Mike – The Royal wedding and a Matrix coat

Reverend Michael Macey once had to tell the Queen to sit down. It was the day of the Royal Wedding. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, were getting married. As a Minor Cannon at Westminster Abbey, he was instrumental in writing and organising the service. One of his many jobs on the day was to lead the wedding party (the Middleton’s, the Prince’s, Camilla) through to sign the marriage register. The Queen was still standing up though. If she didn’t sit down then none of the 1,900 congregation would sit down, then there would be a pregnant pause. With two billion people watching the wedding in 180 countries, it would have looked quite awkward. “I said ‘Your Majesty, would you please be seated,’ at which point I think she thought who is this little oik, but she did sit down and I was able to lead (the wedding party) through to sign the register”.

He was involved in the organisation of some big televised events.

Mike, as he tends to be known (“Michael is my mum shouting at me,” he says) is the Anglican vicar for the Parish of Boxmoor. This includes the churches of St. John’s, St. Stephen’s and St. Francis’. His role now is very different from his previous position at Westminster Abbey. At the Abbey he was involved in the organisation of some big televised events; the royal wedding as described above; the Battle of Britain commemorative service; the Commonwealth Day service; the Christmas Day services. But Westminster Abbey’s reputation as a major tourist attraction meant the majority of the congregation consisted of one-off visitors. With such a transient congregation, Mike says, “you have no idea how you are helping or touching that person.”

In contrast, here in Boxmoor, his congregation is very stable. They see him as part of their family. He knows their history and supports them through the good and the bad. He knows their pains and he knows their joys. He visits schools, deals with financial matters, chairs the governing body for the parish and conducts services in the different churches. He is also always available to his congregation, even if that means being woken up at 3am. He assures me that people don’t tend to wake him up in the middle of the night with a faith question, most of those questions come through on the email. “In my dad’s vicarage the phone was going all the time, now my inbox is going all the time”. But someone may be in hospital or on their death bed, so he could be called in the early hours. “It’s a very privileged role. You get to walk with people at all times in their lives, so there are many wonderful moments, even when it’s really difficult”.

At the age of six he was bullied at school because his dad was a vicar.

Mike didn’t always want to be a vicar. At the age of six he was bullied at school because his dad was a vicar. “They threw stones at me,” he says. On that playground he vowed never to become a vicar. As he got older though, he started to explore the idea and went off to Exeter University to study theology. But university wasn’t all plain sailing. “I went off the rails a bit, relationships were going sour, grades were falling and I just wasn’t the person I wanted to be, and during that time I wasn’t going to church and I wasn’t praying”. But something in him made him go back to church. He remembers vividly that it was Ash Wednesday when he went along to Exeter Cathedral. “I just felt the Cathedral kind of wrap it’s arms around me and say, ‘this is where you belong’”.

Since deciding on his path on that Ash Wednesday, it would be too simplistic to say that Mike hasn’t has the odd wobble about the life he has chosen. Doesn’t everyone have the odd wobble about their own path though? I remember as a new parent, when I had been up and down all night, feeding a screaming baby, I wondered what on earth possessed me to become a parent. And Mike doesn’t see theology as answering all of life’s questions either. “There are still questions I don’t have answers to. The problem of evil… Why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people?”.

Whilst I can’t see many celebrities flocking to be married at St. John’s, I note five time olympic medalist Max Whitlock, who trained literally across the road, didn’t come back to Boxmoor to tie the knot, to Mike it doesn’t matter. He is the sort of person who treats everyone the same, wherever their standing is on the social ladder, whatever money they have or don’t have, or whatever their faith is. For two years he use to pray every morning with a Hindu man who would come to St. John’s for the morning prayer. Strangers and his congregation alike will stop Mike in the street to talk with him. One passer-by was particularly impressed with his cassock. ‘Cool coat,’ he said. “It looks a but matrixy I suppose,” jokes Mike. “I wasn’t wearing the shades at the time”.

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Zane – Buddhism and basketball

“The Olympics is still like a dream. It was amazing. You would be walking in the campus and you would see all these superstars from all over the world.” Zane is a 6’6’’ Latvian professional basketball player, and she is the last person I would have expected to find living at Amaravati Buddhist monastery in Great Gaddesden. She played for the Latvian national basketball team and represented them at the Beijing Olympics. At high school she won a scholarship to play basketball in the US and was drafted in to the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association). She married a professional basketball player in the States; “he was tall, he was good looking”. This perfect couple were the envy of many, travelling the world, driving expensive cars and following their passion. She was ticking off the list of her ten wildest dreams she thought would bring her the happiness she craved.

Zane felt her world had broken down.

Zane’s early life was very different from this life as a globe trotting basketball star. She grew up in a suppressed environment in Latvia. For the first nine years of her life the country was part of the Soviet Union. Her family struggled with money and their attitude was that life wasn’t to be enjoyed, you just had to get through it. Her parents worked, but sometimes they didn’t even receive money; they were issued with ration tickets for food. The family grew extra vegetables in the summer and tulips in the winter to supplement their income. Zane had a very difficult relationship with her father, who emotionally and sometimes physically, abused her. Her father was very critical of her, instilling her with low self esteem and blaming her for everything. Also being tall for her age, she was bullied by her peers for her height. Growing up in this environment Zane felt her world had broken down. Her saviour was a teacher who wanted to coach a basketball team. She walked in to Zane’s maths class, looking for students to coach, and that was the moment that Zane’s life changed. Basketball made her feel useful for once in her life and good about herself.

Moving to the USA, her basketball skills went from strength to strength and she started to earn good money, playing in the top women’s teams. But her insecurities her father had instilled in her were still there, just below the surface. She couldn’t believe she was worthy of this perfect lifestyle and every time she signed a new contract for a team, she would think to herself, “I am not this good to get this money”.

As her and her husband’s careers progressed and they started playing in different countries, Zane found out her husband was having affairs. Because of her low self esteem that had been conditioned in to her by her father, she felt the affairs were her fault. “I was always looking for the fault in me”. Her relationship with her husband was becoming like the relationship with her father, being bullied and criticised and always feeling she was the one in the wrong. “I was trying my best (in her marriage), until there was a point where I couldn’t move on”. Eventually her and her husband agreed to divorce and although she knew it was the right thing to do, it was a very painful time for her. “I could feel my heart was broken”. 

It was after her divorce that Zane found her teenage list with her ten wildest dreams on. Although she had achieved 90% of them, even down to the specific detail of owning a BMW, what she realised is how you appear to the outside world doesn’t make any difference if you are not happy within. Re-reading her teenage list she still felt in the same miserable place as she had before.

“Don’t believe everything you think”.

Coming to the Buddhist monastery with some friends, Zane felt for the first time in her life that she was in the right place. She felt the Buddhist philosophy was exactly how she wanted to live her life. It was “very close to my heart, even though I had nothing to do with Buddhism before”. She didn’t have to worry about what other people thought, a concern that had been conditioned in her since childhood. And she realised she didn’t need other people’s approval to feel good about herself. Although the experience with her ex-husband was very painful, she feels it was one of her biggest lessons in life. It opened her eyes to her childhood conditioning. She needed to break the cycle of self criticism and low self esteem. As one of the monks told her, “don’t believe everything you think”.

RAW publishes interviews regularly about a community member from Hemel Hempstead or the surrounding villages. To keep up to date with RAW’s interviews, click follow at the top of this page or like RAW’s Facebook page, highlighted at the side of the page.