The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

In the very small hours of Christmas Day I sent an email to my students. Copying it below gives me a chance to share a T S Eliot poem that had somehow slipped my mind, if it ever lodged there in the first place. I am familiar enough with the other Ariel poems, but this ‘addendum’ to the series, sent out, I understand, as a Christmas greeting from Faber’s, the publisher where Eliot worked at the time, seemed strikingly apposite.

I have assembled my daughter’s new bike and brought it inside; the presents have been put under and around the tree; I have bitten off the stalk end of a carrot; eaten a mince pie, taking care to leave plenty of crumbs; and written a letter from Father Christmas in a painstakingly shaky hand, sealed with red sealing wax.

I can now go to bed, not with the same excitement as my daughter did several hours ago, but with perhaps a stronger sense of waiting, because I know my waiting is for something far greater, far further off, and far less certain than the wait to open a few presents in the morning.

Many of you too will be thinking towards your future, and back to simpler childhood times, amidst one of the last festive seasons before you face a fully adult Christmas. My favourite poet, T S Eliot, knew about this, so you I offer you his poem on the subject as my Christmas greeting to you.

Merry Christmas, and all best wishes for a happy and successful 2013, and beyond.

Mr Heald

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

My mum: Jean Muriel Heald – 1930 – 2002

It’s ten years ago today since my mum died.

She spent her last days in Pendleside hospice in Nelson, and it was very early in the new school year that I got a call to say that I should probably get over from Doncaster quickly as her condition had deteriorated.

Recently I came across a few small pieces of notepaper from a pad that sat by the telephone at mum and dad’s home to take messages. On the night that I travelled over, after seeing mum in the hospice in the afternoon, back in my childhood home, those scraps of paper were all I could find to write my last letter to my mum.

She couldn’t read it herself, so the next day I asked for some time alone with her so I could read it to her. In some ways it seemed a little over-formal, but I was grateful that I had the chance to think about what I wanted to say and to put it in order. What else was said by mum and me at that time will remain between us; suffice to say it was both rather less, and profoundly more, serious than these words now seem, and at the end she rallied for a good few more days before she finally died. I want to share as a tribute to my wonderful mum what I wrote those ten and a bit years ago, thinking they would probably be my last words to her, fearing that she may never hear them, but so grateful that I had the chance to say my goodbyes as best I could:

My dear, dear mum,

Judging by how you have been since I came over to Pendleside from Doncaster this afternoon, I don’t think you’ll get to read this. As I put pen to paper now, I don’t even know quite what I want to say, regardless of whether I can let you know, or whether I’m really just writing for myself.

I told you again today that I love you so much and I’m so thankful that you were still able to say the same to me. But then, we knew that anyway, didn’t we, and have done as long as that love was a possibility to be known?

In your case, that’s from the moment you realised I was being formed in your womb. For me, it is ever since I learned from you what love means.

It is something I began to learn from you before I was even aware of myself as something separate from you. I learned it in the nourishment and warmth you gave me at your breast. I learnt it in the security you gave me in your arms. I learned it in the confidence you gave me with every word of praise and encouragement, as I learnt at your hand to walk, to talk, to love stories and songs and games and giving. I learnt it from your giving – of yourself – in the sacrifices you made for me, many of which I could only know of later; most of which I will never know.

I thought I was fortunate enough, in having you as my mum, to have learnt all I needed to know about love. I was wrong of course. My own wife and family came along in due course, and, of course, in them I found ways of loving and being loved that were new to me but not to you. And I relish in the obvious pleasure it has given you to share in something of this extension of that one great love that first I found from you.

But now you are teaching me something yet more of the lore of love. As you lie dying, frailly, peacefully, confidently, you are showing me something I gave lip-service to, but could never truly grasp: that love does not grow weak and die with the body.

I instinctively shy away from pious sounding phrases that may cloak unpleasant truths or possibilities in a coat of woolly warmth that may protect us for a time. So, if I read in a sympathy card when you are gone: “death is not the end, but only the beginning”, I will understand why it was written, but I will not accept it. Death is the end. It is the end of the time we’ve had the privilege of spending in this world with you in it. It’s the end of the body that gave me my life, and then nurtured it and that even today in its weakness could hold mine in embrace that no one else will ever be able to give.

Death is the end, of all that, and much more. But mum, you are showing me that it is also a beginning. Auden in a poem that has become known by millions, wrote “I thought this love would last forever: I was wrong.” But as I looked into your eyes today and you looked into mine and squeezed my hand, and your thumb played across my fingers, I realised: “I thought your love died with you: I was wrong.” Oh, I knew anyway that I would remember your love, and that, in some vague way I would continue to carry it with me. But I had not grasped at all what I am now beginning to experience – that your love is something so indescribably powerful that, well, it’s not simply that death cannot halt it, death just has nothing to do with it. Death is a product of time, a part of creation. Love is a manifestation of eternity. And it’s only in eternity – not beyond, but beside time – that we shall see you as you are truly made to be.

But, mum, as I read this back, I wonder if I’m just falling myself into the pompous proclamations I curl a lip at.

What I’m learning from you in your dying is not really fit for words to describe anyway. So, until the end – and the beginning – comes, I will continue to love the broad smile that can still play across your lips, the freckles on the back of your bony hand, and the undecayed spirit that no cancer can conquer. And mum, I will go on loving you, and everything about you, as long as the thin sliver of time hides you from my earthly senses: until, together, we shall see Him as he is.

Your ever loving youngest son,



St George’s Day

Our school has had more – much more – than its share of tragedy within the last two years, including the deaths of five current students and two members of staff. This was uppermost in my mind when I was asked to take my turn at providing the prayer / reflection for staff briefing this morning:

St George, your England looks a different place to us
At least our little portion of it. Birth and death
They are the normal way of things of course, but does
It have to be that we meet so much of the latter?
What matter, that dragons seem more plentiful than swords?
O patron of our English land, can we demand
That our share of blows be somehow deemed unfair
When blessings for the most part shower themselves on us
Compared with most who have lived, and still do, elsewhere?
But balance, or bounty, mean nothing to the bereft;
What weft can hold the warp of lives now rent askew?
Perhaps only the gossamer threads of a faith
As fragile, St George, as the legends of you.

Blessed Popes

Pope John Paul II’s beatification this weekend reminded me of the surprising impact his death and the funeral had on me. I was in a fairly barren period in my faith, yet I recall being profoundly moved by coverage of the events.

When Cardinal Ratzinger was announced as the new pope, I was pretty downcast, I recall, having swallowed the ‘God’s rottweiler’ line. I mentioned this recently on a blog thread marking the sixth anniversary of his election, then the next day, while looking for something else, I came across a verse I’d written dated 25/4/05, just six days after he became pope, and the day after his inauguration mass:

Benedict –
Fine speech
Sound words
Good talk
Flow from the God we listen for through you;
Those words, that breath they settle on, infuse
Us with a hope that now we may renew
And say with certainty “The Church is Alive”:
The Church is Alive: alive with love,
Alive with peace, alive with restlessness not ease;
Alive with stirring for the unity we seek;
Alive with yearning, seeking justice for the weak;
Alive with mission, dead to what’s dull;
Alive to life, that we may have it to the full.

Surprised by orthodoxy

I am re-reading G K Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. It contains these words:

“If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”

For much of the sixteen years that I have been a Catholic, I have been trying to draw a giraffe with a short neck.

That ‘Catholic Ethos’ thing

Yesterday we had an Inset day, most of which was on the Catholic Ethos of the school. We were led in this by Fr Paul Farrer from Middlesborough who specialises in youth ministry. After the darkness of  last half term, with its tragic deaths of two of our students, the diagnosis with cancer of a year 9 student whose mother is a member of staff, and the death by cancer of a much loved colleague, it seemed fitting to focus on our distinctively Catholic ethos.

Fr Paul emphasised the meaning of Catholic as ‘universal’, and I remember thinking last term that I would like to have been able to take those who see faith schools as necessarily divisive into our community on the morning after our two students died, or on the day we held mass for them, or in the after school liturgy we held for our colleague and friend, Jo.

I understand the objections that some people have to state funding of faith schools. Yet, especially at times of grief, crisis and celebration, but also in both the still small moments of calm, and the daily bustle, the Christian focus of our school offers something of value that I think is perhaps impossible to find outside a faith community, and which I think is worth preserving – and it is not only people of faith who can see that.

At one point during the morning we were asked to consider, among other questions, WHY we do what we do, rather than how we do it which is so often the focus. This links for me with the wider purpos/ed discussion that was kicked off last month, in which I was not the only person to suggest that ‘love’ might have something to do with it.

At the end of the day, the words of St Teresa of Avila were used. Those words had prompted me to write a morning briefing prayer several years ago:

Christ has no body now on earth but ours
No hands but ours, nor feet; no pair of eyes.
Only compassion should we radiate
from eyes that on the world we cast Christ’s gaze;
Only good actions should we ambulate
with feet that tread their footfalls in Christ’s ways;
Only soft blessings should accumulate
from hands that offer Christ’s work in this place.

(If that’s not why we do it, then why are we even here?

Advent surprised us

Advent surprised us this year,
Sneaking out to jump on the tail of autumn,
Making all things new with its smothering of snow.
"Prepare ye the way of the Lord" it announced
In its profound silence
As it blank-eted our unprepared ways,
Forcing us to stop,
Take stock,
Wind down the clock a while,
Admit that our busyness can always wait,
That, ahead of us, the dayspring from on high
Will come to give us light,
To guide our restless feet
In the hidden ways of peace.