In the garden

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We spent our Bank Holiday Monday in the garden like folks used to before the days of wrap around shopping.

When we had finished the compost bins were full and our bodies ached from tidying a tiny back yard no bigger than a picnic rug. The garden looked good, in an amateur, wild, make-do-and-mend kind of way and after we had closed the back door on our well watered plants I couldn’t help but creep back to survey my plot from the various window vantage points around the house.

Later we talked about the gardens we had made in our past and how much we had loved them: our first back yard with raised beds, our professionally laid hedge, an allotment with a friend, a much loved wisteria that died one spring, full to overflowing with new buds destined never to flower. I know all the names of my favourite plants from back then, when hostas were fashionable and my palette was all silver, blue and white; delphiniums, roses, hardy geraniums, pelargoniums with scented leaves, verbenas and sage.

What is a garden that it would be so treasured, aspired to, desired and laboured over? What is a garden that sometimes a saddened soul finds more solace there than in all the expanses of nature spread out under God’s big sky? We have the mountains and the moors, the seashore, expanses of rolling hills, meadows, wetlands and forests at our disposal, yet we take a piece of God’s great wild and contain it as best we can in lawns and borders, and curving walls of terracotta washed by the rain and warmed by the sun.

And it does us good.

When I was ill with depression and struggling every day to get out of bed, we took a holiday in Norfolk by the sea and my parents bought us an open ticket to the Wildflower Centre at Glandford. Moderate depressive illness is characterised by effort. The smallest attention, is an effort. Sharing a child’s delight at discovering a bug under a stone, raising a smile at little ones hurtling along footpaths or playing eye -spy amongst the flowers, all effort. But I made an effort. We took the children round the butterfly gardens and down to the river Glaven, where sleepy willows trailed their leaf tips across the cool dark water. We looked out over the wet meadows filled with swaying summer grass, then ascended the path back to the main gardens where we wandered amongst vegetables, in carefully laid out plots and admired houses for friendly insects and birds. All the effort of false enthusiasm and forced exclamations of delight, I felt extreme sad.

I did not like the person I was being and I did not know how to stop.

The children sat on a bench eating ice lollies, dusty feet clad in pumps swinging happily. I wandered alone to a small herb garden, elevated on a well drained spot, apart from the rest of the gardens. A hexagonal seat had been built around a little old woman of an apple tree, hard green fruit and browning leaves lay on the ground all around. The beds of herbs were laid out in something of a pattern like the formal gardens of an Elizabethan mansion but beautifully amateur in their materials and construction. I still remember the plants I came to know that summer in the herb garden: angelica and fennel, thyme, mint, wormwood, rue and hyssop, silver grey santolina, soapwort, blackcurrant sage and towering stems of yellow elecampane.

In literature and folklore their are doorways into new worlds. I found one. Bees busy amongst their flowers and the breeze moving craftily amongst the longer stems. The shape of a leaf, the texture of its surface, flower blooms gentle in colour and delicate in form. The crunch of gravel under foot and the warm, warm sun beating down on the path. The texture of a leaf between my fingers releasing scent of lemon or spices that followed me along the paths and back to that apple tree seat.

I returned to the garden every day of that week long holiday.

Depression and sadness dull the senses. Our thinking skills are disturbed and in disarray. Our emotions are shut down and any ability to receive comfort or encouragement is gone. A garden stirs the senses and draws the shut-down self through sight, sound, touch and smell. In the garden we start making memories, dreaming dreams and using other functioning ways of thinking. In a garden we can sit and simply be against a fading backdrop of demands and expectations, whilst all around us the life of our plants works a miracle that never fails to speak to the deeply needful soul.

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A Song for Issy Bradley

Book Review: Carys Bray, A Song for Issy Bradley

I’ve begun to think that when it comes to novels about faith, the stories about loosing your religion are much more interesting than the ones about finding it. Take Jude the Obscure for instance. I listened to a recent radio adaptation of this wonderful classic and fell in love all over again with Hardy’s portrayals of passion, loss, sorrow and despair, but most of all with his ability to bring character and story to our questions about what it means to be human and our relationship to God. I think this is one of the more things that I am looking for in a novel.

I wanted to post a quick book review today because recently I had so much fun reading fiction and I’ve managed to find so many books that ask the right questions and help me explore the all possible answers through different voices and perspectives.

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The book is,  A Song for Issy Bradley by Southport writer, Carys Bray.

I read about this novel in my local free paper. Bray had been nominated for a Costa first novel award. The intersection of her themes and personal story completely captured my imagination. Bray was brought up in a committed Mormon household, and lived a good proportion of her adult life as a devout member of the Mormon community, until she lost her faith and along with her family re-forged a life without God. She had previously published a collection of short stories and has said that this is her first serious attempt to write about faith.

The story is of a mother, Claire, who after losing her young daughter to meningitis, is shocked into re-examining the religious beliefs and practises she has taken for granted. Claire, a convert to Mormonism has been a faithful student and follower of the faith, but she emerges from the shock of her loss with new questions about why God does not always answer prayers. Her husband Ian is a bishop in their local congregation, a kind man, he is completely caught up in the needs of his congregation and desperate to carry on as usual. When Claire takes to her bed Ian struggles to hide the true situation from a church community who have certain expectations of their leaders. Their three children are left to find their own way through a maze of questions and grief in the wake of their sister’s death.

I found the writing intelligent and the observations of religious culture sharply yet sensitively portrayed. Bray has a gift for cataloguing some of the faintly ridiculous aspects of religious behaviour without being mean or spiteful. She also has a gift for exploring the big questions of faith and doubt without making you feel like you’re back in Philosophy 101. Southport readers will enjoy the local detail.

If you decide to read this book (and it is recently out in paperback) I think your heart will melt for this family and their story, especially little Jacob who is praying for a miracle that will bring his sister back to life, or for teenage sister Zippy falling in love for the first time. Most of all, in the final chapters prepare yourself for a surprising touch of grace from an author who just can’t seem to let go of the possibility of miracles, awe and wonder.

Listen to the author talking about the book …

And a short example of the beautiful writing …

“While she was waiting the water has swept along rifts in the sand and arced around her. She is stranded on a craggy island, surrounded by dark, charging sea; not deep yet, only knee height, certainly no more than thigh height. As the tide unfolds, her island will shrink and sink and she will have to make a choice. There is only one set of footprints and they are her own. No one has walked beside her. No one has carried her.

She can’t see the costal road or the car park but she is aware of the sweep of the beach and the distance she must cover before she reaches safety. And when she turns to check the incoming tide she sees how she might drift out of this world and into the next…”

A bias to prayer

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Place yourself in the midst of those who pray to God with confidence. Keep company with the faithful and let them help you bring your needs to God. Spend time with reverent pray-ers and those who converse in vocabularies of heaven and languages of God. Treasure their words in your heart and learn from them, but know this: your own unanswered prayer and the days when you had nothing to say, none of this made you less of a person of prayer.

There will always be others who seem to live their days in a bright harmony of miracles and answered prayers. In the sharp eye of your mind you see them through the gloom of the forest trees, beyond the places where the canopy cuts out the light. They pray like those sitting on tree stumps, in a small clearing, bathed in sunshine and flowers. The woodland creatures feed from their hand and all is well. You watch from the shadows, moving nearer one step at a time and when they are disturbed by a twig snapping under your foot, you move back quickly into the thick of the forest where shadows play tricks with your sight and it’s difficult to see the (proverbial) woods for the trees.

Prayer is not a virtuoso art reserved for the super talented, educated or the well trained. You do not need a seminary degree to pray.  You do not need prayer journals, workshops or big name preachers to show you the way. Prayer is not the sole territory of those blessed with a trusting disposition and childlike heart. It is not just for those who seem to have everything sewn up, seam allowances measured, no frayed edges or ugly tucks. In scripture the whole of creation waits in eager expectation for the coming of God, trees clap their hands, springs flow in the desert and barren plants burst into bloom. Nothing is left untouched. When God comes he comes for us all and we all pray.  Prayer is for all people to give and receive, to mutter, shout, sing or bawl. Prayer is the ultimate redistribution of power, offensively inclusive, a nonsense of first-will-be-last madness set to turn the current world order inside out. For if there is a God, he is God of us all and all of us can know him well. If there is a God, he loves us equally amidst the messy realities of our tangled personalities and chequered pasts, our disparate views, beliefs and dispostions. He has not rendered one person’s prayers more lovely than those of the next.

These are a few of the un-truths that keep us from praying well and keep us from praying at all.

A true prayer is religious  – Did you ever think that a true prayer needed to be liturgical, scriptural or conform to some real or imagined standard of spirituality? Nothing deters people more from pursuing access to Him in prayer. Jesus was not impressed by the hypocrites who used their words to intimidate and exclude others from the everyday holiness of prayer. This is the time to take Jesus at his word whether you are a fundamentalist or not. Make your prayer by saying a thing as it is, just as the authentic you would have it said, in any other forum of life. In doubt or confidence, clarity or confusion, out of a place of knowing for certain or out of place of knowing nothing at all, let your own yes be yes and your own no be no. Simply so. Thank him that he has heard you and never let anyone rob you of your God given right to freely come, whoever you are and wherever you have been. Come as you are, simply come.

True prayer is long – nothing stops us praying more than the voice that tells us a hastily grabbed prayer is an insult to God. Some of us have failed to pray when we might have because we thought our oh-so-brief prayer was not a prayer at all. I have come to believe that God loves the hastily made prayer of the trusting heart, a minute at the steering wheel before you pull off the drive, a minute at the sink when you ran upstairs to the bathroom in the midst of a child busy day, a minute of delight in God as the pasta comes to the boil or a cry for help on a failing day when the call centre left you on hold and the muzak is hurting your ears.

True prayer feels good – it may be that when you were new to faith and first took the step of approaching God in prayer it was accompanied by a sense that all was well with the world. It may have been the case that in the lush days of new prayer relationship there were requests made and answers given, the voice of God was heard and his healing hand brought health to failing bodies and minds. If this is the case you may have been shocked to find that later prayer was not accompanied with this old assurance and you questioned the validity of all that had gone before. Whole seasons of prayer may be dry and genuinely hard. Some will survive these time through daily discipline and some through naked grace. Such naked grace helps all who can not pray and those who lose the joy of prayer. It offers the assurance that he loves you whether you pray or not and ultimately sustains you whilst you search for treasures in darker nights of prayer.

A whole hurting creation is standing on tip toes waiting for the sons of God to be revealed. We can not afford to be picky about who we let pray or legislate rules and procedures for how it should be done. The body of Christ needs the prayers of all the people; the happy pray-ers rubbing shoulders with those who mourn, the loud beseeching pray-ers silenced a moment to hear the whispers of  uncertain souls, those who called meetings to pray for governments and nations joining ranks with the mums who nobody sees praying over their sleeping children at night. In the great cathedrals the hours of the day are punctuated with the orders of prayer, whilst at home and at work our hearts and minds are persuaded to God in a bias that comes as easy as breath. For if we are to pray without ceasing we will not achieve it alone. We will pray with the weakest and strongest alike. To pray without ceasing requires all of us, more of the time, together inclining our hearts to God.

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