Letter from Roger Tarbuck, February 2015

I trained for the ministry at Manchester College Oxford, as it was known then. During one of the principal’s tutorials, at which there were myself and one other student, we were discussing a service which we students had recently conducted for a small local congregation, at which only two people had turned up. The Principal, who was taking the tutorial, said, “I can see that you are questioning whether your trip to the chapel was worthwhile. There must have been some reason why those two members appeared before you last Sunday. Why do you think they were there?”

“Freedom, reason and tolerance?” we suggested.

The Principal stroked his beard, which he often did before saying something important. “It’s true that those three words explain how two people happened to be sitting in a chapel hundreds of years old and how you two were able to help them to worship without any of you being arrested and punished extremely harshly. But why were they there?”  There was a pause and he added, “They were there for comfort.”

I knew what comfort was, but I had never considered it closely, as I was going to in the years since then. Were (and when) I was brought up, men and boys were not supposed to cry. Crying was for cissies and girls. It was all right for girls to cry and need comfort. They were girls. But cissies were cissies and no boy wanted to be one of those. So needing comfort was not manly. And as for comforting somebody else, that was a clumsy and embarrassing thing. Best not thought about.

But fortunately, times have changed. Men are generally not ashamed to shed a tear and need comfort. I bet that even John Wayne – the ”Dook” himself – was not averse to welcoming a little old-fashioned comfort now and then. But I do admit that there are certain people who are so hard that they never real.ly seem to need comfort. They can be cruel, too, because they can’t begin to understand ordinary people who have feelings and emotional needs. They are usually hard, ruthless and terrible to live with or work for. And yet, under the thick armour of such people, in the deep shadow of their unconscious, there is almost certainly a small child who craves the comfort that they so proudly deny.

From early adolescence, I moved away from formal religion until I was over thirty, though I remained interested in psychical matters. Then I began to feel a need, which grew year by year, and a sharper consciousness of my own mortality and that of those nearest to me, with a greater fear of bereavement than of death. I had always been interested in matters of the spirit, but now I felt an urgency and read more books, and began to think increasingly about life, suffering and death, and they all seemed terribly hard and very real, and I needed comfort.

I tried the orthodox denominations and they didn’t help me. Then I went to my first Unitarian service and found what I needed. It was so quiet and beautiful, and I felt comforted. Yes, comfort was what I found in our gentle faith, and it has kept me here ever since.

When we are comforted, our spirit rests easily on, and blends with, the spirits of other people in the warm embrace of common humanity, which is part of the Spirit of God, “in whom we live and move and have our being”. There is no greater comfort than this.

Comfort. And that goes hand in hand with love.  Yours sincerely, Roger Tarbuck.