Nel mezzo del cammin

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita – in the middle of our life’s path

This is the first line of the greatest poem of all time (imho) by Dante Alighieri.  Those who know me well know my secret passion for Dante.  Having studied the Divina Commedia at university I went on to pick it up again when I was studying for my MA in Durham, this time not as a linguist but as a theologian, hopefully proving to those who dare doubt it that even in the early 14th century Dante had transformational insights for both mission and ministry today (I’d be happy to share my dissertation with anyone who wants to know more!)

While spending several hours in a London bookshop over my birthday weekend, I treated myself to yet another copy of the Divine Comedy, this time told as a comic strip!  It seemed an appropriate purchase as I reach the middle of my own life’s path.

The opening lines of the Commedia go on:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura/che la diritta via era smarrita

… I found myself back in a dark wood where the right path was lost.

The word ‘diritta’ can mean ‘right’ as opposed to ‘wrong’.  Or it can mean ‘straight’ like the Romans built their roads and walls.  Was this Dante’s midlife crisis?  Or had something terrible happened to trigger a bout of depression?  Whatever it was, he was left feeling lost and in darkness, afraid and confused, the way ahead neither ‘right’ nor ‘straight’.  If it weren’t for his guides – Virgil, Beatrice and the others – he might never have made it through Hell and Purgatory to the end of Paradise.

I remember feeling engulfed by something like a dark wood in 2013 when Dad and Andy died within 3 months of each other.  Since then there have been times when I have felt I’d made some progress and times when I’ve caught myself going round in circles and just wanted to sit down and weep.  Only now am I beginning to find my way out of that dark wood and get back on what I hope and trust is the ‘right’ track.

Like Dante, I believe the ‘diritta via’ is always there, whether I can see it or not, and that gives me hope.  But again like Dante, sometimes I might need a guide to help me along the way and to accept that the journey I need to go on is longer than I’d like it to be.




On being 40 … and eating cake

The big day has been and gone and it wasn’t so bad after all! Actually, I had a really nice 40th which began with taking a communion service followed by cake, then coffee with a friend and more cake, singing with my 8ctave friends and more cake, before going out with the family and yes, you’ve guessed it, more cake!

There are those who would say diabetics shouldn’t be eating cake but I say with Marie-Antoinette (or not depending on your sources!), ‘qu’ils mangent de la brioche!’ or rather ‘let them eat cake!’ The great thing about my pump is that it allows me the flexibility to treat myself to a bit of cake on special occasions (or more than that to be honest!)

I did have a few poignant moments in the course of the day, not so much because I mourn for my passing youth (I was once told I was 25 going on 55 anyway!), more because it’s days like this that you miss most those you would normally want to see when celebrating a special occasion.

Grief took me unawares again as I was preaching in the morning. I was talking about the unexpected martyrdom of Stephen and the seeds of new life hidden in the story of his brutal murder (Acts 7). I went on to reflect on the surprises of my own life, not all of them good, and at that point I’m afraid I cracked. I would not have expected to be where I am today, nor would I have expected to be without my brother and father on my 40th birthday.

But there are always seeds of new life and hope being planted, and what could be better than spending my big day with the friends and family I love, not to mention wonderful Italian food and lots of cake?

On being unprepared

It doesn’t seem a year ago that I was celebrating 39 …

I was once a good boy scout and knew that I should always ‘be prepared’.  But on this eve of my 40th birthday I am feeling anything but prepared!  My youngest, Hilary, just asked me if I’m excited about tomorrow … not sure ‘excited’ is quite the word I’d choose!

There were so many things I had in mind to do before I turned 40, like visiting far off lands, reading a whole pile of ‘must-read’ books and learning the guitar.  Now I’ll just have to update my ever-growing list and call it ‘things to do before I’m 50’.  At least I’ll be able to cross ‘walking Hadrian’s Wall’ off the list soon.

It’s become quite popular to set yourself a target of things to do before you’re a certain age.  Of course, even more so to have a ‘bucket list’ of things to do before you die.  But as I said at a funeral recently, behind that I think is a fear that in the next life, if it exists, we won’t be able to do any of the fun and wild things we’ve enjoyed in this life, so we have to cram in as much fun as possible before we’re just sitting around on clouds playing harps and yawning for eternity!Image result for angels harps clouds

One of the privileges of my job is that I get to prepare people for dying.  I can talk to them about their fears and worries, their hopes and beliefs, I can hopefully reassure them that they are not alone and that the God who holds them now will hold them through death and beyond.  I can pray with them, and I can sometimes have the conversations that families find so difficult about funerals and memorial services.

It can all sound a bit morbid, but I think that says more about our society than anything.  Unlike the Victorians who never talked about sex but were very public about death, we do the opposite and never stop talking about sex while death is an almost total taboo.  I think there is nothing wrong with being prepared for what will in time happen to us all.  Despite what some superstitious folk might think, I don’t believe that talking about it will make it come any quicker!

Andy celebrating his 5th birthday in 1980

Having said all that, few of us are prepared to die at 38.  As I enter my next decade, feeling hopelessly unprepared for what will follow, I am acutely aware that Andy never made it this far.

The reality is we can’t be prepared for everything life throws at us, and nor should we be.  It is I believe the existence of the unknown that gives space for the growth of faith and hope.  ‘A man plans his course, but God determines his steps’ as a wise man once said.  Or in Sirius Black’s words, ‘What is life without a little risk?’

So, I think a glass or two of wine and a bit more of Richard Rohr’s excellent book ‘Falling Upward’  will be the best I can do to get ready for what tomorrow will bring.  And in the meantime, I’ll try to ignore the fact that the rest of the family are ‘secretly’ making their own preparations upstairs!