As a lamp shining in a dark place

I love school. But it isn’t always easy. Those were the words I said to a member of staff last week as I tried to express how I was feeling.

Coming back to school after the summer has always been something I’ve looked forward to. It is exciting to revel in the September sunshine, laughing over whichever teacher decided that growing a beard over the summer would make them look far wiser. There are always new people to get to know, new routines, new activities and new licks of paintwork across the school site. You are excited to go to lessons, for maybe the first and only time in the year. You are eager to find out the curricula you will be following, and who will teach you what. The boredom of long summer days is over and each year you discover a new passion, a new talent, a new energy.

It was strange to think that this would be my last ever first day back at school. After 14 years of school, this would be my last. But I was ready for it, excited about this transitional year, seemingly between childhood and the big wide world. And what is more exciting than being an U6th former, the oldest in the school, finally being able to walk across the quadrangle whose paths have been barred for 5 years? Believe me, it is most convenient when the bell starts ringing before lessons and you still have half a cup of tea to drink and prepare your books. Suddenly taking the diagonal of the Quad enables you to drink that tea, and have all the right books, and make it to your lesson on time. Awesome.

And being in U6th comes with many new responsibilities – time management is key when you are simultaneously editing the school magazine, being Chairman of the Food Council, secretary to the school council and Choir Librarian, organising school debating, becoming the barricade between 300 ravaging hangry teenage boys and the canteen counter, monitoring the tuck shop queue, making sure 20 girls, who normally stay up far later, are in bed by 21:30 and then somehow still having the energy to apply to universities and keep up with 4 A levels.

Life sure is busy. But I enjoy all the responsibilities; these past 3 weeks have been fun, getting involved in new areas of school life, and seeing the work that goes in behind the scenes to ensure that the school runs as it should. And whilst I am currently in a love/hate relationship with my personal statement, I am finding the process of applying to university incredibly exciting. My teachers are all lovely, I have the majority of my Classics lessons on timetable for the first time in ever and the work is stimulating and engaging.

But if I’ve learnt anything over my 14 years in education, it’s that people come before work every time. The most significant reason why a new year at school is exciting is simply because there are so many new people to get to know. It has been great to get to know the new Head, new teachers, all the new year 9 girls in my house, to mentor new choristers and be a face that people know that they can come to for help.

And, at the end of a long day, with a hand that feels like it’s dropping off from the amount of writing it’s done, there is nothing more rewarding to hear an 11 year old whisper to her friend, ‘I want to be like her when I’m in the sixth form.’ Then when you turn to approach her, having heard, though she didn’t mean you to hear, she blushes slightly as you look her in the eye, squeaks a ‘great thank you!’ in response to ‘How was your day?’ and then smiles as she walks off to the Lower School, in some kind of awe that I actually asked her how her day went. If students see you like that, then you know you’re doing something right. Yes, they admire you for all the crazy things you do, the work, the positions of responsibility, the captainships and assemblies, but they admire you more because they feel like you are person they relate to. You engage with them, and that makes all the difference. People want to feel like you care about them.

In that sense, the first few weeks of term have been great. But somehow, even among 1000 other people on site, the first few weeks have felt incredibly lonely.

Being an U6th former means you are the face of the school. You walk into assembly each morning. 720 pairs of eyes stare at you. Everyone knows your name, even if you don’t know theirs. Everyone knows what you look like, what you do, what you don’t do. Gossip spreads like fire through the school. Suddenly, a girl you maybe spoke to once in year 10 seems to know something about you, giggling as you pass in the corridor. You know something is going round. Something that is probably not even true. The next week, someone tells you what the gossip is. It’s hurtful. Never would be true. It shows people don’t know you. People who knew you would never believe that. Then you find out who started the rumour. Who is seemingly forming clique after clique to oppose you. Things teachers don’t see. Everything becomes a competition. Nothing you do is right anymore. You spend your life looking out for others.

You spend your life in prayer to be there to help people when they need it. You give more when you’ve got nothing left to give. But suddenly, there is no one there to look out for you when you need it.

It feels like no one understands, no one gets you. There are so many other teenagers who spend their Sundays in Church. There are so many other teenagers who don’t spend their Saturday nights drunk, having sex, and throwing up over a stranger’s toilet seat. There are other teenagers who learn Ancient Greek and Latin. But not here, not now. I’m the weird one. For now I am all alone.

It is so hard to walk into assembly, with 720 pairs of eyes staring at you, knowing that you feel alone. 5 years ago, the rumours, the competition, and the catty girls would have broken me. Now, I sail on. I hide the pain, carrying on being there for those who need me, busying myself with the duties assigned for me to do. Sometimes it gets too much and the pain and hurt bubble to the surface in a night of tears. But I get up each day, I smile, I delight in the joy I can bring to some, and I ignore others. I try to love my enemy. I hold out the eternal hand of friendship to those who need to take it. I pray, praise and seek guidance. I look for the day when I will go to University, and there will be people who share similar values. I cling to faith and family. I have an acceptance of myself as I am. I sail through.

And just when things get too much, divine fate drops someone in the way to pick me up. Someone who understands that it is more than ok for your way of acting to be different from the world’s way.

A conversation with my step-grandfather in the car, waiting to collect my brother. The car lights are off, the rain dashes the windscreen. How do I find living in London? Busy. Isolating. He gets it. We’ve never talked like this. He has so much love to give. I never let him give it before.

Sitting down with friends after evensong. They know something’s wrong before I even say. Work issues or people issues? People issues. I try not to cry. I fail. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re there. Their prayers. Their support. They lift you when you fall.

Days off school. To rest, to sleep. To see. Friends drop by, on their way to fly back to Jackson, Mississippi. A little laughter. Brownies. Alain Ducasse chocolates brought from Paris. Their son my closest confidante, a freshman in Swarthmore. Philadelphia’s a long way away. I know, I said. But technology is both the cause of my pain, and a degree to its relief.

I have felt so alone the last three weeks. I’m not going to pretend that bullying disappears in a cloud of smoke. I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t still affect me. There are malicious people out there. There are still some pains that people can’t share. But there are so many that are relieved. Unlike before, there is a net that catches me. That gives me the ability to bounce when life throws me down. I am so grateful that. I continue to do my best to be as a lamp shining in a dark place. The day will dawn. The morning star will rise. And until then, through the darkness, my candle will not burn out.

When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.
I’m on your side, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

When you’re down and out,
When you’re on the street,
When evening falls so hard,
I will comfort you.
I’ll take your part, when darkness comes
And pain is all around.
Like a bridge over troubled water.
I will lay me down.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will lay me down.

Sail on silver girl,
Sail on by,
Your time has come to shine,
All your dreams are on their way.
See how they shine!
If you need a friend,
I’m sailing right behind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.

 

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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.