The Discontented Vicar

I looked forward to meeting Gerald again, although my anticipation was tinged with concern. The Reverend Gerald Hall had been a student of mine a decade earlier, a good student whose comments and questions demonstrated a perceptive insight into his studies. He had also come to me, on an informal basis, for spiritual direction, and had given me the impression that he found difficulty in dealing with the usual temptations of an undergraduate. By that I don’t mean that he drank himself into a stupor three times a week, or was unusually promiscuous, merely that he held himself to very high standards, inevitably fell short, and then worried about his failure.
I had considered pointing out to him that there was a sort of arrogance about imposing higher standards on his own conduct than he expected from others, but I realised that this would only give him yet another rod with which to beat himself. We spoke together instead about grace and forgiveness, God’s grace and God’s forgiveness, which are so much more important than our own merely human endeavours.
When he graduated, he thanked me and said farewell, and I didn’t expect to hear from him again. I followed his career, though. Teachers do, you know. When you have an unusually able student, you like to know that they’re doing well and fulfilling their promise.
Gerald’s career had certainly started successfully; a curacy at Brompton Oratory followed by appointment to the living of a prominent Oxfordshire parish. And he finally married the girlfriend he’d had at University. She was a lovely girl, Stephanie, and she’d stayed with him while he vacillated as to whether he was called to celibacy. I suppose I was as pleased for her as I was for him.
We had an appointment for four o’clock in the afternoon. Prompt to the minute he knocked at the door of my rooms in college. I’d forgotten quite what a big chap he was. He loomed over me as he greeted me with a firm handshake. I noticed that there were lines on his forehead, bags under his eyes and he was pale. He came in, looked all around and I could see his muscles relax.
“It’s just the same,” he said. “The grand piano. The Jacobean desk and chair. The chintz armchairs. Just the same.”
“Unlike the occupant who is ten years older and ten years more irascible. How are you, Gerald?”
“Oh, pretty good, pretty good. Sleepless nights with the latest baby, of course. The joys of family life!”
“And Stephanie? Is she well?”
“Stephanie is in her element, thank you. In the pink.”
“Excellent.”
We sat quietly for several minutes. The gas fire popped and whistled. Several times Gerald stirred as though to speak, thought better of it, and sank back into the armchair. At last he said, “I’m struggling with the meaning of it all, Henry.”
He seemed to feel that he’d explained enough, and relapsed into silence. Having no other engagements until dinner in Hall at seven, I didn’t try to hurry him. The profanities of freshers learning to punt on the Backs drifted in through the partly open window. ‘Wanker’ seemed to be the mot du jour.
“You see, I want my ministry to make a difference. I work with all my heart and soul, and it seems totally wasted effort, because nothing changes.”
“I think I know what you mean, but I’d like to be sure. Can you give me an example?”
“How many would you like? Take hospital visits. I’m not so crass as to expect miraculous healing, but my visits seem to be counter-productive. Last Wednesday, a couple of days before I phoned you, I was visiting one of my parishioners. Lucy was a dear old lady who’d been a stalwart of the church for seventy years. She was very weak, and the end was near. I held her hand and talked gently to her. She opened her eyes and I could see that she understood what I was saying. Suddenly, her right arm jerked and her breath stopped. The look on her face, Henry! She was so frightened. She died in terror, and I had done nothing, maybe less than nothing, for her.”
He sighed and looked baffled.
“Or take prison visits. I thought I was doing so well with Roger. He was serving five years for robbery with violence after a string of convictions stretching back to his adolescence. He joined the reading group that I organised in Bedford Prison; I used to drive over there once a week. He had been one of the prison’s bad boys, but over the course of three months he changed. He became less aggressive, less antagonistic. He caused less trouble for the Prison Officers. He even repented of his past crimes.
The prison had a new governor last month. His first act was to have the cells searched. In Roger’s cell they found a well-used mobile phone, a notebook with a record of transactions involving tens of thousands of pounds, and a stash of Class A
drugs. He’d been dealing in them, not just inside prison but also outside, working through other people.”
I wondered whether to speak, but Gerald had more to tell me.
“And then there was the Community College. It took me months to persuade the head-teacher to allow me to address one of the Year Twelve classes. She was quite anti-religious, didn’t want her campus tainted by superstition. I won’t bore you with the detail, but after one lesson I was banned from the school in perpetuity.”
I felt I wanted to be bored. What on earth could dear, harmless Gerald have done?
“I think it might help me if you gave me at least a little of the detail?”
“There was a riot.”
“A riot?”
“Yes.”
“Oh dear!”
“Henry, I feel dreadful saying this, but I’m almost coming round to that head-teacher’s point of view.”
“Don’t mince words, Gerald. Say what you mean. This whole exercise will be fruitless unless you tell me fully what’s troubling you.”
“I don’t think I believe in God any more.”
“Does that matter to you?”
He looked at me in astonishment.
“Of course it matters to me!”
“Why?”
Gerald was about to retort angrily when there was a splash outside and ironic cheering. It was clear that one or more of the students had fallen in the river. He laughed instead and thought about what he should say.
“I suppose it’s important to me because I’ve always lived my life with that belief. It’s guided me and motivated me. It’s why I do the work I do.”
“Work that at present is failing to satisfy you,” I pointed out.
“Yes. I suppose so.”
“Gerald, I’m going to say something that will probably shock you.” I paused a moment to let that sink in. “Religious faith is just a habit. It’s one way of thinking about the world and your own place in it. There are other ways of understanding that.
What would success look like to you? Real success, I mean, the satisfaction of your inner psychological needs?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, if there’s one thing that I know, it’s that you’re a scholar. If you’re serious about dealing with your angst, you have the intellectual capacity to imagine what your motivations are.”
Gerald looked very doubtful.
“Perhaps you’d care to join me in Hall for dinner tonight? And we can talk of happier matters. You can tell me about Stephanie and your children.”
We spent a pleasant evening together. I introduced Gerald to the Senior Common Room, where we drank perhaps one glass too many of port, and then we parted. I doubted that Gerald would be able to take the necessary action to find fulfilment. He would understand that he needed to break with his past, but would he have the courage to do it?
I heard nothing from him, although I saw that he had resigned his living.
It was nearly three years after our conversation that I met him again, quite by chance. I was touring rural pubs, and I chanced upon “The Seven Stars”. The name was a little Tolkien-esque and off-putting, but the pub had a good reputation for the quality of its beer and its food. As it was lunchtime, I entered and there, behind the bar, stood Gerald, six foot four inches of bonhomie in an open-neck check shirt.
He leaned across and clapped me on the shoulder, beaming. He insisted that my beer was on the house.
“You found out what you wanted to do then?” I asked him. “You know, I’d never envisaged you as a publican!”
“Oh no,” he said, “I’m not. I’m just helping out. Stephanie is the licensee; she had some family money and sank it into this place. I’m training to be a nurse. And, you know what? I’m loving it!”

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