Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A mentor

It was a long cycle ride for tea at the Limes across the Oxfordshire countryside more than twenty years ago.

I was the 'programme co-ordinator' at The Abbey: an experiment in therapeutic living and Christian life that was flawed by two gifted founders with unacknowledged differences of vision (and practice). I was going to visit Michael, one of the Abbey's trustees, to explore future life options. I had an idea for a 'vocation network' that I wanted to try out on him (that probably required the new social media, then not thought of, to be realized in practice)! We had tea in that unique house, part aged, part creation of Jenny, Michael's energetic, creative and eccentric wife, now sadly dead and we became friends.

Michael helped find me my first real job in the charitable sector with a trust of which he was trustee (and with which I remain connected).

He is now nearly ninety-one, and frail. He complains that his mind no longer performs, and it does spend more time reaching after that precision with words that is a hallmark (and sometimes gives up) but both his interest in you and his questions remain alert and real.

I went to see him this evening and it both gladdens as meeting with him always does and saddens for it is a meeting that speaks of ageing, and the cost of ageing.

I deeply love his 'revelations' - a discovery of a new world most notably granted to him through music. I remember him returning from an intense weekend of listening to Oliver Messiaen music and he had been transported - both in his appreciation and within the dimensions of grace that Messiaen sought.

He is open to such gifts, carrying a discovering, inquisitive wonder with him that remains, if subdued by the inconveniences of age, still real (as this evening's conversation continued to illustrate). He confessed once that, unlike the presumed common pattern, he became more, not less, radical with age.

You cannot leave such encounters without a sense of the sadness of passing time, of the inrush of memory, and yet too with hope of the continuance of a graced, befriended existence that lives vividly still.

I found myself recalling a vivid conversation on Tarkovsky. Susan Fleetwood, who had acted so consummately well in Tarkovsky's last film, The Sacrifice, had been the long term partner of Michael's son, and he shared her stories of acting under the demanding gaze of this genius and I of my encounter with the said genius in London.

We both recognized in him that extraordinary quality of embodied stillness of allowing an image to be itself and speak reality (not to stand as a symbol pointing beyond itself but to 'be' and be translucent to transcendence). I remember him being asked why rain figured so prominently in his films, what did it symbolize? 'No symbolism,' he replied, 'just rain'! What does it require of us to experience 'just rain' in all its naked suchness? It made Tarkovsky the most musical of directors where the image is the struck notes in combination, utterly themselves in composition, rather than standing in for something else, understood on their own terms. I arrived at Tarkovsky by painting, Michael by music and we illuminated each other's understanding beautifully.

One of many conversations - from the mystical to the practical demands of a charity's organization - that I trust will continue long, even with the accompanying challenges of an ageing frame.

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