Thursday, April 5, 2012

Blessing Blackburn Musical ~ Installment 8

“There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’ This too is meaningless – a miserable business!” (Ecclesiastes 4:8)

Guest Blogger ~ Marie Sheahan Brown

Thursday, 4/5/12
9:00 am Pacific Time, near San Francisco

Miss Jane Marple, one of my favorite Agatha Christie detectives, lived and grew wise in the fictional country village of St. Mary Mead. The four cardinal virtues, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the seven deadly sins jostled there as neighbors. Being from a tiny village myself, I am acquainted with all of them. Such is the Human Condition.

Why would Blackburn, near Bathgate, West Lothian be any different?

When suddenly the careworn council house on Yule Terrace gleamed golden, its glow shone on vice and virtue all around. Susan seems wisely and slowly to be discerning one from another now that her village has expanded to seven continents.

For good reason, the Bible warns: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10a). Money, itself, is not the root, because it can support truly noble causes – like providing food, clothing, and shelter for one’s family. But the love of this medium of exchange (or its near relatives like fame and power) can point us away from goodness and nobility, away from peace within our hearts, away from peace among one another.

In four visits to Blackburn since 2009, I have sensed both darkness and light in the village. I have asked very few questions about Susan, yet locals, to my surprise, have volunteered information. With a small minority, my heart has felt heavy, sad, and confused. I have heard of at least one friendship ruptured by suspicion and whispered or public accusations, as if the internet troll had wormed his way into rooms of brick and mortar. The malodor stays with my spirit as a warning. I don’t know exactly what is going on, but I know all is not well when one or more of the seven peskies seem to hover in fetid darkness.

Conversely, I have encountered other locals – most notably our forum members stevieboy49, Little Tiger, moira, Scottish Mary, wullawonta, and their dear ones – who, having tested our sincerity, have responded to the higher ideals beckoning all of us. They celebrate Susan’s new life, respect and care about her as a person, seek no selfish gain, offer generosity, and live in gratitude for the expanding genuine friendships we share as a worldwide community of supporters. When I think of these friends, my heart lifts.

Let me be bold: This is what God wants for us, His beloved children, just as good parents rejoice when their children are happy, doing both good and well, and getting along.

The Beloved to whom I have professed my own vows said during the meal we re-live this Holy Thursday in kairos time: “I call you not servants but friends.”

In a kairos moment several weeks ago, I happened upon a thin paperback book lying on a table where it didn’t belong. I recognized the author’s name – Saint Aelred of Rievaulx – which I had learned only recently. This slim treasure, Spiritual Friendship, had been translated and published in 1977 by an American monastery of the popularly acclaimed saint’s ancient Cistercian order.

Born c. 1110 in Hexham, 23 miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne, Aelred was sent at about 15 to live in the court of King David I of Scotland. An esteemed member of the royal household, he stayed for about 10 years before entering the Cistercian monastery in Rievaulx in 1134. He became a beloved and prominent abbot at Rievaulx and made annual visitations to the abbey’s daughterhouses, including the beautiful Melrose Abbey, founded by King David I, about 40 miles south of Edinburgh. Saint Aelred died in 1167. He was known for holiness, kindliness, and wisdom. Upon the death of King David I, who had remained a close friend, Aelred wrote a eulogy documenting King (Saint) David’s own piety, virtues, and good works.

Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship starts with Cicero’s definition: “Friendship is mutual harmony in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity.” Aelred then develops these principles from a Christian view supported by Scripture, encouraging true spiritual friendship as a participation in God’s own inner Trinitarian life. He also identifies false friendships, placing them in two general categories: friendship for carnal pleasure, and friendship for material gain.

I found a beautiful summary by Sister Patricia Carroll, OCSO, a Cistercian nun:

If we follow Saint Aelred’s counsel, Susan is wise to discern the character and intent of people who approach her now that she is famous and wealthy. She is wise to live among people she has known her whole life, whose character and intent could not hide for long in a small village.

Many of us yearn to be true cuppa-tea friends with Susan. We surprise ourselves with this realization, because most of us never desire friendship with other celebrities whom we admire.

Why do we feel this way?

I believe that in our desire for genuine friendship with Susan, herself – which logistics make improbable for most of us – we are seeking to live ideals together with Susan and others.

We who traveled to Newcastle in person or in cyberspace, who have been forming friendships with one another as we support Susan’s career, seem drawn to the ideals of Truth, Love, Justice, and Beauty. Does not the famous audition video neatly depict the triumph of these ideals?

According to Father Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, PhD, and to his classical and biblical sources, these are the only goods that can bring true and lasting happiness (other goods are good, but insufficient). These also happen to be qualities of God for which our souls thirst. (Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom and the Life Issues)

Susan, by developing and offering her God-given gifts, attracts hearts to these ideals, and community forms around them. This is precisely how the gifts of God work, and He often uses the most humble and unlikely instruments. Susan acknowledges this in her book. We need not exalt Susan and put her on a pedestal – which is one reason many of us applauded when she put her foot down to “stay grounded” on Yule Terrace.

Susan intrigues us with her “many sides” so guilelessly offered or, if not safe, prudently withheld from view. Many of us genuinely want to be her friend in a comfortable mutual way. Must this be psychologized with suspicion and technical labels? No. Consider our unexpected friendships with people we have come to know thanks to Susan. We know when friendships are real and growing, based on mutual recognition of goodness and shared ideals. Such friendships can and ought to take time to develop (according to Saint Aelred), but if the foundations are strong, so the building will be.

Most of us enter friendship with personal imperfections. We all still must take stock and attend to the darkness and light within our hearts. Am I now being enticed by one of the seven deadlies, or is my heart moving toward goodness? I can choose to move toward goodness, which, like sparkling white snow, collects more as it rolls along.

Whether one is Christian or not, some handy lists from Galatians, Chapter 5, can help us sort out what’s going on inside and outside of us.

In the category of darkness we find: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.”

In the category of light we find: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

We sense and are drawn to the goodness within Susan, which sparkles through the earthiness, the admitted outbursts, and the foibles we embrace because we love her foundational character and spirit, and because our hearts sing with her voice.

Those of us who would love to be true cuppa-tea friends with Susan feel no need to idealize her, to have her be other than who she is. Who among us does not settle with relief into the armchair of a good friend who accepts and loves us as we are? Such acceptance offers us the safety to be honest and to improve.

A true friend does not take something from us, nor do we take something from our friend. Attend to the message in your heart: Wanting to get something from someone feels different from sharing with someone. In true friendship, we give companionship and support mutually with joy – and with a good reserve of tolerance.

Nearly 100 good-hearted people from 15 countries and 20 of the United States of America gathered as a group in Newcastle. We were Catholics and other Christians, people of the Jewish faith or of no religious tradition (those are just the ones I know about). We were rich and not so rich, young and venerable, with various first languages and professions. If I had to choose one word to describe my impression of the people gathered, it would be “kindness.”

I enjoy traveling with Bonnie to Susa-events in part because we both honestly acknowledge our dreamed desire for true cuppa-tea friendship with Susan. I can attest that Bonnie enjoys true friendships in her life, as do I. Yet a tendency toward friendship is expansive. An open heart tends not to say, “Okay. I’ve had enough. I’ve just run outta love.” God’s friendship is exactly the opposite.

Lord, help us as you did Saint Aelred of Rievaulx.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Blessing Blackburn Musical ~ Installment 7

“Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time – for strength and not for drunkenness.” (Ecclesiastes 10:17)

Guest Blogger ~ Marie Sheahan Brown

Monday, 4/2/12
10:00 pm in Blackburn, Scotland

Bonnie and I left the beautiful city of Newcastle upon Tyne on Thursday morning. We caught the London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley train, passing through alluring green or freshly tilled reddish-brown fields interrupted by burghs similar to Blackburn. Back-yard clotheslines sagged with laundry taking advantage of the warm sunshine. Beyond, the North Sea stretched into the haze. Occasionally, we passed ancient ruins or still-used remnants, which I’d love to learn about someday.

This year, I arrived in Edinburgh and environs with a sense of belonging I had not known in past visits. Earlier this year, my twin had explored the ancestry of some women who had married into our well-documented Brown family line. We knew our branch of Browns had arrived in America in the late 1600s and, a few years later, had settled West Nottingham, Pennsylvania. Leslie’s online investigations this year revealed surprising, old, deep roots in Scotland. Although Leslie and I had greatly enjoyed our day in Edinburgh in September 2009, our sense of its history was not then enriched by this new knowledge.

Can loyalty and affection be transmitted through DNA? I would like to think so.

From Waverley Station in Edinburgh, we easily found and hopped aboard the fetching ScotRail train that stops at Bathgate en route to Glasgow and other points west. The train skirts the solid rock base from which Edinburgh Castle, originally built by King David I in the 12th Century, still exercises its skyline reign. The train then passes through green fields punctuated by the distinctive oil shale bings left over from deep-coal-mining years.

After half an hour, we eased into the new Bathgate railway station. From there, we caught the local bus to Blackburn. The driver helpfully sorted out our unfamiliar coins totaling a pound 30 each. We checked in at the Burnview B and B.

In the spirit of kairos, we let go of most agendas except blogging (or, in Bonnie’s case, watching many episodes of Downton Abbey she’d downloaded on her iPad), checking the forum, foraging for food and drink, attending Mass, walking, and getting enough sleep.

In some ways, these days have resembled those of the beautiful horses we were happy to meet a mile or so down the road at the Equestrian Centre beside Blackburn House – the original manor, dating to 1772, which was refurbished from dereliction in the late 2000s. Gregarious animals, horses mostly live to eat, drink, socialize, run and jump, roll, and sleep – often standing up. A pretty young stable hand, a college student, was kind enough to introduce us to several of the horses, describing their equine idiosyncrasies and imparting husbandry lore. We met and admired Iris, a sturdy dark-brown mare with a glorious long tail, nearly 17 hands, an avid jumper, identified as a “Welsh section D” breed – familiar terminology here but heretofore unknown to me. Listening to the contented munching; gazing into incredibly kind, large, knowing, dark eyes; stroking shaggy winter coats; breathing with a horse as she got to know me; dodging teeth when he nuzzled and nibbled searching for possible food (turns out I had an apple in my pocket) – I remember so well the days Leslie and I daydreamed of living in a stall and tending horses as our life’s work. “Wild Horses….”

Back to the present, I have learned that the traditional Scottish breakfast – small portions of thick bacon, haggis, two other kinds of sausage, fried egg, roasted tomatoes, toast, fruit juice, and tea – keeps me going until dinner with no hunger pangs. I’d rarely eat this at home, though!

Walking outside on mostly sunny days, we inhaled friendly pastoral wafts of cow and sheep manure blowing from the extensive green pasturelands behind the Burnview and the Posh House.

The local B and Bs are seldom full, and are perhaps often empty, so our occasional patronage supports the local economy – which, we hear, has languished since the Bathgate tractor and truck plant of British Leyland Motor Corporation closed in 1986. The Happy Valley still serves as a pub of choice for working men and fewer women. Clientele of other pubs in the area likely serve a stable constituency. The Qualifryer Fish & Chicken Bar still maintains an irregular schedule. The immigrant owner of the Chinese take-out, who lives in the tidy dwelling above his family business, sweeps the sidewalk and entryway before evening opening hours. Blackburn Connected (the library and free computer site) still serves as a daytime educational and social hub.

We noticed some beautifications: a small neat garden at the corner of Bathgate-Blackburn Road and Main Street; a few other old buildings being refurbished; the Margaret Cottages 1905, further west along Main Street toward Whitburn, with freshly painted trim and attractive window treatment. Bonnie pointed out a row of newly planted trees in the downtown area near the Happy Valley and The Mill Centre. A new two-storey house behind the police station shows few signs of activity although it is immaculately maintained.

Occasional small signs posted along sidewalks read:

Dog Fouling
(Scotland) Act 2003
Please be a responsible dog owner
if it fouls in any public area.
You are breaking the law if you don’t.
West Lothian Council

The sign includes a visually and nasally evocative graphic. Alas, despite other enhancements locally, some village dogs seem not to have learned to read since my last visit.

We discovered that people, including families with children, can now enjoy dinner out in Blackburn. Actually, they can enjoy simple but satisfying pub grub along with their favorite beverage. An area restauranteer and his wife have spent the last four years carefully refurbishing The Crown Inn, a 100-year-old establishment on the old road from Edinburgh to Glasgow, which re-opened in December 2011. (According to tradition, one night the king stopped there for dinner and lodging.) The personable manager, who grew up in Blackburn and lives upstairs, introduced us to the owner, who lives somewhere in West Lothian and frequently visits each of his establishments in the area. We felt ourselves to be welcome visitors – and easily identified curiosities.

Three years after Susan’s worldwide fame began, our American accents remain day-to-day rarities. Wherever we go in West Lothian, every accent in the air sounds like Susan’s – except when we joined a handful of Susafans for Saturday dinner in Bathgate and Sunday Mass in Blackburn. The dire prediction of Blackburn being overrun with tourists has proved a dark fabrication. Graceland stays in Memphis, Tennessee; Dollywood, in the Great Smoky Mountains. Susaland exhibits few obvious changes, except for positive ones initiated by locals.

Tonight while awaiting our last-evening dinner – toasted tuna paninis – at The Crown Inn, a white-haired gentleman we had not met called across the room from his barstool: “When are you going back to California?” Which means our quiet presence here has been notable, not routine. He joined us at our table, and we all enjoyed a lively educational hour.

Nearby Bathgate dreams of resurrection as a West Lothian cultural magnet. The historic Steelyard and adjacent Bathgate Town Centre have been renovated, with a Wi-Fi zone enticing visitors not quite ready to disconnect from the wider world. According to a council member, “This area will be known as Saint David’s Square as it lies outside Saint David’s Church.”

(This Saint David may or may not be King David I – a saint according to some sources – who was a notably pious and well-educated son of Queen [Saint] Margaret of Scotland. He reigned as King of the Scots from 1124 to 1153. During his long mostly peaceful reign, he initiated significant favorably regarded changes now characterized as the Davidian Revolution, with effects still experienced today in Scottish civic, cultural, and spiritual life.)

The Bathgate Regal Community Theatre enjoys similar renewal. Its website announces:
Regal Project 2012 is about engaging the community in an exciting venture to promote the facility as a major community arts venue. We are keen to provide new opportunities that will involve people of all ages who have an interest in the Theatre and the arts. We are particularly keen to hear from people who would be willing to volunteer a few hours of their time each week to make this project work. If you feel you could bring something to this then please come along to our meeting on the 19th January 2012 to discuss it further.
Later reports laud a “huge response” – a fact my theatrical airplane companions from Oregon would delight to hear.

We have returned to the Burnview B and B, and our friendly hosts have phoned a taxi to pick us up at 5:00 am.

I feel anticipatory homesickness for this quiet, simple, beautiful place where I have experienced rest and curiosity. Far from killing us (unless maybe we pry too deeply into sensed cultural undercurrents), curiosity keeps our minds and spirits alive and engaged with our surroundings and its dwellers.

Until next time, sweet Blackburn, Deo volente.

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)