Finding Myself in Britain: Our Search for Faith, Home and True Identity
Finding Myself in Britain is a thoughtful, perceptive, funny, gently probing exploration of the many aspects of life – faith, family, food, friendships, landscape, learning, love – that weave together to create our own uniqueness. But this isn’t a review of the book, it is a response, a dialogue with it if you will. I chose it because it tells of a life very different from mine but is centred on matters that I also find important – knowing and being comfortable with one’s self, knowing God and making sense of the Church. When trying to work out who we think we are we tend to look for the exotic in our lives – the pains, the losses, the career, the great high points, as the elements that define us. However, in Finding Myself in Britain Amy Boucher Pye reminds us to look much closer to the hearth for the keys to our make-up.
Let’s start at the beginning:
‘Midway through the journey of my life I found myself in a dark wood, lost and alone.’ Amy quotes a portion of those opening lines from The Divine Comedy to describe her uprootedness when she leaves America, the land of her birth, to be with Nicholas, her Anglican ordinand husband, in the UK. It is a major leap into a world that’s very half-familiarity makes it more disturbing and disjointed when things aren’t quite how she would expect them to be. The language is almost the same, the culture has common reference points and yet it is disorientating, wrong-footing her time and again as she slowly discovers how to be both American and British, as she learns to be a wife, a mother, a worker, a writer, a speaker, herself with many facets (facets not faucets – we’ll come to those later).
And there’s my first ‘gosh’. My life has been far, far more insular. I don’t have the luxury of a passport, I find travelling distressing and the thought of travelling abroad almost unjustifiable – an energy wasting, climate change stimulating indulgence. It is not that I don’t believe that ‘travel broadens the mind’, rather I am disturbed by the cost of that broadening through air miles and imposing on another’s homeland. But Amy’s move is one of love – both for husband Nicholas and for the God she trusts, as well as her love for life. Do I love life? I’ve never entirely erased the cry ‘I didn’t ask to be born’. ‘Life is hard and then you die’, as a Finnish nurse I once worked with used to say. So there’s my first challenge from Amy – God has given me this life, so how might I enjoy the very wonder of existence? One answer might be through taking in the colours of the world and discerning a little more about how I might be Christ’s hands, eyes, feet, doing the work God created me for.
Amy talks about walking alongside herself and observing her own American ways in the context of her new English home. She finds herself out of kilter with her surroundings. It takes her quite some time to become at ease with who she is, and with who others perceive her to be. I guess it has taken quite a bit longer to be able to talk about it as she does in this book, in a quietly self-deprecating way that takes the emphasis off who Amy is and onto how God, if we trust him/her, can lead us into being fully ourselves and fully alive.
The title is Finding Myself in Britain. That almost feels conclusive – a journey completed, I was lost but now I’m found. I don’t think that is what Amy is saying – she’s clear that she is still finding more about herself, the people she is surrounded by, the place where she lives, the God who’s existence and hers are indissolubly linked. Perhaps the book is in part a celebration that she has reached a secure staging post in her journey, an oasis, a well-roofed and rain-proofed shelter, from which she can set out on the next part of the adventure. Do I feel like that? Do I feel that the case is hopeless, that who I now am is neither who I wanted to be nor who I feel comfortable with? Is looking back a matter of reflection and learning or of regret and rejection? Do I look forward with eager anticipation or with fear? Is God the angry absence, the disappointed parent, the storm shelter or the loving yet firm kick up the backside? Many of the stories Amy tells are about generosity and gratitude – is there a place for those in my life?
You can immediately tell that Amy loves words. She reads a great deal, she mentions many books, she encourages others to read them and she is a writer. Reading about someone who is such a completely different person from me is quite a challenge – seeing life from their angle, stepping out of my own carefully dug entrenchment. But this love of books is something we both share, both have a heartfelt (and this is the right word in this context, but is not something one should ever use on a CV or at a job interview) passion for literature, especially the broad corpus of Christian texts. I think there are many books which have had a greater impact on my life than people – books which have raised challenges that I will keep attending to. Books can change lives and words are marvellous – sometimes crystalline, sometimes intensely amorphous, sometimes gurgling with playfulness, sometimes too spiky to linger over – yet also words can be a wall of obfuscation and at times they can trip us up.
Excursus 1: Vest
This is one of those words that gets so lost in translation I could almost weep. A vest is a warming and often thermal under garment for those of us soft English southerners who can’t cope with a degree or two drop in temperature during the winter. American usage of ‘vest’ corresponds with a much nobler slice of couture – the waistcoat. Waistcoat to weskit to vest is not an impossible journey, but it is a confusing one. One way to define me externally is as an inveterate weskit wearer. Thirty years ago at university I decided I would purchase an all wool (not woolly, not knitted, please, knitted weskits are an eyesore only fit for the likes of Father Dougal in ‘Father Ted’) grey weskit from Dunn & Co (long deceased, both the garment and the clothier). Since then I have worn a weskit – wool or velvet, silk or linen, patterned or plain – just about every day of my life. I even wear one under my cassock. In those thirty years weskits have fallen in and out of fashion many times. But that’s half the point – I wear what I wear because I enjoy it, it is me and I have never had any desire to be fashionable. Of course, there may come a time when my increasing girth and positively porcine stomach make weskit wearing a laughable and perilous enterprise, but until that day comes I shall keep on buttoning up each morning.
Back to the text. Remember the lostness of Dante in that dark wood? The Divine Comedy describes the three days of the Triduum of 1300 and the journey of Dante, the character, through Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise that leads him out of alienation from his own self and God to being at one with both himself and the Divine. A three day journey which took Dante, the author, fifteen years to describe. Amy’s unfolding knowledge of herself and her place in God’s hands is not quite so epically written, her adventures in the hinterlands of English culture don’t reach the dramatic depths of Dante’s spiral through Hell (for which she is probably very grateful), but she, like the poet is still reflecting on her experiences and learning a little more about the generality of life and the specifics of being Amy. I’m not a reflective person. In the three years of essay writing for my last degree I never, ever filled in the section on the self-appraisal sheet that asked me to state what I thought was good about my work. Well, that’s not my job is it? Praising your own work is most certainly not on. Aren’t ‘reflecting’ and ‘worrying’ co-terminus? But even I understand that all doing and no thinking is not going to get you very far. Finding yourself is a key part of finding your place in the world, finding your role in God’s plan.
The first chapter of her book talks about tea. I drink neither tea nor coffee. Tap water is my daytime beverage choice, but in the morning and evening I prefer fruit teas from a special teapot that has never been near any noxious tannins or caffeine. Those who delight in such things tend to call fruit teas ‘tissanes’, but that sounds like a sneeze waiting to happen. Now Amy’s preoccupation with tea opens up one of her major themes – food, cooking, hospitality. The book is stuffed full of recipes and meals. I wonder if Luke is her favourite Gospel. There are plenty of meals shared, plenty of wanting to get everything just right for her guests and of trying to recreate the traditional family feasts that provide such a strong, physical link with her homeland and her parents. Again, here is another challenge for me. I’m not an especially gregarious person, I find eating in public an excruciating experience,unlike many I wouldn’t choose to meet people over a meal and while I am happy to cook I simply don’t understand the pleasure to be found in programmes such as The Great British Bake Off. The reason that kitchens have doors is so that we don’t have to see what’s going on. But more than that, the Rectory is our home and home is private space, where we can shut ourselves away from the roar of the world outside and get on with being who we want to be. While it is fine for meetings, I’m happy with accommodating those, I guess it is the big occasions, the having to get the food right, the need to be a generous host that I find so hard.
Which is just the area where Amy and her family seem to excel, making friends, growing relationships, putting people at their ease, sharing, like Abraham with the three strangers under the oak tree and entertaining angels unawares. And what is worship at church, Holy Communion, but a meal, cordiality, creating a space where all are welcome? I do know I have got to take this hospitality thing seriously otherwise I am in danger of being a barrier rather than a door lintel when it comes to assisting people to meet with God.
Hold on, let’s backtrack for a moment: Abraham with the three strangers. I am curiously attracted to the icon of the Old Testament Trinity, originally written by Andrei Rublev. Three angels sitting round a meal table. Each gazing at each other in such a way that they draw you in. A circle that is complete and yet also not complete until you are there to close the gap. A gap that they have opened up especially for you. And the three angels are God – Father, Son and Spirit – eternally loving each other, eternally offering that love to you. They have taken Abraham’s initial act of hospitality and turned it around into something fresh, a gateway into eternal life. So why do I love this icon? Why do I return to it time and again? Perhaps under my curmudgeonly veneer there is a party host waiting to break out. Or would I be more like head butler Mr Carson in the TV series Downton Abbey, all form and function but no flexibility or friendliness?
Such talk of hospitality brings us to another challenge. For Amy, Christmas is not just a major liturgical event but also a poignant and charged family occasion, a time where friends and relationships are bound together through shared traditions and feasting. I find it hard to see past the stress and superfluity where the miracle of God coming to dwell among us is lost among glittering vulgarity.
Excursus 2: Christmas Trees
There are some, like Amy, who put the tree up early and decorate it for Christmas. There are those others, like myself, who put the tree up on Christmas Eve. The clue is in the title – it is a Christmas Tree. Not an Advent Tree. The same goes for Carols – they are Christmas Carols celebrating the birth of Christ. Advent Carols are about longing and expectation.Christmas Carols are about fulfilment. Yes, I know that battle was lost long ago and I do also want people to be singing about the wonder of the birth of God among us, however I’ve not given up regarding Christmas trees. They should only come into the house to be decorated on Christmas Eve and be gone by Twelfth Night. Christmas trees are a celebration of deforestation. Under all the tinsel and trimmings and baubles is a dying tree. New Year becomes the time when the streets are littered with the corpses of discarded trees. It makes me weep. The sadness of young trees cut down to spend a few weeks as gaudy accessories to a winter bacchanalia and then thrown out, forgotten to dry and disintegrate on driveways and in gutters. The same could be said for church flowers, but I’m not going to go there, the flower lady ninjas will probably pay me a midnight call.
The Christmas conjunction of commercial expectations and family expectations – the happiness bought by excess and the mistaken belief that it will make us all get on together – seems to elicit joy and anguish in equal measure. It feels as if there is a tendency to look back to a mythical time of family harmony which almost inevitably leads to present disappointment. Which is no reason to give up being generous and loving – but these are a lifetime’s work not bounded by a season.
Christmas leads into New Year. This is a totally arbitrary event which annoys me immensely. My year starts with Advent, during the second term of the new school year. January 1 has no special meaning at all to me and I can never understand why such a fuss is made of it. If anything it means we are older and a year closer to the grave. However, Amy outlines a simple spiritual practice that seems apposite at this time – before God choose one word as your word for the year. It will be a word you can return to and reflect upon over the year, one which best sums up what you feel God might be wanting to do with you – a word which will inspire and challenge you. I hope to think further on this but as I’m not very intuitive I shall ask for suggestions for one word that others think might be meant for me (‘grumpy’ is not allowed).
Let’s fast forward through Lent. Amy says that some Christians see Good Friday as the holiest day of the year. I tend to see the whole of the Triduum as one day, certainly it is one liturgy from Maundy Thursday to Easter morn, but Good Friday is always a highly profound, deeply unsettling time, that seems more out of the world than in it, yet is also a visceral collision between the earthly and the heavenly. I’m a crucifix not a cross person. That Christ is impaled upon the tree to restore the relationship between creation and God is one of the most humbling, intense, tragic and amazing things I know. It gets me every time. And then there is the un-day of Holy Saturday, the day of limbo, when God is both dead and not dead, when the universe is missing a vital piece and is also on the brink of a new creation. You can see why Dante chose these three days for his own tale of death and rebirth. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil is one of the most beautiful artefacts ever created, especially when celebrated at dawn on Easter morning so that it segues from the grey light of the tomb to the fierce glory and boundless energy of resurrection. Easter Day is a beam of pure light that sparks the spring into flame, that burns in the trumpets of the daffodils, the petals of tulips, the persimmon glow of a blackbird’s beak, the forewings of orange-tip butterflies as they skitter over the blossoms. I don’t need an empty cross on Easter Day. That is still a negative image, a sign of something that is not there. I want the Light of Christ (Thanks be to God) slipping over the threshold, dancing down the aisles and across the world. And then, as Amy notes, we let it fizzle out after one day.
Every year this strikes me – Easter is a season of fifty days celebration. Fifty days of whooping it up and shouting ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!’ Except that we don’t. After Easter Day most of the clergy and many of the congregation go on holiday. The first Sunday after Easter is Low Sunday. And it is notorious for being the day of the lowest attendance in the Church of England. We make such a fuss of the build up to Christmas but here is a time of much greater joy and all we do is mumble ‘Alleluia’ through gritted teeth. Amy quotes Tom Wright about how we can reclaim this season as a time of sowing, planting and celebrating – she’s right and it was so refreshing to find someone who shares the sense that we are missing out here on a major time of renewal, growth and just relishing the sheer wonder of our faith.
Let’s move on, past a discussion of our weather (it is weather, it happens every day and there is an app for your phone that tells you what you are experiencing, what you might be about to experience and that it is going to rain solidly while you go on holiday before transforming into a heatwave the day you return to work). We’ll saunter past the part about names and the difficulty Americans have with British folk who don’t seem keen to give their names out on meeting and look at you askance if you tell them who you are. Gosh, well, yes it is annoying when you talk for an hour and don’t get a handle on who you are talking to. But it is impolite to push yourself forward, give a name and thus signify that you are a person of importance. Trusting someone with your name is not easy, it gives something of you away. There is also thechance that you will forget their name after ten minutes and have to go fishing for it again, best not to know in the first place. Possibly one of the few advantages of a dog collar is that it gives you a reason to ask who someone is and to tell them who you are.
Excursus 3: Plumbing
A mixer tap is a lascivious co-mingling of two very different states of water – hot and cold – which should never meet in a pipe. Amy finds it strange that these mutant faucets are not more common in the UK, she struggles with the classic two taps to a sink scenario. We have a mixer tap in our kitchen because it covers two sinks. Oh dear, what a very peculiar concept it is, and so impractical. With two taps you can run the hot for the washing up while filling the kettle from the cold. With a mixer tap you have to run the water to get it hot, then, when it comes to filling the kettle you have to stop what you are doing and run the tap again wasting more water until it is safely cold enough to boil for drinks. She also talks about the poor showers we get in the UK. I don’t know anything about this, but I do wonder about the business of improving church housing to contemporary expectations. So long as the house is secure, safe, economic and practical should clergy be given the latest in home comforts just because this is now the standard in the rest of society? Amy isn’t arguing for this, but are en suite bathrooms necessary, surely they are more costly for the Diocese and the environment?
Authentic are the book’s publishers and being authentic is what it is all about – trying to find out who we really are, what makes us fully alive. God works through us best when we are able to be truly ourselves – other people respond to us best when they meet with the person and not the persona. The trick is to know which is which – I’m not always able to tell them apart, with myself or with others. Throughout her book Amy has been quite candid in declaring her foibles and failures as she has grown and developed into the person she is now – but despite all the different roles she has in life, including, in some form or other, being a vicar’s wife – she has, implicitly, been discovering the first vocation that God has for all of us, to be ourselves. In one of his later letters from prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about putting your faith in the cantus firmus, which could be taken as the essential tune you sing – the main theme which is the ground base for your life and which you may riff around, extemporise, jazz up or strip back to an acoustic blues beat but, ultimately, every aspect of you comes back to that same set of notes in the same order. Discerning that tune amongst the noise of living and working out who is the composer and who is the arranger is part of the continual journey of finding ourselves. Perhaps I’m still straining to catch hold of the notes – I hope I shall never give up trying to sing the tune, and maybe one day I’ll even believe that it is one worth singing.