Learning not to speakOct 29th, 2009 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Ministry
“Remember”, said the GP as he walked out of the door, “it all depends on having a right view of Jesus”.
He hardly noticed a twenty-six year old curate standing hesitatingly in the doorway, not knowing what to say. What do you say to a couple who have lost two of their children? The doctor obviously felt he knew.
If the doctor could say something, a priest being a tongue-tied was obviously hardly acceptable. For some years, there was the temptation to always have some comment, to always have an answer.
Mary Ann taught the skill of silence.
Her son had died of cancer in his fifties. To compound the pain of the loss, a legalistic cleric had insisted upon the family observing episcopal regulations, which had no force in civil law, but which said that his ashes could not be scattered on the land of the farm that he had loved, but must be buried in a churchyard or cemetery. Cremation was alien to the culture of that rural community; he had only been cremated to allow his wishes to be fulfilled. It seemed no more than a detail in her grief, but for her it was a very significant one. There grew the realisation that trying to suggest that the colleague was only doing as bidden, did nothing to resolve the matter. When she pondered her son’s death, silence became the appropriate response.
When her husband of more than six decades died, there was a sense of inevitability, but also a sense that a gaping hole had opened up in her life, that no words could possibly close. To sit and listen when she spoke, to sit and say nothing if she did not speak, were important.
Mary Ann was good at providing non-verbal cues. Sitting either side of her log fire, there would be the chink of china cups on saucers and she would turn and look into the fire, remembering moments long past and reflecting on the disappointments; the comments were observations, captions under the pictures in her mind. The most that was required was a ‘yes’ at appropriate points.
It was when her great grandson died, not yet two years old, the firstborn of a new generation, that the silence reached its most profound. With big tears in her eyes she looked across, “Mr Poulton, I wish I were in the grave and he were alive”. There was no response, no possible answer.
Mary Ann’s quiet dignity came to mind visiting a lady who pondered the death of her own son. She stared at the hearth and said, “Things would have been different if he had lived”. A nod was sufficient.
The doctor’s parting words to the young couple still echo down through the years: “Remember, it all depends on having a right view of Jesus”. There would have been clergy in times past who would have taken him by the lapels and put him out onto the street. Jesus has no part in two little children dying and in the face of grief over the death of Lazarus in saint John’s Gospel, he stands in silence. Sometimes there are no words; sometimes knowing to just shut up is an important skill.