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Thomas International Center
May 2007


Ralph McInerny


The Best Laid Plans



A few weeks ago I flew to England to spend a few days with a friend who is dying. We first met in Rome in 1969 where our sons attended the same pre-school . At that time, Guy and his wife Sally had an apartment on Mount Parioli in Rome as well as a country place near Assisi called the Abadia Celestina because of the ruins of a 9th century abbey on the property. Apparently the monks wore blue habits; hence the 'celestina.' Although the Nortons were not Catholic, they exhibited a great deal of reverence toward that monastic setting - they convinced the British School in Rome to conduct an extended archeological study of the abbey; they had the bones that were buried about the site gathered and reburied by the priest from the town above. The abbey country house was more than large enough to accommodate the eight of us along with other visitors.

Over the years, the friendship begun in 1969 strengthened. On later sabbaticals and visits to Rome, we would see the Nortons, both in Rome and at the abbey. (I dedicated  Connolly's Life to Sally and Guy and thanked them for the use of the abbey as the setting for the crucial scene in the novel.) Sally and Connie often traveled together, taking great delight in planning for their annual big trip. They visited Australia and New Zealand together, they had a memorable trip to Prague, they explored the United States as well as parts of Italy that even Sally had not seen. They were on a visit to the Loire Valley when Connie fell ill.

It is now five years since Connie died. During her last weeks, Sally flew in to be with her. So there was symmetry in my going off to Devon a few weeks ago to be with the Nortons during this trying time.

They moved from Italy to Stoke Gabriel in Devon about five years ago, a wonderful property, Southlands, which drops in soft undulations to the Dart river below. During their years there, the Nortons transformed the property. It became everything they had dreamt of when, through the years, they looked forward to returning to England. Five years is not nothing, but of course they thought it would be longer. We always do.

In our culture, young people are urged to think of retirement before they have begun to work. Throughout their active years they will be urged to save, invest, plan ahead, as if the Florida or Arizona sunshine were the purpose of life. What is seldom stressed is that one is preparing for the end. Etienne Gilson said that old age was a time when we learn to be dead. It can certainly induce thoughts about how and why we have lived the lives we have.

Connie died with great courage and hope. Guy Norton faces his condition with an attitude that might seem Stoic to one who did not know him better. Once in the course of a lively exchange, I asked him if he believed in God. "Of course I do!" A few weeks ago, I asked him if the Anglicans had the equivalent of the last rites. He said they do. "Have you had them?" "Of course I have!"  I like to think of Guy Norton entering heaven as if that too were just a matter of course. He never forgot the ultimate end of retirement.


Ralph McInerny