It was a beautiful place, out near Denham, northwest of London. We stood beneath a canopy of copper leaves, with wildflowers and rhododendrons. It was exactly the kind of ‘melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,’ imagined by Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale, where the birds sing ‘of summer in full-throated ease.’ The group standing around me began a chorus of All Things Bright and Beautiful.
‘Plot’ was sadly the right word, for this was a funeral. I’ve rarely conducted a burial service for a person who wasn’t Jewish. But the woman, who’d died comparatively young, had been married to Graham, a charming man who used to attend my Talmud class and who’d been laid to rest in this same woodland cemetery a decade earlier. The family had traced me, and now we stood together, a small group around the grave, touched by our shared humanity and mortality, and by a quiet sense of partnership with all this life around us. We sang; the birds sang. ‘The Lord God made them all:’ it was at once beautiful and humbling.
We touch each other’s lives all the time, but often don’t know to what effect. Thank goodness, ten years ago I’d evidently not said the wrong thing, inadvertently alienating this family. But I also have moments I look back on with shame: why did I say that? We don’t always know whom we hurt and can’t always make amends. I remember hurrying into a bookshop where another customer asked me for a recommendation. I muttered something about being in a rush. Afterwards, recognising I’d been rude, I went back to apologise, but the person had gone and I’d no idea who it was.
Some lives we touch directly; others we affect remotely, since how we live here impacts on basic realities for people on the other side of the world. Distance doesn’t mean zero responsibility.
Nor is it only human life with which we interact. I often think of Thomas Hardy’s poem Afterwards. He imagines people thinking of him ‘when the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn’ and remembering how ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm.’ How I wish we could strive more effectively for all life to come to no harm, because all life matters, and, albeit in different ways, one spirit flows through us all.
Tomorrow, June 5, is World Environment Day, ‘the United Nations’ principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the environment’. Looking online, I find Together We Can Be #Generationrestoration.
This media-age twitter-handle paradoxically takes me back to the oldest scene in the Torah, when God entrusts Adam and Eve with the wellbeing of creation. It recalls the rabbis’ explanation of God’s instruction to Abraham to be a blessing:
‘Until now the blessings were in my hands,’ says God; ‘from now on they’re in yours.’
Listening to All Things Bright and Beautiful, sung by a diverse group of people almost all of whom I’d never met before, brought together by the woman we’d laid to rest in this woodland full of life, reminded me of this great trust.
‘The capacity to bless life is in everybody,’ wrote Rachel Remen in My Grandfather’s Blessings:
When we recognise the spark of God in others, we blow on it with our attention and strengthen it, no matter how deeply it has been buried or for how long. When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well.
Each of our lives, and all life, needs that blessing.