“FORGIVE me if this sounds a little strange,” my coffee-break companion dropped her voice conspiratorially, “but your partner wouldn’t happen to be a vicar, would he?” Of all the “strange” questions she might have been about to ask, this one hadn’t even crossed my mind, given the entirely secular nature of the meeting that we were both attending. I took a scalding gulp of my inspid-but-virtuous decaffeinated coffee, and did a quick canter through some of the usual clergy-partner clichés. Finding myself innocent of all charges, I wondered whether it had been the way I’d proffered the custard creams — a tad too liturgical, perhaps?
“What gave me away?”
“Your name!” She pointed at the neatly printed ID badge with which I’d been issued on arrival. “I couldn’t work out how I knew it and then, just now, it came to me!” She dropped her voice again, “How is the Man in Black?” The MIB is the nickname I used for my husband during the ten years I wrote for The Sign, a venerable publication with which some of you may be familiar (for those who are not, it is an excellent resource available to editors of parish magazines and websites: the-sign.hymnsam.co.uk).
I marvelled at her memory and assured her that the MIB and Sons 1, 2, and 3 — whom, she felt, she’d watched grow up — were all thriving. Driving back up the motorway and mulling over the meeting and our conversation, I caught myself indicating to leave at the junction that would have taken me to our old parish. Some habits die hard.
SPEAKING of which, how are your New Year resolutions going? It’s about now that any resolve I’ve managed to muster dissolves in the freezing February rain. Leaving the house early one frosty morning last week, I found that the car doors were frozen shut. Several minutes, a substantial amount of hot water, and not a little unladylike muttering later, I joined the traffic I’d hoped to miss, inching our way through the village — not an easy task as, with cars parked up one side, it is, in effect, a single-track road. At peak times, patience and a steady nerve are required, both of which are in short supply when I’m craving the caffeine that would have been coursing through my veins . . . had I not resolved to decaffeinate myself.
Suffice to say, on reaching my destination, I abandoned my resolution, treating myself to a double espresso. Twice. It was bliss, and any remorse I might have felt over my weakness disappeared as quickly as the delicious coffee itself. Oh, well, there is always Lent. . .
Every breath I take
ONE good thing about February is the joy of sitting by the fire, indulging in another of my pleasures: reading. Friends and family always ensure that my Christmas stocking is bulging with books.
This year, one of the books was Things Hidden: Scripture as spirituality (SPCK) by the American Franciscan Richard Rohr. I confess I read the thrillers, two murder mysteries, and a book on Scottish bothies before I turned to Fr Richard’s book.
Some of you will already be familiar with what I learned in chapter six of the book, but, just in case it’s as new to you as it was to me, I have to quote it. Rohr writes, “Some Jewish scholars say that the consonants used in the spelling [of YHWH] are the very few that do not allow you to close your mouth around them, or even significantly use your lips or tongue; in fact, they are very likely a brilliant attempt to replicate human breathing: YH on the captured in-breath and WH on the offered out-breath.”
Try it: mouth relaxed and breathing naturally, inhale with “yah”, exhale with “weh”; inhale with “yah”, exhale with “weh”. If you spend a few minutes breathing gently, you’ll gradually become aware of the sounds: yah, weh. Which is why, one January evening, our Pilgrim group* — who were considering the phrase “hallowed be your name” — were to be found sitting around the Vicarage fire, mouths open, breathing slowly, and enjoying an unexpected epiphany.
What a thought: God’s name, present in our very breath; from our first gasp at birth to our last sigh at death. The unspeakable Name remaining unspoken, and yet alive in each breath. I’ve resolved to spend time each day consciously listening to my yah . . . weh breathing; I suspect that that will be more beneficial than any of my New Year resolutions.
* “Pilgrim” is a wonderful discipleship resource: visit www.pilgrimcourse.org for more information.
Heart of the matter
BY THE time you are reading this, February will have played its resolution-breaking trump card: St Valentine’s Day. Even as I write, the shops are full of soppy cards, red and pink boxes of chocolate, and “romantic” meal-deal offers. I am not a fan of chocolate, but my husband is, and, for several days now, he’s been dropping increasingly blatant hints about a particular rather extravagant brand.
This morning, I found attached to our coffee grinder this quote, from the German chemist Baron Justus von Liebig (1803-73): “Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power.”
Well played, MIB, well played! Pricking my conscience about my caffeine intake was a master-stroke; I have ordered him a suitably indulgent quantity of his favourite chocolate. I hope that you, too, will have received whatever it is that helps to restore your “exhausted powers”. Double espresso, anyone?
Elizabeth Figg is married to the Vicar of Warton and Borwick with Yealand, in Lancashire.