Why Me? Marina Abel Smith, 17 March 2019

Christianity has always been a huge part of my life. I was born into what I call a ‘duel fuel’ family. My mother is Anglican, my father is a Roman Catholic, so whilst I was baptised and confirmed a Catholic, throughout my youth I was a regular at both churches. I never really worried about the differences between the two denominations, as I worked out pretty early on that it’s all about the same thing really. 

 Faith, Christianity and being the best you can be were main themes in the lives of all the adults who played a part in my upbringing. I suppose it therefore filtered down to me from day one. Whilst of course I’ve questioned and debated faith with friends who believe different things, for me it’s always been there. A constant companion. One that even in my most doubtful, questioning times, I’ve never managed to shake off. Once, someone I’m very close to said to me ‘whenever I go to church, I look around and think ‘how can you believe in God?’’My response was ‘and I look around and think ‘how can you not?’’ For a while, we had a peacock living in our garden in Essex. We called him Jasper. One summer’s day, I was feeding him a handful of discount peacock food that Dad had sourced from a shop just outside Ipswich, and I was struck dumb by his beauty. Again I thought, ‘how can you not believe in God?!’ I am regularly in awe of the richness of life and each time I am conscious of it, my faith is reaffirmed.

 From the ages of 12 - 18 I was at Wycombe Abbey, an Anglican all girls boarding school founded by the daughter of a Lincolnshire clergyman.  Daily chapel was part of the routine and the school motto was In Fide Vade - go forth in faith. I then went to Edinburgh University to study music.

 Music has been my passion since before I can remember and it was during the four years as an undergraduate at Edinburgh that I drifted the furthest I’d ever had from organised religion. Not faith though - as I say, that was always there - but during the four years of partying, singing and intense study of German 19th-Century Music, I think I went to church once, on Easter Sunday of my fourth year - unless I was with my parents for the weekend when I dutifully went to mass and reconnected with the liturgy, which at that point felt like an old friend from whom I’d drifted. I often pondered what God thought of that behaviour. I imagine he was probably saddened that I wasn’t even giving him an hour a week in contemplation and thanks, but at that time my life was so full of him in different ways: the lifelong friendships I was forming, the continual discovery about myself, music, history, Scotland - life! He was there in everything, even if I wasn’t in his house very often. 

 Then came the move to London after graduation- six months in Battersea where I happily and regularly sang in a Catholic Church. Then a year in Oxford where evensong at Magdalene College recharged my soul each week, before I moved to West London just at the time that my uncle was ordained and started his ministry at an extraordinary church. The minute I walked into St John the Baptist, Holland Road, the atmosphere captured my heart and soul and when Uncle P - or Father Peter - put forward the idea of me organising a regular choir, I leapt at the opportunity. I wanted to see the church filled.

 Over the last three years, the creation of the St John’s Singers has taught me a lot about faith, my relationship with Christianity, community and the role of music and beauty in worship. I can’t be the only one who finds this church a special place to be, as the mailing list now has 90 people on it and each month we have between 15 - 25 people of all ages coming to socialise, drink tea and most importantly sing in the service. Not only has the choir given this group an opportunity to sing and meet new people, it’s helped to bring a new lease of life to this beautiful place, a larger congregation through the doors and music to contribute to the services. I’ve become a more regular church goer through organising the choir and from this I’ve found myself coming much closer to God and noticing the impact regular worship is having on my everyday life. 

 I work for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as a fundraiser. I manage a team of three and we work to build relationships with individuals who support our orchestra’s work by donating to help make our concerts happen. It’s an odd, often stressful and highly satisfying job as without our work, the phenomenal concerts that our musicians perform each week wouldn’t happen. I love my job and this love is fuelled by two things: my passion for music and my faith in God. 

 At the risk of sounding cliched, I try to channel the teaching ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ as the core to my management style. I try always to put the needs of my managees first, as I know that if they’re happy and satisfied in their work, we will be a happier team, thereby we will raise more money and more concerts can happen. I truly believe  that ‘all beauty is a window unto God’, and every time I hear the OAE play a note, I feel my faith reaffirmed, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have faith and it spurs me to continue in my work so as many people as possible can be transformed in some small way by Bach’s St John Passion or a Brahms’ Piano Concerto.

 There are various other ways my faith is present in each of my actions. The quote from Matthew, ‘Take the plank from your own eye before trying to take the splinter from your neighbour’s’ is another favourite for me. As a human, I am quick to judge - this is not something I am proud of, but these teachings are always present to help keep me on course.

 Finally, there is love. ‘God is love.’ I sometimes get frustrated that in English we only have one word for love. I have been blessed with a life full of love - from my parents, brothers, wider family, friends (and I think my cat Pippa loves me too but you can never be sure with cats). Because I have received so much love, I try to give just as much, if not more. Each day is full of all different types of love of course - something that the Ancient Greeks had sorted with their seven words - or I’ve recently learnt that in some Eskimo dialects, there are 32 words for love. But Brits just have that one word for the greatest gift that God has given us and it’s that, love, more than anything else, that fuels me through each day.

 I describe my faith like a small bonfire in my tummy. It burns all day - sometimes it roars - like at the start of spring when the leaves are the freshest and greenest they’ll be all year and you know you’ve survived winter and it feels like God is there in every breath. Sometimes it’s smaller and I have to double check it’s still lit, but it always there and I try never to take one flame, or even ember for granted.’

Victoria O'Neill