They are assembled, astonished and disturbed
round him, who like a sage resolved his fate,
and now leaves those to whom he most belonged,
leaving and passing by them like a stranger.
The loneliness of old comes over him
which helped mature him for his deepest acts;
now will he once again walk through the olive grove,
and those who love him still will flee before his sight.
To this last supper he has summoned them,
and (like a shot that scatters birds from trees)
their hands draw back from reaching for the loaves
upon his word: they fly across to him;
they flutter, frightened, round the supper table
searching for an escape. But he is present
everywhere like an all-pervading twilight-hour.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Last Supper”
Yesterday brought with it rain, and the news of the death of a friend: my former colleague, companion at the pub, loving husband to another dear friend, and all-round good person to know: Josh Parsons. As that obituary makes clear, Josh was eccentric, funny and kind. He was also, as far as I can make out, a world-class philosopher. I don’t know a great deal about philosophy beyond what an AS-level in religious studies and then incidental exposure to medieval thinkers has brought me, but I do know that Josh was very clever and very well-respected by his peers for his work – but most importantly he was well-loved because he was a good teacher and friend.
Josh also made the brave decision to leave a permanent academic job at Oxford in order to lead a more balanced, enriching life in New Zealand. I applaud him for making the choice that was best for him and his family, and for being willing to speak out about it: as I’ve argued here before, it can be a radical thing, choosing not to give everything to academia. I just wish Josh had had longer to enjoy that new chapter of his life.
Today is Maundy Thursday, and the sky has been grey, the air chilly – though I see from my window now a break in the clouds with blue behind it, a clean colour like the feeling after crying. The most solemn day in the Church calendar is coming; for those of us to whom that means something, tomorrow is the site of our deepest loss, and of the greatest mystery of our faith. Mine, poor though it is these days (a fluttering frightened thing, I suppose, scattered as birds), thinks of the deepening twilight of the Last Supper, of Gethsemane and what came after, and believes that Josh will be in a place more like Easter Sunday than Good Friday: not much comfort to those left behind, astonished and disturbed by grief, but I hope peace will come in the fullness of time to those who loved him.