About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Liminal Times: a Nunc Dimittis?

The talk is all of comings and goings. Today one prime minister leaves office, another takes his place. Doors open for some and close for others. We are living in liminal times.

But this is always true of life, however little attention we normally give the thresholds we cross. Yesterday, when pundits were all over the media assessing David Cameron's stewardship as prime minister and speculating about Theresa May's, I went to London to see my ageing mother. It's been distressing to watch her suffering in the past few weeks. It began with her being urgently admitted to hospital. Then, when we and she all thought she was well enough, she went to a nursing home nearby. After a few days there was another crisis and she was back in the hospital again, on the same ward she had left the previous week. The nurses were pleased to see her back: "we so loved Dorothea" they said. It was touching. You could tell it was sincere.

She is a lot weaker than she was. Most of the time she is asleep. There is no pain and no discomfort as far as we can tell. When she is awake she is completely lucid, knows exactly where she is and why. But she and we all recognise the truth. As they say, it's simply a matter of time now.

However, yesterday something rather wonderful happened.

My daughter met me off the train: she was spending a couple of days in London in connection with her work and had taken Madeleine her 7 month daughter with her. We fought our way on to a bus (how hard life is in London when you are dependent on wheels, whether buggies or wheelchairs). It seems that Madeleine has enjoyed her time in the capital, stimulated by its bustle and activity. We got off near the hospital and walked up the hill, uncertain about what we would find. The sky was overcast and it was beginning to rain.

In the ward, my sister had already arrived. My mother was asleep and did not look likely to waken any time soon. We waited. Life went on around us. Doctors and nurses came and went. Screens were drawn round beds, then undrawn. A man was shouting in some distress down the corridor. Our granddaughter was quite content to take in the new sights and sounds and scents of a hospital ward, not having been in one since her own delivery last December.

Then, after a bit of nudging, my mother opened her eyes. She saw Madeleine who was looking directly at her. There was what I can only call an epiphany, a transfiguring recognition. An old and tired face came alive with a radiant smile. There was laughter in her eyes, and the hint of tears. "How lovely" she said, "how lovely!" and gazed at the great-granddaughter she had never met till that moment. And Madeleine smiled back. It was as if the clouds had been rolled back and the sun had come out. In that recognition scene, a corner of a hospital ward seemed luminous with peace, joy and love.

So much of human life seemed to be squeezed into those few minutes. For a brief while there was a constellation of four generations in that intimate space. If Madeleine lives to my mother's age their years will have spanned nearly two centuries. "Here's your line of descent" said my daughter to her. It wasn't fanciful to see my mother's strong Jewish features traced in the baby's face. The last time we gathered round a hospital bed like this was thirty years ago when we said farewell to my grandmother, my mother's mother. She was about the same age my mother is now. My children were small. There was talk then, I recall, of passing the family likeness down the distaff side.

What was going through my mind during this Proustian experience by the bedside, this beautiful and poignant encounter between the very old and the very young, between a long life nearing its end and one that has hardly begun?

Inevitably, it was the picture painted by St Luke near the beginning of his gospel. When Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be "presented", the holy family are received by two elderly frequenters of the temple, Simeon and Anna. Who knows how old Simeon is, but Anna, we are told, is 84. Simeon gathers up the infant in his arms and blesses him. He has seen what he has lived and longed to see: the child in whom his hope and the hope of all nations rests. "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace." He can die fulfilled and - we can presume - happy. They both can - for why mention Anna at all unless she too is caught up in this meeting of age with infancy?

I don't say that it was necessarily my mother's Nunc Dimittis. Who knows? But something in my waters tells me that this was a final as well as a first meeting with her great-granddaughter, a valediction as well as a welcome. Ave atque vale. I could be wrong. I would love to be, as long as she is comfortable and free of pain and in her right mind. She has surprised us all her life, probably surprised herself for not only surviving the Nazi holocaust that should have meant extinction but living long enough to see her children's children's children. 

But it did seem that we were poised on the edge of a threshold at a profoundly liminal point in all our lives. Everything felt slowed down in one of those rare experiences when the present moment is transformed into a glowing sacrament that transcends time and place. I believe my mother felt it that way. So if this should be an end as well as a beginning, if one door is soon to close as another has just opened, I need to remember how it could not have been more beautiful, nor more filled with the presence of God. In these two cherished faces from either end of life, and in the love that flowed between them, Gerard Manley Hopkins' words became true for me:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father, through the features of men's faces.

My mother was right. "How lovely!"


  1. Well, call me a sentimental old fool, but I came on all Angela Eagle reading this. How lovely, yes.

  2. beautiful Michael, met your mum once in V├ęzelay, looking forward to meeting Maddie there too .