A Sunday spent weeping green tears
Diary of a City Priest, by Pastor Iuventus, Family Publications (tel 0845 0500 879), £8.95
It was the strangest Sunday I have spent in a long time. For those of you who thought matches were made in heaven, think again. I was striking one to light the candles on the altar before the early Mass on Sunday morning, (the servers always arrive at the 11th hour) – when the tip flew off and into my eye. It happened so fast I don’t even know if it was alight or not. I managed to bathe it quickly, but with a church full of people waiting the only thing that I could do was to carry on and say Mass as my eye closed up. I was lucky that a retired priest living not too far away was available to say the next Mass and a kind parishioner drove me to the local casualty department.
It felt distinctly unusual to be out and about on a Sunday morning, like a strange kind of truancy, and I realised that vocation is very much about internalising responsibility, which is why it is difficult to be a priest on your own in a parish, because there are times like this one when you need to be able to step back from that degree of responsibility and that can be more difficult than, thank God, it proved to be this day.
The last time I attended casualty as a patient I was working at the hospital and so, looking back. I got rather special treatment. Not so this time. I waited for a couple of hours to be seen. Since I have only one good eye I couldn’t read and since I was listening intently for my name to be called I couldn’t listen to an iPod (no pun intended). I tried to say my rosary but in this I was somewhat hampered by the fact that the waiting area was festooned with television screens broadcasting something called the Great North Run, which apparently is a run which happens in the north, and I suppose is great if that’s your thing, but frankly the excitement palls after two hours of a blow-by-blow commentary which can’t really expand on the basic parameters of great, north and run.
Eventually I was seen by a triage nurse who made some notes and sent me to wait in another, smaller waiting room, where an out-of-hours GP had been co-opted to deal with casualty cases. Despite my blurred vision I was able to see that my nationality and ethnicity had been clearly recorded on the front of my notes. Under the space for religion, however, it said: “Not Known.” Not known, because not asked for – unlike ethnicity and nationality which were on the very first form I was handed. I know from my time working there that the hospital is required to ask you your religion under EU law. It is clearly a regulation more honoured in the breach than in the observance. It felt all the more ironic because I was sat there in a clerical collar and the combination of this and my frightful-looking eye made me the object of much curiosity from my fellow patients.
Eventually I was shown in to see the doctor. She poured some dye into my eye which made me weep green tears, a slightly disconcerting experience. She told me she couldn’t see anything awful, but that I should come back tomorrow, when the eye casualty unit would be open. In the meanwhile she prescribed antibiotic and anaesthetic drops. I was driven to four chemists and phoned another four, none of whom had the anaesthetic drops. I wasn’t in agony, but I was in severe discomfort, so my patience was getting a little frayed by this point. I decided to return to casualty and see the doctor again. It seems there was a problem of manufacture and they no longer made these drops. There was another kind, which she said I could order from the chemist but they wouldn’t be delivered for 48 hours. It was a pity, she opined, since they had them in the hospital pharmacy, but she wasn’t allowed to prescribe from there, as she was part of the Community Care and not the hospital trust. In the most robust way I could manage I appealed to her sense of community care and pointed out that this did seem a little ridiculous as I had actually come to the hospital as a patient, and she conceded that there was something in this, and that the hospital owed her a favour for dealing with so many casualty cases. Kindly, then, she persuaded a hospital pharmacist to part with some of the anaesthetic drops, but because of pharmacy protocols I had to have a box of 50 doses, since they only dispensed that number. By this point I would have cheerfully had a truck-load if it meant I could actually get some relief.
The kind retired priest who had stepped in to say the later morning Mass offered to say the evening one as well. I went to bed early grateful for the relief that the darkness brought and fell into the kind of deep sleep that comes with the easing of pain and woke the next morning with a deep sense of peace.
I reflected that this surely had to do with more than just the unforeseen outcome of a Sunday on which I only said one Mass instead of the usual three. It made me realise that there is something salutary in confronting the fact that you are fragile and dispensable. Somewhere in my mind’s eye, contemplating the responsibilities of my calling, there is lodged a tiny shard of egotism which clouds the vision so that one focuses on monitoring the performance of the activity proper to priesthood, more than the fundamental surrender of one’s frail humanity to the will of God which should underpin that activity.