Another postcard from the land of grief
One of the features of travelling outside your own country is that you find yourself unable to read amounts – be they of money, distance or ingredients. The ‘small’ pack of a familiar ingredient in a foreign supermarket may be way too big, or the ‘large’ pack in another may be way too small. Distances can be deceptive too. Two towns which look adjacent on a map may be miles apart, or hours apart, depending upon the traffic conditions.
I am finding that I am unable to read this particular map. The distance between this task and the next one may appear to be very short, and yet it will take hours, or weeks. The distance from here to the borders of the land where I used to live is one which I cannot begin to calculate.
As ever when staying abroad, shopping can prove to be an interesting experience. Not having the right coin with me, I had to ask a member of staff to release a trolley for me. ‘Big or small?’ she asked. Momentarily thrown off balance, I reluctantly replied ‘small’. In fact, my judgement had been poor, and even the small trolley was too big. I shall have to learn how to shop here, I think.
Glimmers of advent hope
Alfred Delp was a courageous young Jesuit priest, imprisoned in Nazi Germany for knowing too much. He was held in solitary confinement, hands in chains, until his execution. His advent sermons, smuggled out of the prison in his washing, constitute the most remarkable statement of advent theology I have ever encountered. Last year, I suggested the idea of a collaborative advent calendar, celebrating the defiance of advent hope against the darkness. This year, in my own particular darkness – it seems more appropriate than ever. Each day one of Alfred Delp’s advent sayings will be displayed here from the calendar below.
A fourth postcard from the land of grief
I have just returned from Pembrokeshire. As ever, it was glorious, with early sunlight gilding every wave and the skies a masterpiece of delicate beauty.
More than ever, on this occasion, it has felt like a ‘thin’ place – where the veil between heaven and earth is like gauze pulled so tight that you can all but peep through it to the other side. I have felt uncomfortably close to my ‘bravest and best’ as I have walked these beaches which she loved so much.
As ever with foreign travel, though, it makes you feel differently about the place you have left behind. In the place I was living before this happened, we cling onto life, by our very fingernails if necessary, since it is all so precious. We drink deeply of beauty, we savour every landscape, we build memories as if they were a dam against the flood of time.
Walking on these beaches again though, I find myself wondering how they compare to those which heaven has to offer? If you pick up a seashell there, can you hear the crash of waves here only as faintly as you imagined you could when you picked up a seashell and did that as a child? If you look at a sky of deep indigo and palest pink there, do you recall other skies as pale imitations, like a faded photograph?
When I was a very new pastor, I remember walking away from the bedside of a dying patient with the line of a hymn insistently going round my mind. The person in the bed was frail, sick and physically weak, and yet I knew that was about to change:
‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.’
In the picture below, it is odd that the one who lives is in more shadow than the one who does so no longer. In this particular photograph from the land of grief, the camera does not lie.
Another postcard from the land of grief
I once heard a refugee describe how the border with his home country ran just alongside his refugee camp. He could stand at the edge of the camp and gaze across at an old familiar tree in the home country – but he could not go there. The border was both invisible and impervious.
I am finding that the landscape of grief has just such a border. I can gaze across it at old familiar things. I can watch normal life unfold before my eyes, and I can stand and have a conversation with those across the border as if nothing separated us. That said – it is impossible to cross for now. When it comes down to it, they live there and I live here and nothing can be done about that. I make occasional forays into their land, and they are precious. It turns out, though, that I take the border with me. I am like a cartoon character racing to outrun an elastic band – legs whirring and arms pumping, but the snap of the elastic must bring me back as surely as night follows day.
The refugee made a new life for himself across the border. He would still gaze from time to time at the old, familiar tree – but he found others in his new home. Like the old one, they provided shade and the kind of mental landmark which makes any new place a little less strange. Today, I shall go looking for trees…
A third postcard from the landscape of grief
It continues to surprise, this land of grief. Its topography is so hard to read – like the shifting sands of the desert. To climb a tiny hill can feel like scaling a mountain – leaving the lungs gasping for air at the top. Once scaled – the view behind may be spectacular – but the view ahead is hidden, at least for now. Some of the valleys which look like no more than a ditch prove to have sides so steep that they all but blot out the light.
As ever with foreign travel, the currency is unfamiliar too. Money has little value. It can pay the bills and provide some distraction, but it has no real worth. After all, it could not pay any fee to prevent crossing the border into here. In this land the currency is kindness. It comes in words and actions, cards and letters, and even smiles.
I started this week by re-reading all the cards and letters which I have received. They came from every direction, in every kind of handwriting and from every age. Some were poetic, some fulsome, some brief – but all have made me richer here.
I thank God for every single one of them. Like money sent home from abroad – they have helped to sustain life in this foreign land and I am humbly grateful.
Like the sunflower
There are visitors in the house right now – emissaries from my beloved church family at Newbury Baptist Church. Last week they stood tall in the church – testament to the love which brought them there, and arranged them so beautifully. Now they stand in the house, breaking up this grief-mist like shafts of sunlight through a dusty room.
They had another function this time last week, too. Their role was to act as a visual backdrop to Evangeline Patterson’s poem ‘And that will be heaven’ – read out at the thanksgiving service.
A second postcard from the landscape of grief
I am learning that it is full of surprises, this landscape of grief. Some of its arduous climbs are undulating slopes, and some of its easy vistas are beset by hidden crevasses – just ready to swallow the unwary. At times I like to think I shall swoop across it like the Grey Goose – flying nobly on alone, as if untroubled. Other times I cross it more like a snail – propelled along on a trail of sorrow and a danger to anything that grows!
Sometimes it contains a mirror, this strange landscape – and you catch sight of yourself as you go by. They must be such narrow mirrors though, for they only show one person – never two. Like feet on an inexperienced pilgrim, you ache – but mainly in the heart. To experience grief as a physical ache has been a surprise.
And then there are the people you meet along the way. Many of them are unable to speak the language here. Some don’t even try – they resort to the universal unspoken gestures of the foreign traveller – a smile, a hug, a tear shed in sympathy. These things are instantly understood, and received with thanks. Others speak as if they have an old phrase book and are urgently thumbing through to find the right page. A bit like the phrase book – you usually know what they mean, even if it ends up sounding slightly off kilter, as if you want to travel by hansom cab or pay for your shopping with dubloons!
Others find themselves in this place promoted to the rank of prophet without ever knowing it. One such was the six-year old who presented me with the bracelet below. At a children’s service on Sunday, each child was making an ‘advent bracelet’ with different coloured beads to represent the different elements of the Christmas story. The idea was that these bracelets should be taken home and used in the weeks leading up to Christmas to retell the story. He came across, sat down next to me and explained that his had another purpose:
I have made this for you, because you don’t have Fiona any more. She has gone to heaven.
I thank God for all the people I am meeting in this strange place – but today I thank Him especially for that small prophet.