At this time of year, it is inevitable that we find ourselves looking two ways – forward with some uncertainty into the unknown that lies before us; and backwards at the twelve months just gone. It is easy to become reflective, sentimental, and even maudlin as our minds dwell on other times, and on people no longer with us. Each turn of the year seems, in that sense, to carry us further from them, to blur their faces and fade their much-loved voices a little more in our memories.
New Year in Lewis has a particular resonance this time around, marking a whole century since the loss of HMY ‘Iolaire’, no distance at all from the shores of home. 201 men who should have been returning to the warm embrace of their families that night, instead went to their deaths, leaving countless relatives and loved ones bereft for a lifetime.
On Saturday, I went with a friend to look at ‘Sheòl an Iolaire’, the simple, temporary monument that has been created on the foreshore at pier number one. It is made from wooden posts and has been lit with coloured lights. White paint daubs represent the survivors – including one, on the mast, for ‘Am Patch’, the Nessman who clung there for dear life.
I didn’t know until then that the distance the monument is from the sea wall is also the distance the ‘Iolaire’ was from land when she foundered on the Beasts of Holm.
As I looked, and saw other members of the community come also to stand and gaze upon it, I thought about a conversation I had recently, when we had discussed how the churches coped with the aftermath of loss on such a scale. ‘There must’, the other person said, ‘have been prayer meetings, and church services after this. And there must have been doubt – people’s faith must have been shaken’.
Of course that is perfectly possible. For many people, one stage of grief will be anger, and that may well be directed at God in the absence of anyone else to blame.
However, grief is not really corporate. We are commemorating the ‘Iolaire’ centenary as a community, because we were devastated as a community in 1919, and the ripples from that blow were felt for generations. But the reality of bereavement is that it afflicts us individually. I cannot feel your pain, and you cannot feel mine: only Christ can truthfully empathise with any of us to that extent.
I don’t mean to say that there is no such thing as communal grief, either; I very much believe that there is in this case. It is born, however, of many, many individuals experiencing loss simultaneously. So, dealing with that was not the overwhelming task that we now tend to view it as – because ministers, elders, and all those trying to bring God’s comfort could only deal with one heart at a time.
God Himself deals with us on that level. We pray for revival, we pray for communities, we pray for families – but in each case, His work will be personal, based on a relationship with the individual. And it is in that closeness faith finds its home.
I have experienced painful loss. It did not shake my faith – in fact, it drove the roots even deeper. Faith is nothing to do with me, or my circumstances: my faith is in Christ, who does all things perfectly. What He does, and what He permits – though it slay me – must be for the ultimate good. If that is true even sometimes, of some things, it must be true at all times, of all things. If I make that conditional on my circumstances being favourable, and Him dealing with me as I would wish, well, then, He is not God and this is not faith.
Commemoration of the ‘Iolaire’ has permitted more conversations about faith than has been possible in this island for quite some time. All of the events have incorporated psalm singing, Bible readings or prayer.
January 1st, 1919 dawned on a broken community. Families bereft, hearts torn, and a generation at least blighted by terrible grief.
January 1st, 2019 will witness a Lewis which is probably in a worse spiritual condition than it was that morning, one hundred years ago. While we are remembering an old, settled grief, and giving thanks that this is a generation which has known little of conflict or loss, are we looking to God as they did in 1919?
We have surrounded ourselves with reminders of the ‘Iolaire’ generation – beautiful writing, meticulous research, haunting photographs and paintings, monuments, and exhibitions . . . lest we forget. Like all bereaved people, the community is creating memorials because it fears that faces will blur, and voices will fade, and even that this great weight of pain which reminds us may dissipate in time.
But those who clung to God then, and who look to Him now, know that each turn of the year only takes us further from those painted, printed, fading memories – and all the while we are brought closer to seeing them as they really are now: alive in Christ, safe in that ‘harbour they longed to see’.