Just very occasionally, someone very special touches your life and the experience changes you forever. Those special people are like the brightest of lights, whose gentle glows illuminates not only the room, but far, far beyond. Catholics give such people a very particular name, one given rarely and never given easily – we call them saints. Tonight, I sit here with the certainty that my own life – and the lives of a great many others – have been touched by such a person, such a saint.
His name was Stuart Rogerson and he died earlier today.
Many of you know him already but I want to spend a little while paying my own tribute to him. Although the words here are my own, I know they could have been written by any number of those people whose lives were touched deeply by Stuart. But more than anything, I will use some of Stuart’s own words – because it is through these that we knew and loved him.
I first ‘met’ Stuart online through social media, where we had some shared interests. Stuart had been a Church of Scotland minister in the area in which I live and he had been good friends with one of the former priests in my parish, because Stuart’s own Church had been very close by. A deeply spiritual man and with an intense love of Scripture, Stuart made many achievements over the years, but his ministerial career was ended just before the turn of the Century because of ill-health. However, around twenty years before that point, Stuart had felt the call to become a Catholic. He did not do so at that point because of certain practical considerations, but the call did not leave him. He finally answered it fully at the tail end of 2013. Even after this, his online persona reflected something of those earlier concerns and so he choose to remain more or less anonymous for a number of years. It was only much later that I even learned his first name!
Stuart had a great devotion to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, his favourite saint, and he was overjoyed that her Relics were visiting Scotland a few years ago. I was aware that he kept poorly and so I had offered to collect him from his house – we live reasonably close by. Unfortunately, even that was not really a possibility for him. And so instead, I posted him the souvenir book from the visit and a little prayer card of St Thérèse.
We had stayed in close contact since those days and I knew that Stuart was that rarest of men – good, humble and with the air of genuine sanctity which radiated from him. Of course, in his humility he didn’t see it like that; he considered himself to be no different to anyone else. Regardless of this, his words on social media gave the game away – this man was the real deal.
Stuart had never kept well. Physically, he suffered – but he also suffered terribly with his mood which would, from time to time, lower. For him, I think this was the greater suffering of the two. The oddest thing is that it was this very suffering which would, later in his life, be the means of allowing him to exercise his own form of witness to more and more people, albeit in a way he would not have imagined.
Or perhaps he would have imagined. For Stuart had, a long time ago, asked the Lord to let him know with certainty when death was approaching – and the Lord answered that prayer. Earlier this year, a visit to hospital confirmed that Stuart had oesophageal cancer, which was inoperable. He was given three months. While it may have seemed something was about to end, the reality was that something was about to begin.
Being the good and holy man he was, this was a cause for joy, not sorrow. He said it clarified things and put things – even life itself – in proper perspective. He made the decision to speak openly about his dying and this necessitated revealing a little more about who he was – and he did so, even to the extent of being interviewed on a couple of occasions for Catholic publications, complete with a photograph.
He spoke about how relaxed he was – most of the time – with the process of dying, supported, as it always was for Stuart, by his practice of near constant prayer. Stuart prayed the hours of the Divine Office every day and his love for the Scriptures was as strong as ever. He said – “As time passes how ordinary does the process of dying become, how terribly strange. Yet release from the future is a blessing as I fall into the arms of Our Lord. There is nothing now but the Lord. Only Him. The merciful saviour.” And he attested – “I am in centre of my soul utterly at peace with dying”.
There were time when, like all saints, he suffered at the spiritual level. There were times, too, when along with this, his mood would lower – sometimes for a week or two, at other times for shorter periods. But always, his faith saw him through those moments –
“No longer the rest of sleep. I am bone crushingly tired and weary and it will only get worse. Nevertheless I am in the gentle gentle hands of Our Lord. Last night my fevered brain brought me to Mary and to the foot of the Cross where Blood from His blessed Wounds fell into my mouth as I climbed a ladder trying to reach Him and touch Him. Fevered half waking stuff but deeply comforting. As always offered myself to Him and prayed for you all.”
This was very much the mark of Stuart as the process of dying continued.
Along with the presence of his wife and family, the most precious moments for Stuart were those where he was to receive Holy Communion –
“My Priest coming very shortly with the Precious Blood. Great Blessed morning. Prayer offered for all, everything offered to Our Lord. This will be a blessed day whatever it brings. Dying in peace united with the Alpha and Omega… And my Priest has just been with the Precious Blood – what a Blessed Day.”
Stuart’s home was a place of prayer and serenity and the Lord was there in a very particular way with Stuart, as he once told me. I would refer to Him as “your very special Guest”.
As time went on, and helped no doubt by the articles for which he had been interviewed, Stuart’s online presence grew in terms of the number of people following him. But the astonishing thing was not the number – it was the effect of Stuart’s journey on all those people. Stuart’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, announced her Dad’s death just a few hours ago; since then, there have been more than 1200 comments posted in response, and these make for very profound reading, testifying to the effect Stuart had on lives scattered all across the world. So much for giving up his ministry! That ministry did not end – it simply found a new way in which to be exercised.
As death drew closer, Stuart wrote –
“Struggling on towards the finish line. Ready to win the race.. I am truly grateful for all the extra days of life on earth I have been granted. I have prayed for you all. The journey remains hard, it is a trial. But everything is for Him and I am in His hands.”
And he took time to give little advice from the wisdom of his personal experience –
“Have a philosophy of death before you are faced with it. Be prepared, know it is coming. Don’t fight it. Welcome it. Christ and reality awaits. Do not be afraid. It’s all ok. There is nothing to fear… Comforted greatly by prayer and the encompassing love of Our Lord.”
Several days ago, the message we had all been waiting for was posted by Stuart – he said it would be his last message, as to continue was no longer possible; by that point, he was no longer able to pray his beloved Divine Office. At the very end, he wrote –
My dying tiredness is my prayer. Pray for me as I pray for you..
The Lord is coming, blessed be the name of the Lord. Rejoice.
I have carried those words with me since and I’m not sure I will ever forget them.
Today, Elizabeth told us that her beloved father had died. There have been a great many tributes paid to Stuart since then – and I suspect a great many more are yet to follow. But despite the sadness we, who knew Stuart only fleetingly or purely online, might feel, it is as nothing compared to the sorrow of his family. He was immensely proud of them – of the visits from Elizabeth and her sisters, of the constancy of his beloved wife, of his mother for whom he worried in light of his impending death, and of the achievements of other family members. Tonight, whilst remembering Stuart with deep fondness and gratitude, let us think of his family also.
Pope Francis tells us that “holiness is the most attractive face of the Church”. As I see things, Stuart was the living proof of this. His personal holiness drew others to him from every corner of the earth – all of them saw radiating within him the very light of Christ, his Master and Lord.
As I conclude this piece, I am beginning to cry once more. I’ve done that several times in the last few hours and I’m sure I will do so again. Personally, I treasured Stuart in a way I have treasured few other people, and I feel his loss tonight, as many others do also. He told me several times that he has prayed for me daily “since our paths first crossed”. I returned that kindness. I will continue to do so – and I hope he will, too.
Stuart, go now in peace, to receive that reward from the Lord, who has been preparing it for you for such a long time.
Pray for us, Stuart. And know so many of us are praying for you.
Rest in peace, my friend.