On Saturday evening, I face the worship leaders’ nightmare: what do you do when the worship leader of the preceding week has used the same hymn to conclude their service as you planned to use? I reflect. Given that we are leading a service on the same theme, it is remarkable that we only had one hymn in common. And, feeling as if I am somehow betraying my roots on Sunday morning, that afternoon, I look up the original Welsh; the words:
Rho i mi fanna, Rho i mi fanna,
Fel na bwyf yn llwfwrhau.
Fel na bwyf yn llwfwrhau
the closest to the well-known line, “bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more”, translate most accurately, to “give me manna, so that I shall not faint”. And, with that, the whole service sinks into place. The physical collapse I introduce in the theme introduction, what I bring to church, rounded full circle in the manna I can take from church, to give me strength for the journey ahead, in the closing worship song.
Skimming through the service sheet with my grandfather earlier this week, trying to keep calm for him, in front of my mother and her partner, and seeing the hymn after the theme introduction, I realize that the service doesn’t preach to the congregation – nor to anyone – but to myself. It’s me I am trying to reach.
[CONTENT WARNING: SUICIDE]
My grandfather is delighted, if somewhat concerned, that I have a new job. Concerned about the five-hour round-trip commute, delighted to point out that I will be teaching at the same institution where my great-aunt was a lecturer. I am fascinated by this woman, this mystery, someone I never met, because she didn’t “do” children, but would love to have known. I ask him when that was, that she was teaching. He can’t place it, but with stunning deftness, withdraws a file from his cabinet, labeled with her name. This should tell him. But it doesn’t. Instead, inside it he finds her suicide note. He passes it to me; read it, if you like. I do. The letter is simple enough, asking forgiveness, she doesn’t have the courage to live any longer, she enjoys nothing any longer, has prayed earnestly without answer. There is something striking in the simplicity: the coroner’s report: suicide during an episode of manic depression. Something breaks inside me.
I knew that she had taken her own life. I suspected, but was never told, from her writing, that she had bipolar depression. Here it was in black and white. A new, raw, hollowing emotion sweeps through me. I want to speak with this woman. I want to tell her how much her writing has meant to me, helped me through my own dark nights. Even tell her how far she was ahead of her time; the concepts in her poetry from the 1940s, reproduced years later by modern poets, Nicola Slee, Carla Grosch-Miller. And others.
I want to tell her of the relief that I felt when, aged seven years, I learnt that she existed. That she was my grandmother’s sister. The sister who never married. My Disney-imbued, sheltered upbringing, had led me to believe that growing up and getting married was what everyone did. But she was living proof that you didn’t have to. And she was a writer. I dreamt of being such.
In that moment, holding that letter in my hands, knowing definitely, that she had fought mental illness for over fifty years, I wanted to speak to her. Tell her that God does listen. As the brother of Taize told me, in my own desperation: God sees the struggle. Know her through more than her writing. And all the things that are bringing me down, weighing heavy on me, come to mind. Getting through occupational health assessments, whether I will be able to start a new job, long hours, surviving church services, family rubbish, therapy. And I realized how much I have leant on, re-fashioned, this woman’s writing to write Sunday’s service. How many burdens, and how much I must lean on God. So, I will sing on Sunday, Father, I place into Your hands, the things I cannot do.