Holy smoke

Here’s a short short story that takes about a thousand times longer to tell you, than it did back when it happened. Imagine it happening in, ooh, the time it takes you to blink;

One day, about twenty years ago, I was hurrying through Soho from one edit suite to another, head full of must-do and shoulda-done thoughts, when suddenly it was if I was transported back to Cyprus, to childhood and a long-forgotten little street in Famagusta. The moment stopped me in my tracks, it was so much more than just a memory, it was an instantaneous awareness of a place well known, but also – paradoxically – forgotten. As if I was there. Suddenly, the air was other, and I could feel the warmth of the sun, there in that shabby London Lane. I stopped walking. Just stood. Cyprus! Where had this come from after 50 years? I looked all around me; the usual London scene, too many cars, too many people, messengers on bikes weaving between traffic and pedestrians, wet pavements, the neon signs of Soho, cafes and restaurants, but certainly no hint of the Mediterranean, no olive trees, or gently lapping sea…. and then, I looked up…. above me there was another sign, a Greek bakery. That was it! Freshly baked Greek bread, maybe lagana or raisin bread. I felt a sort of exultation, a reconnection with the child I once was. The aroma of freshly baked bread and tahini taking me back to a time when I had a mother and a father and two brothers and innocence. It was a wonderful, poignant moment, bitter sweet. Shocking in its power.

In that moment there was eternity, longing for the mother I had long since forgotten, a sense of energy and possibility and soaring joy but also grief for a childhood lost. All at once! It was as if that 5 year old child existed once again, with the world in front of her, full of possibilities and enchantment. And then – as quickly as it had come – the moment was gone. Seeing that Greek sign both explained and ended the moment. I was back in the now.

A couple of years ago, when Covid meant that we couldn’t meet in church, I watched our Sunday sermon online and sometimes sermons just stick, don’t they? They spark a light, lodge in your head and never leave you, influencing the way you live and think, and so they become a part of your mental landscape.

But thanks be to God! For through what Christ has done, he has triumphed over us so that now wherever we go he uses us to tell others about the Lord and to spread the Gospel like a sweet perfume.
2 Corinthians 2:14

‘Like a sweet perfume’. Wouldn’t be great to spread the Gospel like a sweet perfume in the world? That image is so strong that now the idea of perfume and incense (and even smoke rising) has become – for me- integral with the idea of the Gospel and of prayer.

May my prayer be counted as incense before You;
The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.

Psalm 141:

Does our prayer become a sweet perfume to God? Like baking bread, or Chanel 5, or incense? And talking of incense reminds me of a story my dad used to tell: when he was just seven years old, living in Lancashire (England), his father died and, being the youngest in a large Catholic family for some strange reason it was decided that he should be sent to a seminary to train as a priest. Seven! A little lad grieving the loss of his father wrenched away from his brothers and sisters and mother. That’s the childhood cruelty that enables me to forgive him for his terrible failures as a dad. What chance did he have? Anyway, there he was, seven years old, catapulted from the love and warmth of his family into a seminary in Aberystwyth in mid Wales. The rule in that strict school was that only the Welsh language was allowed, and of course he didn’t have a single word of it, had never heard it, didn’t even know that a place called ‘Wales’ existed. That first night he heard the boys and staff saying ‘Nos da’ and he was perplexed. There were stars, of course there were, he could look up into the sky and see them. What was the matter with these people?

But to return to the idea of prayers and smoke and incense; At Easter, the seminary would process through the streets of Aberystwyth, carrying a cross, with the boys and priests robed as if for Mass. One year, when he was about ten, my dad was ‘promoted’ to swing the censer at the head of the procession, with his best pal walking just behind him carrying the cross, and the rest of his class behind them, all in their altar boy outfits. Behind them came the priest, and the teachers and then the rest of the school. They left the church for the half hour walk, a circular route to bring them back in time for Mass.

In Aberystwyth the streets are narrow, and a bit winding, and although there were people standing on the pavement to watch them pass by, there were stretches of the town that were quieter, just the usual Sunday peaceful scene. They had been walking for some time with Dad so single mindedly swinging the censer that he wasn’t even aware of his surroundings, but his friend who was carrying the cross had noticed that there was absolutely no one lining the streets now, just children who stopped playing to stare at them in astonishment. And this street was unfamiliar. Gradually the boys behind dad began to break step, to mutter and turn around, and wonder what had gone wrong… and that’s when they realised that there was no one behind them. Someone grabbed dad, and he too turned and saw …. an empty street. The little gang stood there, bewildered. At that moment a priest came belting around a corner way behind them, running along the road, waving his arms and shouting. They had taken the wrong turn and the officiating priest, realising but intent on getting back to the church for Mass as planned, had decided to continue on the intended route! Dad and his pals had to hoik up their cassocks and run hell for leather back down the street, around the corner and along the sea front, to overtake the procession, and take the lead again to the cheers and applause and laughter of the watching crowds.

I wish I’d been there.

This week I’ve been reading Philippians and it just occurred to me this morning – the Epistles were letters, yes, but they were also early blogs. Paul the blogger!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s