16 June 2012

‘Now, if the harvest is over and the world cold’

‘Give me the bonus of laughter’ (Sir John Betjeman) … a Gothic gargoyle on the façade of the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Mark 4: 26-34

Saturday 16 June 2012

Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Memorial Service for former staff members of The Irish Times.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tomorrow morning, in the Gospel reading (Mark 4: 26-34) in most of our Churches, Christ tells two parables.

The first is the story of how seed that is scattered on the ground sprouts, grows and produces full grain at harvest time.

The second is the story of how the mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, grows into the greatest of all shrubs.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that people who set out to be high achievers regret that over the span of a career they have never blossomed into great trees. Instead, they think that in the sight of others they have remained small twigs or leaves on the tree, and that when they die, like a falling leaf, they will be forgotten and be of no further value to others.

Yet, when death is at our doorstep, none of us is going to be worried about the obituary pages or whether we will be judged by our achievements.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who has worked for several years in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She has counselled the dying in their last days and has tried to find out what are the most common regrets we have at the end of our lives.

And among the top, from men in particular, is: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Despite what the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman once said about end-of-life regrets, there was no mention of more sex. Nor was there any mention of bigger by-lines or better job titles.

In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware lists the top five regrets we have when we are dying:

1, I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2, I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3, I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4, I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5, I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What’s your greatest regret so far?

And what will you set out to achieve or change before you die?

As I listen to the names read here each year, I am reminded that the value of each and every one of us is not the big by-line or the big story.

Indeed, we have all been part of telling the stories, big and small, in our own way.

The names include the great by-lined writers. But the vast majority are those of us who have ploughed the ground, planted the seed, tended the early shoots, trimmed the branches, and harvested the crop.

Over the decades, all have played a part in telling the stories.

The readers may remember the great stories, and listening to the names being read here this morning, many of us are conscious of so many of those great stories and those who told them.

But those with recognisable names would have been among the first to pay tribute to the roles played by those who went without by-lines, those who went unnoticed, yet who – like little mustard seeds – helped the reader to see the full picture.

Our intrinsic, individual value does not depend on how useful we were to the projects of others. It is seen, instead, when we were truly ourselves, when we spent time with those we love and those who love us, when we were in touch with our feelings, when we valued our friendships, when we were happy rather than ambitious.

Occasions like this morning are always tinged with sadness. But this morning is also made up of moments of joy too, moments when we realise that love is more important than ambition, when we know friendships are more important than careers, when we know we are blessed by others not because of what they do, but simply because they are.

And when we love, when we can cry together, then we can laugh together too.

John Betjeman was a press attaché in Dublin during World War II, and he plays an interesting role in journalism in Ireland at that time.

He was an immensely popular figure during his time in Dublin, learning the Irish language, socialising in Irish pubs, and becoming friends with many of Dublin’s journalists and literary figures.

When his official stay in Dublin came to an end in 1943, his departure made one of those great stories on the front page of The Irish Times.

In one of his less well-known poems, ‘The Last Laugh’, included in his 1974 collection, A Nip in the Air, John Betjeman wrote:

I made hay while the sun shone.
My work sold.
Now, if the harvest is over
And the world cold,
Give me the bonus of laughter
As I lose hold.

As we recall our friends and family members who have lost their hold on life, let us put their regrets behind them. As part of the great tree of life, whether they were tiny twigs, small leaves, little branches or great big trunks, we can remember them with the bonus of laughter and with the bonus of love.

For without them, we would not be who we are today.


Part of the reredos in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, inscribed with the Beatitudes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and a former Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times. This reflection was shared at a memorial service in the Unitarian Church, Dublin, for former staff members of The Irish Times on Saturday 16 June 2012.

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