The seventy-odd year old patient in one of the EMI wards at the Mental Healthcare Hospital always greeted me with, “What are you doing here, you stupid (expletive removed) old parson?”.
Then there was Bernadette, in another facility, who always groaned when I came to conduct a worship service in her Care Home. “It’s that blethering bugger – again! Why? Why?”
As “Withnail” said, “We’ve come on holiday by mistake”, so I often felt that I had stumbled into Holy Orders by accident.
Wanting to stay on at University after my MA, and interested in Ecclesiastical History, the only way to secure a grant in those days was to become a candidate for the Church of Scotland ministry.
The “Selection School”, a three day residential series of interviews and psychological and other evaluations and tests, was the “way in” on a journey that began in 1970.
At the last minute, I had cold feet. Yet I attended. And literally had cold feet…and legs, arms, torso; obviously, the Church, being perpetually skint, couldn’t afford the shillings for the meter.
As Rabbie Burns, in one of his most stinging poems, put it,
“As cauld a wind as ever blew,
A cauld kirk, and in’t but few”. (“In Lamington Kirk”)
It was grim, especially at night: icy, numbing, desolate.
There’s a Bible verse that speaks exactly of the conditions in the small cupboard of a bedroom assigned to me: Isaiah 28:20 (New International Version)
“The bed is too short to stretch out on, the blanket too narrow to wrap around you.”
The window didn’t close fully, and a freezing Edinburgh “hoolie” roared through the large gap (handy in one respect, in that, as smoking was banned on the premises, I could blow cigarette smoke out through it).
The bed was, if not short, then narrow. This was Kirk property, and, no doubt, it was designed to prevent anyone else “sharing”
I had to lie on my side. More, because of the cold, I wore my dressing gown on top of my pyjamas and socks – on my feet, naturally, but also a pair on my hands in a vain attempt to keep warm.
Was it the cold that stultified me so much that I zipped through all the various tests, in order to get first to the one bar electric fire in the library in order to thaw out?
I don’t know.
But here I am, forty something years later, a paid up member of “God’s Frozen People”
I wonder what the journey would have been had I not travelled the Ministry route….
TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
“The Road Not Taken”
Robert Frost – 1874–1963 – Mountain Interval, 1920.