A rubicon was crossed at our Select Vestry meeting (select vestry is the eccentric Church of Ireland name for the church council), as I announced that my last Sunday in the parish would be on 16th May. It was a sad moment, to be moved on from as quickly as possible: “We have no abiding city, Ian”, as one old cleric used to say to me.
I remembered a friend telling me of one of the happiest moments in his life, the story of the night the first child of another friend was born. He and the friend had sat on the green, drinking bottles of wine and singing Beatles songs until four in the morning, being joined by a third friend somewhere in the proceedings.
To me, it was wonderful picture of happiness, a completely carefree abandon in celebration of the marvellous event of human life.
It was also a picture that had brought with it thoughts of sadness. Being priest in a community means being the eternal outsider; being in the community but not of it; being aware that the people who are your people at one moment might be someone else’s people in six months time and that, as the old man had said, you have no abiding place.
It puts you on your guard against forming the sort of friendships where you could sit on the green and sing songs through the night, because such friendships inevitably have to be abandoned when you move on.
Friendships last only with those who have been no part of your community, or with those who share in your journey, so our closest friends, those with whom we talk every week, those with whom we sat last week in a ski resort bars after days on the piste, are those who live nowhere near us, who are unknown here, as we are unknown there.
It is a strange life, and I have lived it for almost half of my life. Being always on the edge; being there to lead in times of grief; carrying on when the tank has run dry; walking from the graveside alone as families embrace; it becomes harder as the years pass, harder to say that we are again packing up the belongings and moving on.
I once read a piece on loneliness by Therese Casey in the Dominican journal Spirituality. She looked at loneliness that arises from the loss of a significant person; from the loss of a job or career; and at existential loneliness. Maybe, I thought, someone will tell me about the loneliness imposed by one’s vocation.
Therese Casey concluded her piece with a quote from Karl Rahner, ‘At the end of the day our task is to recognize that God is in the silence, the frustration, the loneliness, the emptiness. Our job is to become aware of this’.
Perhaps God was at the meeting, though I often think he gives them a miss.