My Dear Friends
It was over thirty years ago when a friend introduced me to the novels of Barbara Pym. To be honest, at first I found them rather ephemeral, inconsequential, but then as page succeeded page I was drawn in to the small, self-contained world of the author and began to appreciate the remarkable insights about people which were on offer.
Pym was an observer. Apparently, like Joyce Grenfell, she took a note pad with her and jotted down parts of conversations she overheard. "What do you think dropped on my lap as I sat by the open window of my drawing room? UNPLEASANTNESS!" (to describe a bird relieving itself). I too relish such moments when I am fortunate enough to overhear snippets of conversation, such as when I was at an art exhibition in London some years ago and overheard a particularly uninhibited lady exclaiming "My dear, all he took with him on honeymoon was a change of underwear and the complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica!" I have yet to find a sermon where I can include that, perhaps here will suffice....
The characters are all, recognisably and unmistakably, Pym-ian. The geographical world and social sphere too where they transact the business of living: the Anglican church, Kensington, close-knit middle class, villages. And in her world fairly unremarkable things happen to fairly unremarkable people. Perhaps it was this which prompted "An Unsuitable Attachment" to be rejected by her publishers, Cape, in 1963. This was her seventh novel, all others had been published without hesitation. She was not to be published again until 1977, after an intervention by Philip Larkin and David Cecil who named her as one of the most underrated novelists of the century in the Times Literary Supplement in that same year. Thereafter her next novels, Quartet in Autumn and A Sweet Dove Died, were received with critical acclaim and the first of these shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Quartet in Autumn is in many ways the darkest and therefore for many of us the most compelling of her novels. Four working companions in a nondescript office face retirement and loneliness, their work having not only given their lives meaning but the opportunity for contact with other people. One of the women has a "significant operation" and subsequently almost stalks her surgeon, who is the only man who has ever touched her so personally. In this we read the implied sense that the physical automatically is seen as emotional. Such is the psychology observed and expressed by the author. It is conveyed in a few sentences, and yet opens a window to the whole thought process and emotional fabric of someone’s life.
I think it is in A Sweet Dove Died that a comfortably well-off woman in middle age, on finding that the last of the coffee eclairs has been served in a tea room to a vibrant young girl in high spirits, exclaims "But I must have something soft, I have just been to the dentist." "None of our gateaux is hard, madam." replies the waitress, but a tear appears in the eye of the well-dressed lady and an onlooker is left to consider what significance the moment might hold. Teeth are of course, subconsciously, a reminder to us of our passing years. She was slowly coming to recognise that handsome and well-dressed young men no longer paid her the attention she had grown used to and seeing someone so young getting what she desired so easily in the form of a pastry was more than she could bear, as she contemplated the years of being lonely, ignored and unloved, which inevitably awaited her. Again, it is in a seemingly insignificant moment when someone reacts without thought that the real character is revealed for all to see.
I wonder if the same is true of us, whether through moments when we think that no one is particularly noticing, that our real selves are made manifest. It reminds me of a story told me by a monk I knew who was driving a nun back to her Convent after she had delivered a series of apparently amazing talks on meditative prayer at his Abbey. He was still reflecting on the power and profundity of what she had offered in her descriptions of mystical prayer and they travelled in silence for many miles. Then they had to stop at some traffic lights where there was a man trying to hitch a lift. This apparently holy nun wound down her car window and started berating this poor man, telling him not to sponge off other people but to do a decent day’s work and pay for his own transportation. My friend could hardy pull away from the junction fast enough, such was his embarrassment. His lasting impression ceased to be her calm, wise words on prayer delivered in the holy hush of the Abbey Chapel, but rather the angry tirade she had delivered at the roadside.
Why do I mention this? Simply because perhaps like you I am interested, indeed fascinated, by the idea of how God sees us, observes us, interprets us, understands us. Probably not through how we behave in church or even when we compose ourselves for prayer and assume that He only sees us when we choose to be seen by Him. He sees us in similarly unguarded moments which give an indication of who we really are inside, rather than who we pretend to be or would like to be seen as being. He sees us when someone beats us to a parking space, when someone pushes in front of us in the supermarket queue, when a delivery has failed to arrive even though we have been waiting in all day and we phone up to complain, when the loo is blocked. My only hope is that he looks on us then with kindness and even amusement, rather than with condemnation and with judgement. Who of us behaves as we think would please and delight a noticing, ever present God at every moment of our lives? Or as we negotiate the confusing, disappointing, frustrating, unresolved, longing moments of our existence and face our frailty, fragility and mortality?
That connection between our inner and outer lives, our behaviour and the insight that might give an observer into our inner being, our mundane and material preoccupations seen in the context of our eternal destiny and calling, all fascinate me. It is the small things which betray us and perhaps we need novelists such as Barbara Pym to draw our attention to this. We should be alert to this as we observe others, the better to understand and support them in the struggles which they may not even be conscious of being engaged in. We should also be aware of such things in our own lives, to learn from them and perhaps to repent of some things too. Above all, in being more attuned to this in ourselves and in others, we should be aware of the insights the life and example of Jesus offers us, which reassure us that in seeing, understanding, discerning, appreciating who we truly are beyond the mask we put on to face the world or even to try to deceive ourselves, it is a God who accepts and loves us, who shows compassion and forgiveness, who looks at us. And as He indicates in the Lord’s Prayer, in relying on Him doing that with regard to us, we are obliged and duty bound to do this to others: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." In this, God looks at each and every one of us with more than just a novelist’s eye, but with the vision of who He knows we can become, if we open ourselves to His grace.
Let us then remember that it is in the small things that the big things are revealed about us. As indeed it is in a small and seemingly insignificant wafer and sip of wine that the whole of the recreative and redeeming energy of God’s love is expressed. Perhaps we need to be humble enough to allow God to see the truth of who we are, beyond the fig leaves or suits of armour we put on to protect ourselves, beyond even the disguise we put on to pretend to ourselves.
Like so many of the characters in the novels of Barbara Pym, we too may be looking for acceptance, affirmation, a sense of belonging, of value and of worth. There is no shame in it. It is the frailty and wonder of our humanity which is thereby being expressed, we are not unique or alone in those understandable desires. Jesus is seen to deal tenderly with those with such feelings in the gospels, why should He not deal similarly with you and with me? It is the quest of the created seeking communion with their creator. It is the enterprise of faith and the pilgrimage of becoming. So, in our ongoing story, let us dare to expose the depths of ourselves to the depths of God, placing ourselves in that space where we will be found and recognised by Him, as the prodigal sons and daughters we undoubtedly are, but sons and daughters whom He wants to live and flourish and whom He wants to grow through the warm sense of being valued, believed in and loved. For the book which records our happenings is still being written, events are even now unfolding, and unlike other books there will be no ending, only ongoing exploration, growing awareness and ever-increasing wonder.
With blessings and best wishes.
ZOOM AND MORE
Please join us this Sunday for our Zoom service at 9.30am by clicking on the following link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85685339742 or in person in church at 6pm, by booking on: email@example.com
We shall only know after the Government`s announcement, hopefully on 14th June, what the future pattern of our worshipping life will be over the coming weeks, but will let you know when we know! For the next few weeks at least, there will be an opportunity for Private Prayer 10am-11am on Wednesdays. The readings for this Sunday are: 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 verses 6-10 & 14-17 and Mark Chapter 4 verses 26-34. The Collect: Lord you have taught us That all our doings without love are nothing worth: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts That most excellent gift of love, The true bond of peace and of all virtues Without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. This we ask through Jesus Christ Our Lord Who lives and reigns with you, In the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN.