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Diary: Mark Oakley

23 December 2022


Wordwide web

I ALWAYS enjoy going to Sarum College, in Salisbury, to lead a study day. This time, it was on the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. There was a good turnout, and everyone was very engaged with the strange little poems we looked at. All those dashes and capital letters, the lack of full stops and sense of volcanic alarm, give a sense of the words having been struck by lightning. We were like Bletchley Park de-coders as we delved into them.

Dickinson was fascinated by spiders. She admired the way they spin their strong webs out of some secret and inexhaustible inner life, to which we have no access. One critic thought that her poems revealed a woman who was herself “always the spider and never the fly”. For me, though, as a new year approaches, I’m just content to enjoy her observation that “life is so amazing that there’s hardly any time for anything else.”


Mixed messages

I’M ALWAYS struck by the liturgical days after Christmas. St Stephen, as deacon, places service at the centre of the celebration of the Incarnation, as well as speaking without apology for the Kingdom that Christ inspires. St John is there to remind us that, if you receive the Word, the first and last words in life must always be “love”.

The Holy Innocents recall the devastating human cost of the darkness that refuses to comprehend; and St Thomas Becket reiterates that Christ’s Kingdom is, finally, not of this world. On New Year’s Eve, there are peculiar traditions to celebrate St Sylvester, not least walking a pig on a leash in Vienna.

There’s always a temptation to think that saints are dead sinners who have been dug up and edited, but the older I get the more I am inspired by them. I recently enjoyed the story of one of the papal saints, St John XXIII, being asked how many people work in the Vatican. “About half,” he replied.


Shining examples

IT WAS good to be with the ordinands of Westcott House for their end-of-year Quiet Day. I quoted Kabir: “If thy soul is a stranger to thee, the whole world becomes unhomely.” As I look back at my own years at theological college, I can see that we had no real idea of what would come our way as we lived and worked as clergy, nor of the continual emotional absorption required of us.

Theological college was, in many ways, an uncomfortable place to be, some of us regressing into churchy adolescents by living an institutional life. We lived close up to each other’s demons, and, consequently, there was often a lot of laughter but not much happiness. I remain grateful, though, to have been there with some remarkable people who have gone on to have ministries of enormous value and cost.

If the reason clergy wear collars is to admit to the world that we are up to our necks in it, there are nevertheless some who have what Gandhi called “the evangelism of the rose”: it is not their tactics, PR, or corporate talk that attracts a genuine interest, but simply the beauty of their humanity and the kindness of their ministry. I have so many of these people to be thankful for.


Novel practice

I HAVE been asking around to see what New Year resolutions people are making. Personally, I’m never sure what to do — perhaps I should resolve to be more resolved? One friend told me that he was going to “unfriend” anyone who shared their diet or exercise regime after Christmas; another said she was going to rein in her “revenge lust” by not responding to the toxic message or work email (it’s certainly true that “the email of the species is deadlier than the mail”, especially after 10 p.m.).

I liked the aspiration of an older friend who said that she wanted to “take her heart for a walk” each day. For myself, I’ve decided to try and pick up a novel rather than turn on the TV. I can’t believe the rubbish I end up gawping at, just because I’m tired and incapable of doing much else — though I’m pleased to say things were never bad enough for me to watch Matt Hancock eating a wombat’s bum, or whatever he was doing in the jungle.


Face to face

I WAS sad to hear the news of David Scott’s death. He was a wonderful priest and poet whose gentle presence in this world I shall miss. I shall never forget the painful honour of giving the first David Scott Lecture, five years ago, celebrating his many collections of poems, while he himself was in the audience, but, because of a cruel dementia, unsure as to what was actually going on.

His poems have a nearness to them. He was a great ambassador of humanity to the divine, and a carrier of sacred perceptions for humanity. He had an assured Anglican reticence that, Lear-like, took upon itself the mystery of things as if he were God’s spy. His was an art and a life of receptive insight from which we benefited.

A line about faith from Gerard Manley Hopkins makes me think of him: “I greet Him the days I meet Him and bless when I understand.” Now, there’s a New Year’s resolution.


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

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