Nunc Dimittis now
ANOTHER Charleston Literary Festival finished a few weeks ago, and I have been ruminating on it ever since. It was — as ever — challenging, informative, and fun; but these days it is also a bit of a marathon.
When I first started as an all-eventer, more than two decades ago, there were some 20 talks that I could take in my stride; now, there are 40, which means getting on for 40 hours of intense listening. Sitting at the front in the reserved seats, there is always the chance that you’ll nod off — which is embarrassing, to say the least.
Highlights this year included an incandescent Ali Smith, an enthusiastic Tristram Hunt, and a Post-Truth-ing Evan Davis; but, above all, there was a star turn by Sir David Attenborough, who, at 92, is Venerable Presenter As Rock Star.
But what has stayed with me most were two of the quieter talks, and both were about listening. The first was by Susie Orbach, the therapist and author of the groundbreaking 1978 book Fat Is A Feminist Issue (which, rather endearingly, she referred to throughout as “Fifi”). She was talking about her recent radio series, which dramatised therapy sessions. It came down, really, to a quality of listening: she gives people the freedom and space to be heard, in lives filled with much talking but little attentive response.
This built on a theme begun in an earlier session by Dr Gavin Francis, a travel writer, journalist, Antarctic surveyor, and, currently, job-sharing GP. Discussing his book Shapeshifters, on the changes that the human body undergoes in a lifetime, he mentioned in passing that, these days, doctors are called to the dying not just for palliative care, but to reassure patients that their transition from this world is part of the common human experience — something that, he said, “used to be the role of the priest”.
Listening and reassurance are still at the heart of any priestly life, but I would add something else, different from either therapist or doctor: the ability to give the assurance of being loved and forgiven. Declaring absolution, with the necessary corollary “And pray also for me, a sinner,” remains one of the most moving and humbling events of ministry.
I HAVE been planting roses in my garden, which seems a suitably vicarly thing to do. Up to this point, I have been blessed with old gardens, the result of much clergy care — in one case, over almost 100 years. I especially miss the large gardens from my old rectory in Moulsecoomb, with the hollies and philadelphus, the buddleia, and old, spreading Bramleys.
Where I am now, in my little back garden, there are lovely views across to the South Downs (well, there are at the moment — the first of 1000 new houses are starting to be built), but little else. I have a triangular bed in one corner with a purple thing, a spiky thing, and (rather bizarrely) a sort of stone monolith. I have no idea why. In another corner, I have a passion flower — and that, apart from brambles clambering over the fence from the scrubland beyond, is about it.
So, I have planted six climbing roses, which have taken root in the clay soil, and furnished the terrace with large pots of old and English roses with the reassuring names of Charles de Mills, Vanessa Bell, Gertrude Jekyll, and Rosa Mundi. I have fed and (during this sweltering summer) watered them assiduously, and have been rewarded with a spectacular show of whites, creams, pinks, and damasks, all with a beautiful scent.
I have realised, though, how little I have used my gardens actually for me. Over the years, I have erected marquees and gazebos, and awnings and sunshades, amassing a great collection of chairs and tables for fêtes and tea parties, barbecues and drinks dos — but for the parish, rarely just for me (Letters, 22 and 29 June, 20 and 27 July).
Looking back on the 12 years in Moulsecoomb, I think I can count on two hands how many times I sat out in the garden by myself — which is really just plain silly. In terms of old school reports, I must do better.
Be still and know
A BROWN envelope plopped on to the doormat. When I opened it, it was the notification of when my state pension is due. (When I am 66 and six months, on 31 May 2027, if you are interested: a date now engraved on my heart.) It is still almost nine years (well, eight years nine months — not that I’m counting, of course), but it focuses the mind somewhat. Up to this point, my ministerial career has felt open-ended, but there is now a sense of a closing trajectory which is certainly food for thought.
Retired clergy are, for me, a shining hope: we could not function without their kindness (our parish couldn’t cope without our two stalwart retired clergy, David and Hugh); but they also demonstrate that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the proverbial oncoming train: there is a period of ministry which, freed from the managerial hamster-wheel of 21st-century parochial life, bears real fruit.
I must begin practising. I am writing this on my iPad in the garden: when I have finished, I’ll put it down and sit here for a while among my roses, just listening to the sound of the breeze rolling off the Downs in this extraordinary summer. I will let go of all the frenetic doing for a bit, and, for a little time, just practise the being.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.