Seven times seven


Seven times seven

I don’t remember Australia Day in 1949. But Mum told me it was a sunny day, tennis day in Lake Grace. I was nine weeks old, and rapidly losing weight through pyloric stenosis. It was also a Sunday, so at 3 p.m., the tennis players walked from the courts still dressed in their whites to Saint Anne’s Church (now the church hall) for the baptism of three babies, including me.

I assume my Dad was there, supporting Mum. Dad was not a churchgoer. I didn’t know what Dad believed until, when I was about 10, he crouched in a ploughed paddock, picked up a handful of soil, and poured it slowly back onto the ground. Dad believed in the beauty and fecundity of nature.

Driving around the farm, he would point out with reverence birds in their trees, lovingly remarking on their colours and their habits, or showing us handsome plants and lizards, or pretty patterns of clouds.

The baptism ceremony went well. It was only after, as the certificates were being signed, that my most recent food reappeared. Pyloric stenosis causes projectile vomiting, and the milk and blood regurgitated can be sprayed up to 3 metres. My vomit splashed over the certificates and the ink smudged on my baptism certificate remains as evidence of the power of projectile vomiting.

Splattered milk and smudged ink, however, did not camouflage the importance of the day: this was the day God promised that God’s Spirit would hold me for ever.

I do have a memory of my confirmation in St Mildred’s in Tenterden. It was the first time I wore long pants, long scratchy grey serge pants. I was just 12 years and 9 days old on November 21 in 1960, and Mum asked me to wear my uniform for Christ Church Grammar School where I was starting as a boarder in the New Year.

Bishop Hawkins preached on duty to Mother, duty to Mother Church and duty to Mother Country (in 1960, that still meant England, I think). Mum reminded me frequently, with a small smile, of Bishop Ralph’s sermon.

My Nan had prepared me for my Confirmation. Every Wednesday of my Grade 7 year, during Scripture period she and I withdrew into the boys’ shelter shed where Nan walked me through the Catechism, explaining how God had come into the world as Jesus Christ, and still loves us through the Holy Spirit.

Even as a 12-year-old, I wondered how much the bishop’s sermon had to do with the Christian faith that Nan had expounded. I voted for Nan!

After the rite of Confirmation, I received Holy Communion for the first time. The power of the bread and wine grows over time. In 1960, I took it because Nan and Mum told me so. But now, after maybe 5,000 occasions on which I have received this sacrament, I strongly appreciate its power. Through it, God turns my natural laziness into love for others and gratitude for all God gives.

I marvel at the variety of places God has come to me in the Eucharist: in churches like St Mary’s in Tambellup, and Christ Church in Claremont and St David’s in Applecross, and, in the past two years, at St Brendan’s in Warnbro: with splendid music in St George’s Cathedral; in the Chapel at Christ Church Grammar School with its stunning backdrop of Freshwater Bay; in the bush accompanied by birdsongs; in Italian and French in historical Roman Catholic churches in Europe; in Uniting Churches, with the Baptists and Churches of Christ; in French in St Thomas’s in Beau-Bassin, Mauritius; cramped onto tiny tables in hospital; in our homes and the homes of friends and parishioners; chaotically in nursing homes; so many places, so much grace.  

It was almost as if I was ticking off the seven sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion are the two ‘Dominical sacraments’. Our Lord (Noster Dominus) had commanded those two explicitly. According to the catholic theology Anglicans inherited, confirmation was the first of five lesser sacraments. So that made three of the seven!

At the end of 1969, my fourth year at University, I was in major pain and waiting both for my final exams and surgery on my back. As a resident at Saint George’s College, I was part of the Chapel community. Chaplain Ian George prepared a group of us over several weeks for the Sacrament of Holy Unction. We learned how Jesus had healed the sick, and how James had told sick people to call the elders for the laying on of hands and the administration of oil.

We learned how that developed into Holy Unction and how, sadly, Unction was associated more frequently with the dying. It should be a robust prayer for healing in all situations – including mine.

So Ian George duly laid hands on my head with prayer and anointed my forehead with blessed oil. As I knelt at the communion rail in the Chapel, I felt a heavy load lifted: I knew, whatever happened in my surgery, God healed me. It was a wonderful boost to my faith and the confidence it gave me never left through weeks of rehabilitation.  

In 1975, after three years of study, Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell ordained me: deacon on February 9 and priest on Advent Sunday, November 30. Before each ordination, the candidates, Chris Albany, Len Firth, Peter McArthur, Geoff Newby and I, were sequestered for a four-day retreat. These intense days of prayer and addresses invited us deeper into the mystery of God.  

A pattern was developing: preparation, then sacrament. I was beginning to learn that these sacraments were not so much about empowering me (though they do have that effect); sacraments are much more a statement about God and how God continues to work through frail fallible human beings.

In 1978, I fell in love with my dearest Rae. We were engaged on August 6, the feast of the Transfiguration, when everything changes for the better. Our parish priest, Michael Pennington and Archbishop Sambell both played their part in preparing Rae and me for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

The Archbishop married us on December 9 in 1978 in St David’s Church in Ardross. Michael Pennington celebrated the Nuptial Eucharist. Our families and friends crowded St David’s. Two of our friends played Grieg’s ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ and Bach’s ‘Wachet Auf’ for oboe and organ as our wedding present. Aunty Jean Witham presented us with her stunning tapestry version of Michelangelo’s ‘Last Supper’. (It still hangs on my study wall.) Our wedding was another declaration of God’s determination to go on loving us.

Rae and I were not content just with the sacraments we had received. In 1979, we started our formation as Franciscan tertiaries and were professed in 1983. It’s not hard to draw a straight line between my Dad’s celebration of nature and me grasping St Francis’ appreciation of all creation.

It is not my tradition to make a formal regular confession; even so, I have used Sacrament Number 7, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, on many occasions. It, too, is a wonderful affirmation that, whatever stupidity and evil I have done – and I have been stupid and evil at times (often simultaneously)  – God still loves me. God is still prepared to treat me as though I had a clean slate, just like I had before I vomited all over my baptism certificate.

Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

2 thoughts on “Seven times seven”

  1. Thank you Ted for this delightful post which criss-crossed with my Christian journey at several points! My life also started with the sacrament of Baptism received with some urgency in view of my needing pyloric stenosis surgery when 10 days old in 1945. I was born in the northern Netherlands and grew up in the Calvinist tradition, where I found the Lord’s calling, albeit in Dutch Reformed churches “over East” and with an appreciative attitude to and relationship with Christian clergy and communities of most backgrounds. My Helen and I have also been blessed with a strong marriage and a team approach to life, family, and ministry. In retirement i was privileged to serve 4 terms as a locum in the WA Wheatbelt and Perth, and I loved your selection of photos on Facebook! Last year I was diagnosed with MND, and like your Rae my Helen is facing a demanding time ahead. But the joy of the Lod has always been and remains our strength.

    1. Greetings Fred. Thanks for your message. Until I posted this story, I had never heard of anyone who had pyloric stenosis – you’re the second person to say they had the same start in life. I am not sure how urgent my baptism was, and, of course, as an Anglican, I was baptised with two other babies, a job lot for the minister who travelled up from Williams for the occasion.
      I have met some Dutch Reformed people over the years. In fact, Peter Abetz was a great supporter of mine when I was CEO of YouthCARE. He was thrilled when we had an event in his church where I spoke (an Anglican) two nuns (Roman Catholic), Uniting Church members, etc. all in the front pew of a Reformed Church! YouthCARE is a hopeful agency. Peter’s politics are very different to mine, yet we found many commonalities as brothers in Christ.
      You are right: our wives have to carry the burden when we men become frailer, usually because we are the older spouse. Rae and I also find much strength in being bound together in our faith.
      Blessings to you,
      Ted

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