

Our friendship was, however punctuated by moments of not-seeing each other. One evening she came to stay with me and my then partner, and sinking into one of her more morbid moments of deep booziness, announced that she was quite capable of topping herself, to which my then partner made the suggestion that she was free to do so if she wished. For a long time we lost touch with her, only to catch up with her at a very much later date, after spotting her on television, in Paris, at a special edition of Question Time, sitting in the audience, looking unusually calm, a character far away in a strange film.

It was while she was working abroad that Chico Castillo, a musician born in Costa Rica who had also spent time at her Majesty’s pleasure, also for drug offences, came out after a long spell in jail and decided to go in search of Jean. She was, he declared, the love of his life, and I truly believe this, although in later years he did not seem to be particularly faithful, and the relationship creaked a bit. But after spending time in jail, dreaming of Jean, he tracked her down, and brought her back to England, whereupon the two took up service as a housekeeper and handyman in the service of a judge and his wife, living in a particularly elegant house near the Thames. It always amused me greatly that the judge and his wife had employed the services of two jail-birds to look after them, and look after them they did, until Chico decided that he wanted to earn a bit more, and the accommodation was considered not up to scratch, and they moved on. By this time Chico was running his own janitor’s business, and I am not sure what Jean was up to.

It’s a long time since I saw Jean, but as I said before, becoming an interfaith minister put the tin lid on our relationship, even though I carried out Chico’s funeral. In the run-up to his funeral there was talk about stealing a hospital bed, and getting him, the bed, and their friends shipped over in a van, across land and sea, to the house they had bought in Northern France. Here she planned to nurse him until the end, but it never happened. Even in tragedy, there was always an element of farce about Jean’s adventures. Doing something naughty was second nature to her.

After Chico’s funeral I contacted her, but I could hear that she didn’t want to communicate. While he was dying she had taken to drinking his liquid morphine, which took her back to a place that she clearly wanted to revisit. She died last month of bowel cancer; I had clearly been erased from her address book, which is sort of sad… and sort of not. Whatever fate awaits Jean as she trips across the barrier of life and death and beyond, I hope she looks back on her life with pleasure and above all things, amusement. She was one of those people who taught everyone who encountered her… in one way or another, even if the education process was a real challenge.

Jean Kelly

 

Art for Artists. Farts for fartists. An odious little story about glory, rhyming and comparisons

Almost exactly eight years before I arrived singing and dancing into this world, the painter Mark Gertler gassed himself in his studio, in the very same house where I was born. The story goes that his paintings were not selling at the time — he had become unfashionable, people that once liked his stuff, had gone off it. It is said, that shortly before he topped himself, he was at a party with friends who were looking at a book about Picasso. Joining in with the admiration, he murmured something like “I’m going to go home and look at my work and if it’s not as good as this, I shall kill myself,” and he did.

Mark Gertler 1891-1939

It seems that Mark Gertler was constantly threatening to top himself – he was often melancholy, yet he was a seriously talented artist (the two often go together) but like all artists he spent a lot of time comparing himself to others, and suffering as a result of this. Is this comparison stuff something that took off in the spirit of enterprise in the 19th Century, and escalated into the 20th and the 21st, or is it part of the human condition? Are we destined to compare ourselves to others all the time – muttering such phrases as “I know better than her” “He’s got more dosh than me”, “I got my knitting certificate three years before you,” “Doris Day is a better than Minnie Mouse “and so on. Our lives are contaminated by odious comparisons. And yet we all do it, even when we should simply appreciate something for its beauty, its artistry, its real skill. TV programmes create a real spirit of competition, from “The Great Bake-Off” to “The Apprentice” to the endless sports coverage. It’s all about judgement, competition and comparisons. Politics stink with comparisons, they’re never infused with truth, unless they’re Green.

I frightened myself witless when I went into a bookshop yesterday and came out with some stunning books of poetry. One of them is entitled “Poems that make Grown Women Cry” the other is Kate Tempest’s “Hold Your Own”. Going through the first one triggered an internal monologue about sexism (this book is the sequel to “Poems that make Grown Men Cry” and is edited by two blokes). After this I went on to annoy myself even further by the number of literary references it contained mentioning people whose books I never even knew about, let alone read. If this wasn’t bad enough, the Kate Tempest volume just cast me simultaneously into joy and gloom by its terrifying brilliance, purity and economy… and she uses rhyme too! When I try to make poetry rhyme it sounds like doggerel and dead catterel. And as I read her brilliant poetry I thought “blimey she’s 31, and famous and brilliant and I am more than twice her age, and I am only just beginning to write stuff that is vaguely good… and when it rhymes it stinks. And then I thought… Anthea… if you think you are a spiritual being, you should just connect with everything, and connecting with everything makes you everything, and making you everything means that there is a microdot of Mark Gertler in you, a bit of Donald Trump in you (try not to throw up) a slice of “The Great Bake Off” in you and a page out of “Poems that Make Grown Men Cry” in you. And this consoled me a bit, and my deflated ego tried to re-adjust a bit… And then I suddenly remembered… the number of my own funeral readings that have made grown men cry was quite considerable. Here’s a tiny little thing that somebody read last week that had everybody snuffling into their hankies. It’s used for all sorts of funerals, for people young and old. Last week they read it for a scientist and a star gazer.

Star

I chose a star for you
It’s bright and beautiful
It has your name
And it shines from a distance.
I picked a rose for you
It’s heaven sent, and heavenly
It has your name
And its scent is perfection.

I gave a thought to you
It went like this:
Distance is no object
But when we look upon a star
It changes
It becomes lovelier
More familiar
It senses your love…
It’s as if
We’re one
And have never, ever
Been parted.

 

Caroline Lucas – The UK’s Most Visionary Leader

A resident shows a dangerous stretch of road to his Green MP – Caroline Lucas

Visionary (Noun) a person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.
In 2015, while we were all bumbling around tackling the May election locally in Brighton for the Council and nationally for the general election, I found myself canvassing with our local Green MP, Caroline Lucas, visiting flats for elderly people and those in sheltered accommodation. It was a real eye-opener, because as we went from flat to flat, or sat with hostile groups of potential Tory voters in spotless Patcham community spaces, it became evident that Caroline never paid lip service to her role as MP, she truly cared about people, and empathised with them and their situation in life, more than any councillor or doctor or social person I have yet encountered. Caroline is a true visionary. In one nursing home I remember a young nursing assistant asking her why she became an MP, and she replied simply and unthinkingly “…because I wanted to make a difference”. A month before this visit we had been to a block of flats and met a handful of aged and infirm people who were either curious to meet their MP, or had a genuine issue.

Notes are taken about the road and the risks it poses

One elderly and very frail gentleman told Caroline that he had real difficulties crossing the road outside the flats, and felt vulnerable and unsafe. So Caroline, with the help of the warden of the flats, asked him to show her the place where he tried to cross the road, so that she could identify the problem. A long time was spent talking about the road, and why it was dangerous. Caroline asked me to photograph the stretch of road under discussion, for under discussion it was – the council had been alerted to this problem on a number of occasions and done nothing about it.  A month later we went to visit the nursing home, which was on the other side of the road from the flats where the elderly gentleman lived, and Caroline spotted something that absolutely thrilled her. Miraculously, a pedestrian island had been placed in the middle of the road, enabling those to cross without risk to life and limb, and Caroline had made it happen. She was utterly delighted, delighted at the idea that those frail and good people could now cross the road, and so happy that she had helped to improve their lives.

A month later, we have a pedestrian island – yippee!

It’s a small issue, but important, and it says so much about our MP. A visionary is described as ‘a person with original ideas’ but it’s so much more than that. In my view it’s also somebody who has the insight into another’s life, imagining what it’s like to be in their shoes… and it’s yet more than that… it’s somebody who can see the bigger picture, the ailments and sorrow of a planet, a world with exquisite seas polluted by plastics, chemical substances, hormones and toxic filth – it’s somebody who has a passionate love for nature, plants, trees, animals, fish and birds distressed by heat, pollutants and pesticides, somebody who cares about air quality, children in poverty, and human lives horribly distressed in places of war, constantly strafed by weapons manufactured in this country. It is somebody who can see far and wide, into the now and the future, and has the will and the foresight to want to bring about change, and does so… just as she did when she was invited to the Armaments Exhibition, and used the opportunity to stop the public sale of illegal cluster bombs. This is a mind and a spirit that can see the consequences of fracking, the problems of a society unable to tackle illegal drugs, the difficulties of young people, old people – just about all people and the beautiful planet we all occupy. This is what being a visionary is all about.

Tea at a friendly community centre in Coldean

 

BEING CHAPLAIN TO THE BEST MAYOR YET

Cllr Pete West proves… how one can be spiritual and yet still be an atheist

Cllr Pete West, Mayor of Brighton and Hove from 2016 to 2017 and the best yet

Last year something quite strange happened. I was invited by the incoming mayor of Brighton Councillor Pete West, to be his Chaplain, an honour that was totally unexpected and thrilling. And so I set out on a path, not yet ventured before in our City, to be an Interfaith Minister doing all the things a Mayor’s Chaplain does – read the prayers at full Council meetings, follow the Mayor’s progress in terms of his charities, offering support where required and conducting services for Remembrance Day and similar Civil events. It was inevitable that I encountered a wee bit of opposition — being elbowed out of Pride, after being asked to make myself available for it, and also being pushed out of a Remembrance Day service that I had written and prepared, by a minister of the Church of England; but these two incidents were only worth noting in that they illustrate the discomfort of certain parties in accepting women priests from different faiths. Both were predictable given the personalities involved. Overall the acceptance of a different style of minister was greeted with genuine appreciation and in some cases, real joy. It was unbelievably rewarding to carry out such a role, and the Mayor and Mayoress were generous and gracious beyond belief… and I knew something wonderful had happened when a leading Tory told me that he preferred the alternative prayers at Council to the usual Church of England stuff.

The Mayoress and Mayor at the Pavilion banquet, raising funds for great causes.

A record cheque of vast proportions for £94,000

And so, Pete West, our Mayor for 2016/17, proved to be a man of massive inspiration and strong convictions, capable of delivering ideas and events and fun and support for wonderful causes on a level that had never been seen in our City before. Unlike his predecessors, who opted to support four or five charities, Pete decided to support 27 and raised a record £94,000 for his beloved causes, at a time when people expected less rather than more, an achievement that should have been hailed from here to Lands’ End for its pioneering vision. There is so much to be said for those 27 Charities and their champion, and his wonderful Mayoress, Geraldine Keenan. It would take volumes to describe all the action – the events, the hilarity, the talks, the walks, the bike rides, the bravery… it is beyond me to even comprehend the scale of Pete and Geraldine’s amazing achievement.

But apart from the record £94,000 raised, Pete also made spiritual progress, the kind of progress that only an inspired atheist can achieve. He wanted a different style of Chaplaincy… He wanted all the faiths represented at Council prayers, and he got just that – representatives from the Buddhist, Unitarian, Islamic, Pagan and Jewish Communities, and in most cases the best of the best. The last two speakers – Asmat Roe and Rabbi Elli Sarah, representing the Islamic and Jewish communities, nearly brought tears to my eyes, and I think affected others in the council chamber similarly.

Leadership in a secular society doesn’t need to be exclusive – quite the opposite, it should be inclusive.  Pete’s term as Mayor was wonderfully inclusive, and even though my own group – The Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove (IFCG) was not on his list of preferred charities, our executive and members – garnered from all the faith groups in the City – have unequivocally hailed Cllr Pete West as their champion, and he will remain there, as a much-appreciated supporter for many years to come.

Thank you Pete and Geraldine.

Here are the words of my last reading as Chaplain to the Mayor to the Council of Brighton and Hove on May 18th. Hope you enjoy it:

It is in the adoration of people
That we become sacred…
It is in our hearts and minds
That spaces and places become holy
And so we open up our hearts this day
In the loving spirit of celebration
For all that is special in our City.

Let us join together to give thanks for
Those cherished edifices
And esteemed places of worship
Found in our beloved City
The churches, the mosques, the synagogues
And other places of worship and spiritual inspiration –
Meditation rooms and modest temples
That offer spiritual sustenance to so many
And let us give thanks to the Divine
That has blessed us with a home
Full of love and unexpected delights
A City coloured in diversity
And graced by some of the nation’s
Most glorious architecture
For these are all sacred gifts

Let us embrace the cosy cafes
And the outlandish oddities of Brighton and Hove
Inhale the fragrance of St Anne’s Well Gardens
Breathe in the bracing blasts of the choppy Channel
Drink in the sweet stickiness
Of a Sunday beside the sea
For these are all sacred gifts

There are so many corners
That conjure up memories of delight
Hope and joy in the minds of those alive… and departed
Loving reminiscences of optimism and romance
From the gilded glory of the Royal Pavilion
To the graciousness of the traditional tea-lounges
And however regal or cosy these might seem
They are all sacred gifts

It is the warmth and welcome
That is so much part of our place
A City of friendship that holds us all…
From the tiny tots tottering in the sun
To the students, lovers, old and young
Aunts and uncles
Refugees, actors and academics
Good people of every kind
And all of them… each and every one… sacred

We share and cherish the spirit of fun
The ticket, the part and parcel
Drink in the pleasure… the air and the sea
For this is your City, Mr Mayor
May it bless you and serve you
And may it bless and serve your successor
So that she too may carry the flag of love,
Generosity, inspiration and enthusiasm
And so gift the people of this City
With all that is good
And all that is compassionate…
In this way
We may be sure
That the sacred blessings go on and on
Throughout time and for eons to come
For we and our City are sacred

 

An Onomatopoeic Poem About the Sea

Sometimes I wake up thinking about something quite silly – a Nutella pancake or a walk on the downs. Today I woke up and wanted to read a poem about the sea, an onomatopoeic poem where the words were almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the sea. But search as I might I couldn’t find what I wanted.  I remembered things like John Masefield’s Cargos  which has that magical and musical opening “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir…” so melodious, but not about the music of the sea.  So I wrote a poem based on the sea’s music, a kind of swirling music that has no end… and here it is:

 

The sound…
The sound of the sea
Reminds me
Of that soft, soft journey
That takes you there
And back again…
There… and back again

 

And that song in memory
The song of the sea
Reminds me
Of the music…
Hissing and whispering
That music of slumber
Rumbling, slumbering
That weaves its way
Into the soul
Tickling and trickling
There… and back again

Those sea sounds flow
Through my veins
They cascade through my blood
Ebbing and flowing
Swirling and whirling
Through time and tide
Wind and water
Carried on shifting sands
Across languorous lagoons
Within and without

 

 

Standing by that swishing
Rushing and gushing –
Sucked back
By the grumbling gravel
Hissing and gurgling
Departing, returning
I’m happy and sad
It’s beckoning and reckoning
I’m alive and dead
I’m dancing and swirling
Within and without
Washed up on the watery waves of eternity
A song without end

 

 

Courage, Faith, Fear and Bravado

The other day I found myself as a replacement minister doing a service at the Unitarian Church. Immediately the thought came into my mind… the one thing we all need now is courage; this is part of the address…

When I think about courage, I realised how much I sympathise with my friends at the moment who shrink from reading newspapers, and hearing or seeing the news, and I realised courage comes in all forms, from the dreadfully inappropriate to the merry and bright, and dare I say it, even frivolous.

I reckoned that my first 20th Century label for inappropriate courage had to go to all those men who volunteered for action in the First World War, and started out with courage, and ended with dreadful injury or a sad death. And then I thought about the conscientious objectors, 16,000 in the First World War, who did everything from trying to be useful, to going to jail and being reviled generally, and it seemed to me that in a way they were a lot more courageous than their counterparts who went to war, but then… after some thought… it also occurred to me that some of those 16,000, apart from the moral issue, were afraid of being blown apart, so maybe not all of them were courageous after all.

And this line of thought carried me (inevitably perhaps) to that sort of bravado-type-courage that people have when things are down, and they start to make jokes about the awfulness of their predicament… and I was reminded of my sister, who within days of death, commenting on some trivial administrative issue related to her impending demise, said, “Oh dear this situation is so inconvenient, perhaps I should have died last week.” images-1In a tight corner there is something to be said for adopting an air of swashbuckling silliness, and maybe the bravado brand of courage has to be a particularly good thing, because it defuses problems for the person who voices the joke, and also makes everyone around them feel a lot less scared. It does seem that courage comes in a lot of shapes and forms, and possibly the bravest amongst us are those that are most fearful, but confront their fear and still act on their beliefs. That category of courage covers everything from fearful yet brave ambulance drivers that face gruesome road accidents every day to actors who are fearful every time they go on stage. On my father’s side, I come from a family of worriers — people who used to get frightened at the tiniest things, so terrified that they couldn’t move, and were rooted to the spot when anything alarmed them… My mother who like many young women of her time, had witnessed much that was fearful and gruesome amidst the bomb-sites of WW2 London was not a worrier, but was sent to live in leafy Cambridge with her in-laws, for the safety of herself and her baby, and she found her in-laws odd and amusing, tucked away in their cosy leafy world. The best worriers were her mother in law (my Grandmother) and her sister Great Aunt Ray. One sunny day, out for a walk, my mother was particularly amazed and amused when Aunt Ray flatly refused to walk past a sleeping tramp on the side of the road. My mother, who had been brought up in the real world and knew very well that sleeping tramps did not as a rule leap on passers-by for no reason… had real problems coming to terms with the terror that rooted these fearful old ladies to the spot, whether the offending threat was a spider or somebody having a snooze in the sun.

Dan Zadra, the best selling author (that I have never read) has made a very valuable observation, which is that worry is a misuse of imagination, and I agree with this one. As the great niece of my Aunt Ray, I can imagine what she must have feared when she saw the snoozing tramp – he could have been a mass murderer, and vicious thief, a baby snatcher, so many things, but to my mum, with her wise and balanced view of the world, he was none of those things, and she was of course right. That is not to say that my mother’s imagination was any less great than that of Aunt Ray’s, it was just put to better purpose.

This apart, it must be said that at certain times in history the signs and signals of what is happening around us in the world may not seem to bode well. When we see things happen and make gloomy predictions and they do happen, these predictions can only reinforce our fears. In the order of things, we face choices, but speaking from experience I would say that the Aunt Ray school of terror, which roots one to the spot in moments of uncertainty is neither useful nor helpful. imagesThere is a lot to be said about a life gifted with faith, mingled with a bit of mindless frivolity… although I think faith is usually more useful than frivolity. With luck and a fair wind, faith can help us walk on burning coals, skip through the valley of death, walk around the neighbour’s fence, or better still the great Mexican Wall … I think a bit of cheerful tripping around things has to be sensible, and best of all it can be very effective. To people of faith and courage, problems and obstacles just present interesting opportunities, no more and no less. Scenarios of fear and seeming danger present different perceptions to different people, and those of faith who don’t fear death are very powerful indeed. images-2This apart, I don’t think I will ever denigrate somebody who is fearful at this moment in time, because I find the current news so utterly bizarre, so unpleasant and so threatening to so many good and innocent people. Unknown-2

 

 

 

 

 

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Having faith, inbuilt faith is something that has to be cherished, and I particularly cherish those parables that remind us how useful faith can be. There is one I was told many years ago that has always stayed with me. It’s very much something of the 70s, and belongs to the days when we were all reading stuff like Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but this parable stayed with me whereas the book of Motorcycle Maintenance didn’t, thank goodness.

The story goes… that you are a traveller on the road of life, walking through rough terrain and you come to a river, a river that just isn’t friendly enough to be swum across, but there, on the same side as you, much to your surprise is a very useful little raft tethered to the bank. So, you get onto the raft, and paddle to the other side of the river, and get off ready to continue your journey of life.

But it is at this point you face a dilemma, do your strap the raft onto you back and carry it, despite the discomfort, but knowing that you would have a useful raft should you come to another river? Or do you just keep walking, knowing that whatever you encounter, you will always be OK, you will always be looked after? This is all about faith and trust, and apparently, there are two kinds of people in the world, the fearful folk, that do not expect to be looked after, who prefer to be burdened by the raft, and so must carry it, or those that step into the unknown, ditch the raft, and trust. And so here is the question – are you a person of faith and courage, or not?

I think that we have entered a phase in time, when negative forces are splendidly visible in all their seeming nastiness. It seems to me that voices with strongly destructive tendencies and ugly aims have been given the opportunity to be heard, and by being given this power to broadcast far and wide, the broadcasters of doom and gloom have now set about marginalising good people, containing them, pushing them to the edge, saying that some of us are lesser beings because we are a particular age, race, colour, sex, or religion, and because of this we should have less or maybe no rights. But of course, this is nothing new. The priests of despair have always preached fear. It’s all about fear created in the minds of those that preach and those that listen. This is the message that lies at the heart of their words. For thousands and thousands of years the priests of doom have chosen to summon up the darkest ideas about difference, difference of all kinds, be it women in cahoots with the devil, or aliens from another country who have come here to take over our homes, our jobs and the very air we breathe. But the message of fear shouldn’t be met with fear. We need to counter this fear with courage… the courage to reject the preaching of fear for its ugliness, we need the courage to marginalise the very arguments themselves, the courage to laugh at the inanity of these priests of misery, and celebrate the beauty, power and glory of diversity, in our City our people and life, in all its beauty. As Franklin D Roosevelt said (almost exactly 84 years ago) at his inauguration as president ‘let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’

It seems to me… that we simply need to travel the journey of life unburdened by fearful arguments, so that when we do arrive at another river, we can expect to see a first-rate raft, big enough and safe enough to take as many co-travellers as we choose on our life journey, and invite them to enjoy the ride on the raft and enjoy the view as well, and sail happily across together. Courage is the companion of faith, and faith does so well when it’s garnished with optimism and the mysterious magic of bravado, however frivolous, cheerful and silly.

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Stuff Happens, and Keeps Happening

Busy-ness…That is this malaise of the moment. We all have to be busy. How sad. Apparently when people are dying the most commonly expressed regret is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” What is the virtue of being so busy? Please tell me. No don’t. You’re probably too busy to tell me; I understand.

Yesterday I went to the offices of BBC Sussex and did a mini gig with Emily Jeffery on the early Sunday morning God Slot, which is always great fun. I used to think that it was only listened to by two old gentlemen in Newhaven and their pet cat. In fact I was completely wrong. Loads of people listen to it as I have since discovered. One of the things one has to do on the God Slot is a 60 second sermon, which is not easy, but a good discipline. This one was about gratitude and it went like this:

One of the strange things about feeling a bit down is that if one sets out to thank somebody there is something about being gracious that often makes one feel better. Expressions of warmth work both ways. Saying ‘thank you’ is lovely for both the giver and the receiver… Eight years ago, I was struggling to write a prayer of gratitude for my prayer book, and I was feeling quite exasperated, and some words came to me that I turned into an odd little prayer. With the passing of time I completely forgot that prayer until six months ago when I was at a festival and was asked to read something sacred, short and light-hearted. I hastily searched my little book and found that prayer and read it out. Shortly afterwards a total stranger came up to me and completely stunned me by saying: “thank you so much, that prayer really does it for me, I have it stuck on my fridge door…”  The prayer’s called ‘Thanks’ and it goes like this:

Today I give thanks
Whether I feel like it
Or not…
It’s in the giving of thanks
I feel better…
It’s in the movement of a smile
I feel like smiling…
It’s in the singing of a song
I cheer up…
It’s in the laughing of a laugh
My troubles melt…
Today I give thanks
And realise the world is amazing… after all.

And thank you so much, for reading this blog… and for being you.

 

 

 

Matter into Spirit, Spirit into Matter – A Homage to Mary Sumner

sumner_doggardenThis year, on New Year’s day my partner and I went for a walk along the front in Brighton. Our meandering wanderings took us into a delightful shop strategically located on the front – part art gallery, part arty-farty shop called Castor and Pollux. As we rootled through the beautiful pictures I came across a print of a painting that spoke to me, and captured my heart, it was called ‘The Dog in the Garden’. It was the most loving, clever painting I had looked at for many, many years. It was entrancing – the hedge was so hedgy, the birds so birdy-like and the dog so sweetly doggish. The creator of this painting had learned to capture the spirit of nature — the cultivated nature of this land. I wanted to buy the print, but it was a bit beyond my price capability so soon after Christmas, but I was captivated.

Afterwards we wandered into the Grand Hotel for tea, and no sooner had we sat down, I googled the artist’s name – Mary Sumner – and was completely blown away by the images that came up. Here was an artist who understood the allure of English gardens, allotments, landscapes, countryside and also animals and birds; she was massively competent technically, and utterly inspired creatively. sumner_watersideplantsAbout a month after this happened, we were booked into a hotel in Cornwall for a few days, and bearing in mind that Mary Sumner lived in Tiverton in Mid Devon, I decided to contact her in the hope that perhaps we could meet and talk about commissioning a painting. But Mary was elusive. She didn’t respond to her emails, and I couldn’t find her phone number. Urged on by the family, I rang an art gallery close to where she lived, and somebody answered the phone in a sort of friendly way. I asked if this was the Gallery, and he said ‘no’, and I said ‘what a shame, I’m looking for the work of a particular painter’, and the friendly voice at the end of the phone asked which artist, and I replied ‘Mary Sumner’, and the voice said ‘well you’ve come to the right place’. windy-day-at-stives-150In a strange twist of fate, I had rung Mary’s home number, and her husband, John, had answered. And so we went to visit their magical house in Tiverton, on the way back from Cornwall.

And meeting these two lovely people was one of those strange things, because it was as if we had all known each other for ages. And as we looked at Mary’s prints and talked about the exhibition she was currently working on in Southwold, she merrily explained that just about all her work was sold before it had even been shipped… but we still commissioned one of her great paintings. I said in passing ‘you know how I can afford to buy your amazing work… I’m an interfaith minister and I make my money doing funerals,’ and equally casually Mary replied, ‘that’s useful, I’ve been looking for somebody to do mine.’sumner_allotment

Despite her cheerful reply, Mary was dying, but it was difficult to believe, she had such a powerful personality, such a massive hold on life, such a passionate commitment to her implausibly beautiful work. Afterwards we stayed in touch, but we never saw Mary again. We communicated very regularly – my partner supported her in a number of ways, and I sent her recorded meditations to help her relax and also deal with the chemotherapy. She responded by sending us some utterly exquisite prints.

images-1The circumstances of our meeting were so curious, and so mysterious. It is this kind of magic serendipity that obliges me to point out where and what I think Mary may well be up to now; by my reckoning she is appreciating that being in another dimension is even more astonishing and beautiful than being in this one.

 

It is work like Mary’s that reminds me of the power of spirit over matter. For me, the most compelling aspect of Mary’s work was her ability to capture the ‘spirit’ of animals, birds and scenery. Shortly after she died in June, we took a journey in the car into the country, and I found myself marvelling at her ability to capture the very essence of wood pigeons and finches, poppies and thistles, and many other life forms.

imagesI have a real passion for Vaughan Williams’s melodic depictions of English countryside, and I realise he used music, because thoughts and emotions can be better and more meaningfully conveyed as sound, wonderful sound. Mary Sumner did something very similar – she understood and expressed the soul of nature through her work, painting the very spirit of English countryside in a way that would never be achieved in words. If I could toast you now Mary I would; this blog is the nearest I can get to raising a glass to your prodigious talent. Here’s to you, Mary. We love you, we love your work.

sumner_goldfinches

 

Mary Sumner 1957 to 2016

 

 

A Priest in Brighton

Every now and again things happen that make me think “Yes, I am a real priest now… Yippee!” …But the things that trigger such thoughts can be slightly nonsensical. Once I was asked to represent all the Interfaith Ministers of Sussex, by doing a reading at a large public service. In that moment I felt that I was a real minister, and had finally arrived, even though it just involved saying a few words into a microphone and then standing beside the local archbishop, who behaved as if I was invisible, while the expression on his face looked as if I had let off a bad smell.IMG_1666 The trouble is, it’s ego stuff that trip those moments of super-self-belief. Let’s face it, ego stuff is proof of nothing other than the need to be patted on the head, to be told that one’s “a good little girl”… because I haven’t progressed greatly (in some departments) much beyond the age of five.

Kings, Cambridge

Kings, Cambridge

I won’t deny the pleasure that such ego trips can provide, particularly if I know that what I did gave pleasure or inspired others. The other day I received a phone call from a young woman who was the Human Anatomy Technical Coordinator of Cambridge University. She asked if she could use my reading – And Rest – for their forthcoming service at Great St Mary’s for the friends and families of donors to the University. This really moved me, because it’s a short, good reading that says a lot about the nature of death, and how it affects us. If I was ever brave enough to take some of the readings from Funerals Today to a publisher, this might be a favourite.

Recently something quite different happened that reminded me of my role as a priest. A funeral director asked me to do a funeral for a lovely woman who had died in her 50s. Her daughter and mother were grief stricken – it was very sad. She had been a nurse, and was clearly a very lovely woman. He elderly mother was a devout Catholic but she and her daughter were not religious in the traditional sense – but believed in life after death. The daughter and I spent a long time finding the right readings, and two of the readings from The Bible were agreed— but then to her surprise her grandmother showed no interest in The Bible readings, so she wanted them removed from the service. I really didn’t want to take out Corinthians 13, 1-3, because the deceased clearly understood what love was about. Then the daughter’s best friend, who happened to be there, supported me saying “that was the reading I had at my wedding, it is so beautiful, you must have it,” so we left it in. A day or two ago I got a text from the daughter. Going through her mother’s things she had found a beautiful copy of the Corinthians reading, in colour, beautifully presented; she wrote back to me with gracious thanks… “it was so right.”

Corinthians 13, Verses 1 to 3.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but haven’t love… then I have become just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… an annoying distraction. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all the mysteries, and have all knowledge; and if I have all the faith needed to move mountains, but don’t have love, I’m nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it does me no good at all. Love endures with patience and serenity, love is kind and thoughtful, and it’s not jealous or envious; love doesn’t brag and is not proud or arrogant. Love isn’t rude; it’s not self-seeking, it’s not provoked, nor is it over sensitive and easily angered; it doesn’t take into account a wrong endured. It doesn’t rejoice at injustice, but it does rejoice with the truth.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.

Love never fails.. it never fades nor ends. But as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for the gift of special knowledge, it will pass away; for we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is complete and perfect arrives, that which is incomplete and partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I did away with childish things. For now we see life like a blurred reflection in a mirror, as if everything is a riddle, or a mystery, but then when the time of perfection comes – we will see reality face to face.

What I know now is in fragments, but what I will come to know will be complete, just as I have been fully known all my life, by God. And now there remains: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of all of these is love.