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RIP – Roger Alexander SSF

Br Roger Alexander SSF - RIP

Brother Roger Alexander SSF died on 22 May 2007, and his funeral Mass was at Hilfield Friary. He was aged seventy-four years and in the thirtieth year of his profession in vows.

1 Peter 1:7: ‘In this you rejoice even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials’

I think that we were all a bit taken by surprise at Roger’s death just two weeks ago.  Of course, we had known for a long time that he was seriously ill – it must have been about 4 years ago that the cancer was first diagnosed – but he seemed to bear it so well, so steadfastly and so courageously, that we had got used to him surviving as he passed successive life expectancy dates.  In the end his death came quite suddenly, perhaps surprising even Roger himself.  It was a great blessing that he was able to make the journey home to his sister – and your care for him in his last days, Gill, was very special.  Thank you so much.

The Boy Scout Manual used to say that you could always tell a man by his shoes, and that was certainly the case with Roger.  Every evening after Compline, whether at Hilfield, Mtoni Shamba, Cambridge or Glasshampton, the brushes and the tin of Cherry Blossom (dark tan) would be taken out; his shoes and sandals were always immaculately and lovingly cared for.  The same meticulous care was applied in every area of Roger’s life.  When dealing with a piece of fruit, out would come the pen-knife to dissect and then peel and core it; then the blade would be wiped, the knife folded and returned to his pocket before he started eating – great care.  Following the instruction of St Francis, he always showed great reverence towards the scriptures, rescuing and repairing copies that were neglected or ill-used.  The records that he kept of his management of the estate here, of the woods and the vegetable garden, were beautifully tidy and complete, as were the files on his pastoral ministry wherever he worked.  He was a person who believed in taking care of everything that was entrusted to him – including those for whom he prayed; there was a great integrity to his life in this way.

But Roger was also someone who enjoyed the wider world too.  On leaving school he did his National Service with the Royal Marines; after being commissioned he served in Libya, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece.  He said it was one of the happiest times of his life, opening up new possibilities for him.  He returned to take a degree in farming at Wye College in Kent and then post-graduate studies in Cambridge before joining the Colonial Service to work in the West Indies and Sierra Leone.  He had a great love for Africa and while in the Society of St Francis was with us in Tanzania, where he planted and tended a citrus orchard, and then later on in Zimbabwe in Harare, at Bonda Mission and finally at Chipinge in the Eastern Highlands.  He always liked to have a bit of garden to cultivate and his most recent hobby was the botanical painting of flowers. These are some of the outward expressions of his life, but what was going on within him?  What made him tick?  Roger was a very private person who didn’t readily disclose himself to others; he longed for relationship but didn’t find relationships easy.  He felt very deeply, and certain things must have affected him profoundly – perhaps most of all the death of his younger brother, Hugh, in a motor-cycle accident while he was out in Sierra Leone; when he first joined SSF he took his brother’s name.  But he could be great fun too; around the meal table at St Francis House, Cambridge, in good company, the conversation would flow and there would be much laughter.  He valued those who were his friends and he could be extraordinarily kind.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus speaks of his relationship with his disciples.  They are to him as branches to the vine (and I’m reminded of Roger with his pruning knife) – connected, rooted in him so that they can bear abundant fruit.  They are to abide in him as he abides in them; it’s a relationship of love and intimacy which issues in the fullness of joy.

Roger was brought up in the faith within a Christian family, for which he was always grateful.  He was confirmed at the age of twelve (being given the confirmation name of Francis!) and thereafter was a very faithful communicant; he had a great sense of obligation towards God and a recognition that you don’t approach God lightly or casually – reverence and careful preparation before receiving the sacrament were very important to him.  Every decision in his life was taken prayerfully and carefully.  Yet throughout his life he was always looking for more than just a formal relationship with God, obedience out of obligation.  He sensed the call to go deeper into God; he felt drawn into closer relationship.  His leaving farming and the Colonial Service to train for ordination at Cuddesdon in the 1960s was in response to this call.  He served his curacy in Rugby but still he wanted more in terms of a living relationship with the Lord.  His joining SSF in the 1970’s was part of that call, as was his decision in the 1980’s to undergo very thorough training in the Ignatian discipline of spiritual direction.  He was probably too personally reticent to attract many directees, yet it certainly led him deeper into relationship with the God who, in Jesus, loved him from all eternity.  For Roger, as for the rest of us here, his Christian life was a journey yet to be completed, a response to a promise yet to be fulfilled, a joy still to be entered into.

Roger faced his approaching death in the characteristic way that he had lived his life – with meticulous care.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across someone so well prepared for death.  But it wasn’t just a matter of fortitude in the face of the inevitable, for Roger approached Sister Death knowing that he was loved and accepted by God, in the assurance that his sins were forgiven and trusting in the new life in Christ that had begun at his baptism.  ‘I have said these things to you’, says Jesus in the Gospel reading ‘that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’  Today we give thanks to God for Roger Alexander, for the fruitfulness of his life, for our fellowship with him and for the work of God’s grace – and we entrust him to that joy, with the saints, in all its fullness.

Roger, our brother, may the Lord give you his peace. f