As the golden leaves swirl and the smell of burning wood and coal fills the air, there are some marvellous autumn vines trailing around the doors and downstairs windows of some local houses. Right now, these vines look like flailing, dead arms draped over garden furniture, or ancient tears.
The vines remind me of the most immaculate garden I have ever seen. It belonged to a devoted elderly couple, she smelt of lily of the valley perfume and parma-violet sweets. His smell was St Bruno pipe tobacco smoke and fresh earth as he worked in the garden bringing in the last of the summer vegetables. Though the garden is wasted now. The once brightly painted white wooden greenhouse is now rotting and empty with be-spidered clay plant pots, smelling of dead timber, not ripe tomatoes lying flat, too heavy in their rich dusty red skin. And yet, none of this can remove the memory of the early summer beauty of that garden and the love which created it. None of this is able to diminish the magnificence of the human effort which had gone into creating that garden paradise.
But we rather perversely tend to be drawn to when human endeavour goes wrong than when it goes right. The author of the 2012 ‘Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures’, Stephen Pile, was on Steve Wright on Radio 2. The author said he had a healthy attitude to failing because it teaches us more than succeeding – tears teach us more than laughter. Some stories were great, like the four firemen who decided to track down the Loch Ness monster. They dressed up a boat as a female monster and played a mating call over loudspeakers. Unfortunately, it was the mating call of a walrus so the monster was disinclined to return its affections. Then the outboard motor broke down and the boat went round in circles before crashing into the jetty. Or the story of the Japanese Kamikaze pilot who returned to base eleven times after eleven missions. He lived until he was 82 and said he kept coming back because the planes were too dangerous to fly.
But there are examples of quite magnificent extraordinary human effort going wrong that disturb us. Disturb us because it makes us ask: is there anything we can do that is really stand-out special? And what about our loved ones: does all their effort for us not matter? When we see human saintliness, we desperately want it to matter, to mean something.
Talking of magnificent humans, there is the film called ‘Senna’ about the life of the massively talented racing driver Ayrton Senna who died in a Grand Prix at Imola in 1994. If you saw that accident, it might have left a gnawing sense that one so gifted could die like he did. Professor Sid Watkins was the famous neurosurgeon heading the Formula One medical team who helped to save the lives of Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello. The professor was one of Ayrton Senna’s closest friends and he was worried that Senna’s mind was disturbed by two horrible crashes in practice and urged his friend to go fishing instead. Early in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix Senna hit a wall at 140 mph and Watkins was the first to get to him. He cradled Senna’s unmarked body and said that he: ‘felt his spirit depart’ when Senna drew his last breath.
Sid Watkins was a brilliant surgeon. But on television you saw just what caring for Ayrton Senna meant to him, as again he held his best friend in the seat of his Formula One car while all around drivers came to eerie stops in the silence falling on the circuit, respectful of the screens the marshals placed around the car which meant only one thing. You saw the man cry, like a wonderful permission had been given. You may have had the privilege of holding someone when they died. You had a glimpse into human saintliness and its profound impact on those who see it, feel it, touch it. And the natural response is raw emotional attraction to goodness beyond words.
In Jesus’ time, people would actually collect their tears and keep them in what was called a ‘tear cup’. The cup itself was tear-shaped, round and wide at the bottom with a long, narrow neck leading to a flared, circular rim. You placed the rim under your eye to catch tears; the cup was then corked and stored. When people remembered loved ones, the tear cup would be opened, more tears cried, and saved. This may seem strange. Remember the 1975 10cc song ‘I’m not in love’ which says 2 minutes in: ‘big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry’, but bearing sad witness to the state of much male mental health, we should! Or we say, ‘she’s doing very well’ after a funeral when she is only just holding it all together – when cry she should for those who have been saints in her life.
The shortest verse in the Bible is: ‘Jesus wept’, in John 11 when he heard his best friend had died. Jesus cried the tears we cry of denial, anger, bewilderment, compassion, just like we do. The tear cup from Jesus’ time and saving our own tears can tell us something about grieving, because in that saving there is the healing that weeping brings.
One five-year old daughter of a clergyman would sit on her dad’s lap when she cried missing her mum, his late wife. Her dad, her hero, would take his big hands and catch each tear, saying: ‘these tears are good for my hands and very precious.’ By rubbing her tears into his big hands, the dad took his little girl’s sadness and encouraged her to let every tear fall. He caught each tear. She never saw his tears. But Jesus did; still does, always does. Autumn reminds us of past glory, a kind of grieving time, but it is just the precursor of resurrection and re-birth time when we will shine in heavenly glory, with those whom we love.