When I was a young priest, I was, one day, approached by a venerable religious sister, close to her 90th year, who asked me to consider becoming her spiritual director. I pointed out that I knew little about the spiritual direction of others, and that I was relatively recently ordained. She replied, “Father, that’s exactly what I’m looking for”.
That day, I was reminded that the differences between two people form an important part of a happy friendship. To have one shared experience of life and largely similar views of the world may be cosy at times, but it is likely to prove sterile.
So with me and Bill. There were differences. They often related to inequality – one was better at something than the other.
I, for example, am a happy consumer of poetry, but I have no inclination to produce any. Whatever it is that happens inside a poet’s head, does not happen very often inside mine.
Bill, on the other hand, was an accomplished and published poet. He used language wisely and powerfully. He could also write to a brief – topic, style, and even (wonder of wonders) metre. His was a skill that meshed art and craft. Very few writers occupy that territory. I hope Bill knew how good he was. He certainly rejoiced in his gifted-ness.
Another example. I, at school, was an indifferent student of Latin, incapable, most days, of distinguishing between a speech by Cicero and a recipe for dumplings.
Bill, meanwhile, was a graduate of a prestigious classical academy. In time, he was asked to introduce me and others to the rudiments of biblical Greek. He was a gentle and encouraging teacher. We were all uplifted to learn that ‘en archay ain ho logos’ (in the beginning was the word); rather more perplexed, I think, to discover that ‘ho crocodilos ho anoe gnathon kinei’ (the crocodile moves its upper jaw). Bill, the teacher, took difficult material and laced it with celebratory nonsense, to make us laugh, and so, remember. His infectious delight in all things ridiculous and absurd was a characteristic that surfaced most days.
If I seem to be concentrating on Bill’s superiority in relation to me (Bill would be aghast), rest assured that there was one matter in which our relationship of inequality was reversed, with me as the expert, and he the hapless failure.
I, you see, am a great exponent of boundaries. If they are present, my life and ministry continues. If they become blurred, unhappiness ensues rapidly. At times, my boundaries become so important in my estimation that I build walls on top of them, to secure them for the longer term.
But Bill? He was seemingly quite incapable of building such walls. Walls are ways of excluding people. Bill would never do that – could never do that.
Perhaps you’ll allow me one anecdote.
Many years ago, in Aberdeen, there was a man – not a bad man, just a very troubled one – who was known to most clergy. He was like a walking grenade – the pin half in, half out – everyone awaiting the explosion. One night he came to Bill’s door. Bill saw no alternative to taking him in and giving him shelter overnight. In the small hours of the following day, his guest – not a bad man, I say again, but a very troubled one – found a knife in the kitchen and, with it, confronted Bill. Mercifully, Bill managed to secure himself in a room with a telephone. He called the police. They arrived with dogs to disarm the man, and take him to a place of safety. All ended well. Bill didn’t tell me this. A mutual friend did. I’ve told you one story. There are others.
Bill was a singularly poor drawer of boundaries. And in the building of walls, he was a refusenik, pure and simple.
No-one was ever knowingly rejected by Bill.
It was precisely in this life-long refusal to build walls that Bill and God and Salvation found each other.
I hope that his prayers will continue for people like me (and, I dare say, many of you) so relentlessly busy, day after day, with our bricks and mortar.
Finally, I want to direct you towards a poem of which Bill approved. One evening, decades ago, he read it to my assembled year in Rome.
I’ll spare you my inept delivery. Google it later, and read it yourselves.
The poet is Tennyson. The poem is ‘Break, Break, Break’. It describes the loss of a friend. It ends, not with an explosion of sugar, but with a grownup ownership of the sorrow that travels with death. The ending is, if you will, ‘suspended’. Resolution may come – but some time later. I find it refreshingly honest.
Bill did, too.
May he rest in peace.
Fr Colin Stewart