Along with another Newsletter and the Readings for Holy Mass this weekend comes my sincerest wish for us all that having crossed the threshold into the New Year of 2021 we may be able to live through it beneath better, brighter and healthier skies than the last twelve months. As a people of faith we are called upon to walk with a quiet confidence, acknowledging that we do not make this journey alone, as the words of Minnie Louise Haskins (1875 – 1957), made memorable by their use in the Christmas Broadcast of King George VI in 1939, remind us: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone east.” It is said that the words were drawn to the King’s attention by one of the two Elizabeths in his life, either his wife or daughter.
Many have taken the biblical image of shaking the dust of the old year from their feet quite literally, glad to be rid of 2020, with all its vulnerability, uncertainty, pain, sacrifice and the growing media negativity that seemed to accompany its latter weeks. For us all it has been a year that we shall never forget for a spectrum of reasons, and like each period of time that we live through, if we are open to it many lessons will have been learnt if we were open to being schooled. Perhaps the greatest lesson for most will have been that of appreciation. Appreciating what we have and also those many people and aspects of life which we have long taken for granted. There will be guilt too. For all the times in ‘normality’ when we were too busy, couldn’t be bothered or lured away from the ordinary and everyday experience by a more exciting and tempting offer.
When the pause button was pressed on the routine and regularity of lives parents suddenly realised something of the enormity of just what our schools provide for their children; the frail and vulnerable of whom the vulgar label of ‘bed-blockers’ had been applied by the media, were suddenly reclaimed as the treasured human beings that they are, rightly valued beyond price; criticism of NHS waiting lists was replaced by nationwide rapturous applause for their selfless endeavours on behalf of those holding high rank and the very ordinary individual, just like you and me; the almost invisible people who live next door evolved into good neighbours, willing and able to assist with the basics such as shopping and collecting medication; not to mention the hour of liberation and freedom when daily exercise not only made us fitter but allowed us to offer hearty greetings to the random stranger walking the same pathway – albeit often done from the opposite side of the road which we had crossed to avoid direct contact; the untold joy of writing the weekly shopping list, and for those of us able to shop, queuing outside the supermarket and journeying along a one-way system to fill our trolleys; discovering that it is still possible to speak to someone on the telephone, mobile or even a landline, allowing conversation to become a lifeline, acknowledging that content is somewhat immaterial, outweighed by the fact that just hearing a voice conveys kindness, understanding, and the simple fact that you are cared about; the random person who through work walks up our driveways with regularity, such as the Postie or Binperson, formerly without name or pedigree, whose arrival is now looked forward to, and who is hailed with familiarity and even seen as a valued friend, a contact with the outside world … to mention just a few aspects of life that have taken on new value in 2020.
The year has stretched us too with new skills being embraced, and the dawning of the reality that we really are never too old to learn something new, to do the familiar differently or even carry out that which is totally different. Practical gifts of a technological nature have replaced frivolous indulgences, and bus pass carriers have returned to the classroom through conversations had through an open window with beloved children or grandchildren fulfilling the role of IT gurus. Zoom became the new saviour and Facetime meant that you had to make yourself presentable before answering the phone. With our church doors closed we rediscovered the sanctity of the home as a place of worship, praying together as families and with friends over the phone. The tangible familiarity of our churches was replaced by a minds’ eye view of them and thanks to an App we discovered that participation in the celebration of Holy Mass could be done from a favourite armchair, connecting with nearby or far away communities of Faith.
We were gifted with time. For some wasted, never again to be reclaimed, for others the opportunity to tackle long put-off jobs, or even to offer it for the benefit of wider society through voluntary activities. Some of us were given a new name, Key-worker, which in reality meant that our working lives had to carry on as best they could living within the necessary restrictions that were common to all. Overnight, we learnt the skill of juggling, the realities of professional and personal lives being held in a fragile equilibrium. Our time was filled with a semblance of normality but not without risk or compromise, taken in stride.
A mixture of poignant and humourous moments have also coloured our departed year together with the inspired and inspiring. The name of centenarian Captain Sir Tom Moore springs to mind, together with eight-year-old local champion Zach Eagling from Liversedge who despite suffering from Cerebral Palsy set himself a goal of physical endurance for the benefit of a charitable cause. The serene confidence of our Monarch’s message that we would indeed all meet again, and more recently her unity of emotion in speech – as a wife, mother, and grandmother – with those deprived of a hug or a hand to hold, when she said on Christmas Day, you are not alone. Quirky too in the realisation that long before we entered defined relational bubbles some people were already living in a bubble of their own from which they haven’t yet emerged ! For the keen-eyed even my own car now has a 24/7 occupant who has her own story to tell: Barbara, the left-over Christmas Fayre monkey. Her occupancy began as a gesture of fun to cheer up a parishioner on a Sunday morning in April when the roads were deserted and Barbara was affixed to the outside of the car and observed immediately by the person I was attempting to bring cheer to the face of. She fulfilled her mission – a smile was observed through the window ! Months later she is a part of the fixtures and fittings, known (and asked about !) by parishioners, school children & Lee, the Postie, amongst others. There have been gifts given and donations made, all of which have passed through the channel of my hands as Random Acts of Kindness to others; flowers and chocolates given to surprised parishioners as they turned up for Mass, because persons unknown just wanted to cheer up fellow pilgrims on life’s journey.
Without doubt the majority of our lives will have been changed and altered by the old year of 2020. As we walk into a New Year may the small amount of baggage that we carry with us from last year contain only the best and finest, albeit in small amounts and quantities, not least a heightened appreciation and gratitude for those who populate our lives and for the gift of our own health.
Last Sunday, a little later than the traditional day for obvious reason, I placed the figure of the Christ-child in the crib at our home in Otley. The bright Christmas tree lights offered a colourful backdrop for my near liturgical action. Looking at the fragile, vulnerable and dependent infant in very different and unusual surroundings, an almost surreal environment and atmosphere, unimaginable the week before, I could have questioned or wondered, like so many, why Almighty God decided to send His Son in the wrapping paper of our human condition with all its seeming limitations. However, the mystery is less about our wonderment, than about God’s intense desire to look back at us through the eyes of a child who is able to feeleth for our sadness, and shareth in our gladness. Thanks to that awesome gift God is able to walk with us amid every twist and turn of life’s journey. We are never alone. He is with us, and continues to ensure that wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we are held in the palm of His hand. His most prized and cherished possession. Why ? Because put simply we are created in Their own image and likeness. At our best and finest we are capable of being a mirrored copy of Them.
In closing these few lines I do so with a further reflection from the pen of John O’Donohue, in response to a good number of very complimentary responses about A Christmas Blessing which I included last week.
At the End of the Year.
As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them
The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.
Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.
The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt
The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.
May the bonds that have united us in one year continue into another, not least those of prayerful fidelity, faith-filled example, and underlying kindness and compassion. Be assured of my remembrance of you and our loved ones in the celebration of Holy Mass, and in my affection.
As always, Fr. Nicholas
(On a personal note I have been enormously touched by the large number of messages that I’ve received in relation to Dad; he too would be most appreciative of everyone’s kind wishes and when I am able to let him know I shall pass your thoughts on to him. He remains in Leeds General Infirmary and is receiving excellent care. I do speak to the staff each day and get a progress report, however, the phrase being used about his situation is that it is ‘early days yet.’ This leaves me inadequately able to answer questions about him, so all I ask for, on his behalf, is a continued remembrance in prayer for all the sick, those known to us or even the stranger, together with those into whose care we entrust their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.)