Bishop Boyle defined by milk of human kindness

The late Bishop Len Boyle. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
The late Bishop Len Boyle. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Jenny Beck has much to say about kindness in a tribute to Bishop Len Boyle.

Emeritus Bishop Len Boyle died last week at the grand age of 85.

He'd enjoyed 11 years of mainly active retirement after serving as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dunedin from 1983 to 2005.

In the year 2000, I was heartsore after the death of my son Joshua, and yearning for him.

In fact my sorrow was bigger than that: fundamental life changes meant I was bereft of husband, baby and united family.

At about 8pm one Saturday evening, the phone rang.

I answered it, weariness thick in my voice. Saturday afternoons had to be the worst.

A host of small boys, and me feeling guilty about not being more.

More able, more resilient and creative.

Saturday evenings were spent in relief on the couch.

Who could be phoning, probably wanting something of me, who had nothing to give?

To my utter surprise and overwhelmedment (the coined word necessary), the caller introduced himself as Bishop Len Boyle.

He'd read an article I'd written about Joshua, what his life had meant, how the loss of him had devastated yet opened my heart.

The Bishop was calling to? what? talk, one person under God to another.

I wanted to weep, because God had surely constrained him to pick up the phone when I was down low.

I heard myself blurting out: "I can't bear even to think the words 'broken family'.''

And: "Zak followed on from Joshua, and he's in my arms now. I'm so incredibly lucky to have him, but on Saturday evenings it's Joshua I long for.''

And: "Is that dreadful?''

No, he didn't think so.

He thought it was very human.

In response to a gentle inquiry I said, Yes, I could see blessing and God's hand in all of this. I told him about Anne Lamott and her book Travelling Mercies which had given my sorrow a framework.

She talked there about the "flecks and nuggets of gold'' that are washed ashore in grief. I couldn't quite remember the order of words, but I could remember this, having written the sentence on my heart: "Grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.''

"Yes?'' I could hear him listening.

The softness I thought was generosity and tolerance. Also a quickness to forgive.

"And the illumination?''

"Clarity of vision?''

I heard my voice, raspy and hesitant.

Well, let me take a stand.

"Um, I'm surer than ever of the nearness of God and the goodness of life. Overall I mean. Part of this for me is showing willing, because I can't actually feel it right, right now.''

My listener was calm in the face of this, reassuring.

More words poured out of me.

Actually, we both talked.

And cried, because life's hard and sometimes loss-riddled and inexplicable, and we exclaimed nevertheless at the beauty and daily warmth that remains, and looked forward in so many words to the resurrection morning when there'll be no more loss or heartache.

We laughed too; I can't resist the humorous and I recognised him over the phone as a fellow lover of light moments.

I was reminded of Karl Barth saying: "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.''

We chatted for, I don't know, perhaps 45 minutes.

Then he bade me farewell and I was left holding the receiver and thinking, How good that I was home to receive this call.

(Of course him being a man of the cloth and all, and me being a single Mum, I suppose Saturday evening was a great time for us to connect.)

This was a seminal phone call for me, and was our only (utterly edifying) conversation.

Yet despite the slimness of our interaction, I can say, now that he's crossed the River Jordan, that I knew the Bishop.

Frederick Buechner once said: "If you want to be holy, be kind.''

I talked to a holy person that night. He didn't need to do it; it was sheer kindness that impelled him to pick up the phone and spend the better part of an hour encouraging someone who wasn't going to join the Roman Catholic Church and whose ragged tears would have sounded distinctly unattractive down the line.

It was humanity we shared, and the Gospel.

(I had the sense though that it wouldn't have mattered to him had I not been a fellow believer; he would have done it for the humanity alone.)

At the end of our chat, he said he would remember me, and us Becks, in his prayers.

And I, a Baptist and non-conformist, unsure as to how to address him, said lamely: "Thank you, Bishop, so much.''

And then: "Thank you for caring so keenly about the Beck family even though you've never met us.''

The world's big enough for all of us, and within the world the household of God is tender hearted and appreciative enough to hold us all.

On that unlikely Saturday night, I felt such love that I could face the next day, and the next, knowing that, yes, I wasn't alone; someone's hand had held mine.

I'd also seen grace at work, of the type enjoined by Henri Frederic Amiel: "Life is short and we never have enough time for gladdening the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.''

And now, on this Tuesday night some 16 years later, I say, Thank you, Bishop, for picking up the phone, for hearing distress and consoling, for caring about a little person (even possibly a large-ish ewe) from another flock.

It's also a larger thank you.

For the one who cares enough to stop.

For people thrown across the path when they're needed.

For human ties, and the love of Christ made manifest in the Cross.

And in particular today, thank you for Bishop Len Boyle, even now claiming his crown.

- Jenny Beck is a Dunedin lawyer.

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