The last week has been an odd one in several ways. I, like several of my colleagues, have been away from the Cathedral Close on a clergy residential conference. These happen every few years, and are an opportunity for the clergy of the diocese to gather with our bishop to study, do some thinking together, and socialise. They are great occasions, and useful in all sorts of ways.
For me, this conference was different in a number of ways. On Monday of last week I received two pieces of news which were unwelcome and distressing. A friend of mine who I trained with at theological college was killed in a road traffic accident on Sunday driving home from the ordination service here in Salisbury. He was 35 years old, and quite apart from being a brilliant mind and a kind and loving priest, he was a wonderful human being. His death seems senseless to me in so many ways, and all sorts of feelings of anger and confusion arise.
On the same day I saw my neurologist who diagnosed me with Multiple Sclerosis. I have been suffering from a variety of symptoms for some while now, the most obvious of which for folk who see me in and around the cathedral day by day is difficulty in walking. It has been a stressful and at times quite frightening six months or so for me, and indeed for my wife Emma, and whilst the diagnosis is of course unwelcome, it does mean that for the first time I am clear about what is happening to me, and how it can be treated.
Many people are familiar with Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, but for those who are not, it is an auto-immune disease which attacks the central nervous system. The coating around the nerves is damaged and restricts the messages being sent from the brain to the muscles of the body. It can result in a number of symptoms, no one knows what causes it, and there is no cure for the disease at the moment. It is not a terminal illness, and the symptoms can come and go over time. I have what they refer to as relapsing remitting MS, which means that I might expect to experience periods when my symptoms are worse, and then periods when they are better. I will be seeing various specialists who will be able to try me on some drug treatments which might be able to relieve the symptoms, and there will need to be physiotherapy and sensible lifestyle adjustments. There is no way of knowing how often or how severely I will experience symptoms however, and that uncertainty is frightening and unsettling. I will probably have to rethink some of the ways I do my job from time to time, and that will take some time to do. I hope that you will be patient with me while I do that. I am as committed to this cathedral and its community as ever, and am looking forward to carrying on serving as your Precentor and engaging in all the wonderful and exciting work that lies ahead.
One of the really helpful things that one of the speakers talked about last week was this idea that St Paul writes about in the Bible that we are rather like clay pots in which God places the treasures which he gives us, which are a bit like a candle or something precious and bright flickering with gold and glory. Sometimes the clay cracks and becomes brittle and infirm, but actually even if that happens, the light and the glory just shines out through the cracks, and the good things stored up for us by God don’t change at all. I feel rather broken and infirm at the moment, not only because of my diagnosis, but also in my bereavement. Each one of us feels these sorts of things from time to time. We carry with us as we move through life the scars and the bruises of all sorts of trials and challenges. Some of us face very real tragedy, and for some, like my friend, life is quite literally taken away. The clay is brittle and vulnerable. How wonderful to reflect that the treasure stored within us is not. Deep within the heart of us flickers the light of the presence of God which never goes out, and never fails. Right down deep in the middle of all that it weak and vulnerable and fragile is something absolutely permanent and constant, and which speaks of hope and glory. My hope is that you will be ready to do some thinking about these things with me over the next months and years. I would value your company on this next stage of the journey.