Friday, 30 September 2011

Flogging a Dead Emotion

My friend Cylene, who has her problems, asked me last night why she should get a hard time from her psychologists for cutting when self-flagellation was an acceptable and even encouraged practice in certain Christian traditions. Cutting is(at least for her) equally ritualistic, she maintains, and brings a feeling of catharsis which can be seen as therapeutic even though most people are very disturbed by the practice.

I've never read very much about pain-inflicting practices within the Christian Church, nor have I spoken to anyone who's ever admitted practising them. Extreme groups like the medieval Flagellants were usually regarded as being illegitimate by Church authorities, though I'm not sure whether that was more for their bizarre practices or their tendency to slip into heretical beliefs. More mainstream instances are more mysterious. Karen Armstrong talks about it a little in Through the Narrow Gate, her narrative of leaving a pre-Reform Roman Catholic convent in the late 1960s, and of how dissatisfaction with 'the Discipline', as beating oneself with knotted cords was known, focused her issues with the religious life in general. She concluded that, at least in her case, it twisted sexual feelings in an unhealthy direction and confronted her superiors with the conclusion, but it's clear that The Discipline was intended not to deal with sexual feelings alone, but with all the other 'worldly' emotions and thoughts aroused by the intense experience of community living: resentment, anger, or just boredom. It was, I suppose, a means of processing negativity in circumstances where there was no safe way of expressing it, and converting unhelpful emotions into physical pain allowed them to be connected with the sufferings of Jesus.

Like most forms of self-harm, it seems to me (and of course I may be wrong, but Cylene agrees) that cutting is also a means of processing negative emotions. Anger and rage towards people you rationally don't want to damage can be dealt with in a very formal, ritualised way by self-damage: the feelings are psychologically so unacceptable that rather than face them they can be converted into something which, because of its ritual nature, is more contained. 'I'm frightened that if I don't cut I might hurt someone', Cylene says. The danger is that, if you happen to have suicidal feelings (which is rather likely), the ritualised, contained business of cutting may take you further than you originally intend. But, considered on its own, I think she's right: there's not much to separate it from self-harm in a religious context.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Nuts and Bolts

Long ages ago, one of my great predecessors in the parish sent a group of his folk on the diocesan course for lay Readers. 'You should get a degree in theology after all this', he said on them reporting back, 'this isn't what we need in Swanvale Halt.' Being the kind of character he was, he set up his own training course and produced a whole set of 'Lay Pastoral Assistants' who were sort-of communion-ministers-plus. Over the years this group of people not only performed a liturgical and pastoral role but also took on leadership responsibilities including furnishing a number of churchwardens. It struck me that what the then Rector had done was begin what big Evangelical churches tend to call 'leadership courses', creating a set of people who were trained not necessarily for any particular role but encouraged to feel they had the confidence to take on things when they came up.

I decided to have a go at this, and came up with what I called 'Nuts & Bolts'. It's not intended to have that much of a spiritual element, but more to introduce people to the practicalities of what the church does and why. We begin on a Saturday morning with Morning Prayer, so that introduces people to a different sort of worship without laying it on very heavily - and also the idea of reading the Bible publicly without much preparation. So far we've covered what the Church is for, the history of the church in this parish, and types of ministry; this week we'll examine church properties, timetable, and regular events. The idea is that people will emerge the other end with a greater sense of ownership and knowledge about what the worshipping community they're part of is actually up to. The problem is that so far almost all my takers have been people who already have a good deal of responsibility in the church or who are, realistically, past doing so. I can only hope that we're setting a sort of marker by doing this and that in years to come it may fulfill more of the purpose I envisaged. As with so much else that I'm doing!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Be Vewy Vewy Quiet I'm Hunting Wabbits

I came out of the front door intending to go and look for 4-stroke oil for my new petrol lawnmower, which I've concluded is the only sort of thing meaty enough to tackle the huge Rectory garden. There was a cat, and something running away from it which was clearly not a cat. I peered under the car where it had hidden, and discovered a long-haired, short-eared rabbit.

Where had it come from? More to the point, what was I to do with it? It was clearly a pet rabbit, and I could only hope hadn't come very far so I might stand a chance of reuniting it with its owner quite quickly and not have to look after it very long. I don't overly like animals, and find the idea of caring for one unacceptably stressful. It's bad enough checking whether the fish in the pond are still alive.

I eventually shooed the rabbit into the garage, left it with a bowl of water and some cabbage leaves, and drove to the big vet's on the far side of the village to seek advice. They told me not to give it lettuce, whatever else I did, which immediately got me worried whether I had sealed its fate by locking it in the dark with some cabbage. However they lent me a cage and some straw and told me to call back if I couldn't find who it belonged to.

By this point I was cursing my lot, having had my afternoon entirely disrupted by this completely unexpected event. Being called to Widelake House to give the last rites or something is within the usual parameters of the clergyman's lot, and even some sudden disaster befalling the village (as happened a few years ago when there was a fire in the sheltered housing block next to the church and the inhabitants had to be billetted on various members of the congregation) is acceptable, but pet rescue is another matter. However, these curses were nothing compared to what was about to escape my lips when, in an attempt to separate the rabbit from the potentially lethal food I'd left it with and unsure whether or not to put it in the cage, it ran past me whereupon the garage door fell down and clouted me on the side of the head. Interestingly, the people I've told this story to assumed I was about to tell them it had decapitated the rabbit, and were relieved to find it was only me that was damaged.

My staggerings around the drive clutching my temple and crying imprecations against the rodent could not help but attract some attention, if there was anyone around. After a minute or two during which the rabbit seemed to think it was playing a game involving retreating under the car at the most irritating moments, one of my neighbours appeared at the bottom of the path from the houses to the side with her two young sons in tow (ironically she's the stepdaughter of a member of the congregation). They looked strangely as though they were looking for something and, on my querying, it did turn out to the rabbit. His name is Mo, which should really be short for Mown Down, but there you are.

It's over 24 hours later, so I think that if I had any intra-cranial haemorrhaging it would have been apparent by now.

Afternoon Tea at the Soho Secret Tea Rooms

The Soho Secret Tea Rooms, above the Coach & Horses in Greek Street, aren't terribly secret, although access is via a steep staircase behind the downstairs bar, which does make you feel as though you're going to do something rather disreputable instead of just having tea. The Goths liked the idea of going there and so with a lot of faffing about involving dates and deposits to book the private room, I organised it. In the end only half the attenders actually turned up, which, given that I'd sent out several messages warning people to update their response on the Meetup site if they couldn't come because numbers were limited, did not please me at all. Anyway, those of us who were left enjoyed ourselves being stuffed with sandwiches, cake, scones, and of course tea, in lovely vintage surroundings with sofas and doilie-draped tables and being serenaded by Ella Fitzgerald. Mr Valentine even treated himself to champagne to celebrate his new job.

We are actually enjoying ourselves in the last photo, honest we are.

Hadrian the Seventh, by Fr. Rolfe

I've just finished reading this (though not in this particular edition), which has sat on my shelf for ages. It is, famously, a wish-fulfilment fantasy by failed aspirant priest Frederick Rolfe, in which the Roman Church changes its mind about ordaining George Arthur Rose, the character who represents Rolfe himself, having spurned him for twenty years during which time he has eked out a wretched living as a journalist and other things. Rose is then almost accidentally elected Pope and proceeds to reward his friends and punish his enemies, purge the Church of its wealth, its aspirations to secular power and its 'Keltic' influence, and then carve up the political settlement of the globe, re-erecting the Holy Roman Empire in the process.

It's a fascinating mixture of some quite good writing and some god-awful rubbish. There are passages where Hadrian becomes almost believable, though barely anybody else is. Rolfe clearly hated the Irish and the Scots (and there's a bit where Hadrian denounces, pontifically, any attempt to retain the Welsh language on the grounds that the Welsh are a conquered race and so don't deserve it), and in fact hated most Roman Catholics too. But most of all he hates anyone on the political Left, and his depiction of villainous Socialists as the most venal, ignorant, self-seeking and corrupt semi-human beings you can conceive is virtually unworthy of being committed to print. An enchantingly pathological book.

Arbour Master

A new improvement to the Rectory garden: an arbour looking out from the top of the slope out over the valley to the hills beyond (at least it will do once I've cut back the sycamore seedlings). It took ages: anti-worm proofing, painting in an acceptably 18th-century shade of green, and then dragging right to the top end of the garden before assembling it. I eventually got fed up with the process of drilling holes for screws and then getting blisters inserting them, and just got some bloody big nails and whacked them until the thing was basically in shape.

Late Bank Holiday

In keeping with what is now an ancient tradition, I invited a selection of LGMG friends over to consume the produce of my garden and what turned out to be a quite heroic quantity of gin over the weekend of the August bank holiday, and of course it was lovely. It's comforting that drink will enable a disparate group of people to get on with each other. I had to go to a station (not Swanvale Halt station) to rescue Cylene, whose inability to negotiate the British rail system is unparalleled, and came back to find Mr Valentine, Ms Narain, Ms Orphanides, Mr Boulton, Mr Garnett, Ms Luczak and Mr Webb being disgraceful Goth stereotypes and playing a card game called Gloom.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lowering The Sights

Last week I had a very serious row with somebody who attends the church occasionally but who I have a lot of dealings with. I will spare you the boring details, but they involved his overdraft and tangled family relationships, and his rejection of the way I went about trying to assist. Because of who this person is and the way they have reacted, I have decided I can’t deal with them, at least for some time. Our last meeting left me shaking, and in fact I was shaking even as I recounted the story to our church secretary this morning. He has, so far, respected my request to stay away from the church and not contact me, which I’m grateful for – especially as it hasn’t been so easy in the past. I’ve yet to talk it through with my spiritual director.

Of course the problem is still with me all the time, and I feel divided between, frankly, some relief that this individual isn’t around and guilt at feeling relieved. I stood at the altar on Sunday evening listening to a visiting priest from a neighbouring church invite the people to confession: ‘Jesus says, before you offer your gift, go and be reconciled’, and of course with this person I am not reconciled, neither can I be until I sort out my own reactions and recover from what has been a horrible experience. The words of forgiveness I pronounce over others cannot but ring somewhat hollow. And even forgiveness, in the sense of understanding how both I and the other person may have got things wrong, can’t on its own bring about reconciliation.

Yet I can’t just ‘leave my gift at the altar’, and abandon public worship until this is sorted. There is much in our lives which is never ‘sorted’ and stands no chance of being. To refuse to preside at worship once might actually have a tremendously salutary effect on the congregation, but you couldn’t keep doing it, and frankly there is hardly a time in my life when I’m free from one sin or another. The other morning there were scant minutes to go before the start of a service, and the people reading the prayers and scripture readings were nowhere in sight: I fell instantly into angry and self-pitying thoughts which were all guiltily dispelled when they arrived. I wonder whether this, as much as the inconvenience of keeping a fast, is why early-morning Mass developed – so the priest wouldn’t have had as much time to screw anything up. As so often, I can do nothing other than throw myself on the Mercy of the Court.