Spiritual Sustenance

Sep 17


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Helen Whitten

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Spiritual Sustenance

I returned to my old church, St Peter’s in Limpsfield, Surrey, recently. It was the church where we would go in my childhood for Christmas Eve carols with my parents, and Christmas Day and Sunday matins with my mother; it’s where I got married aged just 21, where my son’s funeral took place and where he is buried. It was like coming home and the rector and various members of the congregation could not have been kinder, for not only was I visiting my son’s grave but I also came to pray for my sister, who is very ill.

And her illness makes me feel very small, for I am eight years younger than her and so she has always been a part in my life, the sophisticated older sister who in the 50s was going out with her first boyfriends when I was a giggling 8 year old, and who, due to my mother’s illness, took me to Gorringes’ to buy my school uniform and put me on the school train to Cranborne Chase in Wiltshire.

And as she is my big sister her being ill makes me feel small again, and rather lost, but going to church at St Peter’s, to the eucharist, was like being with family again. I met people I didn’t know but who had been to the same local schools, I visited my son’s grave and took a plant to put beside the gravestone. And I thought about the need to keep the Christian church alive.

There have been articles recently that report that we are no longer a Christian country and that makes me feel sad.  Being in a cathedral raises my spirit, literally; sitting and contemplating a beautiful stained-glass window in the local church calms my mind and takes it to other quieter places.  Does it totally matter whether people believe in the whole story – maybe. But does it matter that people believe in the values of the Christian faith in one way or another – absolutely.

I felt let down by the church during Covid. It could have been a time when vicars spoke some words of comfort, reminded us that it is our soul that resides within this fragile body of ours, and that many believe this soul to be immortal.  None of us will ever know, probably, nor definitively, but it is a comforting thought and would have been so when we were losing friends and family during the pandemic but no, there was near silence and the doors to these beautiful sacred buildings were locked.

I am re-reading the Italian Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino and about to go on a retreat focused on his work. I am no expert but I studied him when I read history at King’s College London as a mature student. I was bowled over by how inspiring his words were, how he believed we all have a sense of the divine within us and can spread that divinity into the world, that through the dignity of our behaviour we can reflect God’s love.  He wrote at a time when society was also impacted by greed and corruption and he strived to remind people that we can aspire to a spiritual life through philosophy and everyday practice as well as through religion.

I feel that spiritual voices have been rather quiet recently, especially now that schools tend to embrace all religions and walk on eggshells not to upset others. Yet there is so much that is echoed throughout the prayers of all religions that encourages people to be honest, live well and seek the highest good in themselves and those around them. I think we need to hear these messages more often.

Ficino seemed to suggest that the intellect strives constantly and throughout our lives to know things, and the body and will to enjoy things. The intellect will never be satisfied, for there is always more to discover or learn, but entering the stillness that is a sacred building can help our mind rest in the moment and be open to goodness and truth, for buildings take on the energy of the events that occur in them, I find.

I am fed up with the whole ‘broken world’ narrative that is played out now, and certainly there have been some terrible natural events recently, but there have been other times when the world has surely been at least if not more broken. And don’t we need to give people comfort and raise them up to believe that they have the powers to make change happen, that they are carved out of the same rock as Jesus or other Gods or wise prophets? That we can come together and aspire for inner peace and collaborative action? After all, we see the most phenomenal global cooperation in these disasters. Don’t let’s forget that.

But my visit to St Peter’s reminded me that I am a Christian, brought up in a Christian society, so just as a Muslim brought up in the Middle East or a Hindu brought up in India will find the words in their holy books restorative, so do I and all of us can receive comfort and love from being in a community where you feel at home, where the words of the hymns or songs or prayers are familiar.

So I am grateful that I went down to my old church last week and am grateful for the kind words of those around me who saw that I was sad and comforted me, as did the gospel readings. I shall return.


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