Thoughts for the Month – August 2017

Chilling out from Barbara Worsley

“Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”.  So wrote Wordsworth, though in another context, nearly two hundred years ago.  August, for most people in Europe, means holidays.  Certainly, it does for schoolchildren.  We can all remember the beginning of the school summer holidays anticipating the ecstasy of nothing lying ahead except endless long days of blissful emptiness, chilling out, in modern parlance.  Wordsworth’s simple boyhood in The Lake District was suffused with such bliss and what he described as a holiness.

What a delightful scenario that seemed in those days when I was putting this piece together, a succession of weeks which became contenders to vie with what the Queen once called an “annus horribilis”, when our national life was severely tainted by bad news…….terror attacks, burning buildings, so many lives lost; political chaos and the nastiness of electioneering; uncertainties about the future through Brexit…….. all anxieties distorting our equilibrium and sense of well-being.  Add into this depressing cocktail recent statistics on mental health, and a blissful state of being seemed very far off.  According to “Young Minds,” a mental health charity, the number of teenagers and young adults with depression has doubled in recent years.  Worries about headlines, exams, jobs, housing, personal image and social media relationships, hidden pressures that corrode, mean that anxiety and depression are growing exponentially.  And the medication to deal with it.  There can be no doubt….we need a break!

Where can we look to ameliorate this potential chasm of negativity blighting national and personal life?  Of course, mental health problems require proper medical care, but for those of us who have, as we sing often in church, “spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care”, (most of us at some time or another) need some form of self-help.  People of faith have always known an escape route but for those who, for whatever reason, don’t recite The Lords’ Prayer or similar, help can be elusive and random.  Guess what!  Into the breach steps commercialism, and happiness becomes secularised, monetised, corporatised and co-opted into therapy.  A magazine cover I saw the other day asked Can happiness be that easy?”  Inside it revealed the easy steps to take…..keep a gratitude diary because gratitude is the new attitude.  I firmly believe in giving thanks so long as it is not of the smug sort that says, “I’ve got a box at Wimbledon or a Hermes bag, or a holiday on a Caribbean island,”…. with the selfie to prove it!  And we have all long known “we’re worth it”!

Along with “mindfulness”, “gratitude” gets a pretty good press; old tricks known to Eastern meditation and organised religion are slicked up to be socially and intellectually fashionable in self-help books and cute apps, all at a cost, and all essential to building up positive attitudes and to help stop us worrying about what we don’t have.  Not that these ideas are worthless but nor are they alien to organised religion which is free at the point of delivery.  Gratitude is perhaps the most universal religious sentiment and cornerstone of most world religions.  Expressing praise or thanks to God is the main theme of most Christian, Jewish and Islamic prayers and a grateful heart is prized by Buddhist, Hindu and Baha’i spiritual traditions.

Within the Protestant tradition, Martin Luther referred to gratitude as “the basic Christian attitude”. The Pillar of Islam calling for daily prayer encourages believers to pray five times a day to thank God for his goodness, while fasting during Ramadan seeks to put the believer in a state of gratitude, rather as Lent does in Christianity.  One of my favourite bits of self-help, learned in childhood, comes in Cardinal Newman’s hymn, ”New every morning is the love” which includes the lines, “If on our daily course, our minds be set to hallow all we find, new treasures still of countless price, God will provide…”.  It has been and remains an uphill struggle for me as, by nature, I am a ”glass half empty” person, but hopefully it is a sign of a growing faith to recognise and deal with life’s many inconsistencies.  May our young grow to understand that and may “the peace which passes all understanding” be more widely sought.

But are “new treasures” and blissful peace more attainable other than via a cute app?  Fortunately most people I know rely on basic groundedness to get them through, but mental health statistics suggest it’s not easy and give much cause for concern.  Most young parents worry endlessly about their children’s exposure in this digital age, to corrosive influences and tendencies to self-obsession which modern life encourages and facilitates.  As a life-long Christian, fortunate to have enjoyed a stable and loving home and church family, even at the risk of the smugness I decried earlier, I can only really know what helps to support me; faith and hope and prayer and, yes, sometimes, the grind of contemplating Christ on the cross.  We need to give prayer and stillness more kudos, I think, find time to know ourselves and for reflection on what constitutes a humble thankful heart……..time for just being, perhaps;  chilling out, in modern parlance.

I was struck some time ago by an interesting piece I read in The Sunday Times Faith Register by a theologian who ran a class in the theology of musical theatre at St Andrew’s University.  The piece was headed “Unlikely spiritual insights from the Phantom of the Opera”.  He wrote of one student who had constructed an imaginative service of Christian worship around the musical.  The first half had the congregation sitting in semi darkness wearing masks focusing on the seductive appeal of the devil-like phantom and the temptation we feel to hide from the truth about our desires and obsessions.  The second part switched from darkness to light, masks discarded, seeing as God sees us.  Raoul’s words to pull Christine back from the Phantom in “All I ask of You” become God’s words to us:

“  No more talk of darkness, Forget these wide-eyed fears.  I’m here, nothing can harm you, My words will warm and calm you.  ….Let me be your freedom, Let daylight dry your tears.  I’m here, with you, beside you, To guard you and to guide you.”  *

It seems you can find help in the most unlikely places if you make your heart available and, hopefully, may find yourself, all of a sudden, as Wordsworth was, “surprised by joy”.

Be grateful!  Blissful chilling!

*Phantom of the Opera, 1986. Andrew Lloyd Webber; Richard Stilgoe; Charles Hart.