maggi dawn

Brigid’s Lake of Beer

St. Brigid's Well

St Brigid of Ireland, the Abbess of Kildare (c. 450-52

St Brigid’s day is a time for purification and the rediscovery of creativity–an interesting juxtaposition in itself, as sometimes it’s in the midst of clearing out the clutter that I find new creative ideas begin to gestate.

Most of Brigid’s miracles had a maternal quality, often involving milk.  But she is also known for the poem attributed to her longing for a lake of beer to share with women, men and God. One should, perhaps, bear in mind that ale, in Brigid’s time, was far weaker than it is today, and that as water was not always safe for drinking ale, for those who could afford it, was the drink of choice. So her prayer is not so much a Dionysian dream, more a vision of safe food and nurture for all. Still, an eternal party without a hangover is a pretty nice image of church.

Jest apart, there is something that strikes home this year in Bridgid’s poem: her wish for a united human family is expressed with the recognition that unity can only be achieved when repentance, peace, charity, mercy and cheerfulness are given and received. She envisions these things as gifts of substance, to be given in physical quantity. Not wafty ideas, theories, or orders from on high, but “things”. Vats of peace, vessels of charity, caves of mercy, and drinkable cheerfulness. The current climate is one of the most socially divided I have ever lived through; finding ways to make peace, love, mercy, repentance and joy both tangible and share-able seems to me the best acct of resistance we can engage in.

I wish I had a great lake of ale for the King of kings,
and the family of heaven to drink it through time eternal.

I wish I had the meats of belief and genuine piety,
the flails of repentance, and the men of heaven in my house.
I would like vats of peace to be at their disposal,
vessels of charity for distribution,
caves of mercy for their company,
and cheerfulness to be in their drinking.

I would want Jesus also to be in their midst,
together with the three Marys of illustrious renown,
and the people of heaven from all parts.
I would like to be a tenant to the Lord,
so if I should suffer distress,
he would confer on me a blessing. Amen.

For the sake of my community and my companions…

I asked a number of different people if they would like to preach this week. I live in a community of people who are rarely reluctant to preach. Mostly they love to step up and say something. This week, no-one wanted to preach, so being the Dean of Chapel and the backstop for everything, the honor fell to me. It was difficult to figure out what to say on this strange week, caught between MLK Day and the inauguration.

But, eventually I came up with what needed to be said, and so many lovely people have asked to read the script that I post it here. I make no boast. It is just a sermon, not brilliant, but somehow it turned out to be pertinent to my own little community on this day. I post it here for them. If anyone else finds it useful, God bless you.

Psalm 122, a song of ascents.
Excerpts from Mr Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, and his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem… For the sake of my community and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122, 6, 8)

It is good to come back to Marquand at the beginning of this new semester, and find you all here ready to sing and pray and worship together. As the Psalmist wrote, “I was glad when they said to me, Let us go up to the house of God.”

We come in here, day after day, week after week, to gather for worship. And we gather around a particular narrative of worship: we aim to be interdenominational, welcoming and hospitable, attentive to many different voices, inclusive of many variations of belief and practice, and to weave all of this together into one thread of worship in which different voices remain distinct, and yet inform each other.

I hear myself telling people this narrative so often: to prospective students, to returning alumni, and in places where I travel to lecture or consult on worship. People all over the place have heard about Marquand, and are intrigued. They ask how we make our worship so varied, so vital, so inclusive, so creative.

It’s a good narrative that we tell. It’s a good vision. And I know, from the testimony of a huge number of alumni, that its often only after people leave here that they discover the effect Marquand has had on them; they tell me that this diverse, idiosyncratic, and sometimes slightly chaotic mix of traditions has served to shape their own spiritual growth at a depth they didn’t even realize was happening while they were actually here.

All of that is good. But it would be dishonest not to admit that in the everyday, there are times when—in the moment—people find Marquand frustrating and too much to deal with. One person’s inclusive language is, to someone else, an offensive rewriting of their tradition. One person’s exciting revelation can be bewildering or alarming to other people. Some people sense sincerity in an extempore prayer, while for others anything less than a carefully and artfully pre-written prayer lacks seriousness.

We are—a bit like ancient Jerusalem, perhaps—a great combination of people from up and down the land, and all around the globe, coming in to God’s house, and there discovering that our local habits are by no means universal. We tell the story of inclusion and embrace. But we have also made the surprising discovery that we are so diverse that any one of us can, at times, feel quite alien.

*** ***

One of the things that has been writ large in public life over recent months is the negative effect of deceptive narratives. People are sick of being lied to; tired of finding that while some facts were spun, others were concealed, and what they were given was nothing like the truth. People are angry to find that they have been promised one thing, only to have the promise whipped away from under their feet. It’s happened countless times around the world in recent years, and the cumulative effect of spin and lies is coming home to roost. The feeling of betrayal that has crept across Europe and America in the past couple of years is palpable.

Now I’m talking today about worship, not politics. But the political stage is the backdrop to absolutely everything else at the moment. And so I’ve been thinking lately about how we frame our narratives: about what it means to tell the truth; about what it means to be both truthful and inspiring.

Everyone knows that when you are dealing with information, you can produce quite different results depending on the way you present the facts—and that is not necessarily sinister. Read your classmates’ papers, and you will see the same facts presented in quite different ways, because the facts are marshaled to forward an argument: we do that all the time in our books and articles and papers. But the more you hone those skills, the more you become aware that, given a degree of power and a willingness to sacrifice ethics, it wouldn’t be that hard to learn how to manipulate the facts, spinning some and concealing others, in order to maximize power and control outcomes.

But there are modes of speech where another kind of spinning takes place: this time not unethical, but inspirational. A way of setting out the stall not merely as a set of facts, but as possibilities that spark the imagination, that draw the creative mind into play, that inspire a series of unpredictable but positive reactions. These modes of speech are called aspirational narratives, and they spin the facts, not to maintain or hold on to power; but to invest power in others.

An aspirational narrative is a story about how the world could be, told in order to bring that story into reality. It can be found in a work of fiction, a poem or a speech, it can be in a sermon, or a private correspondence. It can appear in a mission statement—or even in a strategic plan. It’s what an author gives to their reader, what a good mentor presents to a student, a parent to a child, a coach to an athlete, a pastor to her flock. Aspirational narratives are not merely candid about how things are, and they are certainly not cynical (because that shuts down the imagination). They are delivered in the optative mood—and you have to pay attention to spot that in the English language because we don’t have a conjugated form of the optative; it’s created by the way the words are arranged for a hopeful, positive effect. It gives us the best reading of how things are, and hints at the promise of how things could be.

Mr Thomas Jefferson’s words—among the most inspiring ones of the Founders—are by definition aspirational narratives. They ring with hope and dignity. You don’t have to read very much history to discover that he was certainly not writing about a state of affairs that he had already brought into being—either in the nation, or in his own household—and right to the end of his life he grappled with the serious contradictions between idea and reality. But the gap between his words and the degree of progress he made towards realizing them doesn’t make them dishonest words. We recognize them even now as aspirational narratives: words to live into; visions to stretch towards.   Mr Jefferson was brilliant, and deeply thoughtful; I think you can construe from elsewhere in his writings that he knew very well the world might never perfectly realize this vision of an equal society. But that’s no reason not to state the ideal, and no reason not to strive towards it. As Oscar Wilde said a century and a half later, in one of his famous one-liners: “Shoot for the moon: you may miss, but at least you will land among the stars.”

Thousands of years earlier, King David* wrote: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” an aspirational narrative if ever there was one. The heart of the world lies in the divided mess of Jerusalem, and in the long and fractured history of that beautiful city, peace has mostly eluded her. King David—like Mr Jefferson—was not afraid to speak of what could be, and, in fact, he states candidly both the aspiration and the call to action that is needed to realize the vision. “Pray,” he says, “for the peace of Jerusalem,” and then he adds: For the sake of my community and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.”

Older translations say ‘for the sake of my brothers and my companions,” and most newer translations, aiming for gender inclusivity, render this as “for the sake of my family and friends.” But that seems to imply that David is concerned only with the people who matter to him—his circle of special people. ‘Family’, of course, can cover a great many relationships, not all of them joyous. Nonetheless, ‘family and friends’ denotes the group of people you include in your life events—holidays, weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, and so on. But that is not quite what David is talking about. By companions he means the people he hangs out with, the people he chooses to be with. But by brothers, he means the people in his wider community that he can’t get away from, but doesn’t necessarily find easy on a personal level. It might perhaps be better rendered with this phrase:

“For the sake of my community, and my companions, I will say “Peace be within you, Jerusalem.”

Your companions are the people you hang out with, and perhaps a wider circle of people you feel at ease with, and are happy to see. Your community includes the rest of the people—the ones you don’t understand, the ones you don’t get or who don’t get you, the ones who make you feel threatened or anxious, the classmates who so irritatingly disagree with you, the chapel- or church-goers whose prayer style or doctrinal statements make you feel awkward or uncomfortable.

David prayed, not just for the sake of his companions, but for the sake of the whole community. The ones he liked and the ones he didn’t. The ones he agreed with and the ones he didn’t. “For the sake of my community, and my companions, I will say, “Peace be within you.” David’s vision was not only hopeful for peace in his own private life. All truly aspirational narratives extend far beyond your own little circle: they hope for the wellbeing of the world beyond—which means that they always end up being costly as well as inspiring.

*** ***

There was never going to be a complete and permanent peace in Jerusalem, but he prayed for it anyway. Not just for himself and his friends, but because the community needs peace.

There is not too much peace in America right now. But we should pray for it anyway. Because the community needs peace.

There is not always peace in Marquand Chapel. But we should pray for it anyway. We should keep talking our aspirational narrative; keep telling ourselves that we can worship together and find fellowship with people who are not like us. Because if we can’t do it here, how are we going to make peace in the streets of New Haven, and New York, and Chicago, and D.C., and Houston, and every other town and city across this land?  Our narrative is really about something far bigger than a program of Divinity School worship. It’s about forming ourselves as people who can take the lead in the big wide world—who can confidently say that we know a religiously diverse community is possible, because we’ve been there; who can say that the richness of an inter-faith community is a genuine alternative possibility to a world that keeps blowing itself up, because we’ve been inside a microcosm of that very thing. Our aspirational narrative has a far bigger embrace than just our little community. It’s a vision to live into for the sake of the world, and it is fueled by those little shafts of light that shine through on the days when we are at our best.

So pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

And pray for the peace of America.

Pray for the peace of New Haven, and Yale Divinity School, and Marquand Chapel—for the sake of your companions, and for your community too.

And shoot for the moon. Because we will miss it, I’m sure. But we may just end up among the stars.


*King David is traditionally the figure to whom the Psalms are attributed, but was not necessarily the  author.








Naomi Shihab Nye, “Jerusalem”

I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it’s ridiculous.

There’s a place in my brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It’s late but everything comes next.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Jerusalem” from Red Suitcase.

Advent: Early or Late?

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

….Though an army camp against me, my heart shall not fear…
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!       Psalm 27

If you’re reading this on (or before) the first of December, you may already have had a Christmas card or two fall through your letter box. I love receiving Christmas cards, from the first ones that arrive on the first of December and those with a panicked message of lateness on Christmas Eve, to those that come with a sheepish apology around the third of January. Whenever they arrive, early or late, I’m always cheered up by this annual reminder of how many friends I have.

I have to admit, though, that I find it slightly depressing when the commercial side of Christmas begins way ahead of schedule, and shop displays and Christmas lights go up in November or even earlier. So when the very first cards arrive in early December, I’m usually feeling a bit “bah-humbuggy’ about it all! But when the last posting day is upon us and I realize I’m behind schedule, then I envy the foresight of my early-bird friends and vow to be more like them next year. Certainly Christmas can sometimes feel less like a feast to be celebrated and more like a deadline to be reached… Christmas creates deadlines for all sorts of people – church leaders, school teachers, retailers and many others. Such moments focus very sharply our sense of time, and being bound by time.

In devotional terms, though, following the seasons of the Church year can leave us with this feeling that things never happen at the right time. The realities of life rarely match up with the mood of the Church year; they always come too early or too late. If, as we travel through Lent or Advent, life is delivering abundant joys and happiness, the sombre tone of the season never quite hits home. But it’s even harder to deal with if you are feeling down or low when Christmas or Easter arrives. A few years ago, a friend and I wrote to each other all the way through Lent, sharing our reflections on the season. She was a great devotee of retreats and silent space; I was the mother of a newborn baby and silent spaces were few and far between. Our Lenten experience was quite profound that year, as we were both going through extreme lows for quite different reasons. On Easter Day my friend emailed to say, “I’m so fed up with the Church year. Resurrection? I don’t think so. I feel like I need to stay in Good Friday for a good long time yet.

All too often we have this dislocated feeling of being out of time, out of step, and Christmas is a particularly difficult season to negotiate if you don’t feel like celebrating. It’s not only the Church but the whole culture that feeds us an exaggerated image of happiness and celebration, which sets us up to feel very low if we are not in the party mood. Most of our life is lived in this in-between place, where things come early or late, but never on time.

Psalm 27 is sometimes given the title “A Triumphant Song of Confidence.” I think it reads more like a defiant song than a triumphant one. The way the psalmist mixes up his tenses creates an interesting effect of reflecting on pasts promises fulfilled, asking for something to happen right now, stating that it’s already happened and confidently predicting that it will happen in the future. He seems, at one and the same time, to be giving thanks for something that is already here and asking for help in the middle of trouble. There’s an urgent anxiety about his cry for help: “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me…” (v9). Perhaps there’s even a touch of the childish promise to be good if God will only help him: “Teach me your way, oh Lord, and lead me on a level path” (v11). The psalmist’s experience reminds me of the dislocation of our lives from the Church seasons. God’s gifts do not always come according to our timetable or at the moment when we think we need them. Advent and Christmas promise us God’s presence, and yet it seems that sometimes God hides his face and is nowhere to be found. God’s timetable is not the same as ours, and our sense of need or urgency doesn’t twist God’s arm into a response.

When I was a child we had a maiden Aunt, a remarkable and wonderful woman, who always, absolutely dependably, forgot all our birthdays. But at some random time of year – May or July or November – s big parcel would arrive full of presents. They might say “Happy Birthday” or “Happy Christmas” regardless of the time of year. It seemed madly exciting to us to get a completely unexpected present just when life was going through a tedious moment. It was always books (she taught English literature and was bang up to date on all the latest releases) and they were always wonderful. The same aunt, when we went to stay, would sneak into our bedroom just before sunrise, pull jumpers over our pyjamas, and put our bare feet into shoes with no socks (against Mum’s rules!), and quietly exit the house with us, leaving everyone else asleep. Then she would pile my sister and me into her very old Austin and drive us down to the beach. This was in Somerset, where the beach goes out for about two miles at low tide. There she would drive out across the sand – again, strictly against the rules, but there is no one there at sunrise to make you obey the rules – and out of the car would appear a Primus stove, an omelette pan, eggs, butter, salt, pepper and fresh bread. We ate omelettes and drank tea as the sun rose over the sea, and then went paddling in our pyjamas, breathing in great gulps of early morning salty air. The woman was a genius, and we adored her.

Whenever I forget a Christmas card, a birthday card, or whatever, I think of Auntie Margaret. Please God, let me be like her. I hope I never become the kind of person who demands diamonds and perfume on the right date. I hope I do become the kind of person who remembers to send gifts that someone will love, instead of gifts to satisfy a deadline. Whenever God’s gifts elude me – when there is no joy at Easter, no wonder at Christmas, or simply no sense of God’s presence in between times – again I think of Auntie Margaret. The gift will arrive at the right moment, even if not on the ‘right’ date. Joy on demand is joyless indeed, but omelettes on the beach and presents in July I can seriously live with.
If we confidently depend on the knowledge that God’s gifts, unlike Santa’s, are not delivered to a deadline, then we can live within the seasons knowing that the gift they representwill come to us, unexpectedly, not necessarily on time. We can say with hope, or even a little holy defiance, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
This is an excerpt from Beginnings and Endings (and what happens in between) : Daily Readings from Advent to Epiphany.
-from the BRF bookshop, paperback or PDF version
-from in the USA

Happy Advent to one and all!

Mothers’ Day

This Sunday will be celebrated in the USA and Canada as “Mothers’ Day”. It has different historical origins from the UK’s “Mothering Sunday” which is always kept on the fourth Sunday of Lent. The UK version dates back to an old Church custom of connecting with “mother church”. In the USA, however, Mothers’ Day began in 1905, the year Anna Jarvis’s mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Anna Jarvis proposed a holiday that would honor mothers and their work. Ann Reeves Jarvis had been a peace activist, who notably had cared for wounded soldiers in the Civil War, caring equally for soldiers who had fought on either side, both as an act of compassion for the individual men, but also as a means of protest against the war. Men may fight their battles, Reeves Jarvis thought, but mothers do not want their men to go to war at all. (One is put in mind of other movements of women with similar aims – such as the Women for Peace movement Northern Ireland, later known as Peace People. Led by Mairead Maguire (née Corrigan) and Betty Williams, women joined hands across the divide to try to find a peaceful resolution for the Troubles.)

On both sides of the pond, though, despite their different origins, Mothers’ Day gradually morphed into a commercialized event that is purely an appreciation day for mothers. The commercialization began even in the first few years after Jarvis began the tradition, and she was horrified at the sentimentalization of her original idea.  Why? On one level, it’s nice to celebrate people you love: what could be wrong with that? But Anna Jarvis’s upset was well founded. Because unfortunately there is now something spectacularly skewed about the way these days are named and celebrated.

For one thing, not everyone has good feelings about their own mothers, about being a mother, or about the loss or pain associated with motherhood. And for another, it isn’t only biological mothers who “mother” people–a whole host of aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and relations take part in the nurturing work that “mothers” people into adulthood. But a much stronger critique comes in observing how the day is celebrated culturally. In conversations over the last couple of weeks in my city, I’ve heard one woman after another say that they will be celebrated by their family “giving me a day off”. It seems to me that naming a day – one day a year – on which mothers are relieved from the generally accepted duties of motherhood (cooking, cleaning, looking after everyone) reinforces the very things we ought to be challenging. One day a year on which I’m not expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other household management? That’s a huge backwards step from celebrating women like Ann Reeves Jarvis and Maired Maguire who have spent their lives as peace activists. Is one day of appreciation for women, without challenging the cultural assumption that their primary function is as domestic servants, really something to celebrate? How about the rest of the family learns to shoulder their share of the burden all year round?

Churches are under considerable pressure to go along with this cultural event, forgetting the idea of mother church; forgetting the laudable aims of women who have given their lives in the promotion of a better and more peaceful world, and instead finding themselves pressurized to a schmaltzy and narrow celebration of motherhood, which, in reality, diminishes our idea of women, exalting the domestic sphere and ignoring the wider picture altogether.

Here is a clip from something I wrote in a book a few years back, raising a small but important challenge: if we are going to celebrate Mothers Day, we need to free ourselves from its commercialization and think differently about what we are doing, promoting the place of women in the world, understanding the wider notion of mothering, and not reinforcing a worn-out idea of mothers as martyrs to the family.


While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
Matthew 12: 46-50

“… While, on the surface, it seems a nice idea to spend a whole Sunday celebrating mothers, it has a complicated flip-side. Why only mothers? Why not fathers, grandparents, children, aunts and uncles, siblings, single people, childless people, and more? The romanticization of the mother-child relationship is full of fraught overtones: what does it say to women who are not mothers? Are we suggesting that their contribution to the world is somehow less valuable, less worth a celebratory day? The new focus on Mothers’ Day comes with barbs for those who are childless but not by choice, for those who are infertile, who have suffered miscarriages, for women whose children have died or are estranged, for single or widowed fathers, and for those whose mothers have died.

Some years ago I suffered an early miscarriage and, given the brevity of the experience, was almost surprised to find that while the world continued to turn unawares, I was quite washed away with grief. One of my closest friends at the time was a woman older than me who had longed for children but never been able to have any. Rather than talking interminably about my situation, she simply checked up on me regularly to make sure that I was eating and sleeping properly, and getting out and having some fun.

After a few weeks, Mothers’ Day loomed on the horizon. I began to tell myself that I would be fine by then, how I would think happy thoughts and get through the Sunday services without a worry. Then my friend called.  ‘I’ve booked a cottage in the country,” she announced. “Inform your church you are taking the weekend off. You need to come away with us. We will not spend a single moment thinking about mothers and children; we will have a mid-Lent feast that focuses on the family of the Church. That’s you and me, kid.’

She was so right. The last thing I  (and the six other men and women she had invited away for the weekend) needed was to dwell on our raw and recent griefs, and have them aggravated by children with bunches of flowers and the vaguely implied message that real women are mothers. Instead, we cooked and talked, laughed and sang, prayed and gave thanks for community and friendship and life in all its fullness. I came home at the end of the weekend with hope reborn in my heart that life would go on.

Jesus’ words concerning his mother and family are among his “hard sayings” – they sound rude and lacking in compassion, and hard to reconcile with the Jesus who seems to care about everyone everywhere. Yet maybe, rather than rejecting his own mother and brothers, he is calling us to broaden our vision of community, so that we can encompass those who cannot retreat to tight-knit family units of their own.

I think it would be worth putting serious thought into reshaping today’s feast so that family life is placed firmly within the wider context of the community of Mother Church. We may fear an outcry if we shifted the focus of Mothers’ Day, but our concept of family life will be sad and inadequate if we allow it to be constructed for us by advertising campaigns and the greeting card industry. If, like Jesus, we have the courage to embrace a much wider concept of community than the nuclear family, then we too might find that we don’t have to accept our culture’s narrow and exclusive myths about families.

from  Giving it Up: Daily Bible Readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day

post originally published in 2014


“…Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.”

Brendan Kennelly

It’s almost the end of the semester and people are talking about endings. Graduation. Commencement. Retirement. Transfer. The worry that there is unfinished business, that the end will come before we’ve had time to say goodbye properly and tie up all the loose ends hangs around the corners of the mind. Anxiety runs so high that some want to melt away without saying goodbye at all, to go away for the weekend and just not come back.

This stress of endings, does it come from a deeply buried fear of death? Do we worry about all the things we won’t get done because deep down we know there are dozens of things we will never, ever get done? Long ago, I used to imagine that grown up competence would be a state of perfect organization, in which I would finish tasks completely and on time. Life seems to have taught me that the older you grow, the larger and more unmanageable the list becomes of things one “ought” to do, and the real key is to work out what is inevitably going to fall down the back of the desk eventually, and just give it a push. The things that really matter get done. The rest is a distraction.

Looking back and enumerating things not done is the way to despair. But look at all the things that are done. The children somehow raised, the qualifications imperfect but complete, the house that is untidy but not actually falling down, the tasks accomplished, even if the filing is not done, the friendships that survive a hiatus when life intervenes.

Graduating, retiring, transferring, moving. Instead of stressing about the end, look ahead with joy. And leave some of those ends untied, because these are, in fact, new beginnings.

St George’s Day: a poem

Tomorrow is St George’s Day – that day when the English tend to get embroiled in arguments about whether this is or is not really a national day, about the fact that St George wasn’t even English, and sooner or later someone will point out that it’s also the day Shakespeare was born and then, years later, died on his own birthday, and wouldn’t he make a better patron saint? with it all. Let us instead enjoy the inimitable humour of U.A. Fanthorpe, who retells the story of “St George and the Dragon” first by letting the dragon tell the story, then by giving voice to the girl, who – as is so often the case in life – is present in the painting but not in its title, and finally by taking the erstwhile Saint as a metaphor for unearned privilege and power, and putting him firmly in his place.

The poem is a response to Paolo Uccello’s St George and the Dragon – which hangs in the National Gallery in London.


Not my Best Side –  by U. A. Fanthorpe


Not my best side, I’m afraid.
The artist didn’t give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn’t comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.


It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl’s got to think of her future.


I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can’t
Do better than me at the moment.
I’m qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don’t
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You’re in my way.

Myrrh: a new verb

A late afternoon phone call. A few bits of admin to tidy up. Another round of thanks for a fantastic job done. Then, just before signing off, I told him: “I myrrhed the wall again.”img_8393

“Of all the things that came out of last week,” he said, “a new verb was the last thing I expected.”

Ted Lyddon Hatten became an instant friend, and collaborator in the ritual arts, when we met at the Venice Colloquium in 2015. Shortly afterwards I invited him to come to Yale to spend a week as our artist-in-residence at Marquand Chapel.

He shipped over various boxes of art materials, including a packet of liquefaction — the beautiful-but-sinister, extra-fine sand that smothers the landscape after an earthquake. Then he asked us to save and air-dry the coffee grounds from our morning coffee-hour, every day for two weeks before he arrived. And, like Nicodemus to the deposition of Jesus, he brought with him a hundred pounds of myrrh.

All of these materials were used in “dry img_8431painting”;  myrrh layered over coffee, layered over liquefaction, and highlighted with fine white sugar. As the days elapsed, a huge vine crept further and further across the chapel floor, and then, overnight, an immense one-eyed feather appeared in the corner, as if dropped from a seraphom’s wing.

The symbolism of the materials emerged as Ted engaged the community in conversation. ‘What does coffee-hour mean to you?’ he asked, ‘what is the essence of the conversations that we have saved in these grounds?’ At first the predictable, heart-warming answers flowed: I talk to people who are like life support, I wouldn’t make it through without them; coffee hour is a chance to engage informally with professors as well as peers; it’s when we exchange news and pick up notices; coffee quite simply gets my eyes open for the next chunk of the day. A short pause, and then the unsayable was said by one lone voice. ‘The coffee we drink is actually pretty bitter. And sometimes our conversations are bitter too.’ Silence fell around the room. Eyes were cast down; heads nodded, no-one spoke. This community where so much good happens has its griefs and divisions too; so much passion for truth and activism comes with its own bittersweet price.

The story of the week was drawn from the sixth chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet caught sight of God — “high and lifted up, and the hem of his garment filled the temple”. The hem, mind you: not the entire divine being, just a couple of inches at the bottom of God’s coat entirely filled one of the largest structures in the ancient world. No wonder the “foundations of the temple shook”, and suddenly the sight of a terrifying, destabilizing material such as liquefaction began to make sense as a symbol in worship. No wonder Isaiah stood awestruck at the sight of those fantasy-land winged creatures fluttered around the skirts of the divine presence.

Myrrh is well known as a religious symbol for death and burial. Less well-known, perhaps, is its earthly context as a self-healing resin produced by the dindin tree to seal wounds to its trunk or branches. Harvested, dried, and cut fine, it becomes the heady and expensive incense that smells like church. A symbol of death was transformed, in this particular ritual art, into a symbol of healing, life, resurrection. And the whole picture was grounded by… well, by the coffee grounds. Strong smelling, dried and with the life squeezed out, the remnants of sweet and bitter conversations, the coffee spread across the floor, un-moored by the liquefaction, and pressed down by the healing power of myrrh, the heady smell of the sacred remixed with the dregs of everyday life.

No-one could quite believe all this art was deliberately ephemeral, and when Ted invited the congregation to gather up the myrrh in tiny jars and take it out across the campus, spreading it wherever healing seemed to be most needed, no-one moved for several minutes. And then the whole act of worship was unmade, harvested, made ready to take out into the world.

We packed the artworks, the myrrh, and the liquefaction to ship to Ted’s next destination. We swept the floor and tidied up the space, and then, suddenly registering our tired minds and aching muscles, planned to debrief over supper and a bottle of wine before heading our separate ways. But as we stood up to leave, there was one last bag of myrhh left unpacked. Outside the window it was snowing gently, and the afternoon light just beginning to fade. ‘Let’s walk the walls,’ I said.

Outside we walked through the snow, round the perimeter of this beautiful building, where so much good happens, but in all our striving after excellence, our foundations are sometimes unmoored. Faith is found, and lost, and found again, friends are made and unmade, ideals clash and hearts are broken as often as they are mended. We sprinkled the grains of myrrh along the walls and the borders as silent prayers, myrrh for healing the shaken foundations and the bittersweet tensions.

A week later the snow was melted, and the early sun had baked the myrrh into caramel streaks along the pink granite as I walked the walls once again, silently sprinkling a little myrrh for healing, self-preservation, new life. Myrrh. A new verb. A new way to pray.





February 27, 2016

40 ways: keeping a joyful, thankful, holy Lent

Lent begins on Wednesday February 10th 2016;  it lasts a bit over 6 weeks, or around 40 Days. So here are 40 ideas for keeping Lent. The Great Commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your giving it up heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself” (with the implication that caring for God’s earth is rolled into the bargain) so I’ve thought up 40 ideas for keeping Lent that appeal to the creative and literary, to the development of community and relationships, to promote social action, and to encourage ecological responsibility, as well as individual spiritual concerns. You could:

  • choose just one of these (such as writing a thank you note) and do it every day.
  • choose one category and repeat it throughout Lent.
  • choose one from each category to do throughout Lent.
  • agree with a group of friends, or with your congregation, on one or more of these to practice together.

If you are very organised and energetic, I suppose you could even do them all. But I think it unlikely.

1. Start or join an online book club and read a Lent book with others.
2. Start or join a local book club to read a Lent book with others.
3. Watch “40” by Si Smith
4. Choose one great novel you have never read, and read it this Lent. Middlemarch, or To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance. Is there a character you closely identify with?
5. Choose a great novel you have read before, and re-read it. Take your time. What do you see this time that you didn’t see before? A character you didn’t notice, a theme you missed the first time, a theme that touches you now because 5/10/20 years on you see the world differently?
6. Choose one new musician or artist and listen to their work regularly throughout Lent. Listen to the words. Listen to the tone, the melody, the structure, the texture of the music. Why does it move you?

Social/community spirituality
7. Say sorry. Where is there a relationship that is cooled, ruptured, upset? Say sorry.
8. Write a random thank you note (or email, but handwritten is so lovely!). Who do you appreciate?
9. Make a list of your friends. One per day, send a brief email, make a phone call or post a brief note to say hello. Keep it short and do-able: the point is to keep in touch, not write a novel!
10. Keep a group journal. See here for Steve Taylor’s Advent Journal, and adapt it for Lent.
11. Invite friends for a Simple Sunday Soup lunch. The company is the point. Eat together. Simple, unfussy food; good, sustaining company.
12. Make a point of smiling and saying thank you to people – in shops, on buses, in pubs, on pavements, to delivery people, to teachers and roadsweepers and vicars, and…
13. Power down. See whether you can agree a no-phones at meals policy in your home, switch off all technology 30-60 minutes before bedtime, and make sure you have 30 minutes of uninterrupted time with the person(s) you love the most several times a week.

Spirituality and prayer
14. Don’t give up cake, or chocolate. Instead, give up inherited ideas about God that cripple your soul. See here for more.
15. Read all the way through one Gospel of your choice. About half a chapter a day, or less if you pick Mark.
16. Say a prayer of thanksgiving every day. Thank God for the things you usually take for granted: food, clothes, shelter, life itself.
17. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and learn to keep still and silent for five minutes every day. (You might need to start with one minute and work your way up gradually.) Listen to the inner voice.

Social action
18. Take your unwanted clothes and goods to the Goodwill/Oxfam/charity shop.
19. Volunteer some time at a local charity.
20. Make a donation to a charity.
21. Join the dots between prayer and action: choose something to pray for *and* give time or money to.
22. Find out which of your local schools needs volunteers to hear children read.
23. Revive a medieval habit: reduce your household bills by eating more simply, and give the money saved to the poor. (Combine with no. 11 to make it a community exercise.)

Ecological/environmental – form a new habit in Lent to care for the earth.
24. Change the light bulbs in your house to eco-bulbs, and turn off lights when you leave the room. (Note: that thing about flourescent bulbs using as much energy to turn on as they do to burn for 30 minutes? It’s an urban myth. Turn them off.)
25. Turn the heating down by one or two degrees
26. Hang up your laundry instead of using the dryer.
27. Unplug your appliances when you aren’t using them. Do the earth a favour, and save around $100 US/£60 GBP a year as well, which you could give to charity or church.
28. Learn how to reduce your energy consumption. (Bonus: your bills will go down so you can give a little more away!)
29. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle i) – reduce food wastage. Shop with a list; use up leftovers, only buy and cook what you can eat and really need.
30. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle ii) – spend a couple of hours one weekend thinking about your shopping habits. How can you buy less, avoid buying what you don’t really want or need, eliminate shopping for leisure, buy vintage, buy fairtrade. Fairtrade USA  — Fairtrade UK
31. Use your bicycle, the bus, or share car journeys. Less fuel used = happier earth.
32. Find a source of locally grown food and support it, or grow something yourself.

Joy-inspiring spiritual practices.
33. Pause 4 or 5 times today to give thanks for what you usually take for granted. Food. Shelter. Life. Friends.
34. Take a leisurely walk, alone or with friends. Stop often to look for beauty.
35. De-clutter a cupboard or wardrobe. Give away what you don’t use or need.
36. Sing! Singing fills your system with oxygen and makes you feel better.
37. Look up! What do you miss on your daily journeys by looking down at your feet?
38. Clean the windows. Let the sunshine in!
39. Plant some bulbs in the garden or in a pot for the windowsill.
40.  Say thank you to others, for simple things. Tell people when you appreciate their kindness or value their friendship. Don’t wait to give a eulogy: tell them now.

For more on Lent: check out my book – Giving it Up: Daily Readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day

Saving Daylight 2am on Saturday night, the clocks will go back in the United States. In the UK, this twice a year ritual of messing about with time is known as “British Summer Time”, a title which often gives rise to wry comments during a poor summer. Here in the United States it’s called Daylight Saving, which one Robertson Davies (1913-1995) found just as much a misnomer as “British Summer Time” seems to me.

“I don’t really care how time is reckoned so long as there is some agreement about it,” wrote Davies, “but I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind. I even object to the implication that I am wasting something valuable if I stay in bed after the sun has risen. As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.”

(Robertson Davies, The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks, 1947, XIX, Sunday.)