Measured in terms of church attendance, I’m a terrible Christian, but in the small Oxfordshire village of my early youth the agricultural seasons and religious festivals were all interwoven and we school children made regular trips to the church to celebrate them. The vicar’s wife played our school piano and taught us to sing and the vicar, a man who had won the Military Cross during the Battle of Normandy, was as familiar a sight in the village as the old red telephone box in the High Street.
Our neighbour suffered from Multiple Sclerosis and he often visited her, after which he would call on us for a cuppa and although he and my father seemed to be at different ends of the social and political spectrum, he was always welcome. I recall him once, when my dad and my brother were not around to help, rummaging around on his hands and knees behind our refrigerator with his cassock hitched up around his shins whilst he helped me to corner my escaped guinea pig, whose rat like scampering my mum simply couldn’t stand because it gave her the heebee jeebees. Our Vicar might have had a plumy accent, but he was a delightfully unpretentious man. His name was Robert Runcie. Some years later, he became the Archbishop of Canterbury and I suppose that it was from his wonderfully uncluttered perspective of religion that I learnt not to doubt the power of faith and prayer. Although I went on to see and experience some dreadful things as a soldier, I was also always conscious of the beautiful and wondrous events which balanced life as a whole. In times of stress and dismay, I would often retreat in my mind to the lovely old Cotswold stone church at Cuddesdon, with its damp smelling interior, solid wooden pews and sense of timeless sanctuary, and there, my genial and benevolent God would say to me “Come on, Robert. Pick yourself up and crack on.” I always did, even though I sometimes dragged my feet about it.
Disasters and miracles are pretty common place really. Bad luck and good luck strike all of us fairly frequently, we never know what fate has in store for us, but against the back drop of our daily grind we tend to anticipate and accept it all as nothing so very unusual or inexplicable.
At early dawn recently though, I was walking my dogs along a path with which I had been familiar for fifteen years, when with astonishing rapidity, my large male Rottweiller pitched headfirst into the grass beside me and simply vanished. Had I not seen him go, I would never have known where he was. Lying flat and peering into the small hole through which he had fallen, I discovered the broken flag stone cap of a large, flooded chamber, the opening of which was almost completely covered by turf. The sky was still only just beginning to lighten, I could see very little inside the hole and I had no real idea of what I was dealing with, but with my head and shoulders over the lip and my arms at full stretch, my fingers brushed against my dog’s back and I quickly gripped the scruff of his neck in both hands. With the strength of desperation, I heaved him free of the water, getting his head and one paw out of the hole, but he was wet and unbearably heavy, and it was then as much as I could do to simply hold him suspended whilst I caught my breath. There was no-one around to help me. I’d left my mobile phone at home. I was convinced that if I let him go, I might never see him alive again. In my abject distress, I raised my face up and cried “Please God! Give me strength!” You can scoff if I tell you that with a final heave, I lifted him free of the hole as if he weighed no more than a feather pillow, but I promise you that I did.
Even in this day and age, it would seem that with faith, miracles can sometimes still happen.