Tuesday 22 January 2013

The Friendship of Dorothy

I blogged recently about the ordinariness of my suburban parish. Such places can be the context for the extraordinary.  Exactly 50 years ago this Saturday, on another snowy January day, died Dorothy Kerin, visionary, mystic and healer, who received the stigmata (the marks on her own body of Christ's wounds on the cross) in the vicarage of the parish I serve as assistant priest.

Here is a piece I wrote for the Bishop of London, who recently preached about her at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, central London.

Perhaps within the pantheon of the ancient Church, Dorothy Kerin might have been viewed as a great saint. Within the Anglican tradition, during her own lifetime, she was considered a pioneer in the recovery of the Church’s healing ministry.

Aged 22, she suffered from tuberculosis and its complications. After two weeks of very considerable poor health, she was, it seems, miraculously healed. She claimed to have not only seen the Risen Lord but to have actually met him. In this meeting, she was given a commission: to go into the world and perform an important work for Him.

‘I seemed to be going somewhere with a definite purpose.  For me it was a time of indescribable joy and bliss in a place and environment of exquisite harmony, when suddenly I was aware of a lovely form in dazzling white. He was coming towards me and I knew it was Jesus. He said “Dorothy, will you go back and do something for me”, to which I answered “Yes, Lord”. Then I was told to get up and walk.’

In 1915 Dorothy began a period of spiritual direction under Dr Richard Langford James, vicar of St Mark’s, Bush Hill Park in north London. He was well versed in mystical and ascetical theology particularly in the Carmelite school; and Dorothy lived in the vicarage through the London bombings of WW1 and beyond. Her faith was informed by the mystical tradition, with a clear Anglican sense of appropriateness and dignity.

During this period, and while in extended prayer in St Mark’s vicarage, she experienced the manifestation of the marks of the wounds of Christ on her own body, her hands, feet and side.  She is thus one of the few attested Anglican stigmatics.

In a letter to Dr Langford James she says: “Is it not splendid of Our Blessed Lord to accept tiny gifts of sacrifice that we can give to Him, when His gifts to us are so great and glorious? His love makes one ashamed.”

In 1929 she left Bush Hill Park and opened her first residential home of healing (St Raphael’s, a rented house in Ealing, west London).  It was to become a place “to strengthen the weak hands and to confirm the feeble knees of many suffering souls”.

Dorothy emphasized through her long ministry that although physical healing may occur through prayer, most important are the healings of mind and spirit, in which the recipient of grace is reconciled or drawn closer to God.

Like the compassionate St John of the Cross, whose writings she had studied at Bush Hill Park, her appearance often was marked by simplicity of externals, and her great love for souls. She would eschew her own comfort to go the extra mile with those in need, by giving them ‘lovely clothes’ and drives in the country.

Dorothy understood that while we struggle and suffer, God sees every life from the perspective of eternity.  She emphasized that healings often were not dramatic but were gradual and always with a movement towards God.

Dorothy’s personal experience of the living Christ turned her life around and set her on a course of wanting to share with others the wonders of God’s transforming love, and she wanted to share this by setting aside a place where others could come and find the same transforming touch.  Her life was a continuous sacrifice of self.

With her dedicated band of followers she established successively three homes of prayer and healing in the south.  In 1948 she was able to develop the land and buildings that make up the core of the present-day Burrswood.  Here, medicine and the church could work together.

Dorothy espoused a ‘resting theology’… in which the individual is encouraged to identify with the will of God, not in a simple, “if it be according to thy will” sense; but one in which the individual soul places itself entirely at the disposal of God: more like “into thy hands, I commend myself”. For her, the seeing of God’s Kingdom was foremost.

Dorothy Kerin’s own words about Burrswood in a speech she gave in London in 1958:

“As the making of physical fire was one of the great milestones in the rise of man, so also, I believe, was his discovery of prayer as a means of kindling and fanning a flame he found within him; a flame which, like a spiritual engine, has brought him to higher things. Let him not throw it away.  It seems to me that a glorious bonfire - if you will - has been erected at Burrswood. We have watched it growing and growing, with thanksgiving and blessings and wonders, as it has built up over the years. And now it has been ignited with a flame - that living flame –that burns with love and power. It has flamed up; and now so long as this world lasts that flame will not go out. It is an eternal fire glowing on earth with the love of God…”

A week after her death on 26 January 1963, Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley (who was Bishop Warden of Burrswood) wrote in the Times: “At the centre of this dynamic work [Burrswood] was a fragile, gifted and inspired woman, Dorothy Kerin.”

Perhaps here there is a clue to the character of the woman. In her fragility, her weakness, lay her strength. It brought her to a real encounter with the eternal beauty of God. It enabled her to see beyond ill health and to go out in compassion towards others.

A prayer from Dorothy Kerin’s own note book:

By the bruising of
my whole life,
strengthen me with
sympathy for every wounded soul, and
let my prayers be as
balm for the wounds
of thy children, that
they may be healed.

Dorothy Kerin is one of 29 new commemorations in the Kalender for London, which complements the Common Worship national calendar of saints and other holy men and women, and which can be found here:

Sunday 20 January 2013

I Am A Parish

I'm a town in Carolina, I'm a detour on a ride 
For a phone call and a soda, I'm a blur from the driver's side
I'm the last gas for an hour if you're going twenty-five
I am Texaco and tobacco, I am dust you leave behind

I am peaches in September, and corn from a roadside stall
I'm the language of the natives, I'm a cadence and a drawl
I'm the pines behind the graveyard, and the cool beneath their shade, 
where the boys have left their beer cans
I am weeds between the graves.

My porches sag and lean with old black men and children
Their sleep is filled with dreams, I never can fulfill them
I am a town.

I am a church beside the highway where the ditches never drain
I'm a Baptist like my daddy, and Jesus knows my name
I am memory and stillness, I am lonely in old age; 
I am not your destination
I am clinging to my ways
I am a town.

I'm a town in Carolina, I am billboards in the fields 
I'm an old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all my wheels
I am Pabst Blue Ribbon, American, and "Southern Serves the South"
I am tucked behind the Jaycees sign, on the rural route
I am a town

Transpose, if imagination will allow, from the southern American to the British suburban context the insignificance of the town which country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter describes in this lovely song I Am A Town, and you have a feel of the parish in which I am pleased to serve as assistant priest.  

You might pass through our parish on your way in or out of London on the A10 - one of the dual-carriageway trunk roads built in the 1930s and quickly lined with light industrial plants, predominantly manufacturing electrical appliances.  These have been replaced by car showrooms, furniture warehouses with permanent sales, and supermarkets of various stripes - the whole a nice microcosm of the shift from making things to simply selling them.  Recently, a cheap hotel has - apparently pointlessly - sprung up on the site of one of the old factories. You might have passed through, but you probably won't have stopped.  You will have pressed on into London or towards Hertford or Cambridge. I'm a blur from the driver's side.

We are a small and undistinguished triangle of outer suburbia, carved out of the much larger, ancient neighbouring parish at the turn of the last century; and consisting almost entirely of housing speculatively built around a station on a new railway line north from central London into leafy Middlesex.  Almost overnight, it became possible to work in the Big Smoke and live in the countryside, and this London suburb - like others at every compass-point - was born.  Bylaw terraces and railway cottages for the teeming workers; some larger houses for the management.  A parade of shops, a few pubs, a school, and of course - this being the 1890s - a church.  In fact, since you could not expect everyone to submit to the Anglo-Catholicism supposedly favoured by the urban working-class, two churches. Ours - bells, smells, solemn high masses, and Father Surname-Only in full vestments.  A neat example of what writer A N Wilson has called the Church of England's  "bricky slum shrines", its head in a cloud of incense and its hands and feet in the mire of poverty, midway between Canterbury and Rome.  And, a matter of yards away yet within a stone's throw of Geneva, the Congregationalists: unbending in their devotion to the unmediated Word of God, a life of plain obedience to the same, and a simplicity of worship (Sundays only).

120 years on, most of the shops have gone and all but one of the pubs.  The school - a stern but kind, imposing but rambling, confection in Edwardian terracotta - now educates mainly Muslim children.  The old families, generation after generation living in the same house, have gone: parents and grandparents buried with due ceremony (High or Low, according to conviction), children moved to Hertfordshire dormitory towns.  The railway station still does its job - a 25-minute commute to the City (and, by London standards, relatively affordable property) makes this fertile first-home territory.  But few stay for long.  I am not your destination.

Yet the church is still here.  It still does what it did, except differently.  The people for whom, and to whom, it does it are different.  Compared to 50 years ago, they are of highly diverse ethnic origin, religious background, and personal lifestyle.  For the most part, they will not live in their present homes for the rest of their lives; their children will certainly live elsewhere. They are passing through.  They are less disposed than their forebears to do what Father says without question; and, for the most part, Father is not disposed to lead so unassailably from the front.

Importantly, these people do not come because it is the proper (or only) thing to do on Sunday morning.  They come because something draws them.  They come with hugely various spiritual and moral baggage; and with, perhaps, some heterodox doctrinal understanding.  My very favourite thing about the Church of England is that we do not say: "Will you sign up to this set of theological propositions?"  We say rather, "Can you worship with us in this way?"  Given the combination of factors which seem to compromise the Church's calling - it warms the heart to see how many still can.