Wilde and Beautiful
We stayed last night with the Lears; they are old friends we have known well for thirty years. They live in a glorious farm surrounded by assorted ducks, hens and bees and some of their adult children; they have the rare gift of effortless hospitality.
On through the endless suburbia of Worthing: the only interesting thing I can recall about the place is that Ernest was found in a handbag in Wilde’s great play: “The Importance of Being Ernest”. Then we plod on through lush countryside so glorious that heaven will have a serious problem in trying to surpass it. Nowhere on earth can match this Sceptered isle, this England, set in a silver sea especially in the months of late May and June. One feature unique to our land is that because of our wet climate all long views are seen shrouded through a very faint mist. No wonder so many of the world’s poorest are clamouring to get here.
We walk through Poling and then Angmering – where I asked a delightful passer-by called Alison where the name came from: she hadn’t a clue. On through Arundel and to Petworth where we spend the night in a house built at the time of Cromwell and is today owned by renaissance man (and women) called Raymond and Rosemary Harris. What an immaculate garden and blow me down we learn that the beautiful furniture was in fact built by our hosts. they are both retired architects. Very capable and kind and generous people who now tirelessly work for the community.
Through a Glass, Darkly
In last year’s Christmas mailing, I included a First World War letter from nursemaid Amy Harding to her lover Jack Clifton. She wrote: “ …my Jack – my same, same heart-mate….Oh! let me feel you crushing my life into yours! Jack, Jack, I live for you, always my own.” However, I can’t help thinking that even had Jack lived, however much Amy might have tried to achieve total intimacy, Jack would always have remained something of a stranger to her.
Can we really ever get to know a person? At funerals I often wonder whether I actually knew the departed, even when he or she had been a close friend. The reality is that all we can ever really have is an impression, an outline, some bits of detail and experience that we may have been privileged to share – and even from time to time helped to shape. However, we are all so complex, I wonder if we ever really know even ourselves? Sometimes I look back at some incident or other in my life and reflect, “I must have been quite mad to have done that!”
Plumbing the Depths
However much we delude ourselves that we are all as one flesh, the infinite variety of unrepeated snowflake patterns against a winter sky reminds us that we are always destined to remain separate from one another. Even those whom we love deeply will always remain something of a mystery, for they have had experiences that we can never really share – we cannot know what their world looked like at the age of eight, or how they felt when they first heard the Beetles or Beethoven’s Pastoral. And what’s more, they may even have forgotten the experience themselves. This forms part of the acute frustration of loving someone deeply: we can never see the whole or plumb the deepest depths of their heart, and are privileged only to snatch flickering glimpses of the personality we love.
Only God can really know each one of us, and plumb the millions of our passing thoughts and actions that combine to make an individual life; only God can know each of us in the deepest sense, in the muscle and the bone and the sinew, and the racing blood and the workings of our brain cells; and only He can know the real reasons that lie behind our actions – some virtuous, and others deeply flawed.
For as St Paul wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
In Search of Lost Time
We make the division between life and death a matter of dates, being born on one date and dying on another years later. But we are asleep for half our lives and often when we are awake, we are often only half alive… wasting time, day dreaming, waiting for trains, sitting in traffic jams on hot days, waiting at airports for late arrivals, standing in queues, watching meaningless telly, wasting time in the wrong job, arguing, filling in forms, hanging on to call-centre calls and being told endlessly, “your call is important to us.”
Life is a quality, not just a quantity. Malcolm Muggeridge called one of his autobiographies Chronicles of Wasted Time. It is tragic we cannot refine our lives and drain away the waste, and leave the pure gold behind. Those golden moments of say listening to Mozart’s Great Mass for the first time, seeing our daughters marrying good and loving men, watching our children being ordained, or sharing laughter with our grandchildren: all moments of 22-carat gold. If such wonderful times could be preserved and the rest of the dross drained away, who could hope for anything better? And just as those times of great ecstasy and joy highlight our lives, so too might they be preserved in the lives of our friends and close family. Perhaps this is what is meant by eternal life?
Wilder tells us that our dead friends will be loved for a while and then forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love – the only survival, the only meaning.
Some time ago I read a book by the late US philosopher and Christian thinker Dallas Willard. The book was primarily about how to stay spiritually healthy. One piece of advice particularly has stayed with me: “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life”, he wrote. “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.”
He went on to say then that the other important thing in your life is not what you do, but rather who you become. That is what you will take into eternity. “You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” Then he repeated it: “You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.” That’s the most important thing to know about you. You should write that down and repeat it regularly. You may think you have something more to do or need to be someplace else to find peace, but its right here. Your soul is not just something that lives on after your body dies. It’s the most important thing about you: it’s your life.
Dallas was an extraordinary man. He once wrote about a tiny child who crept into his father’s bed to sleep. In the dark, knowing that his father was present was enough to take away his sense of aloneness.
“Is your face turned toward me, father?” he would ask.
“Yes, his father replied. “My face is turned toward you.”
Only then would the child sleep.