BY Amanda Connelly | August 3 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

10-BOLLAN-CLYDE

‘There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something’

In a final dispatch from THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS, Fr Bollan looks at the words of Tolkein, as he says his goodbyes - By FR JOHN BOLLAN

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned being overtaken by a wave of nostalgia, remembering our childhood reenactments of various scenes from The Lord of the Rings as we rampaged through the bracken-clad hills overlooking Greenock. I resolved to re-read Tolkien’s masterpiece for the umpteenth time over the school holidays and so, indeed, I have.

It was only as I immersed myself in this oh-so-familiar story, that I realised something else may have been ticking away at the back of my head. A sizeable chunk of the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring is all about finding ways of leave-taking and the different ways folk (of the human and halfling varieties) actually say goodbye to the people and places they love.

The reason these incidental themes have suggested themselves quite forcibly to me of late is that, after lots of prayer and reflection, I have decided to step down as parish priest of St Joseph’s.

My decision has been based as much on fatigue as anything else. Like the old Hobbit Bilbo, I too have been feeling ‘thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.’ Although, thanks to my real-life butter habit (never scraped), ‘thin’ isn’t the first word I’d use to describe myself.

As the story unfolds, it turns out that it’s not just Bilbo who must leave, but his young cousin, Frodo, must too. This time, it is to escape the eye and the reach of Sauron, the Lord of the Rings himself. It is while on this epic journey that he finds himself waylaid by Ringwraiths and stabbed by a blade which leaves him thereafter with a pain that never wholly leaves him. Ironically, it was often that scene we would re-create in our low budget staging of the attack on Weathertop (also known as ‘the Cut’).

Just as the trilogy begins with leavings, so too does its ending. The danger averted, evil defeated, the diminutive heroes of the piece head across the sea to the Grey Havens in search of the healing and refreshment they need. Although the Shire, the home of the Hobbits has been saved, it has not been without cost. Explaining his decision to leave the Shire, Frodo tells his companion Sam, ‘It must often be so, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.’

Tolkien was a clever man—a genius even—but little did I realise that he had clairvoyant powers, as he captured and set down just what had been percolating in my mind for a long time. He was, of course, a man of deep Faith and those who are attuned to it can hear echoes of the Gospel on almost every page. The rhythms of losing and finding, of dying and rising are written into this tale of powerful wizards and little folk.

Alongside the fatigue which has really dogged my steps since I arrived here—doing two full-time jobs at once (here and Glasgow University) for the first year was never going to be an auspicious start—I have picked up the odd bit of shrapnel over the past quarter century.

Yes, there are one or two physical things to sort out which have impinged on my energy levels—nothing life-threatening I hasten to add—but these should be easily resolved with rest and some not-too invasive interventions.

Much trickier is the process of detaching myself from the parish and the people: although some subtle hints have been dropped this past while, there were still a few gasps from the congregation when I announced my departure a couple of weeks ago. That said, one or two couldn’t refrain from punching the air in celebration.

I think people are generally, and genuinely, more sympathetic to the situation of their priests than was the case even a decade ago. Running a parish is a complex thing at times (and those who have two or three to manage will know that only too well) and it can be very easy to lose sight of what it’s all meant to be about.

Pope Francis is fond of likening the Church to a field hospital, where the walking wounded of life can expect a welcome and some tender, loving care. That said, we have to recognise that priests themselves get wounded, anxious or run-down as well their ‘patients.’

We can sometimes try too hard to mask our vulnerabilities and our weariness and, as I’ve said before, whether that’s behind a mask of manic cheerfulness or defensive abruptness, it seldom bodes well. A lot of our occasionally erratic behaviour can be attributed to trying to be all things to all people. St Paul might have pulled it off (1 Corinthians 9:22), but most of us end up like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, blithely dancing our way into the pool.

As the saying goes, ‘you have to go away to come back’—a piece of Tolkienian wisdom if ever there was one. Distance lends perspective in all things. What we (all of us) need to do is maintain, or recover if it’s been lost, a sense of the Church as a body not a brand. Although ‘Christian’ or ‘Catholic’ is our name, it’s not our label.

Unlike Burberry, who recently torched £30 million of unsold goods to maintain ‘brand integrity,’ men and women of Faith need to be focused on looking out for the good of the other and not their own reputation or the ‘integrity’ of the label. When people feel excluded or discarded, they seldom find the will or the way to return.

And so, like Bilbo, I find myself surrounded by boxes and piles of stuff, not all of which I need and most of which I will not have room for in my new billet. Jasmine has insisted on keeping all her toys, so there may have to be some negotiation as to what comes and what stays. I’m actually a little worried about her and hope she adapts to not having a big garden to patrol and bark proprietorially in. She certainly won’t have her usual walks quite as close, but we won’t be too far away for the foreseeable future.

My successor arrives in a couple of days, so we’ll have a period of handover where I’ll show him where the dishtowels are kept and the troublemakers to look out for (that will take a while, come to think of it). But I know the people of the Bow will take him to their hearts and look out for him.

Although I never ever got to see the ‘How to be a Parish Priest’ folder, with all the dividers and so on, I could perhaps spend the initial block of my leave writing a guide on how not to do it. There are certainly things I would choose to do differently and would certainly advise my younger self to do (or my future self—if that doesn’t sound too Timelordy).

If ‘the care of souls is the art of arts,’ as St Gregory the Great put it, then I’ve splashed quite a bit of paint about the Bow. I hope that, if one is still allowed to paraphrase the catchphrase of a fallen star, stepping back will allow me to tell what it is that I’m leaving behind. And, hopefully, make clearer what comes next.

Thank you for your interest, dear reader, as I have shared this ‘ordinary tale of parish folk.’ The very last line of The Lord of the Rings is, ‘well, I’m back.’ Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers that I will be both ‘well’ and ‘back’ when I’m ready.

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