I hung my lightweight suit jacket on the back of the vestry door and slipped the alb over my head in its place. I looped the girdle around my waist, leaving the ends to dangle as I donned the stole – red for the Holy Spirit, as it was Pentecost – then looped the loose ends round to stop the stole dangling free. I added the vivid scarlet and embroidered chasuble and, after a moment's hesitation, the maniple over my left wrist. A glance at my watch, a murmured prayer, and I set off to the back of the church.
The organist struck up an introit voluntary (I have never liked trying to sing while processing) and our little procession set off down the aisle; Crucifer, Thurifer (gently swinging the thurible so as to puff incense smoke at the congregation nearest the aisle) the nine members of the choir, and my humble self.
We arrived at our destination and smoothly moved into position; I announced the first hymn – 'O, For a Thousand Tongues To Sing', and the service was well under way. There is little to say about the actual service, and I don't suppose you want a transcript of my sermon, the essence of which was that I believed that the accounts of supernatural events and miracles in the Bible had a genuine basis in fact, and that the decline in church attendance had to do with our retreat from Biblical truth. Perhaps I need to insert here that I am most definitely not a Biblical literalist – but let's not get sidetracked.
As usual, I tried to meet the eyes of my flock as I preached. It is not usually difficult. On that occasion, though, I was caught and held by the gaze of Ethel Hardy. Subsequently, I was aware that she was watching me rather more intently than usual. Ethel was what we often refer to as a 'Pillar of the Church'. In her late eighties, though looking much younger, she was tall and slim, with once blonde, now uniformly silver, short hair. She was a leading member of the Mothers' Union, on the PCC (The Parochial Church Council), had been Church Warden for many years, and outside the church, a leader of the Women's Institute and a leading light in most village activities. But in no way was she that type of women universally feared by all. No. On the contrary, she was loved and appreciated, though she would have rejected (kindly, of course) any overt expression of it.
At the end of the service, as the congregation filed past, she waited 'til last.
"Yes, Ethel? What can I do for you?"
"Will you pray for me, please? Like Jesus did?"
I suppose one might call that being 'Caught in the fire of one's own preaching'. "Certainly, Ethel. Is there something in particular?"
"I have cancer, Father. The doctors say I have maybe six months. I am not afraid of dying. Indeed, I am feeling my age, and ready to move on. But the pain is already significant, will get worse, I'm told, and I'm reluctant to resort to opiates."
"I see. Would it be best for you to sit in a pew as I pray?"
"Thank you, Father. Standing is possible, but kneeling is getting difficult."
I guided her to a nearby pew, and went to fetch the chrismarium, a little pot containing olive oil that had been blessed by the Bishop.
I cannot say I began to act with confidence, but as I prayed, I – hard to believe, I know – felt a presence. So strongly, I looked round to see who was there. And my hands felt hot. Ethel sighed, and I looked down at her to see the lines on her face disappear, and I could see the beauty that must once have been hers. Still was, I suppose.
I anointed her and pronounced a formal blessing, whereupon I dried up, with nothing more to say.
Ethel looked up at me and smiled. "Thank you, Father. I feel much easier. Thank you so much."
"Better thank God, Ethel. I have no power of myself." There was a moment I can only describe as a deep communion and I found myself regretting my youth, and that I had not known her as a young woman. I'll say here that I'm an Anglican, not a Roman Catholic, and I have no personal objection to marriage; I just had never met a woman with whom I had a mutual desire to wed. "Ethel, would you like me to call on you during the week? If the prayer helped, I could pray some more."
"Oh, thank you Father. That would be lovely. I don't like to put you out..."
"Not at all. It would be a pleasure."
She smiled, and I felt my heart lurch; she really was quite attractive. She stood and shook my hand. "I must go, Father. But if you would care to visit on Wednesday, that is my day for housework and so on. I would be glad to see you then."
Thus it was that I began to visit Ethel, initially once a week for an hour, but gradually that extended as she shed her village responsibilities. I was far from her only visitor, but I think I was the most regular. She was fascinating. Born in 1921, she talked about her childhood, which seemed happy, even when the Great Depression hit. Her father, a solicitor, indulged her and enabled her to learn to fly, so she was able to join the ATA and ferry military aircraft about during the Second World War. "I loved the Spitfire, of course, but I would have loved to qualify on multi-engine aircraft. One or two of the ladies got to fly Lancasters. Most of my work was on trainers – Tiger Moths, Magisters, Harvards – but I got a lot of hours on Spitfires and Hurricanes. Some of them were damaged, which was a challenge, but mostly we flew new or repaired aircraft back to squadrons." She was engaged to a bomber pilot, and spoke quietly of her grief when he failed to return from a raid. "Such a lovely chap. I found out much later that a night-fighter got him. He stayed at the controls so his crew could get out – they all survived – but he was too late." Over sixty years later, I could tell she was still moved, and was quiet as she sat silently, recalling those days. "I never ventured into those realms again," she said eventually. "I hope to meet him again, quite soon."
We covered post-war austerity, the swinging sixties and up to the present day. She was so interesting. I visit many ill and distressed parishioners, but I can say without reservation, I always came away from Ethel Hardy feeling better than when I arrived, which is not my usual experience. Perhaps it was because I always prayed for her before I left, and there was always the same powerful sense of a spiritual presence.
By September, she was almost housebound, but mentally still as bright as a button. She was visited weekly by the District Nurse, and daily by a Marie Curie nurse. However, she refused the potent opiate analgesics, saying my prayers were quite effective enough. One day, I went to her and opened the door and walked in, as had become my habit, only to find that she was not alone. Her visitor, a tall, slim, ash-blonde young woman, stood as I entered.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Ethel. I'll call back later."
"No, Father," I never could get her to call me Michael, "Let me introduce you to my niece, Eleanor. Great-niece, I should say. Eleanor, this is Father Cowen, who has been such a blessing to me over the last few months. Father, meet Eleanor Hardy, my brother's grand-daughter. Eleanor has kindly agreed to spend a gap year, or part of one, to support me here. I don't like to impose, but she insists."
"Auntie, you know I've always loved you and it's no imposition at all to come and live in this delightful village. Father Cowen, I'm pleased to meet you."
"It's mutual, indeed, Miss Hardy."
"Please, call me Eleanor. Or, even Ellie."
"Only if you will call me Michael. I have tried and failed to persuade your great-aunt to use my given name."
"You know, Father," Ethel put in, "it's part of my upbringing. Too late to change now."
Eleanor crossed the room and held out her hand, which I took. Her grip was warm, dry and firm. "I am pleased to meet you, Michael." I don't know what prompted me, but I lifted her hand to my lips and kissed the back of it. She smiled. "I will make coffee," she said, "unless you prefer tea?"
"Coffee would be wonderful, Eleanor."
I remember an elderly man describing caring for his wife, who had Alzheimer's; he said it was 'a privilege'. I never understood that until I visited Ethel. Her last months – the doctors called it exactly, almost to the day – she continued to minister to those around her, encouraging, advising, but always uplifting. I did little enough, but Eleanor was always there. Gentle, loving and thorough as she did everything Ethel would allow her to do.
Eleanor called me one evening, late, and asked me to come. Sure I knew the reason for the summons, I picked up the Chrismarium and the red stole, and walked briskly to Ethel's house. The old lady had lost a lot of weight, and she had never been heavy. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing shallowly.
"I don't think it'll be long," Eleanor said.
As if to deny that statement, Ethel's eyes opened. "Oh, Father – I didn't want to disturb you."
"No disturbance, Ethel, I assure you. Would you like Communion? To be anointed again?"
"Oh, yes, please."
I turned to Eleanor. "I didn't bring my travelling Communion set. Have you red wine? Port will do. White bread? A wine glass and a white plate?"