Life is a terminal condition

Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today.

Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.

Please excuse me: I’ve written about this sort of stuff before, but I can’t stop myself doing so again.

TV adverts at the moment tell us: for the first time as many people survive cancer as die from cancer; together we’ll beat cancer; soon nobody will die from cancer.

What nonsense! It’s emotional manipulation to get you to give to cancer research.

If you don’t die from cancer, then what will you die from?

Maybe you think you won’t die at all. Maybe you’ll live for ever like the struldbrugs in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, increasingly opinionated and cranky (some of us are like that already). At 80 years of age their marriages were dissolved because no two people could stand each other any longer, and they became legally dead, no longer able to own property. This is not unattractive: no taxes, no responsibilities, no leaking roofs to worry about.

Somehow, unlikely though it may seem, I think Swift was taking the piss.

Life is a terminal condition. Deal with it. We invest so much in doctors and drug companies because people can’t come to terms with that fact. We imagine that the next new drug or treatment will allow us to live for ever—or at least, for that bit longer.

Imagine you’re expecting to kick the bucket any day, then a new drug unexpectedly becomes available and you are told you have an extra month. What will you do with the extra days? Will you travel to where you’ve always wanted to go? Will you write your life story? Will you make sure that the people you think are gobshites know your opinion of them? (a very tempting option.)

When my mother was on her last legs with secondary cancer, she was put on morphine and had a couple of months at home. She asked me what to do. I said if I were her, I’d get a train ticket and go places I’d never been, though by then she was too ill to bother. After she died, my father bought a deep fat fryer, so that was soon the end of him. If we don’t die of cancer, I suppose heart disease will be the killer. Or murder—if the struldbrug character changes are an indicator.

What will it be for me? Road traffic accident? Heart disease (I like eggs; I like salt)? Cancer? Quite possibly cancer. I’m a bit of a worrier and there is evidence of cancer-genes in the family. Now just so you get this straight, cancer is not a disease, it’s a side-effect of ageing: the longer you live, the more likely your cells are to go out of control. Also, cancer is not God’s judgement. Cancer is not a punishment. Cancer, like so many other things, is just stuff that happens.

The game's up

The game’s up

Back to the plot. The beginning of the year is a good time to make peace with people you know you’ve offended or hurt. You might tell people who’ve hurt you that you bear them no ill will. You would then have a lighter heart, carry fewer burdens, and live more serenely. You can start this now, by living each day as if ‘twere thy last. Because it jolly well might be.

Wiping out this disease today means you die of something else tomorrow. Life—to repeat—is terminal, and you never know when the game’s up.

Posted in Pastoralia, Theology | Leave a comment

Taboo in Tabuk

buraydah02A Tabuk imam has forbidden the making of snowmen. Quite right. Snowwomen and snowcamels too. Anything that has a soul may not be represented in crystalline water. As a theologian, I’m aware of a large corpus of literature on the souls of camels, as well as a little aphorism about the use to which camels can be put that I cannot print here, for children might be watching.

Reading about the fatwa took me back to the 1980s and 1990s when from time to time I went to Saudi on behalf of the College of Knowledge in Dublin to teach (two weeks at a time) or to examine (5 days or so). I was in Tabuk only once, but today’s news puts me more in mind of other Saudi trips, most particularly to Buraydah where I served a few sentences.

The culture in Buraydah is sooo relaxed, for this is where the Saudi religious police are trained. They patrol the streets eagerly seeking out infractions of dress and behaviour codes, a bit like Irish priests are said to have done in the past. Men may hold hands, women may hold hands, but man and wife may not. Under no circumstances may any female skin below the chin be visible, and preferably only that around the eyes. Ankle skin, frightfully erotic, drives men in Saudi into a frenzy. Being caught in contravention of any of these rules draws verbal abuse and a lash or six from the cane that every religious policeman carries. Female companions of mine were spat at on several occasions for daring to show a bit of trouser leg below the chador.

We were housed in apartments in the hospital compound. I noticed that local inhabitants rose about 5 am to turn on their car engines so that by the time they left the house two hours later the AC had the interiors nice and cool. The air was fragrant with he heady mix of Saudi incense – petrol fumes.

Apart from five or six hours teaching a day, life was a social whirl. The liturgy that gave shape and meaning to the day was that of oral hygiene: setting aside a good 10 minutes for cleaning my teeth. In those days I was obsessed with exercise (I’ve grown out of it now) and so by dint of disciplined running round the central green area morning, noon and night I became quite lean and very fit. Much like now.

Each morning I filled in a form indicating my supper choice from a reasonably comprehensive menu. Each evening it was rice, peas and a scraggy avian leg. That little exercise became for me a parable of a country where, it’s rumoured, whisky turns to water as it enters the oesophagus of the King.

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A cold coming we had of it

7507019fWe disembarked from Sealink’s St Columba on 3 January 1988. There were four of us: Victoria, Edward, Susan and me. Southwell Minster School term began later that week, so we left Hugh lodging with a friend. It was dark, nowhere open until 9.30 or so, so breakfast at the Royal Marine seemed like a good idea.

Our new home was up the Old Long Hill between Enniskerry and Roundwood. The removals van wasn’t arriving until next day, so we had a barren sort of a day. I wondered what the hell I’d done accepting this job in a foreign country, agreeing to move house in January, and leaving our two boys at cathedral choir schools in England. Madness.

Ye Gods, it was cold. Thin walls, large windows. The only bit of the house with carpet was the small hall, so there we slept in sleeping bags, five hearts (we had a dog) huddled together.

The week after, Edward went back to school in Ripon: Fokkers to Leeds/Bradford. Victoria, secondary school age, stayed with us. I used to stand in the kitchen and watch the St Columba on its way to Holyhead and ache for the boys. That memory does not dim with the passing years.

The house was in a wonderful position with lovely views to the main Glendalough road across the valley, and to the sea and the Kish lighthouse over the roofs of Bray. But what a money pit. Everything that could be rickety was rickety, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Water pumps, leaky roofs, failing heating system, wonky electrics, wobbly floors, inspissated sewage pipes leading to a jerry-built septic tank. Ah, that’s why the vendor refused to let our surveyor go into the roof space and take up the carpets. There’s a moral there: don’t buy from a solicitor who is acting for himself. Caveat emptor. When you’re dealing with the well-being of a young family in insecure times, though, other concerns predominate.

We found a builder – well, he called himself a builder – to mend the leaks, but every hole plugged meant a larger one in the bank balance as money flooded out. He taught us to ask ‘which Tuesday?’ when he said he’s be with us on Tuesday.

It was lovely in summer. It was a wonderful place for adventurous children to grow up. But life was complicated.

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To potter, to think, to write, perchance to dream

fawlty2_465x371Fawlty Towers, Communication Problems

The Major: Going to have a flutter, Fawlty?

Basil: No. No, no, no, no, no.

Sybil: No, Basil doesn’t bet anymore. Do you, dear?

Basil: No, I don’t, dear, no. No, that particular avenue of pleasure has been closed off.

I’m with Basil. Are there any avenues of pleasure that are not now closed off? The joy of playing in the snow – gone. The absorption of damming a stream – gone. The pleasure of learning a new piece of music – gone. The thrill of fiddling with my organ – gone. The excitement of visiting a place I’ve never visited before – gone. All gone. All passion spent.

In Nottingham we were neighbours of novelist Stanley Middleton who wrote one book about 23 times. He never moved from his study. He said if he couldn’t imagine all he needed to know he didn’t need to know it. But imagination and memory are malevolent, for I remember things that I might reasonably be proud of only when someone else thanks me for them or reminds me of them, and yet my head is full of past episodes real and imagined that make me squirm with embarrassment or shrink with shame.

Is this because I am tired? Possibly: Christmas is busy and tiptoeing round parishioners’ sensibilities is tiring. And futile. Is it because the last decade has been tumultuous—we have moved six times, twice across the Irish Sea? Is it because of the oppressive weight of diocesan desperation? Is it because circulating testosterone has dropped off, along with a few other things? Undoubtedly.

I often think I’ve been on the planet long enough. And I know I’m not alone, as became clear in a bit of R and R with my friend yesterday. But this solution won’t do, at least not yet. My expectations of myself need to be lowered. Others’ expectations of me need to be lowered: ‘No, the Vicar won’t do that: do it yourself.’

Sessile sea squirts

Sessile sea squirts

Some marine creatures move about only when they are immature. As they mature they become sessile, fixed to the sea bed. Maybe I’m maturing. SWMBO tells me that Churchill did a lot of his work in bed. It’s taken me a long time to discover the value of two short taps on the fn key at bottom left of this Mac keyboard. I like playing with words as I lie in bed.

To potter, to think, to write, perchance to dream.

Posted in A great future behind me, Pastoralia | 2 Comments

Farewell, dear friend

Harold with two of his sons

Harold with two of his sons

This is Harold who died earlier this week. He is the only person I know who had a lecture theatre named after him while he was still alive.

Unusually for a Dublin surgeon, Harold was not one of the Dublin medical ‘masonry’. He was one of nine children born to Fred and Nellie Browne of County Longford, and earned his medical and surgical qualifications through application and skill rather than family connexions and the sense of entitlement that comes with them. He was one of the first Irish surgeons to collect a BTA qualification (‘been to America’ – in his case the prestigious Mayo Clinic), after which he had a long and distinguished career at The Richmond Hospital in Dublin. He retired from full-time surgery in 1987.

Harold’s care for his patients was exemplary and his surgical ‘nous’ second to none. Those who knew him in those days describe him as a hard taskmaster. Severe is a word that has been used. His standards were high and his expectations higher. I suspect that such demands would cause him problems in today’s more precious environment. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is no doubting the affection, admiration and respect in which he was, and is, held by those now eminent professionals who have been through his hands.

This is the man I met in when I arrived at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in January 1988. In retirement he had been given the job of Surgeon Prosector involving teaching anatomy to students two days a week in term time. I was told on the grapevine that he’d been appointed partly to keep the new Professor of Anatomy in line. That did not augur well for our relationship. Not only did I bridle at the prospect of a restraining hand, but also I doubted that a famous surgeon would be famous for being willing to submit to a 38-year-old pimply youth from Albion.

The country boy from Cumberland met the country boy from Longford. The sport-averse young Englishman met the Arsenal obsessed sagacious Irishman. We loved each other. Harold never once admonished or contradicted me, never once disagreed with anything I said or did. And so I confided in him. He admired my propensity to call a spade a bloody shovel. He loved, nay admired, my intolerance of gobbledygook: ‘we’re right behind you, Stanley’ he’d say grinning widely when I was fulminating about the latest manifestation of jargon-laden managerialism, and his face creased with laughter at what he called my ‘Rabelaisian wit’.

He was not without his own ‘Rabelaisian’ tendencies. In his teaching there poured from him a stream of aphorisms and mnemonics that would certainly have him up before the politically correct thought police today. There was plenty opportunity of course: hernias, breasts, the naughty bits, back passages and so on. A particularly memorable one was his likening the descent of the testis into the scrotum to the Israelites being led to the promised land. And this to a substantially Muslim student body still having wet dreams, or their female equivalent. Did they object? They did not. They regarded him with the same filial affection that he inspired in the rest of us.

I knew only the Father Christmas, teddy bear Harold. And I am so glad I did. My spirit will be at Merrion Church in Ballsbridge on Friday for his obsequies.

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God bless this mess

tasty_middle_east_treats_off_market_menu_for_now_1715875500But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God

Imagine the shed. Imagine the cold, the sense of being alone. Let’s assume there were animals there. Imagine the creatures, the smells, the dung. Imagine the placenta, the umbilical cord – the connexion between old life and new life. Imagine the blood. Since neither parent was, as far as we know, a qualified midwife, imagine the fear of getting things wrong and the baby suffering. What a mess!

Life is a mess. Relationships don’t do what you expect. Things don’t work out. Actions, or inactions, have consequences. Like a row of skittles where one knocks over the next, and the next, and the next …. actions and consequences endless and uncontrollable. This is the glorious mess of being alive.

If the divine was willing to lose control by jumping into this mess of humanity, then we don’t need to worry about it. To begin to know the innermost part of the mess that is yourself is to begin to meet the Lord. Relax into yourself, as you are—after all, you are made in God’s image. Then you will start to see what you can be. Christ is born in you today. That’s the Christmas message. We are sons and daughters of the Lord.

Don’t be ashamed of yourself. You are part of the mess of God. Let go. Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and start all over again.

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Courageous Pope

Pope_Francis_2013Il Papa needs to watch his back. He is ‘courageous’. Francis has listed fifteen ailments from which he thinks the Vatican Curia suffers. Here is my interpretation of them.

  • They treat the church as a private club. They form cliques. They show off. They suck up to people more ‘powerful’ than themselves. They think the more they have the better off they’ll be.
  • Everyone thinks he is in charge, so without coordination, nothing gets done.
  • They confuse looking miserable and/or pompous with seriousness of purpose.
  • They build walls around themselves and their own creations. They are inclosed in their own fat, and their mouth speaketh proud things. ( Psalm 17:10, BCP 1662)
  • They think that driving a computer is more important than dealing with real people.
  • They are hard-hearted. They are delighted when a rival comes a cropper. They ‘kill’ others by gossip and backbiting because they lack courage to speak face to face.
  • They plan too much so become inflexible, they think activity means progress, so they never reflect on what they have done or what the consequences might be of planned action.

Sound familiar? Entitlement. Masonic intrigue. Petty rivalries. PCC meetings. Church processions. Church politics. Mission Action Plans. Fawning to bishops. Church flower rotas. Church choirs—oh Ye Gods, church choirs, may the Lord save us and protect us.

I spent three years of my life dealing with a particular manifestation of such as this. I resolved when I got out of it that I would never again tolerate such self-obsessed behaviour. And I mean it.

Back in the fourth century AD Evagrios the Solitary wrote that the demons that fight us in the front line are those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those (worst of all) that incite us to seek the esteem of men.

Nothing has changed. I’m with the Pope.

Posted in A great future behind me, Ecclesiology, Pastoralia | 2 Comments