It so happens that I have been having a pretty concentrated spell of time working on PhDs: from initial discussions about possible questions through to comments on final drafts. Because it is possible to have enough of a good thing, it came as a joy (as well as something of a relief) to to find a quote in one of the manuscripts that prompted me to reflect in this piece, something of what happened last night at Mill Grove.
The quotation was from Karl Barth, who, acknowledging the impact that singing simple songs about Gospel events and acting them out as a child himself, had upon his spiritual development, wrote: “Yes it was very naive, but perhaps in the very naivety there lay the deepest wisdom and greatest power.”
With this in mind let me describe what happened at Mill Grove. It was Monday and we were enjoying our evening meal. There were fourteen of us sitting at two tables. This particular occasion was special in that it was the birthday of a mother who spends each Monday with us, usually accompanied by her teenage daughter who joins us directly from college.
The youngest person present was a pre-school girl. She loved every minute of the meal, and ate her food with enthusiasm and not a little skill. After the lighting of the candles on the birthday cake, she joined in the singing of Happy Birthday with great gusto, and then without a moment’s thought blew out the candles before you could say “Speech!”
The next youngest was her primary school-age brother who relishes every part of the pattern of Monday evenings with us from games and projects, to snooker and the putting out of the dustbins and the recycling containers. (He has thankfully not yet reached the age when he distinguishes between work and play as far as the joy and fun are concerned.)
We concluded the meal with ice-cream, custard and portions of the birthday cake, and then I suggested that we sang a chorus before I said a prayer for the mother whose celebration it was. The words of the chorus, Two Little Eyes to Look to God, are written on the assumption (as were those referred to by Professor Karl Barth) that they will be accompanied by actions, and most of us knew both words and actions. For some reason it is one of the most popular action songs we sing.
But then the brother offered to sing as an unaccompanied solo a song he had been learning at school: The World is a Wonderful Place. He sang it especially for the mother with confidence and evident satisfaction. It drew a very warm round of applause.
Over the weekend there had been mixed emotions in London with another terrorist attack occurring not long before the Manchester memorial concert for the victims and relatives of the attack in that city. And on Sunday there had been associated arrests just down the road in Barking. Traffic had been gridlocked in our area as a result. So we were celebrating against a rather depressing backdrop. (The Queen later referred to the mood of the country as “sombre”.)
In this context the words we sang and listened to were simple, naïve you might say: Happy Birthday; Two Little Eyes; and The World is a Wonderful Place. But the presence of these two little ones and their part in the proceedings brought some “wisdom” and “power” into our midst. There was a genuine sense of joy unaffected by (because unacquainted with) the political and social context. And there was a taken for granted hopefulness. With words and actions their presence warmed the hearts of the rest of us present. Simply by being children they were a blessing among us: not because they were wise or knowledgeable beyond their age and expected ability.
Several of the group sitting at the tables struggle with issues of anxiety, depression and mental health, and I was reminded yet again that being part of a community is of itself of considerable value. I have written before how I am regularly asked whether Mill Grove is a therapeutic community. The answer comprises two complementary strands. It is not a residential community with specific and planned therapeutic alliances, strategies and interventions. But it is a place where the patterns, rhythms and dynamics of everyday and seasonal life have benefits that can appropriately be called therapeutic. Caring relationships develop in this setting, and seasons and annual events such as birthdays provide the stimulus for part of our shared life together.
So the rest of us (including the mother whose birthday it was) were blessed by the presence of the two little ones in our midst. But what of the little ones themselves? Let me speak of the brother, who was, as usual sitting beside me throughout the meal. He is experiencing difficulties both at school and in his family. It is early days for us (and other concerned professionals) to find a way of understanding, let alone describing what he is going through. But it is already clear that he finds much of his family life unpredictable and bewildering. He has taken to creating a fantasy world in which he hopes he will feel safer.
If this takes time and careful thought for resourceful adults to decode, it is downright puzzling and frustrating for his peers at school. On one occasion he stood outside our window in the twilight, and when I went out to be with him, he told me that he had been “thrown out” by his family, that he was cold, and that no one was at home. We chatted for a bit, and then I ambled with him to his family home. All the members of the family were there, and his mother’s description of and reaction to the situation did not resonate for me with the feelings he was articulating. There wasn’t a way of trying to build a bridge of understanding between these two worlds. And my guess is that this is happening more often than not at school.
We are considering carefully how best to be alongside him and his family as we seek to help. But in the meantime he looks forward eagerly to Monday evenings with us. And what makes it so enjoyable for him is its patterned predictability and reliability. He knows that he is welcome and will never be “thrown out” (whatever he meant by this). He knows that there are shared values, behaviour and accepted ways of doing things. He knows that he is respected as an individual, while at the same time expected to take on board the norms of the group. In short he finds Mill Grove a secure base within which he can thrive, and from which he can explore ideas, games and exploration.
He offers to help in practical ways (inside and out), and is always inventing new games that he is happy to play himself, but delighted to show others. And so despite all the inner confusion and turmoil, something else is going on. And his rendering of The World is a Wonderful Place could not have been more pertinent or poignant in all the circumstances.
 Church Dogmatics IV/2 112-13