A Tour of Bones: Facing fear and looking for
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THE 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac contributed to
the debates of his day on the nature of a flâneur by
concluding that it was someone who practised "gastronomy of the
eye". The flâneur walks with purpose, curiously enjoying
the richness and density of experience, and gratefully puzzling at
the meaning of it all.
I never had the fortune to meet Denise Inge, but reading this
last book of hers convinced me that she was, several generations
later, a spiritual flâneuse, a 21st-century divine,
ambling with her God, and as profoundly gifted in her quick-eyed
observance as in her ability to feed us with a gentle and resilient
Married to a bishop, she found herself moving to a new home that
lay on top of a medieval charnel house, or ossuary; and she became
distracted by the thought that she now lived and moved over the
bones of the dead: "They do what they are, they remain. They make
no noise about it. They insist on nothing, demand or require
nothing of me except the admission, which I make seldom and
reluctantly, that one day I shall join them in bare beauty."
The flâneur will always restlessly pursue such
distracting thoughts, and Inge took off with a friend around Europe
to look at four other distinct and alarming charnel houses. On the
way, she encountered a bored Polish nun wielding a femur and a
microphone, underground artworks that would make Damien Hirst
shiver, and Austrian skulls with the deceased's name written on the
forehead, a passport, presumably, for the day of resurrection.
As she travelled, so she tried to "face that king of fears"
which each of us badly ignores, the fear born in knowing that our
life has a firm full stop ahead of it, and at an unknown time and
place. This looking fear in the eye becomes more poignant as Inge
discovered, during the course of writing the book, that she had
cancer, and that her own end is nearer that she ever thought.
Inge's book is a resonant travelogue for the outer and inner
landscape. She beautifully captures passing moments and sights as
transparently as the tone allows us a little closer to her. Her
spirit, which modestly energises every page, is infectiously
audacious and yet reassuring. The hope that she holds in her
naturally stakes a claim in the unknown and unprovable, because
life has possibilities to share that we can never predict or even
Her heart appears unconfined enough to sing along with the
beauty of the world as much as her intelligence is humane enough to
know that it is always more important to be loving than to be
"right". Shaped by Traherne and Frost, Inge's faith is inspirited
in the truth that God is in the diverse detail of this world as
poetry itself nestles in the poem.
In the evening of her life, Inge reflects: "The cancer has not
made life more precious. That would make it seem like something
fragile to lock away in the cupboard. No, it has made it more
delicious." There is that "gastronomy of the eye" again. The
experience that forms the depth of this book led her, as one of
life's more faithfully adventurous flâneuses, to look past
her fear and towards the God of life.
She writes: "We are free, I believe, if we find it on the inside
- which is the only place from which freedom cannot be wrested, and
the only kind of freedom that is abiding." She died on Easter
The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul's