Thought for the Day - 21/11/2012 - Rhidian Brook
If you were searching for spiritual insight, the last place you’d think to look would be in the psychiatric wing of your local hospital. But it’s in just such a place that I’ve recently learned some unexpected truths about life, God and myself.
A few weeks ago I was buying a paper at the corner shop when a man came towards me and shook my hand. He told me his full name and said that he liked smoking and cars. He then insisted that I come to his place for a cup of tea.
‘His place’ was the hospital, just a few yards from my house. So I set off the next day, taking gifts of tobacco and a car magazine, feeling pleased about the good turn I was performing. Not only was I making a sacrifice of time, I was going to impart some clarity, some normality – maybe even some healing. My attitude was that of the person about to dispense some kind of blessing.
My new friend was in the garden. A nurse kindly made us tea and we were joined by two other patients. I suddenly found myself being asked the most direct and uninhibited questions: are you religious? What are your credentials for being here today? Are you married? Does your wife mind you growing a beard? I tried to answer them: ‘I have faith but I’m not religious;’ ‘I’m here because I had been invited; and yes, my wife would probably kiss me a lot more if I didn’t have a beard.
Then, after about half an hour, one of the patients said: ‘Do you know what matters in life, Rhidian?’ ‘What’s that?’ I asked. ‘That you love and know that you are loved.’ And he quoted from the first letter of John: ‘God is love and whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God in Him.’ ‘I agree,’ I said. But before I left to get back to my normal life he advised me: ‘remember: be slow to chide and quick to bless.’
I don’t want to poeticise mental illness or underplay its prevalence. A recent survey states that 1 in 4 of us will experience it in some form. And the fact is my scripture quoting friend is not allowed to go anywhere without a nurse and has been hospitalised for twenty years; I have no illusions about his vulnerability or dependence. But the whole encounter challenged my assumptions about where honesty and insight might be found, blurring the boundaries between what’s healthy and what’s sick; what’s sacred and what’s profane.
I shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus himself was denounced as a madman. At the time some said he was ‘demon possessed and raving mad, why listen to him?’
Today, when looking for a spiritual encounter, we are still more likely to head for the professionally holy, to the churches and cathedrals with their comforting rituals, rather than the company of the broken and the unwell. Despite this, I’ve been back to the hospital. And I intend to keep going. Not because I’ve got anything to give, but simply because I’ve discovered a quite unexpected source of blessing.