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RIP – Cecil SSF

After a long illness, Brother Cecil died in the evening of 9 October 1995, in his eighty-third year of life and in the fifty-first year of his religious profession.

Cecil’s funeral mass was held at Alnmouth Friary on 14 October. His ashes were interred at Hilfield Friary on Saturday 18 November, with many brothers and sisters present. At the requiem mass preceding the interment, Brother Damian, the Minister Provincial, preached the sermon.

On that day, when the evening had come, Jesus said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” (Mark 4.35) As we have just heard, this gospel verse announces a scene where Jesus and his disciples are caught in one of those sudden, violent storms that came and went on Lake Galilee. It connected in my mind because sudden little storms would arise for Cecil, and then some calming influence would be brought to bear, just as Jesus spoke to the storm, “Hush, be still.”
The youthful years of Cecil Harrison Crickmay had been dogged by what he described as fainting fits after one particularly heavy fall at school, when his poor head suffered bad concussion. In his early twenties, he tried several employments, but when the War broke out in 1939, he applied as a conscientious objector to go and help SSF and Father Charles in Peckham. This led to his coming down to Hilfield on Ascension Day in 1941, where Father Algy admitted him as one of his famous Oblates. Joining the First Order of SSF in 1942, he was sacristan in this chapel for ten years. From early correspondence, I was reminded that at Hilfield he fell once again, suffering a fractured and dislocated shoulder. I don’t think he ever quite recovered his love for Hilfield after that!
Cecil went on to join the brothers in Cambridge, where he began a lifetime’s ministry among children, which he combined with many a household chore. He lived at the house in Lady Margaret Road for seventeen years.

Most of us who know and loved Cecil think of him at Alnmouth, where he also lived for a total of seventeen years, split by a period in between at Liverpool stretching over another decade. Altogether, he served SSF in one capacity or another for fifty-five years. The most well-known fact about Cecil is that he was not a monk! If he had a pet aversion (the others are less mentionable) it was the atmosphere of a monastery. A brother, yes, but never cloistered. Even SSF was an uncomfortable identity for him if he felt we imposed anything that smacked of rituals, routines or regularity.

And yet, in reality, Cecil was a creature of habit. The rhythm of prayer, study and work suited his temperament. At every free opportunity, his head would dive into a book, preferably a history book or a biography. He also adored Tolkien and Lewis and McDonald, half living in the company of a hobbit or the royal children of Aslan, taking up sword against the ‘orrible orcs’ or the white witch of Narnia.

He revelled so passionately in that other world of fantasy and in the past world of history, with their monumental battlefields, that we may question whether he was a pacifist at all! But Brother Edward turned this to advantage, discovering that the best way of getting round Cecil was to respectfully address him as the Duke of Marlborough, claiming the authority of Prince Eugene for himself. That always worked a treat.

However strong his resistance to the Religious Life, we may give thanks today for the life of a brother who truly witnessed to the gospel of peace and to the vocation of a friar with clarity and strong principles. I speak of his communion – with creation, with a host of people, with God. As our First Order Principles direct, he followed the Son of Man ‘who came eating and drinking, who loved the birds and flowers, who blessed little children, who was the friend of publicans and sinners, who sat at the tables alike of the rich and the poor.’ He gave years and years of loving care to Barndale House, Alnwick, a special school for children with severe disabilities; and also to those other children whom he befriended into adulthood, for he leaves behind many lady friends who know of his courteous charm. He was like an uncle to a multitude of people whose friendship he courted.

Cecil loved the North Sea in its varying moods, and he would study it in his latter days at Alnmouth, when arthritis bit into his freedom of movement. During his two final years, where he was wonderfully cared for by adoring nurses at Ravensmount Residential Care Home in Alnwick, he wrote a greeting to his friends where he described ‘baskets of nuts hanging from the eaves for the birds who are feeding well: finches, bluetits, sparrows, the odd thrush.’ Yes, even a sparrow falling to the ground would not miss Cecil’s gentle concern. His knowledge of wildlife was extensive, his reverence for creation was a basis for his pacifism.

But my greatest debt to Brother Cecil is around the life of the chapel. Not only was he punctual and recollected, not only did he read the scriptures with deep meaning and pleasure, but I was privileged over the years, when I too lived in the North East, to discover him sitting there in his seat in chapel, as the dawn of each new day broke over Alnmouth Bay, long before the sounding of the bell for mattins. There he would be, in stillness and quiet, engaged in acts of prayerfulness that also drew me into the friendship of God; while the martins, on the other side of the plate glass window, danced their own praise as they weaved in and out of the sandstone arches.

No, Cecil was no monk. Cecil was a friar who carried the pain of a bruised and beleaguered life until, like Francis, it became integrated with so much of God’s creation, with God’s people and indeed with God himself.
So, thank you, Father, for that ninth day of October, in the octave of the blessèd Francis, at 9.00 p.m., when the even was come, when Jesus said to Cecil, “Let us cross over to the other side.” Peace. Be still. And may he rise in glory. Amen! f