When I wrote last week's letter, I already had in mind what I was going to write this week. I left a clue for the eagle-eyed in the last two words of my letter: Enduring Melody.
Many of you will know that The Enduring Melody was Michael Mayne's last book, published in the year he died (2006). But his first book has been with me for nearly all of my ministry: A Year Lost and Found (1987). It tells the painful, moving, and ultimately life-giving story of Michael's last year as Vicar of Great St Mary's in which he endured his own version of lockdown, suffering from the then much-misunderstood condition of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). My beloved training incumbent also had ME, so, even though I had not then met Michael, I felt a close connection. Carolynn Pritchard and I were talking last week how much this book means to us, and we have both just reread it.
It has much to teach us about a God who, to quote Michael in the book, 'stops you dead in your tracks and sets you groping for answers'. It is a short book, 82 pages, and every page has nuggets of gold, profound truths that require slow, careful, prayerful consideration. It is a masterpiece.
I was very struck by one passage, quite early on, in which Michael quotes John Donne:
As sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude . . . solitude is a torment which is not threatened in Hell itself.
Michael then comments:
You do feel cut off, and you do need reassuring. And the best and most effective way of achieving both is by touch and by prayer . . I believe that most of us, when we are sick, need physical contact and the spoken assurance of God's love.
As I read those words again recently, I found my heart missing a beat as I remembered the cruel stories of Covid-related deaths where physical touch was prohibited. I am suddenly weeping as those stories come back to mind, and thank God that that seems no longer to be the case.
But what Michael writes about the sick and dying is true for us all - the importance of touch. Many are deprived of touch now, and many have shared with me how painful that is. We long for the days when we can touch, hug, hold again, and we pray they will be soon.
But Michael wrote not only of touch, but of prayer. I found it hugely comforting to know that this spiritual hero of mine found that there were times he could not pray. His advice?
I let others do the praying for me . . I fell back with relief on the truth of St Paul's words about the body of Christ. In a perfectly real and valid sense others were doing for me what I found hard to do.
When Michael could pray, it was often with the Psalms, where Michael found that the God who is
unimaginable in his power and majesty, is also in the heart of every one of us, drawing us to himself with a love we cannot yet grasp.
Michael wanted his lost year to be redeemed. It was - but not as he had expected. He found himself in his journey. And the grace of God.