IT IS salutary, the effect that chance comments can have. Once, tired out and sitting minding my own business in a gym changing-room, I overheard a couple of lads chatting about clothes. One, shaking his head with solemn intensity, declared, “I’d never go out in an unironed T-shirt,” and I remember thinking at the time, “How true, neither would I.”
For more than 20 years, when tempted to skip ironing (which I loathe), a solemn, disapproving voice in the back of my head has said “I’d never go out in an unironed T-shirt,” and, suitably chastened, I have got out the steam iron.
Chance comments can impinge on our religious lives, too. Some 30 years ago, I was doing something practical and boring with a group of fellow theological students in St John’s, in Cowley Road, the church attached to St Stephen’s House. Conversation turned (as it’s wont to do with any group of ordinands — at least, at my college) to the art of writing liturgies.
A voice (I can’t remember whose) said: “For a daily Office to be valid, you need a psalm, a biblical reading, a canticle, and a collect.” I’ve no idea why or from where these requirements came, but for the past three decades, when designing morning or evening prayer — anything from Taizé to Celtic — I’ve always felt compelled by that chance comment to include those four features.
Moreover, when faced with somebody else’s hymn sandwich (in those happy, far-off days when we could have hymns), I get edgy and decidedly stroppy if the service is deficient in one or more of these required elements. Why? No idea.
IT DOES make me wonder, though, about the possible effects of my own throw-away comments. One particular example has stayed with me. I was a fairly new curate when I visited a lovely couple whose baby boy was being baptised the following Sunday.
Over a very welcome gin and tonic, I was filling in the baptism form and chatting. Only one Christian name was being given, and I flippantly remarked “Short-changing him a bit, aren’t we?” and carried on with recording the names of the godparents. A couple of days later, I got a phone call. “We’ve been thinking about what you said, Fr John, and we think you are right: we’re going to add Michael as a middle name.”
I felt dreadful: an impertinent throwaway remark from me had changed for ever the identity of a little boy (now a man approaching 30). Fools rush in where angels fear to tread — in this case, perhaps, an Archangel?
Steps in time
EARLIER in the summer, I made a bid for freedom. At New Year, a large group of us booked some dates to go and stay at a vineyard in the Languedoc belonging to Nick, a university friend of some 40 years’ standing. When the time came, all but six (sensibly) cancelled; but, desperate to do something that represented a return to self-motivated normality, I opted to go, even though it took two days to get there and another two days to get back.
It was so worth it: good food, excellent wine, old friends, and long, lazy days by the pool, to a background chorus of cicadas chirruping in the park surrounding the long, low 18th-century manoir.
We did make one trip, to the site of a Roman villa about four miles away. In its heyday, it must have been magnificent, with colonnades, porticos, and magnificent mosaics, surrounded by its own working vineyards — built by a well-to-do man of the third century for his pleasure, for the production of his wine, and for the entertainment of his friends.
But it was the steps that moved me most. The original concrete steps going down into the bathhouse pool were identical to those created for my friend Nick’s swimming-pool some 1700 years later.
It made me realise that these places were effectively the same: businesses producing wine, but also beautiful places affording settings for deepening friendships and for lazy pool days. Plus ça change. I bet the cicadas were there 1700 years ago, too.
JUST up the road was another archaeological site, a Romano-Gallic church of the same period as the villa, and clearly of a piece with it. Rediscovered in the 1930s, it had been a large-apsed basilica, its font still surviving in what had been the baptistery. Now half-buried beneath a modern road, it must have mouldered away after the austere 15th-century church was built alongside it.
It was intensely moving to touch base with the gentle continuity of faith and witness represented by these buildings, through so many wars and plagues and troubles. Again, in essence, plus ça change.
Change of view
THEN home to quarantine: 14 days of house arrest, in the confines of rectory and rectory garden. I left my dog, Sophie, with my sister, as I couldn’t walk her and I felt she’d be in a better place, but I missed her dreadfully. I kept my exercise up by walking round the garden 50 to 60 times a day (mind-numbingly boring, but I was determined) so that I wore a path in the grass.
One of my churchwardens did my shopping, and other parishioners left fresh eggs, local plums, and even a haunch of venison from woodland near by: I was hugely touched. For the first time, I properly appreciated — and was humbled by — the fact that some of my parishioners had been in this sort of isolation for some six months, and were facing an unknown future of continued isolation.
I was so glad finally to get out, though. How did I celebrate? By taking a large load of cardboard to the dump. Goodness! I know how to live. . .
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.