A Strange Way
This is a blog post I recently wrote for Whirlow Spirituality Centre in Sheffield. It was edited and appeared slightly differently so I thought I would publish the original on my own blog as it is very personal.
We crossed the threshold of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem having wound our way through the ancient market streets that comprise the Via Dolorossa, the way of sorrows. The stations of the cross find their climax and completion in the ornate church that sits over the site that tradition holds is where the final events of Jesus’ life occurred. You climb a stairway to an altar and kneel to place your hand in the socket that held the cross and then descend to the slab where Christ’s body was laid and the tomb from which Christians believe he rose from the grave. My Mother, with whom I was on a Pilgrimage in 1989, beckoned to me urgently and whispered as I approached her – ‘what is this!’ gesturing around her and looking distressed. I told her it was the most sacred church in Christendom, where St Helena the mother of the Emperor Constantine believed they had found the site of Calvary. My Mother however was unimpressed, ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like it all!’, she said over her shoulder as she stomped out of the ancient church. I dutifully trotted after her and once we were in the sunlit courtyard she exploded. ‘There is a green hill far away without a city wall, where is it?’ she demanded. ‘You have just been on it’ I said. ‘Well, it’s not good enough, I’m going shopping”. I ascertained, as we went into old souk, that she had expected the traditional Easter scene, three crosses on a hill and that she would take home a stone from the hill as a sacred memento. This story has become a family legend.
This week we honour two important waymarks, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and World Suicide Prevention Day. In my mind and heart these two moments coalesce in my mother. She was a woman of strong opinions and character, so it was all the more shocking when she succumbed to depression after the death of my father and ended up addicted to tranquilisers and, when I was a teenager, that she tried to take her own life twice. She ended up in Middlewood Hospital, a place to anyone of a certain age in the city of Sheffield that has ominous connotations – a Victorian sanitorium complete with towers and rooks that reminded me as I visited her of the film Psyhco. What is equally surprising to me is that in later life she would say that her three-month sojourn in the hospital was the best thing that ever happened to her. What was, for me, one of the most upsetting periods of my young life had become a life changing eucatasrophe as JRR Tolkien put it. Wikipedia says that a eucatastrophe is a term coined by the writer of Lord of the Rings and is ‘a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible and probable doom’. When I had a mental health crisis seven years ago and my therapist told me this could be the best thing that ever happened to me, I remembered what happened to my mother and took heart.
The exaltation of the cross is a paradoxical feast, where a tragedy is lifted into an astonishing release. Suicide prevention is often achieved when someone intervenes to help a sufferer speak of their predicament and to keep speaking and then start acting to find help. It is the silence of the suffering that is most dangerous, especially it seems, among males. It is always better to ask and not just think ‘oh they will be okay’. The Samaritans are literally life savers because they offer that opportunity. It could be the moment of crisis that changes a life for the better. Think of my mother who then went on to make such a characteristically hilarious and meaningful pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
To finish this meditation, I invite you to listen to a song by the incomparable Martyn Joseph called a Strange Way. Here is the first verse.
Strange way to start a revolution
Strange way to get a better tan
Strange way to hold a power breakfast
Strange way show your business plan
Strange way to see if wood would splinter
Strange way to do performance art
Strange way to say “I’ll see you later”
Strange way to leave behind your heart
Strange dissident of meekness
And nurse of tangled souls
And so unlike the holy
To end up full of holes