Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 19th November 2006
Michael Mayne's third book was another 'very personal book' - as he saw it, 'the only kind of book really worth writing' (p. xv). It was a reflection on his ten years as Dean at Westminster Abbey. It was also a book for Lent, with nine short chapters that the reader can follow from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day. Each of the chapters focuses on some part of the Abbey, each includes prayer, each is written out a deep love for this place, and all contain personal memories, often quoted from entries in Michael's diary. The title, typically, comes from Shakespeare: in Hamlet, Ophelia, out of her mind with grief, says 'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember.' Michael introduces a deliberate ambiguity: we don't know whether 'love' in his title is a form of address to another person, calling them 'love' and asking them, 'pray' to 'remember' - or whether his title is a command with three injunctions in a row: to pray, to love and to remember. Either way, these three themes are interwoven throughout the book. 'It struck me', he wrote, 'how well those three words describe the heart of the Christian life, which is to pray, to love, and (in the eucharistic sense) to remember' (p. 21). To anyone who knows the Abbey, this little book is a treasure-trove of memory and reflection. Michael gave me a copy when I arrived and from time to time I re-read it to keep me on track.
Michael's priority was always to see the Abbey as a place of prayer. He would have been thrilled by the evening of TaizÃ© worship last night, when the nave, choir and crossing were emptied of chairs so they could be filled with young people, singing and praying by candlelight, kneeling in silent prayer around the cross alongside the leaders of the churches, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Prayer in the Abbey meant a great deal to him. In one memorable passage, he speaks of his own prayer on Christmas Eve:
As the light and the seasons change, so does the appearance and feel of the Abbey. I came to know and love it in every mood, but never did it seem more enchanted than late on Christmas Eve. By 9.30 everything had been prepared for the Midnight Mass, when people would be packed into every corner, and for an hour the building was empty and totally silent, the hundreds of tiny lights on the tall Christmas tree at one end of the nave and the spotlights on the wooden Oberammegau figures of the crib at the other the only source of light, so that the tall columns climbed into darkness and the vaulted roof was full of shadows. I would walk very slowly from the west door, through the nave and quire, up the steps to the sanctuary and through the narrow door in the Victorian rerodos to the most hallowed part of the Abbey: the shrine of St Edward the Confessor. And kneeling before his shrine, in which his body still rests, I would, in that strangely potent stillness, feel something of the wonder of the Word made flesh, celebrated in this space for nearly a thousand years. (p.47)
The experience of that sort of stillness in the Abbey may be a privilege for a Dean and just a few others, but Michael wanted it to be for everyone. He instituted an annual Day of Prayer, when the Abbey was closed to tourists so people could come and be still in this place, especially in the Shrine of St Edward. These Days of Prayer continue: the next will be on Saturday 13 January, and you are all warmly invited. It was Michael who instituted the half an hour of quiet in St Faith's Chapel on weekdays before Morning Prayer. In his books he returns again and again to the central role of prayer: 'For prayer is not an escape from life, a few minutes cut out of life, but a regular, disciplined reminder that all life is lived in God's presence, a marvelling at God's love as that is shown in Christ, a thankful responding to that transcendent reality by whom we are held in being' (p. 24). He wasn't much interested in prayer as asking for things, but prayer as 'a disciplined reminder that all life is lived in God's presence' was absolutely central to his life and to his priestly ministry.
So also was love. Most important for him was, of course, love of people, but with love of people went love of places, and the people for whom those places were important. In his forward, Alan Bennett tells of Michael's delight in taking visitors round the Abbey after dark: 'Palpable too on the tour he took me on that evening in 1991 was the Dean's love for the fabric of the Abbey: as he talked about some of the recumbent effigies he would take their faces in both his hands out of sheer affection' (p. xiii). It takes time to develop that kind of love for the Abbey, but I find now that when I see the smooth skin on the marble cheek of Mary Queen of Scots or the wrinkles on the bronze fingers of Lady Margaret Beaufort I begin to understand how Michael could be struck with compassion for a human being who lived and died five hundred years ago. His love was also very much for the living. In the days when little was known about AIDS, and there was a great deal of fear and rejection of people with AIDS, he began to invite sufferers to evenings at the Abbey specially for them and their carers. He wrote in his diary for 7 October 1996:
Tonight there is one difference. For I have invited Diana, Princess of Wales, to come, and she does so, unaccompanied and without my warning those present. She arrives at eight, and I witness what so many have spoken of - her immediate and instinctive knowledge of what to do: whom to touch, whose hand to hold, and what to say. After half an hour we go into the Abbey for a relaxed tour of the empty, awesome building, ending in St Faith's Chapel for some moments of stillness and the briefest of night prayers and a blessing' (p. 52).
I find that an extraordinarily moving picture: the darkened Abbey, the stillness of St Faith's Chapel, Michael, the Princess, AIDS-sufferers and carers, all together - many of them, both young and old, soon to pass from their darkest moments on this earth into God's eternal light. Michael ends his diary entry by reflecting on his evenings with AIDS-sufferers, 'And afterwards I always feel: "this is as close as we get to the heart of what we are for"' (p. 52). What he was talking about was, of course, the giving and receiving of love.
Michael concludes his book by talking explicitly about remembering. He is fascinated by the way that memory is stored up within the brain, and that stored memory defines what it is to be 'me'. Through memory the past exists in the present. This is exactly, he reflects, how the early Christians remembered the living Jesus in the eucharist: 'For them every Eucharist bound together both past and future: the lakeside meals, the Maunday scene of footwashing, Golgotha and the Easter appearances, as well as the anticipation of what shall be: the whole Gospel is re-membered, re-presented, put together and made present again, in the 'now' of faith in its saving power' (p.126). He liked to quote Meister Eckhart: 'People who dwell in God dwell in the eternal Now' (p. 128). Yes, we remember the past, but only to live in the present, with our eyes set in hope on the future. We remember, he says, that we may be re-membered: 'When the penitent thief says to Jesus: Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom"' I hear the words in the obvious sense, "Don't forget me". But I chose to hear him also saying something more profound: "Lord, re-member me, recreate me, make me anew, put me together again, but now in your own likeness as you have always intended me to be" (p. 128). For Michael, the eucharist is the place where Christians both remember and are re-membered. He often quoted Augustine, 'As this [bread and wine] when you eat it, is changed into you, so you are changed into the Body of Christ ... . You are receiving that which you have begun to be' (p. 129).
One of the acts in his time as Dean that gave Michael greatest joy was the creation of the memorial to innocent victims. It stands outside the West Door, near to the busy street. Written on it are the words, 'Is it nothing to you all you who pass by' and 'Remember all innocent victims of oppression, violence and war'. Michael's account of 'a golden autumn day' in 1996', right at the end of his time here, when it was dedicated in the presence of the Queen and carefully chosen representatives of today's innocent victims is one of the most striking passages in the book. Prominent, as the central word of the memorial, is the word 'remember'. Pray Love Remember helps us see what kind of remembering the memorial is intended to promote: the remembering of sorrow and compassion, the remembering that brings us to our kness in prayer on behalf of those injured and killed in the school siege at Beslan, in Iraq, or the London bombings, the remembering that is shot through with love and not hate. This little book reminds me that for Christians prayer and love and remembrance are not three distinct human acts, but they are woven together in each of our lives just as they are woven together in the identity of this extraordinary building. Westminster Abbey fed Michael richly, and he gave richly in return: 'Pray, love, remember'.
Pray, Love, Remember
Michael Mayne, Pray, Love, Remember (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998)