Sermon for Matins: A Year Lost and Found
5 November 2006 at :00 am
Michael Mayne, who was Dean of Westminster from 1986 to 1996, died two weeks ago today after a long and painful battle with cancer of the jaw. His funeral was in Salisbury last Friday. Before becoming Dean here, Michael was for seven years Vicar of Great St Mary's, the University Church, in Cambridge. He was enormously important to my wife Ruth and to me as for much of that time we worshipped at Great St Mary's and for a short period I was his curate. It was Michael who baptized our son Alex. Shortly before I returned to Cambridge, after four years teaching in Edinburgh, Michael came to Westminster, and when after a further eighteen years I came to Westminster myself, he was enormously encouraging and supportive in the background. Like many here today, I thank God with all my heart for his life and ministry and I shall miss him very much. It is wonderful that he wrote five books in which one can hear his voice so clearly: one before he became Dean, one when he was Dean, and three in retirement. I thought that over the four weeks I shall be preaching at Matins this month, I would reflect each week on one of his books, as a kind of 'thank you' for the gift to us all of his life and ministry, especially in this place.
Michael very nearly turned down the offer to become Dean of Westminster, which was a complete surprise to him. He tells us in his first book, A Year Lost and Found how the offer came at a time when he was seriously unwell with an illness that was only later diagnosed as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME or 'chronic fatigue syndrome'). He accepted because others said that he should. His own deepest instincts said he should accept but at that stage, when he was so ill, he didn't trust his own deepest instincts.
In the Preface to his book, Michael tells how speakers at the Sunday evening service in Great St Mary's would sometimes ask for advice about how to speak in such an awesome place - The Cambridge University Church. He says that the only advice he ever wanted to give is this: 'If it is in your nature to do so, be a little vulnerable. Don't be afraid to talk about yourself, your journey, your pain, your vision.' (p. 2) That is exactly what he has done in each of his books. In A Year Lost and Found the journey is one through illness; the pain is both the physical pain of the illness and the psychological pain of utter weakness and confusion; the vision is the vision of the presence of God in the pain and the weakness, not taking the pain away but making some sort of sense of it through the logic of the incarnation and of the cross. In this and his other books, Michael made himself more than a little vulnerable, and the response from his readers was extraordinary. It was such a simple idea: to tell the story of his illness and then to reflect on the lessons learned from being ill. A Year Lost and Found touched a chord and laid a foundation for ten years of wonderful fruitfulness at Westminster.
It is not easy to know what to take in one short sermon from this little but profound book. You can read it at a sitting - or if you are ill you can sip at it day by day. Different readers will of course take different things. You will have to read it for yourself - it is available through Amazon Books if nowhere else - to see how it speaks to you. Certainly, it will mean something special to you if you have experienced serious illness, especially if you have experienced a long and debilitating illness without a clear diagnosis. I have been fortunate, and so far that has not been my experience. For me, Michael helps me to enter into the world of the person who is ill as he was. He reminds me of the importance of not saying 'How are you' when I don't want to hear the answer; of being prepared to pray for, that is to say of doing he praying for, the person whose concentration is shot to pieces; of not jumping to conclusions that because a person risks a new step in their life they feel good about it or even feel well; of the knock-on effect of illness on the spouse and family; and of the importance of touch, even when one can sometimes get it wrong. Michael writes: 'I was so grateful to the small number of priests who overcame their understandable shyness with a fellow-priest and laid hands on me and blessed me; and I knew which way I should decide in future when visiting people either at home or in hospital. Often I have been undecided as to what is needed: a prayer, a blessing - with or without the laying-on of hands; or neither. Now I know; and if I err it will be because I believe that most of us, when we are sick, need physical contact and the spoken assurance of God's love. Other things as well, of course (books and grapes and gossip), but these most of all.' (p. 15) So, let me say to regular Abbey worshippers, 'When you fall ill, watch out, and if I get it wrong, you know why!'
When Michael fell ill, much was stripped away. There are wonderful paragraphs where he goes to the heart of what it meant to him to be a Christian and a priest. Michael's vision of priesthood was rooted in his vision of the world. Again and again he went back to the works of poets and writers who can refresh our vision of God's creation. He was a ferocious reader, endlessly delighting in new ways of expressing the wonder and the beauty of being alive. As he put it, 'My understanding of the priesthood begins [t]here: with the vision of a world which is God's world because behind it, within it, informing it (if we have eyes to see), is the fact of God's saving love, so that the world is not merely beautiful, it is sacramental, incarnational. Everything in creation can become the sign and means of God's presence if we have eyes to see.' (p. 48) Not long before he wrote that, Michael lent me a book entitled The World as Sacrament. In that title there was encapsulated something that was enormously important to him, and if the world is the sacrament of God's redeeming love, then it falls to the priest to celebrate that sacrament daily, as he did.
A little later in the book, Michael goes to the heart of what it meant to him to be a Christian: 'If I were to sum up in a sentence why I am a Christian (let alone a priest) I would say that it is because I believe in the Passion of Jesus Christ and the compassion of God. Passion from the Latin passio, meaning 'to suffer'; compassion from cum passio meaning 'to suffer alongside'. I see and experience a world which has pain and suffering at its centre; I believe in a God who loves each of us beyond our imagining; and in a gospel which brings the two together at a place called Calvary.' (p.57) For Michael, Calvary was the place where the passion of God, in the sense of God's love, was manifested as compassion, suffering with and forhumanity, so that our suffering is transformed into the seedbed of a compassion which is the fruit of God's spirit within us. For Michael, the compassion of God could most certainly become incarnate in the compassion of human beings for one another. This was central to his friendship with Cicely Saunders, founder of St Christopher's Hospice for the terminally ill, whose memorial service was held here earlier this year. He believed very profoundly in the transformative power of love, especially in the face of suffering and death. That, for him, was what being a Christian was all about: the transformative power of God's love for us and the transformative power of that love expressed in love for one another.
A Year Lost and Found is like an overture to the symphonic variations in Michael's later books. All the big themes, which he later developed much more fully, are there. The response to this little book encouraged him to go on and to share more of himself in later and longer books. I, for one, am deeply grateful that Michael never lost his preparedness to make himself 'a little vulnerable', that he was not afraid to talk about himself, about hisjourney, his pain, his vision. For in talking about hisjourney, his pain, his vision and his vulnerability, he was also talking about mine.
A Year Lost and Found
1. Michael Mayne, A Year Lost and Found (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987)