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Lift Up Your Hearts: The consoling power of a story

by
08 May 2020

Paula Gooder continues our seriesDownload the free PDF to print at home: Lift Up Your Hearts: No. 7 | 8 May 2020

Peter Horree/Alamy

Old Woman Reading (probably the prophetess Anna) (1631) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

Old Woman Reading (probably the prophetess Anna) (1631) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)

AS IT has for so many people, this period of lockdown has brought with it dislocation. In my case, the dis­loca­­­tion is literal. My usual weekly pattern of travelling from my home in Birmingham to work at St Paul’s Cathedral in London has gone; instead, I work in my study all day every day, often via Zoom or tele­phone calls. Working with and among people who are actually a hundred miles away brings all sorts of challenges — for them, as well as for me.

One of my greatest sources of con­­solation and inspiration has always has been stories. Stories offer us another world to inhabit — a world in which we can immerse our­­selves, see things from a different per­­spective, or through another’s eyes, and, in doing so, untangle knots of anxiety or uncertainty with­in us.

Stories — both long and short — offer us a brief respite from the present. In the company of their characters, they help us to lift our vision, offer comfort for our souls, and the strength to return to our own lives once more, renewed and refreshed. At times like this, when we can’t travel bodily to a new place, we can travel in our imagination to new places, with new people, and new worlds.

At times of particular distress, the stories that I return to are the ones I know best. They are old friends who, like the comfiest of comfy jumpers, provide security and reassurance in troubling times. One of the authors I often reach for is Elizabeth Goudge, a 20th-century writer whose writings pulse with themes of grace, forgiveness, and hope.

So it was lovely to run across a quotation in the first volume of her Damerosehay trilogy — The Bird in the Tree (Duckworth, 1940) — which indicates that she felt exactly the same about other old books as I feel about reading hers: “David also, on going to bed, resigned himself to hours of reading, but he had a good deal more control over his thoughts than Nadine had and he was able to keep his attention firmly riveted on his book. It was his favourite book. . .

“In times of storm and tempest, of indecision and desolation, a book already known and loved makes better reading than something new and untried. The meeting with re­­membered and well-loved passages is like the continual greeting of old friends; nothing is so warming and companionable.”

 

MY FAVOURITE film also explores the power of stories to transform. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle­stop Café (starring Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy) tells the story of Evelyn Couch, a timid, unhappy house­­wife, who — through her friend­­­ship with Ninny Threadgoode, in a nursing home where her hus­band’s aunt lives — hears the story of the Threadgoode family, and in par­ticular of two friends, Idgie and Ruth. Through their story, Evelyn finds herself and is transformed. The story that Ninny tells her gives her the key that opens the door to her freedom.

Given my love of reading, and the ways in which it has healed and restored me when I have needed it most, it is hardly surprising that the painting to which I am drawn in times like this is Rembrandt’s The Prophetess Anna. It depicts Rembrandt’s own mother, dressed up as Anna (Luke 2.36-38), who, when Jesus was brought to the temple by his parents as a baby, not only recog­nised him, but spoke about him to everyone she met.

By this stage, Anna was old. It is not quite clear from Luke whether she was 84 or had been a widow for 84 years — she was either old or very old — and she had spent her years as a widow fasting and praying in the temple. Rembrandt interpreted this as including her reading the scrip­tures, and there is something so beautiful about the still, rapt atten­tion of Anna as she immerses herself in the text that lies before her.

Of course, the key thing about Anna after all those years of isolation — of watching and waiting alone — is that she immediately recognised God’s presence with her in the un­­expected guise of a tiny baby. That long, lonely time was a time not just of waiting, but of preparation, so that when the moment came, she was ready. This picture is also my prayer: that as we read and read and read we might learn more about God, about ourselves, and about the world, so that, like Anna, we are ready to recognise and welcome “God with us”.

 

THERE are so many verses and passages in the Bible that feed my soul, but, at the moment, I keep returning to my most favourite of Paul’s epistles: 2 Corinthians 4.8-10. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Choosing my favourite piece of music is almost impossible. It de­­pends on what time of year it is, or what time of day, but, if I really have to choose, then I would go for Mozart’s Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments in B-flat major, “Gran Partita”, (K.361). I can distinctly re­­member when and where I was when I first heard it: I was 19 and, at a dark time in my life, felt so sur­rounded, comforted, and upheld by its rhythms and melody that it gave me the strength to carry on. Like my beloved literary compan­ions, this piece has accompanied me through the most difficult times in my life, and reminds me that I have survived this far, and can do so again.
 

Dr Paula Gooder is a theologian and lecturer, and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Next week: David Hoyle

 

Another sky

THE Irish writer Susan L. Mitchell was a jour­­­­­­­­­­nalist and poet better known for her satir­­­­­­­­­­ical verse than for anything spiritual. She was brought up by aunts after her father died when she was six, but did well, and went on to study at Trinity Col­lege, Dublin. She be­­friended W. B. Yeats in her twenties, but was diag­nosed with tuberculosis in her early thirties, and was dogged by illness for the rest of her life.

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She had a long working relation­ship with George Russell, for whom she worked on the Irish Homestead and the Irish Statesman. When she died of cancer in 1926, aged 60, he described her as “one of the best Irish women of her time”, and wrote that her work was in­­­­formed by “a delightful wit, sentences shaped with a rare grace, and a humanity so kindly and tolerant and under­standing that it seemed the con­summa­­­­­­tion of womanly wisdom” (quoted in Susan L. Mit­chell by Richard M. Kain, Buck­nell University Press, Lewis­burg, 1972).

One of her spiritual poems, “Immortality”, was included in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917):
 

Age cannot reach me where the veils of God have shut me in,
For me the myriad births of stars and suns do but begin,
And here how fragrantly there blows to me the holy breath,
Sweet from the flowers and stars and hearts of men, from life and death.
 

We are not old, O heart, we are not old. The breath that blows
The soul aflame is still a wandering wind that comes and goes;
And the stirred heart with sudden raptured life a moment glows.
 

A moment here — a bulrush’s brown head in the grey rain
A moment there — a child drowned and a heart quickened with pain;
The name of Death, the blue deep heaven, the scent of the salt sea,
The spicy grass, the honey robbed from the wild bee.
 

Awhile we walk the world on its wide roads and narrow ways,
And they pass by, the countless shadowy troops of nights and days;
We know them not, O happy heart, for you and I
Watch where within a slow dawn lightens up another sky.

 

Put on Christ 

John Donne (1572-1631), poet and Dean of St Paul’s, had much to say about living and dying well, not least in his sermons, of which 160 survive:

No man may take the frame of Christs merit in peeces; no Man may take his forty days fasting and put on that, and say, Christ hath fasted for me, and therefore I may surfeit; No man may take his Agony, and pensiveness, and put on that, and say, Christ hath been sad for me, and therefore I may be merry. He that puts on Christ, must put him on all; and not onely find, that Christ hath dyed, not onely that he hath died for him, but that he also hath died in Christ, and that whatsoever Christ suffered, he suffereth in Christ.

 

(Sermons V, 226-34, quoted in One Equal Light, edited by John Moses (Canterbury Press, 2013)

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