Two women meet each morning to pray
One is a mother, the other her daughter
They belong to different religions
Only blood binds them together
Stephen is the object of their prayer
He is the grandson of one, the son of the other
He lives abroad
He does not want to come home
He wants to be left alone
So the women pray silently—each in her own way
Their words do not cross
They rise and converge
Stephen will be safe for another day.
This week's poem spotlights painful truths about family life for some. Here are a mother and her daughter—meeting each day to pray. But this act is not as close or unified as we might first assume. "They belong to different religions" which might mean distinctive traditions within the same religion, or actually two entirely different religions. Either way the poet is pointing out fundamental differences between the two women: whether in values or outlook, beliefs or behaviour. "Only blood binds them together." Which suggests they have not much else in common.
Yet there is something they share, their love and concern for a son, a grandson, who has chosen to distance himself from his family.
Perhaps I was drawn to choose this poem by the circumstances surrounding a funeral I took last week, of a man who was a little like Stephen. He didn't live abroad, in fact had never been abroad, but nonetheless he had chosen to withdraw into himself and live away from his family. What became clear to me was that he was very much loved and cared for by his relatives. There may only have been a handful of them at his funeral, but they were bound together not just by blood, but by their ongoing efforts to be there for him and reach out whenever possible. I'm sure the man knew he was loved, even although he chose to live by himself. There was a great sense of unity within those family members present at his funeral. From different generations and various parts of the country, they gathered to see him on his way, each laying a rose on his coffin. In death, as in life, this man's absence drew others together, much like the women in the poem.
For this mother and grandmother, prayer is their point of contact, the place where they come together, rather like the family of God found in the church. We are all so different from one another, perhaps we find some of our brothers and sisters hard to understand, and yet we're bound together in the blood and body of Christ.
When we gather each Sunday for worship, we each may believe slightly different things, have varying levels of faith, or follow Christ in our own individual way, yet we too "rise and converge" when we come before the altar to receive the sacrament.
I see much care extended to one another within our little family here at St Anne's. And yet sometimes in life we are confronted by people who either don't wish to be helped, or whose needs go way beyond anything we are able to offer. Like the women in our poem, sometimes we have to live with situations that are outside our power to change. There is only one recourse, prayer. The two women have no options left, other than to entrust Stephen to God's safekeeping.
Their daily vigil carries an echo of another image that we will come to in Holy Week, when Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple, wait helplessly at the foot of the cross. What can they do other than be alongside Jesus as he dies. Paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion often show Mary and John in an attitude of prayer. A striking example of this is just up the road inside the church of St John the Divine, where Charles Sergeant Jagger's sculpture, the Kelham Rood, is now situated. Mary and John are posed not wholly prayerfully, yet I sense that prayer is much present in their anguish. Mary's hands are held out beseechingly, almost pleadingly, as one might imagine her prayers to be. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, stands with his face buried in his hands, fists clenched in desperation. God is their only recourse in such circumstances. You may wish to visit St John the Divine sometime between now and Easter, to sit with or pray alongside this marvellous and powerful artwork.
One final thought. This poem speaks to me of something about the relationship between God and his children, or her children if you prefer, when we choose to keep our distance. Where we, like Stephen, are faithfully held in prayer by Jesus interceding on our behalf, longing to put his arms around us as a mother hen gathers her chicks. This is God as mother, who never gives up on us even when we do not want to come home to her.
The Kelham Rood at St John the Divine Kennington