MARIE-ELSA BRAGG: Under the Juniper Tree

Catherine Coldstream in conversation with writer, priest, and broadcaster, Marie-Elsa Bragg

WE MEET ON Zoom. It is the height of the spring heatwave, and Lockdown is well underway. The four walls of our homes are becoming newly and differently familiar to us, as creative ways of dealing with confinement emerge from this enforced retreat. For Marie-Elsa the experience is both old and new. As a writer and contemplative, she is used to creative solitude. As a fell walker, part of her belongs in the great outdoors. Daughter of the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, and French artist and writer Marie-Elisabeth Roche, Marie-Elsa tells us about her many-layered heritage, and of how both faith and writing have been interwoven at a deep level in her life. In so doing, she takes us beyond our own four walls and out into the wide-open spaces of her beloved Cumbrian landscape, and, from there, into the equally open vistas of her extraordinary inner life. Marie-Elsa is ahead of me with the technology, and, while I sit and puzzle at the still fuzz-grey screen on my laptop, her voice appears, like a presence in the room, and then there she is, elegant and poised in her London study. 

CMC: Marie-Elsa, it is lovely to meet you! So, you are a priest of the Church of England and a writer. You are a Londoner and a Cumbrian. You are English and French. You are a novelist and a poet. In many ways it seems you have mastered the art of balancing in your life. But I wonder, could you tell us something specifically about your experience of ‘writing faith’. Would you say that faith can be narrated in fiction?  If so – what are the difficulties? 

MEB:  I think we can recount our own way to it. Some people have found forms of writing, though – perhaps more poetic forms of writing – that leave enough space between the words to allow the reader to step into and experience something very personal of their own. So, in that way, yes, we can perhaps share something on that level. But even then, the most you can do is provide the space.  You could say it was like stepping into an empty church, somewhere you can both sit, but where you would each have your own experience. 

CMC:  That is very beautiful, this idea of inviting rather than persuading. Creating the space for something unique and interior to arise. I definitely felt that the language of Towards Mellbreak, your first book, allowed me to walk into the earthy yet awe-inspiring world of the Cumbrian landscape, and to sense it on an immediate, almost physical level. You are not a controlling writer. It is more a case of: Here it is. This is my world. Come on in. 

MEB: Well, the writing of both my books was something that came out of my spiritual practice. I was living through them, rather than writing them as something to publish.

Marie-Elsa Bragg

“You just write and let the voice begin, and then – let it go where it goes.”

CMC: I see. I think that private voice and sense of personal authenticity really does come through in both books. Your more recent one, Sleeping Letters, is equally atmospheric and inviting, but in a completely different way. In some ways it is closer to a work of poetry. 

MEB: They are certainly very different books, you’re right, but the end of Mellbreak is also quite poetic. It definitely plays … it plays with poetry and prose.

CMC: Yes, I found Mellbreak very poetic, and I suppose that’s the common link. It was an immersion into this really lush evocative world so resonant with a sense of place. In Sleeping Letters it is almost like you got into something quite extreme and experimental.

MEB: Well, they are not only two very different books, they were written in very different ways. I actually wrote the full draft of Sleeping Letters over two silent retreats. 

CMC:  So, it was almost a direct transcription of a spiritual encounter?

MEB: It was a spiritual retreat, and cathartic for me to write, and at first I didn’t even want to show it to my publishers it was so intimate. I felt it was just me being me. 

CMC: You being you is probably exactly what they wanted!  But it did strike me that it was a very different side of you that I was encountering. A lot of it was very intimate and raw. It also felt very brave.  How did you feel about it being published?

MEB: Well, I felt very nervous about how my publishers would respond to it at first. I said, Are you asking me to take all the poetry out and put it in one section, and the prose in another section? They said, No, we just want it raw. But then I realised – I can’t be a priest, and guide other people through these deep and intimate things, and listen to them going through them, and then refuse to be open about my own processes.

CMC: That self-exposure is definitely one of the big challenges of being a writer. The clear drawing on one’s own private levels of experience. What else is difficult about writing? Does it come really easily for you, or do you do a lot of editing? 

MEB: I think I’m the kind of writer where my projects are deeply connected to the next thing I’m learning in life. I’m not one of these incredible people who plan great ambitious books in advance, and know exactly what they’re going to write. No, I’m in the line of Woolf and Plath, and I feel a great affinity with them, maybe a guidance or a tradition. I’m also very close to and influenced by monastic traditions, so I often write not knowing what’s going to happen on the page. I feel I’m digesting the experiences I’ve had in life, and through that process I’m more alive. But the challenge of it is facing life itself, which is not always easy …

CMC: Yes, living life is the difficult bit isn’t it?  But for you, your writing is a way of sorting things out, is that right?

MEB: Yes, that’s why I write. Some other people write for beautiful, creative, high aesthetic reasons, but my writing is about taking in life and walking forward with it. 

CMC: I was really struck when I read Mellbreak, actually, because it has a strongly cadenced voice, a very resonant, even a specifically Cumbrian voice, which I somehow didn’t expect. But now I see it’s because you are not imposing a programme on your writing, you’re going instinctively with it, allowing a voice and a language and a world to emerge. 

MEB:  That’s true, even to the extent that, in the first draft of the novel, the dialogue was in Cumbrian dialect, and afterwards I had to go back and water it down. But it’s a book about a culture I’m concerned is disappearing, and I wanted to preserve it or honour it somehow. My view is, if it’s published, or if it’s participatory or helpful in any way, then that’s great. But if it’s not published, but I’ve still taken life in – and that’s what matters.

CMC: Do you have any secrets for good writing?

MEB: I had a teacher called Barbara Turner Vessalago, who is a Buddhist who had done her PhD on Virginia Woolf in Cambridge.  She taught me something called Freefall, which takes the idea of stream of consciousness a bit further, and asks you to look for the ‘hook’ of your own voice within the process. For me, with all that I’ve learned through Jesuit imaginative prayer, and Lectio Divina, and meditation, Freefall helps me stay with the process and says: go with the stream of consciousness, and with the hook of your own creative voice, and then dive into the grace and wait for what you’re going to find. 

CMC: It sounds very wise as an entry-point for creativity. 

MEB: Yes, Freefall is incredibly useful for the first draft. You just write and let the voice begin, and then – let it go where it goes, even if the memories aren’t accurate, and even if you’re inventing memories, because then you’ve got this big creative piece to work with. Once you’ve got that, you can start crafting and finding a different type of shaping for it. It’s a tool, and not everyone is designed that way, but it can be helpful. 

CMC: That’s exactly what Mellbreak felt, or sounded like, reading it. You had clearly just gone right into the flow and that energy … showed that energy, made it musical. It felt alive, but it also felt rooted in your love of place. Your Cumbrian identity or soul really came across. And of course, Cumbria has that great lineage of writers in the Wordsworth tradition. Do you feel part of that lineage? 

MEB: Definitely, I’ve been brought up with that lineage. I am from a culture that produces many people like Wordsworth, it’s just – not many of them are writers. But we’ve all been brought up to go out onto the fells, with our thoughts and our problems, and to interact with nature, to enter a process, and after that to see nature in a different way. We’re built with the expectation that we will interact in that way.

CMC:  Does that sense of an encounter with, or within nature, mean that the awe-inspiring and the numinous are almost a way of life within that culture? 

“It feels like this is the time for the emergence of a new consciousness and a new paradigm.”

MEB: Yes. Even if nowadays people would no longer use the old-fashioned word of God in nature, they would still feel they were interacting with something transpersonal and interactive and profound. The other thing is that the loss of my mother, when I was six, had a silver lining, in that I was taken much more closely into my grandparents’ and my great grandparents’ world. I have childhood memories of sitting around the fire with my great Auntie Mary who only had coal heating, and gas lighting, and an outside toilet, and being around people who said, Hey – tell us a story, sing us a song. They were all storytellers. 

CMC: So, do you identify first and foremost as a Londoner, or as Cumbrian? 

MEB: I don’t know what first and foremost really means. I would say that in one way I’m probably a nature child, even quite … feral. But in my thoughts, I travel very easily from the Cumbrian fells, or the mountains of Provence, into a fascination for the conversation of culture, and for a real passionate love for hearing what people have to say. 

CMC: What I found striking was the respect you have not only for nature as something inescapable and wild, but also for that more harnessed or tame experience of nature, nature that’s been cultivated through a very traditional, rooted way of life. The way of the hill farmers, which, as you show so powerfully, in Mellbreak, is now under threat. 

MEB: That book was about both sides of nature, the wild and the tame.  When you live so close to the world of nature you get to know her very, very well. You can sense what the weather is doing; you know the signs in the bushes. For the farmers, it’s not so much about taming as respecting her. If you thought you could tame her you’d be a very bad hill farmer! You respect her, and you know that she, in turn, feeds you. 

CMC: Can you tell us a bit more about how you see the spiritual in nature? 

MEB: Well there is obviously the sense of awe. Lots of people misjudge it though. They come to the fells to experience a lightning storm, because they’ve seen it in a picture, but when they find themselves in the middle of it, they just can’t handle it. But the power is there as a source.  It requires real listening and real respect. When I think of the fear engendered by nature, I think of the poets walking the fells, and of the difference between Coleridge and Wordsworth. Coleridge allows himself to slip down a ledge in Scafell and almost breaks a leg, precisely because he’s challenging that fear, he wants to encounter the awe, he wants this fearful divine presence to pierce him. I think that’s what he feels the experience of Salvation and God are like. 

CMC: So, more an active ‘wrestling’ than a lonely ‘wandering’! 

MEB: Yes. Wordsworth is very different in that way. He is open to the awe, but has got more of the Quaker movement in his background, and so more of a sense of silence. He walks not only with respect for the fells but with a real sense of engaging inwardly, with a full but silent dialogue that is nurturing for him, and that’s how he gets the biggest impact.  Not just because he lost his mother when he was young, or that the loving impact is any more confronting for him than it is for Coleridge, but because they’ve got a different sense of what the Divine is, and how to interact with this powerful nature. I think even when you go out with intent, it depends on how you see the Divine in nature as to how you even walk. 

CMC: I suppose it’s also about different thresholds and relationships with fear, and with the unknown, as well, and how you handle those things. 

MEB: There are quite a lot of people who are happy just sitting with the experience, being open to it, without rationally understanding it or knowing anything in particular. Coleridge is different – he would like to know what’s being said, while Wordsworth is much happier just sitting in the presence, not understanding not knowing, just waiting for it to happen.  

CMC: That sounds almost like a description of contemplative prayer. 

MEB: Yes, I suppose it does.

CMC: What I particularly liked was your reference to Elijah and the Juniper tree at the beginning of Mellbreak.  It was in solitude in nature that Elijah found God, whether under the tree, or by the brook, or in the wilderness where he heard the still small voice. I guess for many people God is found in extreme experiences of solitude in nature. Did you find God first of all in nature, and if so, did that in turn lead on to your priestly vocation? 

MEB: I’ve always found God in nature, if I found God at all. 

CMC: How do you feel the Church relates to all that raw power we’ve been discussing? In some ways the Church might seem to be about the opposite, at first sight. What many people see are the buildings, the hierarchies, and the very explicit sets of beliefs and practices. Is sitting and ‘not knowing’ under a Juniper tree something of a completely different order, do you think, or – how do you tie that in with the ecclesial life?

MEB: I don’t see the Church as having just one shape. But if I did, I would never see it as confined to its buildings. Not just because of the tradition of hedgerow priests, and desert mothers and fathers, and hermits meditating in caves, but because I feel that at the heart of Christianity there are ideas like the Trinity, which try to describe something basically incomprehensible and vibrant, a vibrant set of relationships. And I feel that grandeur and incomprehensibility and communion have to include everything. 

CMC: A creation-centred, or holistic sort of theology?

MEB: Any theology that’s inspiring tries to play with the’ frame’, as Wordsworth calls it. At the end of the Prelude he talks about the frame of creation. The frame for Christianity is in God’s creation which is something primal – creation is before anyone built anything. I don’t see faith as being in conflict with nature, but I do see politics as making the two exclusive. But my own priesthood is very desert and ‘fell-worn’.

CMC: Could you imagine yourself, under other circumstances, having become a minister of any other form of spirituality, perhaps as a nun or member of another faith practice?

MEB: I did think about becoming a Cistercian nun. A French Catholic Order that I nearly joined. 

CMC: How far did you get into joining?

MEB: I did get close. I did a Jesuit training to be a spiritual director for their 30 day silent retreat, and to do that you have to do your own, and there’s a moment in it where you ask your vocational question, it seemed clear to me that it wasn’t right for me to join. I was sad because I’m such an introvert, and a silent contemplative life would have suited me very well, but it seemed very clear that I had other things in front of me. I have always been attracted to the mystical, but I find that not just in Christianity. I’ve been brought up in North London, so I’ve got a lot of connection with Judaism, and Islam more recently.

CMC: Was your hesitancy about being a nun linked to a sense that you were being called to be a writer? That you had books to write or something to say? Or was is not that clear-cut?

MEB:  No, it was more a case of discerning what is, for me, the right way to love. It’s difficult not to sound corny, but I guess it’s like finding the right marriage, or how to love – it is as essential as that.

CMC: That absolutely rings true. Do you ever feel that your writing is a form of channelling grace to where it is needed? For example, did you ever feel that writing Mellbreak was an intercession for the endangered way of life you show amongst the hill farmers?  

MEB: I don’t see my writing as being any more channelling than anything else is. The life I see is incredibly layered. When I work with any one person, I find there are so many different layers to their experience. I recently did three months as Speaker’s Chaplain at the Houses of Parliament and that was absolutely fascinating. The layers of culture, and collective consciousness, and politics were really incredible. I find the same thing at Westminster Abbey, where what is really interesting are all the layers of history, and collective, and pilgrimage. So, I think anything that feels authentic to me, and tries to look at something, has all these layers in it. 

CMC: And your writing draws on that richness – life’s complexity?

MEB: Yes, I always feel that I’m writing in conversation with life, and working through it, working something out. I was definitely different at the end of both of those books.

CMC: So, it was a process that changed you, perhaps a kind of therapy? 

MEB: Well I don’t know about therapy. No, I think it was more a contemplation towards working things out. The second book was very cathartic. 

CMC: Yes, Sleeping Letters felt like a very brave book, very authentic. If it had been tinkered with or over-edited, I guess it would have lost its power. 

MEB: I’ve had an interesting relationship with the book, because it was published in November, and by the end of February I was down with Corona, and so were most of my colleagues, and most people in parliament. I had just done two literary festivals, one in Bath, and one in Cumbria, then went back to work, and just after that came down with Corona. Since then all other festivals, and all the reviews have finished.

CMC: Gosh. So, you haven’t been able to do the usual follow-up stuff … 

MEB: I know! And I absolutely love that side of it because you get to meet all these people. I really love that pastoral side of it, where you’re at a reading or a signing and then they throw the floor open to questions, and have this real engagement with all sorts of people. Sometimes you’re signing books, and someone will get chatting and tell you something wonderful, or even very private about their lives. 

CMC:  Right, so you really connect with and relish the pastoral side. Although you’re an introvert, and a natural contemplative, you are also a people person?

MEB: I love people. I love the connection. At festivals I sometimes find people come up to me, and they might confide something they’ve never been able to tell anyone before, for example, about grief. Or they might say, Yes, I’ve had that experience, too – about something spiritual – but I never knew whether it was normal, or whether anyone else had felt like that. Maybe it really did happen …

CMC: You obviously have a gift for reaching people, and your writing is such a great way of reaching people, including those who don’t necessarily go to church. 

MEB: Well, it’s a gift for me. And I’d say – it’s okay to throw away a big part of the tradition, if you think it’s been corrupted, or narrow minded, or hasn’t served you well. But, keep the good part because it’s your legacy, and it’s up to your generation to rejuvenate it. Every generation has to rejuvenate it.  Don’t collude with the people you think have corrupted it, don’t let them have the power, and don’t let them take it away from you. Take it back, I’d say – take the power back and do what you think is right. 

CMC: That’s fantastic to hear you say that because there’s such a binary thing going on, isn’t there, where so often one hears a sort of reductive ‘Richard Dawkins versus Rowan Williams’ level of discussion. But what you’re saying is a really layered and nuanced appraisal which, I suppose, is fitted for these complex times.

MEB: Thinking of this situation we’re in at the moment, with Lockdown and Corona, I’m really wondering what paradigm shifts are going to come out of it, and what we’ll see when we look back. When you look back over history now, and see the Cholera epidemics, plagues, and wars, there was often a really positive shift afterwards, whether a levelling of class, or a new welfare system being given to us all, or a feudal system dropped.  

CMC: Yes, this does all feel very much like a global wake-up call.

MEB: I’m having to write something for the Ascension Day service on the radio. I’ve been thinking of the Ascension as something that really goes against the perceived duality of life and death, and that’s much more holistic and inclusive. I’m really hoping that the unprecedented experience that we are having – all the compassion and creativity that is coming out of it, and this incredible sense of a collective voice – I’m really hoping that we can build on that, and arrive at a new inclusive sense of what the spiritual is. 

CMC: I think it’s true there’s going to be a massive change after Corona. Lockdown has given people so much time to be alone with themselves, realising there’s so much they don’t need in their lives, that I think there’s inevitably going to be a massive reappraisal 

MEB: It’s almost back to the desert again.

CMC: But I’m interested in what you said about the Ascension. I mean, if any of the Christian feasts lend themselves to dualism, that’s one that could be seen to do just that. You know, one minute he is on the earth, then the next he is actually physically leaving and going up to heaven. It’s upstairs/ downstairs.

MEB: That’s the old school view. To my mind, death and birth are partners. Life just continues. Lots of people pit death with life, but I pit death with birth. We don’t even have the vocabulary for this, though.  I mean what does the word ‘afterlife’ even mean? After? We really don’t have proper words for this continuation of life. So – I feel that the Ascension is something that takes the linear journey of Christ, then picks up the cyclical journey of life and death, and says there is something alive that is all-encompassing, and is bigger than all of that. It is neither linear nor cyclical, there’s nowhere that it cannot reach.

CMC: Wow, so each individual life, from birth to death, dips into the cycle and moves out again and just carries on?  But what can we say about what happens afterwards? 

MEB: We just continue without our physical form, but we do continue. We continue growing into unity I suppose – whatever that feels like – but it is very hard to say anything without it sounding very trite. I expect we just continue. I mean we all know that our experience of love is something that’s beyond physical touch. And in this pandemic, so many people now are picking up the collective, that is something we are part of that’s much more than just the physical matter we are bound to. There’s a consciousness that continues. What it feels like when it continues, of course I don’t know, but certainly I talk with some of my colleagues about this. Some of us do funerals, and we see people continuing on. I think the key here, with the continuation of life after death, is to be like Wordsworth and content with the not knowing, but to allow ourselves just to be open to it.

CMC: Yes. I guess it’s openness that is the key to the spiritual dimension. But when you talk about ‘seeing people’ continuing on, do you mean you physically perceive forms or spirits of those who’ve gone ahead of us? And do you then, in that way, still experience a strong connection with your own loved ones, your mother, for example? 

“I don’t see spirituality as a separate subject. I see it as encompassing everything.”

Marie-Elsa Bragg

MEB: I feel a very strong connection with both my parents, dead and alive. Also, with my grandparents and great grandparents. They’re strong relationships, but I’m aware that we’re all alive, whichever side we’re on. I’m aware that we’re all alive somehow. I’m aware when I’m taking a funeral for somebody I’m not just taking it for the family I’m taking it for them, the one we are praying for. When I’m around them after ‘death’, I am deeply aware of the fact that I don’t fully know how much they can perceive, and yet I am there to serve them in their rites of passage. Birth and death are majestic and, in their own way, beautiful rites of passage. It’s not that long since giving birth was a terrifying event for women. We’ve now become quite clinical about birth in hospitals, and slightly dismissive of it, and in that way it it’s made us become more clinical and dismissive about death too. Yet there is something awesome about sitting with someone in their house, between their death and burial. It is really incredible, and a blessing to be there with them at that time. 

CMC: It’s wonderful that you see it all as so joined up. Your faith as an intuitive thing, and your sense of connection with and re-evaluation of what people call the afterlife, as well as this sense of the cyclical, and that life carries on. And that you’ve got it all so integrated with your writing is fantastic. So, I wonder where is it taking you now? Are you writing another book? 

MEB: Well yes, of course I’m writing through this Corona situation.  How else do you digest it? And walking is the other thing I do. I get up at 5:00 in the morning to walk between 5:00 and 8:00. In London it’s very hard to do social distancing unless you get up early, so I go for a really long walk first thing, then come back, write, and then the day is devoted to pastoral Zoom and to the Eucharist, as well as writing.

CMC: It all sounds very integrated and very balanced. 

MEB: One thing I really hope will come out of Lockdown, because so many people are now feeling such a longing for nature, and we’ve still got climate change on the agenda –  is that I hope there’ll be great statistics on how the world is being regenerated without pollution. I hope people will have rediscovered a healthy, Wordsworth-type of relationship with nature, full of respect, and that they will be ready to fight for it. I hope that, more than just trying to offset carbon emissions by planting more trees, people will actually realise that we have to learn to just think about it all in a different way. Nature is as alive and in relationship as we are. It feels like this is the time for the emergence of a new consciousness and a new paradigm. 

CMC: Indeed. And you clearly have the ‘wide angle lens’ kind of vision that is able to connect the general with the particular – your hopes for a better world with the inner practice of prayer and writing.  Some people perhaps feel a conflict between the inner and the outer worlds, the priestly and the creative vocations, but it seems like you’ve actually really got it sorted, and understand the way they mesh.

MEB: They’re not separate for me. Being a priest is at the very core of me. Nothing I do or think, or write, is apart or closed off from the conversation of what my priesthood is about.  It’s all part of the same thing for me. I don’t see spirituality as a separate subject. I see it as encompassing everything. I don’t have a dualistic idea of God and nature. But I would never say I‘ve got it all sorted!

CMC: And that really is as it should be, isn’t it, that awareness of the divine as a permeation of daily life? It really has been a great pleasure, and a privilege talking with you, Marie-Elsa.  So, thank you, and I look forward to the next book. I am sure it will have something to teach me about the way to an ever-deeper respect for the great whole. I must admit that I will also look forward to walking in the fells again, once Lockdown is over, and to seeing them – yes, I am sure – with new eyes.

JUNE 2020 Catherine Coldstream  MONK

1 thought on “MARIE-ELSA BRAGG: Under the Juniper Tree

  1. What an interesting conversation, thank you!  I love the interplay of the spiritual, creative and natural landscapes – it makes me want to return to those magical Cumbrian valleys and fells as soon as possible.


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