Author Archives: Christine McIntosh

Grace⤴

from @ blethers

                 


This week, Dunoon lost a warrior. Grace Page - or Dr Grace Dunlop, to give her her maiden name - died peacefully in the local hospital after a fall in her house. She was a week short of her 91st birthday. She had lived in Hunter's Quay as a child, an evacuee during the war, and as a frequent visitor during the years she lived in London with her husband Charles. But latterly, as travel became difficult, it was in the house in Hunter's Quay, with its view over her beloved Firth of Clyde, that she chose to live permanently, and, fiercely independent to the last, lived there until a few days before her death.

She became a part of my life, of our lives, through Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. That is where I first became aware of her as the most marvellous reader of lessons at the big brass eagle lectern. It was far too big for Grace's diminutive form to look over the top, so she would peep round the side of it as she read with enormous vigour, giving every character a different voice or adopting the persona of a prophet or St Paul as the reading demanded. It was obvious that she was completely unintimidated by an audience, this former University don, and had a firm grasp of the subject matter in hand.

For years she organised the Christian Aid collection for our congregation, challenging us to take whole areas as she did when she was well past the age when putting your feet up might be an acceptable option. When I took over her round with a friend, we were asked at every door what had happened to "the usual lady" - this in an area of hills and driveways, strenuous to visit. She cycled everywhere - though I do recall her driving and having an altercation with a fence beside a parking bay - and would appear at the top of Holy Trinity's hill with bike and wooly hat in all kinds of weather. In fact many of us will always think of her clad in the kilt, the wooly hat and her cagoule - prepared for Argyll weather at all times.

However it was through the music of the church that we really got to know Grace. Right up until the time when the church closed for the Covid_19 pandemic, she could be heard vigorously singing the hymns, especially the traditional ones, dropping - still perfectly in tune - to the tenor register when the melody went too high. Sometimes when she was very old she would confide to me "I really only come for the music, you know", and it was clear that the organist was the important one of the two of us. In the early years of this millennium, she paid for a new electronic organ, the old one (also electric) having gone up in smoke during a service one Sunday. Only last year, when this organ in its turn was showing its age (computers really don't last for ever, especially not in damp churches), she gave a generous sum towards replacing it. By now her memory was failing, and she would ask anxiously if she had indeed given the money, and if it was safe. We were glad she was able to be there to hear the new instrument and know that she was part of its story.

It is always sad to see someone of formidable intellect suffer the ravages of old age, and Grace knew what was happening to her. If anyone raged against the dying of the light, it was Grace. She became furious with herself, and those of us who had known her well knew the struggle this fury represented. She had never suffered fools gladly, and with the loss of memory came a loss of inhibition in letting us all know what she thought. But on the better days, she would tell us of her childhood, of her research work, of her days sailing on the Firth of Clyde, around Arran, all the wonderful places to which she was so attached.

In recent years, Grace longed for death, and her prayers for this mercy were audible. Now she is gone, and we have lost a formidable presence. Her legacy lives on, it is hoped, in the continuing presence of the PS Waverley on the Clyde, and, most poignantly, in the music of the church to which she had become so attached.  May flights of angels sing her to her rest, and may she rise in glory.

Mopping up⤴

from @ blethers

I don't blog much these days, and to find myself doing it twice in quick succession is quite a thing. I feel, however, that I need to clarify my own position after the comments that were left about the Translation of Bishop Kevin, and it's better done here, on a fresh page as it were.

My first point concerns the etiquette of online discourse. There are a couple of anonymous comments on the previous post, of varying degrees of bitterness and hostility, which digitally competent friends  suggested were attempting to hijack my post for their own ends and which should therefore be deleted. And yes, I considered this course. Although I know who wrote one of these comments, it is nevertheless cowardly to refuse to identify oneself with one's point of view. It may be incompetence that makes someone unable to pin an identity to a response, but nothing stops anyone from saying in the body of their reply who they are and what their interest is.

My reason for leaving these replies is that they show what the church is up against. The diocese of Argyll and The Isles covers not only a huge geographical area but also a vast range of different attitudes, some of which belong firmly in the mid-20th century. They also show, I am afraid, another face of what puts people off the church - the all-too-human side of the church.

There have been moments in the past week when I have felt like chucking it all in - but have been so supported by the clearly Christ-filled responses on various media and in private messages that I know giving up is not the answer.

Please note that there will be no more bitter ripostes published on this or the last post.

Bottom, thou art translated …or Bishop’s Move⤴

from @ blethers

There are so many temptations to play with the title of this post that it could almost divert me from the purpose of writing it. Almost, but not quite. The news broke on Saturday that the Bishop of Argyll and The Isles was to become the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway. Two dioceses, the same small denomination. Two dioceses, one populous, the other scattered and sparsely populated over a massive area. This process is not common in the Scottish Episcopal Church - apparently it last occurred almost 100 years ago - and so was not something that even the knowledgable person in the pew would think possible. And the process is called, would you believe, "translation".

I learned of our bishop's translation on Facebook before elevenses on the Saturday when, we had been told, the appointment of the Bishops' choice for Glasgow would be announced. No longer an election because the electors of the diocese had been unable to find a suitable candidate, this was to be a choice, as happened to the Diocese of Argyll some nine years or so ago. Presumably the College of Bishops knew how they were heading before Saturday's meeting - I cannot for a moment imagine it was a Spirit-driven spur of the moment thing. And I learned of it on Facebook. And on Twitter. And then there were the photos on Instagram. And great was the rejoicing thereof, and not a word about the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles.

The announcement was in the pew sheet the next day - the same announcement people like me had seen online. It came as no surprise to me, but in my generation I am known as a social media peculiarity. I could hear the indrawn breaths. And people felt bereft, and just a tad let down. Our last incumbent left to become a bishop - but that, to be honest, was not unexpected.  Bishops tend merely to retire, and retirement, like old age, does not come as a surprise.

At this point, I need to make one notable exception to the torrent of well-meaning explanation as to why this was really needed for Glasgow diocese - as if I needed told. One Glasgow priest had the pastoral sensitivity to respond to my early shocked reaction, not with explanation but with an expression of sympathy and concern, and the assurance of prayer. It is a sad reflection on the church as an organisation that this simple, priestly act brought a tearful response.

There needs to be a serious look at how these things are managed in this era of instant communication. We are no longer waiting for the white smoke, for the revelation of who the latest bishop is to be. Someone gets carried away - for whatever reason - and posts online. Happens in politics all the time. But this is the church. We are supposed to think of our bishop as our Father in God. This is like telling a family that actually the family across the water - for that is where the receiving diocese is for us here - can't stop bickering and so your father is being sent to look after them. You're a sensible lot, they say - you can manage on your own. And they tell you, not even in a private message or a text, but on social media. A done deal.

The truth is that yes, we can manage. As long as we feel loved, and cherished, and valued for our contribution to the church - not financial, but  because we're faithful. But take that for granted, forget to include us in your thinking - no. The College of Bishops, which includes some perfectly savvy media operators, needs to think about the effect of their decisions and the pastoral care of the people without whom there would be no church. It is not the Bishop that keeps going an individual charge like the one in which I participate. It's the passion of the laity, kept aflame, if we're lucky, by the ministrations of our clergy. My church is in a good place just now, spiritually and organisationally. But some of us today are feeling let down by the very people who should be caring for us all.

As I write this, I've found that some people in Glasgow diocese have become aware that there have been failings. I've had two series of supportive messages and an apology, and I appreciate them all. But none of them came from the source that should have managed the whole situation, and none of them has been directed to the people of Argyll and The Isles. For the sake of the diocese and the sake of the Church, I hope it's not too late.

One retreat, two poems⤴

from @ blethers

I was on retreat on the Island of Lewis last month with three friends, directed by a fourth friend who lives on the island in a community of two Anglican religious. We four stayed in a self-catering house in Back; Sister Clare came over from Gress - though one day we walked there for the Evening Office. It was memorable in several ways, which I don't intend to go into here, and produced two poems.


OUTBURST

O, be silent when the God speaks - 
do not blurt your blunted vision
to distort or seek to bend
the flow of love and pain.
Listen. Open. Feel the keenness
of the shaft that wounds the soul;
feel the way you change, but quiet
like a child that hears a call.

Only then, within that silence
can the music truly sing,
make the wordless song of heaven
sweep you up until your tongue
is freed from all the weight of language
 - free to wonder, free to cease -
and your soul can shed what has been,  
free to wander heaven’s peace.


© C.M.M. Back, Lewis, June 2019


JORDAN

The burden of that sudden light
Overwhelms my shrinking self
As I step into the surge
Of life and what will come.
The holy dove, its wings outspread,
Hovers close. No comfort there.
I see the darkness pressing back
Around the edges of my world
Through eyes half closed,
Through lash and hair
That covers my defenceless face.
The water swirls. I feel the tug
Of forces far beyond my reach.
I will obey. God, I accept
- will lift this burden that is Light.

© C.M.M.
Back, Lewis, June 19.

This second poem was inspired by a painting by Daniel Bonnell of the Baptism of the Christ, which you can see here: http://www.bonnellart.com/2012-2015.html

Words, words, words …⤴

from @ blethers

I've been reading. Of course, there's never a time when I don't have a book on the go, but that's fiction. As it's Lent I've tried to be a tad more disciplined, and to that end saved up a book that I bought some months ago. At the time, I posted online that it had been a bargain - and it was: it cost me about £70 less than its published price.

Saturday's Silence is an academic study of my favourite poet's work with reference to Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Day. And when I embarked on the introduction, I found myself nodding in agreement with much that the author had to say, about poetry in general and Thomas in particular. And it's not that I've stopped agreeing as I move through the body of the argument - quite the reverse.

I'm struck by how intense, line-by-line scrutiny of a poem kills that poem stone dead. This isn't a new thing floating into my consciousness - it's something I was terribly aware of when I was teaching English lit, and especially teaching poetry. But in my latter, more experienced days, I had learned the trick of teaching the "how" rather than the "what" - teaching the basics of poetic understanding* via snippets of examination so that the individual pupils could do it for themselves, and reach the point where it would be in the first instance instinctive, even if further study produced deeper and more detailed appreciation. It was that approach, I believe, that had S4 boys (15-16 years old) learning and loving poems by not only Thomas but also John Donne, reciting them off by heart and lovingly examining what it was that had so attracted them.

I've never really stated all this on paper before. Perhaps it's struck me as blindingly obvious without my labouring the point. But why I'm doing it now is because I've linked it in my mind, thanks to Richard McLauchlan, with religion, with faith itself and the nature of faith.

Think of all the tedious sermons you've listened to in your day. (Obviously, I'm addressing a somewhat targeted audience here - you know who you are...) Do you ever consider, perhaps when you give up actually paying attention, what's wrong with them? I bet some of them at least were lectures, telling you what words in the bible signify in terms of what you, the punter, ought to believe.  Lectures, instead of actual communication, kill faith as dead as academic study kills a poem.

I'm not going to chase this further. I want to emerge with today's little epiphany which is probably more of a realisation of something I've known for decades.

Prose can kill.

Which is why poetry is important, why the practice needs to be done to acquire the eyes with which to grasp it.
Which is why I approach faith as the poet, or as the lover of poetry who spots symbolism at a hundred paces.
Which is why music is so important.
Which is why it was a combination of music and poetry that brought me to faith.

I'll finish the book. It's had the merit of taking me to revisit some dearly loved poems, to feel once again the sudden stab of recognition that Thomas's last lines can so often create. But it's the poetry that matters.

Always.


*I'm talking here about such technical features as caesura, enjambement - all the stuff you make a part of your perception so that you don't need to think about it.

An icon evolves⤴

from @ blethers

A couple of weeks ago, I went on an icon workshop. I spent four nights in one of my most familiar places, the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae, doing something completely new; something that feels as life-changing as that January day in 1973 when I sang at the funeral of a friend who was also a priest and a mentor and came away changed for ever.

The first milestone was choosing my icon. Tatiana, our teacher, had brought some illustrations for those of us who had not already decided what they wanted to copy. I had downloaded a few versions of the Christ Pantocrator icon, as well as a photo of one I'd loved when I saw it but felt unequal to trying - one of the Noli me tangere moment, all facial expressions and sweeping robes. But when I saw the A4 sheet with a totally striking Pantocrator image, I was captured. Tatiana saw my face. "That is your icon," she said.

She explained that it was very old - probably 7th Century - and came from St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. And right now the less ignorant reader will visualise what I'm talking about, because it's famous. But I didn't know this. I only knew that the face was really two faces - one the stern judge, one empathetic, looking right at ME. I took the sheet away to my room. By the time I went to bed, I was aghast at what I'd taken on.

Work on an icon begins with tracing - at least, that's the way I took. Another person at my table, an artist in a way I could never claim to be, drew hers freehand with her original only for inspiration. Me, I was out with the carbon paper, trying to trace significant lines from an icon that was far more naturalistic than any I'd ever seen. And I didn't make very many lines.


Then we had to etch the lines onto the white surface of the prepared board. Hindsight tells me I didn't etch enough - too few lines, too lightly scored. By the time I'd done the gold leaf halo and bible cover and "puddled" paint onto the garment and the face, I couldn't see any of the facial features. At all. "Leave it to dry,"said Tatiana. It'll probably be clearer in the morning - and the light will be better..."

I spent that evening chatting to an old friend who'd turned up - a musician, from my other life as a singer. I told him how Tatiana had brought 3 eggs in a bowl for us to paint with - she broke them, separated yolk from white, took the whites back to the kitchen and left us the yolk with which to mix our pigment. I told him about the pipettes, the brushes, the feeling of being 14 again. Jonathan took my mind off my impending struggles, made me laugh - and I went to bed much later than I'd intended.

The second full day began with rain, less sunshine than I felt I needed - and only an eye visible on the face of my icon. By some miracle I managed to draw more or less freehand, with a hard pencil, the lines I was going to need to guide me. Then I returned to a more orthodox way of icon-writing, with brush and egg tempera and a plate to mix my pigment on. I felt like a real artist, in a terrified sort of way. But I was on my way, and during that day, and evening - for some of us returned to the studio to continue painting after dinner - I began to see the face of Christ emerging under my hands.

And it was that last realisation that grew throughout the third full day, by the end of which Titus, Tatiana's partner, had sprayed two of the necessary three coats of varnish - outside, in the gathering dusk, because of the fumes - on my icon, and it was almost finished. That day was spent on the background - which further research on YouTube has taught me shows the domes of the monastery of St Catherine, but which I modelled on the honey-coloured stone of an Italian town as I tried to realise what on the original was too blurred to be distinct - and on painting the border, and the sides and back of the board. Every now and then, as I'd been warned I would, I wailed for Tatiana to come and help me with an intransigent line, or the miraculous effect of painting a wash of unadulterated egg yolk over a whole area of my icon and leaving it to dry. And all that time I felt those eyes on me, boring into me as I stroked pigment over the cheeks, highlights on the sleeves, shadows under the palm of the raised hand.


The final morning was busy with varnish, photographs of each other's work, packing, paying - and praying. We took our finished icons into the cathedral, where they they were individually blessed with holy water before we took them up to the altar and left them there during the Eucharist.
One of my fellow-iconographers presided; others served and read; my friend Jonathan played the organ for us. It was over. I have never felt more exhausted, physically and emotionally. I wanted it to go on, but I knew I was too tired to do another brush-stroke.

Now my icon sits in an alcove in my house. I look at it every day. It has become a part of my life. And I can't wait to do another one.


Springing thoughts⤴

from @ blethers

Two days after the last snow left
I saw the tiny hint of life
in colour, purple, on the mud
which rain had flooded winter-long,
and thought of Spring.
Encouraged by the silent sun
the lack of wind, the sudden song
- a blackbird sitting on a pole -
in air so silent I could hear
the rush of wings above my head 
as pigeons - should I call them doves?
 - set off briskly over roofs 
and gardens, sodden mossy lawns
and foodless shrubs where dunnocks live
I stopped, for long enough to feel.

But what I felt was not the joy
that children feel when freedom calls
but rather that nostalgic pain
more keen with every passing year
that tells me each Spring takes us up
the path towards that distant peak
where only faith says flowers will bloom.


C.M.M 02/18

Another Advent⤴

from @ blethers


Another Advent

For Andy, who suggested the possibility.

From the darkness that returns
each year we sing our plaintive song
and ask that God will come again
and fill our lives with what we know
and hardly know is all we need.
The fire burns low, the night is long,
and yet we feel in some way held
within the circle of this flame
that still we tend with anxious care
in some place hidden from the eyes
that mock and laugh and turn away
with restless ease towards their end.
The world too turns, and we await
the power that fills our life with light
and let our alleluias ring
within the darkness of the earth.

C.M.M. 12/17

Dreich weather and a sonnet: Argyll Weather⤴

from @ blethers

I haven't written a sonnet for 37 years. At that time, I thought I might be halfway through my allotted life span and wrote my first attempt at a sonnet about being at "life's watershed". You can hear the iambic feet, can't you? This afternoon, it being utterly miserable outside, and dark by 3.30pm, I thought I'd make my Christmas puddings and then - maybe - write some cards. Then I got a message from a good friend that he'd been shown a poem of mine on a window of St Andrew's bus station. In St Andrews. There was a photo - it's there, right enough, in black letters on the glass. Extraordinary.

In the comment thread that followed, others joined in. One of them threw down a challenge. "Write a sonnet about Argyll weather. Walking in the rain". This wasn't an entirely random challenge - I'd pointed out that I didn't participate as much as I might in the poetry scene because I was always walking about in the rain in Argyll.

Reader, I tried. Once the puddings were burbling and the (extensive) washing up done, I sat down with my preferred poetry-writing tools (the back of an envelope and a biro) and a copy of Edwin Morgan's Glasgow Sonnets for inspiration.

This is the result. I've dedicated it to my friend Jim Gordon, whose fault it was.




Argyll Weather

A Sonnet for Jim

The rain drifts in grey curtains from the hills
and turns the loch’s black surface into lace
before a random wind takes up the chase
that now obliterates the day it kills.
The burn beside me gurgles as it fills
and overflows. There’s water on my face,
the path I followed gone without a trace,
enthusiasm drowned in sudden chills.

But as I turn to make my sodden way
to shelter, warmth …dry feet … a sudden gleam
appears. It’s like another day.
The wet rock all around me starts to steam
and birdsong cuts the air as if to say
This is Argyll. Things are not what they seem.

C.M.M. 12/17

The way we were⤴

from @ blethers

I've held off from saying much online about the latest celebrity-outing as a sexual predator, but the Harvey Weinstein furore has got me thinking about the past - my past. Interestingly enough, my first reaction was to reflect how it's always the really ugly, unattractive guys - just run over in your mind the names that surface and see if you agree. I can recall that time in the 1960s when I asked my mother how a man like Robert Boothby could attract anyone; I seem also to recall that her answer contained a reference to the aphrodisiac of power - the idea that a powerful man could always have his way with a younger partner. Clearly I was not entirely convinced of that; I do recall my 20-something self finding him utterly repulsive.

But actually that's not the whole story. The thing is, when we were young we were expected to be grateful to be fancied by ... well, by anyone. That's part of the sad truth. When I was in Primary 7 - that is, 11-12 years old - we read comics like Romeo (always had the lyrics of a current pop song on the back) and Valentine (had photo-serials instead of comic strip ones - I never liked it as much). The stories were always about a girl attracting some personable bloke by changing her hair or removing her specs, thereby looking more appealing and less brainy. There were columns devoted to pleasing a boy by allowing him to talk about himself - even down to the questions to ask him. And the girl always, always had to wait to be asked.

We joked about it too. There was a teacher in my secondary school whom we avoided as having "wandering hands". Remember that one? But then I remind myself that he was deeply unattractive. Would we have made the jokes about him if he'd been fanciable? There was the unknown man who chased me and two pals along the road, exposing himself as he did. We could hardly run for laughing - though the fact that we were encumbered with violins and (god help us) a cello didn't help. We were interviewed by a policewoman after that; one of my pals was the daughter of a high-ranking policeman. So they took it seriously - we didn't. Why was this?

Remember the cattle-market dances? Girls down one wall, boys facing? And then waiting to see if some pimply youth would ask you to dance, thereby sealing your fate? I went to about two of these: that was enough. And I was lucky. I had a very strict father who had been a secondary teacher all his life, and I'm eternally grateful for the way in which he restricted me and what I did. "Use me as an excuse if you like, he would say - you're not going." Until I was 18 and had passed all the Highers I needed for Uni, I wasn't allowed out to random parties. Imagine how much I hated him at the time, and how thankful I was each time I heard of what had happened at the parties I missed. I wasn't allowed to go hitch-hiking with my pals, nor on cheap, vaguely-planned holidays in Greece. So actually I was never assaulted on the deck of a Greek steamer in the middle of the night, nor on a hotel roof where it was cooler to sleep. And yes, these things happened.

But what of the life of a woman after she's left the protection of her family? (and I know some women aren't protected at all - I'm talking about myself, really) Someone else mentioned the oft-heard question: "Is he bothering you?" And we had to devise ways to avoid being "bothered". Remember, this can include a whole range of behaviours - the sudden hand on the thigh, the tongue down the throat when even a peck felt offensive, the lascivious wolf-whistle from some bloke down a hole in the road. And in the 60s we were never told that it was fine to tell the man what we really felt - rather the reverse. It was regarded as perverse to object to any of it. You made some excuse and wriggled out of the situation, or you let it go on and ended up raped. I was never raped, but I know people who were. They didn't call it rape; they euphemised the whole situation.

Where on earth am I going with all this? I think I'm looking at the sense of entitlement that men have had since time immemorial, and which the women of my generation hadn't climbed sufficiently out of the pit of submission that women had always lived in. So when I hear the current stories about the way famous men have been exposed for the promiscuous predators they are (and it's only famous men - the ordinary tosser in the street just goes on his ghastly way, presumably) - when I hear these, it's like hearing of people waking from a centuries'-long sleep and talking about their nightmares. But they are the nightmares on whose fringes I lived in my youth, and they feel familiar.

Even the best of men - and I'm fortunate: I know many such men - can't know this past as people women my age do. Can't know the present hell that too many women still inhabit. But it's not going to improve unless women occupy the confident upper ground that men have walked since they emerged from the slime; until all women feel the equal of any man they meet and bring up their sons to know this truth; until every girl is imbued with the powerful sense of self that circles her with the armour of confidence; until the Harvey Weinsteins of this world are slapped down the moment they show their true colours.

And until we can be sure that such men will never, ever, become the president of the most powerful nation in the world.