Working together for a better world...
Yesterday the queen visited Leicester. Rather to my surprise I found myself sitting in Leicester Cathedral a short distance from her majesty among the faith leaders who had been invited to the commemoration service for her diamond jubilee.
Sixty years is a long time to be doing any job, and, as I sat, musing on the feisty elderly woman who sat there on the old carved wooden chair, dressed in a fushia pink outfit and matching hat, accompanied by her clearly frail but still robustly present husband and her incredibly tall and bony grand-daughter in law, made even taller by her towering heels, I wondered what she must be thinking.
In my youth I scorned the monarchy, refusing to stand for the national anthem and sidling out of the cinema as quickly as I could before its ominous first drum roll sounded - yes, in those days we stood up, or at least were expected to. More recently, however, I have softened my views. I have come to realise that my life has been framed by the life of this aging woman as surely as by my own parents. She has been a continuity; always God save the queen, never the king in my time.
Ten years ago I saw the queen for the first time. I was attending a multi-faith reception as part of the golden jubilee in my role as chair of the Network of Buddhist Organisations. Against my principles I found myself rather excited by the prospect of going to the palace. I was in robes then. A symbol of my faith and role, unquestioningly representative of my position. I found the whole experience much more interesting than I had expected. In fact I was impressed. What I noticed then was the humanity of this woman. Watching her talking with the many people in the crowd, I observed how she engaged with people with genuine interest and concern. Her eyes lit up as she listened to their stories.
So, this time, ten years on, I found myself observing this small family group in a more formal setting. Seated at the front of the cathedral in full view of all of the congregation, I watched their faces and wondered what they made of it all. In particular, as Bishop Tim gave his address, I noticed the queen's face soften, grow pensive and some shadow of emotion rise almost imperceptibly, to be swallowed back. Prince Philip, beside her, watched her with an unwavering but kindly expression. I found myself deeply moved at the pathos of the intimacy I felt that I was observing in so public a place.
So it must be to look back over a lifetime. An extraordinary life, not for its achievements, though maybe there were some, but simply for its existence. I imagine the royal mind, scanning back through archives of state visits and shaken hands, travel by train and plane and ship to foreign parts or through the cities of her own realm. The family tragedies and joys, played out on the magnified stage of public media, and private moments on vast estates in wild places.
I wonder, does she ask as so many of us, What is it all for?
What is the meaning of a life? And what its value? Fortune throws us all into spaces we cannot anticipate and somehow, out of them, we create a story. Do we look back with gratitude or regret, bitterness or humilitude? wistfulness or anger? The end of life is indeed bittersweet. A soft encounter with the horizon which was always there, but which we have avoided for so long, the misted yugen quality in which old amplitudes reduce into a faint shadow of the past.
And so I sit, contemplating her contemplation. The bishop comments on the integrity of faith which has guided her majesty through her life and work, and in her face I see that she takes this seriously. Yes, only by faith can we be in this uncertainty.
Later she shakes my hand. An elderly lady, but still robust, she looks bright eyed, but does not connect with me as she moves on along the line of people in the foyer before the celebratory lunch. Perhaps she is still preoccupied with thoughts of time unfolding. Perhaps she is grasped by the vision of her calling by divine right to monarchy all those years ago. Perhaps she is thinking of the service, the dancing girls with lighted candles, the choir of children, the lonely strains of a single cello. Perhaps she knows it is all illusory, all impermanent, all in flux and disintegration, yet all, in the moment, wonderful.
I wipe the tears from my own eyes, and feel the soaring longing in my heart for lost connections and time moved on. Impermanence has a subtle beauty that leaves no regret to haunt us. I still have years that she has not, and yet the pathos of change touches me too. No longer disguised from view by my robe, I am in lay clothing now. Suddenly I feel exposed. Maybe indeed the preoccupation was mine after all.
The bishop said that the queen had confided in him that she was touched by the service. I though so. I smile and wonder if I will meet her again on her seventieth jubilee - and where we will both be by then.
Add a Comment