Even the man who worked at the tip could see that dumping box after box of books into the paper skip was wrong. ‘Would a charity shop not take them?’ he asked. A well-meant question, but these weren’t airport thrillers. There’s not much demand for mouldering commentaries on the books of the Bible, still less for painstaking accounts of the revival of religious communities in the Victorian Church of England.
With a house-move imminent, I had done my best to find a dignified afterlife for these unwanted books. As many clergy and seminarians as I could entice had picked over the carcass of the library, but an irreducible amount of printed matter still remained. ‘They’ll maybe do some good when they’re recycled,’ I hoped.
‘Probably be cardboard boxes,’ he said.
‘There you go then.’ I was satisfied. ‘You can do plenty of good with a cardboard box.’
And I should know. Our house was about to be filled with them and they in turn filled with all of our possessions, or ‘worldly goods’ as the Prayer Book perceptively calls them. For even the heaviest oak table or costliest antique is no more than an artefact to serve and please us during our limited time on earth, and to suffer who knows what after our demise: perishing in fire or crumbling to dust, and finally rotting in the earth to fertilise the food of future generations. Property is certainly not an end in itself. It means something only when its matter changes from form to form answering needs and giving joy everlastingly: not only swords into ploughshares, but ploughshares into pots and pans, pens, pins. The contribution made by my discarded books was not as it had been, but it nonetheless continued. Whereas once, perhaps, they had explained the place of the poor in holy scripture, now, perhaps, new boxes would carry food to the hungry. Their life was changed, not ended.
Moving to a new town or job is also a time for recycling all that we have been in the past, as we take our skills and dispositions and put them to service in an unfamiliar context. At a time when so many seem anxious about their place on the career ladder, this notion of recycling rather than ascent may be helpful. To reflect on past experience, identifying what excites or bores, satisfies or exasperates us; recognising too those capacities we have in abundance, and those which would challenge the wildest of horses to drag from within us. This is a wise process that should guide and motivate our decisions to move or remain.
I have been especially grateful to this sense of being recycled as for thirty years I have negotiated the twin roles of teacher and priest, in Britain and abroad, in monastery, cathedral, parish and school. And now I move from the brash and exciting complexity of a South London parish and Church of England comprehensive school to a highly competitive independent day school in Oxford with 900 very well-motivated pupils producing stratospherically impressive exam results year on year.
I do not feel that this is a promotion from being a Croydon vicar or a demotion from my previous role as a cathedral canon. And the fact that my superiors will all be lay people is by no means an affront to my ordination. I’m simply being recycled, allowing different qualities to be employed in a different way, as I pray the old Mirfield Fathers’ prayer that ‘my life may be hallowed, my way directed and my work made fruitful’.
These preparations for moving have been going on amid journeys to and from a hospital 200 miles away, where my mother is struggling with an inability to retain oxygen. We obviously pray that the situation will be corrected by time and medication, but she and we have had to face the fact that she may not be returned to health.
This is one of the unspoken functions of a hospital, to bring us inescapably face-to-face with our own vulnerability to disease and death. It is one of the reasons we wash our hands in antibacterial foam as we pass through doorways around the building. Of course, there are practical benefits from this, but we also apply the foam like a sort of magical protective against any secret danger that may be lurking to entrap us.
I think this is also a reason why hospitals tend to be quite noisy places, even during the night. Like our ancestors making an infernal din to drive out evil spirits, hospitals are full of the ‘rough music’ of activity: the exits and entrances of porters and cleaners; the loud questions to deaf patients, asking how they are doing today? And the interminable beeping of a thousand machines whose tones (even if they indicate illness) are preferable to the silence that would indicate the end.
This end need not frighten us, though we may have legitimate worries about how those left behind survive without us. The dying itself is not an end but another great recycling, just as when we are born into active life, so ceasing to be only the longed-for fruit of lovers. Whatever else religious believers will want to say about God’s provision for the departed, it is surely the case that in death we move from an active life to a life expressed and lived in the loving memory of family and friends. All that we have been and done will continue in the fond old tales of those who have known us, and in the lives of our children, if we have them. In them we hope for a better version of ourselves, as our essence is passed on genetically to all who follow. Life for us all will be changed not ended.
There is a wonderful scene in the film Scent of a Woman, in which a blind Al Pacino invites a beautiful English girl to learn how to tango. She is naturally alarmed at the prospect, fearful of embarrassing consequences. But the tango, he explains, is not at all like life. ‘There are no mistakes in the tango. … If you make a mistake, get all tangled up, you just tango on.’
This is the image to imitate. As things come to the end of their usefulness, or as we find ourselves in a sort of professional cul-de-sac, or as our lives near their end, we embrace these changes not thoughtlessly, ungratefully or callously; but determined to enter into a new phase of life in which we are set free, enabled to tango joyfully on.