Saints alive!

It seems good, for a while, to continue my theme of writing about my daily work: so what’s been happening in the past few days? Well, last week I re-made contact with one of my old pals from college days. Steve is a big, burly and very macho (but in a good way) Geordie guy who shared one or two wilder nights with me thirty odd years ago. I recall to this day how, when taking the chalice at Communion, he would grip it in one hand, like you would a pint of beer, and take a solid draught. Meeting his Maker in this way was no effete, romantic experience but a meeting of friends who had knocked around together a bit and knew each other a lot. Appropriately, Steve is now the Chaplain General to the Army and is in charge of that body of men and women who accompany our troops at home and at war. He has seen active service, and he is manifestly respected and liked by all. It is not for me to be so, but I am proud of him anyway, and proud of the shared history which gave such able and likeable people as a gift, not only to the Church, but to the world. Although I have never been a Forces chaplain, I have on several occasions been informal padre to a few ex-service outfits: notably, the Hallams-Fontenay Club (www.irdp.co.uk/JohnCrook/yorklancs.htm) . This was a group of men who fought a particularly bloody battle on Day 5 of the Normandy Landings. They dug in in trenches around the little village of Fontenay le Pesnel near Caen, and, over the next few months, fought a war of attrition with whom they knew not-but they felt their bullets and heard their big guns. When the war ended, they were told-these grocers, newagents and milkmen-that they had been facing a crack Panzer Division. On many an occasion, I accompanied them to the cemeteries dotted along the coast of Normandy which contain the remains of young people who would never see another sunset or hold another girl in their arms. There was one cemetery they had never been able to locate, and they knew that it contained Hallamshire dead: and then, one day, as we coached along in the warm June sunshine, we found it and I stood alongside two men as they saw, for the first time in fifty years, the names of their comrades on the headstones. ‘I was with him when he was shot’ said one octogenarian to me, and history conflated as I looked at the dedication to an eighteen year old boy and stood at the side of his weeping 80 year old battle comrade. It was not the first time, or the last, that I wept with them too. Although ‘a mere lad’ to them and, worse, a ‘sky pilot’,  I was always accepted and warmly greeted by them. And why? Not because of anything I had done, but because each of them had a memory of a chaplain who had comforted them, given them a fag in hard times, helped them contact their family or accompanied them, un-armed, into battle so that they might help stretcher back the injured, the dead and the dying. I presented a lecture on ‘Leadership’ to these modern day ‘padres’ but, as many had been to Afganhistan and Iraq on active service, perhaps it would have been more fitting if they had lectured me?

Last Thursday, I spent a whole day with one of our Radio Lincolnshire religious broadcast producers travelling around the County recording a series of pieces on ‘the Lincolnshire Saints’. We covered St Hugh, with his friendly swan; Bishop Edward King, Saints Guthlac and Botolph and the gloriously evocative St Gilbert of Sempringham (www.chicksandspriory.co.uk/page1/page1.html)  ‘What makes a saint a saint?’, Sue asked me. I replied that most saints seem to be semi-mythical figures and are commonly, erroneously, thought to be quasi-divine, but the saints of Lincolnshire are flesh and blood people that we can identify with, and we can touch the very stones that they touched and feel the same joys and sorrows. So, from Hugh we learn of his simple love and care for all people, especially the deprived and dispossessed. From Gilbert, we learn his very modern concern that men and women should be regarded as totally equal: we was one of the first inclusivists. From Guthlac, who forsook the world and went to live in a barrow in Crowland (www.crowlandabbey.org.uk), we learn that there is more to life than get and gain and the pursuit of materialism and riches: for he was a wonderfully happy man whose wisdom in his poverty drew people from far and wide to consult with him. Sadly, he may have been happy but he also had scant concern for his own health and, after a diet solely of barley and swamp water, he died of malaria and marsh fever.

So you see, in one week, I encountered numerous saints: some dead, but some alive and working on an army base near you.

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~ by Tim Ellis on October 7, 2008.

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