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The Woman in White Marble

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Phil NevardLittle Things Please Little Minds

A blog by Phil Nevard

Sunday
Jul122015

Belfast 

Pease WallThis is the "peace wall" - a terrible scar across Belfast. It has been here for 46 years - 18 years LONGER than the Berlin Wall stood. Tourists like me think that it should simply be torn down...but ignorant tourists like me don't live there and didn't live through the years of murderous violence that were played out on these very streets - within living memory for many of those who still live there...

 

 

Divis TowerNear the interface between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road - is Divis Tower. Due to Provisional IRA activity in the area, the British Army constructed an observation post on the roof in the 1970s and occupied the top two floors of the building. Tensions were such that they could only get supplies in and out of the tower and move personnel in and out by helicopter...Nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, the first child killed in the Troubles, was killed in the tower during the...

 

 

 

 

 

Unionist Shankill RoadUnionist Shankill Road - Union flags everywhere...there's no mistaking the politics of where you are in West Belfast. It seems not that much has changed (though actually it has!) since this memory... Roisin McGlone grew up in the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast in the shadow of the Cupar Way wall that went up in 1969. The structure stands up to eight metres high and is close to half a mile long. She remembers going shopping with her mother in the Protestant Shankill Road area as a child in the 1960s and being warned "don't mention the flags", referring to Union flags that hang everywhere to emphasise their allegiance. She did not heed the advice.

"I remember [my mother] tightening her grip on my hand and taking me home. Growing up, except for shopping outings, it was total segregation."

Monday
Jul062015

Is Holy Island "holy"? If so - why?

One of the questions I wanted to reflect upon as I travelled around some of the most renowned "holy" sites in Britain was, "what makes a place holy?"  Can a place be holy?  What does that even mean?

It seems to me that Holy Island is as good a place to ask the question as any!

Is Holy Island "holy" because saints lived here?  They had two biggies - Aidan and Cuthbert.  I love the stories of Aidan and Cuthbert - I blogged about a couple of them a few weeks ago.  But does the fact of their (undisputed) historical presence make the actual island "holy"?

They are both reputed to have performed miracles here - people came to be healed...  does that make the island "holy"?

It is said that Cuthbert's relics were kept here - nobody knows exactly which spot... does that make the very soil "holy"?

However hard I try, I cannot conceive a theology or a world view that would allow there to be something like a property of "holiness" that applies in perpetuity to land or ground or an island or a mountain or a well or a stream or a building, a property of "holiness" that sets that particular land or ground or island or mountain or well or stream or building on some kind of a different spiritual plane than any other land or ground or island or mountain or well or stream or building.

So, for me, it's a no.  Holy Island is not "holy" - or, at least, it is no more "holy" than Canvey Island or Barry Island or indeed any island you care to mention.

I get the idea, but I don't buy into it.  These feet once trod here...  It's seductive, but ultimately as much a pile of poppycock as homeopathy - the presence of a saint - ever so faint after centuries have past - like the homeopathic water that merely contains a memory of the healing substance no longer present.

Holy Island Cut OffIt sounds like a big thing to say - especially as I have only ever visited the island once and stayed only two nights - but it isn't the only thing I have to say.

If Holy Island is not "holy" - then why is it that so many countless people describe it as such a place because they have experienced it as such a place?

I think the answer is crushingly simple...

It seems "holy" because the island is called Holy Island.

This might seem trite - but bear with me.  People come intentionally to Holy Island in order to experience "holiness" or embrace "spirituality".  God invites us to seek and promises we will find - and we do.  When we seek, we find.  It is no surprise that people feel a closeness to God on Holy Island - they come with that intention, and God honours his promises.

And it is well suited to the act of seeking.  We are pre-conditioned in so many ways to find such places to be good places to seek God and nurture spirituality:

1. Type the word "spirituality" into Google images - or any image search tool of your choice - and you will find a vast preponderance of images of young women - often silhouetted - sitting by the sea in bendy yogic poses gazing out at the horizon.  It is an image we have all grown up with.  Islands are great for sea-views - especially small ones!

2. Even a casual knowledge of Jesus' life will have us remembering that he went out into the wilderness after his baptism to wrestle with his soul and we will remember mountain-top epiphanies and stories of him fleeing to the moutains to pray...  alone...

Of course - he will have been conditioned too.  Mountain tops were almost always where God showed up in the bible stories Jesus grew up with - and at margins/borders - between land and sky (mountains), between land and and sea (seaside) and between dwellable land and hostile land (wilderness).  God shows up in these edgey, untamed places.  Holy Island can be fairly wild and untamed on a windy winter's day!

3. We have been conditioned to think of spirituality as a lonesome task - something deeply personal that you do on your own.  We have the idea that you need to get away from your every day life to an extraordinary place where you can find solitude and relief from the noise and bustle of your everyday life.  Holy Island gets cut off every day.  There are long periods where unless you have a boat or a helicopter, you are stuck there, and you are safe from mainland invasion.  Holy Island also has rubbish wifi and poor phone reception - so you are also isolated from the digital storm that normally assails you.  The fact that it gets cut off is, I think, a big part of the deal.  It feels vaguely the same to be on Iona when the last ferry leaves.

Many of the locals - the people who live there - are irritated by the holiness conection, they don't feel it or recognise it, and they resent the hordes of people mooning about the island trying to be "spiritual".  Maybe that's because to find their ideal place to seek, Holy Island is the very place they need to escape from.

4. The saints are not irrelevant.  Of course they are not.  The island echoes with story and myth celebrating their lives.  Putting our lives alongside the life of a saint can be a humbling experience.  Where better to do it than in the place where they lived and worked?

So, is Holy Island "holy"?

Answer:

  1. No, absolutely not, don't be daft!
  2. Yes, absolutely (unless you happen to live there!)
Sunday
Jun282015

Advice for pilgrims 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

You stand in the corner
a statue made of stone

I guess you were taunted
- two husbands but your virtue intact
I can hear the echoes of those whispers
Frigidreda, ice-maiden...

I touch the stone
and it is not cold
it is not marble
it is warm, soft stone

I guess the sculptor knew something...

For you were not cold
you were not unloved or unloving

You drew poeople to yourself
you stll do, though long dead
candles light the stone in warm colours

you offered guidance to those lost or confused
you offered healoing to those in pain or torment
you offered yourself as an example of a woman who had more to offer
than your husbands might expect of you

bless you, Ethelreda.  rest in peace.


Potted History:

Etheldreda (Æthelthryth, Ediltrudis, Audrey) (d.679), queen, foundress and abbess of Ely. She was the daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, and was born, probably, at Exning, near Newmarket in Suffolk. At an early age she was married (c.652) to Tondberht, ealdorman of the South Gyrwas, but she remained a virgin. On his death, c.655, she retired to the Isle of Ely, her dowry. In 660, for political reasons, she was married to Egfrith, the young king of Northumbria who was then only 15 years old, and several years younger than her. He agreed that she should remain a virgin, as in her previous marriage, but 12 years later he wished their marital relationship to be normal. Etheldreda, advised and aided by Wilfred, bishop of Northumbria, refused. Egfrith offered bribes in vain. Etheldreda left him and became a nun at Coldingham under her aunt Ebbe (672) and founded a double monastery at Ely in 673.
(from FARMER, David: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed. OUP, 1992.)
Etheldreda restored an old church at Ely, reputedly destroyed by Penda, pagan king of the Mercians, and built her monastery on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral. After its restoration in 970 by Ethelwold it became the richest abbey in England except for Glastonbury.
Etheldreda died c.680 from a tumour on the neck, reputedly as a divine punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces in her younger days; in reality it was the result of the plague which also killed several of her nuns, many of whom were her sisters or nieces. At St Audrey's Fair necklaces of silk and lace were sold, often of very inferior quality, hence the derivation of the word tawdry from St Audrey.
17 years after her death her body was found to be incorrupt: Wilfred and her physician Cynefrid were among the witnesses. The tumour on her neck, cut by her doctor, was found to be healed. The linen cloths in which her body was wrapped were as fresh as the day she had been buried. Her body was placed in a stone sarcophagus of Roman origin, found at Grantchester and reburied.
Her shrine was destroyed in 1541, but some relics are alleged to be in St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place, London (where the bishops of Ely formerly had their London residence). Her hand, which was discovered in a recusant hiding place near Arundel in 1811, is claimed by St Etheldreda's Roman Catholic church at Ely.
St Etheldreda's Feast Day is 23rd June.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Things I have learned about being on the road:

1. If you find a decent toilet - use it whether you need to or not. You never know when you might find another.

2. Other pilgrims snore - eliminate them early on!

3. Look after your steed - feed her with petrol when you see a garage - you do NOT have enough to get you to the next one - no, really, you don't.

4. Never pay for parking, it is the law that pilgrims may park wherever they like.

5. Occasionally tell the missus you are still alive.

6. Despite appearances, if there are poles set out to mark a pilgrim path across the sand, there is a reason. One of those might be deep, thick black mud!

7. If you find free WiFi - USE IT - even if it is to post utterly inane guff on your blog!

Quick thoughts about Holy Island

I have just left the island and have time to use before going across to Inner Farne to see Cuthbert's powerhouse of prayer.

So I am sat at Beal''s Barn with a cup of coffee - manfully resisted the Border Tart!

Here's Aidan's mission strategy as far as I can work it out:

Walk the lanes and villages
Encounter people
Engage conversation
Ask: are you a Christian?
If no: may I tell you about it?
If yes: do you want to be a better one?

All of that backed up by real, self-sacrificial, active compassion and ceaseless prayer.

Of course there was the reassurance of a local friendly king, but essentially that was it.

Is there really anything more complicated about it than that even in today's world?

Belfast Murals – Loyalist and Republican









Sunday
Jun212015

The Selfish Pilgrim

Is being a pilgrim essentially selfish? In mediaeval times, a pilgrim might well have been far from sure that s/he would return home safely. I'm not sure I am in mortal danger, but the m/bike is not notoriously the safest means of travel and I know that Lythan harbours haunted thoughts that the next time she sees me it will be to ID my remains in a distant Northern mortuary and agree to the donation of my organs.

I was conscious that the kids didn't wave me off - which was fine except they'd be haunted by the regret that they never said goodbye...

All a bit maudlin you may think, but it made me wonder about Jesus telling those who would follow him to leave behind (even hate) family. Is there a part of spirituality that is necessarily selfish - it sounds wrong - maybe "me time" sounds better but is essentially the same thing.

I do feel a little guilty about the selfish indulgence of this month on the road - but then weren't pilgrimages very much about indulgences? ;0). Oh - and I am driving very carefully!

PS writing a blog on a phone is a painstaking business!

Thursday 4 June 2015


Much Hideousness

Just to be clear...

The English language is rich and varied, full of subtlety and well fitted to make a good fist of conveying the sense, depth, fulness and intensity of pretty much any given situation, in the rigtht hands.

However...

Were you to prosaically pile up every conceivable combination of the entire panoply of thesauric similes and partial equivalents to the word "hideous" and were you to magnify their effect with liberally applied superlatives such that no literary flourish or prosaic device for exaggeration was left unemployed on the dictionary shelf, you STILL have only scratched the surface in your quest to describe to your reader just how utterly and completely hideous the Anglican "Shrine Church" in Little Walsingham is!

It's HIDEOUS!

Of course that's easy to say - I shall return to this and try to analyse WHY I found it so (even when trying my best to keep an open mind and perceive something of what it is that gives inspiration to the thousands who come every year and ciunt it as one of their life's highlight-experiences.)

I just need to get that off my chest!

It is truly hideous!

Monday, 8 June 2015

Tuesday
Jun162015

Repurposing this Blog

This blog was set up a few moons ago to chart my New Year resolution progress in learning poems by heart.  I did learn some (see older posts) - but I soon failed and this blog gathered dust, lay dormant, was (indeed) totally forgotten!

Rather than create another ship in the night - I am going to repurpose this one as a place to blog some daily thoughts about my sabbatical motorbike pilgrimage. 

My first thought is this - how to journal my pilgrimage experience?  I have in mind four methods:

  1. A camera - I will take too many photos!  I'm only taking two lenses - I did want to take three!
  2. A new helmet cam - I can now shoot video whilst actually travelling on the bike!
  3. I had a moleskine notebook and an ink pen for my birthday.  (also coloured pencils for sketching)
  4. It is entirely possible that I will spend more time and effort stressing about recording the experience of my pilgrimage than I will spend actually experiencing the experience of my pilgrimage!  This is a real danger - and yet I find the thought of NOT recording it utterly impossible to contemplate!

It is entirely possible that I will spend more time and effort stressing about recording the experience of my pilgrimage than I will spend actually experiencing the experience of my pilgrimage!  This is a real danger - and yet I find the thought of NOT recording it utterly impossible to contemplate!

Why?

For one thing, I am going to have opportunities in the future to tell the story to other people (indeed - it's a requirement of having a URC sabbatical!) - so I will need stuff that might make it interesting.  For another thing, I always find it easier to record things as they happen rather than try to remember a month's worth of experience weeks later.  For a third thing, I want to have some raw material - instant reaction - on which to base my further, deeper reflection...

Those are my excuses anyway - see how readily I trotted them out?  I suspect it some kind of basic human insecurity that if I don't record it - it is as if it didn't happen...  but does the act of recording it negate the experience or enhance it?  who knows! :-)

I think I shall have to be mindful and do both.  stop and stare - and frame and click!

Monday, 1 June 2015