It was the hottest day of the year so far. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as I drove past Stonehenge, across Salisbury Plain and along a ridge of the Mendips, until suddenly, almost out of nowhere, there rose the huge, majestic tower of Downside Abbey. I was here for my friend Gerry’s second Requiem Mass, which was, by his request, to be at the Church of St Benedict’s in the village of Stratton-on-the-Fosse, in the shadow of the abbey.
Gerry had left Stratton-on-the-Fosse and Downside to go to war. Though he returned briefly afterwards, that great cataclysm had opened a new world to him, and he returned with an officer’s commission. It was, he told me, one of the monks who said to him kindly but strongly that he should aspire to something more than his old post at the bursar’s office, so Gerry left Somerset for London. But since the life of the spirit is not bounded by time and space, it was as if he took it all with him – all that had formed him and given him joy, the solidarity it gave him with a family, a place and its history.
Gerry spoke of his formative life at Downside so fondly and vividly that its character became powerful and real to others. A psychologist might say that he had internalised the experiences he had there, as if a mere idea or memory could give value and happiness. A Christian would recognise something spiritual in the ability to love people and places so much and yet be able to live apart from them, sustained by the hope that they pointed beyond themselves to a fulfilment of the heart’s desire for peace and communion. If we are in the Holy Spirit, we never really leave behind anything of value.
I arrived at Stratton-on-the-Fosse in good time and entered the churchyard of St Benedict’s through its lych gate. This was, in itself, a lesson in mortality, in the best sense: namely, a reminder to look at the quality of the life one is living now, as much as a forbidding reminder of the mystery of dying, which remains imponderable.
All around were the graves of Gerry’s family, going back to his grandfather, who died in 1942, aged 99. He had helped to build this church in 1854 and was buried there with his wife of 76 years.
I looked at the open grave where Gerry was to be buried next to his parents, and with his maternal uncle who had lived into his 90s and who had been awarded the Benemerenti medal for being the master of ceremonies for more than 60 years. Suddenly an old man shuffled up and introduced himself. It was Gerry’s friend and contemporary Gordon, aged 91, who told me they had been at the village school together. He pointed to a tall linden tree in a corner of the churchyard and said he remembered Gerry climbing almost to the top of it, but that was when it was much smaller. I felt suddenly as if all of Gerry’s incredibly long and rich life mattered less than this coming to rest. The circle was peacefully completed. I had written on the wreath I had sent “Nequid pereat”, nothing shall be lost. I knew the quotation from the medieval clock at nearby Wells Cathedral which I had visited with Gerry years ago.
I know he left the cathedral’s “friends” group a legacy. Nothing shall be lost. And that’s truly how it felt as we celebrated the Old Rite Requiem that the generations of his family would have known in the village church.
There was a small reception in the pub afterwards and I went back to the churchyard to say farewell. The sexton was just beginning to fill in the grave and I threw in a handful of the thick red Somerset earth.
Gerry’s body rests in the country churchyard in the shadow of the sacristy door. And this is how my human experience mediates a more wonderful truth: the hope that he is past all sorrow or pain, that now he will never have to leave home again, nor lose anyone he loves, nor mourn for what is no more. His coming home is because 90 years ago, in the baptismal font there, he was buried with Christ, who has conquered death and opened a heavenly home to Gerry, who served him so faithfully and hopefully. Rest in peace, my dear friend. Rest in the Lord.
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