Wednesday, 21 September 2011
How do I look?
"As I was walking by St Paul's...." began a smutty rhyme when I was at school. In fact I wasn't grabbed by any part of my anatomy - just approached tentatively by a man who saw my dog collar, as I walked home after saying lunchtime mass (traditional language) at St Bride's, Fleet Street. "Excuse me", he asked, "do you know any prayers for a brain tumour?" Now I know I'm shortish in the clerical tooth, and self-supporting to boot; but I'm also aware that when people in pastoral need ask a priest a question, it's not necessarily that they want or expect an answer. They often need to tell you something, and the subject has got to be raised somehow. And, as it happens, I don't know any specific prayers for brain tumours. "Do you know someone who's got a brain tumour?", I asked. "Yes", he said, "my girlfriend". "Would you like me to pray for her with you now?" "Yes please". I asked her name and his, and we stood in the shadow of Wren's masterpiece, and in the lee of M&S Simply Food, office workers streaming past us in the early autumn sunshine, and prayed. We asked God for healing if at all possible; but if not that, then at least for courage, strength and peace. Her name is Suzette, she's 45, and the prognosis is not at all encouraging. He's knows he's going to lose her and, in all likelihood, quite soon. After I'd given him (and her) a blessing, he went his way down Ludgate Hill, and was soon lost in the crowd. I suppose I shall never see him again.
I have to tell you that I have ordained colleagues who dislike being seen out and about in clerical dress. And, to be frank, I have days when I'm a bit flaky about it. People do look at you - sometimes out of curiosity or interest, and occasionally with a warm smile or even a greeting; but also sometimes with discomfort, incomprehension or hostility in their glance. Mostly they just look away. You are of course a soft touch for beggars, Big Issue sellers, and religious nutters of every conceivable hue (the last often on buses or trains where escape is impossible). You represent something by which some have been hideously damaged, rejected or insulted. For others, you represent a reminder of their weakness, guilt, or faithlessness - a walking rebuke. For others still, you are a momento mori; an outward and visible sign of a non-material world which they will go to considerable lengths to avoid facing or even contemplating.
But you also represent something that quite a lot of these same people need at some point in their lives. The man who stopped me today needed a priest. He probably did not know any, and may not have had the confidence to go into the cathedral or other place where one might be found. He was upset and frightened. He saw me, and trusted I would not ignore him and walk on. That's what the collar is for; and that's why we have to wear it.
Having said so, please pray that I may have the courage to practise what I preach. And, of your goodness, pray for Suzette.