MANY of the things that we actually spend our time thinking about are really trivial and inconsequential. Today, for me, it has been a five iron I hit 175 yards, straight as an arrow, uphill to the tricky 16th green. That bit of mental film has been on repeat in my head all day.
But what was initially remembered with satisfaction has, as the day has progressed, become tinged with nostalgia, and even a little sadness. That shot is now gone. It is history, never to be repeated. Perhaps I will never play so terrific a shot again. Tomorrow, it will be all but forgotten.
As it happens, I went to the golf course as a displacement activity. I had just announced to the parish that I am moving from Putney. Although I don’t want to get too psychoanalytical, I guess my angst about that never-to-be-repeated golf shot was really anxiety about what I achieved here as incumbent.
Soon I shall be a name on a list of vicars past. One day, all will be distant memory. New vicars will come and go, just as the 16th green will see new golfers and greater shots than my best effort. Has anything lasting been achieved? I built a new building. But one day that will be demolished for another. In the great scheme of things, it is as passing as a well-struck five iron.
One of my favourite verses from scripture is 1 Timothy 6.16, where we are told that God alone is immortal. It is worth spelling out. The only thing that will last for ever is God — not Giles Fraser, not Putney Church, not even the planet itself.
Folk religion commonly imagines the soul continuing after death, with scant reference to the existence of the Almighty. It is as if the immortality of the human soul is something that happens by itself, under its own steam. No: without God, we are food for daffodils and nothing else besides.
This means that the desire for some sort of solid and permanent achievement over time is utterly impossible without the author of life itself. Achievement is little more than a soon-to-be-forgotten name on a board. The only thing we have is God, and it is only by indexing our existence to that reality, only by participating in the divine life, that we find the permanence that we so often crave.
It is counter-intuitive, but the firmest foundations for life are to be discovered in activities that do not have a look of concrete-and-steel solidity: acts of loving kindness and the life of prayer. “Solid joys and lasting treasure None but Sion’s children know.”
Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London. He has now been appointed Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, where he will oversee the St Paul’s Institute.