Malmsey and other meditations
(Two months ago John Ebdon wrote an article entitled ‘The Day Thou Gavest’ about facing up to dying. We have had such a tremendous response to his piece that we are delighted to be able to publish this latest meditation and to pass on his thanks for your prayers.)
Having heard the old adage that a drowning man sees his whole life flashing before him at that particular moment I’ve often wondered (apart from thinking what a splendid way to go) what went through Clarence’s mind when he was upended in a butt of Malmsey wine, but having been recently reminded that, like the hairs on my head, my days are numbered I can vouchsafe for the assertion of that aphorism.
Sitting in my conservatory overlooking a greensward of lawn flanked by beds of sweet smelling shrubs and climbers, a vista crowned by an oak tree which has witnessed the passing of centuries, I have been enticed into opening a box of personal recollections in which was stowed the more poignant milestones in my life. Many had been forgotten or wilfully overlooked, but when I lifted the lid of that benign Pandora’s urn the remembrances flew out and embraced me like so many ghosts. Not all were welcoming, not all were happy. Life, as I’ve discovered, is not a carnival, but nostalgia wafted out on a heavy cloud and I inhaled deeply of it.
I was reminded of my initial encounter with death and of the intimation of our mortal nature, of the agony of puberty when I fell in love for the first time and was rejected out of hand. My seventeen-year old heart was shattered into a thousand fragments and I wrote dreadful verses in the tomb of my room and like Rachel of old would not be comforted. I remembered my first doubts of the existence of God and the feeling of emptiness as I wandered for a year across the desert of disbelief with other nomadic agnostics searching for, and in my case finding, an oasis of faith. On a happier note I relived the day when I became a father, when an hour after her arrival in a Nairobi hospital, I looked upon my firstborn and marvelled at the consummation of God’s handiwork. It was the heyday of love.
It was then that my thoughts turned to another birth and another mother – Mary.
Much has been recorded about the innermost feelings of Our Lord; his compassion for the sinner, his anger at corruption, his frustration with the disciples, his teasing of the lawyers, his grumpiness in the coasts of Sidon, his humour at the Samaritan well, his agony in the garden while he prayed to his Father and his companions slept; of his sadness at the grave of a friend and at his betrayal and his ultimate sacrifice for mankind. But whilst allowing that I am no biblical scholar I can find little in the Gospels chronicling the human emotions of Our Lady on the long road to Calvary. ‘She pondered all these things in her heart’, we are told, the very heart that would be so cruelly pierced at Golgotha. But what of her emotions at so many stations of her Son’s life, she who had borne all the years of knowing and not knowing? From the exile in Egypt to the revalation at Cana to the desolation outside Jerusalem, never centre stage but always, always there. What, for example, did she experience when, after a gruelling journey during which her unborn kicked and gave notice of his presence in her womb and imminence in her arms. Or when, in unsanitary and makeshift conditions, she cradled him and guided his puckering lips to her begrimed and dustcaked breasts. And did the bearers of gifts who knelt in adoration before the Holy Child ask her how she was?
Latterly this last thought has occupied me. I too have a Mary who, under an armour of Yorkshire phlegm, hides her stress and distress from the outside world and of whom that question is seldom asked. In the joy of living and in the face of dying she has always been there with me. Now, daily, enquiries about my own progress and state of health are made by her nursing colleagues and friends but seldom if ever about herself. In short, like so many other ‘Marys’, her courage, sacrifice and devotion are often overshadowed by the central figure, the object of her love and care. For this reason in the morning and before going to rest, for my Mary and for all the ‘Marys’ of the world, I pause and stand before an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and give thanks to her and to almighty God for so many things but above all for their greatest gift to me and to the world, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed art thou amongst women!
John Ebdon DFC, author, broadcaster and former Director of the London Planetarium is a house communicant and member of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath.
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