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  • Writer's pictureAlaric Mark Lewis

On a smiling captain and knowing how to love

Updated: Apr 19

On the 11th of November 2014, I was on a flight to Málaga for a formal visit to a church which had offered me a position there. Just before we landed, after the tray tables and seat backs had been returned to their full upright positions and all carryon luggage had been stowed in either the seat in front of us or in the overhead bins, the pilot announced that the temperature in Málaga was 16 degrees. This announcement was met with smiles and “oohs!” all around, and the woman sitting next to me, a round-faced Italian grandmother of fourteen (our flight had originated in Rome, and I had heard her life story) said to me, “Non è brutto!” which means, basically “not bad!” I smiled and said “Veramente!” (“Really!”) enthusiastically and felt slightly disingenuous as – typical Yank perhaps in this aspect alone – I had no idea what 16 degrees meant. (I know now – just because I am at my computer and can Google it – that it is nearly 61 degrees, which, for November non è brutto indeed.)

I was dressed in a black suit with my dog collar (one can take the boy out of Rome but it's not easy taking Rome out of the boy) in part because it seemed like something one should wear to what was labelled a “formal visit,” and, in part so that the person who was meeting me at the airport wouldn't have to go on the photograph that I had sent (which was, as tends to happen in these cases, probably more flattering than the actual me) or hold up one of those signs with my name on it. I felt confident that I had chosen well, but this gentleman's first words to me were, “Priests don't dress like that here,” so I wondered if I had committed some sort of clerical faux pas. Outside of this rather unfortunate greeting (I find things like Welcome, Nice to meet you, or even How do you do? are often nice ways to greet someone for the first time) he was a likeable chap. On the car ride from the airport, he mentioned that he had a naval background, so I chalked his greeting up to a military sensibility. He handed me a letter with a few names of people I might want to stay away from on my visit there, which I thought was either wildly inappropriate or perhaps he was just being militarily expeditious – I wasn't sure which.

Later, lounging in a hotel room that looked out over the sea, I read the programme for my visit. In the midst of the official typewritten schedule someone had handwritten an informal meeting for me in the midst of this formal visit: one Captain John Le Page and his wife Carole. Oh dear, I thought. A Captain! I had only recently seen The Battle of Britain and I was hoping that he would be a lovely captain like Group Captain Baker (played by the late, great Kenneth More) and not like Baron Von Richter (played by Kurt Jürgens) who probably wasn't a captain at all but was certainly militarily expeditious.

I met John and Carole at a bar in one of the coastal towns where I would end up serving. It turned out that he was not like Kenneth More and certainly not like Kurt Jürgens, but rather a Church Army Captain who was possessed of the most wondrous smile I think I have ever seen. It was not a polite or forced smile, it was a smile that – in concert with eyes that literally sparkled – was natural and precious, a much needed gift that let me know then and there that I could count on him, that even if he had only just met me he had decided, not only to give me a chance, but to love me. Writing that now it seems slightly hyperbolic; how could I presume love was present from a smiling captain whom I had only just met? I don't know. But it was there – his smile was that great – and that smile cut through the anxiety about what I was wearing and whether I really wanted to uproot my life and leave my precious Rome and whether this was really the place for me. And I thought that, come what may, I'd be OK, because sitting in front of me was a smiling captain who really knew how to love, next to another loving person who had been by his side for ages. I was going to be OK. I was going to be better than OK. We're all better people when we encounter others who really know how to love.

And, boy, did John know how to love! His prayerful spirit, gentle manner, sense of humour (some of the most groan-worthy jokes ever!), attention to those who suffered, the poor and marginalised surrounded him like a wondrous cloak. I wonder how many souls in need (like my own soul) found refuge in that cloak, how many people (like me) who live in a world where God can seem all-too-absent felt His presence due to that smile and commitment to love. Surely more than can be counted. Those who know me know that I didn't always have the easiest of times in that post, but what a solace and comfort it was to know that I had near me a smiling captain who knew how to love. What a difference he made in the lives of so many who needed to know that love, which was, of course, a direct reflection of John's love for the Lord for whom he was an evangelist.

A couple of weeks ago I flew to Spain to see John, who was clearly nearing the end of his life. I was worried that I had left it too long and chastised myself for not getting there sooner. I picked up a car at the airport and drove directly to the hospital. Upon entering his room he was resting, unresponsive, as he had been for some time at that point.

“John,” I said, “it's me, Alaric. I've come from Norwich to see my smiling captain!”

He opened his eyes which still sparkled – sickness and suffering were no match for those eyes – and a tear softly rolled down his face, landing gracefully on the pillow beneath him. He appeared to try and say something, but I was unable to understand what he was saying. I sat down next to him and talked and talked and talked and he closed his eyes again. I prayed evening prayer from The Book of Common Prayer, anointed him, and talked some more. (I'm rarely at a loss for words.) I got up to leave, told him I'd be back the next day, and gave him a kiss on his forehead. He opened his eyes again, but this time didn't try to say anything, he just looked at me.

Now I know that he had been unwell for some time. I know that both his mind and his body had deteriorated most cruelly. And I suppose one could say that he opened his eyes because he was startled by my voice, a voice which frequently knows two volumes (loud and louder). And, sure, the speech that it seemed he was trying to produce could have simply been involuntary movement, the tear a simple case of irritation due to the dry hospital air.

But I don't think so. Because I think a captain who knew how to love would be able to express that love even when it seemed it was – he was – dying. This captain was an evangelist for One whose love never dies, so I have no doubt that he saw me, knew me, wanted me to know that I was still loved because I have no doubt in the goodness of the God who gave the world such a precious, beautiful person.

When I received news of John's passing I shed a few tears. It's hard to imagine a world without him in it. But I know that he was a man who really knew how to love, and that love goes on for ever. I am as filled with doubt about so many things as the next person, but I have no doubt that love lives on. Because I have seen it in action, have seen it change lives, have felt its power, and heard of its good news from an evangelist who knew how to love: my smiling captain.

We're all better people when we encounter others who really know how to love. I certainly am, so thanks, Captain John Le Page. Rest in peace, sweet, sweet man.

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Sam Ruddock
Sam Ruddock
Apr 19

This is another beautiful, life affirming story, Alaric. Thank you.


Apr 19

Thank you for this and thank you for sharing it, Alaric. What an extraordinary friendship with an extraordinary person! I'm deeply sorry for your loss. Please accept my condolences and know my heart hurts with your dear heart.

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