Be still for a moment.
Let the restless and impatient breakers of your mind subside.
Search deep inside yourself for those places where you feel you are most yourself: the things that make you and define you and fill you with delight and awe. Or even the dark and difficult memories — for sometimes it is in the darkness that we have the clearest sense of what the light we crave might actually be like, or at times of pain and loss that we discover just how strong love is.
IS THERE a day that, as you look back over your life, you think: that was the day when I felt most myself, most at ease, most in love, most fulfilled, most full of joy and wonder?
Or just a day that was so blessedly beautiful it is the day you would live over again if you had such an option?
Or even a day, like the day that a dear loved one died, that was the saddest one imaginable, and yet, at the same time, hallowed by unquenchable torrents of tears, a day when we truly knew that though this person had gone, love continued?
Or is there a moment when life just made sense: when your life seemed meaningful, when it had purpose, when what you said and did made a difference? Even if it was a very small thing: something that on its own seemed insignificant but
that was somehow woven into a bigger and hugely beautiful tapestry, and you saw yourself as part of it.
I REMEMBER one particular moment from my own family life. Our eldest son would have been about two years old at the time. We were living in Chichester, and often went for tea in the Bishop Bell Rooms at the Cathedral.
In the summer, there was a garden where the children could play while the parents drank their coffee. Sitting at the table adjacent to us was a woman who was obviously in some sort of disquiet, but not in a demonstrative way: we were just aware of her solitude and distress.
I think I may have even wondered about doing that very un-English thing and reaching out to her. She was carrying some burden of sadness, holding it in, but not
so effectively that we were unaware of it.
But, of course, I didn’t reach out. It’s not the polite thing to do, and, anyway, how would I know what to say?
So we sat in the orbit of her grief, but felt powerless to enter it or change it. We drank our tea. She drank hers.
But Joseph, even aged two, did do something. He was also aware of her sadness. He felt it and he received it, and somehow, however subconsciously and intuitively, he decided to do something about it.
He picked a daisy from the lawn and, without saying anything, went up and gave it to her. Watching out of the corner of my eye, I saw her receive the gift of the daisy and thank him, then press the daisy between the pages of the book she had with her.
Perhaps she has it there still.
It was a beautiful moment. Joseph doesn’t remember it. But in that moment, he was giving this woman something astonishingly precious, something that it is hard to pin down or explain.
Yet it is the most obviously wonderful thing there is: one human being, on this occasion a small child, reaching out and doing something to nurse the hurt and assuage the grief of another human being, this time a woman carrying who knows what sadness, and making a connection that spoke more in a single moment than this book, and hundreds of others, will achieve in a thousand pages.
The Most Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Archbishop of York.
This is an edited extract from his new book, Dear England: Finding hope, taking heart and changing the world, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.99); 978-1-529-36095-0.
Interview with Stephen Cottrell