WHY ME? Jennifer Thorn, Sunday 18 February 2018, at St John the Baptist, Holland Road, W14 8AH

WHY ME? Jennifer Thorn, Sunday 18 February 2018, at St John the Baptist, Holland Road, W14 8AH

It’s both a wonderful and a scary thing to be asked to talk about the faith journey in your life - it’s tricky to pin down. It’s not that you’ve exactly, arrived somewhere - and, where did it begin..

When I was in my early twenties I was introduced to T.S.Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. They have stayed with me and been significant, all along the way - as for many; so I’m borrowing some lines that have rung in the course of thinking about this talk.

‘..hints and guesses - hints followed by guesses..’
‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood..’ ¹

‘Home is where one starts from’ ²
Mum and Dad were both musical, and both passionate teachers, in very different ways. My father was a scientist - a researcher, someone who stands back, observes, weighs things - contemplative by nature. He lectured in biochemistry at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School. They both played the piano, my mother particularly well, and the house was always full of music. Mum was energetic, outgoing, spontaneous. She was a primary school teacher; she loved children, and drawing out their potential - she would get them to sing and to act, and she put on productions at the school. Dad would help with making props.

In the worldview we lived, there was no conscious thought of God or of search. Church was on the sidelines, we didn’t go regularly, though we must have, enough to impress the Anglican forms on me quite deeply, with the psalm singing and the language of the Prayer Book; and my brother and I were packed off to Sunday school - I’m guessing, they thought we should at least know the stories. From there, I have a memory, of being told a mnemonic for JOY - Jesus first, Others next and Yourself last - and also, of a conversation in which I said yes, I did want to go on following Jesus. But without a continuing framework, that fell away.

Primary school - another St George’s as it happens - offered the chance to learn an instrument, and my brother and I both chose violin and started in the same year. Being older, he soon had too much homework to be practising a lot. He was to excel as a writer, and in art. I was eight or nine when a visiting violinist gave a concert, playing the Bartok Romanian Dances, and I was spellbound by the high mysterious one in harmonics - a shepherd’s flute in the mountains. If there was a moment of ‘call’ to music that was it. I wanted too, to make that magic ‘other world’ thing happen.

By the time I went to secondary school I had made enough ground to be already set on course for music college, and to be a violinist. I was even allowed some subjects off, to give time to practise during the day. I confess I spent some of this valuable time looking out of the window and writing poems about trees. School had assembly every morning, so a hint to faith at that time was, being furnished with hymns, many of which I loved, for the music and the words, though some were puzzling - ‘..through gates of pearl streams /In the countless host.’ What were pearl streams, I wondered - sounded beautiful anyway. In a lunchtime talk once, a believer told us we were like a glove - lifeless until God put his hand into us. I didn’t find that compelling, then.

Fast forward to music college; which to begin with wasn’t altogether a happy time until I went to a new teacher who built my confidence. Things came together, and I left on a high, with solo opportunities and a budding piano trio. I loved the chamber music. Meanwhile at college a friend had urged me to take Christianity seriously, as it was true. My answer was, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I guess music is my way to God.’
Music was the place I sensed another world, felt connected to something larger, that in performance I was open to being a part of. Practice too was a concentrated time and satisfying in itself - particularly in the music of Bach.

‘..you are the music
While the music lasts.’ ³

‘Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die.’

It’s only quite recently that I have understood how much the violin had become my ‘way’ to just about everything in life - sense of having a voice, expression of feelings, and all the possibilities of relating; position in the world and sense of worth, as well as the life of spirit.
This exclusive wrapping up in an art form was after all, not a safe place - too much depended on it.

In my mid twenties things began to go wrong. The piano trio broke up. I was restless - I enjoyed working in opera, but tried doing other jobs than music, alongside the freelancing. I read Alan Watts and William Blake and ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance..’ By then, I guess I was searching. In personal terms, I made choices that were damaging to me and to others. I did even lose the sense of connection through music. One day, a work colleague out of the blue told me ‘the Gospel’ over lunch. It went something like this; ‘So, you can’t say for sure if there is a God or not - that’s because there is a cloud between you, and it needs the death of Jesus, which was a perfect sacrifice, to clear the way so you really can know..’ Now that might as well have been in Greek for all the sense it made, to the mind - And yet. It stuck, and drew me; it was like touching something solid in the dark. I got curious about the man Jesus - he came off the nursery wall. Soon after, I started going to All Soul’s Langham Place, which brought explanations on how to turn towards God, and the gift of a thorough introduction to the Bible - my christening one had not had a single page turned. On an early visit I also noticed how after the communion the singing became curiously more unified and powerful.

Three years on, I moved to a local church and was there for many years - though eventually I drifted away, afraid I was only going because it was something to do on a Sunday morning - would my faith mean anything during the week, be real in every place, if I didn’t go ? But being there had already sowed another seed, in the form of a small group that met together over some twenty years, learning to spend time in worship and silence - a listening silence, after which we would share impressions and pray for one another. From here came my first inwardly felt sense that God was real and active and knew me, better than any human being.

Fast forward to St George’s, which has brought many things, not least through the liturgy of the church year and the preaching - in a return to the riches of loved hymns - in a warmth felt even on first visit - in a welcome into the choir. I had started to sing by then and this meant a lot, and has been a chief joy. It has also been possible to take up with others that gift of being together in silence, and listening prayer.

So - in the journey of faith - there was never one blinding moment. Neither have the clues come solely from the ‘visible’ church - I am indebted beyond, to others for bringing me closer to what I had been missing - but within that, help and life have come through many of its different worship cultures: from the ‘wing’ where the power and immediacy of the Holy Spirit working through the gifts, is looked for; from monastic patterns of prayer, the beauty of plainsong, from retreat, and places where different ways of being in silence, and imaginative prayer with scripture are practised; and from where the sacraments and the liturgy are cherished as a way to growth and knowing. In ways these various cultures do of course overlap. They can also seem irreconcilably different; but I came to feel that they were all about the same thing, however differently clothed.

The point was: to get at the real person that you are - beyond the upbringing, the behaviours, the masks, habits, the label of the profession, the belief system, in or out of church - and to bring that person to grow, in dynamic meeting with a real, living and present, God. So, bit by bit, I have come to see myself within that creative love and challenge; that I owe my life and the gifts that have been part of it and sustained me, through all including brokenness and loss into a new sense of family and belonging, in return.
From home on, all the hints and guesses pointed towards the One whose presence can heal, unmask and affirm the real person, bring relationship to being.

‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.’

The journey being about, becoming, more, a part of the body, ‘the Word made flesh’ - in the gifts we are, all, to one another.

From T.S. Eliot ‘Four Quartets’
1. The Dry Salvages V     2. East Coker V     3. The Dry Salvages V       4. Burnt Norton V

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