MAL DU SUISSE
The best and most reliable mercenaries in the world, certainly in the 15th and 16th centuries, came from Switzerland. Excellent soldiers though these mercenaries were, however, they were notable for a strange illness known as the mal du Suisse. This is a form of intense homesickness. Many a hardened Swiss mercenary, far away from Switzerland’s lovely Alps, from its lakes, edelweisses, alpine horns and cattle bells, had only to hear a snatch from a simple alpine herdsman’s song to be so overcome with nostalgia, that he would begin to waste away with melancholy. Army doctors discovered that as often as not it was only a trip home to Switzeralnd that would ever cure him.
I deeply sympathise, because I too am a chronic nostalgic, someone for whom the past relived, recalled and remembered in my imagination is often more vivid, more lovely and more intense than ever it is while being actually experienced in the present.
This is why I am in England, why I am spending six self-indulgent months revisiting many of the places from my past, in England, South Africa, Tristan da Cunha and Zimbabwe, places where I remember myself to have been exceedingly happy and blessed. I am on a nostalgia binge.
One of the strangest, minor examples of this nostalgia has to do with the sense of smell. I remember with particular pleasure when a little boy in country Staffordshire, the smell of an old-fashioned, English farm yard. That is, the smell of cow muck, hay and bedding straw.
Only the other day, out walking here in Dorset’s indescribably lovely Blackmore Vale, I caught a whiff of just that, and it took me straight back to my happy childhood, flooding me with sharp, nasal nostalgia, for the farmyards of a childhood fondly remembered: the acrid, steamy, homely, comforting and altogether heart-warming aroma of cow muck, with all its pastoral associations: friendly cows that closely follow you as you walk across a paddock; leisurely ruminants chewing their cud; Thomas Gray’s elegiac ruminations in a country church yard: where The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, as nearby the lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea; the psalmist’s “cattle upon a thousand hills; and above all else, that cattle-scented, sainted manger in Bethlehem.
Aching for home
The word “nostalgia” originates in the Greek words nostos which means “returning home” and algos which means “pain” or “ache”. “Aching for home” then, “aching to return home”. Not only in the present, when exiled far from home in a distant place, but also when age and the passing years have separated us from the home of our childhood.
I am one of those immensely privileged Anglican Christians who throughout my childhood, youth and indeed early manhood, never, ever had to suffer the ministrations of a bad parish priest. This, of course, is because my own father was my parish priest, and a good one too, so naturally, whenever my priest moved parishes, I moved with him.
Those of the ever diminishing number of us who remain Anglican, church-attending Christians do so, in part at least, because of happy, homely, familial, parish church memories and associations. Thoroughly involved in mother Church, as a second, loving, spiritual home when young, we were secure, loved, loving, lovable, happy. So God himself was very real to us in our parish church and family life, because God above all else, as St John reminds us, is love.
For me as I am sure for many others, simply to enter a parish church, and to sit down in a pew, is to be enfolded by peace, security, solace, love.
It is love then, albeit often a nostalgic love, that helps to hold us, bind us to church and God, today, and just because it is a very real love we don’t, can’t and won’t let it go, in spite of Richard Dawkins and his often strident disciples, and the myriad alternatives to and distractions from worship on offer each Sunday these days, in our secular and materialistic society.
By the waters of Babylon
There is a bitter-sweet element to nostalgia, though. What we long for, look back to and remain loyal to is usually unattainable in exactly the form we remember and most treasure it.
There are not a few folk who having abandoned the church return to it at a moment of crisis, like a bereavement, remembering it fondly as a source of solace and meaning and love, but then are unable to recognise it, on their return. Exiled from happiness, by their grief, with the ancient Israelites they sing: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered thee O Zion.... But on returning to Zion, they find it a strange, strange land, and how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
The Church they remember is no longer Zion, it is a Babylon of new liturgies, new hymns, new songs, fewer people, less activity, little buzz, no hum, a stressed-out priest shared between half a dozen parish churches, and all set in a secular and materialistic sea of indifference and ignorance.
This is nostalgia’s problem, its great difficulty and unsatisfactoriness. There is a depressing, dismal dissonance between what we remember, look back to and long for, and what is to be found, if and when we do return.
Security, solace, sweet sense and joy
Or in fact is there? Is there really such a dissonance? Because when I think seriously about the nostalgia for my own childhood, which over these next few months I am indulging, and in which I am revelling, rejoicing and delighting, there is far more to it all than just a delighted recognition of geography, locations, places as being just as I remembered them, and of sights, sounds, scents and events being echoed and relived now, in the present, just as they were experienced in the past.
The deeper magic of it all, as I remember revisit and relive the past now, is what really animated and haloed it all then, once upon a time: love, ordinary love, sweet familial and indeed divine love, and all the security, solace, sweet sense and joy with which love invests everything it alights upon.
So too it is with parish church and life. A parish’s architectural beauty and setting, its liturgies, its buzz, hum and centrality to daily life are not the essence, are not the substance, important, lovely and loved by us all though these things rightly were and are. Rather these well loved things are sacraments or representations of something more important than themselves, namely, sacrificing, beautiful love, as represented, lived, taught and died by one Jesus of Nazareth, who dazzled us, taught us, showed us that the very hands that hold us in existence are pierced with unimaginable nails. By which we mean that sacrificing love lies at the heart not only of authentic human living, but also in the very heart of the Divine, of the holy and blessed Trinity.
We hang on do we not?
And this love, this miraculous, sacrificing love is a constant. Parish churches, liturgies, architectural beauty, choirs organs, parsons and even our ways of articulating and understanding God, are subject to change and decay, can come, can go, but what they represent, what they are sacraments of, is eternal, rises again, even if and when it dies, as so many little country churches and parishes appear to be dying today.
So we church folk hang on, do we not, fellow and much beloved Anglicans? We hang on, undespairing, loving our parish church, our parish’s life, our precious childhood, blessed, if it was, by life in an active, country-parish community. We hang on, doing all that we can to keep the show alive, because at its best it was and is so good, so very, very good.
The Anglican parish church, at its best, and I have been a part of it at its best, is one of the sweetest and most benign manifestations of God’s love in human society that there has ever been. I look back at my over sixty years of involvement in it with immense gratitude and great nostalgia.
But I recognise too, that all nostalgia to be healthy looks beyond the well-loved representations or manifestations of God’s love to the Love itself. Confident that even if there has to be a dying and a death of the beloved representations of God’s love to us, then nonetheless, the hands that hold us in existence, pierced with love’s unimaginable nails, will bring all that is lovely, loving and beautiful to resurrection in a way and fashion that surpasses all expectations.