Ash Wednesday Homily - Dust and Ashes
Dust and ashes. Ash Wednesday has quite a lot about dust and ashes. The phrase always reminds me of my time in Japan. I was in Japan for 13 years, mostly teaching in one of the universities in Tokyo and the Theological College, but in the first couple of years I did some pastoral work in a small city while I was improving my ability in the language to the teaching level.
You may know that Japan is a gift-giving society. Gifts are usually very simple, but there is an exchange of gifts on every social occasion, including funerals. I was involved in many funerals, both Christian and Buddhist. Usually someone going to a funeral gave a gift of money in a special envelope, and after the funeral the family of the deceased usually gave each person who came a small gift of sugar, and some small, round and as I recall, pink and white cakes, which were very dry – something like a very dry, powdery meringue – and very sweet. Foreigners like me, referred to them somewhat irreverently as ‘Dust and Ashes.’
There is something to be learned from the connections between dust and ashes and sweetness. The first reminds us that as surely as we had a beginning in birth, we all will have an end in death – nothing morbid about that!
The other, sweetness, reminds us that God created the world and human life to be sweet. It is important to be reminded because we easily and often forget it – the pressures of life, our own troubles and relationships – but it does not alter the fact. In our tradition we have a couple of ways to face up to mortality. One is the hellfire and damnation tradition: ‘shape-up or else’ approach.
We sometimes hear it in the readings and the human inclination tends to emphasize that punishing approach; we tend to be punishing, both of ourselves and others. But if you are involved in education, either as a parent or teacher, or perhaps in spiritual direction, you will know that affirmation is better than threat, that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
Faith is about that. In the oldest days when Lent was the period when new converts prepared for Baptism and membership in the community, it began with an invitation to leave an old kind of life, with a change of heart and mind, and begin a new life of nourishing sweetness with Christ and the community of his brothers and sisters.
For us it is similar: 40 days when we slow up to rediscover the sweetness of the life God means for us. Perhaps to examine our lifestyle and try for something simpler, less cluttered, less driven, which allows time for the beauty and sweetness around us. Yes, perhaps to discover the sweetness of relationships with the people around us, old friends and perhaps new friends.
Perhaps again to look at what we know about Jesus, who not only died and rose again to bring us to the fellowship of God, but who lived among us with stories and humour, with care and love and laughter to show us the sweetness of life in the Kingdom. He was wounded and from that gave healing to us, and to others, enabling us to be healed and heal, to discuss sweetness in ourselves and others.
Lent invites us to prepare to celebrate resurrection and know again that God calls us to give the sweetness of resurrection to each other. Donald Anderson
Call The Midwife:
Did you enjoy the popular new series on BBC 1 on Sunday evenings?
Would you like to know a bit more about the early days of the Community of the Holy Name in Vauxhall? Then read on!
Like the Community of St John the Divine, the community of midwives on which the TV series Call the Midwife was based, The Community of the Holy Name (CHN) was also one of the early Anglican Sisterhoods.
In 1860 Father Herbert became the parish priest of the new parish of Vauxhall. This was a very needy area, densely populated, comprising of mainly unskilled workers, many re-housed from slum areas and the majority used to intermittent employment.
He realised that responding to the overwhelming needs of his parish would need extra help and he asked for assistance from family friends and acquaintances. At this time a parish priest would be responsible for the moral and social care of his parishioners.
Soon he had a group of women living and working in the parish offering help as was needed. This was the beginnings of CHN as a mission sisterhood. One of the first arrivals was a Sister Gertrude, already a novice in another community with invaluable training as a nurse.
“Vauxhall was on the river and in these times it was usual for unfiltered sewage to be discharged into the river. Sickness and disease were common – smallpox, scarlet fever and typhus – and ‘in 1866 cholera was so bad that a special thanksgiving service was held when the epidemic ended.’
“For 18 months the two sisters pursued their life together busy with their nursing, night schools, guilds and the ‘penny school’ which sister Eliza established...”(1865)
It was not long before the parish established a regular Soup kitchen, providing soup for the needy, ‘twopenny dinners’ for the schoolchildren, a Boys club and a Men’s Institute, St Peter’s school – for more affluent parishioners such as the artisans and shopkeepers’ children, and St Paul’s school for the poorer children.
There were also private institutions in the parish such as an orphanage, a home for training girls for service, and a school of art that was begun to help young mechanics draw better. This was of great help to the neighbourhood especially to those working in the potteries.
The parish was divided into districts with each of the women, now sisters, responsible for visiting families in a particular district and getting to know and respond to the needs of individual families. Other parish work also occurred in some of the institutions mentioned above and the sisters also helped at church teaching bible study and reading to groups such as: pottery workers, navvies, cinder-sifters and dustmen, mothers, school children, and poor working boys.
In the 1870s Father Herbert had a proper mission house specially built for the women on Upper Kennington Lane. This was a welcome base where the sisters had their own living quarters and meeting rooms downstairs.
By then numbers had stabilised and were increasing.
By the end of the 1800s the Community of the Holy Name had outgrown Vauxhall and established a convent in Malvern Link. There were also several mission houses around the country with sisters as busy as ever. Vauxhall continued as a mission house for the Community. And the work of a parish sister was extremely varied with their mission houses seen not just as ‘religious houses’ but centres to which the poor could come for help.
“Sisters used to speak of the daily queues outside hoping for dispensary notes (allowing free medical attention) and for coal, bread and milk tickets which could be exchanged for goods at local shops. Sometimes fuel had to be taken to unheated sickrooms or sisters acted as custodians for the sickroom requisites and maternity bags, which were lent to the needy. “
Needlework guilds would send bales of clothes for the parish children and rummage sales were organised as a means of providing good clothing at low prices. They also made up calico underwear which was sold cheaply to the women who came to the meetings.
Mothers’ meetings and guilds for women and girls were often run by the sisters. Some clubs stressed the social aspect while others (the guilds) were more church oriented. Numbers were great and meetings were weekly or monthly with teas, or breakfasts integral to a meeting.
“The only description of a girls club comes from the 1920s.... The club was held in a disused pub on the corner of Vauxhall Street and the ordinary subscription was threepence a week. Its members proudly called themselves the ‘Rough Girls.’
‘An old girl recalls: ‘Sister Ursula came every evening from 8pm to 10pm. She was always the most welcome visitor. The girls however poor and uneducated were always proud to talk to her. We gathered our members by having an open session in the parish hall on Tuesdays where all and sundry were welcome.... We mainly danced ... about 200 at a time... The tea by the way came from the mission house.’”
Some sisters were involved with working with men and boys groups. One novice “who found herself temporarily in charge of the Balsall Heath boys’ club, remarked rather thankfully when she went to Wimbledon that ‘choir boys only used to come to games one evening in the week.’”
Energy, humour, creativity, a deep faith and a compassionate need for justice and human dignity were hallmarks of several of the Anglican communities established around this time.
All quotes taken from Portrait of a Community by Una C Hannam, Church Army Press, 1972.
A Simplified Life
Sister Verena writes of her experience as a solitary Sister
Sister Verena writes of her 25 years living a solitary and rugged life in her small cabin set in the wilds of the Llwyn Peninsula, facing out into the wild sea and towards Bardsey Island in this newly published book.
There are many different strands to the book; first the practical challenges of living in an isolated corner of the world, with few of what society considers absolute essentials: cooking on a two ring Calor gas cooker and a small gas fridge, no telephone or TV and little access to books or music. A small radio to keep abreast of world events. The practicalities of shopping and fetching the mail. And of trying to plant a garden that wouldn't be ravaged by either the weather or the local wildlife!
Sister Verena interweaves the history of the local area and of Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli in Welsh: 'the island of the tides'), the burial place of twenty thousand 'saints' into the story of her coming to love and live in tune with the timeless quality of the place where thresholds can be crossed with glimpses of the "songlines of the land".
There is also the story of the personal journey she undertakes in her 'cell', the task of moving closer to God as she learns to put down the business of this world and pay attention to the business of God through prayer and solitude - a search for a place of stillness and personal space that is within us all - the stillness that allows us to see the world through God's eyes.