Honest Sadness. Lament in a Pandemic Age.
Durham: Sacristy Press, 2021
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Mini Review by: Dr Clare Amos
This isn’t exactly a book primarily about the Middle East. It is, however, a book that is informed both explicitly and implicitly by the author’s experience of living in the Middle East for ten years. John Holdsworth was a much-loved Archdeacon of Cyprus in the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf from 2010-19. He brought to that post his previous experience of theological study and theological education in the Anglican Church in Wales. Like all the best people he was and is an Old Testament specialist! As someone who myself has taught the Old Testament in a wide range of contexts, I have appreciated John’s previous books for their clarity, order and, where appropriate, light-heartedness, married to a sense of humour. I have recommended them to my students.
But this book is different. It takes us to a new and deeper level. The title is the first give-away. The word ‘sadness’ is there – rather than humour. It is a book in which John was not afraid to share his personal sadness and to wrestle with it. And the wrestling takes priority over neat and tidy structures. There is a structure and a logic to the book, but you – me – the reader has to work their way through the book as a whole to discover it. Essentially the book is the story of John and Sue Holdsworth’s living with Sue’s dementia – of a particularly virulent form – for six years which led to Sue’s death shortly after John had retired back to Wales from his position in Cyprus. John sets alongside this deeply personal story which gives the structure to the book, a series of theological (largely biblical) reflections and some well-chosen reminiscences of places, both in the Middle East and elsewhere that have offered particular insights to him.
John’s choice of texts and themes for his biblical reflections is powerful. The majority of them come from the Old Testament. This is not surprising, both because of John’s particular interest in this part of Scripture but also because it is Old Testament texts such as Job, Lamentations and the Book of Psalms which tend to be better than the New Testament often is at throwing open ‘hard questions’ without expecting easy or obvious answers. Many of us cherish the Old Testament especially because of its honouring of ‘lament’ as part of our prayer and worship. Like Walter Brueggemann (who is quoted several times in John’s book) we feel that the loss of lament in Christian spirituality is a ’costly loss’. John poses the question in his book, ‘Has lament been rendered redundant by the passion of Jesus, and is endurance now more legitimate for Christians than protest?’ (p.93). His answer acknowledges the reality that this seems to be the case but, if I read him aright, I would say that it is for him (as it is also for me) a regretful reality.
Alongside these biblical reflections, John shares some experiences from Cyprus and the Middle East: Beirut (Martyr’s Square), Kofinou Refugee Camp in Cyprus, and a visit he made to Baghdad in which he was asked the haunting question by a teenage Iraqi girl, ‘What can you tell us that will give us hope?’ (p.74). John gropes towards an answer to that question, that ‘God-willed human society is possible’ (p.87), and that a part of the role of the church is, in a small way, to witness week by week to that possibility.
Part of John’s responsibility while in Cyprus was to be the chaplain of St Helena’s Church in Larnaca. He celebrates how the church was a ‘welcoming church’ over the years to both him and Sue as Sue’s illness progressed. He quotes the Marty Haugen hymn (also a favourite of mine!) that begins, ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell, and all can safely live…’ (p.140). My husband and I can certainly testify to the welcoming nature of St Helena’s. Back in August 1982, when we left Beirut after more than two months of living in that city under siege during the Israeli invasion, we took ship from the rocky shore of Jounieh and landed in Larnaca. We were so grateful for how we were welcomed and given space in St Helena’s Church to sort ourselves and our belongings out.
John’s memories interweave with my own to make me feel that the question posed to him in Baghdad in 2011, ‘What can you say that will give us hope?’ is, a decade later, still the question that confronts the people of the Middle East and those of us who deeply care for that region of the world. It is of course also a question, as this book implies, for this pandemic age and for those like John and Sue who have lived with the experience of dementia.
From the back cover:
‘"Honest Sadness" is a vaccine for traumatised souls, boldly re-imagining lament in every place where love is outraged. It is an immense book, marvellous, scholarly and honest, and I felt quite unworthy of it.'
David Wilbourne, Honorary Assistant Bishop of York
Featured in Bible Lands, Winter 2021