01 May 2022

A stroke that was my first
health crisis since I was
diagnosed with sarcoidosis

A magnolia tree in a courtyard in Milton Keynes University Hospital … a reminder of nature in a confined area (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

It was quite a surprise to experience the trauma of a stroke on what should have been an extended weekend. I was in Stony Stratford, one of the towns that form part of Milton Keynes, when it became obvious that something was deeply wrong.

It was supposed to be a beautiful day. I went for a 5 km walk in the Buckinghamshire countryside, and I enjoyed a late lunch in the sunshine. But my speech became incoherent, my words were making no sense, and although I knew what I wanted to say no-one could understand what I was trying to say.

I was rushed to Milton Keynes University Hospital, and after more than a week, I was transferred to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. As I went through the first major medical crisis since I was diagnosed with sacrcoidosis in 2008 and a severe Vitamin B12 deficiency. I reminded myself of the beauty of the outside world with a magnolia tree in a courtyard in the hospital in Milton Keynes and a window view in Oxford of the rolling countryside. But it was the first time in over half a century that I can recall missing being at church on two successive Sundays.

Dr John Radcliffe … a copy of a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

John Radcliffe and
a king’s dropsical legs

I was moved from Milton Keynes University Hospital to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, one of the world’s leading centres of medical excellence and teaching hospitals. Informally known as the JR, this is the main teaching hospital for Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University.

The JR is part of the Oxford University Hospitals (OUH), a world renowned centre of clinical excellence and one of the largest NHS teaching trusts in the UK.

The JR first opened half a century ago in 1972, and the distinctive large white-tiled building stands on a prominent position on Headington Hill, about 5 km east of Oxford city centre. It replaced the Radcliffe Infirmary, the main hospital in Oxford from 1770 until 2007.

* * *

The hospital was built on the estate of Headington Manor, bought in 1919 from the executors of Colonel James Hoole, who died in 1917. But it was only in the 1970s that the first block of the present hospital was built on this land, dwarfing the old Manor House, which was first used as a training school for nurses and later as offices. The Radcliffe Infirmary completed its move to the old manor in 2007 and the Oxford Children’s Hospital opened in its grounds.

John Radcliffe (1650-1714) played an important role in the development of Oxford, albeit posthumously, through a large bequest to the university of £140,000 which became known as the Radcliffe Trust. He gives his name to the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Radcliffe Observatory, the Radcliffe Science Library, the John Radcliffe Hospital and, of course, the Radcliffe Camera, a landmark building in Radcliffe Square in the centre of Oxford.

Radcliffe’s main intention was to create a new library, the Radcliffe Camera. But after it was completed enough funds remained for many other buildings that now have the Radcliffe name.

Radcliffe always attributed his success to his Oxford education. He acquired a large fortune and as a private London doctor he had the rich, the royal and the famous among his patients. He was the physician to Queen Mary, King William III and Queen Anne.

Radcliffe once told Queen Anne, who thought she was ill, that her trouble was only ‘imaginitis.’ He too know about dropsy: he once offended William of Orange by referring to n his dropsical legs, saying ‘Sir, I would not have your two legs for your three kingdoms.’

The Radcliffe Camera in Radcliffe Square, Oxford, built in 1749 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eagle and Child,
Bird and Baby

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), who was Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1857-1867, first described Oxford as ‘the city of dreaming spires’ in his poem ‘Thyrsis.’

Seamus Heaney, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, was Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1989-1994 and was an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College. Other professors of poetry with Irish backgrounds include Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, Cecil Day-Lewis, Robert Graves and Paul Muldoon.

Once in the past, I tried to soak in the literary legacy of Oxford at the Eagle and Child, a pub in Saint Giles’ Street, between Pusey House and the Radcliffe Observatory. The pub was the venue for meetings of the Inklings, a group of writers who included JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Charles Williams.

The Inklings met on Thursday evenings at Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen, where they read and discussed their unfinished manuscripts. Their lunchtime gatherings in various Oxford pubs became a regular meetings over lunch at the Eagle and Child, also known affectionately as the ‘Bird and Baby’.

The Eagle and Child … the venue for lunchtime meetings of the Inklings, including JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Cock and Bull stories
in Stony Stratford

Eventually, when I left the John Radcliffe Hospital, I returned to Stony Stratford near Milton Keynes, where I woke each morning to the bells of the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles.

Those bells did not make up for missing church on two consecutive Sunday mornings, one after another. But they reminded me that these post-retirement days ring out new changes and are filled with joyful promise.

Radcliffe’s fortune came from the rents collected from the Wolverton Manor estate, which he bought in 1713 for £40,000. This included 2,500 acres of farmland and the whole east side of Stony Stratford’s High Street, where there were several large inns, including the Cock and the Bull.

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford dates from the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

* * *

Participants in pub quizzes and those who debate geographical terms may ask whether this part of Buckinghamshire is in the South Midlands or in the Home Counties. It seems appropriate then that Stony Stratford claims to have given the English-speaking world the original ‘Cock and Bull Story’.

At the height of the great coaching era, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Stony Stratford was an important stopping point for coaches travelling between London and Birmingham and on to the North and even to Ireland. Coach travellers were seen as a source of current news from remote parts of the country – news that was shared in the town’s two main coaching inns, the Cock and the Bull on the High Street.

The Cock Hotel has stood in one form or another on the current site since at least 1470, and the present building dates from 1742. The Bull is certainly older than 1600, and the present building dates from the late 18th century.

These two neighbouring inns rapidly developed a rivalry, seeking the most outlandish and scurrilous tales from travellers. Perhaps the Cock and the Bull became better known for their stories than the literary output at the Eagle and Child.

Stony Stratford maintains the tradition of spreading exaggerated yarns today with the recently revived Cock and Bull Story Society. But visitors these days may only get to hear half the story: the Cock is open, but the Bull has been closed since the Covid lockdowns.

The Cock Hotel … one half of the Cock and Bull stories (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
1 May 2022 (Psalm 67)

‘The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us’ (Psalm 67: 6) … the earth and the landscape at Old Wolverton near Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday of Easter (1 May 2022). During this season of Easter, I am reflecting each morning on the Psalms.

Later this morning, I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to reflect in this Prayer Diary on my blog in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 67:

Psalm 67 is often known by its opening words in Latin, Deus misereatur. In Jewish tradition, this is one of the psalms recited at the Service for the Conclusion of the Shabbat. In the variation in numbering in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, this is known as Psalm 66.

Psalm 67 an be divided it into three sections:

1 and 2,, verses 1-3 and 4-5: two broadly parallel sections in that seek God’s favour and blessing;

3, verses 6-7: this third section express universal joy as ‘all the nations’ experience God’s blessing.

Verses 3 and 5 are a repeated refrain:

Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

Psalm 67 shows how embracing and inclusive is God’s vision, God’s mission, God’s love. It is a psalm of thanksgiving whose key phrase is ‘The earth has yielded its increase’ or ‘The earth has yielded its harvest’ (verse 6).

The word ‘earth’ appears four times throughout this psalm in a variety of senses, suggesting that when we do God’s will on earth, the earth yields its blessings with the result that God is recognised by all nations of the earth.

The opening verse is reminiscent of the priestly blessing of the Cohanim: ‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us’ (verse 1):

May the Lord bless and protect you.
May the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you
May the Lord turn his face toward you, and give you peace
(Numbers 6: 24-26)

This psalm is a plea for the mercy of God, for his ‘saving health’ to be seen in all nations, for his righteous judgment, and for his governance of the world. When all of that is in place, ‘Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, and God, our own God, will bless us. God will bless us, and all the ends of the world shall fear him.’

God raises up his own, in the face of popular prejudice, and in spite of our prejudices, so that his saving health may be received and may be a blessing in all nations.

This psalm can be read as thanksgiving for an abundant harvest or a prayer for a good harvest. The blessing God gave to the people is extended to all nations, for he is the universal just ruler and guide and all people everywhere may hold God in awe.

When Adam was exiled from Eden, it was said, ‘Cursed be the ground because of you.’ This is reversed in this psalm, as we pray for the earth to be blessed.

In Jewish tradition, Psalm 67 is read during these evenings of ‘Counting of the Omer,’ the 49 evenings or seven complete weeks between the festivals of Pesach or Passover and Shavout or Pentecost. In the original Hebrew text, excluding the superscription, this psalm contains 49 words, corresponding to the days of Counting of the Omer.

Psalm 67 as Deus Misereatur was introduced into the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer as a Canticle for Evening Prayer, as an alternative to the main canticles.

This one of only four canticles that are provided in the traditional language in the Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland [see p 134] – the others are Urbs Fortitudinis, Cantate Domino, and A Song of the Light, although modern language versions may be found either in the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer or in the Irish Church Hymnal.

Thomas Tallis, Samuel Adler and Charles Ives composed musical settings of Psalm 67. The Revd Henry Francis Lyte, the author of ‘Abdie with me’ and a former curate of Taghmon, Co Wexford, wrote an English hymn paraphrase of this psalm, ‘God of mercy, God of grace,’ generally sung to the tune ‘Heathlands’ by Henry Smart.

‘Let the nations be glad and sing for joy’ (Psalm 67: 4) … flags of the nations at a shop in Kalambaka near the monasteries of Meteora in central Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 67 (NRSVA):

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2 that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.

6 The earth has yielded its increase;
God, our God, has blessed us.
7 May God continue to bless us;
let all the ends of the earth revere him.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Truth Telllers,’ and is introduced this morning by Steve Cox, Chair of Christians in the Media. He writes:

Edmund Burke, the 18th Century Anglo-Irish statesman, was reported to have said; ‘There are Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.’

This respect for the media has been severely shaken in recent years. Yet, at its very best, the media continues to hold those in power to account, to call out injustice where it is seen, and unseen, and to be a voice to the voiceless.

It is crucial we support a free and independent press, while maintaining strong regulatory oversight. In a world of powerful, and quickly emerging, media platforms, Christians in Media will always be objective, and question where necessary, but not be afraid to highlight a media that brings us facts, information and truth.

As Christians, we pray for those in the media to uncover the beauty of hope, love and renewal that blossom in the debris of conflict, greed and exploitation. We pray that everyone in the media turn their weapons of word and image into ploughshares of peace and reconciliation.

We pray World Press Freedom Day continues to support the ‘Truth Tellers’ and uphold freedom of expression and information as a public good.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (1 May 2022) invites us to pray:

Amazing God,
you reach the stubborn and the cynical.
Teach us to be empathetic and understanding
as we seek to spread the Word.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘There are Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all’ … Edmund Burke’s statue outside Trinity College Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org