That doughty first-generation Tractarian, Fr Francis Murray of Chislehurst (though he was Rector of Chislehurst for so long that he counts as a second- and third-generation Tractarian as well), died in 1902 at his prie-dieu in his room: 'often and often, while men slept, the Rector was striving with God in prayer for the souls entrusted to his keeping'. I am a poor priest who drags himself often less than joyfully to his prayers, and less than prepared in heart, but it struck me while I was there yesterday how hazardous a business caring is.
Here I am nearly at the end of my seventh year in Swanvale Halt and I think of the lovely people of the parish who have died over that time. I also wonder about how my life will pan out - not so much my own mortality but how it interacts with the mortality of those I care about. Ms Formerly Aldgate is quite a bit younger than me so, should we stay together, it's more likely that she will have to cope with the loss of me than me with hers. But my sister is only seven years my junior; it's not impossible that I could outlive her. There is someone I feel much for (though I have never met them) and who is my exact contemporary, to within six weeks: which of us will leave this mortal life first? If it's them, what will it feel like to live in a world in which they are not there? I was speaking on Friday to my Goth accountant and friend Ms DeathAndTaxes and we touched on the speculations several of my chums are engaging in about the possibility of setting up a Goth retirement home, and considerations of mortality come into that as well.
I looked down my parish lists for my prayers, and knew full well that, by the time I leave this place, many of the people on it will have died. I thought of Brenda and Alistair, a humorous pair in their early 80s who live further up the hill with one of their sons, a quiet fellow who scoots up and down every day to the station to go to work and who I've never really had much of a conversation with. It was Brenda who told me she had a dream the night before the Referendum that Britain had voted to leave the EU 'and I woke up crying, and then I found it was true'. She photocopies our weekly news notes and Alistair checks the light bulbs in the church hall as he has done for the thirty years since he was churchwarden. Assuming I stick around in Swanvale Halt (and I have no reason not to) they will go before I do.
Being a Christian, at least being part of a Christian community, means doing the strange thing of deliberately opening yourself up to loss. As well as the communities of family and friendship which nearly everyone has, someone who is part of a church contracts a whole set of additional relationships. Of course as well as sharing in sorrows they would otherwise have avoided, they share in joys as well, weddings and the birth of children, watching them grow and develop. But there are risks even there: not all children make it through intact. This is the vocation of us all, the risk we all take and the privilege we all share, but the parish priest shares it to a uniquely intense degree, or should. And all this is only a tiny, pale reflection of God's involvement in our lives.
I am a cold fish a lot of the time and I was struck by the description Fr Richard Coles gives in Fathomless Riches of the priest who was largely responsible for his briefish conversion to Roman Catholicism, Fr Derek Jennings ('Dazzle') 'for whom intimacy was so difficult, and who could be so waspish and sometimes snarly, but who was finally able to love people through his priesthood'. I certainly didn't really know anything about love before God came my way, and what I thought was love was delusory and self-bolstering fantasy. I still don't know much, but I learn, a little.