Health, Happiness and the NHS

Our Lady of Consolation
Our Lady of Consolation, icon, since c. 1450 at Cambrai, Flanders

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Consolation and the 70th birthday of the National Health Service. I owe an enormous debt to both and make no apologies for an intensely personal post.

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I was doing some research in Ourense, Galicia, where the canon-archivist was very keen to show the enigmatic Inglesa his pride and joy: a statue of Our Lady of Consolation that had been much beloved of English seamen. I had so far acculturated to Spanish ways that I actually dropped to my knees and prayed — for England, of course, but even more, with all the egocentricity of youth, for myself and future path in life. I did not know that it would lead me to an English Benedictine monastery under the patronage of that self-same Lady of Consolation, nor that one of my kinswomen had been a member of the community back in the eighteenth century. But it did, and I think that the emphasis on compassion, on strengthening, the choice of dedication gave the community has been a marker in many monastic lives. Here at Howton Grove, where we are under the patronage of the Blessed Trinity, we continue the tradition, I hope, albeit in a different form from that of the seventeenth century when Cambrai was established.

It seems to me very suitable that the NHS should have begun on the feast of Our Lady of Consolation, though I doubt whether its first architect would have been so appreciative of the link! During the last seventy years the NHS has undergone many transformations and will doubtless undergo many more, but one thing it has done superbly well, especially for the poor. It has taken away the worry of ‘how will I afford treatment?’ I myself have two rare diseases, one of them a rare and aggressive form of cancer that has been kept at bay far longer than I have any right to expect by a treatment programme entirely funded by the NHS. The community couldn’t afford the treatment I’ve had; we couldn’t even afford the insurance premiums for the treatment I’ve had. So, yes, I am just one more person who owes her life to the NHS, but there is a little more to it than that.

I began by referencing Our Lady of Consolation for a reason. I haven’t much time for those who moan and groan about the NHS being underfunded or who are scathing about its poor outcomes in some areas because I happen to believe that we are each of us chiefly responsible for our own health. It is up to us to adopt as healthy a life-style as we can and I don’t expect the NHS to make good any defects in my own ‘self-care’, as it were. The NHS is flawed, as any large organisation will be flawed; but that isn’t the point. The existence of the NHS has freed us from an anxiety about ourselves that can be quite crippling. The question we must therefore ask is, what do we do with that freedom? Are we givers of comfort and encouragement or merely consumers thereof? There are times when my own illness makes me look inward and feel very sorry for myself, but I hope there are more times when it forces me to look outwards at the sufferings of others. When I can do nothing else, when I am too sick to write or respond to requests, I can try to pray — and somehow, in ways I can’t explain, I think that does achieve something. Despite all the sadness, anger and division in the world, despite all the moral, physical, mental and spiritual sickness that exists, there is a way of spreading health and happiness. It is called prayer, and it costs . . . everything.

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The Gift of Encouragement

One definition of the verb to encourage is to give active help or to raise confidence to the point where one dares to do what is difficult. On the feast of St Barnabas, the Son of Encouragament, it is worth thinking about this, and the different words we use to express different shades of meaning. We embolden others, for example, to overcome shyness or diffidence; we hearten others in an effort to inspire them to fresh endeavours; and those we try to hearten or inspire, we usually try to foster or nurture as well. What is common to all is the need for us to do something in the service of others. We can’t encourage by sitting mute and doing nothing. We must ourselves risk failure if we want to help others. We can’t embolden others if we lack the courage to tackle their shyness and diffidence; and we certainly can’t put fresh heart into anyone if we are quailing at the thought of doing so.

I think St Barnabas, ‘the apostle no one talks about’, is a splendid example of an encourager. His life was so completely focused on his mission that we have almost forgotten him in our remembrance of what he achieved; and what he achieved was the building up of the young Church in circumstances that were indeed daunting. Most of us need encouraging at times. What we often forget is that we also need to encourage others. Let us ask the prayers of St Barnabas that we may learn from him the art of giving encouragement.

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Encouragement

St Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, gets something of a raw deal from the Church. His feast is kept as a memoria rather than a festum, and his (presumed) mortal remains are kept in a basilica in northern Cyprus* (looked after by a Muslim caretaker) rather than in some grand church in Rome. No doubt it is my quirky sense of humour, but that strikes me as being very fitting for someone who gives encouragement. To encourage another, we have to have a very just (= modest) opinion of ourselves and a very generous (= hopeful) opinion of the other. The liturgical reticence of today’s commemoration reminds us that what attracts society’s notice may not be what attracts God’s, that our human values are not always the same as his. Barnabas was to be eclipsed by his disciple, Paul; and the Church remembers the dispute between them chiefly because Paul won his point; but I have a suspicion that in the court of heaven, Barnabas occupies a very high place from which he continues to encourage us still.

* The basilica in Cyprus is very beautiful, with hundreds of magnificent icons. It is certainly not a ‘second-best’ resting-place; my point is that in Rome St Barnabas is hardly mentioned, unlike the other figures of Apostolic times.

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One Week In

One week into Lent, and we probably all have a much more modest idea of what we can do. The prayer, the fasting, the almsgiving — they all seem a little harder, the results a little less obvious than we had hoped. This is the moment at which we need encouragement, and the encouragement we most need is to be reminded that Lent is not about what we do but what God does; and he can do anything! He can take our small and uncertain offerings and transform them. All he needs is a chink in our armour, a way in, to draw us closer to himself and refashion us nearer to his heart’s desire.

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SS Philip and James

The feast of SS Philip and James is graced with a beautiful piece of of plainchant, Tanto tempore. I do not mean to slight the apostles when I say that great art isn’t always inspired by great people or great events. Philip and James appear at various points in the New Testament but never, I think, in a way that makes one think of them as heroes or larger-than-life characters. They are good men, not great ones — a wonderful encouragement to those of us who know ourselves to be rather run-of-the-mill people, trying to live good Christian lives but frequently failing. Yet at some time in the past an unknown musician took the words of Jesus, ‘Have I been with you so long, Philip’ and turned them into a musical masterpiece we sing each year on this feast. It is a reminder that God can take the most humdrum of materials — us — and transform them beyond our wildest imaginings.

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