Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lights in the darkness

..and more candles
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
All right - I'm late with a blog post on Christmas . Tough. I've not had a minute at my own proper computer till now, and I draw the line at blogging on my phone while entertaining a two-year-old - of which more, perhaps, anon. But now, after a restorative walk on the fringe of the forest with my pal, I want to remember what happened before the post-Christmas church takes over and moves us 12 years on before we've had the Magi yet.

For it was a splendid season, crowded but splendid. Having retained the Advent feel right up to the quiet Eucharist with the surprisingly large congregation on Advent 4, we had a full church again that afternoon for a Carol Service. Our choral group 8+1 sang, the children paraded up and down with camels, shepherds and random sheep, the mulled wine flowed and we all grew mellow and cheerful. And then, in the close proximity that had seemed so impossible in prospect - how to gear up again so soon? - we came back to church for Midnight Mass. The pic shows what we saw. And although we had to put the nave lights on because people might need to see words of carols and such, this is more or less what I saw throughout the service. There are benefits from sitting in the front row .... There were carols serious and carols frivolous: the former during communion, the latter during the serving of the cider cup (we're dead versatile when it comes to beverages). Mr B and I had our annual fun singing with our friends who happen to sing tenor and soprano. There was incense. And - joy - the crib was under the altar, and looked amazing. The starry backdrop paper was a final stroke of genius, and I recognised the packing straw from one of our presents ...

Rudolph takes tickets
And then .... Well, then we had the annual dash to Edinburgh on Christmas morning, on a ferry staffed by Santa and his crew, and the joy of a dinner cooked by the hand of another and the conflagration of the pudding cooked by mine. And the children were as high as kites and very amusing, and ... and ... and we forgot to take the remains of our cake home and had to go back for it, turning off the westbound M8 at Livingstone. Think another hour on the journey - worth it, I reckon.

Today, however, it's hard to realise that less than a week has passed since that magical night. And really this is what has fuelled this post. The anticipation, the emotion, the celebration - these are all features of birth itself, human birth in human homes. I feel sad for the people who have their houses decorated at the beginning of December, who have no concept of Advent, of waiting, and who then tear down their lights and throw out their trees and say thank heavens that's over before it's even New Year's day. I can't help wondering how they'd see it if their standard response were to be applied to the birth of a child in their family. Picture it:

Four weeks before the baby is born, the family start decorating the house with all manner of lights, greenery and so on. The pregnant mother helps a bit, but her mind is, understandably, on other things. Occasionally there are drunken parties, all themed around the approaching birth. On the night of the birth itself, the family assemble, fight a bit. Next day they have a massive party, eat themselves sick and drink themselves into oblivion. But three days later, when the mother brings the baby home, she finds that the house is bare, tidy but bleak, and everyone has gone home. There are no more celebrations, no sense of joy. As far as everyone's concerned, it's all over until the next baby - or something.

Silly, isn't it. But some of us have only really been celebrating for less than a week, and we're still really happy about remembering what happened and demonstrating that happiness. Because what we are celebrating changed everything, just the way the birth of a new baby changes everything. And you can't put change back in the loft till next year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Prayer and prayers.

I was listening to Desert Island Discs yesterday - or rather, it was on in the background and I suddenly became interested. The castaway for the week was Sister Wendy Beckett, and what she had to say about her life - in a caravan - fascinated me. (Quite apart from the notion of living in a caravan - not having done this thing I can't help wondering if they're warm enough in winter, cool enough when it's hot ... that sort of thing.)

The focal point of her life is the Eucharist, and the occupation without which, she told us, is prayer, contemplative prayer. I think I knew this already, but I found myself thinking about solitary prayer in a different way. Apparently, Sister Wendy gets up at midnight and spends seven hours in contemplative prayer. Put like that, it sounds to the would-be Christian such as I am like a penance. Seven hours for me would end either in sleep or in complete distraction. Someone like me gapes at the thought and - in her more self-chastising moments -  wonders if she ought to try harder. But listening to Sr. Wendy speak, it became apparent that the hours spent thus are for her an enormous pleasure. It seemed to me that she sinks into prayer in much the same manner as someone who is looking after a young baby, say, sinks into bed; she longs for the time in prayer as a sleep-deprived person longs for oblivion.

The brief moments of such prayer that I have achieved were enough to convince me that such attentiveness can be hugely rewarding, and I suddenly saw this apparently rigorous lifestyle as something chosen, something pleasurable, not something to feel humbled by. Wendy herself admitted that she doesn't need people, she needs God; she may be wonderful on the telly talking about art but really what she was going to miss on this putative desert island was the Eucharist. Someone, she said, once remarked how she didn't need other people, and she didn't think it was necessarily a compliment.

People like me need other people, connections, feedback, performance. Solitude requires distraction. In a way, I suppose you could regard the contemplative life as one spent largely in the silent company of one person. Extend the metaphor to communication: if prayer is a phone call to God, it can be brief or it can go on for hours. But often in human existence these days, it is enough to receive a brief but loving call - or even a message on social media. It's the checking in that counts. So I'm going to recognise that my full life isn't a drawback or a hindrance, or something to be deplored. It's the way I thrive, and as long as I make frequent phonecalls it doesn't matter how long they last.

And just once in a while, if I'm lucky, I'll manage to stay on the phone longer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Random Russian phone notes

The White Lake, from Kirilov

I was pottering about on my phone the other day - the sort of thing you do while sitting on the ferry - and discovered the notes I'd made randomly during our Russian trip. As the notes were made on the hoof, as it were, they are necessarily brief, and some of them so obscure that they fail as prompts. But I thought in a last roundup before I finish off a possible slide show for the new year, I'd recall a few of them.

The first one reminds me that in St Petersburg they can expect to see 20 - 30 sunny days per year. How lucky were we, then, to have sun on three consecutive days of our stay there? Let alone that early October sun being warm enough for me to sit on my balcony for an hour with a book?  And I was told that St Petersburg stands on no fewer than 42 islands; I suppose a close look at the map would have helped me there, but it's a lot of islands - and a lot of inland waterways and bridges. Later, presumably in a restaurant, I was told how to say "Just a little" in Russian - it's  чуть-чуть, pronounced choo-choot.

On another day, another note, in Yaroslavl, I was shown the church of St John Chrysostom, where the congregation are Old Believers. You can read a daunting history of that schism here, but briefly it seems to have arisen over the influence of Greek Orthodoxy and the Latinising favoured by Peter the Great which the schismatics disapproved of. I think. We also heard of how during the siege of Leningrad cats from Yaroslavl were sent to hunt the Leningrad rats, and their descendants now live a privileged life in the Hermitage.

I dare say that I could spend time reading history and guide books, but at this stage I have found that the stimulus of being there and having odd bits of information drip-fed in situ makes a far more lasting impression. I have a suspicion that this may always be the case. It would certainly transform history lessons.

As a result of the phone revelations, I have revised my post about Julia, our little onboard guide. On the last day of sailing, when some of the young interpreters told us about their lives, she revealed that she was a Kalmyk. There was never quite enough time to take it all in - but I'm catching up.

No, I shall never forget Russia.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Warmth, light and love: the Advent journey

If you're really old - a silver surfer par excellence - you might remember this book: Footprints in the Snow, by the author with the unlikely name of Racey Helps. It seems to have been the first book he wrote, in 1946, and I must have been an early fan. (No, I couldn't read in 1946, but ...). I was thinking, as I wrote my last post about Advent, about what it is that we feel in this season, and it was when I was musing that it is certainly not a feeling confined to Christians that the memory of this book surfaced.

Today as I write the darkness of the early night has already engulfed us at 4.30 in the afternoon. It has been a foul day, and though the weather this week has until now been sunny and cold, it was threatening - the menace of black ice under the sun, the stubborn slush that would have you upended in a trice. It gives me pleasure to have returned to my warm house, to put on lights and fires - central heating isn't enough: I need orange flames to complete the setting - and to be safely inside for the evening. Better, we are expecting friends to come round and sing with us, sing Advent music and enjoy the shared experience.

That is a particular instance, fixed very specifically in time and place and inclination. The child's book above reaches the same area of contrast: that which separates cold, wet darkness, loneliness and threat  from warmth and love. From my memory, the little anthropomorphic characters with names like Millicent, Barnaby and Nubby Tope (that's the mole) find themselves frightened and menaced on a cold winter night and end up warm and safe and loved. It happens all over the place - in Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, even in Spooks (MI5 HQ being the safe hub where danger only rarely and shockingly obtrudes and usually happens outside). And it is there, I believe, at the heart of what happens in Advent, and particularly poignantly when Advent is experienced in the cold darkness of a northern winter.

That's where the rush to put up lights, to flock to warm, cheerful shops, to drink in cosy pubs comes from especially strongly at this time. The world is a hard place, but we can crowd together in a communal setting that will give us the illusion at least of being part of a group; we buy presents and send greetings and when these are reciprocated we have the warm glow of ... love? And whether it's real or commercialised, people feel the need for it, feel this need always but especially in the dark times.  If we are mature participants in a tradition that says wait, prepare, sense the darkness because of what you know will come, don't try to break it too early, then we savour the possibilites of our tradition to nurture our need and supply us with the realisation of love that did come, that does come. But if we are so wretched because of our physical situation, or our emotional or mental state, it can be harder to feel beyond the loneliness and threat of the season - and that's when the stories come in.

I loved that little book Footprints in the Snow. I can remember reading it, in my bed, in the winter - and I cannot recall reading it on a light summer evening. Very early, I think, I realised the attraction of the warmth and light and love at the end of a hard journey. I believe we are all like this, and we are all searching, whatever we believe, for just that: warmth, light, love. If we can help to provide that as well as need it, we are doing well.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Advent: waiting in the moment

Advent again. And every year, a little more suddenly than the preceding year, the same ritual tasks - that moment when you realise that it's time to forage in the forest (and we won't tell where) for just the right selection of greenery, from the delicate lace branches that droop below the candle wreath to the wonderful pink berries from the church grounds that were obviously designed by the Creator to complement the liturgical colours, the chilly morning in the empty church when fingers fumble with the secateurs and drop spiny leaves on the carpet. This year we added the cool scent of eucalyptus to the wreath for the pleasure of doing so, and the finished article was more ebulliently leafy than any of its predecessors. We wonder if anywhere else does it quite like this ... but we doubt it.*

Shortly after that I made my Christmas cake, thinking, as always, of the first time I did this, heavily pregnant and extremely sore after sitting down on black ice while shopping and deciding that I'd be happier standing, baking, than sitting and worrying. Stir up Sunday may no longer have its own collect - Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people ...  - but that's the day the fruit goes in the sherry, or the sherry in the fruit, and a week later the cake is made and drizzled with the left-over liquor. Later I shall turn my mind to puddings, brandy butter, cranberry sauce ...

And then there will be cards to think of. Is it inane still to send cards when I could greet so many people through Facebook and Twitter? Was it always daft to give them to friends we see all the time, or to the family we shall spend Christmas with? But I remember how I used to love writing the few cards I sent as a child, loved receiving them - and there's a part of me can't bear to give this up. I have dealt with presents for the grandchildren, and refuse to panic about their parents, let alone anyone else - present-giving should be a joy, not a worry.

Tonight, however, I shall be doing what I most enjoy: singing the music of the season, rehearsing carols for Christmas. And on Sunday I'm expecting to participate in a wonderful, quiet, dark, candle-lit Evensong, at which Mr B and I will sing with two friends, singing the music of the waiting and the longing that is Advent, repeating the glorious setting of my own words that is the Advent Song we premiered last year and which is now obviously reaching so many people on YouTube. I listen to it, and the wonder returns; I know that singing it will take me to a place that nothing else can.

Of all the seasons, this is the one to restore the mystery and awake the longing that can too often be submerged in the busyness of life - even church life. It's good to take time to wait in the moment.

*For the sharp-eyed and critical, I can report that by the time Advent Sunday came, the altar frontal was purple - a faded, pinky-purple, but definitely not red. Just saying ...