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Lockdown Lent 10: a woman against pandemics

Saint Walburga (c.710 – 779) was the daughter of Saint Richard the King, and her brothers were Saints Willibald and Winebald. She went to Wimborne monastery, in Dorset, SW England, to study under Saint Tatta, and later became a nun there.

In 748 she went with her brothers and a couple of friends on a mission to what is now Germany, and healed many people. This healing ability reportedly continued even after her death, as an oil with healing properties began to seep out from a rock on which her relics were placed. This healing ability led to her becoming the patron saint against coughs, rabies, and plague. She’s also the patron saint of two dioceses – Eichstätt, Germany, and Plymouth, England, and of 4 cities.

Walburga’s relics were moved to Eichstatt on 1st May, 870, which coincidentally is the date of a pagan festival associated with witches. Walburga had absolutely no connection with the festival, or with paganism, but the coincidence of dates led to her being strongly associated with witchcraft and superstition. It’s a curious thing that even now, in the 21st century, men who do extraordinary things are generally treated as heroes, while women who do extraordinary things are frequently treated with suspicion. ‘Witch’ is still hurled at women as an insult. Curious, huh?

Lockdown Lent: you can beat death in life

Saint John Theristus (Italian: Giovanni Theristis; 1049–1129) was an Italian Byzantine monk. The name Theristus means ‘reaper’ or ‘Harvester’, a title he got when he performed a miracle that saved an entire harvest from being destroyed in a storm.

His life began in cruel circumstances. His father, who was a farmer, was killed in a Saracen raid on the coast of Calabria. His mother, who was Calabrian, was captured by the Saracens and brought to Palermo, where she gave birth to John. He grew up in a minority faith — a Christian in a predominantly Muslim environment. When he turned 14 his mother urged him to return to his native country, and against the odds, in a boat with no sail or oars, he crossed the Strait of Messina and reached Monasterace. The inhabitants, seeing him dressed in the clothes of the muslim culture he had come from, took him to the local Bishop who gave him the inquisition, but despite John saying clearly that he wanted to be baptised, the bishop put him through some very tough tests before allowing this.

Most of the accounts of his life I’ve found focus on his miracles, holiness, acts of healing, and unwavering faith. I just think it’s extraordinary that someone who is orphaned, enslaved, marginalised, interrogated, all before the age of 15, emerges with a big heart and a soul intact. I’m reminded of these lines from Charles Bukowski’s poem, The Laughing heart: you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.

The Laughing Heart

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Charles Bukowski, Betting on the Muse: Poems and Stories

Lockdown Lent 8: the saint of in-between

Today is the Vigil (the night before) of the feast of St Matthias. After Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus, and subsequently died his own tragic death, Matthias was the dude who got picked to replace Judas. And what’s interesting about his appointment is that he’s the only Apostle who was chosen in the in-between time, after the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, but before the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The first twelve, (well, eleven, once Judas was out of the picture) were picked personally by Jesus. And later Apostles like St Paul were called in the post-Pentecost era of revelation and inspiration. But Matthias was a replacement for someone else, and he was called in the in-between times. I wonder whether he isn’t the perfect inspiration for the in-between times of these pandemic days, and a reminder not to allow the current stresses to rob us, either of our own confidence, or of the days of our lives that we are standing in right now.

How did it felt to be chosen as a replacement disciple? I often wonder whether he was simply thrilled at being chosen at all, or whether his confidence was chipped away at by nagging doubts about why Jesus had not picked him the first time around. Did he ever feel a bit left out in this tight-knit crew, was there a bit of festering resentment that he was ‘second choice’ or B-list, or did he suffer from impostor syndrome, with every less-than-remarkable day making him doubt whether he was really up there with the ‘proper’ apostles? I guess we’ll never know – but we do know how we feel when we are called to stand in for someone else who can’t make it. Matthias is an inspiration to face down impostor syndrome with guts and gratitude: no matter how I got here, I’m going to enjoy being the luckiest person in the world.

But he’s an inspiration also to live in the present. These pandemic days are in-between times; we can’t go back to where we were before, and we don’t know what life will look like on the other side of this. Like the apostles between Ascension and Pentecost, we are caught between the loss of a familiar past, and the uncertainty of what the future will bring. And it’s the hardest thing in the world, when that happens, not to wish away the life that you have. Matthias is the saint of the in-between times, and is an inspiration to grab each day with both hands, and not allow the difficulties, pain, frustration and anxiety to rob us of living that day.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote “Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognizing where we actually are. When someone asks us where we want to be in our lives, the last thing that occurs to us is to look down at our feet and say, ‘Here, I guess, since this is where I am.’ ” It seems an odd idea to say, mid-pandemic, that this is where I want to be. But perhaps the days will be richer and brighter if, instead of wishing for whatever the future might bring, we say instead that where I want to be is where I am right now.

Lockdown Lent day 7

Today’s saint is Margaret of Cortona, who was born into a farming family in Tuscany, Italy in 1247. Her mother died when she was seven, and the stepmother who came along after that didn’t connect with Margaret at all. Feeling rejected by her family, Margaret eloped with a young lad from Montepulciano. They didn’t get married but they did have a son. 9 years later her partner was murdered, and Margaret found little sympathy or assistance because of the “scandal” of being a single mother.

Eventually Margaret and her son both entered monastic life, but I’m sad to say that she spent a lot of energy repenting of her “sinful” life, and even had to be restrained from actually doing herself serious harm.

I find her story very touching. I wish she had found compassion, help, love and acceptance, instead of judgement and rejection. 780 years on, things are very different, and mostly single mothers are not treated as outcasts any more. But there are places where women who are bringing up a kid single handed experience judgement, and sadly, churches are among those places. It’s amazing to me how many church people, who would claim to know more about the love and mercy of god than everyone else, so quickly presume they know someone’s character and life story, and judge them harshly if they don’t fit a particular mold.

Bringing up my son alone was certainly hard work (and along the way I got plenty of judgey comments and doors shut in my face) but despite that it was the best thing I ever did. I’m endlessly proud of him, all grown up now, I’m happy for the adventures we charted and the little micro-family we became, I’m grateful that we found wonderful friends to create a life with, and so glad I learned to have the courage just to walk away from sad, small people who dared to pass judgment on us. My son is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I have no self-recrimination, and definitely not a single regret.

So today I’m thinking of all the mothers who are bringing up kids by themselves (and yes, I know there are fathers who do the same, but that’s for another day…) especially in these days of precarious employment and lockdown home-schooling. I hope they will find acceptance, help, encouragement, lots of stamina, and no self-recrimination or regret.

Lockdown Lent week 2

First Sunday of Lent (Feb 21, day 5)

I was reading about Saints in the Orthodox tradition, and came across the Kozelshchansk Icon of the Mother of God.

(If you are not used to the practice of praying with icons, you might want to know that the idea is not to pray to something inanimate — not some kind of magic trick. Rather the icon is like a window through which to see God’s presence.)

This icon — a beautiful representation of the Mother of God — is of Italian origin, dating back at least to the eighteenth century, and various owners took it with them to Russia, and then to Ukraine. By the nineteenth century it was a sacred possession of the family of Count Vladimir Kapnist, in the village of Kozelschina. In 1880 Kapnist’s daughter, Maria, dislocated some bones in her foot, and then gradually many more of her joints and bones began to twist out of shape until she was quite paralyzed. Every kind of medical expertise was applied, but poor Maria was getting worse, not better. Eventually, after praying before the icon, her health began to return and she became well again. It was this healing that led to the icon being ‘glorified’ in the late nineteenth century.

The pandemic we are currently enduring has been terribly cruel, both the deaths to COVID, and the disruption to medical treatments for other illnesses while health services are so badly overstretched. It would be glib, offensive, and theologically nonsensical to suggest that all we need to do is to pray more, or that lack of healing is due to a failure to pray. But I do, nonetheless, take inspiration from the story of the Kozelshchansk Icon, for two reasons.

The first is that praying in whatever way works for you (whether with icons or some other way) can help to sustain the soul in sickness, bring peace and solace at the end of life, strengthen those on their way to recovery, and inspire those who care for the sick.

The second is that there are many ways to pray, and how you pray is less important than finding a way to pray that works for you. And if the art of prayer seems to have deserted you under the pressures of the pandemic, you might like to find another way to pray that works for you right now. Through icons, maybe — or through music, or walking in the woods, or listening to the rhythm of your own footsteps. Or, in something like the movement of wordless prayer through icons, simply standing quietly before some sight or sound that seems to open up a window in heaven. I’m reminded of Carol Ann Duffy’s beautiful poem about the way that all the sounds and movements of the world are like a rhythm of prayer, from piano scales to the shipping forecast:

Prayer

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

The Times Saturday Review, 1992

Lockdown Lent, Ash Wednesday – Saturday

Feasting and fasting. 11 months of shielding and lockdowns feels like a year-long Lent, so I’m reinventing the tradition this year. Instead of fasting, I’m celebrating a different saint every day. If you look through calendars of Saints, you find that every date has a selection of Saints who are celebrated on that particular day, often because it’s the day they died, sometimes another significant reason. From this range of choice Ice decided to celebrate a saint every day of Lent whose story offers some hope, joy or wisdom for the current days of pandemic. The bonus is that tradition has it that the Lenten fast can be broken in order to celebrate a Saint’s day. I realize, of course, that making every day of Lent a feast not a fast is completely subverting tradition. But these are unusual days; too much self-denial added to the load of restrictions we are already living under could just break the spirit. Instead let’s look for one small thing every day that brings joy and hope. A reason to be glad, despite everything.

Ash Wednesday (day 1) — today is the feast day of St Finan of Lindisfarne. Not as famous as Aidan and Cuthbert, he was the kind of guy who did the hard work of establishing what his more charismatic forbears had got started. Like Andrew to St Peter, Finan was an organiser, a leader who could strategize and put foundations down.

Who do you know who does the unglamorous but vital work of establishing things? (Lent suggestion: send a note to someone who does great work to keep things going — a teacher, manager, financial manager, priest, lay minister, youth worker…?)

Thursday (day 2) — Colmán of Lindisfarne (c. 605 – 675 CE) was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 661 until 664. After that he returned to Ireland, where he set about reviving the church after life had been completely decimated by a terrible plague in 664-665. He learned a thing or two about putting communities back together after they had been swept through by a dreadful infectious illness. He died on this day in 675.

Lent suggestion: what imaginative ways might we have of putting our communities back together, after all the grief and sorrow we have endured lately? (— and I don’t mean after it’s all over, I mean today. I don’t know what we’ll need when it’s over because we really don’t know what life will look like on the other side of this. When we emerge from the pandemic we’ll go forward to something new, not back to what we had before. )

Friday (day 3)
Saint Beatus of Liébana
(c. 730 – c. 800) was a monk and theologian from Northern Spain, in the area now known as Cantabria.
There was another Beatus (from Switzerland) who did amazing things like slaying dragons. But Beatus of Liébana just lived a quiet scholarly life, standing up against weird ideas, listening to people pour their hearts out, and teaching people who ended up much more famous than him.
I like this Beatus. Like a lot of people I’ve found that the seemingly endless living in limbo that the pandemic has brought upon us has been emotionally very draining, and there have been days when I’ve found myself thinking that my entire life has been pointless, my gifts wasted and my potential completely unrealized. Reading the news tells me I’m not unique — apparently a lot of us have been feeling this kind of stuff. And Beatus reminds me that you don’t have to be famous, or be remembered forever for slaying dragons or other extraordinary things. Living a faithful life, just being good to those around you is enough.
Takeaway for the day: you are enough. Just live this one day, be good to those you love, breathe the air, and find a reason to be glad. That’s all, and that’s enough.

Saturday 20th (Day 4) Francisco and Jacinta de Jesus Marto, and Lúcia dos Santos. Francisco and his younger sister Jacinta lived in a tiny village near Fátima, Portugal. They went out to play with their cousin Lúcia dos Santos, who used to look after the sheep in the nearby fields, and in 1916 these three kids saw three visions of the Angel of Peace. The following year, multiple times, they saw multiple apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at Cova da Iria, in which she told them to return to the same spot regularly to pray. Francisco and Jacinta reported these apparitions, and this led to the Virgin Mary being given the title ‘Our Lady of Fátima’, and later on Fátima became a major Christian pilgrimage center.

Sad to say, not long after these experiences both Francisco and Jacinta dies very young (aged 10 and 9) in the flu pandemic of 1918-20 (sometimes called the ‘Spanish Flu’). Later they were both canonized as Saints. Lúcia, though, lived to the age of 97, spending her life as a Carmelite nun. After her death, the Catholic Church began the process to recognize her as a saint as well.

Their story resonates for this lockdown Lent, not only for the obvious reason that two of the three died in an earlier pandemic, but for two other reasons as well.

The first is that their spiritual legacy emerged, not from heroic deeds, but from simple childlike curiosity. They remind me of Moses who, seeing a tree that seemed to be on fire without burning up, stepped aside from his shepherd’s duties to see what was going on, and found himself in conversation with God. Or of Elisha’s servant (2 Ki 6) whose eyes were opened to see the hills around him covered with chariots of fire. Francisco, Jacinta, and Lúcia were just playing and looking after sheep, but they had enough of that fearless curiosity to see more than meets the eye.

The second is that there were three of them in this together. Usually a saint’s day is a commemoration of one single person, but remembering this event is a great reminder that our journey into God is not individualistic. Of course there is a sense in which we live and die alone. But our work on earth, and our significance to eternity, is closely tied up with others — with our loved ones, our community, and the whole human race.

Day 4 Takeaway: give your curiosity enough space to look up, look around, and ponder. And remember you’re not in this alone.

Lockdown Lent day 4

Lockdown Lent: a saint a day to inspire hope in difficult times. Day 4: Francisco and Jacinta de Jesus Marto, and Lúcia dos Santos.

Francisco and his younger sister Jacinta lived in a tiny village near Fátima, Portugal. They went out to play with their cousin Lúcia dos Santos, who used to look after the sheep in the nearby fields, and in 1916 these three kids saw three visions of the Angel of Peace. The following year, multiple times, they saw multiple apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at Cova da Iria, in which she told them to return to the same spot regularly to pray. Francisco and Jacinta reported these apparitions, and this led to the Virgin Mary being given the title ‘Our Lady of Fátima’, and later on Fátima became a major Christian pilgrimage center.

Sad to say, not long after these experiences both Francisco and Jacinta dies very young (aged 10 and 9) in the flu pandemic of 1918-20 (sometimes called the ‘Spanish Flu’). Later they were both canonized as Saints. Lúcia, though, lived to the age of 97, spending her life as a Carmelite nun. After her death, the Catholic Church began the process to recognize her as a saint as well.

Their story resonates for this lockdown Lent, not only for the obvious reason that two of the three died in an earlier pandemic, but for two other reasons as well.

The first is that their spiritual legacy emerged, not from heroic deeds, but from simple childlike curiosity. They remind me of Moses who, seeing a tree that seemed to be on fire without burning up, stepped aside from his shepherd’s duties to see what was going on, and found himself in conversation with God. Or of Elisha’s servant (2 Ki 6) whose eyes were opened to see the hills around him covered with chariots of fire. Francisco, Jacinta, and Lúcia were just playing and looking after sheep, but they had enough of that fearless curiosity to see more than meets the eye.

The second is that there were three of them in this together. Usually a saint’s day is a commemoration of one single person, but remembering this event is a great reminder that our journey into God is not individualistic. Of course there is a sense in which we live and die alone. But our work on earth, and our significance to eternity, is closely tied up with others — with our loved ones, our community, and the whole human race.

Day 4 Takeaway: give your curiosity enough space to look up, look around, and ponder. And remember you’re not in this alone.

Lent in Lockdown: feeding the soul

Lent in Lockdown looms on the horizon. In normal times, Lent is a time for stepping back from our usual habits and preoccupations – making temporary changes in the pattern of everyday life for the sake of ‘re-setting’ the soul. But these are not normal times, and the idea of taking on some short-term, self-limiting practices for Lent is somewhat lost in the rather longer-term and compulsory limitations of the pandemic.

http://www.amazon.com/Giving-It-Up-Maggi-Dawn/dp/1841016802

What would we normally do in Lent that we can’t do now? We normally think of limiting our diet in some way, perhaps walking some pilgrimage routes, joining a Lent book group or prayer group . . . This year, though, these may be either too burdensome to be helpful, or practically impossible. What can we do to make Lockdown Lent a season that feeds the soul?

Fasting comes in multiple forms — giving up just one food or food group, giving up one meal a day, fasting through the daylight hours . . . Not everyone can fast safely, but even for those who can, I wonder whether lockdown may be a circumstance that doesn’t invite fasting? Fasting takes a good deal of mental and physical strength, and after long months of pandemic restrictions, whatever makes us stronger, healthier, and disease-resistant must surely take precedence. When I was researching for my Lent book, Giving it Up, I read about fasting practices across medieval Europe. Fasting was certainly deemed to be good for the soul, but it was also linked to the seasonal availability of food, which was more scarce towards the end of winter (with Europe experiencing Lent in the northern hemisphere), with fasting as a community exercise rather than an individual practice, and with giving to the poor, as all money that was not spent on food was saved to help the poor. And, of course, the fast was broken intermittently when there was a saint’s day. I am wondering what a Lockdown Lent would look like if, rather than focusing on self-denial, we focused on these things. What if, for instance, we were to spend the weeks of Lent learning how to cook and eat using locally sourced ingredients? — a creative challenge, rather than a self-denying one, but also a positive response to the ecological crisis we are in. What if, for instance, we made community commitments instead of imposing self-denial on ourselves individually? — not only saving us from Lenten burdens we can’t bear, but keeping us connected to others during these difficult months of physical separation from family, friends, and church community. What if we focused our Lent disciplines specifically towards giving to the poor, or to some charity? And what if we found 46 saints to celebrate, gathering strength and inspiration from their lives and thoughts, instead of just giving up chocolate? It’s all too easy to turn Lent into a season of ‘self-improvement’ (which, theologically speaking, is the absolute opposite of the point!) — if we are going to feed our souls this Lent, we will need some Lockdown friendly practices. I would suggest that an isolated form of self-denial is the last thing we should be doing, and this year — for me at least — keeping Lent is going to be about finding joy, not about self-denial. Here are some ways that I’m planning to subvert Lent into a sustaining, joy-filled season:

St Megingaud, and all the saints. I adapted Advent 2020 by putting up my Christmas Tree on November 27th and hanging small linen bags on the branches. Each bag contained a small gift, one for every day of Advent. The gifts were worth less than £1 in almost every case — some were home-made, some were comical — the point was not the value of the gift, but simply to inject a moment of joy into every day of this dark winter, all the way from November to Candlemas. Now, there is a long tradition in Lent of breaking the fast for saints’ days. I made use of this tradition once before, when my Chapel congregation wanted to celebrate my (mid-Lent) birthday, but one had given up chocolate, and another had given up cakes . . . A little research gave us a selection of saints to choose from, the most peaceful of whom was St Megingaud, who neither led an exciting life, nor ended up martyred for his faith, but served his God faithfully and then lived out his days tending his orchards. Megingaud was my kind of saint, and my birthday became ‘St Megingaud’s Day’, duly celebrated with tea and chocolate cake at the local café. Lent 2021? A little more research reveals that there are plenty of saints to choose from, for every day of Lent. Instead of self-denial, how about getting acquainted with 46 saints you never knew about before, and taking their lives and thoughts as inspiration for the journey? I’ll post some up here to get you started . . .

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Armchair Pilgrims. Some people make pilgrimages through Lent, but the fact that we can’t travel means that this practice will need to be adapted. We may not be able to fly to the Camino, or take a train to the South Downs or Holy Island. But we can go walking straight from our own front door. Like many people, lockdown has led me to discover all manner of local walks through streets I never knew about, and longer routes out into the nearby countryside.Pilgrimages, of course, are usually thought of as physical journeys, but what if you can’t go out, or can’t go far? How can you have a pilgrim soul if you aren’t able to make a lengthy journey away from home? Xavier de Maistre famously wrote about travelling the whole world without ever leaving his room, and when I wrote my memoir, The Accidental Pilgrim (Kindle Edition here), I devoted a whole chapter to the idea of being an ‘armchair pilgrim’ — exploring the world without ever leaving your kitchen. Books, art, movies and music can be our windows on to the world — not necessarily those that are written especially for Lent. Cycling Home from Siberia is the kind of book that takes you on a journey with the author, opening up a visceral sense of place and experience. And you might not be able to walk The Camino this year, but you can read a brilliant account of it in Along the Way  — or watch the movie The Way that inspired the book.

Kitchen mini-break. As pilgrimage is off the cards (and so are holidays for the time being) I’m taking a ‘mini-break’ the weekend of my birthday. A day each in Venice, Florence and Rome, without ever leaving my own house. There will be a movie set in each city; I shall learn to cook the cuisine of each area; I shall re-visit photo albums, read my travel books, and watch a documentary or two. I’ll share memories with friends I have travelled with before now, find out about what I missed the first time, and plan a trip in the future when all of this is over.

The comfort of memories. It seems, from much that I’ve read, that the pandemic has caused many of us to recall our earlier memories. This is not mere nostalgia or sentimentality; somehow the tragic and fatal consequences for so many in this international crisis have caused us to recall and reassess our lives. That being so, rather than looking for new books to read or music to listen to, this could be the moment to get re-acquainted with old favourites. Psychologically, re-reading or re-watching is less stressful, as you already know where the book or movie is headed, so anticipation and stress are removed; instead you see details of meaning and nuance that you missed the first time, when your attention was all taken up with the plot and the outcome. I have recently re-watched The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, re-acquainted myself with Carole King’s Tapestry — 50 years old this year! — and re-read Mary Karr’s Sinners Welcome. What book, movie or music might you revisit this Lent? Answers in the comments!

Lament in lockdown

I have been asked over and over whether I could write a hymn of lament for lockdown. So I did. Yesterday I made a very, very rough, one-take recording to my phone. (I have no access to real studio equipment just now) so it’s very raw. I wouldn’t normally share anything this roughly presented, but it’s a hymn for the moment, and if I wait until I can get to a studio the moment will have passed. So here it is, lockdown hair and all! If you like it please feel free to sing it yourself. Here it is (see recording and link to lead-sheet below)

Lament. words and music by Maggi Dawn. (C) 2020

The streets in silence lie, sorrow hangs in the air,
Death’s sting is bitter cold, evening falls heavy here.
How long, oh Lord, how long? God, who has never failed,
Your love will hold us fast until the future is revealed.

2. Dark watches of the night — oh, keep me from despair!
Lonely the watching hours, To you I turn my prayer:
Though you seem far away you never failed us yet;
Your love will hold us fast until we see your face again.

3. Show me the path of hope, let heaven’s mercies fall —
There death will have no sting, and love will conquer all.
Show us the way to life, lead us through these dark days,
Your love will hold us fast until our voices sound your praise.

Lockdown and the lack of inspiration (or: why I need to take a nap).

Today I had a call from the National Shielding Helpline to ask whether I needed anything. I said no, thanks, I am doing fine so far. Of course I should have said a new car, a lifetime’s supply of chocolate, and a case of champagne, but I never think of these things at the time. The truth is that I really am not doing too badly with lockdown — not flourishing, exactly, but OK given the circumstances. But I do feel a certain pressure to be doing something special, unusual, extraordinary. I keep hearing on the radio, or on social media, tales of people who have learned to make sourdough bread, crochet a blanket, or teach their dog to dance. Me, though — I find that working from home feels just as intense as it is isolating, and I cannot believe quite how tired I am. And as for all those writing deadlines just asking to be met — well, I congratulate those of you who have written your new novel since lockdown began, but I am struggling merely to focus on the footnotes for something I wrote in January.

I have, though, been forcing myself, when my brain feels incapable of other things, to sort through old files, dumping what I don’t need and putting the rest in order. And here I found an old sermon on the Holy Spirit, inspiration, and — yes! — the necessity to withdraw, chill out, and WAIT! If you, like me, are feeling deeply lacking in inspiration, maybe this will help you too. If not, just take a nap. I don’t think it will do any harm.

PENTECOST 2011: Waiting for inspiration

The Holy Spirit is often referred to with the somewhat dull-sounding label “the third person of the Trinity”. But the imagery that both Luke and John use is far from dull. Luke describes a rushing, mighty, violent wind, and tongues of fire – both images of transforming and even frightening power. Mighty winds – gales, tornadoes – are destructive forces, and we all learn at our mother’s knee that if we play with fire, we might get burned. Luke’s imagery is far from gentle, mild or passive: this is a God to be reckoned with.  John, though, uses the image of breath – “Jesus breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit.” This is an intimate scene – you have to be close to someone for them to breathe on you. But it’s also a theological point: the Greeks used the same word – pneuma – for spirit , breath, or moving air. Jesus’ breath, the breath of life, the spirit of God – they are all inter-connected ideas.  The same ideas play out in the English word ‘inspired’, from the Latin verb spirare (to blow into or upon, or to breathe into) which, added to the preposition in- gives the sense of filling with, or directing into.  Dante used a variation on this in 1308, giving it the sense of suggestion or prompting, and by the 16th century “inspiration” had come to be associated with creative work.  

Everyone who works on creating something out-of-the-ordinary hopes for inspiration — the poet needs a muse; the preacher hopes for unction, the painter waits for illumination. Even scientists speak of the flash of inspiration – the idea that seems to come out of nowhere – that will suddenly lead them down a new avenue. Inspiration is that something-extra, the mysterious connection, the new angle, the missing piece that pulls all the ideas together. We can work as hard as we like, but without inspiration our work remains nothing more than workmanlike. Where do we find inspiration? Perhaps there is a clue, not only in the action, but in the location of the Pentecost story. 

Both Luke and John tell us that the moment of inspiration came when the disciples were all together in the Upper Room – a kataluma, a large, all-purpose guest room where people would gather to eat, socialize, or have important meetings, and then at the end of the night they might roll out their sleeping rolls and sleep there too.  This particular upper room was where the Last Supper took place – where Jesus had told his friends, “I am going away… but another comforter will come” (it’s worth noting, by the way, that “comforter” in 17th century English wasn’t anything like a duvet, or comfort food, or any of the other things we associate with making ourselves feel better… it meant a motivator, or a jab in the ribs to get you moving! ) 

At the Ascension, Jesus had told them that they would be witnesses to all they had seen and heard, but first they had to go to Jerusalem and wait. What for, exactly, he didn’t really say – he was a little vague on the details. And neither did he tell them when it would happen; we, with the benefit of our liturgical year, know that Pentecost always comes ten days after Ascension Day. But the disciples had nothing much more to go on than to wait in Jerusalem, not knowing what for or how long.  So rather than rush out to try to make things happen by themselves, they did what he said: and the Upper Room, where they had said their farewells to Jesus, was where they waited.  

When Pentecost eventually came, whether it was with the drama of wind and fire, or the intimacy of feeling a friend’s breath on their faces, they suddenly found that they had the power, energy and inspiration to carry on the work of Jesus without him: not by trying harder, not by following instructions, not by finding a replacement for him, nor even by trying to imitate his work.  Instead, in some mystical way no-one was able adequately to explain,  all the pieces come together and they were filled with the same energy and vision and stamina and urgency as Jesus.  

There’s a classic episode of the comedy show Morecambe and Wise – one of those that’s sometimes replayed at Christmas – where the star guest was a youthful André Previn. After Morecambe introduced him as Andrew Preview, they agreed to play Grieg’s piano concerto, and Morecambe quite brilliantly created a performance in which he missed all his cues, so that it seemed like an amateur catastrophe (he was, in fact, an excellent pianist in real life!). When Previn stopped the show and pointed out that he was playing the wrong notes, Morecambe memorably replied,  “I am playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order.”  

It’s been my experience as a writer that the elusive moment of inspiration, when the words seem to come in the right order, only comes along if you punctuate work with moments of retreat. If you don’t work, and simply wait for inspiration, it doesn’t come. If you work too hard and too long, inspiration can be equally elusive. But if you work in a pattern (whether that’s every day or in seasons), and then take time between to wait and rest, it seems inspiration can catch you unawares, and suddenly it’s as if the pages seem to write themselves. The right words come in the right order, and there’s some extra, glowing quality to the work.  

Malcolm Gladwell would say that it’s an interaction of the spheres of the brain – that if you train one part of your brain to take precedence, the creative part recedes. It’s only when you allow the other side of the brain space to do its lateral work that the mysterious, instinctive ability kicks in. That’s why when you’ve been working all day long it’s sometimes when you’re washing the dishes and not thinking about anything in particular that the great idea suddenly comes to you. I always recommend to students and writers alike that they take plenty of breaks. Work hard and intensely, but take breaks to walk around the garden and let the brain relax. The learning, and the writing, and the processing goes better if we make space for inspiration.  It may be a geographical place, or it may be an activity that we do regularly (like running or swimming) but it needs to be somewhere the brain can withdraw from work and the worries of life to allow for subconscious mental processing.  

The Upper Room, then, becomes symbolic of respite, relaxation, withdrawal from the world: and the place they said goodbye to Jesus at the Last Supper later became the place they were filled with such force of inspiration that they went out and quite literally changed the world.  

If we want to be inspired, and not just impressive; if we want to be world-changing and not just workmanlike, then we too will need to find our equivalent of the Upper Room, and withdraw often enough to give room for inspiration.