I've always felt like rather a rootless person. My dad was a Scot who left his roots and came to England: my mother was born in India in the days of the Raj and had to leave in 1947. Before I was born they had moved several times and they carried on doing so as I grew up, together with my brothers, Ian, Andrew and Douglas. At first it was because Dad was in the army. I remember a lovely spell in Cyprus when he was posted there. After he left the Army our moves continued, because of work and the housing market.
I think the crunch came when I was 13 and we had what turned out to be the last move for some years, to Kent. I had reached the age where the childish innocence that does not look too far ahead was no longer available to me. I knew that I would never see the friends I had made in our last place again. I gave up trying to make new friends. What was the point? I would only lose them again. I became miserable and withdrawn. I failed to appreciate the good points of my travels - that I had met lots of people and lived in lots of places that I would never have seen if I had stayed in the same town all my life.
This sense of loneliness and emptiness had a lot to do with my conversion - but I'll do another entry about that. Finding that God loved me was a great healer for my personality and helped me to open up to other people in new ways. I'll never be a Graham Norton or a Muhammad Ali (thank goodness!) but at least I'm not permanently stuck in wallflower mode. However when God called me to be a vicar I knew I would be facing more moves, more farewells and more heartache. I sometimes look with envy at communities like Walsall, where many people have known one another all their lives and have deep friendships going back to childhood.
So it was one of the highlights of my year to meet up with some old university friends recently. I suppose my sense of the inevitability of the loss of friends had influenced me not to keep in touch with them as I could easily have done. Sometimes we collude with our own negative attitudes and turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. So thank God for Chris, who put the energy in and brought us all together: Chris, Simon, Max, Jon and myself. I was the most centrally located, so we all had lunch at my place and a wonderful time of catching up.
For we were The Five - a bunch of Christians who were all poets! We'd even managed to publish a small anthology. We soon discovered that our main inspiration came from unrequited love, so we took a vow that if any of us got engaged we would be ceremonially dumped in the River Cam by the others. I'm pleased to say I've escaped so far - Weil's and who knows what other diseases lurk that way. I did however receive, soon after meeting Elisa, an envelope marked "Warning! Contains 10,000 gallons of dehydrated Cam water". Anyway, we're all married now, so the only thing to do would be to all jump in together.
Although we have all been marked and changed in various ways by life's experiences, it was such a golden time to be together. We worked out that we were within a few days of our 30th anniversary of leaving university and splitting up. I can't tell you how our reunion has lifted me. "I have got friendships going back 30 years! I'm not so different from the people around me who have roots - I have a rootlet or five myself!" And of course we're going to meet again very soon, and make it a regular event, and re-explore those roots.
Ultimately we all share a longing for roots. This longing reflects our needs for identity and security. We sometimes look for roots in places - that's why we slap preservation orders on them - and sometimes on churches - that's why society wants them to be museums instead of living, worshipping communities. We're on stronger ground when we look for them in relationships with others. But even those relationships cannot last forever.
My dear and rediscovered friends have all been marked by the experiences that have altered us, and we are all reaching an age where we cannot help being aware of our mortality. The sad thing is that we have no lasting roots while we are on this planet.
I think our desire for roots ultimately points us towards our need to be rooted in the love of God, the only place where they can really last. A beautiful verse from the Bible says, "God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men - yet they cannot fathom what He has done." Here are both the reality of the roots and the longing to find them, the temporaneity and the eternity. As another passage says, we are aliens and strangers on the earth, nomads longing for a better country, our heavenly home in God's love.
Meanwhile, what of The Five? We're all still writing so we are starting to work up another little anthology. It probably won't be the publishing sensation of 2008, but that's not the point. Here's one of my contributions - interestingly enough it's about being rooted, pictured in a forest, but gradually withdrawing from outward roots to focus more and more on inward roots in the love of God. I hope you enjoy it. If you have any thoughts about it, please post them on the blog.
Nothing hurts the eye's peace
But a leaf's small trembling:
Only the tree-dew dropping
Plops in the ear's stillness:
Here in this small pause
Life's million wars upon the heart
Let lapse away, release
The grip kept tight about the soul,
That she too may enter on peace.
Now is the pure moment
Of my unquiet residence
In this two yards of clay,
You and I as all:
I in my swamp of hope,
Memory and desire, You
In the pure circle of eternity
And Your circle touches me
And the word of Your touch is love.