Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Christmas Letter to my Grandchildren

Dear Isaac, dear Madeleine, dear Gabriel,

You won't understand this letter for a long time to come. But I wanted to write it for you on Christmas Eve as we gather once more to celebrate together. You have brought your parents and grandparents such joy. As Christmas comes, we feel that happiness in a special way. Thank you.

Christmas is a time for children, they say. And so it is. Children of every age from nought to a hundred. As we celebrate the Birth Day of the Holy Child, how could our thoughts not turn to children everywhere? The light that shines out of the manger at Bethlehem lights up every human child. So the first thing to say is, Happy Christmas. And even if two out of the three of you are still too little to understand all this Christmas excitement, you are always right at the heart of our family celebrations. To have you in our midst at Christmas reminds us of the Holy Family, and the tenderness that touches us very deeply when young and old truly love one another. 

One of the Christmas carols you'll sing one day says: "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight". It's about Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. And more than ever this year, I think, we shall bring our hopes and fears to the Christmas crib where he lies, this little tiny Child who brings light into our world. Your parents have sometimes talked about the kind of world they have brought you into, how broken it is, how uncertain, how full of violence and hatred and fear. And yet they still chose to do this thing, take forward in you the next generation of the human family. Just like Mary. Even she could not love you more than your parents do. And for as long as we and they are alive, we shall do everything we possibly can to make sure that you grow up safely and are kept from harm. 

You will have to learn fear soon enough. We all do - it's part of being alive. But not too early, not before you are ready. Our hearts go out to children whose earliest memories are of being afraid, because they are born in places of terrible conflict, or go hungry, or have no secure home, or because other people whom they trusted to look after them turned out to be cruel and abusive instead. All three of you belong to loving families. You are lucky to live in a country that compared to many others is free and safe, where your life will be cherished and respected and honoured. 

At Christmas we long for our hopes to be realised - our hopes for a kinder, more peaceful world, our hopes for a society in which everyone is treated fairly, our hopes that we might live not out of fear but out of love. When we gaze at the light that shines out of the crib and the holy intimacy between Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus, we believe it could happen, we find ourselves imagining that it's not impossible that it might come true at last. And that's one of the gifts that children like you can bring to us grown ups. You can help us to be happy and to hope again, stop us from being cynical about life, show us to how Incarnation is always happening because God is always at work in the world that he loves so much. "O Holy Child of Bethlehem.....be born in us today."

As a child I used to think that Christmas Eve was the most magical day of the year. There was so much to look forward to, so much that would be revealed the next day. I was thinking mainly of unwrapping presents and enjoying lots of nice food and drink - in our family, we didn't go to church though we sang carols at school and took part in nativity plays so I had some inkling about this great Birth Day we were honouring. Whatever Christmas was about, I believed it had to matter. I used to imagine that there could be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Christmas tree in the window, all lit up with fairy lights for passers by outside to enjoy as much as us. I think it was on Christmas Eve as the sun began to sink in the western sky that I became aware at a very early age of how hope and expectancy can be very powerful forces for good in our lives. Indeed, maybe to have something to look forward to is what keeps us alive at all. What if every day of the year could be like Christmas Eve? 

On this Christmas Eve, our thoughts turn not just to tomorrow but all that lies beyond. "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." We think back to Christmasses past because having hope means being able to see how our lives have been shaped and formed from one year to the next. Two years ago there was only one of you. Last year there were two and this year there are three. How wonderful that is! Who knows what you will become as you grow up and find your own place in the world? 

But what I hope and pray for you all is that in your own way, each of you will make a difference in this world. It's hard to say this without sounding a bit grandiose, but I really do pray that you will come to stand up for what is right and true, come to love the good, the beautiful and the just. I pray that you will become people of integrity and honour. I pray that you will flourish in whatever you do, and that you will be happy and fulfilled. On days like this, I wish I could live for two hundred years so that I could walk with you on your life paths and know what will become of you. 

Such longings and dreams to have for little children! For now, you are innocent of all these big words. But I wouldn't be your real Opa if I didn't have those hopes and prayers for you. At the Christmas crib, all our longings are gathered up in this Child who is the everlasting sign of Love for us, for all who came before us and all who will come after us. So I write this out of my deepest love for you, and in thankfulness for the joy you bring to our family. Happy Christmas to all three of you, my beloved grandchildren. God bless you always.

With love
Opa

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Spirituality of Solstice: Wintry Thoughts from the North

It's the winter solstice. Here in Northumberland, on Latitude 55 degrees north, the sun rises a full half hour later than it does in London. Today at the destined time of 8.32am, it was barely light. Squally rain was tipping out of a gunmetal sky as I waited at the church door for morning prayer. Arduously, the day succeeded in climbing clear of the long night, but at what effort. For a while the sun emerged, its horizontal light irradiating the valley to magical effect. (Which is why photographers love winter - the light is so much more magical than the glare of high summer.) Then the rain returned once more. By turns it's been bright and it's been sombre. And each has its different kind of northern beauty.

This year's solstice brings a change to the weather. Gone are the quiet high pressure days of the past week or so. You can tell that meteorologists don't care for calm weather when nothing much happens, however well that suits the rest of us. We have one in the village. He is also a retired priest. He takes daily readings of maximum and minimum temperatures, precipitation levels, cloud cover and wind speed, and issues a monthly bulletin to villagers who are interested. He admits that he likes eventful weather. And have you detected the glint in the eye of TV forecasters now that storm Barbara is on her way, just in time to blow away the festive travel plans of millions of people across the country?

But back to the shortest day. "'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's" wrote John Donne in his famous midwinter elegy (at the time he was writing before the reform of the calendar, the shortest day fell on St Lucy's Day, 13 December). Church of England people will know that in the Book of Common Prayer, the winter solstice day 21 December was observed as St Thomas's Day. Famously the doubting apostle, his themes of knowing and unknowing, certainty, questioning and faith seemed ideally suited to a day when darkness ruled. And though the season turns and the days grow longer again, it is so imperceptible to start with that you wouldn't know it - not for a week or two, anyway.

Painters call this chiaroscuro, the interplay of light-and-dark that masters like Caravaggio excelled at. The accentuation of contrasts often gives a painting or a photograph a strikingly dramatic quality (compare the genre of film noir which has given the cinema some of its greatest achievements in the era of black-and-white). But drama isn't what the technique is fundamentally about. Look at the dark areas of a great painting and you'll see that the darkness has as much vitality as the light with its attention to detail, its subtle treatment of muted colour, its "negative" response to the shapes that are illuminated, and as often as not, activity that is far from obvious that you wouldn't notice if you didn't stop to give your full attention to the canvas.

This gives me a metaphor of religious faith that I particularly prize in midwinter. It seems to me that "doubting" Thomas is the disciple who dares to inhabit chiaroscuro, is not afraid of the difficult or challenging truth that may emerge when you study the darkness carefully. That's true of our own personal darkness or "shadow" in particular. At the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare has Prospero say of Caliban, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine". It's a profound line that can be read at many levels. The misshapen, unlovely Caliban has plotted Prospero's death. And no doubt Prospero partly deserves it - he is no saint in this great play. But he has thrown away his staff and renounced the power of illusion. This recognition scene is the moment of truth-telling. In the same way, if we banish our fantasies and illusions and start telling the truth of our condition, if we recognise and acknowledge - even befriend - the darkness that is "mine", we find we are on the road to recovery, transformation and healing.

Spirits can sink low at the solstice. I'm not so much thinking of the affliction called SAD - seasonal affective disorder - brought on by too little light. It's more the spiritual ennui that can set in when hope is at a low ebb. This year, as 2016 comes to an end, it's easy to lose heart. We wonder what has become of our world, our nation and ourselves when there is so much bitterness, hatred and contempt around, and apparently, so little compassion to act as a life-giving antidote. It doesn't always help to quote too quickly Mother Julian's great saying "all shall be well". That's true, but it may not address the immediate present. In times of struggle and conflict, what counts I think is simply to know that we are not alone. To enter someone else's darkness and be present to them without the need to speak is perhaps the greatest gift we can bring them. In dark times, words, even the best words, can run out. But the touch of compassion - "suffering with" - never loses its capacity to make a difference.

It would take a St John of the Cross to do justice to the spirituality of chiaroscuro. But here's a solstice insight that helps me. On this shortest day, the meteorological outlook is full of stormy threats. And though I say it with a heavy heart, this seems just as true of the outlook for our world in 2017. Yet as we contemplate the future and possibly feel afraid, we also know that from now on the days are getting longer. We don't see it for a while, yet we know that it's true as an astronomical fact. Equally, to stop us taking things for granted at midsummer, we know that as the days grow warmer and holidays beckon, the nights are already drawing in. Winter's lightening-in-darkness, summer's darkening-in-light: this is chiaroscuro. It mirrors the light-and-darkness of our human lives. It helps us recognise the ambivalence of who and what we are. Above all, it stops us rushing headlong towards light when all along, God may be more present to us in the dark.

Henry Vaughan has a great poem, "Night". The last stanza makes the extraordinary claim that "there is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness". Earlier he has painted a picture of faith in this way:
 
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,

Did at midnight speak with the Sun.

I don't pretend to have grasped the paradoxes of this way of believing. But it rings true to my experience. And, I guess from what we know about him, St Thomas's too. So at this winter solstice, I want to acknowledge the truth that lies hidden in the questions and doubts that feel so real and compelling. Sometimes I can't even be sure if it's my own personal despondency that I'm experiencing, or whether it's an empathic aspect of being part of a world in pain that any human being who feels anything knows only too well at times like these.

Into such a world an Infant was born. He came to give us back the lives we had lost. The Holy Child comes to us today as Immanuel, "God-with-us". That's the meaning and the promise Christmas gives to the solstice. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" said the prophet in words we treasure in Advent. For if he is present among the dark wastelands we have made of our world, and if he is alongside us in own darkness, then our hearts can be strangely warmed, and our spirits begin to sing again.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Up in the Attic

I've been in London this week going through my late mother's things. Readers of this blog will know that she died in July at the great age of nearly 94. 
 
You might think it was dispiriting to spend several days in your parents' house where only their memories are left behind, especially when it's the home you were brought up in. Not at all dispiriting, though it was thought-provoking. My sister lives not far away and we had many hours together sorting their stuff out, going through a vast number of books, unearthing unsuspected papers in the attic and reminiscing about our childhood in North London in the 1950s and 60s.
 
The trapdoor to the attic was hardly ever opened. So I had never clambered inside it before this week (unless the memory has been wiped). How strange, this late in life, to find an undiscovered country in your own childhood home! Once, when my father was busy up there archiving his papers (or something), I dared to climb a few rungs of the ladder he had positioned against the skirting board. It was queasy perching there as the ladder flexed and swayed above the stairs that descended into the abyss below my feet. I did not want to go any further. I could not go any further. (Later in life I replayed that experience when I followed a false trail high up on the Langdale Pikes. The friend I had got separated from said he spent an uncomfortable hour rehearsing the speech he would need to make to my wife when he came back from that Lake District expedition alone.)
 
We found a lot of papers that my father had obsessively kept: decades of bank statements and cheque-book stubs, invoices, receipts, business letters and utility bills. But this was not all there was. We came across a large musty bag containing my grandmother's personal archive. (This was my mother's Jewish mother, "Omummy" who with my grandfather whom I never knew was hidden underground in occupied Holland following the German invasion.) Letters from her children, her parents and her friends were carefully bundled together - by year I think. There was correspondence from the German front during the Great War with postage stamps bearing the Kaiser's image. 

Most poignantly, and chillingly, I unearthed my grandmother's Verzeichnis über das Vermögen von Juden, the Third Reich's valuation of my grandmother's assets as a Jew, signed on 29 June 1938. She had pathetically little to declare: by then, not long before Kristallnacht, regular income for Jews who had been in business had dried up. It was a case of Things My Mother Never Told Me to quote the title of Blake Morrison's memoir. I was both moved and excited by this find that I hadn't expected. It will take time to assess how important it may be in contributing to our knowledge of family life during the Great War, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era.
 
Taking breaks in the fresher air downstairs, I was happily poring over my parents' immense collection of books. I remember from childhood how some of the titles stood out on the choked bookcases: Bannister Fletcher's History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, G.M. Trevelyan's four volume English Social History, Plato's Republic (Benjamin Jowett's version, the famous nineteenth century Master of what would be my Oxford college, Balliol), Lancelot Hogben's Mathematics for the Million, Spinoza's Ethics, the Knox translation of the New Testament that a Catholic boyfriend of my mother had given her during the war in a vain attempt to convert her to Christianity.
 
But most of all I relished what was on the top-shelf. These books, far above my head, were strictly not for children to take down and look at. I know what you're thinking. But you're wrong. These were the leather-bound volumes of German poets: Schiller, Goethe, Heine, Rellstab, Hölderlin, Rilke and others. They were beautiful books, a joy to look at especially when the sun was setting in summer and lit up the fine bindings in a golden light. They had belonged to my grandmother (or her parents) and been passed on to my mother. They were never opened, and a day came when my parents decided that they should go into stack to make room for newer books that needed accommodation. So they were banished to the attic in a big mouldy suitcase where they remained for years until I rescued them from their long dusty exile and brought them back downstairs this week. 
 
Heinrich Heine was one of the greatest European Romantic poets. He was from Düsseldorf where my mother was born and grew up until 1937 when as a teenager she was sent to England. While browsing through her bedside books, I'd come across a paperback anthology of German poetry. On the flyleaf was written in my grandmother's careful script: "for Michael" - so it should have come to me when she died in 1987. She had also referenced her favourite poem. It is by Heine, so in my imagination it belongs to that nineteenth century leather-bound set on the top shelf. Here is a translation by Sibylle Luise Binder of that poem, Wo?

Where will the tired wanderer last resting place be?
Under palms in the South? Under lime trees by the Rhine?

Will I be hastily buried by strangers’ hands in a desert?
Or will I rest in the sand on a sea’s strand?

At least, here like there I’ll be surrounded by God’s heaven. 
And at night as lamps of death the stars will hover over me.
 
I didn't know the poem before this week, but I think it will come to symbolise these winter days spent in my parents' home. It's typical of the Romantics' love-affair with death, and with the metaphor of life as the journey of an exhausted wanderer yearning for home. (To get the idea, listen to that seasonal song cycle Winterreise by Schubert, a profound setting of poems by another Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller in which a rejected lover finds his whole life under review as he makes his winter's journey away from all that is familiar and homely. Or look at the pictures of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.)
 
As I thought about the Heine poem, and the death of my parents and grandparents, I recalled that it was Advent. It's the season when we reflect on the Last Things: death, judgment, hell and heaven in the light of Christian faith. In later life our thoughts inevitably turn towards mortality: the loss of those we have known and loved, the prospect of our own death, "one whole day nearer now" as Philip Larkin put it (on whom see my last blog). Heine's poem is about death as a homecoming. I found it comforting to read in this house of truth where death could not be evaded, this place that was once home and that is so full of childhood memories. And in this Advent time, it was good to be reminded that we live by the promise of the One who is to come, that in our Father's house are many mansions.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Philip Larkin, Poets' Corner and Haydon Bridge

Tomorrow, a memorial to Philip Larkin will be unveiled in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey on the anniversary of his death on 2 December 1985. 

I can't let this occasion pass without offering a congratulatory salute from Haydon Bridge, the village in Northumberland where we have retired. For this was where Monica Jones, the companion and longest love of Larkin's life had come to live. He came here frequently to be with her from 1961 to 1984. In a sense he made his home here, no doubt a welcome change from the urban campus realities of his life in Hull where he was University Librarian.

Monica had a flat at 1a Ratcliffe Road, the house on the end of the Victorian terrace just by the eponymous bridge. This is the heart of the village where the road that drops steeply off the ridge carrying the Roman Wall meets the old road along the valley from Newcastle to Carlisle. In their day, traffic hurtled relentlessly past the house along the A69. Now there is a bypass and the villagers have reclaimed their streets and pavements. Outside the Co-Op on the corner opposite there is usually a huddle of people meeting and greeting one another, and dogs tethered to the lamp post while their owners are shopping. There are two pubs a stone's throw away, and a third just across the bridge. The pagoda tower of the late Georgian St Cuthbert's Church tops the townscape. Did Larkin ever darken its doors, if only as the curious but uncommitted visitor described in his famous poem Church Going who finds in this "serious house on serious earth" a place to grow wise in?

There is a blue plaque on the wall of Monica's house with a louche reference to a "secret love nest" - hardly a Larkinesque epithet, unless someone can tell me that he himself parodied the place in that way (which is not impossible). The plaque quotes him: "I thought your little house seemed...distinguished and exciting and beautiful...it looks splendid, and it can never be ordinary with the Tyne going by outside, a great English river drifting under your window, brown and muscled with currents!" It takes a poet to capture the sense of a place so succinctly. Though I doubt Larkin ever saw the Tyne surge free of its bounds, inundate the garden and knock at the front door as it did thanks to Storm Desmond a year ago on 5 December.



Andrew Motion's biography says that here the two of them "lazed, drank, read, pottered round the village and amused themselves with private games. The place always cheered them up" - "worked its spell" said Larkin. It's good to know that this little place wove a good magic on the poet. He was not the only one to find in these northern hills a source of joy and inspiration. W. H. Auden also loved the North Pennines that begin their steady rise up towards the high fells on the right bank of the river opposite 1a. Monica's house would lie in their shadow when the sun was low on winter afternoons.

I have long admired Philip Larkin. He had a marvellous ear for the sound of words, the sheer music of human language. On the day he died in 1985, we had a meeting of the Parochial Church Council at Alnwick where I was Vicar at the time. To introduce the meeting, I read aloud his enigmatic poem "Days".

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

I said I thought it was the job of a PCC on behalf of the local church to address this very question. It wasn't just for priests and doctors but for everyone since this universal question of what our days are for is faced by the entire human race. This was met with a certain bemusement. I went on to pray the Advent Collect with its reference to Christ coming among us in great humility, and coming again on the last Day (I emphasised that word in the light of the poem) to judge both the living and the dead. What are days for but to look forward to that Day, I suggested a trifle rhetorically. I'm not sure Larkin would have approved. But I wanted in a small way to pay tribute to the passing of a great poet. Soon after that, I went to work in Coventry, the city of his birth. I was amazed that Coventry had not taken the trouble to honour him in the way that Hull has done, and in a more modest fashion, Haydon Bridge.

The writer Blake Morrison will give the eulogy at tomorrow's unveiling in Westminster Abbey. He has his own way with words as anyone who has read his books, among them the brilliant memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? knows. You don't need me to add to all that has been said about Larkin since his death, how he has been celebrated as one of the twentieth century's finest poets writing in English. And although he was hostile to organised religion, he seems to have had a feeling, an artist's instinct for the inward - might we call it spiritual? - dimension of life. "I may be an agnostic, but I'm an Anglican agnostic." I wouldn't hesitate to place him in the forefront of those poetic voices who have shone a light on the doubting, faltering and believing of Christians like me. With T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden in the previous generation and R.S. Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings and a few others of his own, he deserves to be recognised as one of those who have unflinchingly gazed into the human condition and helped us to come to terms with what it means to be a man or woman of faith.

If you want a sense of his deep seriousness, read one of his last poems, Aubade. It's a profoundly discomforting piece, honest to the point of painfulness. In it, he faces unflinchingly the night demons of the insomniac, which for him mean the grim reality of death. He is shaken to the core of his being. Morning light brings no relief, only the bleak awareness of the one fact that is incontrovertibly certain in life, that we must die one day. Advent is a good time to read it, this season when we meditate on the four Last Things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. Was the poem inspired by a memory of Haydon Bridge in winter on one of those days the North East does so well, when the bare hillsides crouch under the weight of lowering gunmetal skies and a mist hangs over the Tyne as it runs cold as the Styx between the stones of the bridge?

For people of faith, "Aubade" it is not the last word. Religion is - isn't it? - more than just a "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / invented to pretend we never die". So we need other voices than Larkin's alone: John Donne's or George Herbert's perhaps, or a Bach Passion, or a painting like Grünewald's Crucifixion where we can glimpse how dying is the supreme act of faith because the crucified and risen Lord has walked this way before us. But we mustn't indulge our own pretence that death is not an awesome and an awful mystery. If the poets can give us the words and the courage to look into our own mortality, we must thank them for their gift, even if it's not a comfortable one.

If you're in our village and admire the Tyne "muscled with currents" as you stand on Haydon's Bridge, don't forget to nod in the direction of 1a Ratcliffe Road and the memory of a poet who pursued his truth and spoke it. And remember his words now immortalised in Poets' Corner: "What will survive of us is love".