Love in the Face of Suffering and Death

Last month, the Very Reverend Michael Mayne, Anglican priest and former Dean of Wesminster Abbey, died of cancer of the jaw. The obituary in the Telegraph noted that he “sought to make Westminster Abbey more obviously a place of prayer – a formidable task in a building attracting two million visitors annually and offering little scope for contemplation.” It went on to say that he was “a gifted pastor to whom many resorted for counsel and confession; and he had a special concern for people with HIV and AIDS.”

Mayne himself suffered from poor health, which actually prevented him from becoming a bishop in the Church of England. In 1986, he underwent a year of “debilitating illness,” and was later diagnosed as suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. That year is the subject of his book A Year Lost and Found.

The Rev Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, in a sermon at Matins at Westminster Abbey on November 5th, discusses the late Michael Mayne. He remembers that Rev Mayne would tell preachers awed at preaching at the Cambridge University Church (he was then vicar), “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.” Rev Sagovsky reminds us that his fellow Anglican priest was not counseling some sort of self-absorption, but to seek God’s presence in our journey, so, if we should be suffering physical illness, “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.” While this journey might be irreducibly ours, the vision is for others as much as ourselves.

The Rev Dr Sagovsky then movingly goes on to say:

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 his journey, his pain, his vision. For in talking about his journey, his pain, his vision and his vulnerability, he was also talking about mine.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Love in the Face of Suffering and Death

  1. KiwiNomad06 says:

    What a moving tribute. With so much ‘bad’ news in the world, it is refreshing to read about someone who followed through on his beliefs so much for the love of others.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear KiwiNomad,

    Thanks for reading. I hadn’t heard all that much about Reverend Mayne before reading Sagovsky’s sermon.

    I don’t try to find good or bad news; it’s just that I like to write more about prayer and spirituality than the usual controversial issues.

    Thanks again.


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