As I mentioned in a short post yesterday, I found blogging on the road uncongenial. Quite aside from being tired out from the day’s activities, I simply found the strange surroundings an impediment to clear thought, though I had many interesting and helpful conversations with those at the conference. I guess I’m just a “stay-at-home” type of guy now that I am starting into my seventies, and no longer have my beloved companion to journey with me. Anyway, today I am going to begin the process of putting up the whole of my presentation to the Eschaton Conference in Ottawa, since I didn’t get the chance to do it on Saturday afternoon, as I had hoped. I think what I did say had some effect and I had some positive feedback, but I was uncomfortable, because I could see that my presentation was too long, and I am not good at speaking off the cuff, especially to a group of people about personal things. So, in this post I am going to put up the first half of the presentation, and tomorrow I will provide the second half, so that you will have the whole to chew on for a while. It is, even for me, as I see now, too long, even though it is slightly less than half the length of my first try at it. The presentation as a whole has the title “This, really, is all about Elizabeth.” This is Part I. It is, really, a story about how Elizabeth and I fell in love, and what that meant to us, and, of course, in this context, especially to me. This is important, I hope you can see, because, in fact, religion was doing in my life something that only love could provide – not the imagined love of a god, but the real life-giving love of a flesh-and-blood human being.
I owe so much to Elizabeth that being able to speak about our love is very important to me, and to what I do here on the blog and elsewhere. Unlike Jerry Coyne’s great website, Why Evolution is True, ceci est un blog, et aussi un website. Il ne fait aucune différence. This link will take you to Jerry’s website, where he has an article about Jesus Christ lizards!
This, really, is all about Elizabeth – I
In order to understand what I have to say, and why I say it, you need to know something about Elizabeth and me, how we came together in love, and how that coming together transformed my life. I say that this is really all about Elizabeth, because Elizabeth was the one bright spot in an otherwise ordinary and unhappy life. She was transformative, and whatever I am now is a product of the love that we shared for nearly twenty years. Besides that, Elizabeth wanted me to tell others of our love, because that is what gave her life meaning, and she knew that that is what made my life possible, after years of emptiness. Since I owe so much to her, I felt that I needed to fulfil her wish, and tell others about something that was so important to her. In her journal she spoke of me getting published about our love, and said that that was her wish. So, this is, really, all about Elizabeth. Among other things, then, I need to tell you about her, how I came to love her, and how she became such a vital part of my life.The meaning and purpose of life did not, for me, come from religion. That’s worth saying twice. Meaning and purpose in life did not, for me, come from religion. It all began with Elizabeth. This is not hyperbole, but simple fact, and, interestingly, Elizabeth felt the same way. When we came together, suddenly, for both of us, life began to make sense, though suffering would later test the limits of the sense that love made of our lives. My life had always been saturated by religion, so it had lots of chance to make a difference, but it contributed nothing at all to the sense that life had purpose or direction. Indeed, for the most part, it did not. In the light of what people say about the value of religion, this, it seems worthwhile to point out, is not necessarily the way that religion functions for everyone.
Of course, you might think that I lived in an enchanted world. While I was born (in 1941) into a world torn apart by war, I did not understand about war until much later, by which time my mother and father had taken me to India, where my father served as a United Church missionary. And India is, in many ways, an exotic and wonderfully beautiful place. But growing up there compounded the difficulty of finding meaning in life, for all its beauty and wonder. History, in India, was palpable; everywhere you looked there were architectural and historical wonders, some of them centuries old, like the Great Stupa at Sanchi, which was built by command of the emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century. Actually, it’s a giant reliquary to hold relics of the Buddha. And you are surely all familiar with the famous Taj Mahal (or Crown of Palaces), built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favourite wife Mumtaz.
However, none of these cultural riches belonged in any sense to me. Much as I came to love India, I could not make a home there, for leaving India and going “home” was part of the structure of missionary life. Though I grew up in India, we never integrated with the surrounding culture, and I was educated in an artificial culture, which was “neither fish nor fowl,” a kind of third culture I was just a temporary visitor, then, from another world, even though all my school years were spent in a boarding school in Mussoorie, a hill station in the north of India, in what were colloquially known simply as “the Hills.” My years at school were unhappy ones, and even though the mountains became a passion, and the distant “Snows” a lure hard to resist, I felt lost and very alone.
This had a great deal to do with my parents. My father was stern and formal, although just to let me know who was boss he once whipped me with his belt, when I was about five years old. A cold stare was all he needed, to enforce his writ, after that. My mother was a tyrant, and beat me senseless and often. When I was sent away to school I felt unwanted, for abused children yearn for acceptance, and experience separation as rejection; this I felt with a bitterness and a sense of worthlessness and incompetence that endured until Elizabeth and I were brought in love together.
Of course, there were memorable exceptions, though I never experienced the joy of childhood. This, for example, is Kedarnath, a peak in the beguiling, distant “Snows,” which I visited when I was fifteen or sixteen. The Kedarnath glacier was famous and holy for being one of the sources of the Ganges, holy to Hindus, and so it became a place of pilgrimage, and pilgrims bathe in the icy waters flowing from the glacier itself.
The black and white photo of the temple at Kedarnath is one that I took myself with my Kodak “Brownie Hawkeye” camera in 1956 or 1957 (not quite sure). The picture of the mountain is etched on Elizabeth’s and my gravestone, a reminder, perhaps, of “home.”
Given this background, it is not surprising that my early adult life, and my first marriage, should have gone so very wrong, as indeed they did. For this reason it would be terribly wrong of me to suggest that the blame for the breakdown of the marriage fell on any shoulders but mine. Nevertheless, it was a painful experience, and it was Elizabeth who rescued me from this, and made my life, for the first time, full of purpose. Elizabeth made all the difference. She was an astonishing woman. Bright, witty, with a photographic memory that wowed everyone who knew her, she filled my life with the radiance of her brightness and love. I owe my life to her.
However, let’s get us together first. She was only fifteen when I began work in the parish, and we met only by chance. Her family, although Anglican, were not churchgoers. When her younger sister, was preparing for confirmation, her mother insisted that Elizabeth went as well, and so our fateful meeting took place – in this church. On their way home from that first encounter, as I discovered much later, Elizabeth’s cousin teased her, chanting in a children’s rhyme that she had fallen in love with the minister.
My marriage, such as it was, was a disaster almost from the start, and by the summer of 1987 I had reached a point not far from despair. By that time I already knew that I was attracted to Elizabeth, who was 19 at the time. Of course I was. She was gorgeous. However, I never thought of it as an attraction that had any mileage as a close relationship. I was simply too old.
Besides, though by that time, especially for the safety of the children, I thought the marriage should be brought to an end, it is unlikely that I would have done anything about it. It’s not easy for a priest to do this, anyway, and I lacked all self-confidence or any sense of worth by that time. I was confused and uncertain about the future. Indeed, I feared for it.
When did I love her first? I don’t know. However, I do know that I had become increasingly aware of Elizabeth over the years. She was simply always there. She came to all the special services, and she scarcely missed a Sunday. But more than that: almost always, when I was driving in the parish, I would see her on her bike. When I was at my desk, which overlooked the road, she would often ride past the Rectory. Even at night, in the dark, she would be there, as I returned from a meeting, usually just the other side of the bridge below the Rectory. She was simply always there. As I say in one of my poems: “She weaved a filmy web of warm / and undemanding friendship that grew into a world.”
I speak of her weaving a web, because, as I learned later, she intentionally put herself in places where our paths would cross. She believed that my marriage was falling apart – as it was – and when it did, she wanted to be there to pick up the pieces. She even decided not to go to university, on the strength of this, fearing that if she did she might miss her chance. Later she would say jokingly that she “stalked” me! Whatever it was, it worked! Over the years, she became so much a part of my life that, when she was not there, I missed her. For a priest, it’s always a bit of a fillip when a young person takes an interest in the church, and that’s all, at the time, I thought it was.
But around her 19th birthday, she began to put herself forward a bit more actively, though even that, for a young person involved in the church, was unremarkable. About that time, for example, there was a Youth Conference on Prince Edward Island, in which I was to take part, and it had been advertised in the parish. Elizabeth wanted to go, and the parish paid her registration fee. Since I was going, she travelled with me. And there was, as I recall now, a vague but real sense that something was changing in our relationship as we travelled together.
She accompanied me to a day-long conference a few weeks later. A bond was certainly beginning to form, yet even then, it is only in retrospect that I can say that I was falling in love with her. There were too many other worries, too many years between us, so it never occurred to me at the time that I was anything more than a friend, though she was a beautiful girl and fun to be with.
In retrospect it seems that it was more than that, but only in retrospect. For at the time I was really trying to save what was left of the “marriage,” despite feeling that it should come to an end, and we were in the process just then of buying a house, which, I had been assured, would make a big difference. I convinced the parish to sell the Rectory, and to provide a living allowance instead. Elizabeth actually helped with the move to the new house, and after that, increasingly, she became a frequent visitor. But it was the house itself that led to the crisis that brought the marriage tumbling down. After that the problem was how really to bring it to an end. It was mid-October 1987.
It was after that, though slowly, that Elizabeth really began to come into focus for me. The difference in our ages was too great to be overcome, in the first place, so my “attraction,” such as it was, seemed to have little place to go. That’s what I thought. But by Christmas that year it began to seem to me that that is what it was, and my heart simply leapt whenever I saw her, which was now more often. She was, by that time, almost a member of the family, and whenever she was there, there was peace.
Towards the end of January 1988 things began, suddenly, to click! It was another of those times when, quite by chance, we were alone together. There was an announcement of a religious film to be shown in a local cinema. I would not have chosen to go myself, but Elizabeth wanted to go, and asked if she could go with us. My “wife” wasn’t a bit interested, so Elizabeth and I went together. It seemed almost like a “date”! Indeed, after the movie, I bought her a hot fudge sundae, which seemed perfectly innocent up to the point where she asked if I would like a taste, and then she fed me and herself alternately as we drove home. This seemed to signify a change in our relationship, but it still could not erase the 27 years between us.
I had an occasion a day or so later to explore with Elizabeth how she saw the change in our relationship, whether she was just a friend or something more. By then she was something more to me. If she felt anything, she gave no sign of it. She told me much later that she knew what I had wanted to know, but it was not her place, she thought, to intrude. She believed that, if my marriage were truly over, I would come to her. She was deeply convinced of that. So the next move would have to be mine. It seems inevitable, now, that I should have gone to her, though it was neither intended nor planned. Driving her home from a visit at the new house, we stopped at a yield sign so that I could look back up the road (a very sharp Y, so that I had to lean over and look back and to the right in order to see), and we simply blended together in a kiss, as ardent as it was unexpected. Elizabeth used my name then for the very first time: “Oh, Eric!” she said passionately, and kissed me again. Moments later she was home, breathless with expectation.
That kiss, however, changed everything, and there was no going back. I had allowed myself to think the impossible, and suddenly it was real. I will not tell you of our “courtship.” It was certainly not a conventional one. It had to be carried out under the radar, so to speak, because married priests are not supposed to fall in love with younger women in their parishes! The ride was a bit bumpy for a while, because my “job” was on the line, for one thing, and a lifetime of moral habit was being overturned, and I was still very insecure. Elizabeth, however, remained constant.
Looking back, it was also a joyous time. We did so many things together, and it is astonishing, looking at the pictures that I took at the time, how many different places we went, and how much time we spent in each other’s company.
There was, though, something that I could not deny, for suddenly I found myself in love for the very first time, truly, head over heels, joyfully, deeply in love. It began with that kiss. It is obvious to me now that I was more than half in love with Elizabeth a long time before that, and pictures that I treasure now, show, I think, that I was being drawn, slowly but ineluctably, into the circle of her love.
And knowing that I was in love, I knew that I had never loved anyone before. That I simply could not deny, for if this was love, this was something entirely new. Our love was unique in some respects. It was a love that never diminished in intensity, from that first kiss, until the last, about fifteen minutes before she died.
Elizabeth became a card-carrying pot-smoker, as she called it — an exemption granted by Health Canada – and she kept a journal for her doctor, which I did not get to read until she had died. She called her journal the Cannabis Chronicles (edited by Mary Wanna, and published by Holy Smoke Publishers, Inc., a division of If Pigs Could Fly — her business was called Pennypig Printing and Design). On 20th January 2003 (almost exactly 15 years from that first kiss) she wrote:
With each passing hour my love for Eric increases. Sometimes I think my heart will break with the overflow of emotion. If there were ever two people who were made for each other then it is us – we complement each other perfectly.
We both felt this, as I can confirm. It was an irrepressible feeling, just as she says, as though one’s heart would burst with the surfeit of emotion. That “honeymoon” period of our love never came to an end.
I wish I could capture that sense for you, and express it, for there was a radiance about Elizabeth that is hard to describe, a deep, inner joy, in the presence of which the world itself seemed to glow with borrowed radiance. Perhaps this picture, taken with the ponies on Dartmoor, will give you a sense of the sheer brightness of her spirit.
She knew the secret heart of being joyful, right until the end of her life. Being with her was the richest experience I have ever known. I will not know its like again. I tell you this, because Elizabeth wanted me to speak of our love, as I said. That was life’s meaning, for her — and for me too.
After that first, passionate kiss, and seal of our love, my soon to be ex-wife moved out a few weeks later. There was no point hiding the fact that I was truly in love with someone else, and so it had to end, almost as soon as Elizabeth and I had exchanged our vows of love, and from that day onward Elizabeth cared for the children, looked after the house, cooked many of our meals, helped with homework, managed our finances, and, perhaps most importantly, for me, took on the healing of a man 27 years older than herself, who had been deeply hurt by life. Rather amazingly, as we found out later, people in the parish assumed that we were living together. But we did not do so until we were married on 29th October 1989, with the blessing of the church.
By then, Elizabeth had unravelled the knotted skein of a lifetime’s distress. Her love made all the difference. For the first time in my life I spoke freely and openly, and she listened, and she understood, and slowly, patiently, with a wisdom far beyond her years, she began to put me back together again. An important stage in the process came in the fall of 1988. Elizabeth was outside raking and burning leaves, and she came into the house with a small red maple leaf. She handed it to me with great solemnity, and said, “There, now you have a country.” The weight and significance of that small gesture very nearly undid me on the spot.
When Elizabeth agreed to marry me, she told me that she was not really a believer, and had not been for some time, but she was happy to take part in the life of the church so long as I understood that it was, for her, a cultural thing. Religion had been part of the very texture of my life. In a very real sense it was my only cultural identity, and so I’m not sure that for me it was not also cultural. Sometimes I wished it could be more; but with Elizabeth that no longer mattered, and what had been a lacklustre, pointless life became one of happiness and bright purpose.
This, however, makes what I do now very difficult. For it was, after all, the church that brought us together, and it was my life in the church that provided the context and community in which our love could flourish and we should become one. Not one day passed, in the years since we first kissed, that we did not speak passionately of our love for each other. It was the one certainty that neither of us ever questioned. The community of the church was the context in which that love flourished, so my opposition to the church now, because I see it as having been a harm to Elizabeth, even when we least understood this, is qualified by that relationship, and it makes what I do seem like a betrayal. But the church betrayed Elizabeth, in my view, and I could no longer stand with it.
I had begun, quite early in my priesthood, to speak about assistance in dying. I did not see any reason why people should have to die in ways dictated by their diseases, and was instantly taken with Dawkins’ idea (when I came to read it) of having one’s life “taken out” under an anaesthetic. The “sanctity of life” principle, quite frankly, never made sense to me. As a priest, of course, I had accompanied many as they died, many times in great pain and distress, and, in one case, suffering so horrendous and unrelenting that her last hour was only one, long, uninterrupted scream. These experiences intensified my sense of the injustice of forcing people to suffer until they died “naturally,” as Christians so casually speak of dying in indescribably horrible ways.
The church’s councils always opposed me in this, though I little thought that it would affect me someday, so deeply, so personally and so indelibly. I gave the Primate (or head) of the Anglican Church of Canada a paper I had written in response to the church’s “discussion paper” on assisted dying, predictably entitled “Care in Dying,” but I received no response from him. I might have pressed harder, but by this time I did not think that real change in the church was possible. So much, though, for so-called “discussion” papers, for the same paper still exists today as the only expression of the Anglican Church of Canada’s position on assisted dying. That is, to my mind, a scandal.
Elizabeth knew, as if by instinct, that she would soon die. She knew it almost from the moment she knew she had MS, and she said, even before seeing a neurologist, that, if her MS was as bad as Doug’s, as it seemed, by then, that it might be, she would not stay around. Doug was a man who was completely paralysed by MS. He died a few years after Elizabeth’s MS began, and I buried him. The fact that he had tried to die by an overdose of drugs was an object lesson for Elizabeth as to what the future might bring. Doug was saved by his wife. Elizabeth made sure that I knew that she was not to be rescued, should she make that choice. She saw Doug’s life as a preview of what her own might be, and by the time Doug died, Elizabeth’s life had already begun to go down the same path. But she made it clear from the very start that she refused to be trapped in her body.
Almost with her first symptom she was in great pain. MS opponents of assisted dying, who think that if one person with MS seeks to die, it means that everyone with MS ought to die, say that the pain of MS can be controlled. This was not Elizabeth’s experience, nor is it the experience of all who suffer from MS.
What turned out to be Elizabeth’s first obvious symptom of MS happened on 6th September 1998. By November she walked with difficulty. Asked by her neurologist to identify the level of her pain on a scale of one to ten, on her meeting with him, early in 1999, to receive her official diagnosis, she said, “Eleven or twelve. I look down at my legs,” she explained, “and I expect to see shattered bones sticking out through the skin. That’s what it feels like.” She was very Stoical about it, but there was nothing that gave her much relief, though she tried practically everything, and as her range of motion diminished more and more, and her life became more circumscribed and limited, she dwelt more often on how she would end her life, and when. Even so, she never lost her zest for life.
She did nothing about this until the eighth anniversary of her first symptom, when she tried, on her own, to take her life, and it did not work. When I walked into her rooom, where she worked on her computer, and at her stamp eollecting, and had her exercise machine, I found her slumped over her desk, in front of her computer. She had a sign on her back that told me to check for a heartbeat, and, if she were dead, to call the funeral home. But she was still breathing, about two or three seconds between each breath. So I moved her to the bed, and lay with her for the next 36 hours or so until she woke up again, terribly confused, and increasingly disappointed that it had not worked.
But it did give us nine more months to enjoy our love together, and, in the end, her wish came true, and she died, peacefully, lying in my arms, eight years, nine months, and two days since her first symptom. It was a great injustice that Elizabeth was forced to go to Switzerland, and died before she otherwise might have done, had assisted dying been legal here. And I do not forget that she had already died once, to all intents and purposes, alone. For these things I hold the churches responsible. I do not intend to let them forget.
It is important to understand that it was loving and being loved in return made all the difference. And the difference it made was evident in my changing relationship with the church and with Christian believing. Indeed, as the years wound down to my retirement, I found it harder and harder to say what I did believe, if I believed anything at all. God seemed to be not only an irrelevance, but an impediment.
Normally, the bishop would take the funeral for a member or spouse of the clergy, but Elizabeth’s memorial service, though held in the parish where we had spent so much of our life together, was not held in the church, and it was entirely non-religious, where God was mentioned only to be criticised, not to express belief. I spoke about my loss of faith, and condemned the church for its stand on assisted dying. There was apparently great concern about the effect my words might have had on all the faithful who had come to say farewell to their much beloved Elizabeth, but those expressing such concern were told, “Oh, there’s no need to worry. He didn’t say anything today that we haven’t heard before.” And that was true. One friend had warned me that I was talking myself out of a job which I very nearly did. Or, perhaps I did, and people were simply too polite to point it out. And, while I probably have more respect for Christian believing and Christian theology than many others who no longer believe, I can no longer stand with the church. I can, to a certain extent, resonate to the idea of living within a cultural myth, and shaping community around it; but I can no longer live with the ethical implications of such a practice.
Paul van Buren speaks of Christian theology as something that is done by those who have been struck in a special way by a story (meaning the story in the Bible, including the Jewish scriptures, and the (antisemitically named) New Testament). The problem with this is that it does not provide a basis, outside the story, for establishing moral standards. Even in an entirely different age to the one in which the various writings in the Christian Bible were written, no matter how much theology is a revision of revisions of those who were struck initially by the story, so that it became their story, the Bible has a braking effect on moral change. It can only pretend that it has access to God’s will. Indeed, in many cases, it makes moral change virtually impossible. And since churches endeavour to influence the laws that govern all of us, I can no longer associate with a community that simply cannot grow into the future without loyalties to a questionable past. The continued authority of the story within the Christian community is more of a deficit than a benefit. Some Christian ministers, like Scott McKenna, support assisted dying, but they are intolerably few. I see no way in which the church at large can modify its stand on assisted dying without undergoing such radical change that it would no longer be recognisable as Christianity. I talk about this in the second half of this presentation
Now you see why I didn’t have enough time! This half clocks in at 5079 words. Some of them are additional to my original presentation, but most of them are original.