The appearance of these words along with the Newsletter and Readings for Holy Mass this weekend will reassure those parishioners who on reading the beginning of last week’s musings may have thought that I was destined to be snatched away from parochial duties to write better endings to some TV dramas. However, like many a prize, I remain unclaimed! The blackbird-parents about whom I wrote, are noisily calling to each other as I write these few lines. One in search of food the other taking a drink from the birdbath: easily contented and seemingly happy, and simply getting on with life. What an example to us all. From the press this week I gather that I have not been alone in finding inspiration for writing in birdlife as the wonderful (a personal opinion!) Michael Morpugo’s latest work “Song of Gladness” is the fruit of a much simpler life, lived under the restrictions of Lockdown, the dawning of a deeper appreciation and awareness of the environment in which he found himself living. In the subtitle of his book – “a story of hope for us and our planet,” the most important word for me is “hope.” A quiet but necessary virtue. It is with this gift that we have collectively looked towards a horizon, illuminated by the promise of better times, during the often dark days of recent shared life-experience, and with which individually we have stirred those closest to us to think of renewed opportunities of togetherness and pleasures yet to come.
The former Children’s Laureate became known to me when his book “Private Peaceful” was serialised on BBC Radio 4 some years ago. Having only heard extracts, I decided to visit Waterstones and seek a copy to read for myself. Searching shelf upon shelf without success I eventually sought help, only to be guided to the Children’s Section of books, where there were numerous volumes of his writings! Despite being hesitant – an adult buying a children’s book for himself! – I took the plunge, and was an immediate convert. He is a skilled story-teller, and it isn’t only children who like a good story. Perhaps his best known work is “War Horse,” available now on film, but the best is the theatre production. I have seen it twice, travelling to London to do so, and blubbered at the same scene twice! The puppets (rather like calling a marquee a tent!) are brought to life by amazing stagehands and actors. Wow, wow, wow! If you have seen it, you will know exactly what I mean, and if you haven’t you may be left wondering what I’m going on about; better still, when theatres reopen, you may be drawn to a production of this amazing story of equine-human relationships.
From a now distant mention of hope, may I venture to speak about its near relative: kindness. Each time I go to the fridge my eyes catch sight of a laminated sign hanging precariously with magnetic force from its door. In large print are three letters ARK beneath which their meaning is typed – Acts of Random Kindness. It serves as a reminder of a gesture made to me, and as a gentle nudge to reach out to others in a thoughtful manner. Originally it was attached by a ribbon to a couple of bars of chocolate. A kind, thoughtful and generous addition to someone’s shopping basket during the days of Lockdown which subsequently found their way through my letterbox encased in a freezer bag. Such actions seemed prevalent during the initial Lockdown period when neighbourliness became the virtue and reality which it once had been. These acts remind me of some words often recited by a great-aunt of mine in my youth: “I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” I was never quite sure who she was quoting, and neither are they who take it upon themselves to immortalise similar sentiments on cards and posters. Common thought seems to be that whilst attributed to French exile Etienne (Stephen) de Grellet (1773 – 1855) who fled revolution and a death sentence to begin a new life in America where he joined the Society of Friends, they may not have been his own words, just some he borrowed. Whatever their origin they are a great leveller, reminding us that sometimes the opportunity to do good knocks but once on the door of our ability to respond to it in a certain situation or to an individual, known or unknown to us. It can provide a good mantra for humanitarian actions of great or small proportions, the impact of which is best judged by those whose lives are touched by a meaningful word, attitude or gesture extended to them.
With so many clamouring for attention to be drawn to their individual plight of hardship and difficulty on the pathway of life, still more jostling for a response to be made in the name of their situation, the amount of kindness that each of us has to offer can seem wholly inadequate to alter, change, or do anything at all to assist them. In the last year alone so many issues have been focused on at different times, all relevant and needing addressing, but surely a common, shared, not to mention global problem has to be greater, if only for the span of time it is beyond our control. When, for whatever reason, scenarios are not dealt with a victim culture can be created, causing isolation, anger, difference and a growing stack of bricks used to build walls between people. As a fundamentally optimistic person, imbued with the gift of hope, I would like to think that for every person building a wall, there are two people building bridges, bringing people together. An important building block in the construction of the latter is kindness.
Many of us will have been touched by the plight of those currently being described as the Windrush Generation. The initial group of 1027 passengers arrived at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The majority of them had set sail from Kingston, Jamaica, but a smaller number boarded at Tampico, Mexico, as the Empire Windrush was called upon to divert its course and pick up a further 66 passengers. These, often overlooked in reports made, with the exception of one, were the wives and children of Polish soldiers who had fought alongside the Allies, and had been displaced in Mexico since 1944. Two very different groupings of people, each with their own heritage and their own story to tell, yet their shared experience was of arriving in a new country to begin life afresh. Each of those 1027 people on disembarking began collecting stories that they would in turn pass on to others. Some exposing the worst of human nature whilst others revealed the best. Recently I was privileged to hear one of the latter when asked to celebrate Holy Mass for a former nursing colleague of a parishioner who had sadly died. This lady had been a part of a slightly later Windrush Generation. In reflecting on her earliest days in this country she always gave credit for the kind welcome she received. Arriving on our shores in a cotton frock, sandals and no coat she was horrified to be greeted by English snow. Having secured a job in a clothing factory the women amongst whom she worked quickly recognised her need and discreetly organised a whip-round providing her with warmer clothes, shoes, and a pair of wellingtons. Bricks of human kindness and compassion building a bridge, and perhaps sowing the seeds, or watering those already sown, that inspired this lady to enter a vocational way of life that would allow her own gifts to shine in the care and support that she offered to others.
Sometimes it isn’t a deed that touches the inner life of another human being, but a fleeting comment, given gravitas by the circumstances in which they are uttered. The following is an extract from a wonderful publication, recently loaned, which was compiled at the end of the twentieth century from stories told by those whose length of life covered each of its decades, indeed a couple its contributors were born in the nineteenth century. The words are those of Alice Whittle, widowed of her husband, Norman, at a young age: “When Norman died so suddenly, my faith went to pot. The only question I could ask was Why? Why has the Lord done this to me? I was brought up as a Methodist and looked forward to going to chapel. My dad used to say, “Our Alice is the only one that has a bit of faith in her.” But when Norman died it went to pot. And I remember, it would be a couple of weeks after Norman died, a knock came to the door. And it was this lady, and she had about four roses, and she said, “I go to the United Reformed Church and we heard about your sad loss. Will you accept these from me?” So I invited her in and put the kettle on and we had a cup of tea. And she asked me if I had any faith. I said, “I did until this happened over Norman. I’m left with a little lad at my time of life, 49 years old, no wage, no nothing. I keep asking the good Lord why, but there’s no answer.” And she said, “Will you do something for me before I go? The next time you say your prayers, will you not ask the good Lord why, will you give Him thanks for the strength He’s given you to carry on.” And that was the turning point for me.” It would be good to think that out of a simple, kindly-intentioned, yet rather daring knock on the door of a relative stranger a lasting friendship was born. Sometimes a quiet confidence, an inner boldness is necessary to move thoughts of kindness into meaningful actions. The Lockdown restrictions meant that Acts of Random Kindness could be done almost anonymously: something dropped through a letterbox or on a doorstep, perhaps just the briefest of pleasant verbal exchanges from a deliverer to a resident stood in their doorway, or even conversing through the slightest opening a window could provide.
Despite his great external qualities of determination and physical doggedness, St. Paul provides numerous incredibly sensitive and insightful references about his understanding of kindness as a gift from God to be shared with others, he even presents it to us as part of a wardrobe of clothing to be worn by those who call themselves Christians: “You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same. Over all these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love.” (Colossians 3:12 – 14) He ranks kindness next to patience in describing the attributes of love: “Love is always patient and kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4) Above all he asks that we do not make a choice about who we show kindness to, discriminating for whatever reason, instead he insists that we “Treat everyone with equal kindness.” (Romans 12:16) With such an approach we may be able to untangle the knot of a sense of overwhelming inability that we so often find ourselves toying with helplessly in the face of the magnitude facing hardship and difficulty.
A brief moment of contemplation about our own life-journey will bring to mind acts of kindness which historically, and in the present, continue to mean so much. Some of which may have been life-changing. With such thoughts comes a compulsion to go and share what we have found so beneficial, removing any hesitancy that we may have about getting it wrong, making a mistake or being misunderstood. With the Festival of Pentecost just a week away St. Paul offers a timely reminder that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control.” (Galatians 5:22ff) So let kindness abound!
Holding you and your loved ones in affectionate thought and sincere prayerful remembrance.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas