Dying Can be a Lonely Business

I am well aware that I myself may not have very much time on earth left. Death itself does not worry me, but I must admit that the process of dying does because I suspect it will involve facing my worst fear — not being able to breathe. I am sure many people can identify with that or have some other deep-seated fear that may be difficult to put into words.

Preparing for Death

We who know death is drawing closer tend to fret about arrangements, ensuring those we love are properly looked after or suffer as little inconvenience as possible, knowing full well that nothing ever works out quite as planned. We realise, probably too late, that procrastination in some matters was really rather silly but are too weak or too sick to do anything about it. Then there are our friends. Those closest to us tend to be reticent, not knowing what to do or say but keeping their distance to allow us time to get on with things. Others want daily updates and bombard us with ‘How are you today?’ messages which make the heart sink because there is no energy to respond and, anyway, what do we say? Others again want to deny the reality of the situation and pretend we are going to get better. At least in the monastery we don’t have to do that! The trouble is, preparing for death isn’t quite the same as preparing for dying, and that is where I think the confusion, and sometimes disappointment, arise.

Prayer for the Dying

The experience I am now going through has confirmed me in my view that the prayer we offer for the sick is the prayer they would offer themselves, were they not sick. It is not so much a prayer to get better as adoration, love, praise, intercession for others. Prayer for the dying, I think, is slightly different. Dying can be a lonely business. We do not want to burden others, but there are moments when we would like to talk a little or prepare sacramentally in a way that COVID-19 has made more difficult. I am fortunate in that I have a monk on standby, so to say, who has promised to come whatever the day or hour to give me the Last Sacraments. There are many more who do not have such an assurance. I am convinced that prayer for the dying asks more of us than a glancing reference in the Hail Mary.

I would suggest that prayer for the dying is a very simple prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. That is to say, it is a prayer for light, strength and a making good of whatever may have gone wrong in the dying person’s life, and for those supporting them in their last days. In the case of the dying it is not the injuries done to ourselves that we grieve for but those we have done to others, many of whom will now be beyond the scope of apology or reconciliation. These can cause a deep anguish that cannot easily be expressed. In the case of carers, there are so many contradictory emotions to go through, from exhaustion to feeling ‘guilty’ that we have not done enough.

Our prayer for the dying therefore, by its very nature, must be ongoing. I myself may have days, weeks, even months, left: who knows? Nor do I know the extent of the demands I may make on others. But during sleepless nights or when everything seems black or hopeless, it is a consolation to know that someone is praying, that I face this last and most uncertain journey in the company of others, and those I care about, those looking after me, are likewise prayed for. The loneliness of dying is lessened and there is the bright hope of eternity somewhere over the horizon. Please join me in praying for all who are dying at this time, and for those caring for them.

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Too Woke for our Own Good?

Every time I read of the latest manifestation of ‘wokeness’, I am inclined to groan and pass on to something more interesting. It seems but a short step from ‘wokeness’ to ‘cancelling’, and both strike me as being absurd. Should we spend time even thinking about them?

If an American citizen wants to remove a portrait of the Queen from an M.C.R., I merely ask myself if she will achieve as much in her lifetime as Elizabeth II. If 150 dons decide that they will not teach anyone from Oriel unless the Fellows remove a statue of Rhodes, I simply lament the intellectual and moral cowardice, as I see it, of those who believe in silencing others rather than engaging in proper debate. In such cases, I might even go so far as to sing the merits of the Little Place in the Fens, although it certainly doesn’t have a faultless record.

What, however, I’m forced to acknowledge is the power of sign and symbol, and the ambiguity of many of those in current use. For example, ‘taking the knee’ as a protest against racism causes me no difficulty, even if some of those using it are doing so without any great depth of conviction (who can tell?). It is a beautiful gesture, taken from Byzantine court ritual and subsequently incorporated into Christian worship. If, however, it is used to identify with the political aims of the BLM movement, I find that much more troubling.

There is no need to multiply examples. When the G7 summit opens tomorrow, one of the challenges the leaders will face is the different way in which they express and interpret values and motivation. Let us pray they are not too woke for their own (and our) good but achieve something of substance for us all.

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Friendship with God

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

It seems no time at all since we were thinking about ourselves as straying sheep (fourth Sunday of Easter), now here we are, on the sixth Sunday of Easter, invited to consider ourselves friends of God — if we obey his commandments (cf John 15. 9-17).

I wonder whether we really take on board what that means. We can probably quote a whole series of edifying lines taken from the saints, such as Aelred’s Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship’, but it is our homely English word ‘friend’, with its connotations of mutual affection, equality, freedom and trust that gets to the heart of the matter. Who would ever dream of any kind of ‘equality’ with God? In one sense, it is absolute nonsense. But when John puts onto the lips of Jesus those astonishing words ‘You are my friends . . . ‘ we must take notice.

In a few days we shall celebrate the Ascension and, a few days after that, Pentecost. Our role and responsibility as disciples is growing. We are not to be merely followers, we must become active collaborators; and we can only do that insofar as we have taken on the lineaments of friendship with God. Becoming friends takes time. Those often apparently wasted hours reading and praying are part of the process; so, too, are what I call the blank times, when we are so bound up in grief or sickness or some other negative experience that we do not see what the Lord is doing, or we try to limit Him because we feel obliged to limit ourselves.

The rather cheeky photo I chose to illustrate this post is a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, not to insist that we must be x or y before God can love us. He loves us as we are and wants to be friends with us now. That doesn’t mean we can go on being horrible to everyone or leading a sinful life. On the contrary, friendship with God is bound up with conversion and obeying his commandments. We change because we want to be friends with him. But let us not forget that we are meant to find joy in our friendship with God and, even more, his friendship with us.

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On Being Unable to Breathe

Breathlessness is something I know a little about, having lived several years with advanced sarcoidosis and metastatic leiomyosarcoma in my lungs, but even so, the horror of what COVID-19 sufferers without access to oxygen are going through is beyond me. Every photo of someone in India or Brazil struggling to breathe makes me think how scared they must be, how helpless their family, friends and medical team (if they are lucky enough to have one) must feel, and how outrageous it is that we were all so unprepared.

Breathlessness of the kind experienced by those with bad COVID-19 is not some transient feeling of being puffed. It is more like an inner suffocation that makes movement, speech, all the things we take for granted, well nigh impossible. It is exhausting and relentless.* We read that Western countries are sending various kinds of aid, including oxygen concentrators and ventilators. I regularly use the one and pray I am never put on the other (if you know anything about ventilators, you will know why). What troubles me this morning, however, is the thought that the oxygen concentrators are unlikely to produce enough flow to be of any substantive help. Those with COVID-19 will go on suffering, their symptoms barely alleviated. Unless we have had COVID-19 ourselves or have had an analogous experience, e.g. a bad asthma attack, we won’t really understand, no matter how hard we try.

I do not know what we as individuals can do other than speak to our governments and donate to aid agencies, but both the situation in India and the rows about vaccines have highlighted the simple truth that we are one world, dependent on one another. Selfishness and generosity seem to go hand in hand among us, and no one has a monopoly on folly, but perhaps we need to reflect on what it means not to be able to breathe — not only in the obvious, physical sense, but also in the less obvious moral and ethical sense. Are we suffocating ourselves by shrugging off the sense of interconnectedness we ought to have? ‘Gesture aid’ is very like virtue-signalling: well-meant, but inadequate except as a way of easing our own conscience. It may sound over-dramatic but today the suffering Christ is to be found in a thousand places, in streets where people are dying for lack of air and an inability to breathe. That matters; so does our response.

* I have relied on the description given by someone who had COVID-19 badly. It sounds very like what those with serious lung disease experience, but worse.

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The Blessing of Good Government

There is an unpleasant sense that the U.K. government is becoming steeped in equivocation and sleaze. We expect better of our politicians yet, at the same time, are not in the least surprised whenever we come across evidence of failure or corruption. Sometimes, alas, it is a case of pots and kettles. We cannot expect integrity from others if we are not prepared to live lives of integrity ourselves. Disgust at what is being widely reported/alleged regarding donations, cover-ups, underhand deals, self-serving contracts and the like may prompt us to a little scrutiny of our own conduct. Are we as sea-green incorruptible as we would like to believe? Good government is a blessing but it is not an abstract one. Learning how to govern ourselves is a necessary step in learning how to govern others.

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Tacos, Tea and Trivia

Close followers of our lighter-hearted social media postings will know that this week we were introduced to the concept of ‘Taco Tuesdays’ by our neighbours, with a very practical (and yummy) illustration of the same, received gifts of coffee and tea, and generally basked in the sunshine of other people’s kindness and generosity. If asked what we did for other people, we might be hard put to explain.

One cannot see prayer, though sometimes one may know the effects of it; one cannot listen in to telephone conversations with those in distress, though occasionally one may be heartened by such; unless one is the recipient, one cannot read the emails and messages we send out to dozens of people on an almost daily basis, though one may sometimes find them helpful. Nor can anyone see the private aspect of our lives, the hiddenness of our vocation as it were, because that is not for show. Instead, we are left with much that could genuinely be described as trivia. Ephemeral as that inevitably is, I’d like to suggest that it is tremendous trivia, the kind of trivia to which everyone can contribute and from which some, at least, will benefit.

To make the down-hearted smile; to surprise someone with laughter; to lift, even momentarily, the mood of someone who is achingly lonely — these are not trivial things. They are glimpses of God, and to be treasured as such. If Milton will forgive me, they also serve who only joke and jest; so let us make today lighter for someone if we can — with our tremendous trivia.

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From Coffee to ‘Copters and Back Again

Ingenuity
Ingenuity Helicopter developed by NASA engineers

In one of his many sermons, St Augustine remarks that we are often more impressed by reading about the feeding of the five thousand than we are by seeing a whole field of wheat sprung from a few grains. I think he was wrong. There is so much to wonder at and be grateful for in the world around us, precisely because it comes from nature or human ingenuity. Yesterday there was that forty-second helicopter flight on Mars to marvel at — a triumph of engineering, vision and faith. Then, for us coffee addicts, there was the welcome news that a strain of coffee thought to tolerate higher growing temperatures had been re-discovered, thus potentially saving our favourite brew from disappearing off the face of the earth. I don’t know how much coffee-drinking the NASA engineers needed to accomplish their feat, but I’m sure there must be a connection of some kind.

That is my point. The natural, human and spiritual are interconnected. We often dissociate them in an effort to analyse and understand, but when we do so, we fail to see the possibilities they contain or give thanks. That flight on Mars, that re-discovered coffee plant, what potential they hold for all of us!

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April Sunshine, April Tears

Yesterday people all over the world watched or listened to the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, many rushed to tell others how good or bad it was, or gave their opinion of this or that aspect of the arrangements and those taking part in it. For most, however, I suspect it was the picture of the Queen, dressed in black and sitting alone, that provided the most powerful image and drew sympathy from even the stoniest of hearts: a widow mourning her husband of 73 years, in public and within the constraints of strict protocol. None of us knows what she was thinking or the emotions she experienced as the service progressed. We know about our own grief, but the feelings of others are often difficult to read. Some need the warmth of a tangible human presence; others prefer space and solitude.

I think myself there was a kind of counterpoint between the queen’s sorrow and the duke’s slightly subversive humour, especially when the naval call to action stations sounded, a mixture of April sunshine and April tears, if you like. Every funeral in Eastertide must have elements of both. The joy of the resurrection does not diminish the pain of loss and death, nor does the spiritual eliminate the human. All are brought together as we sing our grateful ‘Alleluia’.

Image
The image of the Queen at Windsor to which I refer may be subject to copyright but can be viewed by following this link:

https://images.app.goo.gl/6vZcRHhSUb4m3oQ26

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A Sleepless Night

The elderly, the sick and the parents of new-born children tend to be more familiar with sleepless nights than most people. When in ‘holy mode’ I advocate trying to pray. Nothing is more likely to induce slumber than turning mind and heart towards the Lord at an unexpected hour. Alternatively, one can listen to the BBC World Service (I learned more about lithium last night than I ever dreamed possible), finish the last chapter of one’s current book or three, or toss and turn as one reflects on the various difficulties and anxieties facing oneself or those one loves. Once one has exhausted those possibilities there is nothing left but to listen to the sounds of the house and of the night.

We are fortunate to live in a converted barn on the edge of the Golden Valley, a beautiful part of rural Herefordshire with a long monastic history behind it. The old oak timbers of our house are constantly moving slightly: they creak and groan softly, and when the wind and rain blow, as they did last night, they utter a quiet protest. The garden makes its own response. I love listening to the snuffles and squeaks of whatever is abroad in the night-time, beginning with bats at dusk and moving through a whole range of owls and rabbits and foxes, with the occasional rough bark of a deer or perhaps the husky note of a badger out on patrol.

There is more to this than finding a way of passing time. To listen to the sounds of night as they come from house and garden is to reconnect with the world in which we live and for which, often enough, we have no time except when we make a point of going for a walk or doing some gardening. I can’t do either of those, so listening to the soundscape of where I live matters. It is another way of seeking the Lord — and being found by him. A sleepless night may leave one feeling tired and crotchety next morning, but it is never wasted. It is an opportunity to be relished.

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‘In Mourning and Tears’: Easter Saturday 2021

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Trooping of the Colours.

The title of this post is taken from today’s gospel, Mark 16:9-15, and refers to the disciples when Mary Magdalene went to tell them that the Lord had risen. But as the evangelist remarks, ‘They did not believe her’. It was only when Jesus himself stood among them that they believed. Only the Lord himself can convince us of the joy of the resurrection and our sharing in it.

This morning I had intended to say something about the terrible toll of death and suffering COVID-19 has wreaked throughout the world. So many people are struggling with loss and grief, but the death of Prince Philip yesterday has sharpened my focus, so to say. I went to bed last night thinking of the loneliness of the Queen and the horror public figures must undergo when mourning. Seventy-three years of marriage is not easily forgotten, and one can only hope that the sheer nastiness and deliberate cruelty of some responses to news of his death has not reached her.

I am not, in any meaningful sense, a Royalist (I do not, for example, get excited about titles), but I found much to admire in Prince Philip: he was brave, intelligent, a bookworm (lots of theology on his personal bookshelves), spoke four languages fluently and was an innovator. I can forgive him for eating muesli twenty years before the rest of us, while I applaud his enthusiasm for conservation and his work for young people with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. Above all, I find his devotion to the Queen, to doing his duty and his capacity for hard work, rather more attractive than the posturing of some younger members of his family. So how do I link his death, the reaction to it and today’s gospel?

We all have in us a capacity to disbelieve, to destroy and to inflict pain on others. Most of the time it is restrained: by grace, by humanity, by sheer pride. The Eleven could not quite bring themselves to let go of their intellectual assurance that the dead could not rise — and as for accepting the testimony of a woman or two disciples who claimed to have met him on an evening walk, well! But when Jesus came to them, then they knew, then they believed.

I think part of the hostility towards Prince Philip shown yesterday stems from a reluctance to accept that we share a common humanity, that no matter how privileged we may be in material terms, we are still creatures of flesh and blood, with feelings. Prince Philip’s childhood was ghastly, but instead of making that an excuse for all kinds of self-indulgence and moral ambivalence, he turned it into the pursuit of integrity and service. Isn’t there a lesson for all of us, especially during this Easter season? We believe in the resurrection, we believe in Easter joy. However negative some of our personal experiences, shouldn’t we be trying to share our faith, our joy, with others — kindly, sensitively, compassionately?

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