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Diary: Chine McDonald

29 January 2021


Felt presence

WHEN my son was a baby, I answered an advert for infants to take part in a child-development study at a London university. Yes, I’m that kind of mum. I was curious to see how my child’s brain worked (I was not, obviously, merely in search of bragging rights once the study showed how exceptional he was. . . ). The study involved his playing all sorts of games in an attempt to gauge whether his brain grasped the concept of object permanence: that things he could not see — whether a ball bouncing behind a screen or a cup hidden underneath a napkin — still existed.

I’ve been thinking about this since our church’s “verse of the year” was revealed: Romans 8.4. It talks about walking not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, of course, tricky to understand. I have in the past thought about the presence of the Spirit as made manifest only through feelings. Feelings of awe, wonder; the numinous.

But, as C. S. Lewis wrote, the Holy Spirit cannot solely be experienced through sensations or emotions. We shouldn’t depend on them, he says, otherwise when those feelings go — like my baby boy’s experience of a ball bouncing behind something — we will think that that thing no longer exists; that it is gone for ever. Not so, Lewis says. “It will be there when you can’t feel it. May even be most operative when you can feel it least.”


Fringe benefits

MY HUSBAND and I managed an anniversary-weekend getaway to Arundel during a small window in between lockdown restrictions. Wandering into Arundel Cathedral, I realised that this was one of only two occasions since the start of the pandemic when I had set foot inside a church building. It’s amazing to think how quickly we can get used to significant change.

During those early days of lockdown, as my church switched its services to Zoom, the sight of each of us separately depicted in pixelated square boxes, having been forced to retreat to within own four walls, was miserable. But, in recent months, those same boxes, representing different households side by side, have come to symbolise our togetherness rather than our apartness.

In the early days, my three-year-old so missed his weekly trip to the crèche at church that, as we settled down to virtual church on Sunday mornings, he would grab his shoes, put them at the door, and demand to go to “outside church”. I asked him what he missed about outside church. “Biscuits,” he said.


Big church

IN 2018, giving the opening reflection at the National Cathedrals Conference — “Sacred Space: Common Ground” — I spoke of how cathedrals symbolised God’s relationship to all creation. Standing as iconic elements of cityscapes across the nation, they occupy a unique space between the sacred and the secular. I love cathedrals for precisely that reason. Rooted in their communities, they also point a way to God.

Cathedrals are able to do the unexpected, drawing in not only those from their local communities, but from all over the world. One of my most surreal cathedral memories was presenting a segment (as part of BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live) from Rochester Cathedral, which, in a bid to draw people in, had installed a crazy-golf course in its nave (News, 2 August 2019).

Cathedrals provide venues for civic, cultural, and academic events; they contribute to the local economy and the prosperity of their cities. Seeing images of elderly people lining up to get their Covid-19 vaccinations at Lichfield Cathedral brought tears to my eyes. At this, the bleakest moment in most of our lifetimes, a cathedral is doing perhaps exactly what it should be doing.

Watching the Dean, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber (whom I’d met in Manchester, at the Cathedrals Conference), talking on the BBC about Lichfield’s transformation into a vaccination centre brought it home to me. For him, cathedrals offer a place for people to “touch the hem of the divine . . . and that’s what we’re here for” (News, 22 January).


Carpe diem

AFTER months of checking the daily death tolls and coronavirus-case numbers, it is a complete joy to hear stories of people receiving the first dose of the vaccine. It doesn’t matter to me whether they are the grandmother of a long-lost relative or the postman’s neighbour: every jab represents hope — the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we might get through this.

Over the past year, we have been living through a collective trauma, and these most recent weeks have seemed the darkest of all. I’m clinging to the truth that it’s always darkest just before the dawn.

My husband and I are starting to make lists, with our friends, of the things we will do together when life opens up again. Instead of grand globe-trotting adventures, it’s fascinating to see how our hopes and dreams have become a little simpler. A trip to a Surrey farm, followed by a pub Sunday roast. Taking the children to a local theme park. We dream of the simple pleasure of having dinner with friends — inside.

We recently watched the new Disney Pixar movie Soul, which tells the story of a teacher who is on a journey to reunite his soul and his body. His words about life are certainly ones I’ll take with me into post-pandemic life: “I’m going to live every minute of it.”


Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster, and head of public engagement at Christian Aid.

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