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A Book for Our Time

Michael Mayne’s A Year Lost and Found

About six months into the COVID-19 quarantine, a friend from another part of the country called to ask how I was getting on. I mentioned that a silver lining was the chance to do a lot of reading. Some books were new to me, either from the public library or from bookstores. Others were old friends from my own bookshelves: e.g., Desmond Tutu, James K. A. Smith, Frederick Buechner and C. S. Lewis. I also re-read or read anew the books of Michael Mayne, dean of Westminster Abbey from 1986 to 1996.

My caller asked about Mayne, whom he had not read. I gave a quick rundown, saying that one of my favorites was A Year Lost and Found (1987). My friend quipped that he did not have so many years left that he could afford to lose a year to the lockdown. Just then I realized that A Year Lost and Found was the book for our time, as it can help us think of what we have lost since March 2020 and what, if anything, we have found.

The book is about Mayne’s year of struggling with a difficult illness. It was a year lost from work, family, and general vitality. As a Christian, however, he looked for what might be learned from a year of pain and loss, asking if it could somehow be redeemed. If we follow the journey of his lost year, I hope we may see something for ourselves to find in this year of social isolation.

I am glad to have known Michael Mayne, who died of cancer in 2006. During some of the years he was Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, I was a research fellow at one of the institutes at the University of London. We met in the village where we lived, Harpenden, in southern Hertfordshire, about twenty-five miles north of London. On the weekends, Michael was an assisting priest at our parish of St. Nicholas. (It was at that time that my son, Christopher Wells, was born and baptized at St. Nicholas.) Michael and I were often on the same train to London. We talked of many things, which made the commute to London very pleasant. We found that we shared a fondness for the writing of Frederick Buechner. In fact, he said he said he had a close friendship with Fred because they shared a special bond from dealing with the suicide of their fathers when the men were very young. That left a mark on both, and they shared it in their writing. When I left England to return to the United States, I lost track of Michael for a while. He left the BBC to become vicar of the University Church in Cambridge, Great St. Mary’s. He and I connected again some years later when he was Dean of Westminster Abbey. By then, Michael had written A Year Lost and Found.

The book was written at the end of his tenure in Cambridge and when he was about to move to Westminster. Readers must reach the end of the book to learn what illness had afflicted him for a year. That’s because he only received a clear diagnosis when the illness had just about run its course. For an agonizingly long time, Mayne and his wife, Alison, moved from doctor to doctor trying to find out why his glands were swollen, his lungs were severely taxed when he inhaled, his chest felt constant pressure, and his legs were very weak.

Doctors ran tests of all kinds, but in the end they could not tell what was wrong. Not only did Mayne feel dreadful, and was confined to his room and back yard, but there was the frustration of not knowing what was wrong. So, what was the illness? At the end of the year he finally found out from a specialist that it was myalgic encephalomyelitis, a chronic fatigue syndrome that follows a glandular viral disease. At the time there was little known about the disease in Britain.

The year of mid-1986 to mid-1987 was definitely lost for Mayne. As an already accomplished writer, he was determined to think and write about the experience to discern what could be learned, even redeemed, in this unwelcome period of confinement. It is to our benefit that he did.

His vestry and parishioners at Great St. Mary’s were solicitous and often asked how he was doing. Both because of English reserve and because he did not know what was wrong, he said little. He wanted to say that he was as weak as a kitten, that his arms ached constantly and that his chest felt bruised. Instead, he was mostly quiet, and was driven in upon himself in a world contracted to four walls.

Mayne’s prayer life suffered. Even saying the daily office, as he had done for years, now felt strained and unreal. He found solace, as many have before and since, in the Psalms: “I discovered in my heart that time and again they spoke to my condition of desolation and could assure of the love and presence of God.”

Nevertheless, by the end of the summer of 1986, still feeling awful and with the illness still undiagnosed, he admits to having been reduced to periods of anger and self-pity. He often found that his only blessing was the touch of those who cared for him: the clasp of a friend’s hand or that of priestly friends laying on hands.

Mayne’s health improved somewhat by the late autumn of 1986. Just then a letter arrived from the Prime Minister’s office offering him the post at Westminster Abbey. He was confused by it. In normal times, such an invitation would have been exhilarating as well as daunting. But now? Really?

He writes: “I felt so withdrawn from my normal world, so out of touch with my normal instincts and emotions, so bewildered and demoralized by this tedious and undiagnosable thing that had dragged me down, that the whole proposition seemed unreal, impossible.”

In the end, Mayne accepted the appointment. It was to be announced in January 1987 and he was to assume duties at the Abbey in July. His strength rose and fell, and he was not fully healed. He had to trust that he would be up for the rigors of Westminster Abbey by then. [Spoiler alert: he was.]

In trying to discern the spiritual meaning of his lost year, Mayne returned to books that had meant much to him. Chief among them was The Stature of Waiting by W.H Vanstone (1982). Vanstone sees two phases in Jesus’s life, the active and the passive: the first of gathering disciples, traveling about, healing and teaching; the second, beginning in Gethsemane, when the Passion begins. His hands were tied, and he was a person not doing but being done to.

As Mayne reflects, “now he is at the mercy of those who flog him, scourge him, try him, crucify him.” Jesus is, at once, the one who teaches, heals, and sets free, and is the one who suffers and endures the worst we can do to him. In an absolutely riveting passage Mayne writes, “Nowhere is Jesus more powerful than in his passive suffering on the cross. Nowhere does he show more clearly the truth of the passive, suffering God whose hands are tied by love.”

This was of great comfort to Mayne, and to us in our time. When we become ill or old, we can receive with grace what is done to, and for, us. We are no less valuable, as Mayne encourages us to grasp, if we can see our time of dependence as a creative sharing in the nature of God himself who, in Jesus, became powerless and vulnerable. Mayne quotes Søren Kierkegaard to great effect, that Jesus must have known how it would all end, but he was without anxiety because “he had eternity with him in the day that is called today, hence the next day had no power over him.”

As Mayne reflects on this, he reckons that perhaps he has found the answer to the question of why he had been stopped in his tracks, interrupting a busy ministry, with healing so slow and a diagnosis elusive. He wants to join with “those who are able to use their sickness, their pain, even their dying as a time for growth and a newfound trust in God who holds us in death and in life and will not let us go.” To do so would be, in a profound way, to have his lost year redeemed.

These last thoughts are very encouraging to all of us who have endured the pandemic, and our time apart from our normal lives. First, to be grateful for survival at all, unlike hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who succumbed to the virus. Second, to name and accept that the year of our confinement is a year we have indeed lost.

If we follow the lead of Dean Mayne, we can see anew what believers have known, but perhaps lost or forgotten, and might find again in this year. Let him have the last words here:

“Jesus did not offer people perfect health and a painless death. Human minds and bodies are fragile and vulnerable. What he offers is eternal life: a new relationship with God of such quality that nothing that may happen can destroy it. And it is that kind of confidence and trust in God, come what may, which is the true healing of the human spirit.”

Ronald A. Wells is professor of history, emeritus, at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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