On the way to dying

Nov 16th, 2008 | By | Category: Spirituality

The Bibles were blue-grey; inside the hardback covers was a diagrammatic history of the Bible in English.  It would be more than a decade later, while studying theology, that I would discover that these were copies of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a version respected by academics and biblical scholars.

In retrospect, it seemed reasonable that this should be the version that we should have read in the junior class at our primary school; there were not many other versions around and Miss Rabbage, our teacher, would have sought the best.

Miss Rabbage came to mind last night while reading the Bible Reading Fellowship’s Guidelines notes.  Yesterday, the notes concluded a series of reflections on the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul travels through Italy to reach Rome.  His journey includes a stop at the Three Taverns; his journey was recorded on a map in the Bibles from which we would read with Miss Rabbage.

“The Three Taverns” had a reassuring tone to the ears of a small boy at a tiny country primary school in the West of England.  “The Three Taverns” conjured up pictures of flat-cap wearing, ruddy faced farmers in old tweed jackets and corduroy trousers in the town on market day.  It had about it a sense of the safe and secure.

Did Miss Rabbage not explain that Paul’s journey to Rome would lead to his death?  I am sure she did; but it was mention of The Three Taverns that triggered memories of all those years ago, not suggestion of Paul’s martyrdom.

Perhaps it is part of the genius of childhood to see time as a series of discrete moments rather than as a continuous process.  Memories come back as individual, self-contained entities; often without any narrative to link them together.

Think about memories of summer holidays in those youthful years: the pictures are often vivid.  How many memories are there of the spring that preceded those summer experiences or of the autumn that followed?

Perhaps one of the reasons that children often have little or no sense of death is that time is the experience of the here and now, there is no sense of time as a process leading to an inexorable end.  Tom Stoppard’s character Rosencrantz asks:

Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. It must have been shattering  – stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.

Is he right?  Is there an intuitive knowledge of death?  If so, why do The Three Taverns have an enduring happy place in my memories and the ensuing death of Paul have no place at all?

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  1. Paul knew his beer too: we are told that when he reached the Three Taverns he took Courage!

    One of my childhood memories is of my father cracking this joke. Isn’t it strange what things a child remembers.

    I was blessed with a country childhood, and other memories are of holding funeral services for dead baby rooks blown from their nests. It is through such things I think that we come to grasp the reality of death, for other creatures if not for ourselves.

  2. My lasting memory of death is listening to the funeral of Winston Churchill on the Radio with my Nan and Mother. Then when I was 13 my own Nans death.
    My memories of Mrs Rabbage is getting smacked on the back of the hand for being naughty and filling up the coal scuttles for the coal fired heaters in the classroom!!!!!!And of her reading stories to the class, she was a lovely lady with ruddy cheeks and a big smile.

  3. I am hopelessly bad at coping with death and am getting worse. Funerals are getting harder; perhaps because I am ten years in the parish and have known well some of those I bury; perhaps because each one confronts me with my own mortality and I feel I haven’t done a fraction of all the things I had hoped to do.

  4. Ian I don’t blame you coping worse with something that’s so difficult to do compassionately. The first funeral I attended was my husbands. That’s when my own mortality became significant. But I don’t dwell on it. Neither should you . . .

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