Sunday, 5 September 2010

Celebration in Our Lives Andrew Bebb

Angela and I spent a couple of days a few weeks ago in North Yorkshire in a lovely Hotel overlooking Saltburn Bay. The hotel was in the centre of a golf course. It was just on the border of a little village called Brotton. My mother was brought up in a house on the High Street, number 41, which is still there. As children we used to spend our holiday there with our grandparents. Every day we were anxious to catch the bus down to the beach at Saltburn, with its soft fine sand. Saltburn is a beautiful Victorian resort with a lovely long pier and a funicular railway to get you up to the town at the top of the cliffs. Across the High street from number 41, in Brotton was a little Catholic Church, St.Anthony's, where my parents were married in 1924. It was the reason why my eldest brother was baptised Anthony.It was a moving experience to attend Mass there on the Sunday morning of our stay. It was in fact the day of the Golden Jubilee of my priesting in 1959. The Feast of St. Anne, Jesus’ Grandma. St. Anne was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages, especially in Celtic parts like Cornwall.My Grandad worked as an iron miner in the mine at Skinningrove just a fewmiles down the coast. Although the mine is now closed it was lovely to sitthere and to remember the past. In the house in Brotton, I recall his rocking chair and the spittoon beside it, filled daily with fresh sawdust by Grandma!Incidentally my mother became a Catholic when she married Dad. She remembered, as a child, throwing stones at the windows of the little church as it was being built in the early years of the last century!! The hotel was very comfortable and the food was excellent, and the view over Saltburn Bay magnificent. I can certainly recommend it..That Sunday morning Mass in Brotton was quite an emotional experience for me. The elderly congregation were so warm and friendly, and the elderly celebrant had a lovely smile as he stumbled around the sanctuary. He looked at least twice as old as our own dear sprightly Theo! I thought of my Mam and Dad exchanging their vows before the altar. They would be so happy to see Angela and me there on this my special day. Incidentally we also visited on our way home the Church in Harrogate where I had been priested fifty years before.I began to think about the importance of celebration in all our lives. As a father of so many children and grandchildren, it struck me that without this element in our lives from our very earliest days, our humanity would be deeply diminished. The saddest thing in our present day culture is perhaps that for many, the life-enhancing possibilities of joy or sadness through celebration has been supplanted by the life-denying occasions of binge drinking, and stag and hen parties where the prime aim appears to be to dehumanise oneself in a drunken orgy. Some seem to have lost the art of ingenuous even artless, innocent celebration. Maybe because it was absent in their childhood.Without communal celebration, life is not simply poorer it is scarcely able to be human. Children, indeed all human beings, who are deprived of this dimension in their day-to-day living are deprived to a degree only now being appreciated. In Schools, dominated as they sometimes are today by the demand for motivation, function and testing, there is sometimes little more on offer but conformity, and occasionally in the less able, a sense of alienation. Imagination is sometimes undernourished. Yet on the contrary, it is in communal celebration that we can affirm passionately that growth and knowledge and the acquisition of skills are not the sole purpose of human life. I remember some years ago, being involved in a project sponsored by the Schools Council under the auspices of the DES as it was then. It was trying to investigate the reasons why current Moral Education was deficient, at least in Schools. It attempted to produce teaching resources to address the lack. The unsurprising conclusion was that what was needed was not discipline through fear of punishment, but rather a capacity to empathise imaginatively with the feelings and desires of others in a sympathetic manner. Thus one would be able to treat others with empathy, compassion and acceptance without pre-emptive judgement. The technique of storytelling, poetry, music, and celebratory participation, needs to predominate. It is in this simple manner that freedom grows within us.Every culture has had its imaginative morality stories to pass on to its next generation. From Aesop to Hans Anderson. One cannot forget the parables of Jesus. Stories which invite exploration from the inside, and identification of ourselves within them, without them being simply didactic. Nor can we forget the Eucharistic celebration, which he bequeathed to us as the centre of our identification with him. His greatest gift. I remember telling my students in teacher-training, never to regard story telling as simply time out or as an escape from the other important elements in the curriculum. It could be the most important time of the school day.It is the element of story telling and celebration in our lives that perhaps is the most significant. As Harvey Cox, the American Theologian once said: “When festivity disappears from a culture, something universally human is endangered.” (The Feast of Fools. Harvey Cox. H.U.P. 1969). It is in celebration that we are able to affirm that knowledge is not simply an intellectual business, but rather an interpretive relationship with the world in which we spend our lives.It is then that a child learns to be enraptured by the dancer and the clown, by the mimic, the poet, and the mystic, the artist, the singer, the storyteller and the fancy dress.It is in the excesses, the excitement and the revelry that all of us learn to situate ourselves in the past and also in the future of the community to which we belong.I don’t suppose that there are many families now with time to sit together at table for a meal, even once a week, to celebrate family togetherness. Indeed I read in the paper recently that houses are being built without even a single dining room capable of seating even a small number of family members or guests to eat together with any degree of festivity. Only a lounge is available. When we read the Gospel stories, it is as though Jesus was never happier than when He was invited to meals and parties; whether it was at the marriage feast at Cana or at the homes of tax gathers and sinners in the house of Levi. When a Pharisee invited him in for a meal, he didn’t hesitate to take his seat, and seemed so pleased when a woman who had a bad name in the town, pushed through to pour precious oil on his head and wash his feet with her tears. He loved also to relax and put his feet up at the house of Martha and Mary. When you are organising a party, he said, do not restrict your invitations to the wealthy and the influential. Go out seeking the poor, the sick, the blind and the lame. The Kingdom, he describes as a great banquet where the loving, the humble and the sorrowful and the neglected will find themselves at table, whilst the self-satisfied and uncaring stand outside, uninvited.Unless we can become as little children, he warned us, you will not able to enter the Kingdom. They brought their babies for him to touch them, somewhat to the annoyance of his friends. Having had so many babies brought to me for my touch over the years of my parenting and grandparenting, I warm to that memory.Celebration can fluctuate from the most complex traditional ritual with all its mysterious undertones, to the simple unstructured and informal sharing in the delight of the unexpected. It is, I think, important to view it as a whole spectrum of possibilities and not to set one against the other.It can vary from the most complex traditional ritual with all its mysterious undertones, to the simple, unstructured and informal sharing of delight in the unexpected. There is also the important place in our lives for the celebration of our mourning at the wake or the funeral, as we try to come to terms with the gaping hole left as one of our number departs. I remember the wake for my brother many years ago. It lasted throughout the night, as the room echoed with the uncontrolled tears of his wife and six children, or with helpless laughter as memories of him came to surface. He was a lovely humble man full of compassion and gentleness. His influence still surfaces in the children he bequeathed to the world, especially Cathie, whom Theo knew well.. I think of the Benedictine parish priest who had been at his side as his life slipped away in Knaresborough Hospital telling me that he had just been at the deathbed of a saint. He died still relatively young and his prayers and influence still reverberate in all who remember him. He is one of the unknown ones whose intercessions we seek on the Feast Day of all the Saints.Perhaps the critical years are those spent at home before a child enters school. Children whose mum is always there for them are indeed privileged.Small children have a facility for excitement and fantasy and nostalgia long before they are able to articulate it in language.For the fortunate child, informal festivity can be an almost continuous experience. There are so many opportunities – parties, presents, dressing up, dancing, outings, picnics, birthdays, holidays. So many experiences are fresh and new, and so need to be celebrated. It is often a good idea for adults to keep out of the way! Where have all the games we played as children gone?I remember watching a gorgeous celebration in an Infants Class, as the culmination of a theme on ‘Things that Sparkle’.So many different aspects of festivity are open to exploration – solemnity, gaiety, formality, and spontaneity. There is so much to affirm and to celebrate, from the colours and textures of autumn to the Festivals and dancing and imagery of the many varieties of Religious faith and experience. ‘Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom….…’

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