Standing in an Accident and Emergency reception wearing a clerical collar is always an unpredictable experience, the dark shadows over church history sometimes elicit justifiably hostile reactions. It is a place to be approached with caution, and so it was this evening. The man in the dark leather jacket and black jeans looked familiar, but so do many people. My caution was such that he finally had to speak, ‘Reverend Ian, do you not recognize me?’
I should have done; he was one of my own flock. Bad experiences in the past have caused a tendency to make assumptions. The experience was similar to one at a Dublin physics lecture.
The man wore an unlikely combination of clothes. A pair of grey cargo pants, a black V-necked tee shirt, a very baggy purple fleece, and a pale blue and white velour hat of the type that might be worn by babies in buggies. The hat held in place a mop of whitish grey hair which hung in thick straggles, unwashed in days. His fresh complexion bore two or three days of beard. He carried a plastic carrier bag out of which he seemed to draw odd items.
His companion was a dark-haired woman in a vivid green summer dress, also with a carrier bag.
They arrived late to the lecture, sitting in the very front row, a few seats away from where I sat. The woman took a reporter’s notebook from her carrier bag and the man took out a hard backed notebook in which there seemed to be many diagrams. Further fishing by the woman produced two pens, one of which she passed to the man.
He leaned forward intently, watching the lecturer, then leant back, placing his feet against the bench in front watching the slides. About half an hour into the lecture, he took hold of the plastic bag and pulled out a large bag of jelly babies which he proceeded to eat.
All this took place within a few yards of the lecturer, but if he was at all discommoded, he showed not the slightest sign of it.
The duo were fascinating. Had I met the man in the street, his unkempt appearance and odd combination of clothes would have gone with the expectation that he might have asked for the price of a cup of tea, but the lecture was one he had paid at the door to attend, and was hardly the most comfortable of places to spend a couple of hours.
When it came to the questions, the woman in the green dress asked about the coalescence of matter into galaxies.
One can hardly go to someone and say they look fascinating, but clearly the man was quite happy in his choice of appearance and dress. He could have afforded to be different, but had chosen to appear as he did. Was it a mark of indifference to the world around? Did his attendance at a lecture on theoretical physics characterize someone who believed reality to be something completely different from the trivial politics and celebrity froth that fill the media?
Maybe he looked at me in an equally curious fashion. Maybe he sat and wondered why someone who preached from a book that says the universe came into being in six days was at a lecture on understanding how gravity held the universe together.
Maybe the man this evening looked at me with a similar curiosity.