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Christmas inside walls and under stars

by
19 December 2006

There is no such thing as a typical Christmas, but some are more unusual than others.Here, Sr Catherine and Sr Clare SLG describe life in the cloister; Anthony Feltham-White plans his services in Iraq; and Eva McIntyre recalls her time behind bars

IN A CONVENT

I suppose the oddest thing that we do is not to go out to church. Our worship at Christmas, as every day, is in our own chapel within the convent. Apart from midnight mass, the pattern of our worship is the same as for the rest of the year. Vespers, compline, matins, terce, the eucharist, sext, and none punctuate every day, but the savour given by the plainsong distinguishes one season from another.

Advent has especially strong texts and melodies, building up to the Great O antiphons sung at vespers on the eight days before Christmas Eve: O Wisdom, O Dayspring, O Emmanuel . . . Come! Come and save us, show the light of your countenance and we shall be whole. Each prays this for herself first and last, and we pray it with and for our brothers and sisters, known and unknown, and especially for any who may be too busy or troubled to bring this hope and longing to their lips.

At Christmas, as at every season, our worship is closely interwoven with the rest of our life: smells of roasting turkey waft from kitchen to chapel; sisters come with hands stained from preparing Brussels sprouts to feed 40; with veil awry after a morning with the polisher; with a mind still rephrasing a difficult letter, or with a heart delighted by a kindness received. A hymn, a psalm or two, a verse of scripture and a prayer, is sometimes enough to remind us that our praise and that of the angels is a single song. If not for me, perhaps it is for the sister opposite; if not today, then tomorrow, God willing.

Our Christmas starts late by the world’s reckoning: not until Christmas Eve do we decorate the tree and set up the crib in the chapel, listening to the broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols. The time for silent prayer between that and the evening service of vespers has a special quality. Even in a convent, it can be hard to stop putting the finishing touch, rewriting that list, checking whether everything is ready for the next meal. But the most restless of us is drawn to be still and wait in the last hour of Advent.

Midnight mass — plainsong like our Sunday and feast-day eucharists — has for some of us a particular poignancy. Until quite recently we would gather each morning at 2 a.m. for the office of matins (though not by any means all of us). Fewer and fewer sisters were able to sustain this rhythm of sleeping and waking (and sleeping again, if you were blessed). Changing to an early-morning matins was a hard decision: it felt like abandoning something that had been entrusted to us — the choice to make our bleary way to chapel while the world slept or partied or suffered.

But tonight our song is “Glory to God in the highest” and “Let the heavens be joyful, and let the earth rejoice in the presence of the Lord, for he is come”.

Christmas Day begins later than usual: matins is at 6.30 a.m., and is followed by breakfast with home-made rolls, lemon curd or honey, coffee and fruit. It’s a silent meal, and is followed by an hour or so of personal prayer. The office of terce is the transition to necessary work: we have brought to a fine art getting a Christmas lunch ready by 11.30 (turkey, sprouts, carrots, roast potatoes, gravy and stuffing, mince pies and the rest), so that we can all go to another eucharist (because the middle of the day is the time when almost every sister is able to come, and because there is more to hear and sing and give thanks for).

Lunch follows, shared with friends as well as those who are staying with us. Sometimes a sister or group will have worked on a centrepiece for each table, or decorations for the windows. The refectory has its own tree and crib, and there are many candles. Everyone helps to clear and wash up before none, and there is free time for a walk or a snooze, conversation by the fire, or the Queen’s Speech on television.

Tea is available for those who can find room for it, and later in the afternoon the community gathers to share news and to unwrap some of the presents we’ve been given. People are touchingly generous to us, and opening gifts takes place over several days.

Before vespers, our guests join us for a candlelit procession into chapel, where we have a time of informal intercessions and carols around the crib. By naming the people and places and situations in our own hearts, we try to put into words the prayer that is the undercurrent of all our celebration. We sing it at the end of vespers on Christmas Eve in Laurence Housman’s words:

O perfect Love, outpassing sight,

O light beyond our ken,

Come down through all the world tonight

And heal the hearts of men.

The day ends with compline, sending us to our beds with the familiar words of confession and forgiveness, and of God’s blessing us with peace.

But the end of the day isn’t the end of our celebration. On several of the days after Christmas we keep a festa, the convent equivalent of a Bank Holiday. Work is kept to a minimum, and for many sisters there is an opportunity for a visit from family or friends.

And although the decorations come down at Epiphany, we do not leave the Christmas season until Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of Christ. From there, our attention is drawn towards Lent, and contemplation of the mystery of Christ’s Passion and resurrection.

The joy and focus of our Christmas is that the word of God came — and comes to us — as a baby. In most of the convent rooms where there is a crib, there is also a cross or a crucifix. That is where this baby is going. “He sleeps in the manger; he reigns on the throne.” God willing, that’s where we are going, too.

Christmas at the Convent of the Incarnation

Christmas at the Convent of the Incarnation

Christmas Eve

2 p.m. None

2.20 Work, Christmas decorations

4.30 Prayer

5.30 First vespers of the Nativity and blessing of the crib

6 Supper

8 Lights out

11.30 Midnight mass

Christmas Day

6.30 a.m. Angelus and matins, breakfast, prayer

9 Terce

9.15 Coffee, necessary work

11.30 Mass of the daytime, dinner, washing-up, none, free time

3 p.m. Queen’s Speech, tea

4.30 Recreation and opening presents

5.10 Candlelit procession to chapel for intercessions and carols

5.30 Vespers, supper

7.30 Compline

St Stephen

6.15 a.m. Angelus and matins

IN IRAQ

IN IRAQ

SINCE arriving here last month as part of 19 Light Brigade, the time has thankfully gone very quickly. Only five more months to go, and we’ll all be on our way home.

SINCE arriving here last month as part of 19 Light Brigade, the time has thankfully gone very quickly. Only five more months to go, and we’ll all be on our way home.

Counting the days going by adds to the feeling that this is some sort of prison sentence — six months banished into the desert, with time punctuated only by occasional rocket and mortar attacks. Most of the soldiers have fiendishly complicated spreadsheets on their computers which calculate everything from how many seconds they’ve been in Iraq to how much money they’re earning each minute they’re away from home.

I’ve resisted the urge to create such a spreadsheet for myself. As I get older, I find my life goes by quite fast enough without watching it do so.

For many of the soldiers here, this is their second, third, or even fourth tour of duty in Iraq, so perhaps it’s no wonder that they are wishing the days away. Many feel that in their time here they’ve seen no real results in terms of peace and prosperity for the Iraqi people. Some even feel that they are wasting their time, and are perhaps contributing to the problems. Others are happy just soldiering on, doing what they have always done (and doing it very well, too).

Life for us consists of long periods of normal work, going about our routines and our daily checks. This is punctuated by periods of intense activity, where the pressure and the stress tell on the faces of everybody. These stressful periods can go on for days, or for just a few hours, and they may even include having to deal with casualties.

It’s telling that, whatever a soldier feels about being here, when the pressure is on, he or she reacts with the utmost professionalism and commitment. It is humbling to watch just how well the youngsters of my battalion react to and cope with situations that most of our young people will thankfully never have to experience.

If our operational tempo allows, we hope to have the chance to sing some carols, eat a slice or two of turkey, and open a few presents during the Christmas weekend.

It has been a great delight for me to enjoy the Advent season without any of the consumer hype associated with Christmas in the British high street. Here there are no distractions, no “politically-correct” kill-joys, no one wishing me a happy holiday season.

I have few luxuries: three excellent meals provided each day, and all my washing taken care of. So there is little to prevent me from focusing fully on celebrating the arrival of the Christ-child this Christmas.

What a privilege that is. I’m not assaulted by sales, or caught up in shopping-mall traffic. I’m in the desert. What’s more, it was across sandy tracks similar to the ones I walk each day that Mary and Joseph made their journey to Bethlehem.

I look up to the night sky of the desert, with its marvellously bright display of stars, and I can imagine how a new star must have really stood out, how it must have been a talking point for many who saw it. How it was recognised as something of utmost importance.

Sadly, the rest of my battalion are so busy that they are not afforded this opportunity to stand and stare. I suspect many of them are not even sure whether it’s day or night.

All the chaplains here in this theatre, and no doubt in Afghanistan, too, are busy every day in ministering to those in our care. We are also preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus. My crib scene has been fashioned for me by metal smiths out of welded nuts and bolts. The mince pies I serve after midnight mass will be made for me by our Bangladeshi chefs. It’s a truly joint effort.

My prayer is that there is space for the personnel here in Iraq to pause in their hectic schedules and have a chance to look up to the night sky, to view the stars as the Magi did, and to catch something of the magic in this time of year. After all, it was not too far away from here that it all happened.

My prayer is that there is space for the personnel here in Iraq to pause in their hectic schedules and have a chance to look up to the night sky, to view the stars as the Magi did, and to catch something of the magic in this time of year. After all, it was not too far away from here that it all happened.

Please pray for us all this Christmas: for the experienced soldiers who have been here many times before; for the young ones on their first Christmas away from home; for those who lead this brigade — and for all the Iraqi Christians who continue to suffer terrible persecution. Let us pray that 2007 will be the year that a lasting peace breaks out in the Middle East.

The Revd Antony Feltham-White CF is Chaplain 19 CSS Battalion.

IN PRISON

PICTURE THIS, if you can. It’s Christmas, and you are miles away from home, surrounded by people you would rather not be spending the festive season with. You are locked into a compound without any chance of getting out. You know you won’t see your loved ones for days, if at all.

IN PRISON

PICTURE THIS, if you can. It’s Christmas, and you are miles away from home, surrounded by people you would rather not be spending the festive season with. You are locked into a compound without any chance of getting out. You know you won’t see your loved ones for days, if at all.

Your children are spending their Christmas with someone else. Someone else will watch them open their stockings, eat too many sweets, and get over-excited as they rip their presents open. Someone else will hear their laughter and receive the hugs and kisses that should be yours.

What is worse, it’s all your own fault. You are here because you did something wrong, and you’re paying for it. They are paying for it. You’ve had no chance to buy Christmas presents or cards, and the gift you have given your family is to wake up without you on Christmas morning. It’s the same gift you’ve given yourself. If you can imagine anything of how this feels, that’s Christmas in prison.

My experience comes from working with female prisoners, but there will be similarities in the experience for many men. The phrase “Christmas is really for the children” will be ringing in the ears of mothers and fathers in prison across the UK this December. It will add to their sense of failure as parents, and will no doubt do little for their children, who bear the stigma of having a parent in prison at such a time.

As there are only 13 women’s prisons in England, women are often a very long way from their families, making visits difficult. About 60 per cent of women in prison have children under 16, and more than a third have a child under five years old. This is the issue they feel most acutely about all year round, but at Christmas it’s worse; the fact that they can’t be with their children never leaves their minds.

Sarah, an ex-prisoner, tells me: “Everyone’s feeling the same but no one’s saying it. You all know that’s how you’re feeling, but it’s an unspoken truth. It’s the old stiff-upper-lip thing — you have to survive.”

THE STAFF at HMP Brockhill (it is now a men’s prison) pulled out all the stops to make Christmas as positive as possible. It was a time when they had to make sacrifices, too; some would offer to work the really unsociable Christmas shifts so that others could be with their children.

I think it was a case of making the best of a bad situation for everyone, really. The gym staff made huge efforts to provide a schedule of activities and fun for the women, and the officers got into the festive spirit and created as happy an atmosphere as they could. The health-care staff would appear in Santa hats, a male officer would dress up as Father Christmas, and Sandra, our chef, would decorate the tables and provide a Christmas menu on a shoestring budget. “That’s the best Christmas dinner I ever had,” I remember one woman saying.

The judging of the Wing decoration competition by the governor was a highlight. With few resources, the women showed imagination, and torn-up tampons certainly do make great snowmen.

In a way, the fortnight leading up to Christmas was worse than the day itself; it’s often the case that the expectation of something awful is worse than the reality. Christmas Day would feel calmer. People were resigned: it had arrived, and there was nothing else you could do.

In the lead-up, Sarah tells me, the women would find anything they could to occupy their minds. “I got involved in the Christmas play. I didn’t want to, but it was a good way of distracting myself.

“There was this constant feeling that you wanted to make Christmas as good as possible, but underneath it all, it was your kids you were thinking about.”

THE CHAPLAINCY attempted to do normal things in this peculiar setting. The carol service was a nightmare to arrange, but it needed to happen. It was a weekday evening, and it meant staff busting a gut to make it happen on time by changing the whole regime.

By the time I left, I think we’d cracked it: the timing, the atmosphere, the mood of the women — it was like a proper carol service. It was also an incredible achievement for us all.

The chaplaincy had organised gifts for the women, and they came entirely from donations — from churches in the area, and even a school that donated writing sets and pens for us to wrap and Father Christmas to distribute. The Quakers supplied chocolate, and the Mothers’ Union made sure that every prisoner received a card. The women were so appreciative for these small kindnesses. For some, these were the only cards and gifts they would receive.

Having gifts to give and cards to send is even more crucial, and the work of Prison Fellowship with their Angel Tree Project is powerfully moving. They buy and deliver presents on behalf of prisoners for their children. The present has a label signed by Mum or Dad with no mention that it has come from prison. All is paid for by charitable donations. What this meant to the women at Brockhill is beyond words.

Donations made it possible for us to give the women a handful of cards to send their loved ones. When I handed one woman four cards to send to her family, she began to cry. For days, every time she saw me, she would say thank you.

All of these practical things not only helped the women to feel better about Christmas, but also played a part in calming the levels of anxiety that could so easily lead to higher numbers of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm. Thirty per cent of women in prison self-harm, and over a third have mental-health problems, so it doesn’t take much for the balance to tip.

They are offenders, but they are also very vulnerable and marginalised individuals. Most of them have experienced abuse and loss in their young lives, and their crimes supported their drug habits — mostly shoplifting, drug dealing, and prostitution. The children, of course, have committed no crime.

And what of the true meaning of Christmas in prison? In this setting it was starkly obvious: the message of God becoming human, sharing our messy lives, and showing us the way out of the cycle of despair and abuse. This was a manger lowly enough for the Christ-child; this was a place where God’s presence — Emmanuel — was tangible.

The Prison Fellowship Angel Tree Project: PO Box 945, Maldon, Essex CM9 4EU; www.prisonfellowship.org.uk

The Revd Eva McIntyre was Co-ordinating Chaplain at HMP Brockhill 2003-2006. She is now the Vicar of Stourport on Severn and Wilden, in the diocese of Worcester.

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