Words on the Word

Requiem for my Father

Isaiah 7.1-9: Do not let your hearts be faint.
Matthew 11.20-24: The day of judgement.

The passage we have read from Isaiah concerns King Ahaz, who ruled in Judah from 732 BC as the thirteenth king of the line of David. Six kings followed him, then Judah ceased to exist. Ahaz was a bad ruler. He did deplorable things. Then again, he lived under great pressure. Judah’s neighbours sought to annihilate the nation. People go far, and don’t always act rationally, in self-defence.

In any case, we chiefly remember Ahaz neither for his idolatries nor for his manoeuvres; we remember him for what happens in the continuation of Isaiah’s narrative. The prophet gives the king a sign of future comfort. Even if everything here and now seems unclear and hopeless, God has a plan for the house of David. The sign is the immense one about the Virgin that will bear a Son and name him Emmanuel. There is little to indicate that Ahaz grasped the meaning of the sign or even took it very seriously. Yet he received it and passed it on. In this way he paradoxically became the bearer of a hope he did not recognise.

This perspective fills me with wonder and gratitude as today we celebrate a Requiem for my father. Faith was for him like a continent he could place on the map, past which he had often sailed, in which he could discern features of loveliness; but which he hardly ever felt the need or desire to explore on foot. He was not hostile — hostility was not in his nature, which remained gracious and cheerful to the end, even wrapt in the mist of dementia; he was simply distanced in a way not untypical of his time. He, born in 1937, lived serenely in a state of metaphysical relativism. Of his own accord, he would not have been much affected by ecclesiastical structures, had he not been brought relentlessly into their proximity by both ancestry and progeny. To the end it remained a mystery to him, I think, that he was the son of a Lutheran pastor and the father of a Catholic monk.

Metaphysical relativism did not keep from having moral notions that were crystal clear. My father encountered the conflict between good and evil early in life. He knew that the battle for good could be costly. He was seven when my grandfather was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Grini. Had my grandmother not hidden a pile of papers related to his work for the Resistance in a pile of ironing (no man would think of looking there, she thought, and was proven right), he would have been sent straight to Germany, with everything that entailed. That sort of thing leaves an impression on a boy. My father remained principled and generous throughout his life. The only times I have seen him lose his temper were in confrontation with injustice and meanness.

When in the seventies my parents late at night saw a farm in the neighbourhood on fire, they immediately went to help. As the local veterinarian, my father tried to bring the animals to safety. The farmed did, too. Lives were lost. When the conflagration was brought under control well into the night and people went saddened away, a huddle of three people was left in the farmyard: two orphaned children and their grandmother. For my mother and father, who had three children of their own, it was a matter of course to bring them home. They stayed with us until they had built a new home. The granny, a native of our village, became my first language teacher, for she knew wonderful words and expression that everyone else had forgotten.

My father used to say he became vet by happenstance. The idea presented itself. He thought, ‘Why ever not?’, and went for it, quite unsentimentally. He was content in his profession, valued by both colleagues and clients. The life of a country vet retained a Herriotesque character throughout his career. He, no churchgoer, had a veritable pastoral ministry out in the country: a peacemaker in conflicts, a comforter in grief, a counsellor in perplexity. He was able to express diverse aspects of his personality. I think of an episode he himself enjoyed telling. One day he was busy examining a dog that had been injured. True to habit, he whistled while working — the same tune over and over again. Some of the piety of his childhood home had stuck: this particular day he was whistling a hymn. When the dog suddenly snarled, a swearword escaped him. The farmer, a devout man, observed the scene pensively, then remarked with a grin: ‘I hear your fiddle is tuned in several registers!’ Yes, it was; and he played it humanely and well, unmusical though he was.

My parents complemented one another wonderfully. I have never heard them raise their voices to each other. There was never a need. Both worked hard. They also knew how to have fun. They were unostentatiously very close. When my father started losing his ability to speak, my mother was an invaluable interpreter: she could read him unarticulated. Their leave-taking, when my father, sisters, and I were gathered round her deathbed, was deeply moving in a characteristically quiet way. In the wake of my mother’s death, my father’s condition deteriorated fast. It was painful for him to realise that he couldn’t manage on his own. The transfer to a care home was hard, but he soon settled in, carried and sustained by the kindness of the staff and of faithful friends. He carried on his peaceful life; and remained a source of peace for others.

It is striking that my father, who throughout life sat, so to speak, on the church fence, should have left this life on the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. In a perspective of  faith, I am unable to regard this as mere coincidence. He, too, a righteous man, carried a hope unknown, which will have found its own way of working. Now it is fulfilled. The Gospel speaks to us of judgement. Origen says somewhere that at judgement we shall all pass through fire; and that in us which is fireproof will remain. My father carried much that is fireproof. Confident in God’s providence, which encounters us as mercy, we pray that he may now enjoy fullness of vision and understand fully, even as he will be fully understood (cf. 1 Cor 13.12).

Gracious Lord Jesus, receive your servant graciously! Grant him your joy!

May Sven Åge Varden rest in peace.

Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Bjørg (RIP 13.ix.2020) and Sven Åge (RIP 29.vj.2024) Varden