Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 9 February 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp
Readings: Amos 2. 4-end; Ephesians 4. 17-end
I don’t often buy hardback books especially books that I read for pleasure but I made an exception a few weeks ago. Listening to the radio one morning I heard the first installment of Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Knowing that I wouldn’t hear the other programmes on the following days I blew a Christmas book token and bought Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of his aunt Priscilla. (‘Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France’ Harvill Secker London 2013).
Priscilla was born in 1916. Her father was a well-known voice in the early days of broadcasting. When she was in her teens Priscilla went to Paris to study dance. Her career was over before it even began. She became ill. In 1938 she married a minor French aristocrat who was much older than her. The marriage faltered. In 1939 with the fall of France Priscilla was imprisoned by the Nazis. The description of her time in the internment camp at Besançon pulls no punches. As the war continued things became chaotic. The Germans decided to release the women in Besançon who were no use to them. Priscilla feigned a pregnancy and was released. She returned to Paris where she lived throughout the Occupation.
Nicholas Shakespeare remembered his aunt as a child. She never spoke about her wartime experience (like so many of her generation) so the family myth was that she was a British agent working with the French Resistance. While writing another book the author came across her papers. There were photographs, letters and more. These lead him to track down some who knew her and piece together her story.
It isn’t a flattering read. At the beginning he says: ‘From an early age, I was conscious that my aunt was the sort of woman that men fell for.’ Priscilla was a beauty. Her training in dance and the periods in her life when she’d had money enabled her have taste and style. But she hadn’t been a war hero. She survived Occupied Paris by becoming the lover of high-ranking German officials. They were syphoning off France’s wealth to Germany. Priscilla came back to England as the Nazis retreated. She was lucky to escape the retribution meted to many collaborators.
The second part of her life was less eventful. Priscilla married again and settled in Sussex bringing up the two children of her second husband. Their mother had deserted them. Priscilla died in 1982.
Her life was tragic in many ways: blighted by illness; an early abortion prevented her from having children of her own; two challenging marriages. She was unhealthily dependent upon men. She never enjoyed the freedom to say ‘no’. Towards the end of her life she became an alcoholic.
I wonder what the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul would have made of Priscilla. On the face of it not very much. Amos and Paul this evening draw a fairly sharp line between the righteous and the unrighteous with sexual immorality as a bit of a litmus test. Amos, writing during the long, prosperous but increasingly licentious reign of King Jeroboam II in 8C BC talks about father and son taking the same girl. ‘Fleeing naked’ was an abomination. Paul urges his readers to be clothed with ‘the new self’. Being ‘unclothed’ was symptomatic of the old sinful Adam. This is to be set aside in favour of the virtues to which we are now called ‘in Christ’.
And yet. And yet. Priscilla was a writer. She wrote letters and articles and left an unpublished novel. She moved in literary circles and her father was a friend of Graham Greene. Amos, Paul and Priscilla speak to us from the past because they wrote or at least what they said was written up. Shakespeare’s book ends with a letter. Priscilla wrote it to her stepdaughter, Tracey when Tracey was 18. Priscilla for whatever reason however never sent it. Given Priscilla’s story it has an overwhelming poignancy. It begins:
‘My darling child,
‘As you very well know you are not strictly speaking my daughter, but as far as I am concerned you might just as well be. I have brought you up from an early age with all the love and affection that I would have given to my own child, had I had one. I believe that your childhood has been a happy one. Certainly far happier than my own.’
The letter is too long to read in its entirety but it covers subjects that Priscilla could speak about from experience: divorce, money, ‘getting into trouble’, smoking and drinking too much. She hopes that Tracey will learn from her sometimes bitter experience. The letter ends:
‘Whatever you do in life try not to hurt anybody or you will pay for it in the end. Don’t play with people’s feelings and don’t whatever you do don’t leave your husband for somebody else. It is never worth it.’
Priscilla’s later years were burdened with doubt about her marriages and her divorce. When she married the first time into a conservative French family she took instruction and became a Catholic. We can see in Priscilla someone who might well have been at home in a Graham Greene novel: someone who despite everything has a moral core.
In Ephesians this evening we heard the invitation: ‘… let us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.’ Priscilla understood the need for truth and the need to pass on that truth to those whose lives were bound up with her own. She wasn’t unique in not following through.
The irony is that by not sending the letter (which had she done so may well have been lost) it can now be read not just by one person but by all of us. And when we read her letter in the context of her life we’re given a window into a human soul struggling and seeking to make sense of things in times of great darkness. Put Priscilla in a room with Amos and Paul and they would have much to share. And that’s what turns irony into redemption: the telling of stories that are based in experience. Human experience is always messier than some would wish but the telling of stories offers the hearers a space in which to respond.
Nicholas Shakespeare gave Tracey her stepmother’s letter to read for the first time 50 years after it was written. By then Tracey was in her late 60’s. Priscilla had been dead for 30 years. The book doesn’t tell us what Tracey’s reaction was but we can imagine. Just as we can imagine what we might have done or not done in Priscilla’s situation. Just as we can imagine what it was like for the early church in Ephesus wrestling with just what it meant to be a Christian minority; trying to move on from the members’ pasts and offering something more attractive by way of living not just for the sake of the congregation but for the sake of Ephesus as a whole. Just as we can imagine Amos speaking at a time of decadence. And if we can imagine then we can speak. We can write. We can ‘speak truth to our neighbours.’ We may not get published in hardback but we will have an impact.