To be, or not to be...

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Oxford Smith

25 September 2017

The sun is setting on Assynt, in the North West corner of Scotland. Orange light warms a cold April. The mountains, Suilven and Ben More are iced with peaks of snow. Feathered friends make a snuggery, while a glistening otter gallops up the slipway with a wriggling trout in its mouth, its rainbow fate sealed. The white-tailed eagle has hovered over the loch for a day, searching for a salmon that escaped from the farm. Just when she smelt freedom, this god of the air snatched her away. So many worlds spin in pain.

At Cape Wrath, angry in the quietest weather, the Ministry of Defence carry out military exercises and propagate the news that they are also preserving the wildlife, flora and fauna of this special place. Meanwhile submarines creep into sea lochs doing what they do. Is there any place on earth not compromised by humanity?

I walk beside the stone remains of townships long since abandoned, kinship fragmented because of greed. Roofless churches in these parts tell the story of an ecclesiology and its earnest guardians who preached a misplaced morality and threatened doctrinal punishment and excommunication. The clergy banished the original spiritual beliefs of the people and yet somehow, the early Celtic Christian movement which managed to weave holy place names and traditions into the fabric of indigenous belief, survived. Over the centuries, many have heard an ancient song and harmony.

‘April is the cruellest month’, writes the poet, T. S. Eliot. Especially so, as we hallow the memory of  New Zealanders and Australians killed in war. Such remembering is gathered to our hearts, not to glory the indescribable carnage of war nor gloss over the brutalising and crushing of the human spirit. We do not gather the dead and dying, the grief and sadness, the memories, stories, tragedies, the comradeship in life and death, to dis-member them. Rather we re-member them. This is restorative, moving us, not only to give thanks for the gifts of life and freedom which we take for granted, but to bring to birth, in our own hearts and lives, a harvest of goodness, justice and peace.  

Every Sunday morning before going to Church, I listen to Sunday Worship on the radio while eating a breakfast of poached eggs on toast. Today the service was broadcast from Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where William Shakespeare was born and lived and the church in which he was buried.

He died 400 years ago on the 23rd April 1616 and throughout the world, words, music, art and place honour the legacy of probably one of the greatest writers that ever was. William had a lot to say about war: its  legal, ethical and religious justifications, the ties between church and state in promoting and waging war, the costs to humanity, and the political strategies used to downplay internal problems and unite a nation around a leader whose legitimacy is in question…’ to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels’[i]

He also knew the devastation of grief. His only son, Hanmet died at the age of 11. We know little about his faith yet he writes in The Winter’s Tale, ‘then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory’. He also knows the inner voice of doubt, ‘Ay, but to die, and to go we know not where’.[ii] Resurrection, the deepest hope for our common humanity, was often in his mind. Lives could also be changed because of love, loyalty and miracles. [iii]

I made a visit with my late father to Stratford-upon-Avon in my salad days.[iv]  Days when I thought that the ancient houses were higgledy-piggledy and the very fat swans on the river were hungry.  I fed them and they obligingly ate what they were given. Dad took me to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and we drank hot chocolate with lots of cream on top. 

I cherish a tiny leather book of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays which he gifted to me on that day. I did not understand the words then. Now I realise that the Bard’s words are embedded in our language…   

The course of true love never did run smooth[v]; For goodness sake[vi]; Neither here nor there[vii]; Eaten out of house and home[viii]; A wild goose chase[ix]; Too much of a good thing[x]; The world’s mine oyster[xi]; Not slept one wink[xii]; Send him packing[xiii]; Own flesh and blood[xiv] ...and so many more.

On this Sunday evening, snow is lightly falling as I look out of the window of the Clergy House. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his partner roost on our roof after spending the day making a home for their young. They are our guests every year and we welcome their wisdom:

Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one of them, and help them to see it in themselves. That way you’ll see the way to fly and that’s what I mean by love.[xv]

©Hilary Oxford Smith
April 2016

[i] Henry IV
[ii] Measure for Measure
[iii] Sunday Worship BBC Radio 4, Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
[iv] Anthony and Cleopatra
[v] A Midsummer Night’s Dream
[vi] Henry VIII
[vii] Othello
[viii] Henry IV
[ix] Romeo and Juliet
[x] As You Like It
[xi] The Merry Wives of Windsor
[xii] Cymbeline
[xiii] Henry IV
[xiv] Hamlet
[xv] Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach