Had we but world enough, and time (Andrew Marvell)
Old Mortality is the name of a Novel by Sir Walter Scott, which I have never read, but the title seems an apt introduction to my current succession of random but nontheless significant, for me, thoughts.
Last Friday afternoon brought an opportunity to meet with members of the Ecumenical Chaplaincy Team at the Prince of Wales Hospice, Pontefract. After many years with a full-time, salaried Chaplain, the Hospice finds itself unable to fund a replacement after the last one left, so they have assembled an impressive team of Volunteer Chaplains, most of whom are new to this Ministry. I was asked to speak with them, as someone 'established' in this Ministry.
Not replacing a full-time Chaplain is, I think, a backwards step, which to be fair was acknowledged by the Pontefract Hospice management, and they are actively seeking ways of getting back to that model. However, as the immediate future will be based around Volunteers, I was impressed by the numbers of local Clergy willing to be involved, by their enthusiasm and insights, and by the way that they are clearly valued and supported by Staff at the Hospice.
One of the great gifts of the Hospice Movement is that we can freely talk about death. We don't pass away, we certainly don't get lost, we die, and as Hospice Chaplains, together with all Professionals involved in this essential part of Heath Care, that means we can talk about our own Mortality as well. In fact, more than that, I suspect it is essential; not all the time, not in a gloomy kind of way, but recognising, as one of my colleagues at Overgate Hospice will say,
Nothing is more certain than death,
nothing is less certain than when that will happen,
it's just that some of us will get a clue with a particular diagnosis.
Grace Sheppard puts it this way
‘We all have to die one day. The Important thing is to be ready, and then we can really get on with living.’ (Grace Sheppard, Living with Dying, 2010)
So, what brings all this on?
This week, I have reached a significant, (ahem), anniversary, one of those birthdays that does signify the passing of time.
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity. (Andrew Marvell)
I have never been a great one for Birthdays, they come, they go, life goes on, but I can't help noticing the physical changes that are happening. Nothing substantial or essential has worn out yet, and recent medical concerns have simply resulted in nothing worse than Blood Pressure Issues. Medication has resulted in some interesting side effects; the good news is that the crippling migraines seem to have gone, and the initial need, once starting the tablets, to be always aware of the location of the nearest Convenience has fortunately faded. Less good, I now have a permanent cough, and the circulation in my hands, never great, (see Raynaud's Phenomenon), is now worse than ever. I am seriously considering saying Mass wearing white gloves on cold mornings, and the next person with whom I share the Peace who says, 'Aren't your hands cold', needs to understand why I will be screaming the following at them - 'It's not my fault, I am not doing it on purpose, it's medical, stop mocking me.'
Above all, perhaps it is the Spiritual possibilities in this later (not latter) part of Life that fascinate me. The Shadow side, the re-realisation that even now I have only just begun, only just taken the first steps on life's Pilgrim Way, something to which I need to give more thought and prayer, a topic on which I intend to return to here. For now, as a Good Franciscan, I pay my respects to Sister Death,
By Death, our Sister, praisèd be,
From whom no one alive can flee.
Woe to the unpreparèd!
But blest be those who do your will
And follow your commandments still.