Friday 31 January 2014

On birthdays

In my pocket I keep a small black diary. Like any diary it has a spot for each day of the year so that I will know where I have to be and what I have to be doing. I use it for meetings, class times, appointments, deadlines. Even with the diary close to hand, I make my way through life with only the vaguest notion of where I am meant to be and what I am meant to be doing. Without the diary I would be lost: I would never show up for anything: I would never be seen again.

At the start of every year I open the new diary and write my name in the front. Then I take a red pen and write down the names of the dead. Love of the dead is one of the Christian virtues and I have tried to practise that virtue with the aid of a small black diary.

Mostly it is the names of saints and people who have been saints to me. Liturgical saints like St Basil and St Augustine. Activist saints like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King. Writing saints like Thomas Merton and T. S. Eliot. As well as people I knew and loved and decided not to forget. Ray Anderson. Mr Goldsworthy. My grandfather. My mother’s stillborn child – my sister or brother – whom I have wanted and missed my whole life. John the Baptist. St Francis and St Clare.

They are written in red ink on their birthdays, and I carry their birthdays around in my pocket.

In Christian tradition it is the date of a person’s death that is called the “birthday,” dies natalis, since our truest birth is not entry into this vale of tears but entry into the love of God. There is an Orthodox burial rite in which the body of a deceased monk is wrapped in swaddling clothes like a baby; the other monks gather around singing psalms, rejoicing through tears at their brother’s birthday.

Like all Christians I love the dead. But it is never easy to add a new name to the diary. This month I already had to add one name. And then a week ago I had to add another name because of the birthday of a saintly man from the community where I teach. He was our manager of finance and business.

He was at home when it happened. He had been chasing his little dog because it had run out on to the road. He was fearful for the dog’s safety and so he ran after it, calling it sweet names to make it come back to him. He chased the dog because he loved it. That is what caused the heart attack. The dog was saved; a saint was born into light. The dog was carried home; a saint was carried by angels.

If you’ve spent much time working in Christian institutions, you’ll know that you don’t get to meet many saints among the clergy or the institutional bureaucrats or the teachers of theology. But you often get to know saints among the workers who quietly support these institutions through their acts of loving service. Our finance and business manager, who devoted half a lifetime to serving our community, was a saint of that sort, a holy and humble man.

Now his name is in the diary. Now he has a birthday. Now every year I will remember him.

He was never the kind of person to seek attention, so he would probably be pleased to know that he does not get a whole date to himself in my diary. He has to share the spot with two other saints. His name is written in red ink underneath theirs: “Titus and Timothy, companions of Paul.” There is something very modest and self-effacing about those saints. The three of them have a lot in common.

I suppose as I get older more and more names will find their way into my diary. If I grow old enough, there might even come a year when the diary is nothing but red ink. No more meetings and appointments written in blue or black. No more deadlines, no more people to please or disappoint. Just a diary with the names of all my dead. Then there will be nothing left to do except to open the diary each day and to read their names (if I can still read) and pray for them (if I can still pray) and ask them to spare a thought for me too. My life would then become one unceasing festival, a wheel of birthdays slowly turning, a cloud of witnesses that thickens even as my own life grows ever thinner, lonelier, destitute of so many companions, so many faces I would love to see again.

And then, one bright day, my own birthday will come.

What that day will bring no one can tell. But I will keep practising for it in the meantime. I will acclimatise myself to the company of the dead. I will celebrate their birthdays. I will carry their names in my pocket.

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