Sunday, 2 February 2020

Happy New Month!

1st February 2020

Happy New Month!

(Snow on Arran.  Photographer: Bill Sibbald)

(This is a new arrangement.  Last year, in 2019, I managed to produce a new blog post more or less every week. In 2020 I hope to post a new one at the beginning of each month.)

So, New Month, New Year, New Decade - and, of course, New Political Situation!  As from 11pm last night, the UK is no longer part of the European Union.  Being one of those who voted to remain, I feel sad and frustrated.  But as there is, alas, nothing I can do to change the situation, I will turn my thoughts instead to two blessings of which I am reminded today.

This happens to be our daughter Sally's birthday, and so I remember the overwhelming joy which Bob and I felt at the birth of our first child!  The second blessing came at a time of terrible sorrow and despair when I had been desperately praying for help.  But before I write about that, back to this week's news!

Photographs have appeared online and in the newspapers of our MEPs in Brussels,  both Brexiteers and Remainers, holding hands as they sang our Ayrshire poet Robert Burns' words in Auld Lang Syne, ending with 'We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet for auld lang syne'
(for old time's sake).  Well, that remains to be seen!

That song and many others, plus favourite poems, will doubtless have been performed recently at hundreds of traditional Burns Suppers throughout the world, as we have celebrated the birthday of Robert ("Rabbie") Burns.  But this year, 2020, has seen a new kind if celebration:  Burns on the Beach!  Photos have appeared in our local newspapers of this family event on Ayr beach on the evening of January 25th.  Hundreds of people followed the lit-up path to a big bonfire, round which they gathered to listen to the life story of Burns, some of his poems and Scottish music played by a band.  

At a time like this when there is so much depressing news, it is good to see people out enjoying themselves together.  But I can't help laughing in bewilderment at the way in which  this new event ended: the burning of Rabbie's effigy!  After the recitation of his poems about love and social equality, this seems a particularly philistine thing to do!  But hey-ho!  Maybe some witty events manager came up with the idea of transferring the thrill of cold November's Guy Fawkes Night into a cold January's jolly celebration, culminating in the moment when the poet's effigy is set alight - and Rabbie Burns!

On clear days from Ayr beach - and indeed from all along the Ayrshire coastline - there are lovely views of the island of Arran, which is often referred to as 'Scotland in miniature'.  This is because of the impressive mountains in the north of the island, like those in the north of mainland Scotland.  Arran's highest mountain, recognisable by its pointed top, is called Goatfell.  I can, on a clear day, see Goatfell from the road in front of my house in Prestwick, and am always delighted when in winter it is covered in snow, or on a summer evening, silhouetted by the setting sun.

  Such beauty!  Yet Burns never mentioned Arran in a single one of his many poems.  Perhaps it is because most of his life was spent on farmland  several miles inland from the seashore?  Or maybe he was shortsighted!  Whatever the reason, I suspect that Burns on the Beach is actually a misnomer!

Over the years I have spent many happy hours on Arran, sometimes on daytrips by ferry from Ardrossan, sometimes staying for a few peaceful days of relaxation.  It was on Arran that I received the special blessing to which I have already referred today.  The background was as follows:  Bob's cancer had reached the terminal stage.  With the future so uncertain, we forced ourselves to think only of the present, living one day at a time - sometimes, in the midst of yet another emergency, only one minute at a time.  I depended completely on 'prayer power' to give me enough strength to support the two of us and our three children.

That October, in a brief period of remission, Bob urged me to take advantage of the unusually fine weather and go off on my own for a couple of days' rest on Arran.  Early in the morning of my departure I was amazed to hear loud calls from an owl on a neighbour's roof.  In all the twenty-one years in our family home I had never seen nor heard an owl so close - so this added a special feel to that morning!

The Brodick-Arran ferry was delayed for half an hour while it was being refuelled, but I didn't mind at all as I relaxed on the upper deck, idly watching the traffic come on board.  I noticed two large floats loaded with hay for the Arran animals beside a very large supermarket van full of food for the Arran people.  

After leaving my overnight bag at my hotel, I wandered along Brodick's main street and was delighted to see a little porcelain owl in a shop window.  I bought it as a reminder of the unusual beginning to this precious time of relaxation!  The next morning, after a good night's sleep, I set off to walk from Brodick to Lamlash. The weather was sunny and warm, with a clear blue sky, gorgeous autumn colours, and cheerful red berries on many trees.

Just as I was leaving Brodick I noticed a small new cemetery, with fresh flowers on several of the six gravestones.  I went in to read the inscriptions, then climbed a little farther up the grassy slope and turned to look back, glad to feel the warmth of the sun behind me.  Noticing that my shadow was pointing to the distant peak of Goatfell, I felt a sudden urge to take a photograph.  I positioned myself so that my shadow would be in direct alignment with the mountain top.  As I moved, my shadow seemed to emphasise that I was the only person still alive in that little place.

Suddenly, just as I clicked the shutter, a wonderful coincidence occurred!   Two things happened simultaneously:  I felt impressed upon me the words: "While you still have a shadow, feed my sheep"  and then, with perfect timing, a large float piled high with hay (i.e. animal food) went past on the road outside.  Fortunately the float appeared in the photo.  Years later, when I recounted this life-changing event in the last chapter of my book Joyful Witness, my illustrator, Ronnie Russell, was able to copy it.

The 'instructions' I received on that blessed golden day on Arran are still precious to me.  I understood them to mean 'While you still have life and breath, help other people.'  Trying to put this into practice helped me to support Bob through the final stages of his illness, and then to face widowhood after his death eight months later.

Thanks be to God.

Update!  Coincidence!  Yesterday, just after I had started to write about Arran and Goatfell, I discovered, to my great amusement, this photograph in the previous day's (Glasgow) Herald newspaper - a seagull perched on the very top of Goatfell with, in the distance, Brodick and Holy Isle in Lamlash Bay!


Saturday, 11 January 2020

The Mystery

The Mystery

Happy New Year!  I hope that you had a lovely Christmas season.  In my family, Christmas Day 2019 will long be remembered as being very special, because that afternoon my niece, Suzy, gave birth to a little boy.  Needless to say, we were all thrilled!

However, I shall also remember that festive season for another quite different reason, because, in addition to a large pile of lovely presents, I received two intangible gifts: a Mystery followed by a Coincidence!  I wonder, dear reader, if you can offer any explanation for the Mystery?  I still haven’t been able to solve it!

Here’s what happened.  About ten days before Christmas I saw that one of my cards was from my friend Stuart.  I immediately recognised his handwriting on the envelope because of the way he strokes the letter ’t’ and gives a sort of flourish to certain capital letters: B, P, K.

A week later I was surprised to see the same handwriting on another envelope – or so I thought!  The ‘t’s had the same long stroke, the capital letters, B, P and K had the same kind of flourish, while my house number 38 looked identical to the previous one.

 Had Stuart sent me a second card by mistake? I wondered – having occasionally done that myself.  But when I opened the envelope, I was astonished to find this affectionate message in completely different handwriting. 

From ‘Grandpa + Grandma + Tilly’!  Well, my grandparents all died decades ago.  And, who or what is Tilly?  A cat?  A dog?  A budgie?  You will see that there is a tear on the left-hand side.  That is because, stuck to the paper, there was a gift voucher for £25!  It tore the card as I lifted it out in order to read the signature.  The writer had omitted to include their grandchild’s name.  “Oh dear”, I thought, “somewhere there is somebody who will be disappointed not to receive a Christmas present from his/her grandparents!  How can I send it on to them?”

At church the next morning I asked if anyone knew a couple who were grandparents and had a pet named Tilly.  No success.  Then someone asked if I had noticed the postcode.  I had not – being too busy concentrating on the handwriting.  Now I saw that it had come from the Aberdeen sorting office.  Aberdeen!  I didn’t know anyone there, did I?

But suddenly I thought of John Malcom, who had been one of my Modern Languages classmates at Glasgow University and who now lives in Aberdeen.  Since the 40th anniversary of our graduation John has sent Christmas cards to us all. Now I remembered having previously noticed the similarity between his handwriting and Stuart’s.

 However, that didn’t solve the mystery of the grandparents, Tilly and the £25 voucher! Did John and his wife Isobel have any grandchildren? A pet called Tilly? If not, perhaps John and a friend who has a grandchild, plus a ‘Tilly’, had sat together writing Christmas cards and addressing the envelopes, and somehow one of the friend’s cards had accidentally been put in the envelope addressed to me?

I phoned another former classmate, who gave me John’s telephone number – plus the information that John and Isobel have neither grandchildren nor a pet.  When I called John and explained my dilemma, he was just as mystified as I was.  He and Isobel had written and addressed the cards together, just as they always did.  They had no grandchildren and knew of no Tilly (human or animal!)

Determined to get the gift voucher to its rightful owner, I sent an email to the letters page of the Aberdeen Press and Journal, in the hope that one of its readers could help.  I enclosed my address and telephone number, but have had no response.

There is a small piece of Sellotape on the back of the envelope, to keep it closed.  Probably the sender had wanted to ensure the safety of the gift voucher.  But what if somebody, having felt the hardness of the voucher, had taken it out, spent it, then put it back in an envelope chosen at random (mine) and sealed it with the Sellotape?  But no!  When I took the voucher to the shop in question, I was assured that it was still worth £25…  So, the Mystery remains!

Now for the Coincidence … or perhaps I should say ‘Coincidences’.   A minor one is that both cards show a robin sitting on a branch, looking down at a pal - another robin/ a bear cub.  Yes, I know that many Christmas cards have robins on them!  But wait!  On 3 January, while I was still puzzling over the Mystery, a present arrived from France: a DVD from my friends Pascal and Soizic ROBIN.  I chortled with delight when I saw the first two words of the title:  LE MYSTERE!  Here is the cover.

The mystery in the film concerns the true identity of the author of a best-selling novel who used the pseudonym ‘Henri Pick’.  It was solved when the main character noticed the formation of the letter ‘K’!  (This led to the owner of the faulty typewriter.)

Once again, I ask myself (and you!): What is the significance of such mysteries and coincidences?  I do believe that they indicate the existence of another, invisible, reality which cannot be explained by mere human logic and which binds us all together in a wonderful ‘golden network’.

 On 4 January, the day after the parcel arrived from France, I took part in a lovely choral event, in which we rehearsed some key choruses from Handel’s Messiah.  Our conductor sang a bass recitative and aria with words from the New Testament, based on chapter 51 of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  How I relished hearing him begin with ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery!’

This is what Paul went on to write: ‘We shall not all die. Instead we shall all be changed, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye…  For this mortality must put on immortality’…  In other words, ‘Death is not the end.’

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Now for the GOOD News!

Now for the GOOD News!

Do you have a favourite Christmas carol?  If you do, I’d love to play it for you, or play the accompaniment while you sing!

Last year I had the privilege and pleasure of playing for the Christmas morning service in the Grosvenor Hall, Belfast.  I loved the banner on the wall behind me, with the words of the prophet Isaiah foretelling the birth of Jesus: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’

My own favourite Christmas hymn is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ based on the apostle Luke’s account of an angel suddenly appearing one night to shepherds who were out
guarding their flock from predators or thieves.   At first, they were terrified but the angel reassured them that he was there to bring them good news, news of great joy, of the birth of a Saviour.  And then suddenly they heard a host of angels singing:  Peace on earth, good will to you from heaven’s all-gracious King!

They were told that, as a sign that this was true, they would find a baby wrapped in   swaddling clothes, lying in a manger (a very unlikely place for a baby to be!)  The apostle John uses the word ‘sign’ instead of ‘miraclewhen referring to Jesus’s astonishing acts of healing.  This ‘sign’ must have seemed miraculous to the shepherds!  My favourite part of the story is: ‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen: it had all happened as they had been told. i.e. they had had confirmation of what had seemed an unbelievable event. That is why I love this part!  Over the years I have noticed that a notable event is often followed by a confirmatory coincidence.

Poor, illiterate, marginalised, no doubt dirty and smelly, the shepherds are in complete contrast to the wealthy, mighty Roman emperor Augustus who was, at that very time, exercising his power by decreeing that all the (Roman) world should be taxed, and that all citizens must report to their place of birth to be registered. Yet these were the unlikely messengers chosen to spread the good news of “Peace on earth”!

Peace on earth…  Well, many cynics would say “Nonsense!  There will always be wars.  Human beings are territorial and aggressive.”  That, alas, is true.  But there is another much deeper truth which, thank God, is always available to us, if we seek it.  Jesus told his disciples that they would always hear of wars and rumours of wars – but that this must not stop them from following his teaching of the way of peace, love and repentance.

The third verse of my favourite hymn says: 

But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;                                                beneath the angels’  hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;                                       and warring human-kind hears not the love-song which they bring;                                          oh, hush the noise and still the strife to hear the angels sing.

I first sang this in a junior choir on Christmas Day 1949 – seventy years ago!  Since then the British armed forces have been involved in 27 wars in different parts of the world.
But over those same seventy years I have met many people who have inspired me: people who, despite sorrow, illness, financial worries and many other difficulties, have nevertheless discovered the joy of complete trust in God.  We might call them “people who have heard the angels sing”!

This week sees the anniversary, on 10th December, of my first blog post on

Entitled Help is at Hand then Help is at Hand (sequel), it is the true account of an astonishing incident which was followed by a confirmatory coincidence – so amazing that I felt the urge to share it with as many people as possible, in the hope of bringing them comfort and cheer!  You can still find it by scrolling down all the way back to Monday 10 December, clicking 6 times on ‘More Posts’ as you go.

I am much indebted to my lovely friend Liz Crumlish, who helped me to set up my blog, then showed me how to add pictures to the text. Throughout this year (the year of my 80th birthday) I have published a new post almost every week, making a total of over 50.  I hope that they have brought pleasure, and perhaps some comfort to my readers!

If I am spared (as we say here in Scotland) I hope to continue posting my true stories next year, in 2020.  But meanwhile I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!  To end with, here is a lovely picture, by a six-year-old girl, which has been on my study wall all year, since last Christmas…  

Deo gratias

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Something Special in my "Study"

Something Special in my “Study”

Do you have a spare bedroom which might be called a “multi-purpose room”?  I have a little one which is only occasionally used as a bedroom.  I go there to work on my computer, or practise music on my keyboard, or – let’s be honest! – use it as a “glory hole” where, before a guest arrives, I hastily deposit all sorts of items which have been cluttering up my living-room.  So, I hesitate to give it the grand title of “my Study”!   However, when I discovered this wooden plaque in the local Shelter shop, I bought it, thinking that it would lend an element of dignity to this somewhat messy little room.

The plaque shows the crest of Glasgow University, where I studied for my degree.  That was in the days when blazers were still worn by students of both sexes.  I loved my black blazer with this crest stitched in gold thread on the breast pocket.  On Saturday mornings I would wear it when I met my friends, Jinty and Senga – Jinty in her navy blue Jordanhill Teacher Training College blazer, and Senga in her purple Domestic Science College (‘Dough School’!) blazer.  On cold days we added the matching scarves and felt very smart!

The University crest contains four items which also appear on the city of Glasgow’s coat-of-arms: a bird, a tree, a bell and a fish.  All four refer to legends about Glasgow’s patron saint, St Mungo who, in the 6th century, founded many Christian churches and monasteries in the West of Scotland. 

The bird.  When jealous classmates, trying to get the clever Mungo into trouble, killed their teacher’s pet robin, it is said that he miraculously brought the bird back to life.

The tree.  Mungo was meant to be looking after the fire, the monastery’s all-important source of heat, but he fell asleep and the fire went out.  He is said to have rekindled the dead ashes, using only some branches from a nearby tree.

The bell. We are told that Mungo brought this back from Rome, where he had gone to meet the Pope.

The fish. (This is the most impressive item!)  The king of one of the Scottish kingdoms suspected his queen of having an affair with a young soldier.  He claimed that she had presented her lover with a ring which he, the king, had given her.  He invited the soldier to go hunting with him, then when the young man fell asleep, he took the ring off his finger and threw it into the River Clyde. He then demanded that the queen show him the ring.  Because she couldn’t do this, he had her imprisoned and condemned to death.  In desperation, she sent a letter to Mungo, begging for his help.  Mungo sent the messenger to fish in the Clyde, telling him to bring back the first fish that he caught.  When the salmon was cut open – there was the ring!  On seeing it, the king pardoned his wife - probably because he was both amazed and alarmed!   (The queen promised the saint that she would sin no more!)

In fact, Mungo himself was the result of an illicit affair.  His father, Owain, was already married to someone else when his mother conceived him. When her violent father abused her, she and her baby took refuge in her brother’s home.  The baby’s real name was Kentigern, but his uncle gave him the affectionate pet name of Mungo, which means ‘Beloved one.’  (I like that!  Try saying, “Come here, Kentigern!” which is quite spiky to pronounce, then say, “Come here, Mungo!” and feel how much softer and friendlier that sounds!)

In the middle of the University crest is a pointed mace, a symbol of academic authority, granted to the new university in1465.  Above it is an open book, symbol of learning.  The University’s motto, Via Veritas, Vita is the Latin for Christ’s words: (”I am) the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  At the time when the University was founded, Latin was the common language (‘lingua franca’) in all universities throughout Europe.  As a result, students could travel to a university of their choice, and understand the lectures, no matter which country they were in.

On my “Study” wall, to the right of this plaque, I have a collection of family photographs.  Here is one of my two grandsons, taken on the important day that Ciaran, the younger one, first went to school.

By way of contrast, I have this one of my elder grandson, in formal attire, taken in the spring of 2019.  A fourth-year student at Glasgow University, he is a keen member of the G.U. Union debating society.

His parents and brother had come over from Belfast to hear him make his ‘Prime Ministerial speech’ at the final Parliamentary debate of the academic year.  (By a nice coincidence his name, like that of St Mungo’s father, is Owain!)

I have no idea who donated my plaque to Shelter, nor where it was originally hung.  With its dark wood, it looks like part of a wood-panelled room, perhaps in one of the old university buildings.  By the way, having recently published a blog post about robins, I was amused to realise that the dark bird on top of the tree is meant to be a robin redbreast.  Maybe I should give him a dab of red nail varnish!

My father, my husband, Bob, and I all studied at Glasgow University.  How glad I am that Owain, born and brought up in Northern Ireland, has formed this strong new family connection with Scotland’s second oldest university!

Deo gratias

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Three Jewels from my Treasure Store

Three Jewels from my Treasure Store 

“Aha, Kathleen!  I think you’ve got something to tell us!”  exclaimed Helen, who was sitting at the opposite end of the table from me.  It was teatime at the Guild meeting in the church hall.  The other four ladies paused as they passed round the plate of home-made cakes, and looked at me enquiringly.  Helen gave me a knowing smile.  “Go on, tell us the good news!”                                                                              

Puzzled, I replied, “I would if I knew what you mean!”  Helen lifted her left hand and wiggled her ring finger.  I looked down at my own ring finger, where the diamonds on my engagement ring were twinkling brightly, as if new.  Helen, knowing that I was a widow, must have noticed that I was no longer wearing my wedding ring, and seeing the diamond ring, must have assumed that I had recently got engaged to a ‘new man’.

“Sorry to disappoint you, but I have no nice romantic tale to tell!” I said with a chuckle.  

However, the following day I found myself writing a little note to Helen, telling her of a ‘follow-up’ coincidence!  When I woke up that morning I had smiled down at my left hand, remembering Helen’s assumption about the ring.  As soon as I left my bedroom I had, as usual, gone straight to the bookcase opposite, to change the date on the French 365-day calendar.  To my astonishment, this is what I saw!  

I couldn’t resist telling Helen about this delicious coincidence – even though I suspected that, as a retired nursing sister known for her forthright, no-nonsense opinions, she would possibly dismiss it as mere fantasy. But to me it was a precious reminder of another, earlier coincidence concerning a ring plus the French calendar.

 Bob, my dear husband, had died on the 26th of June, the day before our 23rd wedding anniversary.  Every year since, I have felt very sad on June 26, but then, on the next day, 27 June, I have gratefully thanked God for the joy of our wedding day! However, this has been more difficult on the special anniversaries which we would have been celebrating along with our contemporaries.  I discovered that two years after his death, when we would have been enjoying our Silver Wedding day together.

Fifteen years later I was bracing myself to face the date of our Ruby Wedding when, very early in the morning of 21st June (Midsummer!) I awoke to ‘hear’ a mysterious instruction: “Take off your wedding ring!”

This was something which I had never wanted to do.  Moreover, taking it off was by now more or less impossible because my ring finger had swollen over the forty years since our wedding day.  I knew that the ring could probably be enlarged, but I feared that the jeweller might cut through the inscription on the inside:  RB – KIH. 31.1.64 (the official date of our engagement.)  However, after ‘hearing’ the instruction, I thought that, given the constriction on that finger, it was probably now time to take the risk, and to have the ring made bigger.  But I still hesitated.                                                                                                           

“Maybe I’ll do it later, when I get up”, I thought.  But then it was somehow impressed on me: “No, do it NOW!”  So, I sleepily fetched soap, a damp cloth and some Vaseline, and after several minutes of struggle, eventually managed to pull off my precious gold wedding ring.

Carefully I held it up between my right thumb and my index finger, in the light of the bedside lamp, trying to see if the inscription was still legible.  (It was, fortunately).  Before I went back to sleep, I tenderly placed the ring in the little box containing Bob’s wedding ring, a bigger version of mine – the ring which he had always insisted on wearing, even in hospital during his operations to have cancer cells removed.

When I got up a few hours later I went, as usual, to change the date on the French calendar – and was amazed to see another woman holding a ring between her right thumb and index finger!  The picture, which dates from the Middle Ages, was taken from a prayer book created for the Duc de Berry.  The young woman has just received the betrothal ring (alliance), which will be her wedding ring, from her princely suitor.                                      

The joy of this astonishing ‘coincidence’ carried me through the next few days of our Ruby Wedding week, and I humbly thanked God for that blessing.

Our two wedding rings lay together in their little box for almost ten years.  Every day I put on my engagement ring as a replacement for the wedding ring.  As the date of our Golden Wedding drew near, I finally had my ring enlarged to fit my finger.  The inscription remained intact.  (I should have trusted the jeweller’s skill!)

One morning, in the last week of June, I awoke to another silent ‘message’.  This time it was in French!  I ‘heard’ “Je brede le tapis”. As I visualised how I would write this, it was impressed on me that the first ‘e’ in brede would require a grave accent, (in accordance with the rule that this vowel has to be strengthened in a single syllable word ending in a silent ‘e’!  As I’m sure you know, dear reader!!)  So, the word would be pronounced ’’b-red”, but I didn’t know what it meant!  I had never seen this word before.  ‘Le tapis’ means ‘the carpet or rug or mat’.  Perhaps there was a connection with ‘embroidery’? I thought.  Could it mean ‘I embroider the rug’?  But, if so, why? And anyway, I remembered that the French for ‘to embroider’ is ‘broder, with the letter ‘o’!  As I puzzled over this verbal conundrum, it was again impressed on me that the second word had to have “red” in it.  Time to consult my splendid big Larousse dictionary! No sign of a verb ‘breder’, so I turned to the word ‘tapis’ – and TING! – I saw the picture I just knew that I was meant to see!

On the same page as the picture of a beautiful ‘tapis’ there was one illustrating a medieval tapestry.  Entitled ‘L’offrande du coeur’ (The offering of the heart), it shows a man in princely costume (note the shoes!) offering something to the lady of his choice.  Between his right thumb and index finger he is holding out a red heart!

Jesus said: “How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation.”  (Matt 6,v 4)  

and “Dwell in my love.  If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.  I have spoken thus to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete.”  (John 15, vv 10, 11)

Deo gratias

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Organs and Robins

Organs and Robins!

Does the Holy Spirit have a sense of humour?  Do members of my ‘dear departed’ sometimes try to make me smile?   Does my guardian angel enjoy word play?  These are some of the questions I ask myself when I feel that a funny little coincidence has somehow been organised.  How?  By whom? I don’t claim to know the answers - but I have learned just to enjoy it and then to murmur ”Thank you!”  I remind myself of Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians, chapter 13,verse12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

This picture shows the River Ayr with two of its bridges, the Auld Brig in the foreground, and the New Bridge, over which the main road leads to Ayr Town Hall with its tall spire.  (Don’t be alarmed by the sinister hand apparently rising out of the water! That’s just the reflection of my fingers – seen through the glass, darkly!)    From April to November, I attend the Monday organ recitals in the Town Hall. After parking my car near the Auld Brig, I make my way on foot to the main road, then cross to the other side of the river.

One Monday as I approached the New Bridge, I noticed a large bird perched on a tree trunk in the river. “Oh, there’s a gannet!” I thought, but then, realising my mistake, “No, that’s a cormorant, not a gannet.  Immediately after that I heard a man exclaiming to his little son, “Oh look!  That’s an air rescue helicopter from HMS Gannet” (a Royal Navy land base at nearby Prestwick Airport).  Smiling at this unexpected coincidence, I thought to myself as I crossed the bridge, “That’s funny to hear GANnet twice like that, just when I’m on my way to an orGAN recital!  It would be a strange coincidence if the programme includes something with GAN in the title!”  I tried to think of any piece by Bach, or any other of the usual composers, which had those three letters, but without success.

Just then the Town Hall clock struck twelve noon.  The recital would have started. I would have to enter the hall as quietly as possible.  Tiptoeing in, I saw Michael, the organiser of the recitals, beckon to me to sit beside him.  He silently handed me a copy of the programme.  To my surprise I saw that, for the first time ever, it included some songs.  The organist’s wife, a professional singer, was going to perform for us.  I almost disgraced myself by bursting out laughing when I saw that she had chosen the Welsh lullaby Suo GAN!

The Town Hall’s Lewis organ is a magnificent three-manual instrument.  The recitals, now in their 11th year, attract organists from all over the UK as well as from other countries, such as Germany and Italy.  There is even a waiting list of organists who wish to play it!

Just after I retired from teaching, I was delighted to have the chance to participate in a project which aimed to enable pianists to become ‘supply organists’, whenever their church organist was ill or on holiday.  My lessons took place in a church with another three-manual organ.  I found that a big challenge, especially when trying to play with my feet as well as with my hands!  However, I eventually became proficient enough to play occasionally for church services – something which I greatly enjoy.

As a contrast, I also learned to play something much easier: the ocarina, which is a little wind instrument.  I had been looking for a small lightweight instrument to take with me on my travels.  The lady in a local music shop suggested the ocarina when I told her that I was about to leave for France, to visit my musical friend, Pascal.  He and I had enjoyed playing duets when he was in Scotland – Pascal on guitar, and myself on piano or cello.  The little ocarina is limited in its range – just over an octave – but I soon found tunes which suited it and, for the first time, was pleased that I could play from memory, without any need of sheet music.  So, Pascal and I had good fun with our new-found ‘wind duets’, as he is very proficient on ‘la flute irlandaise’ i.e. the penny whistle!

Pascal’s surname Is ROBIN, so I was very amused when, sometime later, I found myself playing a duet with another Robin – but this one had wings and a red breast!  My cousin Fiona and I had stopped for a picnic at a quiet spot in a Country Park when I suddenly felt the urge to play my ocarina.  I had played only a few notes when I heard a loud burst of birdsong nearby.  A little robin had hopped along the path until he stood near me, and was singing his heart out – perhaps as a fierce declaration of his territorial rights!  Fiona quietly took this photograph of us both.  You will see him if you look for his tiny shadow on the path!

I was privileged and delighted to play the organ at the wedding of Pascal and his bride, Soizic.  The marriage took place at the village church in Iffendic, in the heart of Brittany. (Fortunately, the organ was relatively small and not too complicated!)

The following year Pascal brought Soizic on a little tour of Scotland, including a couple of days with me in Prestwick.  In a local park we stopped, to let me take a photograph of the happy couple.  To our delight, a little robin hopped up on to a branch between them.  Three ROBINS in a row!

Shortly afterwards I received a message from Pascal to say that a few days later, when in Edinburgh, they had discovered that there was another little Robin on the way!  At the end of the following May they were blessed with a lovely little son, to whom they gave the name Laouenan ROBIN.

Deo gratias

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Angelic Help

Angelic Help

Last week I wrote about the first of two unexpected presents which I had just received: the picture of a Hallowe’en witch and her cat.  The second was a birthday present from Mairi and Bill, two friends who live in Linlithgow, not far from Edinburgh.  Mairi apologised for not sending it sooner, but in actual fact I was delighted when I opened the parcel to see how timeous its arrival was!  It contained these two items: a lovely silver pendant and a little 
notebook, both showing the spiky sculpture on top of Saint Michael’s church, Linlithgow.

The sculptor, Geoffrey Clarke, was asked to create a new aluminium replacement for the previous stone sculpture of a crown. (The church is beside the former royal palace.)  To me, it looks more like a collection of weapons, with a tall spear in the middle.                          

That would be appropriate, because Saint Michael is an unusual saint – not a holy person who was canonised by the Pope, but an angel, in fact an Archangel, who is referred to as the leader of all the other angels in God’s army, in the fight against evil.  So, having recently written my post Protection Needed, I was glad to wear my Saint Michael pendant at Hallowe’en!

Now, in this age of rapid advances in technology, many people would, I dare say, scoff at the very idea of angels.  And yet research has shown that there are many who do believe in angels, even if they would hesitate to admit it in public. I remember being very surprised to hear my practical down-to-earth mother tell me, one summer evening at dusk (a good time for confidences!), that she had once seen an angel.  It was when she was expecting my sister, Freda, who is nine years younger than me.  Having lost three premature babies, Mum was very anxious about this pregnancy.  But one night she suddenly saw a golden angel at the foot of the bed, with the reassuring message that this time all would be well.

The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ – specifically one bearing a message from God.  The most famous case is the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel told a young virgin, Mary, that she would have a son – Jesus.  The Italian artist Fra Angelico painted several variations on this theme.  I love how he depicted Gabriel in various colour schemes, each with wings matching his different robes!  I have a copy of one on my bedroom wall, just above my bed.

However, angels don’t necessarily have wings.  Sometimes they appear suddenly, in ordinary human form, then, having provided help and/or reassurance to someone in need, they disappear again just as suddenly.  This once happened to me at a very challenging time, when I was fervently praying for help.

It was early on a Saturday morning and I had just wakened up at the sound of the teamaker alarm clock beside the bed.  After yet another operation to remove cancerous cells from his bladder, Bob was still in pain and passing blood, so I was upstairs in Sally’s single bed.  (She was then at university.) Bob, Linda, Michael and Bob’s mother - who now lived with us because of her Parkinson’s disease – were all still asleep.  I poured out a cup of tea and sat up straight, cradling its warmth and marshalling my thoughts.

What did I have to do today?  The usual Saturday jobs: at least two loads of washing; tidying and cleaning the house.  Linda and Michael would help – but would there be time to cook extra stew for the freezer? or to weed the garden?  The ironing could wait until tomorrow evening, but I urgently needed to drive to the supermarket for next week’s supplies. After that I would like to take the car to the car wash – but I’d better not stay away from home too long, just in case Bob might once again need emergency post-operative care at the hospital. And in any case, I remembered that I had a pile of exam papers to correct!  Somehow or other I would have to find a couple of hours before bedtime tomorrow to mark the French Listening Test so as to have the results ready for my colleagues on Monday morning.  I made a determined effort to calm my over-active mind as, holding the still-warm cup, I prayed for strength.

But suddenly I found that I did not need to go through my usual relaxation routine.  With lightning speed, I ‘saw’ myself – that is, my conscious self – leave my body and soar outside.  Up, up I was rising, over the tall cypresses in our garden, swiftly down the nearby street to join the main road into the town, then, gathering momentum, down Ayr High Street to the harbour.  A swift left turn, and I was following the River Ayr to the sea.  Soaring across the Firth of Clyde then over the mountainous island of Arran, I ‘reached’ the Kilbrannan Sound between the south end of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre.  Ah, what an exhilarating sense of weightlessness and freedom!

All at once I was aware that I was no longer alone.  Three or four beings of light surrounded me.  Using a silent means of communication, they imparted a message of comfort: that I was never alone or without support.  They had come to remind me that my present difficulties were all part of the challenges which I had agreed to face so that my soul could progress.  They were my friends, and were supporting me.  I was filled with a wonderful sense of love and belonging.

Then, their message delivered, they sped off again and I also swiftly returned by the way I had come, until my inner self was back in my body, and I found myself sitting up in bed, still holding my cup of tea.  That proved to me that this powerful vision had not been a mere dream.  If I had fallen asleep, even for a second, my fingers would have relaxed, letting the cup drop and spilling the tea, as had happened on several previous occasions…

So that, dear blog readers, is why I believe in angels - because of my own experience!  Some of you may have read the above account already, in my book, Joyful Witness, but I make no apology for repeating it, because I think it could be an important source of comfort to anyone in deep distress.

Jesus once said of a child, “Never despise one of these little ones; I tell you, they have their guardian angels in heaven.” (Matthew 18, v10) He did not say that children’s guardian angels left them as the children grew older!

William Wordsworth gave this a lot of thought.  As we leave childhood behind, we become engrossed in material, rather than spiritual, matters, and are less open to angelic messages.  In his Ode: Intimations of Immortality, he wrote: 

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting … Heaven lies about us in our infancy!  Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy, but he beholds the light, and whence it flows, he sees it in his joy … At length the Man perceives it die away, and fade into the light of common day.

Another quotation which I have loved since my teen-age years is from Francis Thompson’s poem The Kingdom of God (In no Strange Land):
                                                                                                                                                              The angels keep their ancient places; Turn but a stone, and start a wing!  'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces that miss the many-splendoured thing.                                                                                                                                   
But I have found that even people who say they don’t believe in angels are willing to make an exception when it comes to the Parking Angel!  They agree that sometimes, in desperation to find a parking place, they have muttered, “Oh, God, where am I to park?” whereupon they see another car pull out from a nearby space, immediately solving the problem!  However, they usually admit that this happened when they were on some kind of mission to help somebody!  When I told my French friend Pascal about this, he looked at me incredulously – almost pityingly!  But a few weeks later, he wrote to me, saying that he now believed in the Parking Angel!

Try it for yourself, the next time you are looking for a parking space when you are trying to help/visit someone in need!
Deo gratias