Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

Welcome and Blessing becoming a Practice of Heart and Mind

For this Welcome Week's post, Associate Chaplain Ali Newell explores how part of what is asked is that we navigate a new environment, and new community, 'with masks that hide our smiles and muffle our warm tones or hands that are kept stiff and un-extended in greeting'. Yet there are warm welcomes awaiting: in the meaning of 'welcome' itself, in greeting each other, masks notwithstanding, and in the autumnal delights of our beautiful city.

An image of silhouettes of people at the bottom with the text 'Welcome students!' above it

This is Welcome Week 2020 when the University particularly wants to convey to all new and returning students that YOU ARE WELCOME! That you are ‘received gladly into our presence’ as the dictionary definition of welcome puts it.

However, it is not easy this year! Messages and signs abound saying, ‘keep your 2 meter distance’ ‘wear a mask’ ‘one way system’ ‘wash your hands before entering.’ We know it is a way of welcoming you with safety and that it is very necessary, but how do we hold on to an open approach to each other with masks that hide our smiles and muffle our warm tones or hands that are kept stiff and un-extended in greeting?   Whether we are staff welcoming students or students greeting each other, how can we encourage each other to find new ways to welcome one another during this pandemic time? 

Perhaps it might help to look more deeply into the meaning of welcome. How do we hold an attitude of mind and heart that receives the other gladly? If, within us, we are holding an attitude of openness to life, then we will probably find that connections with others will more likely follow. There is a beautiful old Celtic Christian rune of hospitality.

I saw a stranger yestreen, 

I put food in the eating place, 

drink in the drinking place, 

music in the listening place,

and in the sacred name of the triune God,

he blessed us and our house, our cattle and our dear ones.

As the lark says in her song,

“Often, often, often goes Christ in the stranger’s guise”.

Photograph of Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park, with Edinburgh city in the distance.

I love this idea that by having an attitude of welcome, we can find ourselves blessed by the other unexpectedly and that the stranger can become a friend, the stranger can become a sacred presence for us.  (I also noticed that the ways of welcome in the rune could all be practiced at 2 meter’s distance!)


What else might bless you on your arrival?

I hope you find the city graces you with its beauty and architectural wonders. I hope that many of you will enjoy Arthur’s Seat and its spectacular views, or the walk to Cramond as it opens out on to the Firth of Forth or the Observatory on Blackford Hill so close to Kings Buildings.

Photograph of Dean Village in Edinburgh. At the bottom of the photo is the Water of Leith with trees around the side. At the top of the picture are houses that look onto the Water of Leith.
Photograph of black and red berries in amongst the green plants

There is also Dean Village, in the glen where the Water of Leith runs through the city, a haven of wildlife, where foxes, herons and even kingfishers can be spotted. At this time of year blackberries (or brambles as we say in Scotland) are heavy on the bushes glistening in the sunlight. They are treasures to welcome you if you like foraging and making jelly, but they hang amongst the thorns, so you need to pick them well protected. Perhaps a little like our welcome during the pandemic. The treasures are there to be found in the University and in one another but the restrictions for our safety can make the context feel a little prickly. 

Recently the film ‘Invictus’ was shown on the television. It made me think about welcome. It is the story of Nelson Mandela and the winning of the world rugby tournament by South Africa. It is an exciting story but what struck me, yet again, was the stature of Nelson Mandela.

Photograph of Nelson Mandela

In the midst of narrow, fearful attitudes by others he exuded forgiveness and openness. He would say to those entering his presidential office ‘Thank you for coming such a long way to see me.” and pour out the tea himself for them.  He brought an attitude of respect and welcome to people whatever their colour or past. He rose above his time of persecution and indignity in his 20 years in Robbin Island prison, to look for imaginative ways forward for his country during a time of extreme conflict and difficulty.

By acting in this way and by his deep practice of welcoming in heart and mind, he blessed many both in South Africa and in the world giving hope and inspiration that we can draw from in our pandemic time today.

We are delighted so many of you, around 90% of students, have decided to come back. May you be graced by the rich opportunities for study here and may you find imaginative ways to meet up with each other safely. Our university is a wonderful mix of cultures and wisdom from across the world. May you find yourselves welcomed and blessed here.