Faith, hope and an old photograph

By Jill Segger
June 29, 2018

We live in a time of rapid change: in technology, politics, beliefs and in perceptions of each other. To be thought behind the times is a designation few of us would want and it can seem counter-intuitive to seek understanding by looking back. But sometimes, it is restorative to take a little time to explore what may be learned there.

I keep a very old photograph in the drawer of my desk. It is so faded, blurred and thinly fragile as to seem almost ghostly.

It shows a man in middle age, heavily bearded and with a shock of unruly hair. He appears to be wearing broad braces over a collarless shirt and his eyes are kindly, his expression one of curiosity. In an age of formally posed photography, I sense both that this was a new experience for him and that he was not too respectful of its conventions.

This is a portrait of my great-great-grandfather. All I know of him is that the family were born and lived in a village near Appleby and that they were ‘statesmen’, the Cumbrian term for small tenant farmers.

Looking at this image from so long ago, I am struck by the way in which genetics will connect us over generations and gender: His hair, falling over his forehead in exactly the same manner as my own and similarly resisting the geometry of what may be fashionable, gives me an instant knowledge of kinship.

The only other thing which I know of this man who died long before I was born, is that his given name was Emmanuel – ‘God with us’.

That his parents chose for him a name which combines faith with hope might not have been so unusual then as it would be now. There is today an understandable resistance to the structures of organised religion. Cruelty, violence, abuse and oppression have all been among its hallmarks and even where people have not been harmed in body, there has been sufficient of coercion and fear in the ‘religious’ upbringing of many people to deform minds and hearts. The word ‘God’ produces anger and rejection in those so damaged. They are right to respond thus and for those of us who have been far more fortunate, there is an obligation to understand and to neither turn away nor attempt to evangelise with words and doctrines.

Emmanuel from Temple Sowerby would have not had an easy life. Upland farming is hard and exhausting in 2018. In the earlier 19th century there would have been still less ease and comfort. There would have been deaths at a young age, children lost, pain endured without much by way of medication. I doubt he ever went far afield – Carlisle would have seemed a distant metropolis, Penrith nearer, but not a place for much other than the selling and buying of livestock. London, or even Manchester, would have been another world. Entertainment would only be what could be made in the home. It seems small, but it was his world.

I don’t know if Emmanuel could read, but as his son had a reputation for ‘learning’, and one of his grand-daughters become a pupil-teacher in a local school, there must have been at least an encouragement for books and self-improvement. The labouring-class auto-didact has been a presence in the family right into my parents’ generation. It is a mindset which requires hope in the future and although it is by no means dependent upon a spiritual life, it has been my experience that the one feeds the other.

So what do I bring into my own time from this distant, yet somehow vivid and enduring presence? Maybe I make too much of a name, but it does call me to reflection on the undemonstrative life of the spirit which is my rich heritage and which, unencumbered by much in the way of formulations and outward piety, is an antidote to the polarisations of fury and alienation which are defiling our present time.

Among violations of human rights, state and individual violence, the growing erosion of democracy’s pillars, callous responses to sick and disabled people – in fact towards almost all those who have not sharp elbows – and amid the pressures to see self-interest as the primary survival technique of smart people, it is not difficult to succumb to a sense of hopelessness. But there is something in us all that wants better. It will sometimes flash out, then subside for want of fuel. We sense and need that ‘other’, the ‘beyond’ for which we may be wise to have no fixed name. The Spirit, maybe; the Divine; the ‘I am’; G*d. It is as much part of us as are our inherited physical characteristics. Where we are the least pernickety about its name, I believe we are the most likely to find it.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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