DEATH at BURY St. EDMUNDS!
The chill of a wet, late August evening in Suffolk County, in the east of England did not deter us from a refreshing, all-out enjoyment of our brief holiday away from Greece. In fact, we rather welcomed the stark contrast from the steamy temperatures and chokingly dusty, dry conditions of Athens in August. We actually quite enjoyed putting on coats and even dodging the unremitting drizzle.
We had arrived in the old cathedral town late in the afternoon. After securing comfortable lodgings in an ancient coach stop, we stowed our gear and went quickly to the high street, in search of English adventure. Starved of properly “high church” worship and meditation, we knew that we wanted to go to the cathedral for Evensong. But, there was still time for exploring, so we set out on a relaxing stroll in the old cathedral grounds.
As only the British can decorate lawns, stone walls and ancient ruins, we ambled leisurely, yet still in the rain, through-out the grounds, breathing deeply to inhale the sense of majesty, symmetry, grace and history that abides. Honking horns on crowded streets, underground subways chocked full of frustrated urban captives, and loaded email inboxes screaming with messages from insistent colleagues marked “urgent” and “respond immediately” – all of that faded away, washed out by raindrops and the sweet, wet scent of roses.
In the midst of this antiquity, we came upon a small touch of more recent vintage. Facing a miniature golf putting course, in the shadow of the mighty cathedral edifice, we found a park bench of contemporary origin. Seeking rest for our soles and wanting to cherish the reverie of our souls, we sat down, pulling our rain gear close around us. After a brief respite, it was time to move on, toward glorious choral sounds of the early evening worship, now pouring forth from the majestic old sanctuary.
Almost as if by accident, but, I posit, by some sort of mysterious intervention, I turned to look behind myself as I rose from the bench. There, near the end of the bench, on a small plaque, I found these words: “Roger William Hobbs (8/15/46 – 3/16/06) He was not afraid of dying, he just wasn’t finished with living.”
I sat back down and called my partner to wait awhile. Surely, the cathedral music would wait for a few, delicious, additional moments, in honor of the late Roger William Hobbs. Who was he? What was his abbreviated life like? Why, in this ancient place, was this tribute resting place left in his honor? Of course, I know not.
My lack of insight into the particulars of his personal life cannot deter me from catching a glimpse and learning a lesson from this British stranger. I made an instant decision to take back to Athens the spirit of living which apparently characterized the report of the death of this noble soul. Although not yet staring death in the face, as least as far as I know, I want to die like that, not being finished with living.
If there is something sad about some of the aging friends whom I have known in my sixty plus years of wear and tear, it is that they have lost or lessened their enthusiasm for life. Some have mislaid the gusto by way of the painful intrusion of chronic and incurable diseases. But others, of-times far less ill of body, have somehow, somewhere made a fateful, if subconscious, decision to give up on life. They seem ready to hang it up, no longer willing to live fully, as if aging, by definition, disqualifies one from zest.
I remember my granddaddy. William Emmitt Newell was a barely-educated, rural farmer who scratched out an almost handsome living on a few acres of turnips, tomatoes and corn, raised a family of 10 children (one of whom was my father, his namesake) and lived an honorable life from the late nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century in eastern Mississippi.
On the Saturday night before his sudden death, this otherwise strong seventy-something year-old gentleman, went to sleep early, as was his custom. In the dark hours of the early morning, he awoke, convinced that it was time to go to church. Stirring his sleeping partner, my Granny, he said, “Is it time to go to church?” “No, Daddy!" she said, "Go back to sleep.” And he did, never to awake again this side of eternity.
Whenever that bell tolls for me, I want to go gladly, having learned the lessons from Roger William Hobbs of Bury St. Edmunds, England and William Emmitt Newell of Marion, Mississippi. What a great gift, indeed, to be fortunate to die before being finished with our living, accompanied by a solid anticipation of praising the timeless, eternal God.