When memory dims
DURING these past weeks, like so many others, I have been engaged in exercising my memory. Twenty years ago this autumn, I travelled to Rome to study for a semester, and so it was here that I met, in the early days of October, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie, making only the third public visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to the threshold of St Peter (more of more recent visits later).
It was here, while on retreat with fellow-students, that I learnt from a bulletin board (we were in silence) that the Berlin Wall had fallen. And it was here, on All Saints’ Day 1989, that two of my wisdom teeth were extracted at a Belgian dentist’s studio, a stone’s throw from the Vatican.
I was intrigued recently to learn that, like elephants, the internet never forgets. The default position for the exciting cyberweb upon which we surf, tweet, and post, is to remember. Is that a good or a bad thing? A “bad” memory is something for which we may feel we have to apologise, but, in fact, it is only how we mortals are hard-wired — and thank goodness for that.
God surely has been most merciful in creating us incapable of truly recalling physical pain. I am, for example, immensely glad to have forgotten the sensations I experienced during the 50-minute extraction undertaken by Dr Deccaesstecker (inaccurately, I think, but still rather appropriately pronounced by my then fellow students to rhyme with Black-and-Decker).
Yet I wish I could remember more of how it felt to be young(er) in those exciting days: to watch a televised mass celebrated by the former dissid-ent Cardinal Tomacek in Prague Cathedral, as President and Mrs Havel sat on great gilt chairs as if they were about to be anointed and crowned. I recall some of the images as if I had left the TV room only seconds ago, but whether I took it for granted, or had any sense of this as a moment of incredible significance, I cannot remember.
Then, in the first week of December 1989, there was the visit of the Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his wife, to the President of Italy and to Pope John Paul II. I know that I waited outside the Quirinal Palace for what must have been hours, only to get a glimpse of the great man (and perhaps also of Raisa’s fur hat? I’ve never been quite sure) as their black sedan sped by.
But does this memory amount to a real assessment of how I felt? I have the melancholy sensation that it does not. Perhaps it is the downside of that wondrous aforementioned gift from God.
Lost and found
TWENTY years ago, I worshipped daily as a guest in the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury, attached to the Venerable English College, the Roman Catholic seminary in Rome for English and Welsh students; and weekly as a communicant at the English (Anglican) Church of All Saints.
These past few days have also marked the tenth anniversary of my return to Rome as Chaplain of that same church and its community. I preached my first sermon at All Saints’ during Advent 1989; I preached my first sermon as incumbent during Advent 1999; and I shall be preaching at least one sermon, God willing, this Advent.
This “binary”, almost parallel memory of ten and 20 years ago has affected me deeply. One thing that has helped me in “sorting it all out” has been a renewed habit that a study course at the Anglican Centre prompt-ed me to restart.
“An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality” was led by the Irish Jesuit professor Fr Gerry Whelan. He insisted that a period of reflection should be incorporated into each day’s programme, and that this exercise should be done by all the students and teachers together.
As a member of of the Centre’s Board of Studies and a tutor on the course, I was sceptical about both its practicality and its usefulness, especially as I thought I knew a fair deal about it. Fr Gerry Hughes’s book God of Surprises had been very much flavour of the year when I was to be ordained, and it was indeed he who conducted the retreat for leavers from my college.
I then went on to practise diligently a form of Ignatian examen for what must have been about ten years, only to lose the discipline in the year of my move to Rome; it was not a coincidence that that was also the year of my father’s death.
But what a revelation to find it again! Perhaps I had never really done it correctly, or maybe I had simply forgotten how wonderful it is. If I manage to remember what I am writing in this moment, I must never forget it again. Thanks, then, to those two marvellous Jesuits, the two Gerrys. It has been like turning on a tap.
AND so to the elephant in my diary — memories of a series of visits by successive Archbishops of Canterbury. As I note above, I was in Rome for Dr Runcie’s visit; I was back for two of Lord Carey’s visits; and I have been here during four of Dr Rowan Williams’s five visits. I like to think of the one I missed, while honouring a long-standing preaching engagement in England, as an opportunity for the Archbishop to do duty for me, since he celebrated communion that day in All Saints’.
The most recent of Dr Williams’s trips to Rome was the one to which I have looked forward with the greatest eagerness. Not because of the junketing and flummery that surrounds these occasions, and to which I am just as much addicted as the next Anglo-Catholic priest. No, after the Apostolic Constitution, I was surprised at how much I and others with whom I spoke were desperate for him to respond with something substantial. We were not disappointed.
Dr Williams’s intervention at my old “school” of 20 years ago, the Pontifical Gregorian University, will go down in history as a significant turning point in ecumenical relations — and for the better. I won’t forget my elation this time; maybe because I am older, if not much wiser.
JEDWARD: what do they mean to me? I have not seen a single one of their performances on The X Factor, but I did see them interviewed on Sky News. It was the day before Remembrance Sunday, and these 18-year-old twins were irrepressible about the fun they were having in life. And, I thought, good for them.
I was about to preach about an entire generation wiped out at that age, the last of whom we have so recently lost. A stronger sign of how some things have got better over the past 90 years I could not imagine. Or, indeed, remember.
The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome.