13. God in our Pain
If you ask people today what it is that makes belief in a loving God difficult, most of them will probably reply that it is all the suffering in the world. It is an interesting question in itself as to why this should be seen to be so? But it also presents something of a paradox for the Christian, who has at the centre of their faith an image of a loving God dying on a cross, in the midst of suffering
- Losing Iona
- An Autistic Child
- Employment, Redundancy and Job Hunting
- Learning to Surrender
- “It’s all good stuff!”
- Escaping Death
- The death of my parents
- Living with Cancer
- The absence of God
- Departure from the Dark God
- Caring at Home
- Living with Parkinson’s
- Remembering the fallen
The Biblical witness as we saw, frequently speaks of a God Who is experienced through, despite of, or in the midst, suffering and pain. When people talk with me of their faith stories it is not unusual to hear them tell of a God whom they encountered most profoundly in their most painful times.
And that is my experience as well. Although the experience is still pretty vivid, it did in fact take place quite a long time ago now. It happened when my marriage fell apart, and an excruciatingly painful time it was too. I am usually someone who falls asleep soon after his head hits the pillow and who stays asleep until the morning, but I went through a long spell of waking in the night and being unable to get back to sleep again, because I was worrying about all the possible consequences for all of us who were involved. I’m someone for whom problems seem unsolvable at four in the morning, so these were difficult times. Then one night I woke up and totally to my surprise felt myself held and addressed by God. The words spoken to me were not very original, but their power came from the sense of being personally addressed. The problems did not go away, and indeed took a long time to begin to resolve themselves, but the deep angst did lift for I now knew that nothing could separate me from the love of God.
Remembering this, and reading the contributions that make up this chapter, a number of reflections come flooding back. I remember with gratitude the number of good people who acted as supportive friends, not taking sides, not passing judgement, but just being there as accepting friends. I also remember those who stood in judgement and told me what I must or must not do.
I remember the importance of saying an Office of prayer morning and evening, often with other people: it provided me with a framework that held me when much else in life felt to be in flux. I know that as I reflected on what had happened and was still happening, I learnt, and continue to learn, much about myself. I know that my relationship with God changed gear dramatically. I had never experienced God so powerfully and personally present before, and I knew that I wanted to build my life on this new experience. I discovered a feminine face of God which I had only known previously in theory. And it changed my understanding of priesthood, and renewed it in a wonderful way.
It has turned out to be a source of blessing for me. I find myself quite reluctant to write that. I guess partly because it was such a painful time, partly because on the face of it, it would have been so much better for all of us if we had not had to go through it, and partly because I don’t know, and have little influence on whether it will prove to be a blessing to all the rest of our family. I can only trust that to God, which often seems like a ‘big ask’.
We would all prefer to avoid pain and suffering if we can, and we live in a society which is often too keen, in my view, to find someone else to blame when things do not go smoothly. But the reality of life does seem to be that pain and suffering can’t be avoided: they are a part of the given-ness of life. We need rather to find a creative way of handling them. Its not rocket science to suggest that a story of a hideously painful death followed by a resurrection might have something to teach us about this. Although we need to beware the assumption that the story provides a simple template for all possible responses to suffering. The narrative of Jesus walking away from the confrontation in Nazareth when the crowd wanted to stone him, offers a very different model, for example.
It’s important to remember I think that Jesus invites His followers to take up their own cross and follow Him. He doesn’t invite us to pick up someone else’s cross, or to go around looking for crosses to pick up, but simply to pick up our own, which I take to mean facing and owning our own pain and suffering. Luke has Him saying that we need to do this each day.
The Gospel seems to suggest that if we face and own our pain, then it will in its own time and way, lead us to a resurrection of sorts. Facing and owning our own pain doesn’t necessarily mean meekly accepting it. It might mean challenging and confronting it. But however we handle it, facing and owning our own pain will become a source of blessing: it will lead to a new, deeper, and richer sense of life. The Gospel doesn’t promise that the way will be easy [it will frequently be very painful], or in our own control [which is even more difficult], and it doesn’t offer any guarantees [which is scary indeed]. It doesn’t suggest that there won’t be lessons we need to learn along the way. But it does suggest that there is meaning to be found in it, however unlikely that may often seem.
If facing our own pain and suffering can be a path to God then it’s not a path that is exclusively trodden by those of the Christian faith. Everybody walks this path in one way or another at sometime in their life, and they may well encounter a God of love on their journey whether or not they are carrying a Christian membership card with them. Many of them will respond to that God, named or unnamed. Many of them will find themselves ministering to us, as some of our contributors suggest. Many of them may be experienced by us as angels: messengers of the loving God. This Loving God Who seeks us out seems to do so under many guises, most of which we don’t notice, perhaps because we have deep prejudices as to how and through whom, God can meet us. Perhaps because we have deep prejudices as to what sort of God we are in fact dealing with here. Maybe, just maybe, part of the point of the pain and the suffering, is to break down some of those prejudices?
The aim of this chapter has not been to cover all possible painful situations. Some of those here you may know from personal experience, but you may reflect differently on them, others may be new to you. We are not suggesting that these reflections offer the way to reflect on these things, or that each writer has said all that they might wish to say, but that they offer a way.
Hopefully they will offer ways which stimulate deeper and renewed reflection on your own experience? You might like to write something for your own personal benefit.
News of a fourth child on the way was a surprise, and as we got used to the idea, an exciting prospect. The church was pleased that the vicarage would have a baby in residence. The older, almost teenage, children looked forward to the change. Part way during the pregnancy we were told that there was a 1 in 120 chance that there would be a problem, but that if it were so the child would almost certainly not survive to birth. The day came & little Iona was born. She had Edwards Syndrome, a chromosome abnormality similar to Downs Syndrome. We were offered the chance to take her home to die & we grabbed the chance. Expecting her to live a few days at most, she shared her life with us for almost 18 months. Initial anger and grief turned to gratitude for having her with us. Characteristic of Edwards Syndrome are pixie-like features and very slow growth. Iona remained a tiny baby for the whole of her life. She was small and sweet enough for any person, old or young, to enjoy a cuddle. At the end of Sunday services we had to search for her as during the morning she was passed from person to person, all eager for their turn!
The emotions I felt around her birth were aimed at God. I knew that God wasn’t ‘to blame’. But I still needed to shout at him and express what was going on inside. Whilst holding intellectual acknowledgement that I am not immune to the same pressures of human kind I could not apply that to the way I felt. My head and my heart went in opposite directions. In retrospect I can see that treating God unfairly enabled me to support my family and others in the community who were deeply shocked. I know that I was using God as a scapegoat. I don’t feel guilty about it – that is the business he is in. Expressing myself with vigour to God when no one else was around enabled me to express my grief & anger in a more appropriate and moderated way to others who themselves needed support. Familiar words from Isaiah 53 “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…” have taken on a new significance for me. God quite uncomplaining bears whatever I can throw at him, however unjust. And in taking that it he releases me to future ministry
Having got used to Iona’s presence we realised it was time to move on. Iona came with us on interview and was a big asset. Who could resist her charm? We moved into the new parish with a start date set. Five days after we moved, and before anyone in the parish had met Iona, she died. We had had a number of scares and visits to hospital in her short life. We knew we would not have her for ever. But we didn’t expect it to happen like this – no warning & alone in her new bedroom. We and the new parish were looking forward to her ministry of cuddles growing in a new environment. I felt cheated. Why had God tagged us along? We didn’t expect Iona to live but it seemed as though she was going to be able to make her mark in our new parish. Suddenly we were plunged into a very dark place, with our new church community unable to share our grief. They tried of course, but they didn’t know her. It felt very lonely without her. Our other children started their new schools and could not explain what they were feeling – their new friends had never met their sister. It felt as though God was being extremely cruel. Why build our hopes up only to dash them at the most vulnerable point in our lives.
Nine years on we still feel it was unfair. It just feels mean. All we can do is continue to complain. And regularly releasing our bitterness onto God enables us to go on. We would not have swapped Iona for any other child. She was very precious. Some disabled children can be very special – completely dependent and trusting. When they die the carer looses their job and their main purpose in life, as well as loosing a constant companion. Rebuilding life is a difficult process. Fortunately for us we were already in the process of adopting another child (because we enjoyed Iona so much). Over the years two other children joined our family. Without Iona’s influence we would probably not have entertained the idea of adopting disabled children. Without God as scapegoat we could never have rediscovered our balance sufficient to take on the new challenges.
An Autistic Child
The discovery that our third child, Mark, has severe autism, and the consequences of living with him for the last sixteen years has had a profound effect on my faith and on my approaches to prayer.
Firstly, there was simply the coming to terms with having a child with a disability. There are the practical issues, fighting for the right educational and social provision, which is if anything more difficult now he is fifteen than it was when he was three. There is the fact that he would need care for the rest of his life, that now at fifteen we cannot let him out on his own, or leave him alone in the house.
But alongside those concerns was the need to grow through it spiritually and emotionally. The usual expectations you have for a child are turned on their head; the pattern of dependent baby and toddler gradually growing in independence and of a growing maturing relationship between parent and child is halted in its tracks. Spiritually, even though I did not find myself asking the question ‘Why me?’, I came to know too many more in worse situations than we were, as a minister in the church we found other people were trying to answer the question for us. ‘It’s all for a purpose’ they said, or ‘Let me come and pray for healing for him so that God’s glory will be revealed.’ and these responses we found very difficult to cope with.
Autism is sometimes helpfully described as a condition with a triad of impairment: social interaction (relationship), social communication and social imagination. Mark is significantly impaired in all these three areas, and I came to realise these were the three areas that inspired my spirituality and prayer life. I see faith, and particularly prayer, in terms of a relationship with God, sustained by communication and imagination. Where did Mark fit into the picture?
I have to say that answering that question is still an ongoing process. There are no easy answers.
From the start I have known that from my experience of God, Mark must be very special to God. A God who cares for the outsider and welcomes all, cannot reject one like Mark, even if Mark can never form ‘a relationship with God’ in ways that make sense to me.
I have learnt that many people, particularly men, have elements of autism in their personality, and so am on a journey in growing in appreciation that the way that God becomes real to me in my prayers, through relationship, communication and imagination, cannot be the only way. I have learnt to respect more formal, less feeling based expressions of faith, even if they don’t speak to me.
For me the story has no ‘happy ending’, no triumph over suffering. There are still times when the weight of Mark’s presence in the home seems to drive out the things that are precious to me in my faith. My own prayer life has had to become more formal and less spontaneous to prevent it becoming squeezed out.
The question ‘Where is God in this?’ has no clear answer, but I know that exploring the question is continuing to give me profound insights into the nature of the human condition and enlarging my understanding of God, in ways that would have been impossible without Mark, and for that, sometimes, I give thanks.
One of the most difficult things about an autistic person like Mark is that they don’t reciprocate expressions of love in ways that others do. There is usually no payback. So when people go out of their way to care for Mark it is an expression of grace. The young people who assist in the play-schemes Mark goes to in the holidays are wonderful examples of this, in the care they take to ensure Mark has a good time, even though he can give no clear indication of whether he is really enjoying himself or not.
I saw it at first hand a couple of years ago when I was in the supermarket queue with Mark in a shop that had lifts just by the checkout. Mark kept running off to play in the lift and as I followed him I kept losing my place in the queue. Eventually I got hold of him and hugged him tight to stop him running off, only for him to start screaming the place down. I was contemplating abandoning the shopping completely when a teenage girl, whom I didn’t know, came up to me and said: ‘I’ll have Mark if you want. I know him from the play-scheme.’ and she took him off for a few minutes, and I was able to pay for my shopping. It was an act of grace that I shall never forget, and surely a parable of the grace of God, not just for Mark, but for all.
I was able-bodied and very healthy until I was involved in an accident in August 2005. Now I am visually limited. Still I can say that my way after the accident is coloured by the love of the Holy One.
After a serious accident I woke blind in an intensive care ward in a hospital in Windhoek (Namibia), I couldn’t talk because of a canule, a tube in my throat, my arms were securely fastened and I felt pain in my face. My first thought was: “Let me die”.
But very soon I realised: my wife is alive, I love my children and grandchildren, people saved my life. I want to live, I can live. I will trust in the outcome of this process, I will be loved by the Holy One. It will be possible to live as a beloved child of God.
That was not a thought, but a knowing with my heart. A present, a gift of the Holy One. I didn’t fight for this. For me it was a way of accepting, beginning with this unknown journey. For others it might be important to give attention to your anger or despair. I felt the love of the Holy One in the attentive help of doctors and nurses, in the intensive prayers of so many people around us. Receiving was an important task of life for me in this period.
Now I have the limited sight of one eye only.
I learned the wisdom of the deeper meaning of comfort. First of all that happened when I was listening to a hymn by William Cowper which begins,
Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
Singing this song I felt allied with so many people who suffer. It was as if they said to me: ‘You are not alone on this journey’. Now I can cry and laugh. I learned with my heart what Hildegard of Bingen said: ‘our wounds can be transformed into pearls’.
I am not glad with the consequences of the accident. But still I can say that I received in it something very precious. God is more close to me and trustworthy on a deeper level. For me is this like the words of Psalm 66 :9.
For you, O God, have proved us,
You have tried us just as silver is tried”
I am for God as precious metal. He exposed my strength. The love of my wife and children has now a golden rim. My life is more intensive.
I received a letter from a colleague. She asked me carefully: “Can you love your damaged, your disfigured face?” So I felt invited to do lectio divina of my body, which you can find on page?
Gideon van Dam
Employment, Redundancy and Job Hunting
Like most Christians, I don’t find prayer easy. Whether because of not making the time, finding the time, or through having a wandering mind when I finally do get down to it, prayer does not play the part in my life that I might wish it did. But looking back, there have been times of learning and growing through prayer. In particular, a couple of instances come to mind in relation to my career and professional life.
A couple of years ago, I was going through a stressful time in my then job, working on multi-million pound bids. An unfamiliar environment, a pressurised schedule, the threat of being sidelined, and some difficult people to work with were combining to make me feel quite depressed and inward looking. My praying at that time was for some sort of change. To use a word that can often be associated with prayer aspirations, I was seeking a ‘breakthrough’.
One day, when praying and going through a litany of complaints, and seeking some kind of breakthrough, I had a real sense of a gentle but penetrating divine rebuke. What I felt God was saying to me was that if I only associated Him with a ‘breakthrough’, then I was denying His presence with me in the pain and difficulties. From then on I felt my attitude changed somewhat, particularly in the way I related to other people, as I focused more on God’s presence with me in the present, rather than what he might do for me in the future.
Earlier this year, I was made redundant and had a short period out of work. In the end, I only had five weeks between jobs, but over several months, (both anticipating and following the redundancy notice) I had a prolonged period of uncertainty as regards my future work. In applying for various positions I was having quite a high success rate in securing job interviews (so at least the CV must have looked ok!) but a series of outcomes in which the disappointment of rejection was mixed with a feeling of ‘well, perhaps that wasn’t for me anyway’.
Then one day I went for an interview for a contract position with a Government department. Coming home afterwards I went through the usual post-mortem exercise in my mind of analysing the interview, and thinking of things I wished I had said or hadn’t said etc etc. Mixed in was a feeling that the job did actually sound quite interesting and challenging, so my mind was a bit of a whirlwind when I returned back to my empty house.
In the quietness I sat down and prayed. I prayed that after all the various disappointments and uncertainties, I might have a breakthrough. Unlike on the previous occasion, this time it felt right to be praying for a breakthrough and a sense of expectancy rose in me as I did so.
Needless to say I got the job and it has been both interesting and challenging. The position is not a permanent one, and my future still has its uncertainties. But for the moment, I do have that sense of being where I feel I am ‘meant to be’, and I guess one thing these prayer experiences has taught me is to live more in the moment, whatever our hopes or fears are for the future.
Learning to Surrender
A spider’s web, bejewelled by the morning dew and illuminated by the early sunshine, offers me a snapshot of the pattern of life – for in structure and fragility it seems in various ways to resemble it. Life, like a cobweb, is finely spun and transient, exquisitely and uniquely woven with its connecting threads with many unfilled spaces in between. On dull days it may be almost unnoticeable. It provides a home for a living creature at its centre..
A shaft of sunlight occasionally illuminates it and it becomes a thing of great beauty and wholeness; it is noticed and wondered at. For all its apparent fragility the strength of the web lies in its intricate connectedness.
Looking back over what must be now a nearly completed journey, I see patterns of connectedness, sometimes broken and reconnected in new ways, but making its way towards completion.
When the spider’s work is thwarted by some broken threads, she accepts the interruption and while seeming to mark time, she reinforces the place, and adapts her pattern., affecting the eventual shape and size of the web .
As a child I loved fairy stories, and children’s versions of ancient myths, all of which fascinated me. Both of these worlds were seedbeds for imagination, but also gave me a curious sense of having come from a life I could not quite remember but to which I felt deeply connected.. It gave me a sense too of being part of something both before and beyond the world I was now connecting with, I would call it spiritual awareness. I don’t think that awareness has ever been absent since it is, if you like, one of the supporting radial struts of my web of my life. Now I think it finds expression in my search for God.
From time to time, unsought and apparently randomly, this same sense of connected ness is heightened, little epiphanies that come sometimes through glimpses of nature, experiences in relationships, a poem or a picture, a haunting phrase of music, a dream…
A major moment of disconnection came at a moment in midlife when I was quite seriously ill with a bowel obstruction some while after cancer surgery and radiotherapy.
Physically and psychologically I was in a very low state and beyond knowing why the surgeons were so slow in deciding to operate. I was moved to a side ward and began the process of dying. (or so it seemed at the time). I remember a very gentle and unfussy auxiliary nurse coming to wash me. It was a moment when I realised that I was totally helpless, no one had touched me and handled my body in such a gentle and loving way since I was a baby.
For someone who liked to be self sufficient and in control it was a make or break moment. With no strength to resist such intimacy I surrendered, and the surrender was more than just a physical experience
In doing so all my anxieties about who would finish my unfinished tasks, who would take care of people I cared for fell away and I knew that I could confidently leave all those fears and anxieties behind, that ‘nothing (that I was fretting about) mattered’. And in that moment I think the creative spider began her reparative work.
I do not know enough about spiders to know whether, in fact, they make the first supporting thread continuous with the last, so that the same thread holds the top of the web also holds the bottom. It was that experience of contact with the final thread that connected it to the initial moment of my early memory and imprinted the experience there for ever.
It was as though, at that moment life was gathered up, my baggage could be safely left and I could move freely towards whatever lay ahead with complete confidence & trust.
With Julian of Norwich I knew at a profound level that ‘All manner of things shall be well’.
“It’s all good stuff!”
I can remember it as if it were just yesterday! In fact it was over ten years ago; March 10,1997; I was just wondering how I would celebrate twenty-five rich and rewarding years in the public ordained ministry when the exhaustion of it all hit me. It was like an internal elastic band snapping and with it a flood of emotion but also the great sense of relief that I did not have to pretend any more. Why is it that we think that hiding our vulnerability is an essential part of being a priest? The weeks and months that followed were to reveal that this breakdown was in fact to be a breakthrough, an initiation into a new understanding of myself and my vocation. Looking back it is always a temptation to spiritualise such an experience but although extremely painful this was to prove to be for me a truly God-given and God-filled time. So how did I emerge from this dark abyss and discover once more that life and ministry were not only possible but could be enjoyed?
Firstly I was blessed with patient, sensitive and caring companions on this demanding part of my journey. Just weeks earlier I had arranged to begin weekly sessions with a Jungian therapist and also after some searching had found a new spiritual director. After the ‘crash’ I was also led to a caring community in Devon, The Society of Mary and Martha. Alongside a loving and understanding wife they all provided the support I sorely needed. This sort of companionship or soul friendship is for me at the heart of the Christian experience. Jesus began his ministry by gathering a small group around him with whom he shared deeply. The life of discipleship is personal but not private. It is not about independence but an interdependence based on a common search for and trust in our God. We need each other on the journey.
Secondly I was to learn the meaning of ‘patiently waiting on God’. For twenty-five years I had thought that Christian commitment only issued in constant activity and availability. The more you cared the more you did. The language of sacrifice (which is to be found everywhere in church life) was at the forefront of my understanding. As the days lengthened and spring gave way to summer so a gentle growth and healing took place in me; but I wanted to speed it up …to fast forward the process …. “I will be better by Easter”, I told myself, only to endure a Holy Week and Easter that was a via dolorosa but with no resurrection. Weeks later in June I was to receive something of a gift of new life…an Easter encounter but in God’s time. The phrase which still haunts me are the telling last words of the RS Thomas poem “Kneeling”. ‘The meaning is in the waiting’.
Thirdly I was enabled through it all to get in touch with my own humanity, which I had nobly denied for so long, and in the midst of it discover the God made known to us in the flesh of Jesus. Surely the distinctiveness of our religion of the incarnation of God is just this, that in embracing our humanity fully rather than denying it do we discover the self made in the image of God.
In the ten years of parish ministry that has followed and in my work as a spiritual director my time in the wilderness that felt at first debilitating and paralysing has proved to be an enabling and enriching experience. And as for my own inner journey? This time rather than point to the absence of God has for me renewed a sense of God’s presence in the midst of it all. The words of my spiritual director, which enraged and infuriated me at the time, have turned out to be so true, “It’s all good stuff!
If marriage is the building of a trusting and loving relationship between two people, divorce is the explosive demolition of that relationship.
I hate divorce! It hurts as much as do the jagged shards of broken glass when a fist is punched through a window.
Divorce isn’t a legal process – that simply ‘tidies up the paperwork’. Divorce is the breaking asunder of a marriage.
It can happen gradually, through abusive or aggressive behaviour or through neglect. Or it can happen suddenly; a surprise to one party, or so it would seem, caused often by an affair by the other party. A secret shifting of the points from one track to another so that the two who were one begin, imperceptibly at first, to become two travelling in parallel, with the tracks ever widening from each other.
For me it was sudden – or so it seemed. Yet with almost immediate hindsight I saw chinks and even gaping holes of what I had been aware of, but had chosen not to see or accept. That showed me how honest God wants me to be with reality, however much that hurts or costs me.
I’ve never known anything hurt so much, or so deeply. Nor could I have imagined the extent of the atomic fallout on so many people. Divorce is hell.
What hurt the most? The betrayal. It was even sealed with a kiss – a warmer than usual kiss – as I went off to work on the morning of the Day of Destruction. Funny the things you remember when you look back. I remember thinking, ‘God, I don’t want to grow old alone’. And I remember a sense of God in that even though this was not an ending I wanted, there was somewhere hidden in the pain the hint of a seed of a new and even exciting beginning.
God has taught me about trust. Trust is a bit like a delicate bone-china teacup that, when it is carelessly dropped and broken into fragments, can never be properly restored. The joins and breaks are always visible, even with the best superglue and most skilled hands, and always vulnerable. Counselling helped me to come to terms with that fragility. Through it, God showed me what it means to trust myself – so that I can engage in trusting relationships with others rather than a relationship of dependency, masquerading as trust.
I can well understand that for some people this shattering experience involves a divorce from God as well as from a marriage partner. Love is decimated; therefore the source of love is doubted, blamed and rejected.
For me, though, it was the source of love that held me through the agonising and shocking pain of broken love. I was intensely aware of God in the support of friends, and the ability to organise a new pattern of life that enabled me to look after 3 children and continue to work as a parish priest. I was conscious of God in a deep unfathomable way that inspired the strength to carry on. I can only describe it as a sense of hope wrapped in many layers of hopelessness.
But I have to say that this whole hellish dose of life experience has caused and enabled me to change and grow emotionally and spiritually in ways I could never have dreamed of. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, nor would I want to have to go through it again – but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
Through the pain I have found myself in God – a new confidence and trust; new opportunities, skills and possibilities. And I have been drawn to a closer place of trust and peace. A surprising consequence from a violent explosion!
As I fell, I learned that your life really does go through your mind. Not as a flash, as commonly imagined, but in very slow motion. In fact so slowly that I had time not only to review most of my life, past and present, but begin a dialogue with God. More a one-way diatribe, to be honest, directed from me at God, explaining exactly what I would not accomplish if I were to die. I was livid that I was going to my death in this way, slipping on an ice sheet on the side of a mountain and then freely falling. I just went for it.
Clearly I lived. It was pointed out by the helicopter crew that most people they picked up were dead; a grim humour as they persuaded me to stop moving while being winched up. Later I read the newspapers describing the miracle escape and heard about the reports on the radio. And I received a postcard in hospital with the simple address of David, followed by a picture of a helicopter and the island Skye.
Lots will stay with me. Pain, as the knee ligaments torn off the bone couldn’t be reconnected. And the associated frustrations of not being able to run marathons. I had the perfect build for it.
The strongest thing that stayed with me over the decades was the emotional energy that was released in my anger at God as I fell. And the list of things that I spoke. I didn’t need to try to recall them, I could remember every word. They emerged from the core of my being, an expression of who I was and what I was about. By living, they were, I felt, a covenant between us.
I understood for the first time those in Mark’s gospel who shouted out at Jesus, putting their being into their yelling, over-riding their friends’ admonitions, demanding attention. In fact all those things I had been brought up not to do. This was a new kind of prayer for me.
Did my life change? It did. My then girlfriend burst into tears when first visiting me, saying that I was no longer the same person. I spent hours helping the person in the next hospital bed write words, spelling out letter by letter in order that they could send mail to their family. My frets and opinions diminished.
I have done every one of those things on that list, except one that remains a priority. I didn’t focus on them and got distracted into all kinds of good works. Some took only a couple of years, some a decade, and one nearly three. However the covenant was there, deep inside and ongoing and driving on irrespective of learning to walk again, having been told I never would; irrespective of making a living; irrespective of contributions to church life.
I learned a new kind of prayer, a vibrant and valid expression of my being to God. It took a mountain to initiate it, sometimes a spiritual director has been alongside encouraging it, and at other times my cry emerges unexpectedly. When it does cry out, I am always surprised afterwards it never doubts that there is a listener waiting to hear.
The death of my parents
My Mum and Dad died with a few months of each other when both were in their late eighties. I was with Mum when she died, and had spent the day of Dad’s death with him although we arrived too late in the evening for his actual dying. I think that I closed the eyes of each of them.
Mum had always wanted her priest son to take her funeral, and if I am honest I would not have wanted anyone else to do so! The woman priest at the local church was kindness itself in allowing us to arrange the service just as we wished, and we sat in a circle in the chancel, with mum’s coffin in the midst of us. I wept as I led her coffin in, and my voice became fainter and fainter as we processed up the aisle. Dad, ever the Quaker, said afterwards that there were too many words.
But he later told me that he’d like me to take his service in a similar way and so I did, and again I wept and temporarily lost my voice. My brother and I laughed, when they played the wrong piece of recorded music during the service, as our Dad would have done had he been there!
In the weeks and months afterwards I spent time in my study in the dark with a lit candle, smoking my pipe and reflecting on it all. I needed time to process what I felt, and was surprised by the wisdom that surfaced from deep within me, and from God.
I found myself talking to my mum and using her Christian name, which I had never done before. I realised that I no longer thought of her as an old lady, that her death had somehow released me to know a more complete person. She was now a woman to me, a sister almost rather than just a mother: a process aided by my aunt giving me some old family photos I had never seen before, which showed my mum as a little girl and as a young woman.
My dad had been the quiet, thoughtful, undemonstrative one who rarely expressed emotions or talked about himself. I always experienced him as being solidly supportive and accepting, but yearned for something emotionally closer. As I reflected on his life and death I slowly came to accept him as he was, not as I wanted him to be, and came to let him love me in the ways he could, and to accept that that was good enough.
My brother had remarked that with their deaths we were both orphans now, and of course that’s right. What I had not expected was to feel such a sense of freedom and release in the weeks that followed. Not that I had ever felt them to be oppressive parents, quite the reverse. Nevertheless their deaths felt, in a sense, like their final gift to me, setting me free in a way that surprises me.
Over the years I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about death, and have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t seem to me to make much sense to assume that at death I will suddenly find myself either in heaven or in hell. I can’t see why death should bring about such a sudden resolution. It seems much more likely that on dying I will still be aware that I have a lot of growing to do, to achieve peace or fulfilment or union with God, or however you want to describe it. And I find it hard to see how I will find that peace knowing that there are still people alive on earth whose lives I have affected for ill. I will want to pray that they are able to redeem those injuries I had done them, both for their own sake, and more selfishly for mine too so that I can find peace. So my destiny is intimately bound up with all those whom I have known: salvation is a corporate as well as an individual matter.
So I now think of mum and dad, and indeed their parents and grandparents and generations going back to who knows when, behind them, praying for my brother and I and our families as we try to deal with issues, some of which they will have bequeathed us. Philip Larkin memorably wrote of how ‘our parents fuck us up’, and indeed they do, and I as a parent ‘fuck my children up’ too. How can it be otherwise? Indeed to a degree it appears to be necessary and good, for without a bit of grit in the system [to switch metaphors] how am I, or any of us going to grow?
So through mum and dad’s deaths I see that God has given me two gifts. A deeper sense of freedom: freedom to be myself and the man God has created me to be, and therefore closer to God; and a deeper sense of my interconnectedness with all of humanity, of all of God’s children. By their deaths I am richer. Not what I had expected!
Living with Cancer
Cancer cast its shadow over my childhood; my grandfather died of cancer when I was five and my Dad died of it when I was eleven. My Mum also died of cancer when my children were very young, so there was a sense in which I lived with cancer long before I was myself diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. I was thankful that I did not live in fear of this disease as my mother had done, but certainly the diagnosis came as a terrible shock, and in the dread and confusion I felt I was journeying in unknown territory, experiencing this horrible disease first hand.
I realise we have made great strides in the way society handles cancer. My mother had been given the news that my father had cancer by a ward sister telling her ‘It’s a killer and it will kill him!’. In my case both at the hospital and with family and friends I received tremendous support and sensitive care, but there is still a sense in which you feel ‘you are on your own’. I am a Anglican priest and I was used to offering comfort and support in this sort of situation, but it certainly felt very different to be on the receiving end.
I remember feeling in this new strange territory that I needed some sign posts, and quite literally it was a road sign that really spoke to me at this time: ‘Changed priorities ahead’. Suddenly everything felt different – I faced an operation, a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and my future had a big question mark hanging over it. ‘Changed priorities’ gave me a marker to live by as I began to re-evaluate everything.
So where was God in all this? I felt God was very much in it all, but I experienced Him not so much as the God of all comfort and strength, but rather as the one who was leading me into unknown territory. This was scary and new and I felt incredibly fragile and vulnerable. But God was most definitely at the heart it!
A bible verse which became very important to me throughout my illness was ‘In Christ all things hold together’ (Col 1.17). There were frequent times when at one level I felt I was falling apart and nothing made sense, but at a deeper level I had a sort of assurance that it wasn’t up to me to hold it together, and that in the bigger picture all would be well.
Of course when someone experiences serious illness it is often just as hard (if not harder) for their loved ones. I had the love and support of a close family and I know it was very difficult for them.
One of the experiences which made a deep impression on me during this time was when I was admitted to hospital with an infection. For about a week I was in a six bed bay with five women, all of whom seemed to be much further down the road than me with terminal cancer. I found it an incredibly difficult time and yet….. It wasn’t my health that made it difficult, it was these women, none of whom as far as I knew were regular church goers, showed such love, grit, kindness, humour, courage and sheer humanity. This was a huge learning curve for me. As a Vicar, some might have assumed me to be a ‘professional Christian’, but I witnessed Christian love in action in a way that was truly humbling. It was down to earth unselfish care for one another, a kind of tough, rough and ready love in the face of their terminal illness.
It left me with big questions! Not about the existence of God – as far as I was concerned God was certainly in that bay, but rather about the foolishness of trying to contain, limit or label the work of God. It also gave me a glimpse of the God who delights to be at work in the most unlikely of places. The ‘Big C’, as cancer is sometimes known, had wreaked such havoc in the lives of those women and to some extent in my own life. But it was as though another bigger ‘C’ had the final word.- The Cross of Christ, demonstrated in selfless love, was in the lives of those women and somehow had the final say!
The absence of God
I sat with my mother, as a child of about 10, making a fancy hat for a competition at the school Christmas party. The basis of our design was a circlet of plaited green material. When it was complete I said, “It looks just like the crown of thorns”. My mother turned on me furiously and said, “You must never make fun of Good Friday”. I hadn’t been making fun, simply commenting on an obvious similarity; but the incident left me with the sense that God must always be taken very seriously.
At school we were taught stories from the Old Testament and reminded that God knew everything that we were doing. If we were naughty, even if the grown ups didn’t notice, God would see. By my mid teens I was certain that God was important and equally sure that I was a failure. God had never woken me from sleep by calling my name, or spoken to me from a burning bush. I had never seen angels descending a ladder from heaven, or received any communication at all from God as far as I could see – and it must be all my fault.
By temperament I was introverted, conscientious and questioning. I did courses, read books and married a priest (for himself, not for his dog collar), but I felt no closer to God. The sense of failure became worse because people expected the vicar’s wife to know about prayer. I was quite good at playing the part, but inside was an aching, guilty emptiness made worse by the fact that I felt a hypocrite. I hated the text “Knock and the door will be opened to you”. I felt that I had knocked until my hands were bleeding. I never talked to anyone about the problem, I was too ashamed, and those I might have spoken to seemed dauntingly confident in their own experience of God. God knows why I didn’t throw in the towel and become a happy atheist.
In my mid thirties, while attending a quiet day, I experienced a stab of joy so deep, so intense as to be almost painful. It made no particular sense at the time, but left me exhilarated. A couple of days later on a train journey I began to remember other times when I had felt the same thing. They tended to be associated with nature, relationship or experiences of freedom not churchy things. I began tentatively to assume they might be related to God.
I continued to behave (and often still do) as if relationship with God is something I have to achieve by hard slog. God continues to remind me, with gentle humour, that it is not so. I took a course in Ignatian Spirituality. We had to enter imaginatively into a Bible story and then talk to our small group about what had happened. The passage was the stilling of the storm. In the few spaces during a very busy week I tried without success to imagine myself in that boat on the sea of Galilee. On the last available day I went for a country walk, found a fallen tree in the middle of a field and thought, “Here I will be able to meditate without interruption”. I shut my eyes firmly and tried to conjure up the storm. However the weather was not stormy at all. It was in a beautiful place with warm sunshine and a light breeze. I spoke aloud in exasperation, “Look God, you are not making it any easier!”. For the first and only time I heard God’s voice, “Never mind that bloody boat, come and play!” So I did. Bushes don’t have to be burning to be alive with God.
The absence of God was a cold dull pain present underneath the ordinary, cheerful, busy or sad events of daily life. It was almost constant for about fifteen years. It was not the same thing as depression. I have been clinically depressed. The first time was after the birth of our first child and it brought a brief interlude in the long years of distance from God. My father was dying, and I was crushed by the unexpressed grief and the responsibility of a tiny baby. We were driving by night the two hundred miles to make our last visit to Dad. Suddenly I felt held by God and certain that, whatever the present difficulties, we were all safe in God’s hands. Before long God was absent again, but when depression returned God came back. Perhaps it is not strange; when mind and body hit rock bottom almost any exertion is impossible. At those times I have been forced to stop striving for God. Then there is space for God to touch me.
Departure from the Dark God
For the past few years I had been on a mind journey into scripture. The bible had become an exciting detective story in which its surface and literal meaning had been mined in order to find out who really had ‘done’ it and why. I had gone through Jesus’ birth and resurrection narratives with a fine toothcomb teasing out what was rational and casting away what appeared to be irrational to belief in the 3rd millennium.
I attached myself to those on a similar journey. I went to conferences and meetings where the divinity of Jesus was stripped away, but by the middle of 2007 I was the one who strangely felt naked. I had hammered my belief into a receptacle for containing and holding the god I had shaped into my image. Any sense of the transcendent and of encounter with the mystery had evaporated. This sense of nakedness left me feeling exposed and unprotected from the worst of myself, and my pragmatic belief left me with a god who was indifferent, dark, and inexplicable. What had been grateful solitude in the company of the God-presence now became fearful loneliness created by absence.
Desert spirituality was something that had interested me for a long time. I was moved by the stories and teaching of the desert fathers and mothers, who established communities in the Egyptian desert to which many came seeking a richer faith and encounter with God. Deep within myself I had always wanted to be in touch with their insights that centre on the heart rather than the head alone. Then, two unrelated events made possible what had really been nothing more than a vague, half-held dream. Biblelands, through its magazine, announced a planned pilgrimage to Cairo and a four-night residential in a Coptic retreat centre in the desert. At the same time a local clergy trust fund was offering substantial grants for people to explore areas of ministry and spiritual development. These two events coincided to make this dream come true, to touch the void that had opened up within my spiritual life. It was a ‘coincidence’ that I could not ignore.
In Cairo we visited some Coptic Orthodox churches situated in the old city. The small, simple and often ill-lit churches with their many beautiful icons and fragrance of incense began, like water running over stone, to slowly loosen my inbuilt insistence to declare that reality is only what I had come to say it is.
Then we moved out into the desert to the Coptic retreat centre known as ‘Anafora’. The word means both to ‘offer up’ as when the bread and wine are offered up in the communion prayer, and to ‘take off’ like a bird at the moment its body lifts from the ground in flight. Our four days at this spiritual oasis in the company of the local Bishop Thomas, caused both an offering up and a taking off in my life.
The desert is a place where I met both my demons and my angels. It is in the nature of the spirituality of such a place. Like the story of Jesus in the wilderness the demons (of inner thought) came with their questioning of my faith, with their highlighting of my doubts, with their probing of my obsessions. I was, they declared, an incoherent human being on an illusory quest for fulfilment. Yet with my offering up of this acknowledgement of incoherence came the angelic-like gravitation to inner silence, reflecting the raw and penetrating silence of the desert. This inner silence spoke of the possibility of love, acceptance, and belonging.
The spirituality of the desert, which imaged the desert of my heart, gave me no immediate answers, rather the realisation that I had just begun to ask the questions that could help me find my true identity and the truth that is God. What I believed to be the liberation of my mind leading up to my arrival in Egypt was simply a preparation for the beginning of the liberation of my heart, the revealing of my true identity in God.
When we left Anafora Bishop Thomas invited us to take a piece of the desert home with us so that it might multiply in our hearts when we came back to England. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I prayed it would be so. And it has been.
I have not returned to a purely literal understanding of scripture, nor have I sought to become an Orthodox Christian. Anafora has been built where it is because it was known that if people dug deep enough into the sand they would find flowing water. By digging deep – through prayer, reflection and contemplation, both in solitude and the company of others – into the desert of my heart I have found the living water that Jesus spoke of to the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel.
I am still learning how to be at peace because the grain of sand I returned home with is multiplying and enabling me to live with the transcendent mystery of the questions. I have learnt that, paradoxically, it is in my heart’s desert I find the God from whom all life flows. And what happened to all the purely cerebral questions? Well, as the poet-priest R.S. Thomas once wrote, ‘they lie folded in a place by themselves, like the piled grave-clothes of love’s risen body.’
Caring at Home
Looking back after almost 7 years of post-stroke life for David, it’s a good moment to reflect on how we have got through.
It has undoubtedly been a painful and frustrating time for both of us. David was living life at full tilt as a 66 year old retired surgeon, doing counselling for different voluntary agencies. I at a similar age was a post retirement curate in our local parish. Both areas of activity had to stop in the immediate impact of a major stroke,
A poem I wrote in the second year expresses the pain.
Beyond the here and now of urgent calls
That physical dependence brings
Lies a terrain of mutual sharing
This interlocking overlapping tethering
Hobbling of our lives together
One pair of hands and feet to meet
Two lots of bodily needs.
I screaming for respite
Yet the scream is stifled
Feeling how much worse to be
The helpless proud one
Constantly in fear of shame
Precarious shaky struggle
To survive another day
With self respect intact
God did not choose this monstrous plot
Can God recoup in us new life?
And inner freedom?
Grace, patience and practical help from family friends and professionals have helped us through. The fact that we knew many were praying for us regularly at the beginning was an undoubted help. Who knows how grace comes?
The prayer that I could feel made a significant difference was my regular pattern of saying not only prayer in the morning, but in the evening around 4pm before the evening shift of meal preparation and helping David into bed by 7pm.
In Common Worship Evening Prayer
That this evening may be holy good and peaceful, let us pray with heart and mind. As our prayer rises before you O God so may your mercy come down upon us to cleanse our hearts and set us free to sing your praise forever.
This pattern gave time to take stock of the day so far and set the compass again for grace in the evening.
Anger and frustration emerged, and most acutely in a resistance to taking part in the Healing service held monthly in the parish. This service, which I had been glad to encourage at its inception, now seemed and seems too bland, proclaiming easy peace. And in our case no physical healing is possible. I need something grittier.
God has provided some inner freedom. For me there was acute grief in giving up a ministerial role for a retired role, just as I was getting the hang of it. There is a problem of switching from shared stroke life to ordinary life when David has times of respite care. As he says “We are not getting along too badly” and may well reach our golden wedding in 3 years time. This can only be due to grace and tenacity on both our parts.
Living with Parkinson’s
I always knew I was special, but it took the consultant’s diagnosis to confirm this. “It’s progressive, but you don’t die of it”. Parkinson’s Disease had already taken up residence and I was so relieved that it was not a brain tumour that I was quite prepared to be a long-suffering martyr about whom my peers – anyone – would say “doesn’t he cope with it well!”
Although I’m not dealing with my demise, I have done a lot of reflecting about death and dying. I’ve wanted to relieve Angela of her suffering; musing on how helpful it would be for her if I was dead. At the other end of the scale, it would be a shame if my accumulated wisdom was not available finally to put the world to rights! Playing these games has kept morale high, even as, inexorably, new limitations are experienced in my body.
Angela is angry and frustrated that I am not angry and frustrated. She would expect that as a ‘normal’ response. But I am fairly sure that I am not into avoidance of such reactions, pushing down and bypassing them. Instead, I have a determination to confront each symptom as it appears, which means that I face up to the full implications of the changes in my body.
This can be painful as I listen to Angela express her disappointment at my loss of strength and energy and masculinity and at my slowness. Her pain includes loss of dreams of a future, and her becoming a carer. She tells me of her embarrassment at being thought of as married to an old man. She even fears that new people will not know what I used to be capable of, and finds herself telling them. “I wish they knew ‘The real you’”. But even this does not make me angry. Instead, three of us live at home – Ned, Angela and Parkinson. The third is an unwanted guest who demands attention, imprisons us and will not leave.
I had a change of Spiritual Director, for geographical reasons. She has only known me since I have had PD, and so she has heard my story afresh. We have been looking at relationships. Something must have been unlocked. For. . .
I was on my own in the kitchen. Suddenly, from nowhere, I had an overwhelming sense of loss. I wept into the sink, I was racked with deep sobs and I howled. I was alone and feeling alone. I didn’t want to be alone. I heard myself cry “I want my mummy”. I was six years old and didn’t want to lose the world where I knew who looked after me.
Then, as the tearful convulsions eased, I was in a new place. Until that moment I had images of God as embracing, reassuring, nurturing. Maybe I am now discovering a God who gives me space to make my own journey. Now I can acknowledge that all those ‘helpful’ books and articles so kindly offered can be put to one side because God is to be found somewhere else.
Four generations of family and my beloved PD warrior Angela are not far away, reminding me that I am loved. But they can’t travel with me.
I step out into my barren landscape with its distinctive sound of a wind of desolation. Here too is God. It is enough.
Remembering the fallen
The response of friends on hearing that we had been on a walking tour of the Somme battlefields felt strange, as “Did you have a lovely time?” and “I bet that was interesting!” came nowhere near the emotions evoked by what was really a pilgrimage to a place of horror and death for hundreds of thousands of men.
It was a beautiful area, rolling farmland punctuated by sleepy villages, similar to the Yorkshire Wolds. As on the first day of the Somme battle, the weather was perfect with wide blue skies and the odd white cloud. The fields of ripened wheat were poignantly scattered with poppies and larks were ascending and descending in full song. There was a sense of pastoral peace in the beauty of God’s creation and difficulty in imagining the horrors of the battle that took place there almost a hundred years before, until we reached the cemeteries.
The British soldiers were buried at the site of the battles in which they fell and the cemeteries varied in size, but each one felt overwhelming and many of our group were tearful. These young men had embarked on an exciting adventure, many having never left their villages or towns before, but their adventure included unspeakable horrors in unbearable conditions. Walking from one neat regimented stone to another evoked so many emotions. A deep sense of sadness for the loss of their future adulthood and guilt when I found that in scanning the graves, my eyes had missed a name without noting and somehow acknowledging that young man. The huge waste of life seemed to call into question life’s meaning and purpose and an angry question- how could God have allowed this mass slaughter to happen?
The grief of those that had loved them was seen in the epitaphs on the graves of those whose family could afford the extra few pounds. One in particular I remember was, “Cyril, dear Cyril, our beautiful son.” I wondered how his parents had ached to hold his fine young body lying within this French soil. It reminded me of the Michelangelo Pieta and Mary, holding the dead limp body of Christ. Cyril’s parents, like the majority of parents, did not have that last, grief stricken opportunity, to hold the body of their son or even visit his grave.
Perhaps in some small way, in my ability to be there, I could acknowledge him on their behalf.
As a mother of sons, one at the time of the visit serving in Iraq, the tour was particularly poignant. I yearned and prayed for his safety, lit candles in many places and lived for four months in a state of unease. After the Somme visit, I thanked God for his safe return and rejoiced in holding him, young, and vital.
Where was God in that battle in 1916? Perhaps in the many acts of bravery and courage. Certainly in the deep bonds of comradeship and brotherly love amongst the soldiers. And undoubtedly with them, in their profound suffering and the brokenness of their youthful bodies. Yes, God was there mourning his sons and the destructiveness of man’s inhumanity to man.