We read 'Journey to the Manger' in our reading group before the 25th of December, took a break, and then began again on the 6th. Another reason I'd like to reignite the flame right now is that last week was #TimeToTalk day. This is an occasion when the UK mental health charity, Time To Change, implores people to start discussions about mental health to alleviate stigma. Conversation happens online and also in real life, during face to face interactions with tea, cake and often accouterments (promotional materials, posters etc.).
Talking helps because mental health has, for many centuries, if not millennia been shrouded in mystery. The practices of unscientific psychiatrists left dubious and not always well-intentioned legacies in the annals of history, and the guardianship of families for their mentally ill was not always assured. Therefore, the Time For Change campaign marks a return to the lived experience of the patients as they suffer mental illness, as we perhaps see in the accounts of certain characters of the Bible, for example, King Saul, who suffered mental affliction, or King David, who almost certainly suffered depression.
In addition to this folksy wisdom that puts the patient first, the Time For Change campaign is informed by current best practices of the mental health and allied professions. For example, social workers, community organisations, doctors, counselors, therapists, and so on. I mention this because I am terrible at writing book reviews and told our Vicar at the online Anglican Benedictine Community where I read the book, Rev Pam Smith, that I would have a go at responding to what we learned.
The best analogy I could come up with for Paula Gooder's 'Journey to the Manger' was drawn from the world of social media campaigns and spearheaded by Time To Change and their several thousand followers who join-in with #TimeTotalk day each year, who cheer lead, make cups of tea and take the time to listen to every day experience of mental illness.
Why is this markedly important to me? Well, I took a History of Art degree a decade ago at University after starting a Politics & International Studies program and finding I had become extremely anxious and couldn't cope.
I'd studied the Reformation in my A Level history class at school, found it gripping, and in a pinch decided I'd like to investigate further. Not the level-headed pragmatism of today's students for me (my eldest nephew is a Maths nerd). I was slightly starry eyed, and considered myself something of a wise woman. Of course, I overlooked that the wise men were unknown and uncelebrated only by an alien culture to whom they traveled. On their home turf they were quite possibly worthy of a crowd of sycophants, all dedicated to their own homage.
So I turned up for of this History of Art Degree not entirely fit for purpose, or sure of my purpose, other than I wanted a better and more graduated view of Jesus that was less paternalistic than my house culture at home, and what I found is a story for another day.
Bear in mind then, as I review this, that I have seen hundreds of nativity scenes, rendered in stone, in oil and tempura. I am familiar with the text, as most Christians are, and with the ephemeral beliefs that grew up around them as infallible dogmas or popular iconographies, particularly in the Catholic church of the Middle Ages, but we mustn't be condescending when discussing the nativity, because all of us harbour our own suppositions and personal convictions in relationship to the unknowable God who is Trinity, incarnate, and a conundrum impossible to fathom.
What I loved about Paula Gooder's book, and why it impacted me personally was the willingness to bring together opinion without overbearing attitude, scholarship without pretension and some doubts without answers. This left room for a heart response in the style of a painting or a poem, both popular mediums for understanding the emotional impact of God become flesh.
Christmas is a time I often feel mentally ill, and over the years I've come to embrace that as part of my 'Mary' experience. The evangelist in me wants new people to know the nascent love of the saviour, and not everyone will reach at first to the cross for salvation.
I am still not sure I entirely know the redeeming, saving love of Christ crucified. There are too frequent questions that arise for me who has become extremely distractable due to worry and mental illness . The Christmas story urges me to enter as if I knew nothing.
The great victorious Passion will see God, in Jesus, finally collect all the casino chips. As a friend remarked to me once when we were sat in the Christian Union at University, (and which still makes me laugh), “just like the casino, there's no clock in the Christian Union.'
Christ's passion was clearest for me in times of great sin, (or shortly afterwards) but God is good and will not keep you in that place. Likewise, I cannot be kept in the comfort of the glowing stable at Christmas. My mind must pry how cold it was, how many babies died and why exactly the wise men stopped to ask their fateful directions from a tyrannical Jewish despot, Herod, with a weak claim to the throne and a maniacal outlook.
Paula Gooder's book was beautiful chaos to me because she left these threads like a jumble of wool organised on different spools for her readers to make their own Christmas jumper from. I am still warming myself with it all this way as we journey into February, like the good mental patient I really am.