5 min read

Lamenting the losses in life

There are paths through the thicket of loss that mental illness causes. Rachael Newham explores lament.
A Victorian fisherwoman sits on a beached boat, shoulder slumped.
But O For the Touch of a Vanished Hand, 1888, Walter Langley. The title is taken from the Tennyson poem 'Break Break Break'.
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash.

I am lost. I feel utterly bewildered by my surroundings and my head is beginning to spin under the strip lighting. There are people all around me, but I can’t find my bearings. This place should be familiar, it’s somewhere I’ve been a hundred times before, but I feel the panic rise as I try to find my way.  

 Before I had known exactly where things were, how to navigate the aisles and reach the things I needed with ease, but in the months I’ve been away, things have changed and I cannot face the thought of finding my way around the new arrangement, so I turn on my heel and leave empty-handed.  

I haven’t been away on holiday or gone on a work trip, I’ve been locked inside my own head doing battle with my own mind in the shadowlands of mental illness. Stable now, with the crisis averted, I am trying to rebuild and yet the Co-op rearranging my local store has served as a stark reminder that things have changed in me and around me. 

And there is no funeral to grieve what you’ve lost, no ‘closure’ as you’re still living it. 

This is the where the conversation about mental health awareness falls silent; the reality of the losses mental illness stacks up like Jenga blocks while you aren’t looking. Serious mental illness doesn’t just take your mind; it takes your ability to enjoy the people you love, the work you find fulfilling, the gloriously mundane school run and the life you once almost took for granted.  

And there is no funeral to grieve what you’ve lost, no ‘closure’ as you’re still living it, no five-step process to ‘get over it’. There is simply the loss and the life you’re trying to rebuild.  

This loss must be grieved. I would argue that all losses must be grieved if we are to learn to live with them. It is as Michael Rosen’s childhood classic “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” reminds us as the family go on their adventure and encounter the winds and sticky mud: “You can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, oh no! You’ve got to go through it”.  

We simply have to let it have its way with us until the raw pain has faded into an ache we can tolerate. 

It’s perhaps something the ancient faiths and traditions understood better than we do where there are rituals for grief; whether it be Jewish communities sitting Shi’vah or the Irish keening their songs of mourning, they acknowledge the enormity of grief and the need for communities to come together to process it.  

Where the loss is more personal, we can seem to lose access to the healing found in community traditions. When the loss is because of illnesses still so misunderstood and stigmatised, these processes and traditions can feel even further away, still.  

And yet.  

There are paths through the thicket of loss. William Worden, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association speaks of four tasks of mourning which include accepting the reality of the loss, processing the pain of grief, adjusting to the world afresh and finally finding enduring connection. These tasks were designed with bereavement in mind, but they seem to me to speak to losses in the broadest sense and I have found them to be true in mental illness. 

In the Bible we find this prophet Nehemiah, who is tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after the Israelites exile in Babylon. They’ve returned home, but home doesn’t look like they imagined to, the place they longed for no longer exists, and they have to accept before they can begin to grieve what has passed. Author Marya Hornbacher writes that  

“managing mental illness is mostly about acceptance- of the things you can’t do, and the things you must”  

and I see it every day - perhaps you do too - as I take the medication and get the sleep that’s required for some kind of equilibrium to be maintained 

Nehemiah grieves and weeps over the city for an estimated four months; but there is no set timescale for such things, we simply have to let it have its way with us until the raw pain has faded into an ache we can tolerate. In the Christian tradition this is called lament; it’s grief directed at God, bringing the pain before him in a way that acknowledges the twin realities of God’s goodness and our grief’s greatness. It is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but it is the gift of honesty. We do not need to put on our Sunday best for God, but can come in our brokenness and mess knowing that we will not be abandoned to it.  

And then we begin to adjust to the new normal we find ourselves in. We test the boundaries of what we can do as anyone in recovery does. There is a slow almost imperceptible move towards more of life; a trip to the local shop much like I did during that disorientating visit to the co-op, a visit from a friend or a phone call answered, long avoided. Nehemiah returns to his work for the King - but even then the King asks him why he’s looking so sad. We need not rush in with fake smiles before grief has finished with us, but be honest with those around us  - and with God.  

We cannot lament our losses without finding a community to be a part of; whether that’s your friends, your local community group or your local church.

The fourth task is that of finding connection. For some it will be found in their friendships, others in their faith communities or peer-led community groups. Whichever way it happens it’s how life grows again around and alongside the loss. Worden I think meant it as a way to continue the connection with a lost loved one, but in the story of Nehemiah we see it as the Israelites first come together to rebuild the wall and then to celebrate it. We cannot lament our losses without finding a community to be a part of; whether that’s your friends, your local community group or your local church, we have to find spaces where we can share ourselves, our stories and know we are not alone. It is perhaps one of our most fundamental needs - it is certainly been mine - to know that I am not alone in my loss and I’m not alone as I survey the wreckage and tentatively begin to rebuild. 

7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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