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Richard HillaryHallo again to all.

We doubt whether the name of Richard Hillary is particularly well known to many. Born in 1919 in Sydney, early in his life he came to England, was educated at Shrewsbury, and proceeded to Trinity College, Oxford. Possessed of a personality that courted daring and danger, he joined the University Air Squadron in 1938 and was called up to the Royal Air Force in 1939. He was handsome, flirtatious, and a bit unthinking. He flew brilliantly, but took risks. In August 1940 his plane was hit by gunfire and he bailed out of it, horrifically burned. Spending three excruciating months in hospital, he underwent a series of experimental plastic surgeries. He was eventually released, his striking face somewhat rebuilt, but still bearing the scars.

His muscles were irreparably damaged and his movements forever impaired, but he insisted on resuming flying, despite being barely able to manipulate a knife and fork at the dinner table and despite all recommendation to the contrary. Hillary's last fatal flight was 'round midnight, 8 January 1943, wintry and windy. Shortly after take-off his plane straightaway ran into difficulty. The undercarriage would not come down for landing and the fuel was running low. Hillary and his navigator were instructed to circle a beacon near the centre of the aerodrome.

'Are you happy?', came the somewhat unusual question from the radiotelephone operator, querying their dire situation. 'Moderately', replied Hillary. 'I am continuing to circle'. Minutes after, the plane began losing altitude and soon smashed into the ground, killing both.

On this last day after Pentecost or Sunday next before Advent or Stir-up Sunday or the Feat of Christ the King (however one counts it), Hillary's last words — 'I am continuing to circle' — resonate. We have come to the end of the Christian liturgical year, having woven our Sundays and Holy Days into yet one more annual ring of celebration, observance, feast, and fast. We have formed our circle once again. And yet, and yet, only for this life. Our yearly ring, through God's mercy and at a time unknown to us, will slow and stop. Our time will no longer be measured by feast and fast or marked off as 'ordinary'. We shan't 'continue to circle'. Our journey continues in a way we know not. But we trust it will continue, spiralling towards the centre, towards God.

A circle game'The disagreement between the two kinds of religion is chiefly on the point whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to be born at all', writes Eithne Wilkins*, continuing:

'The negative wheel is that which merely circles, causing birth and death to recur ceaselessly, and it also broke the spiked wheel of human passions under which we are torn to pieces. St Catherine might be regarded as a good Buddhist in that through her prayers she broke the wheel, so that it could no longer harm her, and after she was decapitated her unsullied body was wafted away by angels. She did not, in a negative sense, "continue to circle". The positive wheel is not that on which we dismally recognize "This is where we came in", but that with a spiralling movement towards the centre. It is the great glowing round that is also the western window, the rose'.

We are part of the circle game of life, made meaningful by our following the pattern of Christian fast and feast, and marking the yearly passage of our pilgrimage. Our Lord broke through the circle of life and death on that first Easter, shattering its meaninglessness once for all: 'The Last Enemy to be destroyed is death'. The circle was broken here on earth, spiralling to an eternal circle in the life of the world to come. Double helix indeed!

And now — here's where we 'come in' — we stand on the threshold of Advent, waiting in this strange end-of-year space briefly before we enter that dark quiet time of count-down once again. The liturgical year is indeed a way of time travel, a circularity that brings with it the story of salvation. Our parts are waiting for us, if we will join in.

Wanna play?

See you next week.

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Last updated: 23 November 2008

*Eithne Wilkins, The Rose-Garden Game. Victor Gollancz, 1969.

†Oddly, Richard Hillary's memoir of his experiences in the Battle of Britain is entitled The Last Enemy.

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