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Diary: Sister Rosemary CHN

11 May 2018


Wetting the appetite

EVERY year, our community holds an Open Garden day, to which we invite neighbours and other friends to admire our beautiful grounds, lovingly maintained by our expert garden manager, and full of spring flowers. We also have stalls with goods donated by our generous supporters (yes, it does feel a bit like a church fair), and the hugely popular plants sale and cake stall.

Some of our visitors also welcome the opportunity to spend time in the chapel, enjoying the unaccustomed experience of silence and peace, and the chance to talk to a Sister; and in some cases to ask about and appreciate the Stations of the Cross hanging round the walls.

In the weeks preceding this year’s event, we became increasingly worried. Weeks of seemingly unremitting rain had turned our big field (normally used for parking) into a bog. If this weather continued, would anyone come? And even if they did, would they ever get away?

Amazingly, the day dawned bright and sunny, and so it continued. We were happy for all our visitors, and especially for a party from the parish in Peterborough where our Sisters work; and our reputation for effective prayer has received a boost from the impression that we (with the help of God) arranged the weather. Parking was done on the drive, in shifts, and only one car got stuck in the mud. The effort it took to shift that one made us thankful that no more were affected.

I am sure we shall do it again next year.

Failing to deliver

EARLIER this year, I referred to our Community’s enthusiasm for Call the Midwife (Diary, 2 February). Little did I know then that this series would include an episode featuring death and grief, as we saw “Barbara” suffering and dying from septicaemia, while her husband and friends watched helplessly and in anguish.

I have already discovered that this episode has made a great impact on some people in bereavement, whose response to the pain of the characters has helped to unlock their own emotions: “I was able to cry properly for the first time.” The programme also offered links to organisations that offer support. This was all clearly good.

It gave me a jolt, too, as I remembered an unexpected link of my own to the subject. Nearly 20 years ago, I returned from a holiday feeling really ill: my right leg was red, swollen, and very painful. To my surprise, I found that in my absence another Sister had developed precisely similar symptoms. We both had cellulitis. There was no possible connection between the two cases; it was a bizarre coincidence.

The two of us sent enquiries and expressions of sympathy to each other, while the rest of the Community continued to remark on the unexpected similarity. Then, one night, she was taken to hospital with septicaemia, and died. References to the interesting coincidence abruptly ceased.

Question of absence 

MEANWHILE, I made an unevent­ful recovery and proceeded to theological college as planned. I can see that I might easily have developed a form of “survivor’s guilt”, except that in a community like ours we become accustomed to responding to Sisters’ deaths — in all their varied forms — with the help of our faith.

This made me sharply aware of what was missing from the programme. Nowhere was there any reference to Christian hope. Barbara was a devout believer, married to a priest and working with Sisters, but apparently with no spiritual or pastoral help in her extremity.

Where was the hospital chaplain? Where was Tom’s vicar? Where was the Sisters’ chaplain? Where were the Sisters themselves in their religious capacity? Why did Barbara not receive anointing, and the commendatory prayers?

As far as I can recall, the only religious language in the whole story came when “Phyllis Crane” — an avowed atheist — quoted the 23rd Psalm. I appreciate that the BBC is not a missionary organisation, but neither is there a ban in the programme on representing religious responses to death. In a moving episode earlier in the series, after the death of a Jewish man, a group from his synagogue was shown singing prayers (the Kaddish?). They did this in the street outside his house, which seemed improbable to me, but it certainly made riveting television, and took belief seriously.

The list of helpful organisations did not include the local church. Perhaps if viewers had seen help being given from this quarter, they might have been encouraged to approach the Church in their own times of need.


THE next, and last, episode of the series continued to show the effects on the other characters of Barbara’s death, and the final summing-up concluded: “Even when the last breath falls silent, in the end . . . [Oh, I wondered, were we going to get some theology at last?] . . . we all become memories.” Grrr!

The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a member of the Community of the Holy Name in Derby.

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