Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Dusk and dawn - Day 49

Day 49 (Thursday 18th January 2018)
49, the age of King Naresuan of Siam when he died. On the 18 January 1591,
King Naresuan the Great killed 
Prince Minchit Sra of Burma in a single elephant combat,
marking the end of Burmese invasion.
 The battle is one of the epic moments in Thai
military history and the day is now commemorated as Royal Thai Armed Forces Day.
King Naresuan ruled 
I have much to think about today - yesterday early evening I spent some time in one of the leading London hospitals - working with the leaders, looking at data relating to patient safety, staff well-being and the levels of care. Unlike many hospitals Guy's and Saint Thomas' did not stop undertaking routine operations during the recent crisis and did not grind to a halt during the peak of the severe outbreak of flu that has hampered so many other Trusts; indeed emergency patient care was provided by the Trust to other Trusts' patients to help other hospitals that were struggling in the area. At present across most of the NHS more nurses are leaving than joining and, without sufficient nurses it is impossible to establish extra beds for patients during times of crisis.

Today's post is by Jo Mortimer. Jo is a successful business woman - she has grown and runs one of the most significant divisions of the global recruitment firm Angela Mortimer. The ethos of the company rests on integrity (both towards individuals and clients). By going out of your way to understand what an individual or a business needs, it is possible to ensure a great cultural fit where all parties can thrive. 

Jo is highly intelligent and a delight to spend time with. After reading (and gaining a 1st) in Psychology at Cambridge, Jo commenced working in education as a primary school teacher. She is a gifted musician and singer and, despite no longer running youth choirs and school curricula, she remains actively involved in the folk music scene. Jo lives in south London with her enchanting daughter and brilliantly supportive husband. You can connect with her on social media (her Twitter handle is @J0Mortimer.


I love this series of blogs. It brings a real sense of connection to a disparate group of people. This year, as is often the case, mental health has been a strong theme. When we hosted a seminar on the topic this year we were overwhelmed by the response of HR professionals now keen to engage with it. Corbyn has likewise been strong on the theme. It seems the taboo around mental health is melting with the ice-caps. But how to go about nurturing it, and helping others do the same?

At this time of year we find ourselves celebrating the dusk of the old year and the dawn of the new – a celebration older than time. The dominant paradigm where I live in the UK is the Christian imagery, with advent calendars and nativity plays a plenty, and a few of the old pagan traditions still pleasantly loitering like dear grandparents around the fire.
The story behind the Christmas festival – in its most literal interpretation – is that a virgin gave birth.

Sorry to be the one to bring up religion at the Advent blog dinner party, but I think it’s fair to say that taken out of context – or, well, in any context – lots of people might think that was a bit of a tall one. However, at this time of year, many learned and well respected members of society stand in pulpits, sing in the pews and “proclaim the virgin birth”.
Over the past two years various births, deaths and marriages in my life have led me to engage with the Church on a logistical level and it was when exploring the various Christening/naming/child celebration options, I got in touch for the first time with our local vicar.
In our living room, with my husband sitting awkwardly with a cup of tea I knew he wished was a single malt, I asked her what she thought people who went to church actually believe. Her response was: “look around the congregation, 85 different people, 85 different beliefs”. This was a small revelation to me. 

Having attended a “C of E” school, I was familiar with Christian traditions and had even had what I thought was strong personal faith as a teenager. But then aged 16 I read Freud who basically changed my mind. I set up camp with Richard Dawkins et al, essentially still a fundamentalist but on the other side of the fence. I rejected virgin births along with Father Christmas and other fairy tales.

As an atheist fundamentalist, you can’t really go to church, because it’s against your religion. Just like you can’t go to visit Santa in his grotto….or can you?
Rejecting ideas is all very well, but as the mental health theme is showing us, human beings still have needs of the spirit. We long to be part of communities, to be loved, to have company, to have families, to sometimes have distance from those families, to feel useful, supported and part of something bigger than ourselves.

A Part of Something Bigger by Laurel Pettit
As a Philosophy student, I also explored non-intellectual approaches to spirituality through meditation, yoga and Taoist Tai Chi™. Through Tai Chi I have had exposure to Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist rituals and chanting. I have never been expected to understand, let alone vouch for the content of the chanting. Indeed some of the chants are so old they are now incomprehensible to anyone of any dialect, and the syllables are simply chanted, keeping the ritual alive. My experience must be similar to that of the English illiterati of centuries past, enjoying the break from the daily grind as the Latin readings and communal singing washed over them.
Because I didn’t have to engage with the meaning of the chanting, the fundamentalist atheist in me was able to relax, and I felt great benefit. I was physically energised, enjoyed community with my fellow chanters and allowed my brain to stop whirring. I also found the space when celebrating the All Souls festival in the Chinatown of Toronto, Canada, to have a good old cry and let go of grief and tension I hadn’t even realised I was holding on to.

London is a wonderfully cosmopolitan melting pot, but as with anywhere in the world, Taoist temples are few!  With the discovery that our vicar doesn’t mind me coming to church and adding a 86th belief system to the existing 85 she counts in her congregation, I’ve discovered a delightful community, quite literally on my doorstep, where I can go on the lonely Sunday mornings when I would otherwise be pushing my toddler on a solitary swing, quietly wondering what the point is.
I think lots of us stay away from church because we are ourselves fundamentalists (albeit of the atheist persuasion). Understandably it feels hypocritical to take part in a ceremony that you can’t wholeheartedly buy into. Equally, we wouldn’t want to stand up and say: “I believe in Santa Claus, gifter almighty, maker of candy and sleighs”. (Except perhaps in the grotto at the school Christmas fair, when it would be rude not to.)

The beauty of the culture of the Church of England tradition, and something I hadn’t properly appreciated, is that everyone is welcome to come to church, no matter what you believe. Heck, they even have the ‘doubting Thomas’ story for those of us who know we don’t know.
I suppose life’s finally gifted me the humility to realise I need the support of a community and the space to connect to The Universe/Space/Peace/Quiet/Reality/Truth/God* (*delete as you see fit – though in my view defining the last one can be a can of worms).
I also think that if congregations dwindle and we lose the churches, we will have lost a baby in all that murky, grubby bathwater. Whether it’s a stained glass window, a candle, a sermon, a carol, an old lady talking to your baby or a mince pie that gives you pause for thought, there’s a rich tapestry on offer that in my view has yet to be replicated on one’s doorstep.

All Saints Church Denmead - stained glass window
In an age of frightening radicalism and polarisation, churches have the potential to become a place where moderates can come together, connect with their community, take some time for reflection and enjoy a rare moment of peace. The more the merrier!



  1. Thanks for sharing Jo. I wonder if you have explored the writings of Thomas Merton? Given the journey you're on, I think you may enjoy a few of them. Blessings Julian

    1. Thank you Julian. I have not as yet, but will look him up now!