Traditionally we refer to the writings of the four Evangelists, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, about Jesus as Gospels. The word means good news, or literally for our Anglo-Saxon forebears in this country, good-story. The good news contained in these first four volumes of the second testament are the literary life-blood of our Christian Faith tradition, not simply recalling known facts about Jesus himself, the life he led, His proclamation of a vison of God’s Kingdom-values, the impact that He and his message had on a particular people in a historical setting, but also about the transformation that His attitude, words and ministry had on individuals. The greatest and best news stories, of course, are those of His own resurrection, and the hardly imaginable significance that this has for each and every one of us. In and amongst what through our frequent listening to, or even personal reading of, have become familiar stories are those that link a singular event with the almost incomprehensible mystery of that declaration by the Easter angels to the women: He is not here. He is risen just as He said. (Matthew28:6). Those events are the stories of the journeying Christ – or even in the case of Dorcas (or Tabitha) of Joppa, by St. Peter – restoring life to the dead.
The widow of Nain, Jairus and his wife, and the sisters Martha and Mary all felt the loss of bereavement and subsequently rejoiced in the return of a beloved family member to them. In the case of the sisters of Bethany we can hardly imagine their “glad[ness], because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.” (Luke 15:32) St. John records that just as large numbers ventured to the home of Martha and Mary to console them at the time of their loss and in the days following, so too crowds also began to appear on their doorstep after the restoration of Lazarus to life after his time in the tomb (12:9).
An omission or oversight in the texts recording these events is the response of those to whom loved ones were returned, not least at an emotional level. That part of the story is left to the imagination of those listening. It is an element of the captivating nature of a story well told, transporting us from where we are to another place, experience, or even, in these cases, a plethora of emotions. No doubt in the return of their daughter, son and brother the parents and siblings of those given back the precious gift of life must have recognized an individual that was the same but different. Wrapped in all the familiar vestiges of an earlier incarnation but somewhat altered in light of the physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological impact that the touch or voice of Christ had gifted them with. We are left to our own thoughts as to the magnitude of how being given life afresh and anew must have affected the individual themselves and also their nearest and dearest. Lives the same, but forever different. I often wonder how many times in the quiet of the night Jairus and his wife must have put their heads around their daughter’s bedroom door watching her in sleep knowing that she was going to awake to enjoy another day of life, filled with all that would bring fascination, pleasure, routine and even boredom to a twelve-year-old girl two thousand years ago. Or even how relieved the hospitable Martha must have been not to have to break the habit of a life-time and slim down her recipes to provide meals for just two mouths instead of three ! For the widow of Nain perhaps the reprimands that she gave to her son for spending too much time with his friends and neglecting jobs at home were also less frequent.
Last Friday I gained a very personal insight into this reality of having that which had been removed return when I went to collect Dad from the rehabilitation centre that had been his temporary home since late-April. The staff of the third of the three addresses that have been his since Christmas Eve turned out in force to witness his departure. A tribute to the man himself and no doubt his exemplorary presence amongst caring strangers, faces covered and with voices muffled. It was exactly six months and one day since several calls had come from worried neighbours who were noticing that which was usually the same, out of years of routine, was worryingly different. On leaving the Presbytery that day I set out on the longest journey I’ve ever taken. The unknown loomed large, and whilst I did not want to face what might have and, indeed, did lie ahead, I could not get there quick enough. If Nineveh took three days to cross, getting to Otley probably took me a year. At red traffic lights I attempted to put a semblance of order on a foreboding potential chaos for our Christmas Vigil congregations … it may not have been wholly legal, but diligent necessity overtook me. And I was both discreet and handsfree!
Discovering Dad clearly unwell, the Holy Spirit took over, and in the briefest of moments the blue lights and medical cavalry arrived. Holding one of his large work-worn hands I tried to reassure Dad that all would be well. Knowing that I had to trust him to others, my phone number was scribbled on the blue latex glove of a member of the ambulance crew. (I well recall hoping that the numbers wouldn’t smudge or be washed away before being appropriately recorded !) Hurriedly securing Dad’s home of fifty-seven years, as I turned left into the main road, in a glance to the right I could still see the blue lights disappearing into the darkening distance of the December afternoon. For me it was a big deep breath before starting Mass at 4.30 p.m. barely an hour away. That was the beginning of a journey which continues. Weekly I went to the LGI with washed clothes for Dad. A solitary figure on empty corridors. Only once was I told that I didn’t have to make the weekly pilgrimage as the hospital had a laundry. My response was that it was the least I could do for Dad, hoping that he could smell the difference between hospital detergent and our home brand. Asked questions that I did not feel were mine to give an answer to, 2021 dawned precariously, with an infection on top of the initial debilitating stroke. Medically the situation improved slowly. Probably about a month after our Christmas Eve drama, and at least one ‘phone call to the ward each day, a wonderful Staff Nurse took a mobile handset to Dad, and I heard his voice once again – familiar but altered. As children we often choose to ignore a parental voice calling out to us, in that moment Dad’s voice commanded my fullest and undivided attention. A belated Christmas gift; wrapped in the practical gesture of human kindness delivered by a busy, and probably over-worked, member of staff.
From a different hospital at the end of March came a call to say that I could visit Dad. Hesitantly I waited until a full three weeks after my first Covid vaccination. Dad remained un-jabbed (hospital policy, despite his age and my constant references to it when speaking with the ward staff !), so I did what I thought was sensible to protect him and look after him. We had come so far, why take a risk. In reality all I wanted to do was see him, but I could hear his voice during our shared times in Lockdown, urging caution and common-sense to me as his son as I continued to minister throughout the pandemic. A few days more, and I sat opposite him, although in full PPE, wearing more plastic than I return from the weekly supermarket shop with ! Opposite Dad was a younger man, Andrew, who told me that they had been together in the LGI, a phase of his life that Dad can hardly recall. In Chapel Allerton they were enjoying each other’s company, not least the one-liners that Dad is known to come out with. Although without visitors, Andrew, was a part of the weekly conversations I had with Dad. His presence in Dad’s life was a source of reassurance. Our Lord may not have described brief or random friendships as being Blessed but he did praise the actions of the Good Samaritan. On discharge Andrew sent a lovely card to Dad, but alas, no address … perhaps one day they’ll meet again.
In the town which was his home from adolescence to marriage, Yeadon, Dad spent a final eight weeks, ironically arriving there on Mum’s anniversary. The move meant isolation, something that a man imbued with a curious spirit (sometimes described as nosey!) struggled with, but the all-important therapies in mobility and speech continued regardless. When I was eventually able to visit it was behind a screen, we joked at its resemblance to a Confessional. It was here that we talked about a future lived by the same man but in a different and new way. Hence, Dad came to stay with me last Friday. Like the Belgian exiles a century ago, a welcome and honoured guest. Happy to be in familiar surroundings, but still my father, as I am reminded at about nine-thirty each evening when the loud yawns begin, followed by the words Well, I think it is time for me to go to bed. I then have to point out that as he is sleeping in the living room, home to the TV, another quarter of an hour would be appreciated so that I can finish watching whatever is being broadcast between nine and ten! The same but different. Having lost any control over the remote, our day ends with the words: Night, night and God bless. Still Dad. Still a child.
Dad is cut from humble cloth. Every conversation during our separation either with those caring for him, or with him in person, included the question as to whether there was anything he required, wanted or needed. There was never a request or want for anything. For six months and a day he was contented with what was given to him, or in my case, sent into him. Before leaving for my weekly foray to the supermarket on Friday, I asked the same question. His response: a box of tissues, please. When handed to him it could have been gold or the pearl of great price, judging by the expression on his face. It is the mark of the man. The sameness and familiarity of my own home life is altered and changed by both the presence of Dad and also those who come in to assist with his needs. With a week of new arrangements under our respective belts, I think that both of us would agree that what we are able to share is an enhancement and enrichment from which we are both benefitting.
Hopefully you will share my delight in being able to deliver a good news story which is clearly a very personal one. This backdrop to my own life is also one that I know has been on many a parishioners’ prayer-list for the last six months, for which Dad and I have been and continue to be most grateful. Within us all there lies a good news or gospel story, lacking headline grabbing scintillation, they often remain untold. Yet they are the very things that give us hope, bringing a glimpse of dawn after a long dark night, reminding us that we can be the same but different because of a single encounter or series of events or experiences.
It is with a good news story that I draw my weekly musings and reflections to a close. They began at a time when the foundations of all that was deemed normal were shaken by something far greater than we could ever have imagined, with a purpose to offer a spiritual, sometimes humorous, reflection on life in all its ordinariness and quirkiness. This weekend marks a year since we first started celebrating Holy Mass publicly after our withdrawal to congregation-less celebrations behind closed doors. We celebrate the same in a slightly different way. That sameness and familiarity has kept us journeying forward together. The challenge over the coming months is to encourage another journey, that from home back to church. It begins by feeling comfortable to start preparing for such a journey. Ask those already attending what church is like ! Hopefully the reports will be good and above all reassuring. With the suspension of any obligation to attend Holy Mass at the weekend still in place think about a weekday Mass … you’ll be welcomed. Your spiritual home is the same, it is just us who are emerging differently.
With or without musings I continue to carry you in prayerful remembrance, together with your loved ones – living and those handed back to God – and in affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas