Saturday, 12 April 2014

Celebrating Margaret Spufford: A Reflection for Holy Week

Margaret Spufford, the eminent historian, died in March. She was an academic of note and, as an historian, wrote three books for which she is well known: Contrasting Communities (a fascinating study of three Fenland villages in the seventeenth century), Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and Its Readership in Seventeenth Century England (which showed that basic education and the ability to read was more widespread in the seventeenth century than previously thought) and The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapman and Their Wares in the Seventeenth Century (about the itinerant pedlars who sold reading matter.) She was passionate about her area of scholarship and made a significant and original contribution to our understanding of the seventeenth century. She was also a Christian thinker, a Benedictine oblate and the mother of a daughter born with the rare genetic condition, cystinosis. She herself suffered a great deal of ill health throughout her life accompanied, at times, by excruciating bone pain.  Andrew Brown, in the Guardian, says, 'She was a woman quite like a saint' see Margaret Spufford loved truth, loved people, loved to laugh
Published Cambridge University ~Press
I first came across her writing when I was a staff nurse at Addenbrooke's hospital, looking after haematology patients, some of whom were undergoing bone marrow transplants. Things have improved a great deal since then but, back in the 1980's, these patients suffered a lot. One of them described the total body irradiation that, of necessity, preceded the transplant as causing a 'pain beyond pain that takes you to an indescribable, eery, twilight place.' That was the prelude to the transplant. Once the patient had been given the new cells, we waited in trepidation: infection was one great danger and also the dreaded onset of what is called 'graft versus host disease' which occurs when, instead of the patient's body rejecting the transplanted cells, the transplant rejects the host body. In the case of a bone marrow transplant, this can involve cells all over the body. The mother of one of our youngest patients was reading Margaret Spufford's book Celebration. She introduced me to it one morning over breakfast following a draining night's vigil. I found it an amazing book. I can't say that it spoke to me then of hope - the overall impression it left was rather one of darkness. But somehow the darkness was richer and kinder and inhabited by people who shared these places of dereliction. It was fundamentally honest and, as always, the telling of truth illuminates the way for others.

It is the story of Spufford's daughter, Bridget. From the first year of her life, she endured an illness which caused her a great deal of pain and fear. The book tells the story of how both she and her immediate family found a way to live with Bridget's suffering that allowed for meaningful life to emerge, indeed a life that reached moments of profound joy and creativity. It's probably one of the most realistic descriptions of living with pain and what that does to you that I have ever read. She finds no easy answers, no relief for periods of suffering, no place to go to avoid the inevitable repeated return of the pain; yet she finds a way of being and a purposefulness that allow her and Bridget, not only to live their lives, but to be imaginative, hopeful, amazingly productive and to enjoy times of relative remission. There is never any sense, though, that the good times somehow 'make up' for the bad times or that they make the bad times easier to bear. That is false and those who have endured great pain recognise the merest whiff of this kind of falsity. Spufford's thesis is that your pain makes you who you are and shapes your life but not that it is of itself good; quite the reverse: extreme pain is a form of evil and we deny this at our peril. You cannot make something that is an evil into a good, you can only live your life as if the evil will ultimately not extinguish the good. These are the tiny daily moments of resurrection. 

Published Cambridge University Press

It's not a book to 'cheer you up'. I think that those who have not actually suffered great pain are often a little disappointed by it. Certainly anyone who is looking for answers will be. But those who have suffered a great deal find in the reading of it the recognition and comfort of truth telling. I suffered from endometriosis which causes excruciating abdominal pain such that you would gladly accept anything to put you out of the pain while it lasts. Doctors scratch their heads and disagree about the diagnosis while prescribing drugs that scarcely begin to touch the pain. It has to be one of the very few conditions that make the menopause a cause for celebration! Spufford's book helped me, not because it gave me any answers or solutions for all this pointless pain, but because it demonstrated that someone else could live their life with bouts of untreatable pain and make practical sense of a life blighted by it. At no point does she make light of pain or deny its ability to corrode and destroy, but she demonstrates a way of being that allows you to live through and round the pain to great effect. She shows how a personality can develop and flourish in spite of the constant debilitating set backs. You need this kind of faith to live through prolonged pain and also to be present to those who suffer pain. I will be for ever grateful for the resource her thinking became for me over the years both in helping me live through my own pain and in nursing others. 

Spufford's approach to suffering reminds me of Job's story. In the Book of Job, we are introduced to someone else beset by pain - physical, social, spiritual. In this case the story sets the situation up in terms of Satan persuading God to allow Job to be tested. Will his faith hold? What we learn from the 42 chapters that follow is that the philosopher's approach to suffering is useless. To ask the question 'why?' does not move the sufferer on one jot and, in fact, increases their mental anguish and leads to self pity and outrage at the injustice of their situation. Job ultimately breaks through to a place where the 'how', 'how can I live my life?' takes centre stage. For Job this involves a total surrender to the fact that he is God's creature and will not understand the counsels and ways of the creator. The key for Job is, I think, the point at which he begins to realise that faith to accept what life brings and live or perhaps simply to exist God-wards does not have to be corroded by the experiences that have been thrown at him: that decision rests with him. This is the point from which bitterness and outrage begin to fall away; this is the seedbed of the human spirit's ability to choose to respond more affirmatively to good than to evil. It isn't quite hope, but it is vigour, it is life in spite all the odds, it is resurrection. As Spufford showed so clearly in her book and, much more, in her life this is the place from which meaning and celebration emanate. 

A wonderful woman who joins the company of those who have influenced my life very much for good. Deo gratias   


  1. Thank you for writing that about my Margaret in Holy Week. I have only just found it, on Christmas Eve. I am surprised you never met her.

  2. Thank you. I would have liked to have met her. She continues to influence and inspire through her writings.