A Weeping Woman, A Girl And A Three-Legged Dog

I’ve taken lately to spending some mornings upstairs in my local McDonald’s. It’s warmer up there, away from the constantly opening automatic door, and it’s a lot quieter, too. Most of the time I have the room to myself while I drink a coffee and read a book.

Yesterday morning, however, a woman came upstairs, placed her tray down before her on the table and took a seat. As she opened the sachet of milk to pour into her tea, something tore a sob from her. At that very moment she became aware of me, and held up a hand that quite clearly said I’m alright as I am, leave me be.

The gesture allowed no approach, so I simply nodded. She continued with her morning meal, her mind evidently focused on some inner conflict. I continued to read for a while, then finished a final chapter and rose to leave. As I put on my jacket I looked out of the nearby window, down onto my town outside, and saw a child-a young girl, with presumably her mother. Suddenly the girl snatched her hand away from the adult and hurried towards a man with a dog, ignoring the calls to come back.

The dog was one of those Staffordshire bull type dogs, nothing remarkable in that, but one of its front legs was missing. It gave a shuffle-hop as it moved, and the girl, obviously moved by the sight, crouched down and gave it a hug, wrapping her arms around it and holding it close to her chest. The man was speaking, perhaps telling the girl’s mother that the dog was friendly. The dog stood there, rapidly wagging its tail.

When I turned I saw that the woman who had been weeping was also watching this encounter, a thin smile upon her face. On making eye contact with me she quickly turned her attention back to her breakfast. Perhaps that girl’s act had moved her, gave her fresh insight and perspective. Who knows?

I left but kept thinking of that scenario: the woman and then the girl, the weeping and then the embrace.

We are all in the same boat here. Some are broken; some are ready to help others put the pieces back together again. But I think it has to be by consent-we have to be invited in.

I had a conversation once with a local priest.

“I thought there’d be more vegetarians within the church,” I’d said. Apart from myself, I knew of only one other.

“Why?”

“Well, I think that, both morally and spiritually, the strong have a responsibility towards the weak. Be they people or animals. Also, if, as we are told, that we are called to lead a life of compassion, then I don’t know how we can if we are eating the flesh of slaughtered animals.”

I’m no activist. And it is not my place to moralise, and far be it for me to preach to a clergyman! It was just a thought I’d had. He replied that maybe it was a deeper kind of faith that I practised.

But I was thinking beyond religious faith, more as a rule of thumb as we go about life. Of course faith should inform all areas of your life, not something you pick up again when you go through the church doors on a Sunday to set back down again on the way out.

We can attempt to live a compassionate life, but we can’t go around forcing compassion upon others. That woman was quite clear about what she needed and wanted at that time.

And I think she may have got some of it unexpectedly, from watching that little girl and the three-legged dog from a window in the local McDonald’s.

On This Day:England’s First Historian And The Fleeting Sparrow

In 686, plague broke out at a monastery in Jarrow, north-east England. There were only two survivors, one being a young boy who we now know as the Venerable Bede. He went on to write many books, and the one for which he is most famous, The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People gained him the title of ‘The Father Of English History’.

He died on this day in 735, and a few years ago I visited Durham Cathedral where he is buried, along with St.Cuthbert and the head of King and Saint Oswald.

I’m one for deep and hypothetical conversations, especially in the wee small hours, and whenever the subject of our existence comes up, where we came from and where we are going to either end of this short life, the following passage of Bede’s always comes to mind. It reflects on the Christian faith when it was being presented for the first time to the people of early England:

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Today, in an older and more rooted England, if we call ourselves Christian or not, I love the image of that one, fleeting sparrow, passing through between storms.

In The Deep Night, An Extinguishing Flame

Our local church, on the night of Maundy Thursday, turns its chapel into the Garden Of Gethsemane, decking it out in many candles, surrounding a cross placed upon the chapel floor in front of the altar.

There is much emphasis on a night of waiting. Of watching.

I enjoy the meditative, reflective time spent in the softly illuminated darkness. I was there last night, thinking of family and friends who have passed before me.

There was another cross standing at the end of the candle-lit channel. For my previous generations, my most closest ancestors, the cross was the symbol of hope and strength as their inevitable end drew near.  They would have approached the great unknown holding on to that image. I pictured those once dear to me drawing near to it, reaching out to grasp its arms, before passing on beyond the marker. Imaginatively speaking.

A time of waiting. A time of preparing.

There were some family members whose passing was sudden and unheralded, but for the majority they knew that their time was approaching.

How do you prepare for that moment ?  How do you reach the point where the only control you have left is to let go?

I thought of my father. After his heart attack, he informed me that the doctor had told him he could have another one “like that” with a click of his fingers. How did he cope with the thought of that time bomb ticking away inside of him? He died from the detonation a few days later.

Some of my family have approached that cross with a calmness and strength that I can only hope to emulate when my time comes. There was one person who particurlarly came to mind, though.

His passing was quite recent. He returned home to die, his life ebbing away due to the cancer that ravaged him. As the moment inched closer, while his awareness of it remained, he muttered: “I’m frightened.”

His wife, Alice, said to him gently “You’ve no reason to be frightened. Say hello to your father and to Stephen” (his brother) “for me.”  With that he succumbed, sent over by those strong words of faith.

In the deep of the night, gazing silently upon those flickering flames, I thought to myself that, when the time comes, we could all do with an Alice standing alongside us, whispering into our ear.

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In The Moment

I had one of those moments tonight when everything just feels right, when, in some kind of revelatory sense, a glimpse of something extraordinary and meaningful filters through into the everyday life.

I was sat at a table in an Italian restaraunt. We were in between courses, and I found myself in a moment in which, paradoxically, I felt both detached and totally connected.

I sat back in my chair, looking at my two daughters facing me, laughing away as they played some kind of intuitive game together, oblivious to everyone else present in their giggles and playfulness. I shifted my gaze to their right, and my son was sat there sucking on a slice of lemon he had fished out of his glass of coke, absorbed in his own personal explorations and trials.

I turned to my right, where my wife was engaged in an intimate conversation with a good friend of ours, totally at ease in an immediacy of trust that had been brokered over several decades.

I felt no desire to break my silence and join in with any part of this portrait, to engage with either child or adult. I was content to just take in all of this as though I was some invisible witness, unsensed and undetected, and any sudden involvement on my behalf would break this blissful spell. I sat there among these people that I love, joined together around two covered tables, feeling a part of something bigger than myself, drinking it all in in great, savouring gulps.

Outside a dark December night was pressing up against the windows, held at bay by the warmth and light of this perfect evening.

In this eternal now, life was a blessing.

Everything was right.

The Constant Creed

In the distance, the two churches stand tall in the cold, winter sky. Here, another faith plays out. Faith with a silent expectancy:that spring will return with her colourful flourish. There is a certitude of faith in the order of things. To this we pledge our souls.

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Symbol

Everybody uses symbols. Religions, businesses, organisations, sports clubs, football teams, television channels, I mean everybody. It seems that we need something to represent everything that we stand for. An emblem to incorporate the ethos and identity of the various organisations that we belong to and binds us together.

A visual representation for something that becomes immediately recognisable.
Sometimes everyday objects, too, hold a greater significance for us. Maybe as an ideal, a target to aim for, a sentimental memory.

You take your ash wand and carve your rune. You find a space to hang your coat of arms. You open your trunk and take out that heirloom. You hold that old framed photograph and remember. These things become so much more.

The Palm Cross in the photograph was given to my daughter when she went to church with her school for her Easter assembly.

Most people know that the cross as a symbol represents the Christian faith.

But what exactly does it symbolise to people, personally? We cannot help but bring to it our own prejudices and concepts.

Where some may see it as a source of comfort and strength, others may see it as a symbol of torture and oppression. It is the same symbol, but coloured by our own perspectives.

To me the cross is a symbol of transformation. Transformation from despair to hope, from suffering to comfort, from death to life, from defeat to victory.

It also serves as a reminder to hold true to what we believe in, and value, until the end. Whether that is in a religious context or just an attitude towards life.

Whatever life should throw at us, and difficult though it may be, we use the tools at our disposal to fortify us and try to stay true to ourselves. To try not to change our true nature.

Faith unto death, if you like

No matter what our faith is, what our beliefs are, what our differing values may be, we all need something to focus on from time to time. Something to pour our energies into.

To all of you reading this, whether you regard this as a special, holy day, or whether you are spending time with your loved ones, enjoy your day. I hope the sun shines for you.

Sometimes, we pin all of our faith upon the weatherman.

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