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Diary: Mark Oakley

11 June 2021


Hymns at heaven’s gate

LIBERATED like a whippet on the track, I left home for the first time in months and made my way to Stratford-upon-Avon to give the annual Shakespeare Sermon. Thanks to Lena Cowen Orlin’s recent research into the sculptor of the Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity, it now seems that that is a good likeness — or, at least, how Shakespeare wished to be depicted. I had chosen as my focus the sonnets. It was eerily evocative to hear a couple of them read by RSC actors so close to his grave.

Whether the sonnets are transparently autobiographical and, as William Wordsworth believed, the key with which Shakespeare “unlocked his heart” is debatable; what is very clear, however, is that they remain a key that can unlock ours. Lunch afterwards with the Shakespeare scholars Sir Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson was a real treat. The gift of some rosemary from land once owned by the Bard himself completed the day’s happiness.


From small beginnings

“THE world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch,” says Shakespeare’s Richard III. But not in my garden. I had just given a talk to the Church Times online Poetry Retreat, in which I had quoted Mary Oliver’s observation of a small wren, singing in the hedge, “positively drenched in enthusiasm”. And now he appeared on my fence as a visual aid — just a few minutes late.

A wren is extraordinarily loud for such a small bird. Its vocal range — lost to the human ear when heard at normal speed — uses more than 100 notes, at a rate of more than 700 per minute. Our ears can’t pick it all up. It is music for another dimension — which is probably why Oliver concludes the wren’s song is a prayer. A tradition about the wren says that one flapped its wings near a bush where St Stephen was hiding, and so betrayed him. I don’t believe it. The only thing that the wren betrays in me is my shocking blindness to the daily miracle of all the other lives, in their many forms, with which we share this planet.


What’s in a name

“NATURE never did betray the heart that loved her.” So wrote Wordsworth, an alumnus of St John’s College. Hm. Try telling that to my colleague whose four lovely hens have just been massacred by a badger. It obviously saw a drive-through KFC in his garden and decided to have a bargain bucket.

Another friend also keeps hens. They’re called Margaret Hatcher, Mary Poopins, and Gwyneth Poultry. Such pet names always remind me of a sweet old dog that I was once asked to look after for a weekend. She was called Miss Moneypenny. Her owner had failed to tell me that she was now incontinent, and she consequently left my carpet looking like a wall map of the Indonesian archipelago. She was, of course, renamed Miss Spendapenny.


The sounds of silence

I VISITED my grandmother in Shropshire to celebrate her birthday. She is 99 (I was tempted to give her a chocolate flake, but it turns out that there’s a national shortage). She looked radiant and, although not feeling too well, put on a brave face for us. In past years, when we met, we would have caught up with family news and local gossip, and shared all the things we had been doing. Life is quieter for her now, and so we have less to talk about. But that’s OK. It means we just sit together and enjoy each other’s company.

Fewer words mean, of course, that we become more aware of a person’s presence. Our sixth sense can feel a person’s soul in shared silence. When I got back to College, we celebrated Pentecost, and I wondered whether, when all the initial noisy talk in every language had died down a bit, the presence of God’s Spirit was then discerned with a similar helpful distillation.

These days, I’m trying to learn how to sit with God’s Spirit in stillness a little more — just to be comforted when confronted by the love, peace, gentleness, and goodness that are found there. Several times in my life, when things have been tough, I have restlessly contorted myself to become still, and more attentive, only to discover that things that feel as though they are falling part are actually just falling into place.


Written in the stars

THINKING again of Shakespeare, I’m taken back to a school production of Twelfth Night. I was — you’ve guessed it — Malvolio. I had the calves for yellow stockings, the director reassured me. Feste, the clown, was played by a good-looking party animal who, when we left school, came up to me and said, “You’ll be a vicar one day, and I’ll come and find you to ask you to marry me to the woman I hope to fall in love with.”

Many years later, there was a knock at the vicarage door. He had found me, and he had found her. Would I officiate at the wedding, then? A couple of months later, I stood in a Worcestershire church, still looking like Malvolio in my black-and-white (no stockings, however). He, now an award-winning film producer, was as striking and adored and as full of life as ever.

Our roles had been set for us, it seemed, years ago; but we were both content with them, and happy for each other. Perhaps all the world is a stage, after all?


The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.


Thu 18 Aug @ 19:07
“The Quiet Garden Movement flows from the example of Jesus’s withdrawal to natural places to pray and his invitatio… https://t.co/z0BSil9fOh

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