Know that old saw that ‘Hell is other people’? Well, Heaven can be, too.
And that goes double when we’re talking about the Society of St Gregory.
(Hell, for the record, used to be doing my annual self-assessment tax return. My first one took a fortnight of battling through HMRC’s ludicrous idea of an ‘easy to use’ return form…)
By the time Rosemary and I arrived at their Summer School many of our fellow ‘students’ were already aware that I had terminal cancer – and responded wonderfully. Within what felt like minutes I was sinking gently into a warm bath of love, support, laughter and friendship. That’s something we’ve always found at SSG Summer School, but today it had an entirely new dimension.
Of course it helped that we were among old friends – people who had known us for years, enjoyed our company, and valued what we could bring to the party. (And yes, Summer School is very much a party – and I’m not just thinking about the bits between the seminars, the lectures, the liturgies and the Masses…) But I knew that it would have been just the same had we been first-time visitors. After all, we had been first-time visitors, many years ago now, and I can still remember the sense we had of ‘coming home’ among people who shared everything we most loved and valued.
Rosemary – understandably – had come with slightly mixed feelings. A few years ago when her cousin Gill Ness-Collins died we’d had massive support from SSG with the preparations for her funeral, and for Rosemary that association was still there.
She didn’t want to spend three days talking about the arrangements for my funeral. But then neither did I.
On the other hand I was, inevitably, thinking about ‘last things’. And I was painfully aware – even as a ‘sort of Catholic’ – that I hadn’t been to confession since well before the pandemic.
That felt even more important now, when I was facing up to the slow but inevitable progress of what is likely to be my final illness.
So – with no trepidation whatsoever – I approached one of the cadre of clergy who usually attend Summer School, and a man for whom I had a warm affection. And asked him to hear my confession. I explained that it might take a while, because I wanted to survey my whole life. To do my spiritual accounts, if you like. Who had I wronged? Who had suffered because of my actions? Who had I hurt? And – most importantly – what had I done about putting things right?
I explained, a little apologetically, my very simple Credo – to do, as far as possible, what I thought Christ would do, in all my actions and all my choices. We checked out my track record on sticking to that, and on restoring the balance, as far as possible, when I hadn’t. When we’d finished this shower bath of the soul, he kindly suggested I name my own penance.
I chose prayer and meditation on the Stations of the Cross. It seemed entirely appropriate to my situation.
And I left with a feeling of uplifting spiritual joy.
So much more satisfying than the annual tax return…