This week I thought that I would offer you something a little bit different, a picnic of reflective thoughts which over recent months have, in one form or another, for a rainbow of reasons, found a place on my desk, either for a short or longer period of time. With the basket opened, my first offering is something that I sought in mid-March when, like the rest of society, we moved into what was frequently referred to as an unprecedented time. It comes from a well-thumbed book on my shelves, Benedictus – A Book of Blessings, compiled by John O’Donohue (1956 – 2008), entitled “For Courage“
When the light around you lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,
When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,
When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,
Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.
Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,
Know that you are not alone
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.
Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.
Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark.
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.
A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
Will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!
For some these will be very powerful words, a reminder that courage is not something that we wear, like a set of clothing. It is not the armour worn in defence nor in the sharpness of the weaponry at our disposal to hurt and injure, but instead the ability to discover deep within ourselves the confidence needed to search the familiar surroundings of our life, knowing that the matches with which we will light the candle of illumination are somewhere very near.
A slight variation on a theme is what follows. Perhaps offering an opportune reflection as a changing Lockdown landscape begins to emerge on the shoreline of life. The strength of the sea receding taking with it the paralysis of fear, ruthless power of self-preservation, and lonely insular existence, revealing instead the fragile and virginal sands of another time, destined to be claimed by another tide:
It takes strength to be firm.
It takes courage to be gentle.
It takes strength to stand guard.
It takes courage to let down your guard.
It takes strength to conquer.
It takes courage to surrender.
It takes strength to be certain.
It takes courage to have doubt.
It takes strength to fit in.
It takes courage to stand out.
It takes strength to hide your own pains.
It takes courage to show them.
It takes strength to endure abuse.
It takes courage to stop it.
It takes strength to stand alone.
It takes courage to lean on another.
It takes strength to love.
It takes courage to be loved.
It takes strength to survive.
It takes courage to live.
A true religious broadcasting giant, Fr. Brian D’Arcy, whose reflective thoughts never fail to convey the finest and best elements of Christianity, delighted recently in the blessing of his Lockdown experience, which as he recalled had given him the opportunity to tidy his office-space leading to the discovery a floor beneath piles of papers, books and storage boxes! Amongst his findings during that period of enforced domesticity was the Parable of the Pencils:
At the end of each day a very caring pencil-maker dispensed five pieces of valuable advice to each pencil just before he placed it in the box. This will help you become the best pencil you can possibly be, he told them. Firstly, you will be able to do great things, but only if you allow yourself to be held in someone’s hand. Secondly, you will experience repeated pencil sharpening from time to time in life. It won’t be easy, but is necessary. It will help you make your mark. Thirdly, don’t forget you always have an erasure at your disposal! So use it to correct the mistakes you will undoubtedly make. Fourthly, no matter how perfect you look on the outside, it is what’s on the inside that makes you what you are. And finally, it is your duty to leave your mark on every surface that you’re used on. And so the pencil went into the box with purpose in his heart.
But now comes the tricky bit! How can I apply those lessons to myself? Firstly I will be able to do great things but only if I allow myself to be held in God’s hand. That’s how I will bring to fruition the gifts I was given. Secondly, naturally I will be painfully sharpened and hurt and feel diminished from time to time. It is always tough but it is essential if I am to become a better person. Thirdly, no matter what mistakes I make, I can always correct them and start again. There is always a second chance. Fourthly, looks really do matter but you’ll need to look on the inside to discover the real me. And finally, in life we’re meant to leave our mark, and if I always do the best I can I will be rightly proud of what I achieve. So in summary our fingerprints never fade from the lives we touch.
And what about the lives that touch ours? Perhaps at the end of each day there is space in thought for these sentiments: To those we love and see each day. And other loved ones far away. To all good friends, whose friendship means so much. And those with whom we’re out of touch. At our imaginary picnic perhaps we can raise a glass to those who’ve left an indelible mark on us. And if we’re out of touch, this may be the time to reconnect. If a telephone call is difficult, there is always pen and paper, or even a card.
Surrounded by thoughts of familiar faces at our anthological picnic let us appreciate the special people in life. For which I return to John O’Donohue’s prayerful wisdom, For Marriage, which is suitable for any relationship of significance:
As spring unfolds the dream of the earth,
May you bring each other’s hearts to birth.
As the ocean finds calm in view of land,
May you love the gaze of each other’s mind.
As the wind arises free and wild,
May nothing negative control your lives.
As kindly as moonlight might search the dark,
So gentle may you be when light grows scarce.
As surprised as the silence that music opens,
May your words for each other be touched with reverence.
As warmly as the air draws in the light,
May you welcome each other’s every gift.
As elegant as dream absorbing the night,
May sleep find you clear of anger and hurt.
As twilight harvests all the day’s colour,
May love bring you home to each other.
Those words are a timely reminder of all the special days and times families have been planning and looking forward to, which due to the current chapter of history that we’re writing are on hold. This last week should have begun with a wedding, seen the children in Year 4 of Holy Spirit Primary School celebrate their First Holy Communion and rounded-off with further wedding. Events that will now be held at a later date, together with a clutch of Baptisms and the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for our Year 3 children, all of which have been deferred until we can gather safely (and legally) in larger numbers. Perhaps with a spare moment in the Lord’s company, we can hold our truly lovely couples Charlotte and Robert, Sarah and Luke, and our younger parishioners, who were all looking forward to their special times, and families awaiting the Baptism of their children, and those celebrating significant birthdays and anniversaries in our prayers.
Let us not forget those who began this period of time with us, but for whom, at some point on the journey, the Lord made other plans, and with a gentle voice called them back to Himself. With all too regularity our Newsletter has, and continues, to carry names, recognized and maybe unknown, of those for whom families have faced not only the pain of loss, but very limited and incredibly different ways of returning loved ones into the eternal safe-keeping of Almighty God. One such funeral left from the family home of over fifty years recently, but not before we began our liturgy of farewell with Sacred Scripture, prayer and prose. Family, friends and neighbours came out onto the symbolic shared holy ground of their street to offer support, show respect, remember and pray, as together we called God, Our Father. Even the home-delivery van driver paused, relinquishing the prospect of gaining extra nectar points by running into the Priest stood in the middle of the road replete in wind-blown soutane, surplice, and resplendent Easter stole, rather than high-viz jacket! On that occasion the following words were read; Remember Me:
Don’t remember me with sadness.
Don’t remember me with tears.
Remember all the laughter
We’ve shared throughout the years.
Now I am contented
That my life was worthwhile
Knowing that as I passed along the way
I made somebody smile.
When you are walking down the street
And you’ve got me on your mind
I’m walking in your footsteps
Only half a step behind.
So please don’t be unhappy
Just because I’m out of sight
Remember that I’m with you,
Each morning, noon and night.
A further delve into the hamper produces the following words found attached to an abandoned ladder beneath an ancient bridge linking one side of the River Aire on the road to Maltham:
Age wearies him.
Yet he still clings to his allotted task,
Steadfast, dogged, a faithful retainer
Until the end comes.
What might that task have been?
Those that know
Have also long since departed.
Alone he now stands,
Waiting for their return.
An oddment to those who now see him,
Yet he knows his worth.
They certainly echo my experience of attending to the on-going, day-to-day, unbroken publicly observable routine of our life of faith. Although, I can assure you, age has yet to weary me! Whilst the vigil of waiting for their return continues, this coming week will see both of our churches, serving their purpose of offering a sacred, welcoming space for conversations with God, known as prayer. For many others too, who have simply got on with their usual daily activities in the field of work, amid necessary isolation and incredible difference of recent months, the sentiments of these words will resonate.
What now follows has a very soft centre and there is every chance that the contents may cause an ‘oozing moment.’ Tissues, or should I say serviettes, may be needed! With something of a Beatrix Potter-esqueness (1866 – 1943) about this short story, I am being a little self-indulgent. Whilst perhaps best remembered for her children’s stories, my admiration is less for her writing than her illustrations, which were born out of a genuine passion for nature. Circumstance, and I suspect lacking a desire for it, celebrity status never touched Beatrix Potter, and perhaps her greatest legacy to our nation was her pioneering work in the area of local conservation, recognizing not only the need to retain parts of our beautiful countryside in their natural state, but also in the scale of her financial support actually doing something about it by working closely with an evolving National Trust, acquiring swathes of land, managing farms and ensuring that rare indigenous livestock breeds were farmed in such a way as to ensure their long-term preservation. Tissues to hand as you read what comes next! The Old Rabbit.
Patrick (Pat) the rabbit was very sad. He was very old, his fur was grey on his paws and around his mouth and his bones were aching. His baby rabbits had all grown up and moved away and had bunnies of their own, his Mum and Dad had died many years ago and he missed talking to them, but most of all he missed his lovely wife Pearl, all the time. Pat was also fed up of running from the mean farmer who was always chasing him with his gun, he never dug holes anymore and he only ate the carrots easy to dig up these days.
Today it was raining and grey, the sky was black and the grass was muddy and wet, and it was really windy and cold. So Pat decided to hide in the barn until the rain stopped before he went looking for carrots. As Pat dried off from the rain he drifted to sleep.
Pat woke up feeling very warm, he could see the bright sunshine coming through the walls of the barn and he could hear rabbits chilli-chilli-chat coming from outside.
Pat started to creep outside. His bones felt light and he noticed the fur on his paws as was a lovely brown colour like they used to be. Pat’s bones didn’t ache and he didn’t feel sad but he didn’t know why. Outside he noticed the grass was so green it didn’t look real. It almost sparkled. It was so soft it felt like he was walking on green clouds, and there were piles of carrots everywhere with no mud on them. He wouldn’t have to dig them up or wash them.
Then he saw a little way away under a tree there was a group of about fifty rabbits all whispering and smiling and watching him. Suddenly he saw a beautiful lady rabbit step forward and walk towards him with her arms open and crying. Pat gasped and nearly swallowed his little rabbit tongue! It was Pearl! He ran to her and he kissed her all over her face and he cried, and he said to Pearl “I have missed you so much, my love” and she cuddled him so tight and whispered in his ear
“I’ve been waiting a long time for you, Pat.”
He then realized he recognised the shapes and voices of the rabbits standing nearby, all watching him and smiling. It was his Mum and Dad. His aunties and his uncles and even his Nan and Grandad! He looked at Pearl dazed, and she smiled, and she said, “They have been waiting too.” Pat was so happy but so confused as he cried with happiness into Pearl’s fur and said “Pearl, I am so happy, I feel like I’m in heaven!”
To which Pearl replied with a smile “My wonderful, beautiful Pat, you are.”
Amazingly the author of those 500 words is just nine years of age; Lenny Tucker, a Year 3 pupil at a school in Stanford-le-Hope. Just a couple of weeks ago he became the Silver Award winner of BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words Competition for 2020, in the 5 – 9 age range. His prize is the height, in books, of the competition’s royal patron, the Duchess of Cornwall! Born out of an idea of the presenter Chris Evans to encourage children aged between five and thirteen to write a short-story, since its inception in 2011, somewhere near a million stories have been submitted during its first ten years, each comprising 500 words. Whilst this year’s entries were submitted before Lockdown began we must always recall that no one or anything can confine imagination. Perhaps when the barrel of ideas for use in home-schooling appears to be running dry, an entry befitting next year’s 500 Word Competition may be a thought for some parents, carers and grandparents. Tempting the young people in their care to tap into the wonderful God-given gift called imagination. And if you are not sure where to start, let the words of Beatrix Potter herself assist you as we continue our picnic of words: “There is something quite delicious about writing those first few words of a story … you can never quite tell where they will take you!”
Just before packing away this feast of words, which hopefully have inspired some, and not caused too much indigestion for others, there is a final offering. Composed by Virginia Satir (1916 – 1988), often described as the Mother of Family Therapy, I offer them as the takeaway party-bag for us all, but especially for our secondary school children who have a special remembrance in my thoughts and prayers at this time. The clay of their formative years is extremely malleable and flexible, incredibly sensitive to word, look and so much more, at work beneath the surface of what may appear a confident, bold, defiant and rebellious exterior. Their absence from education, structured lives, the expectations that come with the formality of school, not forgetting the friendship huddles and knots so often seen on the fringes of playgrounds, will all impact upon them in some way. Like us all, they crave to be valued and cherished, their life-journey given worth, but unlike many of us their fledgling adult status often lacks the security of achievement and the strength of vision to read their unique road map of life with the eyes of wisdom gained from a university education in the classroom of lived-experience. Entitled My Declaration of Self-Esteem (I am Me), may we all benefit from these words:
In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me -Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it – I own everything about me – my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or to myself.
I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own all my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing I can love me and be friendly with me in all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know.
But as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and for ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do,
and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me.
If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought and felt turned out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive,
and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me.
I own me, and therefore I can engineer me.
I am me and I AM OKAY!
Drawing these lines to a close, I join Fr. Brian D’Arcy in searching for a floor beneath open books and sheets of paper! Closing the imaginary picnic basket of reflective words, I note that I’ve two items have escaped my attention, the salt and pepper pots … which brings to mind these very final words: “Failure is the condiment which gives flavour to success.”
Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,