Monday, August 21, 2006

The Saint and the Sinner: Two Lives – One Faith

Mr Ernest Prendergast is a gentleman of what is commonly known as “the old school”. A devoutly Christian, octogenarian widower, he routinely attends the surgery to have his blood pressure checked and his medication renewed. On each occasion, regardless of the weather, he is dressed in a tweed suit, complete with waistcoat, tie, polished brogue shoes, a raincoat and cloth cap.

As he enters the consulting room he habitually hesitates, the cap being nervously fingered by both hands, gives a slight bow and apologises for having to bother me. The consultation itself is, at least on his part, a study in politeness, subservience, and respect. He always thinks deeply and speaks quietly and slowly, with great consideration given to the grammatical construction of each sentence.

I have known him for over fifteen years and have thus come to understand him very well. He has evidently led a life steeped in moderation and, as certain difficulties have shown, cannot be classed as a man of the world. Religion plays a central role within his daily activities. He has often expressed the opinion that he is merely a humble person whose soul will be claimed in due course by the Lord, whence he will have to answer for how he has spent his life in this world. His stated hope is that he has been sufficiently dutiful in the eyes of God so as not to suffer his future wrath. I have no doubt that God will not find him lacking.

At the end of the consultation, he routinely thanks me for my valued time, apologises for having taken up so much of it, offers me his hand, looks towards me with a depth of expression that only eighty years of life can replicate, and says ‘Thank you for your kindness. May God be with you’, before leaving the consulting room, head bowed, shoulders hunched, and the cap once more being gently kneaded with both hands.

Today, a few consultations after the one with Mr Prendergast, I entered the waiting room to call Lisa Jones. I spotted her in one corner, eschewing the spare chairs and choosing instead to squat cross-legged on a low window ledge. Her bleached-blond, dreadlock-styled hair, the centre of which is dyed a contrasting bright red, fell in an untidy mass around her as she rocked gently to and fro to the music on her ipod. Calling her name had no effect and it required a gentle touch to her arm to return her attention to the present.

I followed her into my consulting room, noting the sharply contrasting colours of her purple leggings, grey-denim miniskirt and dirty yellow blouse; the outfit being completed by a pair of heavy, black walking boots and a gold cross, three-inches in dimension, hung from her neck by a long gold chain of equally considerable weight.

I have known Lisa since she was eleven. She is now twenty-seven. Her life to date can only be described as one of wild, drug-fuelled debauchery. Commencing with glue sniffing, she rapidly progressed through smoking cannabis, popping ecstasy tablets, snorting cocaine and injecting heroin, with liberal quantities of alcohol thrown in. The final mixture would frequently be topped up with the odd three or four barbiturates for good measure.

Having closed the consulting room door, I sat at my desk and waited for a few moments whilst Lisa paced nervously back and forth across the floor. Finally, she grabbed a chair, pulled it as close to my desk as possible and started drumming her fingers on its surface. Still I waited, knowing that, in her own time, she would tell me why she had come. Experience had taught me that if I attempted to speed the process along, then she was just as likely to jump up and leave without a word being said on her part.

Finally, she looked towards me in a wild, unfocussed manner and tried to explain her problem. Although she is now clean of drugs, her brain has suffered more than its fair share of abuse. As a result, her sentences are disjointed as she struggles to find the appropriate words. Expletives are frequently resorted to as substitutes for verbs, nouns, and adjectives, making the whole process of listening to her an experience as colourful as her clothing, whilst the task of extracting the details of her problem can only be described as challenging.

Despite all the above, Lisa is a success story. Until a few years ago, her lifestyle was close to prematurely killing her. She was unable to care for herself, let alone her young daughter. As a result, her daughter was taken into care by the social services and Lisa spent long periods on the local psychiatric ward. However, it wasn’t modern medicine that cured her of her addictions. It was Christianity. Finding a deep faith finally gave her a focus within her life and helped her escape from the black hole in which she had, heretofore, psychologically dwelt.

The start of her new journey in life first came to my attention one morning at the end of a village surgery. She arrived without an appointment, just as I was packing away the laptop and various medical paraphernalia. However, it soon became apparent that she was not there for medical advice. As she showed me the brochure for a drug rehabilitation centre run by a Christian group near to the Welsh Borders, she expressed the view that there was nobody else she felt able to talk to about such matters. Coming from Lisa, that was a surprise as, although I have often stated that the role of the modern GP is part physician, part social worker, and part priest, I had never previously had any form of conversation with Lisa about spiritual matters. She needed my opinion on two topics. First, did I think that the rehabilitation centre would be useful to her, as she had never previously had any contact with church or Christian groups; second, which book would I recommend that she read, as the centre stated in their joining instructions that each resident should bring at least one book which would help them through their process of rehabilitation.

The book I finally recommended to her was The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson. It is the true story of how a priest entered the streets of New York and started to work with the young, drug-addicted, knife-wielding gang-fighters. So many found salvation through accepting Christ into their lives that a new counselling service, known as Teen Challenge, evolved. The ministry now has centres in more than 70 countries. I thought that Lisa, as someone who would not normally read books, might find a sense of kindred spirit with some of the characters within Wilkerson’s book.

The rehabilitation was successful and the start of a new life for Lisa. Subsequently, she was able to obtain a lease on a small house in the village and the social services agreed to return her daughter to her care.

For Lisa, Christianity is now central to her life. Her faith is prominently displayed around her neck; she frequently refers to how God is her support in life, and never leaves the consulting room without glancing back to me and saying ‘Thanks. God bless you.’

After the morning’s surgery, I was left pondering on how a deep-seated faith was so important to the lives of two very different people. Old Mr Ernest Prendergast, in all of his eighty plus years, would not have even touched upon the type of life Lisa Jones has led in her twenty-seven years to date. Meeting in the street, they would probably not have even given each other a second glance. However, there was the very real (and somewhat surreal) possibility that, one Sunday morning, the tweed-suited Mr Prendergast might turn in his pew in Church and find himself offering the sign of peace to the wild, hippy-dressed, dreadlocked Lisa Jones: two different generations, leading very different lives, but ultimately united by a shared belief.

Charles Péguy, the French poet and essayist (1873 – 1914), is quoted in Basic Verities (1943) as writing in Un Nouveau Théologien (21st December 1899):

‘The sinner is at the heart of Christianity…No one is as competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. No one, except a saint.’

I think that Lisa Jones and Ernest Prendergast are very good examples of the “sinner and the saint”. It would seem that Péguy’s analysis could not have been more correct.

(Author’s note: The names of the patients have been altered to protect their identities.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Literary Snippet – Mark Twain

There is always something interesting to learn.

Whilst browsing the latest catalogue from The Folio Society, my attention was drawn to the new Folio edition of Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain.

I hadn’t previously known that Mark Twain (whose other well known books include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) was a pseudonym; after all, there are many American names which sound unusual to the English ear. Further investigation revealed that his real name was Samuel Clemens.

There are two quoted possibilities for the origin of his pseudonym. The author claimed that it came from the time spent on riverboats. In order to test the depth of water, a weighted line was let out into the water. A depth of twelve feet was considered safe and the crewman would shout out ‘mark twain’.

However, there are some who maintain that his name came from time spent in the bars. On each occasion he ordered a double, he would instruct the barman to ‘mark twain’ on his account.

Either way, the knowledge will no doubt provide for a few moments of intellectual chat around the occasional dinner table.

Some of my favourite quotes attributed to Twain are:

  • Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
  • Golf is a good walk spoilt.
  • It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.
  • Respect your superiors, if you have any.
  • I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.
  • Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Miscellany

Partially by chance, although on one occasion as a result of the need to research a chapter for my book, I have found myself of late wandering around various monastic ruins. I previously mentioned Mount Grace Priory and, although not a ruin, the ecclesiastical retreat at Parcevall Hall in North Yorkshire (see In Perspective, 31st July 2006). Since then, I have added Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire and, as of yesterday, Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire.It takes imagination to mentally rebuild these once magnificent edifices. However, with a little research it becomes easier to do, especially as many have a similar floor plan. What requires a greater depth of imagination is to feel what it must have been like to live in one of these places as a monk in the 12th, 13th or 14th Centuries.The one predominant sense for me on each occasion I attempt such a spiritual regression is the overwhelming feeling of peace and contentment. Presumably, this is what the intended purpose of the place was when first built. What is perhaps surprising is that such historic sites can still induce the same emotions albeit some seven hundred years on and in their present traumatised state.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (Vol. 26, Pg. 1017) defines the purpose of monasticism as the ‘discovery of the true self’. It expands the idea by saying ‘all monasticism has its mainstay in theologically based convictions that the present state of things leaves much to be desired’.

Sometimes, life is a kind of madness. It becomes the head-on pursuit of, to a great extent, material possessions. However, they often fail to give the total pleasure and sense of contentment which is so eagerly sought after. As time progresses, many come to realise that it is a much deeper satisfaction which is yearned for. For me, that deeper contentment is found by taking to the hills or, as with the benefit of recent experience, when wandering around monastic ruins. It is then that I start to see a reflection of my true self and can develop a focus which reflects a sense of destiny.


A Handful of Dust

Take a handful of dust from the side of a road. In it you will see many small pebbles. Look closely – each one is a mountain in miniature.

John Ruskin

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I recently purchased a CD entitled A Night in Vienna by Oscar Peterson. This octogenarian jazz pianist has produced many splendid works over his lifetime. However, for me, one of the most moving pieces is his own composition called Requiem; a tribute to all the departed jazz greats. It is the most beautiful, haunting and melancholic pieces of music I have come across for many years.

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading  Newman: The Heart of Holiness  (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In...