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

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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.