But I felt nothing.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been taking a break from writing. In fact, I’ve been taking a break from more than just writing, to focus on my health and my studies as I approach exam season. But I also needed to focus on my faith. I want to talk about some of the emotions I went through over the Easter period. It was a period which I found emotionally far more difficult than I had ever expected. For me, therefore, it was important to take a break and work out why I felt so broken at what should have been the most assuring and renovating of seasons. I had to take a step back and perspectivise. For the first time I had to actively seek to find the Easter mess-egg-es (excuse the pun!) that I had always taken for granted: hope, renewal, forgiveness and identity.

And I dug right down to the bottom of my soul
To see what I had inside
Yes, I dug right down to the bottom of my soul
And I tried, I tried…
But I felt nothing.

So wrote Edward Kleban in his lyrics for the musical A Chorus Line. Not, of course, that I am comparing the Cathedral life to a chorus line, though unfortunately it is a comparison I have, though unwittingly, made before: apparently the Spanish sentence ‘mi hermano es una corista’ does not only translate as ‘my brother is a chorister’ but also ‘my brother is a showgirl…’  What Kleban was getting at, however, about the pressure to feel something in a moment where one feels nothing, puts into words the detrimental and enclosing effects provoked by the mind’s consumption by such nothingness. He puts into words how I felt over Easer.

This year’s Easter will be forever characterised by one of the biggest spiritual lows I have had in a long time. As with any low, it was preceded by one of the best periods that I have gone through in a long time: I spent 5 days in Athens. Now anyone who actually knows me will testify to the fact that I am a bit of a Classics nerd. Maybe not the Classics nerd you think of, with the hand knitted cardigan and broken glasses who spends every spare second translating everything that he says into Latin. No, I’m a bit more fun than that. But equally I have just spent the last 10 minutes trying (though failing) to find Thucydides 4, the Battle of Pylos, inspiring. My mum would definitely call me nerdy. She often despairs at the fact that my brother and I, sitting at the dinner table, argue about what the aorist past participle is of πιπτω is, for example. She does not think such to be appropriate dinner time conversation. I disagree. But I digress.

Going to visit Athens was probably the highlight of my year so far. It was wonderful to escape the stressful life of London, and fly away to a sun-filled, ice-cream-fuelled city surrounded by every iconic Athenian monument. As with any tourist, we visited the Parthenon and the Forum, went shopping in the Plaka, and ate a ton of ice cream. We walked in the footsteps of those about whom we learn every day. Now as I turn to my Thucydides, I try imagine my bedroom walls dissipating, and me sitting on top of the Acropolis, looking out to the sea, awaiting news from Pylos, as Nicias did.

Our last full day was Palm Sunday. Part of me was sad to miss Palm Sunday in England – the small child inside of me yearned to see the one day of the year when moody lorry drivers on our bypass were stopped by police, making their distemperate (another one for the ‘my made up words’ dictionary – to mean the opposite of temperate) presence known by honking their horns vociferously, in order to allow a donkey to pass through to the Church.

But Palm Sunday in Greece came with its own unexpected beauty. Though we did not brave it into a full Greek Orthodox service, we poked our heads round in time to see the priest (complete with full length beard, of course) begin his chant whilst dousing the congregation in copious amounts of incense. If people in England complain about incense, they should try even standing in the doorway of a Greek Orthodox Church. The scent is choking. And suffice to say, I was too much of a germophobe to even touch the icons at the entrance, let alone kiss them, as one ought.

But was unique about Greek Palm Sunday was the sense of boundless community that went alongside it. Despite clearly being foreigners in our t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses (though we are not, as we were frightfully often mistaken for, American), whilst the Greek citizens bundled up in their coats, scarves and jumpers – it was only 27 degrees of course- we were part of their festival. Throughout the day people gave out palms (bright green fresh palms, not the dried dead ones that make their way to England) and orange blossoms, as they heralded the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem. But somehow it seemed they were welcoming our arrival too. We felt one in Christ, though our denomination separated us.

So returning to bleak grey England at midnight on Holy Monday was not so pleasant. Memories of cocktails in a rooftop bar overlooking the Acropolis, as the bleeding sun set into the blackest of skies, were long gone. It was rainy grey England, 13 degrees, and miserable. The question lingered in my mind over why I could not have stayed in beautiful Greece…

Life clicked back into place almost unrecognisably. Though restored and rested, the routine clicked back; it felt like we had never really gone away. Back to work, meetings, people to see, revision to do. The reality that the summer term was actually in two weeks, and that meant AS levels in four weeks struck. I had no idea what the difference was between βραδυς, βαθυς and βαρυς, and in four weeks I was meant to be translating unadapted Lysias. Things were not looking good.

From Good Friday to Holy Sunday, we hosted my mother’s twin goddaughters, aged 19. They had never been to London before, and so Good Friday was spent visiting all the major sites of London: Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey. We ate pizza and tried to embezzle as many free samples as possible from those outside Euston station who had clearly been told ‘one per party.’

When the sky turned black, I was sailing down the Thames on a Clipper. I didn’t even stop or notice.

And anyone can tell you that a day trawling round London as tourists is tiring. We got back and flopped into bed. Jesus’ death didn’t make an obvious appearance in the day. I didn’t have time to process it. I just slept. And I woke up on Holy Saturday with no sense of grief, emptiness or despair. It was just a normal Saturday, spent, I am ashamed to say, braving the doors of Hollister for the very first time with two teenage girls.

Until the evening. I was Stewarding at the Cathedral. I was reading at the Cathedral. A quick change and a fast run down the A3 and we were there. The nonchalance with which I had regarded Easter up to this point was brought crashing down to earth by a brutal building that bore the scars of all conflict, anger and distress. A building stripped bare to its core, to bricks and mortar, to its beating heart. A building shrouded in tears and which screamed of the pain of Christ’s sacrifice. And I felt ashamed. I could have done more. I could have committed myself to God over the Triduum. On the fast flowing river of life, I could have taken the time to stop and listen, to reflect, to notice.

And so perhaps it was of little surprise that, when the words ‘He is risen,’ were proclaimed, and the flickering construction lights blinked on to fill the darkness, I felt nothing. I stood up and read about living in Christ. But I felt nothing. I felt like the showgirl I had once described my brother to be. I was saying one thing, and feeling the opposite. I was looking out at a crowd with whom I felt as if I was in a constant battle. And I felt like I was losing. I didn’t know where I stood anymore. Surrounded by confirmands, amongst whom 4 years ago I sat, I felt incredibly lonely. I was calling to God to help me see, to help me listen, to help me feel. But I felt nothing.

Perhaps it was because I hadn’t had time to process death, I could never process resurrection. But even recognising this, I still felt adrift, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Bishop Jo spoke of restoration, renovation and resurrection. In that moment I could see was desertion, desperation and destruction. I saw more goodbyes, more pain, more loss. I couldn’t find tangible hope. I couldn’t see myself.

But, although initially I could not recognise it, although momentarily shrouded, my strong faith was still there. I hadn’t faltered as I thought I had. Others could see the light of faith shining within me. And such reassurance from those around me meant little by little, I began to piece myself back together. I’ve had to learn all over again what it means to give yourself to faith, to trust, and to love. I’ve had to turn aside. And it’s only now, a month or more after that day that I can say I’ve re-found what I thought I’d lost.

It was partly to do with the busy-ness of the period that I failed to see the faith in my heart, and the faith at the heart of society. I was so busy that I didn’t have time to notice all that was going on. But as much as I blamed myself alone for how I felt, I now don’t think it was all down to that. If we define ourselves by what we didn’t do, we cannot see a way forward. I expect I had been subconsciously closing my heart to God for a longer time previously, as one thing after another brought unforeseen blows to my trust in my community. Over time, I had grown into an armour that prepared me for inevitable battle. I needed to let it go, and to fight with faith.

It took the lowest spiritual low to make me see my faith again, and to make me understand that neither I, nor society, can afford to lose faith. But perhaps most importantly, the lowest of lows made me see that neither can I lose faith, however hard I might try. It is a part of me which brings me life and hope, renews, restores and resurrects me. My heart is open to God, I can see, and I can hear, and I’m not ashamed.

If there’s one thing I could tell those confirmands I was sitting with, it would be that being Christian is rarely easy. People assume that with God everything is made easier. But sometimes trusting in God makes everything so much harder. And sometimes you don’t have the answers to why it seems so hard. You feel quite alone.

But even when life is harder than it ought to be, even when you cannot feel Him, God is still working within you. It might take you a while to see it, but it will be there. You are never alone, even in deepest isolation. Sometimes you can find faith for yourself, and sometimes it is those around you who show you who you really are. You will experience guilt and regret. But you will also experience love, support and hope. You will go through highs and you will go through the deepest lows.

This faith thing, it’s a massive journey. But you’re not alone.

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Results Day 2017

I spoke about my emotions about results last year, when receiving results for the first time: AS results and GCSE results. Today I reflect on receiving some A level results, and how my outlook on exams and results and ultimately myself is in the process of drastically changing – an outlook I was only beginning to realise this time last year.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Isaiah 41:10

I had a horrible time at school between the ages of 10 and 13. I hated it, I hated myself and I had a very bleak outlook on the future. I didn’t want to do anything other than work. I knew I’d be safe in the library or alone in my room. As the Dean would say, like Peter, I was afraid to ‘jump out of the boat.’

Talking to a counsellor over the course of the last two years, I’ve realised that for a long time, I’ve had an astronomically unreasonable fear of failure and letting people down, probably originating from that time at school. The only person I should be afraid of letting down is myself, but I ignored myself, constantly fearing that I’d let my teachers down, let my parents down, let my friends down. I thought that everyone expected me to be perfect. But I never realised that every day it was me who expected myself to be perfect.

That constant pressure wore me out, to the point where I was so self conscious, so self deprecating and so self abusive. I felt so anxious about anything, and would panic all the time. I had to stop doing ordinary things like debating and playing or singing in recitals because I was so anxious that people were looking at me, and judging my imperfections. I thought I was a failure to them. That was when something had to change.

It’s taken me years to see that no one can be the dictionary definition of perfection.

I saw that I actually let myself down a long time ago, and never noticed. I’ve been damaging my self esteem for longer than I can even remember. I never took time to congratulate myself or be pleased with myself, or more importantly, time to reflect on failure. I was never good enough, there was always something else to do to be perfect.

So gradually I’ve had to deconstruct that self-induced pressure in my mind. And it doesn’t go away instantly. Although it was fading by results day last year, there are times this year when that anxiety has come back in full force. I can’t click my fingers and be free of fear. Events like my breakdown after reading at Easter suggest that perhaps the fear is still there more than I would like it to be. But I can manage it. I’ve become more comfortable with doing justice myself, saying no when things get too much, and not being afraid to let others down to heal myself. Ultimately I had to realise that others’ opinions don’t matter so long as I was proud of myself.

I’ve become such a different person inside myself this year. I am more independent, more confident. I laugh. I finally want to do other things. I want to get out. I want to be there for people and not just find friends in grammar tables (!).

But this year I knew that I’d found the exam period harder emotionally, because I had had to let go of the damaging work ethic that I clung to for comfort during GCSE. Some nights I didn’t work at all. No night did I work after 11. It was hard to break the cycle that I’ve set for myself and I still felt guilty that I could have done more. But I knew had worked as hard as I both physically and emotionally could and should.

The run-up to this year’s results day would be the ultimate test of managing fear of failure. Last year I let myself back into that castasrophising mindset. But this year I felt internally strong enough that no matter if I got Us, I wouldn’t panic, because I wouldn’t let myself, or anyone else, down.

I was in a slightly strange position of it being my third results day, but I’m not leaving school. I was just receiving one A level French grade that I’d taken early, and an AS which doesn’t even count for anything since I’m taking a 2 year A level alongside it. None of it really mattered. If the worst came to the worst I’d retake French. But probably not. So I didn’t really have anything to be nervous about.

Deep inside of me, there was that niggling fear – I felt like I had to prove something to the school, having been allowed to take A level French early, causing havoc with the timetables as I attended half L6th and half U6th lessons, and because my head of MFL thought I was stupid, and would end up getting a worse grade. I did not want to let him down.

But I tried not to think about it. The decision I took to do A level early was ultimately mine. I am confident enough now to trust in my own decisions. Whatever was going to happen results-wise, it was the right decision at the time, no matter what the HOD thought.

I remembered last year, when I got no sleep for my first results day, panicked about everything and had a massive argument with my parents about whether I was allowed to have my phone in my room overnight just the once so I could see my results before my parents logged in on the computer. I had to be the first to know. But I lost that argument.

I felt much calmer approaching results day. I tried to come out of my exams, both internal and external and forget about them. What happened in that room, happened. I couldn’t change it, and I’d worked hard. I didn’t even remember it was results day this week until people started asking me about it at the Cathedral last Sunday. But it still didn’t panic me as much as I thought it would.

The inevitable knot in my stomach only hit me late yesterday afternoon. I was sitting out in the garden drinking tea and chatting with my Father’s old history teacher who thinks he’s a dog (that’s another story…) and he asked me how I was feeling about results. At least, he said, it couldn’t be any worse than when he was at school and all the results were written up on the blackboard where everyone could see them. No, I replied, probably not.

The old feelings started to creep in at the corners of my mind: guilt over whether I had done enough work, worrying about what would happen if I didn’t make the grade I wanted and the general aura of panic. But I kept myself calm, and having company around at home really helped to escape dwelling on the finality of results. I had been worried about having both Mr Fyles and my grandparents over on results day. If I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, having a house full of people with no quiet space to think felt a bit much. But in the end it was what I needed to distract me.

I stayed up really late last night, chatting and laughing, baking Clafoutis and discussing the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as you do. I was exhausted when I got into bed at 23:00, the upside of which was that I slept all the way to 05:30, which I was pretty proud of. I dozed for the next hour, thinking over different scenarios, but I was surprised that I was not panicking about them. I had not fought about electronics this year, and kept my phone in my room. But I didn’t look at it until 06:43. Obviously there were no results, they were only published at 06:54 (I mean it was meant to be 07:00 but someone must have decided to be nice), but that was still pretty good going.

Last year I understood that I wouldn’t let others down, no matter what I got, I was loved. But I still don’t think I saw that I hadn’t let myself down. There were still things that could have been better.

Today I did feel a sense of pride when I saw the letters on the screen. But I felt more proud of myself for taking another step on the way to self-confidence and self-assurance. I will never again let myself down like I have done for the past 7 years. I have bullied myself, and pushed myself too hard. Today I am proud of myself for being a happy person, and not a list of grades. I didn’t work every night. And that paid off.

I had a pancake again for breakfast.

~Take time out in stressful periods. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but it is restoration that allows your body to keep functioning.

~Trust in your faith that whatever happens, you will walk with God in the next phase of your journey. It may seem a diversion, but there’s no doubt that some twisted way you will reach your real intended path.

~Don’t be afraid to talk to people about how you’re feeling in exam periods or leading up to results. There are loads of people out there who want to support you. They may be able to identify the origin of the problem, and then work it out with you. Write it down if that’s easier, it is for me. Screw up the paper afterwards if you have to.

~Be strict with yourself and your heath. Make sure your wellbeing comes before any stupid letters on a screen.

~Be confident, laugh, have fun make decisions that are right for you. Do all you can, physically and emotionally, and that is all. That way, you can never let yourself down.

Thank you to everyone who supports me, and helps me to see myself for who I am, and not the boxes I tick.

In the shadow of the Cathedra

As I’ve mentioned before, writing poetry is one way in which I cope with emotion and pain. I’ve found it especially helpful in the last year, during which time one important place in my life has undergone a significant amount of change.

I first wrote this poem around Easter, when I was struggling with faith and the future, and have since redrafted it several times, reflecting on how I’ve changed since that point. It focusses on the point after I stepped down from the lectern holding back tears. There are moments where I still feel like I am at the destructive part of the poem, seeing everything I knew tumble and burn, feeling lonely, far from God and incredibly vulnerable.

But more often than not, now I feel more able to take a step back and turn to God in my vulnerability and not simply close myself off, but work through that same pain and destruction in prayer. The feeling that everything is tumbling down doesn’t just go away, but I’ve learnt that it’s about how we react to it that is most important.

In faith, I think we must choose not what is often the easiest option, turning away, but instead choose to turn aside, to pray and seek with God how we can be beacons of light in surrounding darkness, and how we can rebuild in love.

On reading the poem, I feel like you can sense the original anger that flowed out onto the paper when I first wrote it. It feels disjointed and doesn’t quite fit. It is quite different to some of my more lyrical poetry. It is raw and brutal and full of hurt. At the same time, it is a poem in two halves: there is a point during the poem where I saw a different way of looking at change and pain, and I began to see a more hopeful way forward with God. Whenever I read it, I find myself thinking, how am I looking at things today? With anger or with faith? With pain, or with hope?

I struggled to name this poem, but settled on the place in the Cathedral where I felt most comforted as a little girl. I used to sit up between the Quire and Sanctuary at evensong, beside the Cathedra. There, with the sun casting rainbow reflections on the marble floor, I would feel most loved and as if I could do anything with God. It is still one of my favourite and most comforting places, though I little get the opportunity to sit there.

In the shadow of the Cathedra

The walls are weeping

With the sound of our tears.

The walls are shaking

With our bitterness.

 

Foundations tremble

With our stifled cries of anger.

Bricks like tears tumble,

Becoming rubble.

 

It is like watching a car

Crash in slow motion,

Each of us failing to

Push the brakes,

As we travel blind towards

Our time of death.

 

Is the moment of

Impact is passed?

Only our carcass remains.

We wait for the

Final bones to go up in

Flames.

 

It is hard to see when

The asphyxiating

Asbestos of our minds

Will ever be chipped away.

It has already

Killed my trusting heart.

 

Love can rebuild. But

Where can love be found?

A world devoid of love

Leaves my childhood home

Flat on sandy ground.

 

My house has many

Rooms, says the Lord, my

God. But standing here,

I see no room for

Me.

 

Yet I cannot close

My Heart to you. You

Weave yourself back in.

You hold me.

 

I know there’ll be

A day, when my heart

once more will weep with

salted tears.

 

I’ll look to you again:

The Lord on high, my

God. And, alone, I

know I’ll find you then.

 

May I be penitent,

Seek forgiveness,

Be slow to judge,

Be open to forgive.

 

May I find strength in You.

May I speak the truth.

May I heal the wounds

We made for ourselves.

 

On your rock may I

Rebuild my house,

My heart, my hope.

 

Cleanse our hearts, wipe from

Our eyes the tears. Show

Us the place where pain

Is no more.

And make us once more

One in you, O Lord.

Devonshire Whispers

Sometimes going to a boarding school is portrayed as the worst thing in the world. Certainly, as a 6 year old girl who read incessantly with a torch under the blanket, Enid Blyton didn’t always portray Malory Towers as the ideal place to spend your teenage years. But it’s not as bad as the fictional trope. And the massive perk (the perk that gets you through the 10 hour days) is the looong summer holiday. The summer holiday of every teenager’s dreams – 9 weeks, 63 days, 1512 hours of freedom.

We broke up from school last Saturday (01/07/2017). Jerusalem and I vow to thee my country reverberated in the quadrangle as unrestrained (and really quite flat) boyish bellows burst the walls of the Chapel. Smiles, music, joyous tears and piles of cream cakes dissipated into an idyllic summer’s day. The last of the days.

And taking the opportunity head on, we wolfed down the cakes, bundled up our books, and waved a polite yet brief goodbye to the Masters of our houses. We bolted down to Devon, as fast as the A303 would deem possible, nodding at Stonehenge as we ambled past. Last year revealed to us the merits of a pre-season extended weekend in St Ives – this year we were headed to Torquay.

It was the first time that I had visited Devon, and it didn’t disappoint. Ice cream, scones, beaches, sunshine in abandon, complemented with a fully functional frequent bus service (take notes TFL!), popcorn fuelled films on the sofa, and a squishy double bed on my own floor (oh the luxury!) where a hairpin could solve the greatest of world crises: an unfixed showerhead. Trains whistling by the window offered just a distant memory of commotive* reality, cut out by closed curtains.

And the annual summer mini-golf championship loomed. Mini-golf: the fiercely competitive sport where only those who make friends with Moai will conquer. The courses framing our house, in Babbacombe, Torquay and Paignton, offered perfect spots to wage war. A three-day event. A summer sun beating down on us, albeit with a touch of breeze-whipped cloud, signalled that the battle to end all battles had begun. Traversing pirate-infested waters and jungle terrains, the championship reached its ultimate conclusion: I won one, my brother the other two; a recipe for retributive revenge.

But even the threat of mini-golf fuelled vengeance and the sharp sting of a lingering jellyfish scarcely broke through the golden days of page turners on pebbled shores. Schools of silvered fish jumped out of an azure sea into beds of salted chips. The horizon melted in blue surrender as a city busy with labours left untouched the beaches, inviting in the foreign four. A glassy sheen broke under a dusty foot, and at last the water reached out, sucking us deeper into the depths. Seagulls dived, creating arcs of triumph, cleansing the shore of all evidence of human presence. Twisting footpaths gave way to hidden marvels, whilst a battered wheel revolved in a steadfast silent splendour.

Enduring the sickening bumpy coastal path, I passed through village upon village, with thatched homes spiralling round a crumbling churchyard, the local inn sign squeaking on its aged hinges. But there was no sign of a crumbling community. Each man for the other, the foundations still firm below an aging surface. The flowers bloomed in boxed adornments, injecting a myriad rainbow of life. And as the coastal path veered away from a glistening sea, it remained never forgotten, the taste of sea air tickling every sense, the laughter and companionship pushing us onwards.

Onwards to Exeter, where a majestic carved cathedra sat enthroned by ornamented stonework, harbouring elephants, porcupines and owls alike. Where the whisper of a rotting man was drowned by gleeful exclamations of crowds of children following a thrilling and bloody murder trail. The briefest of prayers; a silent pause. The energy of visitors pulsing. Wonder. Awe. Excitement. An echo of plainsong. The aged. The poor. The helpless. The cold. The hungry. The oppressed. The sick. The mourners. The lonely. The unloved. The aged. The little children. Us. Together under one roof, sharing in one faith. Making our mark, buying our little brick. A miniature Cathedral in the shade of the larger, put together by the people. Insurance, ensurance, assurance for the future. People poured out onto a humming green, lost amongst stalls, but forever bound together in God.

Then back to the A303, leading now to an old sagging unmade bed, the stench of unwashed clothes swamped by piles of unread books, and a little lamp flickering over a well worn sofa. Home. The Devonshire coast faded into a London reality. But the hope, the sun, the warmth, the faith remain engrained in my heart.

Now the true summer holidays are here. The homework, the vocab, the UCAS application, the pre-University reading. But 5 nights in Devon paints a masterpiece the art of perspectivisation** and whispers from Devon linger in my mind and my heart, clearing the next few feet of a rocky path: the summer, a time for laughter, love, hope, sunshine, faith and community. A time for trying to heal that which divides us. A time for finding a warmth to purge the cold. A time where work comes second place.

 

moai

Mini golf conquerors must first win over the Moai

 


*Commotive = a mixture of commotion and commuting in an adjectival form; the typical adjective to describe work life in London

**Perspectivisation = the noun of the verb ‘to perspectivise,’ see here

1 year :)

I can’t believe that it has been a whole year, to the day, that I started this blog. 57 published posts later, I’m still here, going strong. The power that I have found to express hope, anger and confusion through these words has truly surprised me. And it seems like so much has changed in a year, and yet so much has not changed at all.

I set off with high aspirations, aspirations I needed to encourage me when I first started this venture. Aspirations that included posting every other day, covering all aspects of my life. Aspirations that were completely unrealistic. Throughout the course of this year, I have dabbled with different ways of writing, from sharing my poetry, to diary entries, creative pieces, letters and just prose. I have dabbled with the regularity of posts, from multiple posts a week, to nothing for months, to once a week. Though mostly this irregularity was down to personal circumstance at the time, recently I have enjoyed having a sense of freedom – I am reconciled to myself that it is perfectly OK to write when I need to, and not to fulfil some kind of quota. Indeed, with exams, personal issues, terror and disaster building one on top of the other, I never felt like there was a right time to write, since But I felt nothing.

But in a way, the change from these unrealistic aspirations to a liberty and acceptance of time working to its own agenda reflects a wider change that I feel has gone inside of me over the course of this year. A month ago I described feeling like a completely different person, and that was scary and crazy all at the same time.

Nothing of my personal situation has really changed. I am still just a teenage student working towards exams, living in a modern pressured world. I still have the same fears, I go through similar times of frustration, stress and anger. This time last year I had finished my GCSEs, and was working for my Mum in the City. Today, three days after I finished my A/AS exams, I spent a day working for my Mum in the City. The same commute, the same office, the same tasks to be done. I still show reluctance to do my chores, shamefully maintaining the excuse that taking out the bins is ‘men’s work.’ I mean isn’t that what our own Prime Minister advocates?! I am a hypocritical feminist. But really I’m just your average teen, working hard, present on social media, being grumpy at home. So maybe nothing has changed at all.

But somehow the world seems different. Or rather, my take on the world seems completely different. Am I older, wiser, more worldly aware? Am I beginning to see the world from an adult point of view? Am I finally no longer a child? Well yes, probably. Have I become more confient? Am I finally rebuilding the person I used to be before 2011? Yes, definitely. Is it because I’ve reached a point where my friends, both boys and girls, support me, rather than bring me down? Yes.

But equally, this difference is a spiritual one. It is a connection with the Almighty that has grown and grown. It is an acceptance that my faith is an indestructible part of me that shapes my actions, attitude, and speech. It will forever be me, as I am given life through it. It is an openness to God that lifts the burden of pain, terror, anger, stress and fear. It is a clarity of mind that seeks the light and overcomes darkness, striving for peace both personally, and for the world. It is a channel of communication that is never closed, a burning passion, a God that allows me to cry, and to laugh, to fight, and to be conquered. It is a God that speaks to others through me, whether I consciously recognise it or not. It is a spiritual vocation that is omnipresent.

Even if I may have wanted to this year, I haven’t been able to let go of my God. Because he never once let go of me.

Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. Isiah 41:10

We’ve gone through so much of my life together this year – from the funny parts, to the angry parts. But the first post I ever wrote was #Believe, a reflection on the Mars® advertising campaign, and the nature of belief. I mentioned my belief in God, the keystone of all belief. Maybe there was something in me right then that knew that this blog would ultimately become a message to the world about my Christian belief.

Belief grows, so strong that it can be scary. Belief can seemingly diminish, be challenged and appear to disappear completely. But this is part of growth- as I said last month, belief is ultimately a journey. Suffice to say I’ve had complete ups and downs over this year – and they’re all documented here. I have had such a rewarding evening reading over some of my past posts, reliving emotions and experiences, and I am so glad that I made the effort to write everything down – I now see from where I have come, and where I hope to go. I am understanding my path to unshakable belief. I am understanding belief from a whole new perspective.

I have changed so much this year. A huge part of that is the support I have received from writing this. So thank you. All of you. So much.

I would like to end this first year by re-asking the questions I was pondering at the end #Believe. In some ways, I am closer to finding the answers. In other ways, I wonder whether my answers will always be on a course of change, as my belief grows and develops over the next few weeks, months and years.

What does it mean to really believe in something?   What do you believe in?  What would you like to believe in?   What stops you from believing?

And perhaps, one more question that has impacted me greatly this year:

How does it feel to believe?

Keep the answers for yourself to aid your own personal belief. If you would like to share, feel free to comment down below, contact me on Twitter on @christiangirluk, or through the contact page.

Here’s to year 2! 🙂

QOTD

Don’t go through life, grow through life. ~ Eric Butterworth

 

I saw this quote this afternoon, after an enriching and encouraging talk with one of the Canons at the Cathedral. To be honest, I had been dreading it. I’m not a particularly confident person at voicing my opinions outside the home. Trust me – my brother would easily confirm that I’ll put up a domestic fight where I see it is necessary.  I accept the fact that I am opinionated in certain spheres, and I mostly I feel confident in my own opinions, but I won’t often share them, for fear of being judged.

Much of my fear of voicing my opinions comes from the fact that I am still 17. What weight do my little words have on the world? How can I see things in a way that adults can’t? I must be wrong. I stay quiet, and let the adults talk.

But recently I’m beginning to understand that it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m proud of my opinions, and I’m gaining more confidence both in myself, and my abilities to voice concerns and suggestions. I’m almost an adult – I can take responsibility and show leadership, despite my age.

I felt alone before, like no one would understand me if I spoke out. They weren’t saying the things that I saw, so I must have been wrong. But, in truth, we all see the world in a different way. It is, therefore, important that everyone feels able to voice their own opinions. Perhaps they don’t say what I see because they don’t see it. And if they don’t see it, then they should see it. And it’s my responsibility to make them see what I see. Because I am important, however young I am. I can play a role, and my little words might just make a difference in my communities – because sometimes God speaks to the young.

That’s something I’m still in the process of accepting.

And key to that was doing something – was speaking out. And I spoke. I probably spoke too much. Bottled up thoughts turn into an avalanche of offload. But I spoke. And that’s what’s important. It felt like a relief, a burden gone. The thoughts I’ve kept inside for so long, the anger and the confusion, could all flow out to someone who, actually, understood. And, as a result, I found a bit more of myself. A bit more confidence, trust and resilience. A part of me seemed to heal. I grew in myself.

One of the things that I will always remember from the conversation we had, was the word ‘appreciate.’ We should ‘appreciate’ people in our communities. That doesn’t just mean appreciation in terms of gratitude, though this vitally important, but also appreciation in terms of growth. We should enable those around us to grow, physically, mentally, in strength, in confidence, in faith, in understanding, in curiosity, in vocation.

So perhaps we should just go through life, ignoring our opinions and bottling things up, but grow through life. We should appreciate, and we should be appreciated. With the help of those around us, our communities, we can grow in confidence, and discern our calling. We should grow and become the people we strive to be – freed of shame, fear, doubt, and lack of self-confidence. We should speak out, be strong, and we will grow. And perhaps we will see that we are not so alone.

Thank you to those who appreciate me and enable me to grow in every way.

You shall grow not old

I feel like I haven’t written forever. And when I say I feel like – I know I haven’t written in a long time. The truth is that I’m always writing, in my head. The following letter is a culmination of thoughts that plagued me during a 4 day choir tour to Ypres and Ghent, Belgium. It is addressed to my great great uncle, Serjeant J Ranson 41581 of the 52nd Field Ambulance Division, RAMC, of the 17th Army Division, which became part of the 2nd Army , joining the British Expeditionary Forces on 31st July 1915. We visited his grave whilst we were there. The letter tells his story, and ours, together. It was an extremely moving tour, in memory of all those who fell for our freedom. I am exceptionally grateful to all the staff who trained and took us, who made it educationally enriching, and who allowed us to visit his grave.

James, Uncle Jim, Jimmie,

I wept by your grave today. The grave you never thought you would own. A grave that, like so many, bears the body of one who was far too young to die. Aged 22, on the 6th October 1915, you were hit by shrapnel in the back of your left lung whilst saving Scottish Highlanders during the Battle of Loos. As Serjeant Beardsall wrote to your sister, Elizabeth, “In giving another life, [you] gave your own.” You had worked tirelessly since September 1914  “in the inky blackness of the night” to bring the wounded back to the field hospital. That night you made it back, but your punctured lung wept out your life’s breath and you were gone. A “good and true man” gone, like so many others, into the only place that promised hope. Death took you as his own.

You, who had been so proud to write back here and tell us of your encounter with the King as he visited the field hospital, had died a hero’s death. But even knowing that could never have relieved your pain and suffering as, slowly, you passed away. Your brother, Richard, also of the RAMC, was by your side, and for your sake, in your memory, fought his way through the remainder of the war to become an engineer. Edward became a lawyer. Elizabeth and Grace became nurses. But you, unlike your siblings, were never to achieve your life’s ambition. You had been training to be a dentist, and, when war called you, you “answered unflinchingly,” joining the RAMC. You had dreamed of emigrating to Canada to live and work amongst fellow commonwealth citizens. I hold the postcard you wrote back to Ted and Lizzie, your siblings, from your visit to St Lawrence in August 1913. You dreamed of moving there for good, but, like me, you complained about doing your own laundry. And just over a year later, in a moment, your dream was gone, the trials of laundry long forgotten in the pain of war.

Elizabeth wrote to your regiment, yearning for details of your death, to comfort your parents. They received a letter, thought unbeknown to them, on the day of your death, written with sheer excitement as you described that you would be moving to a new hospital to take charge of a dressing station. Moving to the place that would be your place of death. Only, two days later, they heard again, from Archdeacon Southwell, that their beloved youngest son had died. Serjeant Beardsall replied on 16th October 1915, a man who knew you well, describing you most favourably as “a jolly chum, respected and loved as a MAN.” Yes, he put that in capitals. You “could always be relied upon to perform duty…you would be right there and do it like a man. Never could [you] be accused of shirking or cowardice.” In hope, he asked your family to “bear up under the affliction of the Almighty, in His wisdom, placed upon [them], until such time as He calls us all together again, in that promised blessed reunion where we believe there are no more sorrows and partings and where we shall all attain that peace which passeth our understanding.”

Holding your medals today, though I had struggled before, I saw how he could see a hope for heaven in the midst of the horror you faced on a daily basis. How you all needed to find a promised peace. How still today we must remember your sacrifice to truly see our own peaceful freedom.

I came to Belgium, to Lijssenthoek, around 4 years ago. I was young, and the horrors of what you faced did not pierce my innocent mind. War was still history, and it seemed easier to detach myself from your pain. But now I am 17. The same age as 150 000 British boys who fell. And this time, 100 years of days past seemed like very little at all.

We came to Belgium through France. I imagine you did too. Coming from Accrington, the journey down to London and across the Channel to the Continent must have been deeply exciting. Though, admittedly, it was not the journey you had wanted to make. Canada would have been far more thrilling, and would have held far more promise. But you made the journey, for your country’s sake, though it is probable that you would not have travelled by train, through the tunnel, at 7 am, eating ham and cheese sandwiches and singing Zadok the Priest. Perhaps you, laden down with possessions, bundled and crouched in a corner of a boat, alongside hundreds of others, would have laughed to see the ease of our journey.

And, after France’s topography, Belgium seemed awfully flat. With the sun beating down, we could see for miles. It was idyllic countryside, with emerald green grass newly tufting, and daffodils spotting the roadside, like little dashes of yellow paint. But as soon as we stepped off the coach, it was clear that this idyll was a façade, it was an ephemeral idyll still slashed with scars of your bitter world. Shell holes became evermore obvious to the eye, as rabbits and hares, running on a flat plain, disappeared from view and then resurfaced again. It was like a child had been let loose with a holepunch on the blank canvas of the countryside, where the soil of the fields is still fertile with your blood.

We visited the trenches, preserved as harrowing memory of your daily life. The juxtaposition of the trenches with the quiet wooded countryside brought the realisation of the sheer lack of greenery that you would have seen, and the perpetual mudbath that was the Salient. We felt claustrophobic as we crouched and inched our way through the passages, tunnels, and runs. Though it was staggeringly hot, the mud sucked at our shoes, and the mixture of the smell of rusting corrugated iron and muddy dung was choking. At my feet lay stagnant water, a deep brown colour, where dead flies circled in an incessant cycle. Our choirmaster’s face as his phone fell and was engulfed by the mud epitomised our 21st century horror at what we saw.

But then I remembered you. You who were fighting throughout winter, for whom these trenches were not just muddy at the sides, but on top of the boards, to halfway up your shins. For whom the trenches were filled with bodies, dead and alive, piled on top of each other. For whom there was no alternative to claustrophobia, no idyll to look out upon. For whom a hotel with hot showers, beds and cooked breakfasts to return to at the end of a long day was an untouchable dream. For whom a phone would have meant nothing; the Bible, photographs found next to your heart and your imagination were your lifeline. For whom the smell of putrid flesh mixed with dung, rust, blood, and more was far worse than what we could ever have experienced.

As we journeyed on we saw yet more spring greenery that you would never have known. When we stood at the top of the belfry in central Ypres, a reconstruction of the shattered shell you would have seen, and got lost on unknown roads, we could see lambs, goats and fatted bulls frolicking in the fields. Perhaps you never thought that Belgium could be beautiful. I expect it seemed more like hell to you. And it seems the beauty of today’s Belgium is underpinned by your hellish conditions. Your hellish suffering. Your hellish loss. It seemed that as we looked out on the country, every five seconds a new graveyard would appear. Sometimes small, with only 15 or 20 graves, sometimes expansive with more graves than the eye could count. It was painful to see. Your losses put into perspective our freedom, and the beauty we find in the Belgian nature. And yet, as we passed a row of pollarded trees, devoid of the green natural life that seemed omnipresent, each was felled. It was hard not to imagine them as soldiers, the men with whom you shared your life, drawn up in a line, each one falling to the sound of a single gunshot.

But I hope that beneath the pain of death, you would have smiled to see these graveyards. All your graves are white, pure and painless. Around each cemetery there are trees, and before each grave flowers, so that each is almost a garden of Eden. A peaceful paradise, where we can sit and remember you. The transcendant peace that Serjeant Beardsall spoke about in his letter. The sun shines, gleaming off the rows of graves. There we each find an inner peace, albeit derived from horror, with which we can learn to look beyond the pain. Each cemetery bears the cross of sacrifice. It is a memory both of Christ’s sacrifice, and your mortal sacrifice, that we might live freely. There is an altar, on which is inscribed ‘Their name liveth for evermore.’ And it is true. You all sacrificed yourselves. You have an individual grave, where your name, age and regiment is written. On the walls, and all around, are found your names. Every man is named, even if no body has been found for him. And if there is a body, but no name could be identified, the epitaph is simply ‘A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’ Because even if we cannot know – God does. And in heaven you shall live, known by God, forever in peace. And on earth your name shall live for evermore.

In such a way, visiting the German cemetery at Langemark was, for most, emotionally harder to deal with. Their cemetery, surrounded by the white peace offered by ours, is dark, shrouded with oaks, symbols of their strength, where up to 35 men are commemorated on one stone which is laid flat on the ground, as if symbolising the fallen men. There is a mass grave where 44061 men are buried. The darkness seemed to engulf the cemetery and the hope for peace in the future seemed intangible; the horror of war lingered. The stark difference between the two seemed to forge a greater gap between the men; the black and the white; the victors and the losers. But reading the names, though at first it was harder, I remembered that each had a story, just like you. They were just men, facing the same struggles and pain as you, both of you cannon fodder. They were all losers. As I looked over the wall of the cemetery, struggling to find peace, I saw a host of birds take flight into the blue sky, rising invisible into the sunlight, beyond the clouds. For me, seeing these birds was where I found hope. Just like our men, their spirits rose to heaven as one by one they fell for their country. In heaven we are all the same. We are all mankind, and in such a way we must try and close gaps of hatred, to find the peace we crave. We cannot afford further war in the world.

Perhaps no other monuments stand as greater testament to this than the remarkable Menin Gate in Ypres, and the Vimy Canadian Memorial. We learnt of Edward Kelly, goalkeeper of the 1st XI  at our school, who had a History Exhibition to study at Merton College, Oxford. He left school in January 1915 on receiving a commission as an officer into the army. He was at the front line for less than four weeks before he died. His body was never found. And around him, the names of 54,388 other men who fell and have no known grave. He was 17. The same age as me, at the same school, wanting to achieve the same things. It is likely, on arrival, like you, he would have walked through the Porte de Menin, then bearing no memorial, excited and eager to face the reality of war beyond the town itself. As excited and eager as the cyclists of the same age who raced through the now majestic memorial on Sunday, racing to the finish line. But Edward Kelly never made it to the finish line. And neither did you. And neither did the thousands named on the Menin Gate. And neither did the thousands on the Vimy memorial, those with whom you had once hoped to live, in Canada.

And so, when we sang, at St Bavo’s Cathedral (Ghent), St Maartin’s Cathedral (Ypres), St George’s Memorial Church (Ypres) and the Menin Gate (Ypres), it truly felt that we were singing for you, in memory of you. You would have known some of the music we sang. As a fervent Christian, I have no doubt that you would have heard pieces such as Tallis’ Salvator mundi. Our 20th Century Chilcott and Paulus offerings would have been beyond you, but the sentiments offered, that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that who so believeth in him would have everlasting life’ would be known to you. The reassurance of Christ’s sacrifice so that you might enter heaven would have carried you through. And I have no doubt that at some point, lying drenched in mud, and covered in the blood of those you saved, and those who passed, you looked up and asked for The Road Home, pleading: View me Lord, and later, Miserere mei. Perhaps you even wondered what Insanae and Vanae Curae were casing you so be trapped so in this brutal war. Little did you know that it would go on for a further 3 years. As the music we sang floated up into the vast expanse of the buildings, especially at the Menin Gate, a serenity was easily found in suspended dissonance, slowly resolved to consonance. It felt like you were singing with us. As Mrs Hawkins of St George’s Memorial Church, Ypres said, hymns we sung like ‘All things bright and beautiful’ link people across countries, across centuries. Your souls, combined with ours, forever entwined, will sing for peace. Indeed, from visiting “Toc H,” we are all too aware how much singing meant to you. And so we give you, with you, what little we have, our exquisite musical offerings, harmonies of hope.

We laid white wreaths of fresh flowers at Tyne Cot, and at the Menin Gate, the two largest memorials to allied men who fell, to symbolise the peace and life that you have given us today. We visited the grave of N.G.Chevasse, an Olympian and vastly decorated medic who died in a similar way to you. Like you, he was a relative of one of the pupils on tour. There are so many like you. We visited your grave, and in the heat of the sun on my back, warming me, felt like your heavenly spirit with me. In a strange way, laying these wreaths and placing a cross at your grave felt like a degree of closure, both personally, and for the group: an acceptance of all that happened, and a cry for the maintenance of peace in our turbulent world. And I wept for you, and for all those who fell with you, and for all those who have fallen since.

And I said goodbye and returned home. A journey that you never made. It seems pertinent that the last anthem of the tour, sung at the New Brandenhoek Cemetery and later, to lull the sleepers, as the delayed Eurotunnel train burst into the light of England, was: For the Fallen.

You shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary you, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember you.

With a century’s worth of love and gratitude for your ultimate sacrifice,

Your great great niece.

 

JamesRanson3

James’ medals – The Victory medal 1914-8, The 1914-5 Star, The British War Medal 1914-8

 

 

JamesRanson2

James Ranson, or Jimmie, as he was known to his men, like all who fell, was awarded a certificate of service from the King.

 

10 Reasons Why…

Completely unrelated to what I am writing about today, I would like to start with a thank you for your messages of support. I will be going into hospital on Friday – to be honest I’m a little nervous (actually very) because I’ve never had to have an operation under general anaesthetic before, but I am optimistic that this should solve the haemophiliac related problems with my nose. I am so grateful for all your continued prayers and well wishes – it will be a tough week but hopefully I am on the mend! 

I was asked to share these reasons by one of the Canons at the Cathedral where I have been a congregant most of my life. More than anything I thought that in this season of Lent, this would be a good way to reflect on life at the Cathedral, and my journey of faith, as well as reflecting on what it means to be part of the Cathedral community years ago, and today. I hope that in sharing it, you will have cause to reflect on why you stay where you do when, after all, there are a million other places where you could go. What does your community mean to you? Why does it make you give thanks?

10 reasons why I stay and worship at the Cathedral should seem easy, perhaps I should be able to think of 100s, even 1000s of reasons why. But for some reason it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. It made me ask myself a question I have hidden away from in the past year. To be honest there have been many times when I wanted to be anywhere else but the Cathedral. Yet every time I stayed in bed, purposefully avoiding being at the Cathedral, I felt guilty for not being there and suddenly I wanted to go. Something still draws me back.

1: The Cathedral was a place where I grew up. Perhaps not quite so much as the 5 children know who live in Cathedral Close, but still to a considerable extent. I first went to the Cathedral in 2006 and then again in 2007 to sing evensong with my local Church choir during the summer. But we must have started going to the Cathedral regularly in 2008, when we knew that my brother was going to be a chorister, and he came a probationer in September 2009.

9 years is a long time to be in one place, and I can see how I have changed over that time. I am now 17. I am a completely different person to the 8/9 year old who cried at least once a week in the car because she had to be at the Cathedral 3 days a week. I was selfish, I wanted to go home. I thought people who came to visit us only wanted to see my brother in the choir. I was never allowed to sing, because all the girls’ days off were the boys’ days on. It wasn’t fair.

But now, I can see how much I grew up, from having to do sticking and gluing prep in the back of the Cathedral to the shock of the Stewards and Virgers, to revising for my GCSEs and AS levels. I often wonder what the walls would say if the walls could talk. How they have seen me grow. The stories of me being told off for skipping down the transepts, or for sneaking in illegally through the back door before Nine Lessons and Carols to nab a seat. If their eyes could play a video of my childhood, I would see the immature girl become the strong teenager that (I like to think) I am.

But even without the testimony of the walls, I can pretty much link each notable moment or change in my life to a time when I was at the Cathedral. I think that’s pretty special.

2: The Cathedral will always be a special place to me, because it’s the place in which I was confirmed, the place in which I first truly found God for myself.

On 31 March 2013, I was confirmed by Bishop Christopher Hill. It wasn’t just the day, surrounded by friends and family, that was important, but the whole process of leading up to confirmation, and attending classes. I learnt what it was to be a Christian, what things actually meant, and truly began my journey of faith. It was a process which helped me to discern what I believe in, and a period which will remain a key one in my life until the day I die. Whenever I doubt, I think back to that process of learning, and take out my Confirmation folder (yes, I still have it), and look over the things we talked about and learnt together. Remembering that gives me a renewed hope and purpose.

The service itself was the Easter Vigil service, which I am looking forward to going to this year for the first time since Confirmation [later thoughts found here]. It celebrates going from darkness to the light of the resurrection of Jesus, quite literally, with the service beginning in blackness, and the light suddenly dawning. This darkness was also the end of my childhood doubts and fears: the light was the hope and promised peace that anyone who believes feels. It was a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice so that we might all live purged of sin, forgiven. And that’s what I remember feeling when the Bishop put his hand on my head and confirmed me – my darkness seemed to disappear for a moment. For me, no service could have better accompanied my confirmation.

I was confirmed alongside one of my current teachers, though I doubt that he remembers me from then! I understood that whether teacher or pupil, old or young, we are all one in Christ – our faith brings us together despite our differences, a message that still is important to my beliefs today.

3: The Cathedral is a place that is fundamentally full of friendship. Despite factional warfare and guerrilla ‘overhearing’ tactics, blended with a touch of snide remark, at the heart of the community life is the value of friendship. And arguably, the Cathedral could not run without such friendship, people willing to give up time to serve as volunteers together.

A tiny proportion of the community I cherish at the Cathedral are actually my age, and the ones who are my age are distant, up in the quire, or behind a cross. In fact, most of my Cathedral ‘friends’ would not consider themselves so, and would probably rather be seen as role models. Indeed, in today’s world, saying that most of my ‘friends’ are over 80 would probably draw some suspicious enquiries. And as much as I would love more people my age, it’s not going to happen in a heartbeat, and most teenagers would not actively seek to be friends with someone whose favourite subjects are Latin and Ancient Greek… So over time, perhaps as a result of once being a lonely 9 year old at weekly evensongs, I have grown a fondness for these elder members of the community. I like to think that I contribute to their (and let’s be honest, my) weekly social outing to Church. But at the heart of it they are just friends, people who like a natter, a cup of tea, a gossip, and who’ll buy you are bar of chocolate when you start crying. Good people whose kindness makes your world work the way it should. Good people who teach me how to tread the path.

4: Music is really important to worship, and forms part of the core foundation of the Cathedral, in my eyes anyway. After all, I first came to the Cathedral for music, and J’s music made me stay.

Through the extended chorister network I found a bunch of choir mums who would take me to the TESCO Costa between dropping the boys off for rehearsal and the Ash Wednesday service, and a community of families who were going through the same pressures as we were, or who’d been through it before. They would chat to me when I was left in an almost empty Cathedral late at night, waiting for my ever ‘helpful’ brother to clear up every last sheet of music he possibly could, whilst craving the sausage casserole which by now was most definitely cold in the oven. People who’d been through it and knew that I would get used to it eventually, with whom one day I’d be playing cards at Chorister Cricket, or decorating biscuits at the winter fair. A sub community inside the whole Cathedral family.

And as much as I used to be incredibly jealous of my brother for getting to sing in the choir, I had a little chance myself. I was part of the Surrey Songsters, and I wore my t-shirt with pride. We, a small group of maybe 6-10, would meet after school on a Friday, and would perform termly as part of the Cathedral’s musical outreach programme. I think I was part of the first, and probably last group of Songsters, a group which didn’t survive more than a few years. But it gave me a bit of confidence, and a tiny splash of vocal training which helped when having to do a music scholarship interview at age 13, in a scary unfamiliar school chapel, never having really sung solo.

But what about now? Does music at the Cathedral still make me stay? Well yes to be honest – as my Mum frequently says, once you’re used to that amazing standard of music, and that commitment to aiding worship, it’s incredibly difficult to head off down to the local parish and have to face John Rutter on repeat, a host of screeching sopranos, a few dodgy tenors, and the bass that fell asleep on the back row. To have to face ‘hymns’ like Shine Jesus Shine or I the Lord of Sea and Sky. They have their own beauty, but for someone growing up surrounded by mellifluosity (another word to add to the dictionary)it’s not quite the same.

5: The Cathedral is where I discovered what I could do as a Christian. I discovered that everyone can find a role, their place, in the community no matter how old they are or where they come from or what they look like. It’s by far not always easy, and I’ve had my fair share of struggles in the roles that I take on. Comments such as ‘I don’t know why they let someone that young do that’ are whispered behind my back, but I still hear them. I have been called ‘incapable,’ ‘too young’ and ‘unwanted.’ But I mostly carry on: there are no distinctions in faith, and each one of us is as capable as we want to be. I usually live by the rule: don’t let someone tell you that you can’t just because they don’t want to accept that you can.

I became an official reader under the guidance of Nicholas Thistlethwaite, our last Precentor, after having read the 6th lesson in the Christmas Day Nine Lessons and Carols service for 3 years on the trot. Let’s face it – which other ‘member of Sunday School’ is going to be around in the Cathedral on Christmas Day afternoon, except a chorister sister (in the days before resident Canonical children of the appropriate age). Though I am not currently a very active reader, I read about 3 times a year for 5 or so years. I am still on the list but after my experience at Christmas I feel like I’ve lost the desire to share the Word.

In November 2015 I became the Cathedral’s youngest Steward, although I have still never taken the official oath (I don’t think it really matters). Stewarding puts me on the front line, so to speak, being the face of the Cathedral that people first see as they enter. A welcoming smile, a polite enquiry, a reassuring word, a helpful direction. Whatever we can do to make people more at home at the Cathedral, and to facilitate ease of worship, even if that means taking them to the loo, or picking up grotty tissues from the floor after the service. And the best part? Either the wiggly hot air blowing snake that warms the area (mind you, just that area) where the Stewards’ table is when the rest of the building is frosting up, or in the days pre-scaffolding, the Stewards room, called familiarly the Room of Requirements. Everything you could possibly need is down there (including out of date stashes of fair-trade chocolate), and it keeps on going and going and going, right to the depths of Stag Hill, for the 9 year old trapped inside me, anyway.

6: The role I play and the experiences I’ve had in these different roles lead me on to my next reason. From these days of service and the emotions I’ve felt alongside them, the Cathedral has helped shape my beliefs and motivations and ultimately has given me lessons from which I have learnt to be the person I am today.

I don’t believe that anyone should be ignored on account of their age, but equally I know that it happens all the time. I’ve learnt not to get rattled by it, to accept it to its face, but challenge it in my heart. I know that no one should be seen as incapable, no matter who their are or what their individual needs are, and I’ve learnt to cater to these needs to make everyone feel welcome. I’ve learnt to be strong, to challenge what I see, to form my own opinions. I’ve found the confidence to speak out when I don’t think something’s right. I’ve learnt how to read people’s hearts and not just their words. I’ve learnt what it is to be loved, and supported, and upheld. I’ve learnt to work with people I never thought I could work with.  I’ve learnt to be honest, and to share my opinion when it’s required, but equally to keep my thoughts to myself when they’re not wanted. I’ve learnt to be patient, sitting in the car for an hour before services. I learnt not to provoke my parents by poking them with my book, and what consequences were – believe me, you don’t want to be thrown out of the car to walk round the Cathedral 20 times in mid-November when the wind is roaring and the constant driving rain turns you sodden. I’ve learnt to listen. I’ve learnt that it’s ok to laugh and equally ok to cry. I’ve learnt what it is to be an adult. But ultimately, I’ve learnt what it is to lead a God driven life. And these lessons give me the motivation to be the person I choose to be, and the person from whom others may choose to learn these lessons. A person who can make others feel equally supported, loved, and upheld, who can see a value in everyone just as people see value in me.

7: The Cathedral is a centre for teaching and learning. Although I don’t study RS and never profited from school visits etc. to the Cathedral, I take from the Cathedral my own sense of learning. It is the place where I receive my only spiritual guidance and teaching.

Though sermons once played the most important role in the service as the time in which I could get out my book and delve into some other world while some dreary man was jabbering on about Simeon, the sermon is now the most important part to me in drawing lessons from Scripture, and making astute links between this passage and the world that surrounds us. Teaching and preaching help me to discern where I stand, to view current affairs with newly opened eyes, and to see God all around. I am now able to make my own links between the Scripture I read and the world I live in. More often than not I learn something new each time I open my mind to listen. Sometimes it changes my opinions on something in a way I never thought it could.

In this way, the Chapter at the Cathedral have all played an important role in my spiritual development through the years. From confirmation lessons, to BOB, sermons and phone calls, the Chapter have helped me to see things differently, and to see God and the wonder that is found in Christ and faith in my own life. I don’t think I will ever be able to see an Easter egg in the same way, or bake bread without remembering a glorious summer’s day of biblical baking and pick-up-sticks. Sometimes even when I didn’t think I could find God anywhere, they have helped me to find hints of his love, or to think in a less constricted way. It seems so easy as a teenager to close your mind and to give yourself over to doubt and fear, to shut yourself out from God, but Chapter have taught me that it isn’t as easy as it seems. God always seems to find me again, even if it takes a chat to help me see it, that, in fact, I never lost faith. I will never be able to thank them enough for the lessons they’ve taught me, and for the life’s worth of teaching, reassurance and guidance they’ve given me in my 9 years.

8: You’ve probably never been to our Cathedral. But it is a masterpiece of architecture, with high arches and a ‘honey bathed golden interior.’ It is plain, but so full of colour at the same time. It has slippy floors with underfloor heating (when not covered in warping wood) and it used to always feel warm. Whenever you came in from the bitter world, the rain, ice and snow, it was a little haven. When the sun shines, it strikes the arch at the crossing, creating pillars of golden splendour, and light through the stained glass creates the most beautiful paintings on the blank canvas of the walls. In the darkness, the candles flicker in the windows, beckoning in the wanderers. Even now, in the iciness, it is hard to forget the comfort and the warmth the building once offered, and will again one day soon.

If you sat in the nave, and closed your eyes, the gentle hum of traffic would gradually disappear and it was silent. A space for peace and reflection, for quiet prayer and gentle tears. A place that laughed alongside you, and smiled when its people smiled too. Space to be, where you could just think and hear your heart beat. Space to grieve, praise or pray. Whatever you needed, the building gave it to you. It was the perfect place for anyone and everyone who needed it.

Though this warmth is quite noticeably absent at the moment, and everything seems to be carrying the burden of scaffolding, and the pillars weep, and inside the infrared heaters and metal makes congregants feel a bit like battery hens, it has a certain beauty. And though it is hard to find that silence there once used to be, there are whispers of what the future will hold. I know that I for one can’t wait to find that warmth again.

9: For me, the Cathedral has always been a place that opens doors. There are so many times where I have felt down about something or another, as you can expect over the 9 years. Often, having gone to the Cathedral I grasp a new perspective on things, and whether I’m being unreasonable or not. A few times, just as I thought a path was coming to an end, I found a new one to take. It has given me hope when I thought the world contained none.

From the age of 11 to 13 I was bullied at school and I became very withdrawn. I lost all confidence that I had, and I wasn’t good enough at anything. I wasn’t valued because I wasn’t clever enough, I had to drop out of the swim team for medical reasons, I wasn’t a size 0 and I wasn’t musical enough. I was average, above average even, but still not quite good enough. I remember summer 2013 I came top of my year in the end of year exams, and I was due to receive a prize at speech day. The week before, I showed prospective parents around my school, and when they asked about bullying at the school, I was honest. The prize was taken away from me. No one told me why, though later I was told that it was because I had presented the school in a ‘bad light.’ I thought it was because I wasn’t good enough anymore. Even top wasn’t good enough. Prize giving was held at the Cathedral, and when I wasn’t present my Mum spoke to Paul the Virger, asking that she might be able to sneak in – her seats, too, had been removed as only prizewinners’ parents were allowed to come. With the connections we had at the Cathedral, this was no problem. The next time I saw Paul, he gave me a big hug, and told me how much he knew I was valued, and not to believe school, and that he would always support me. I hope he knows how much I appreciated that. I started crying. Because I knew that I had to get out of the hole I had found myself in.

I haven’t gone back to being the confident and sassy child I was aged 10. Performing, still, is something I find daunting, and I get incredibly nervous because I know that people will be judging me, and they might see my failure. ‘I might never be good enough’ is a thought that I am only now overcoming, and it has plagued the majority of my teenage years. But time and time again, the Cathedral, staff, chapter and community have opened doors for me, to help me see that I am valued and turn my failures into building blocks to make me stronger. They have given me books, so many hugs and tissues, chatted to me, and made me see that I have a place. They gave me hope when at aged 12 I would cry on the way to school every day. The Cathedral became my place, where I was valued for who I was. I didn’t have to achieve a quota, or fit a stereotype. I could be me. Still, mentally when I need a place to escape to, to calm down, to quell nerves, or to find confidence, I place myself in the middle of the nave, the West doors shut to the stormy world, staring up at the East window where the light shines through, and the pure dove gleams.

10: If you’ve made it this far, then you’re a champion! I wouldn’t be surprised if you had got bored halfway through. And I hope this last reason, as stupid as it is, will make you smile. It feels a bit stupid, but it has to be said. The Cathedral’s chocolate brownies are quite literally the best I have ever had. Although I am currently ‘taking up’ not eating puddings or snacks, Cathedral chocolate brownies will definitely be my weakness.

To be honest, it was always the shortbread biscuits that took my heart, in those days where everyone in the family had to be given a biscuit to keep them going in between Eucharist and Matins. But recently, the shortbread biscuits have lost their softness, and the Cathedral has outsourced some of their produce, so we are faced with slightly condensated and soggy bakewell tarts. So I turned to the chocolate brownies. Awfully awfully bad for you. But there you go. Sometimes, after getting through Byrd 5 part mass and James MacMillan, you need an oozy chocolatey treat. I am looking forward to 45 days time when I will probably get my next – they are to die for.

So there are my 10 reasons, though it probably felt more like 10000. I know that one day, fast approaching, I will fly off into the world, and I will leave my people’s Cathedral far behind me. I will leave the community behind, and the chocolate brownies. The Chapter will find new places, lead new lives, and a whole new lot of choristers and their families will grow up like I have. And to be honest, I’m quite excited to leave it behind, and all the memories too, and join a new community, and find 10 more things to be thankful for there. But the Cathedral will always remain a mental haven for me, and will be my Pandora’s Box of childhood memories, all centred around a rather ugly building on the top of a rather windy hill.

 

Present mirth hath present laughter

As part of my A level English course, I have to study Twelfth Night. It’s a good play, not Rattle Arrow’s (as my English teacher calls him – criiinggee) best, but good all the same. Maybe that’s because I have a tragic streak in me which makes me prefer the deep dark tragedies. But it’s a good play – principally because it includes two of my favourite words, cockatrice, a word with which, as some of you know, I have a passionate history, and hob-nob. Hob-nob. Brilliant word, and my favourite biscuit (bit of trivia there…!). Over half term, I went to see the first of the previews of Twelfth Night. Here are my thoughts… PS Look out for a second review of Twelfth Night (to compare and contrast) in early June, when I will have been to see it at the Globe. PPS Thank you to my parents and godmother for taking me out to the theatre twice, a very special treat xx

“Vibrant,” “weird,” “fun,” and “mind-blowing” are all quotes that I gathered about this production, when I asked people to sum it up in one word. But it is possible that no other quote quite sums up Simon Godwin’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night than Feste’s own words, “present mirth hath present laughter.” Through an all too recognisable 21st Century lens, Godwin makes Twelfth Night’s messages of gender liminality, friendship, laughter, love, grief and pain speak clearer to us than ever before. It is striking that, even 414 years after Twelfth Night was written, the play can so easily find its feet in a modern world; its joy and pain remain deeply affecting.

In the preview stage of the production, I felt privileged to be able to attend one of the first live performances at the National Theatre. It seemed to me that the production at that time was still somewhat like a flower on the cusp of blooming to its full splendour. Teething faults with staging, costumes and props, and an Antonio [Adam Best] who dropped his Scottish accent half way through, whilst arguably at times adding to the humour of the play, did undermine the serious undertone to Twelfth Night that has given it its ‘bittersweet’ label. Therefore, despite an ingenious triangular flight of steps (perhaps symbolising the love triangle at the heart of the play, and the steps of patriarchal hierarchy that were an underlying presence even in times of misrule) opening to reveal every set required, from a ship in a storm, to streets, atria, pools, gardens, a chapel, a gay nightclub and a front door, and many noteworthy performances, it was the ruffed stage manager who held a wall up for a considerable part of the play whilst spinning round with the revolving stage who became a favourite character of those in the audience.

Yet arguably such is the joy of live performance, and I have no doubt that the production will only go from strength to strength in the coming weeks. And undoubtedly, it is a production that merits attention. Godwin has clearly chosen to highlight gender as a principal driving factor in the comedy, and tragedy, of this adaptation. One might even argue that it was the notion of gender that was the binding factor that made this fair cruelty of a play work successfully. Yet it was interesting to note that, in the programme, Tiffany Stern goes as far as to say that this highlighting of gender suggests that ‘gender and sex themselves are performances and that both are as much social constructs as physical ones.’ In a modern setting, the problem of gender and sexuality is still a constant question, and I wonder whether any member of the audience did not come out of the performance questioning what it means to be female, male, homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Are these just social constructs? Whatever your personal opinion, it is clear that, for this production, the casting of a Malvolia [Tamsin Grieg], female Feste [Doon Mackichan] and Fabia [Imogen Doel] were extremely important, dramatically increasing the number of women on the stage, thus allowing for an increased sense of homoeroticism, seemingly somewhere present in every scene.

It was interesting to note the portrayal of the relationship between Sir Toby [Tim McMullun] and Sir Andrew [Daniel Rigby] which Godwin had also underpinned with Andrew’s homosexual desires for Toby, unparalleled in either Trevor Nunn’s film (1996), or that of the Globe production (2012). It would not be an overstatement to say that the homoeroticism between Toby and Andrew was far more pronounced than that between Orsino [Oliver Chris] and Cesario [Tamara Lawrance]. Indeed, dressed head to toe in pink, with a man-bun, and a physical performance littered with jumps, hops and skips, from his first entrance Sir Andrew fitted straight into the modern stereotype of homosexual men. With ‘camped-up’ lines such as ‘I’d beat [her] like a dog’ and a final flick of the hair following Toby’s harsh words to such a ‘gull,’ the audience was left with the image of Andrew as an embodiment of modern homosexuality.

The Malvolia sub-plot, as in many interpretations, gradually became the main plot of the story. With an audience full of aging Archers fans, the casting of Debbie, Grieg, as Malvolia inevitably led to a sympathetic audience. Indeed, words such as “I didn’t expect the end to be so sad” filled the babbling gossip of the air following the performance. However, Grieg’s portrayal of Malvolia was not originally so ‘sad,’ in fact being reminiscent of a stereotypical Victorian schoolmaster, seen as simply a sanctions master and presence malum volens.

It was at the end of the first half of the play, with Malvolia splashing around in a fountain that didn’t quite squirt water (yet), that the theme of appearance vs reality in Twelfth Night found its incarnation. The gulling was so successful that the second half saw Malvolia in a costume that epitomised her fall, a modernised interpretation of yellow stockings and cross gartered to say the least, with a touch of Commedia dell’Arte for maximum effect. However, arguably what was most striking was the Malvolia’s final line ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,’ which saw Grieg remove the wig that she had worn the whole play, both as the Puritanical and the promiscuous Malvolia. Her final gesture to the characters, therefore, was that throughout the whole play she had been playing a role; her true personality was not to be found in either persona she had portrayed. This undeniably left the question of what constitutes a true identity lingering in the audience’s mind.

Furthermore, it was clear that beneath the hilarity and pain, a lot of thought had gone into the relationship between casting and costumes. For example, Viola and Sebastian [Daniel Ezra] were played by two African-American actors, which added to the modern stance of the play, challenging stereotypical intra-race and inter-sex relationships. The actors wore simple white shirts and black trousers, meaning that their appearance was androgynous, to the extent that the final scene saw Olivia embracing Viola and Orsino likewise embracing Sebastian, once again heightening homosexual themes of the play. As mentioned before, costume also played a key role in the character of Malvolia whose black garments were always in direct contrast with the pink, purple and green of Andrew, Toby and Feste respectively, emphasising their conflicting characters. The change from complete black to complete yellow clearly marked the gulling as a key shift in the character of Malvolia. Yet, the touch of a Pierrot Commedia dell’Arte cape, though flounced about (albeit inside out – the Velcro clearly wasn’t working) by the gulled Malvolia, demonstrated that she was little more than a sad clown, a fool, the butt of the joke. A similar change from black to bright colour was also used in the costume of Olivia, symbolising her progression from the darkness of death to the light of love.

As the play unravelled, with a surprise at every corner – did anyone else expect to see Toby in a mankini? – it was the question of how Godwin would choose to end the play that was most pressing in my mind. Would the rain raineth? Well, as mentioned, the staging opened out, and so the end saw the revolving stage (and yes, the ruffed stage manager with it) split into thirds. Whilst Feste stood and sang, each time a third faced the front, we saw a new scene: Antonio being set free, Andrew leaving with a teddy bear that had been previously destined for Olivia (not a dry eye in the house, I can assure you), the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian and subsequently that of Orsino and Viola, with an appearance from Toby and Maria noticeably absent. And as the staging came together once more to form the flight of stairs, it began to rain. And there was Malvolia, still dressed in her gulled clothing, slowly ascending the stairs to the light, whereupon she reached up, almost offering herself to God to be redeemed, to be forgiven, to be loved. Did Malvolia reach her God? Well, the lights went out and the show was over.

So perhaps you never thought that Shakespeare could be mixed with gay clubs, teddy bears, toilet roll, and swimming pools. Perhaps you can’t seem to picture a transvestite singing Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be speech’ in an operatic aria. But somehow, Godwin makes it work, and if you look a little closer, you might understand why. The production was certainly played ‘for the laughs,’ but occasional glimpses of despair sharply pierced the hilarity, to the extent that on leaving the theatre it was a cloud of melancholy that hung over a dispersing audience, and not one of comedy. And despite my stomach’s memories of aches of laughter, for me the play ended with a perennial final note of warning – ‘present mirth hath present laughter,’ the opportunity was left for each to read into that what you will.

I would highly recommend going to see Twelfth Night at the National Theatre if you are able to (but probably don’t take Grandma…). https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/twelfth-night

Lead by example with hope; never fear

My brother and I, usually amicably but occasionally not quite so, share an office. Usually a great source of dispute is what we listen to when we are working. My brother, when I am listening to something he doesn’t appreciate, takes pains to remind me that it has been proven listening to music with lyrics while you are working significantly reduces your brain’s capacity to take in the information you are studying. He learnt that from Vish, his study sensei (but that’s a different story). I similarly take pains to reply that he is a music scholar and academic musician so he should be listening to all music and drawing astute links between them. He usually leaves the room, slamming the door as he goes.

But if we happen to get on amicably (63% of the time) we tend ignore Vish, and a fly on the wall would not be surprised to hear plainsong, psalms and hymns in the office as we work (the hymns aren’t so good as we tend to sing along, sometimes substituting words for others especially with naff hymns – “I the Lord of sea and sky/I have made my people fly” and “Who put the corn into the cornflake” are two of our favourites – you get the picture). But last week was half term, and, having had a bit of that unknown quality of sleep, my brother and I were on good terms (it lasted 2 days). One day I allowed him (sorry Vish) to listen to a podcast whilst he played Fifa, and I wrote my french essay. And it was something that was covering the installation of the new President –

“I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong,” Obama said, her voice breaking several times near the end of her remarks. “So don’t be afraid. You hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourself with a good education. Then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of you boundless promise. Lead by example with hope; never fear.”

And I’m not American, far from it. But I felt as if at that moment, Michelle Obama was speaking to me too. Somewhere in our lives we will all experience a feeling of not belonging, of fear, of lack of focus, of lack of determination, of lack of hope. And in that moment, I was feeling all those things.

We are constantly afraid, and we hide behind this dark shadow of fear, letting the world slip by. It is all too easy to think that we don’t matter, that people will not listen to us. But Obama rekindled that hope in me that there is a way that we can all change the world if we try. But she also recognises that it’s not going to be easy – there are times when we are so afraid that all we want to do is curl up under the duvet, in the warm, and not come out. We revert to our inner child. But it is our responsibility to get out there and use our gifts for good – to send a message, to be the person that we want to be. Because if no one tries then the world will slip by.

I remembered these feelings when I was at the Eucharist on Sunday. I didn’t really want to go – it felt more of an obligation than a choice. I put on my jeans, not usually deemed appropriate, heaved myself into the car and we went. At the beginning of the service I felt really uncomfortable, a feeling I haven’t experienced in a long time. I was afraid to go there, a place that seems so full of despair. I was afraid of what I would feel. But the reading was –

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34

And this also touched me, and made me think about my fears, worries and my current failure to empower myself to be the best person I can. Sometimes, a lot of the time in fact, it is so easy to let worries about health, religion, business, day to day life, education, exams and relationships weigh you down and take over your brain. But life is about making the choice to be that young person Obama wants you to be. It’s about trusting fearlessly in God, no matter how far you feel from Him, because everything will be given to you that is necessary.

I don’t want to be someone who gets to my mid twenties and looks back and thinks ‘what did I do in my teenage years that made me the person I am today’ and regret not doing anything. I’m not going to stand up in the street and start preaching at people to change their ways. But I write it on here. Every day I make a choice to be the person I am. Every day I have the choice to be empowered and to stick up for myself and have no fear. And 60% of the time I do that. 40% of the time I let time pass me by. And I regret that, but I know I’m not, nor will ever be perfect. So all I can do is try to make that choice when I wake up, and carry that choice through to the end of the day.

Sometimes it’s those little epiphanies that make me think: yes. I can do this – I can be that person I choose to be and I will have no fear because God is beside me. It is the everyday God who reassures us of his constant presence and allows us to live in hope, and not in fear. Even in the darkest pit of despair, he tells us that there will be hope: we must not worry. There will be mistakes along the way. You won’t make it to that person every day. And it’s taken me 17 long years to accept that it’s ok to cry. I think I cried more this weekend than I have in a long time. But in a way, I feel more at peace, though my worries and fears still rage inside me, I want to use them to make me the person I see in my head when I think of who I am in God.

So maybe, just sometimes, Vish, it’s a good thing to listen to words whilst you’re studying -maybe it will reveal to you a determination to achieve your full potential.