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.

Gravis: the Order of Priests

Fear the Lord

On this day 47 years ago (November 30, Advent Sunday, 1975) I was kneeling before Geoffrey Sambell, the Archbishop of Perth, in his Cathedral waiting, with some trepidation, for him to lay hands on my head. He was about to say the prayer,

‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God…’

The trepidation was because I had only been discharged from hospital four days earlier. In a game of tennis, I had twisted my newly repaired spine, and was still in some pain. I knew that the Archbishop needed only impose his hands lightly on my hair, but the custom was that all the other priests would then lay their hands on the Archbishop’s hands: somewhat medieval as a custom, but freighted with meaning.

The Archbishop assured me beforehand that he would lay his hands on my head, start the prayer, then lift his hands and take the weight of the other hands on his. I hoped it would work!

I was conscious that behind me in the first pew of the Cathedral were my parents, Aunty Jean and Nan. Nan, frail and determined, had asked her doctor bluntly, ‘If I go to Perth for my grandson’s ordination, will it kill me?’

The doctor knew Nan. ‘If you go to Perth,’ he replied, ‘it might kill you. But if you don’t go, it most certainly will kill you.’ So, Nan had made the 4-hour car journey from Tambellup to Perth. She was staying with her sister, Aunty Jean. The two sisters were unlike in every way. I loved them both dearly, but, put them together in the same house and sparks could fizz.

Nan had been the first to suggest, when I was about 10 years old, that I should be a priest. She instructed me in the basics of Christian faith. She literally taught me the Catechism (‘What is your name? N. or M.’ was the first question, and it took me years to work out what ‘N. or M.’ meant.)

When I was a teenager in boarding school, Nan asked me about my experiences in chapel services. She encouraged me to be part of the College Chapel when I was at University. She knew I had spent all my savings when I was sent to a private hospital while I was at theological college in Melbourne, and she sent me, out of the blue, a cheque for $2,000 to pay for my trip home from Melbourne at the end of my studies.

So, like the imposition of hands, Nan’s presence behind me was heavy. Gravis, the Latin for ‘heavy’, also means ‘serious’. Nan reached back into the 19th Century and her formation as a Christian in St John’s Church in Northam. Nan had been a crucial part of my experience of the faith at St Mary’s in Tambellup.

Nan’s presence in the Cathedral was heavy. The weight of her expectations on me was not so much that I would be a successful priest, but that I would be faithful to the calling. Gravis.

I had dreamed several times before Ordination Day of the Second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday after the Ordination. I would be in Bruce Rock. In my dream, the congregation waited in the church. In the vestry, I robed in my alb, amice and girdle as I had hundreds of times. I put the purple stole around my neck instead of slant-wise as I had as a deacon. But for the first time, I lifted the purple chasuble over my head and laid it on my shoulders.  It was too heavy. I could not bear the weight. I took the vestment off and laid it back on the table. I woke in panic each time. Gravis.

Take the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God,’ the Archbishop intoned, ‘now committed unto thee by the imposition of my hands…’

I felt the Archbishop’s hands gently and firmly on my head. I felt him lift his hands as the priests leaned in. The Archbishop tried to hold them, but he couldn’t, and the combined weight of a dozen priests’ hands came pressing down on my hair, on my head, on my neck, on my spine. Gravissimus!

I barely heard, ‘And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and of His Holy Sacraments…’ I managed to stay upright in the kneeling position, but I was grateful for the two Archdeacons who helped me stagger to my feet.

My first Eucharist at St Peter’s in Bruce Rock was a good occasion. And I rejoice that, when my health permits, I still occasionally consecrate bread and wine with other Christians.

Nan did not die as a result of her trip to Perth: she lived to see me ‘dispense the Word of God and His Holy Sacraments,’ in St Mary’s Church in Tambellup. 

I shared that ordination with Chris Albany, Len Firth and Peter McArthur. Chris and Len are still friends 47 years later. I share the day with  Bryan Shattock, a fellow-retired priest in St Brendan’s parish, who was ordained 8 years later. I still value the collegiality of the priests who laid their hands on me on that day (and all the others who have come since) and welcomed me into the Order.

My marriage is more precious, but my ordination is still at the heart of who I am. It is still gravis.