So we have come once again to that time of year when we think about endings but also new beginnings.
I know that for some of you the burden of finals still lie ahead and yet for others they are now just a bad dream and life has become a blissful celebration without tutorials, libraries, lectures and books. And yet, for each one of us, in our different ways, this is a time of endings: the end of Trinity term, the end of this academic year, the end of doctoral research and postgraduate study, the end of singing in the choir, the end of attending Evensong, the end of working in this place, the end of life at Worcester College, Oxford.
Now, before I get you all thoroughly depressed along with myself, let me haul you back from the brink with some words from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. In Little Gidding he writes,
‘What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.’
Thankfully it hasn’t happened this term, but previously, sometime during the Trinity term, gaps would appear in the front row of the choir. Of course, it was nothing sinister, just the natural progress of time as treble voices came to an end. When I worked at St Paul’s Cathedral, the clergy had this cruel tradition of having the hymn ‘The day thou gavest Lord is ended’ on the last service of term, which was often accompanied by the silent whimpering of ‘broken’ choristers. A devastating ending and yet ‘the end is where we start from’. Little did I imagine that one day, from the ashes of those broken voices one of the boys would be opening the batting for England and another singing bass as a professional singer, from an ending had come a new beginning.
And so for us, who dwell in this time of endings, at the same time, we also stand in the moment of new beginnings. For some of us this new beginning is obvious, defined and structured as we leave to begin careers, charitable work, further research, or a new job. Whilst for others, it is less so, less clear and must be discerned in time. But either way, it is a beginning, a start from which we grow and develop, just as we did when we were first freshers’ and probationers to the Scholars and choristers we are today. What we are to become is not always clear as maybe we would like, but perhaps that is a good thing for then we are open and willing to travel less chartered waters and to carpae daeum or seize the day. One thing for certain is that wherever we go we take with us all that has brought us to this ending, all that we are and all that we have learnt, regardless of our age and experience. In the fear of beginning to sound like a patronizing Polonius, let me turn to the words of Paul in his letter to the Philippians. If we wanted to reflect on what it is that we have learnt, what it is that we take with us from our endings into our beginnings then perhaps his words are our surest guide,
‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’
And yet to know whatsoever is true, or honest, just or pure is not something we just wake up with one morning, just as a bass voice does not magically appear from the ashes of a treble voice, it must be discovered and learnt through the exploration of many endings and beginnings. As T. S. Eliot writes,
‘With the drawing of his Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
Whilst Eliot captures the sense that life is an exploration, a journeying which deepens us and changes us so that we discover things we have known as if for the first time, I am acutely aware that, in this of all terms, his words also lead us back to the events of nought week, when all of us were reminded of our ultimate ending in which all our explorations will cease. For many of us Tsz’s tragic death was like a frost in spring, devastating, pointless and cruel. And yet through the faith of his parents, who with a white shroud put him to bed for the last time and the love of his friends, who spoke words which only echo in the silent depths of the heart, we were reminded that in the ending of death is the new beginning of life everlasting, where through the drawing of love we arrive at the point from which we came and know it for the first time.
In the Rule, which lies at the source and beginning of this college, St Benedict gives his monks a set of tools by which to fashion and cultivate a holy life. One of these is to ‘day by day remind yourself that you are going to die’. If you have a yearning for the church to be radical and counter cultural, then maybe this is it. Too often we kid ourselves that through medicine we can live forever, so much so that to speak of death is a morbid taboo rather than a precious reality. For St Benedict knew, in an equally violent age, that to contemplate the idea that we may not be here tomorrow, is to see today in a different light. Each day is as a new beginning, a precious gift to be savoured and enjoyed, each person is loaned to us for a brief time to be known and loved, creation is cherish with awe and delight, life is here in this moment in all its fullness and not just a future hope. In this light, life is not simply a round of endings and beginnings, achievements and successes, the next job, the new house, the title or the chair, sucking out the marrow of our lives with so called purpose before they come to an end. No, it is about life itself, it is about knowing and believing that in this moment is wholeness, all our endings and beginnings are one now, life has been given to us in Christ in all its fullness, the new beginning of eternal life is for us now not in the future alone, there is no pointless death or wasted life for we dwell in the eternal now.
What then, you may ask, is the end or purpose of life, if it is not to get the internship, to become the professional singer, to write the doctorate, to live a life worth living, if it is not about the obituary in the Times? Knowing that we stand in the eternal now, the end or purpose of our lives is that for which we were created and that for which we were redeemed, namely praise. For we have been liberated into the eternal moment and as such, become a song of praise and thanksgiving. A song which consists of the words of our endings and beginnings, a song which is unique to each one of us, a song which is not dictated by our explorations but which is shaped by them into our hymn of praise.
As you leave the Chapel this evening, as we come to another ending and a new beginning, may the words of the Jubilate which you heard read tonight and which are written above your heads as you leave, resonate in your hearts and be a light by which you explore this life and contemplate the next: ‘O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands, serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song’.
11th June 2007