BY RICHARD WHITE
Caryl Houselander was an astute spiritual writer in England in the 1940s amd 1950s. She tells the story of a famous Dominican preacher, Francis McNabb OP, expounding Christian truths in Hyde Park to a hostile audience, one man in particular.
Eventually, McNabb lost his temper and yelled at this noisome character, “Go to hell!”
The man smiled smugly. Realising what he had done, McNabb got down from his soap box or wherever, knelt before his heckler, kissed his foot and asked forgiveness.
The man replied, “Get up, McNabb, you’re just play-acting, aren’t you?” “That’s the trouble,” said the priest, “I don’t know.”
I read that story years ago and it has stayed with me. I suspect there is something quite profound being said in that little tableau. To what extent do my outward gestures correspond with the thoughts of my heart? And, can I ever know? Moreover, does it matter?
There are a number of ways of addressing these questions, but I want to tell a story of my own, not as striking as Caryl’s, but important for me.
Last weekend I took our dog to the vet. He had been very ill over a couple of days.
At first I thought it was another case of a stomach infection brought on by eating anything and everything he could find when he escaped from the lead and the gate. A day or so of discomfort and he would be back to normal. Not this time.
I was at work when my wife called and told me he was very sick and needed to go to the vet. She sounded worried. I left work early and headed off to collect the dog and get to the vet before closing.
On the way home I went into philosophical mode, as I tend to do. The dog is not young. Two of our cats have died during the year. It is following a pattern. He’s been part of the family, but these things happen. Then, with us going away over Christmas, we won’t have to worry about boarding kennels etc etc.
But, something was happening in my stomach. Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with what my head was saying. I wasn’t conscious of affectionate feelings for the dog or memories of his escapades and the fun we have had with him. None of that was there that I was aware of.
But the sense of distress and concern was growing. It did not prevent me taking the necessary steps to get him to the vet, attend to the examination, listen to the diagnosis and prepare for the regime of medication and observation over night.
As I said, not a story about forgiveness and sorrow, motivation and sincerity. It is a story about attachment and grief. The dog taught me the same lesson the cats had taught me.
Attachment, affection, connection is going on all the time, at different levels and significance in our lives. More often than not, this attachment and connection is not conscious. As the process of knowing and loving someone is not conscious. Our head may even tells us, given the angular and distinctive shapes of all of us, that irritation, annoyance, even dislike, are more characteristic of our relationships than love.
But, there can be something going on underneath. In this story, it was about affection for a dog, called Mate. With our family and friends, colleagues and the odd people who become part of our lives, the process within can be even more significant and mysterious.
It may well be that there is a wisdom operating at that level and a purifying. It may well be that we are growing in that knowledge of a person, not a figment of our imagination, fears and longings. It may well be that this knowledge will break through and surprise us with affection and tears and gratitude. That is what grief can do and why it is such an important part of our humanity.
Richard White is bereavement counsellor at W.N. Bull Funeral Directors in Sydney.
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