Father Brian’s Story
Father Brian`s Story
Father Brian Slater, a young, fresh-faced curate in an Anglican parish not far from the centre of Truro, was quietly pleased with himself. He had just replaced the telephone receiver having learned that his vicar, Father Patrick, was unwell; confined to his bed, he had been told, and was expected to be incapacitated for, at least, another two or three days.
Father Brian would have to step in and preside at Pete and Julia`s wedding that afternoon. That was not a problem; Brian liked weddings and it gave him an opportunity to speak with those who would not normally venture into the Church. He had a resolve to `save the lost and ignorant`; which, in fact, bordered upon arrogance and self-important indulgence. He would be able to preach one of his damning sermons that would have the unsuspecting congregation quaking in the pews; he would always do the same with the opportunities offered at funerals and baptisms. He relished the prospect of – as he regarded it – welcoming people into the Church and to reach out to them in Christian love and witness. That sounds good and edifying, but his need to preach and to direct was, effectively, an obsession, tantamount to bullying from the pulpit.
Father Brian had only been in Fr Patrick`s parish just over a year and frequently had to be advised to reflect upon his over-zealous words and actions. `Brian, you are too ferocious with your condemnation. The days of the Victorian `hell-fire` preacher are over,` Father Patrick had told him earlier that week.
`But … but I am only reaching out to the people,` Father Brian defended himself, oblivious of the dangers he was bringing and, more pointedly, of his own dark, Dickensian attitude that was narrow, unforgiving and certainly lacking in the love of God that he thought he promulgated.
`Then, reach out more gently. I am getting a little tired of receiving messages about your over-exuberance and having to go and pacify people whom you have upset!`
`I am only doing what I feel God is telling me to do,` Father Brian protested, knowing, if only subconsciously, that these words would manipulate the situation and calm his experienced vicar. But not on this occasion.
`Then, if you think God is speaking to you about this, listen to me, because, young man, it may just be that Almighty God is actually trying to get through to you via me. Read your Bible. God did not send His son into the world to condemn it, but to save it,` and Father Patrick stomped out of the room with his patience in tatters.
Father Patrick had become increasingly less tolerant of his recalcitrant curate. But now, three days later, with his head aching furiously, his temperature rising with the fever, and having submitted to the relative comfort of his bed, he resigned himself to the fact that Father Brian would be solely responsible for the spiritual welfare of his flock for the weekend, and any problems that this would create could be dealt with when he had sufficiently recovered. Now he had no strength, or even interest, to fight yet another battle with Brian.
So, on this particular Saturday in May, Father Brian found himself in charge of the parish of St Mark, in the tiny village of Trebotham; a safe place for him to be sent for his first curacy – or so the diocesan bishop had thought.
The first thing he did was to list on a blank sheet of paper what he would have to do, and he prioritised the different jobs and telephone calls that needed to be made. There was the address to be prepared for the wedding; and a sermon for Sunday, which he would deliver with renewed vigour. `I`ll show them,` he promised himself. The church badminton club, that evening, would have to manage without him, just this once; it was more important to spend the time carefully composing Sunday`s sermon. `Not a pretty, chatty little homily like Patrick`s gentle offerings,` he told himself with glee, `but something to wake them up.` But, first, he had to go into Truro to collect a book he had ordered – a heavy, door stop of a volume that he intended to devour during the next couple of weeks; a theological bore, some would critically review it.
Brian was in the City by eleven o`clock that dry, sunny and warm Saturday morning. The place was alive with happy faces, buskers, colourful balloons, laughter and children running, excitedly, from shop to shop. Not that Brian noticed; he was deeply engaged within himself, thinking about his sermon for the next day. He was so self-absorbed that he almost fell over a man, standing in the square by the Cathedral, who held out a card to him, with a warm smile.
`Good morning, Father,` the Cardman said, `good to see you.`
`Oh … yes … thank you,` Father Brian replied, accepting the card and hurriedly passing him by. He glanced at the card with its so familiar message, and he contemptuously stuffed it in a trouser pocket, where it would remain for the next few hours.
It was later in the afternoon when Father Brian felt the card in his pocket and remembered his earlier visit to Truro. He removed it and read it again. He was alone in the vestry of the church; Pete and Julia were happily united, had received their stern message from Brian – and shame upon them if they fail to respond to it – and were now being organised by an irrepressible photographer and Julia`s overbearing mother. Poor Pete, Brian thought, did he really understand what he had agreed to; of course not. But Brian promised to pray for the couple regularly; and he would do so.
There was a moment`s respite in Father Brian`s hectic day, and he read the card again. The words were, indeed, familiar – “This is the day the LORD has made” but, beneath them, written by hand, were the words “Brian, are you doing the Father`s will or merely feeding your own ego? Think upon this!”
At first, Brian was angry. How dare that … that man with his cards preach to me. My ego? No, this is God`s will. He needs people like me who can move mountains; can take risks and … he sat down on the uncomfortable stall by the desk, and placed the wrinkled card upon the beige blotter. Suddenly, he was overcome with a feeling of reverence that he did not understand. How does he know my name – I`ve never met him before? He read again, “… are you doing the Father`s will or merely feeding your own ego?”
Weeks of gentle – and less gentle – admonishment from Father Patrick had failed to penetrate Brian`s rhinoceros-like insight; and yet, this tiny card, given to him by a stranger – possibly, he thought, from some obscure Christian non-conformist denomination, or even just a weirdo who wanted to `save the world` – had suddenly reached the place within him which had previously been untouchable. He felt a combination of both intrigue and anger, but there was a part of him that also recognised a sense of truth in the words he had been given, and he felt an element of embarrassment. Truth so often brings an awareness of one`s failings.
Strangely, the previous conversations with Father Patrick seemed to be reinforced. Somehow, this `man with the cards` had looked right into the depths of Father Brian`s being. How did he know? What business was it of his, anyway? Yes, of course I`m doing God`s will! And then he thought about his own needs. Could they possibly be different from God`s will? Were they just Brian`s needs? Of course, he has his own needs. Everyone has. But it felt that he had come face to face with divine judgement and it was immensely uncomfortable.
One of Brian`s strongest characteristics was that he rarely avoided confrontation. Indeed, if he ever realised there was something wrong, he would confront it, however disagreeable that process may be to him. So, he decided to return immediately to the city centre – only just over a mile`s walk – to face the `man with the cards` and elicit from him exactly what his message was saying. With a metaphorical boxing glove on each hand, he clumsily locked up the church and returned to the Cathedral square.
Sadly, you don`t know me very well …
The city was quieter by the time Father Brian arrived. Gone was the carnival-like atmosphere of the morning, to be replaced by fewer people, quietly going about their business and then leaving for home, for tea and their weekly dose of Saturday evening television.
High Cross was almost deserted, but the `man with the cards` was still there, talking at some depth with a scruffily dressed, dark-skinned youth, clutching a tatty rucksack. Brian waited, at a discreet distance, for their conversation to end. He heard them laugh and then saw the Cardman shake the young man`s hand, and pat his shoulder, affectionately. It was a friendly scene; there was a good rapport between the two men; and then Brian heard the young man say, `thanks, boss … see yer soon,` as he turned away and left the square. The Cardman`s eyes watched the man go, before they focused upon Brian. Without words, those eyes said, `Come … what can I do for you?` He remembers me, Brian thought in an instant, because he`s not offering me another of his cards, and there`s a look of expectation on his face that says he`s been waiting for me to return.
The Cardman held out his hand in welcome. `Father, you`ve come back; I thought you would.` This confirmation almost knocked Brian off balance.
`I wanted to ask you about the wording on this card you gave me,` Brian said, without any particular emotion, holding the card in front of the Cardman.
`Ah! You`re upset with me – I can tell. That`s understandable,` the Cardman said kindly, immediately deflating Brian`s intent for conflict. `But, Father, someone needs to tell you the truth. If I can`t, who can?`
`What do you mean?` Brian asked, both confused and dumbfounded by this strange man`s directness.
`It`s difficult for people close to you to say what they really think. Sadly, you don`t know me very well, so I can be honest with you,` the Cardman replied with a sigh, unnoticed by Brian. `Truth can be quite brutal at times, and no-one close to you wants to hurt your feelings …`
`But you don`t mind?` Brian interrupted, defensively.
The Cardman smiled. `Well, actually I do mind. But, if the result is that you listen to me and take notice of what I`ve said, it`s worth it.`
Brian thought for a moment. What right has this man got to speak with me like this? I am a priest, he`s just some old has-been who probably never quite made it as far as I have; perhaps he was not selected for training and has gone off the rails. Humour him, Father Brian … humour him.
`Why do you do this … this giving out cards to people?` Brian asked, now manipulating the conversation away from himself. It did not work.
`Why do you do what you do?` came the reply.
There was an uncomfortable silence during which Brian regretted returning to the city centre to see this man.
`Father, why do you do what you do?` the Cardman repeated his question.
`It`s my work.`
`Your work? Yes, it is. But should it not be more than that?`
`Of course it is. It`s a vocation,` Brian rallied with confidence.
`Mm,` the Cardman smiled, `So why was your first answer “It`s my work”?`
Brian was at the point of tearing up the card and running away from, what seemed to be, a searing light, searching his very soul.
The Cardman did not wait for Brian to answer. `I want to tell you a story, Brian. There was a young preacher who wanted to change the world. He imagined himself preaching to tens of thousands of thirsty souls, eager to latch on to every word, upon every syllable he said. And yet, in reality, his Sunday congregation was always less than twenty. That didn`t deter him; he preached long and with passion. Well, one very hot, summer day, while he was preaching he heard a sound of snoring. The snoring grew louder and louder. The congregation tried to stifle their chuckles but it became harder for them as the sermon droned on and on, whilst the snoring persisted. In the end, the snoring won and the preacher reluctantly stepped down from the pulpit. What do you think he did next, Father?` the Cardman asked.
`I suppose, when the snoring ceased, he returned to the pulpit and summarised what the sermon was saying, so that the people didn`t miss the message.`
The Cardman looked at Brian, as if expecting that answer. He smiled and placed his left had on Brian`s shoulder. `No. The preacher actually encouraged the congregation to see the funny side of this; to let go of their pent up laughter … before continuing with the remainder of the service.`
`But … what about the message?` Brian asked, aghast.
`That was the message. His humility said more than anything he could have preached.`
Brian thought for a moment about the Cardman`s story. He pictured himself in the position of the preacher. As if reading Brian`s mind, the Cardman very quietly said, `put yourself in that congregation. See the story from their viewpoint.` And then he shrugged his shoulders and added, lightly, `it`s only a story, Father Brian, but, perhaps, it may help if you remember it.`
Brian felt a strange attraction to this man and held out his hand to him. `Thank you,` he said, `I will remember it.` And he quietly walked out of the square, turning to look back at the `man with the cards`.
It felt strange. The truth hurts, the cliché says, but the way this man spoke to Brian did not hurt. Why was that, he wondered? What was it about this man? He seemed to care as much for Brian as he did for the others in his story. Perhaps that was it! In some strange way, the man made Brian feel that he mattered. That was a good feeling, one which he rarely experienced.
A new man
It was Tuesday morning and Father Patrick awoke with a start. His wife, Nicola, had risen from the bed and was deep in conversation on the telephone; in Patrick`s bleary state of semi-consciousness, he did his best to try and fathom out who she was talking to. Often her manner of speech would be a clue, but, on this occasion, it was not revealed to him until she mentioned the frightening name; Peggy.
Peggy Pendlebury, a spinster in her mid-seventies, was a formidable soul and a former churchwarden at St Mark`s. She was a `pillar of the church building` – almost as tall, but significantly thinner. She had been a notable member of the congregation for longer than any other still living. With a tongue as quick and deadly as a black mamba snake, she was someone Father Patrick would not wish to cross, and he would tread lightly whenever with her.
She refused to call Father Patrick by his Christian name, only ever referring to him as `the vicar`. And yet, Father Brian was always `Brian`, for whom she had a strange, uncharacteristic, motherly affection. But she would never use the title `Father` for any priest, and did not conform to the traditions of Anglo-Catholicism, being a Protestant from birth, and remaining so, at least deep within herself. She was an English woman through and through, with a fortress of reserve that masked so many hurts and disappointments throughout her life`s story.
Suddenly, Father Patrick remembered that Brian had been presiding over the Sunday Services, and he was gripped with fear of the consequences.
`That`s amazing, Peggy,` he heard Nicola say, and she gave her husband a look that shattered his sloth and brought him into full consciousness.
`I really find this hard to believe … but, of course, I`m not doubting what you say … yes, Peggy, I`ll try and get him for you.` Nicola placed her hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone and gestured to Patrick, whispering, `do you want to speak with the old battle-axe?`
`Do I have to?` he whispered back.
`Well, it`s important, if I`m to believe what she`s just told me.`
`Very well,` and Father Patrick reluctantly took the telephone and began to speak. `Good morning, Peggy, I`m sorry to keep you waiting.`
`That`s alright, vicar. I just wanted to tell you what happened at church on Sunday morning.`
`Oh dear. Do I really want to hear this?` Patrick replied with a sigh.
`Well, I think you`ll be pleasantly surprised. Are you sitting down?`
`Yes, on the edge of the bed …`
`Oh, I`m sorry, I forgot to ask you how you are?`
`Much better, thanks,` Father Patrick replied, hoping that Peggy`s news would not bring about a relapse.
`Good. Well, on Sunday the most amazing thing happened. Brian got up into the pulpit to preach, and we were all expecting one of his fiery sermons that would leave us deflated and chastised, but it didn`t happen.`
`It didn`t? Was he unwell or something?` Patrick laughed.
`I am being serious, vicar,` Peggy replied, sternly. `No, he was perfectly well and in charge of himself. He began his sermon by apologising to us all for the way he has preached. The devil`s work, he called it …`
`That`s strong stuff,` Patrick observed.
`Indeed, and he then went on to say that he had been made to realise his faults by a stranger whom he had met only on Saturday.`
`I`ve been trying for months. But, praise be, at least he`s listened to someone. What else did he say?`
`Well, he told us a story about a preacher – he said it was himself – who was giving a sermon one Sunday morning and someone in the congregation fell asleep and started snoring, In the end, the snoring was so loud that he had to abandon his sermon. Although he wanted to preach the whole thing again, he decided, instead, to get the congregation to see the funny side of it and they all laughed together. Mind you, vicar, I could not see anything to laugh about!` There was a pause as Father Patrick absorbed this unexpected scenario.
`Are you sure this was Father Brian you were hearing?` Patrick was dumbfounded.
`Yes, vicar. I know it seems preposterous, but it`s true. He`s a new man. He was even smiling and laughing at the after service coffee.`
`Well, I`m amazed, Peggy. Will it last, that`s the question? Do you know who this stranger is who has brought about such a miraculous change in him?`
`Yes. Brian said it was that man with the cards`, she replied, disparagingly, `you know, the one who is always loitering outside the Cathedral.`
Wednesday in the following week
A new woman
There was the usual floral-patterned china teapot together with three matching cups and saucers, on a tray, in the spacious lounge. Father Patrick reclined in his favourite chair and listened as Miss Peggy Pendlebury and Father Brian discussed the final arrangements for the Summer Flower Festival to be held in St Mark`s church. No matter how hard he tried, Patrick could not rouse sufficient enthusiasm for things botanical to satisfy Peggy`s expectations of a vicar. The only time his fingers were ever green was when he pulled on his National Trust woolly gloves, in the winter. Conversely, Father Brian seemed at ease talking on the subject, but Patrick cynically wondered whether this was more to do with the fact that Brian was doing what curate`s were supposed to. Whatever the reason, Peggy was happy and Patrick could almost relax in her company.
Suddenly, the topic of conversation changed and Patrick was awakened when the `man with the cards` was mentioned.
`He tried to give me one of his little cards, once,` Peggy recalled, patronisingly. `I refused it, of course,` she added. `What would I want with one of those?` And then she remembered the conversation that followed. She had told him that she was a Christian; being a part of the Church for so long that there was nothing he could tell her that she did not already know. And his reply surprised and ruffled her neat, grey hair.
`Are you a Christian?` he had said, as if questioning her like a prosecution barrister.
`Of course I am. I do not need …`
And he dared to interrupt her, Miss Peggy Pendlebury, of all people. He spoke whimsically, like the Bard, himself, `Oh, what do the defences need to defend?` he asked. What did he mean by such rhetoric? And she just walked away. But the conversation – for what it was worth – remained with her. What did he mean?
Deep within, Peggy knew what he meant, of course, and she blurted out in an uncharacteristic manner, `what is a Christian?` There was a stunned silence. `Vicar, I repeat myself, what is a Christian?`
`Well,` Father Patrick replied, hesitantly, `that is a huge question. What would you say, Father Brian?` passing the responsibility over to his curate.
`No, I`m sorry, Father,` Brian answered, `I disagree with you. I actually think the answer is very simple. Jesus taught that we should love God and our neighbour. I believe that is what being a Christian means … love; simply love … and, as the Collect clearly asks “that we may perfectly love God and magnify His holy name”.`
Father Patrick looked at Brian open-mouthed. Was this really the Father Brian of a few weeks ago, preaching condemnation with flames emitting from his nostrils like a fiery dragon? What a change there had been.
`Indeed, the Church does not promulgate the love of God enough,` Father Patrick eventually said, sadly reflecting on the established church`s general preoccupation with survival rather than outreach. He sighed.
`You could not have put it better, Brian,` Father Patrick continued, looking at Peggy and noting that she was dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief.
`Thank you, gentlemen,` she said with a sniff, as she rose. `I think it is time for me to go home, now. But I want to say one thing before I go,` and she looked at Father Brian, her facial expression less austere, even warm and glowing as she recalled her meeting with the Cardman and those puzzling parting words he had spoken to her. `Brian, you have so succinctly given me the answer I have been seeking. As we have seen such an extra-ordinary change in you over these past few weeks, so, too, you will see a change in me. Thank you.` And she left the room, almost skipping, and saw herself out of the vicarage.
The two clergymen looked at each other in amazement.
`Was I hearing right?` Father Patrick asked.
`I believe so …`
The last day of May
The focus is changed
It was four-thirty in the afternoon, and the Cardman was ready to leave the Cathedral square and ride home in the moderate wind and light rain.
He was just about to move away when his attention was taken by the strange sight of a black-cloaked clergyman, holding a biretta securely on his head as he ran into High Cross.
He reached the Cardman, breathlessly. `I`m so glad I managed to catch you,` he said before refilling his lungs.
`Ah! You are Father Patrick. Am I right?` the Cardman asked.
`What can I do for you?`
`I wondered what you have said to my curate. He`s a changed man,` Father Patrick puffed.
`You are asking me about Father Brian?`
`Well, I told him a story. That is all. I thought it was important to help him lighten up a little. Much too intense, that young man. So it`s worked, has it?` the Cardman asked with a glowing smile.
`Yes. It`s a miracle. I have been trying for a year to do what you had managed in a day.`
The Cardman looked at Patrick with concern. `Father, you look tired. When was the last time you had a retreat?`
`A retreat? If only that were possible. I dare not go away and leave Father Brian in charge of the parish …`
`But, I thought you told me he`s a changed man?` the Cardman interrupted.
`He is. But will it last?`
`To a large extent that depends upon you, Father Patrick,` the Cardman said.
`Upon me?` Patrick responded, defensively.
`Yes. If Brian is to remain a changed man, as you put it, he will need your support and encouragement. You see, you have to continue the work that I have started. Do you realise how much God, the Father, loves you, Patrick?`
`Yes, I believe so,` Father Patrick replied, wondering what relevance this had to Brian`s well-being.
`But … do you really know how much God loves you?` the Cardman insisted. Father Patrick just stared at him in disbelief that he should be questioned in such a manner.
`Do you realise,` the Cardman continued, unbothered by Patrick`s apparent reluctance to engage with him, `He loves you more than words can express? His love is like a glass, overflowing with cooled water on a scorching day. His love is like a roaring fire on a cold winter`s evening. He loves you, Patrick.`
There was an uncomfortable silence – an expectance of Patrick`s acknowledgement. It did not come. Instead, he looked down at the ground and mumbled, `I`ve never really felt this,` he admitted, almost to himself. `They didn`t teach this sort of thing when I was at theological college.`
`In many ways, it cannot be taught,` the Cardman replied quietly, kindly. He had elicited from him what Patrick needed to hear himself say. `The love of God needs to be experienced,` the Cardman added, gently.
`But, I came to speak about Brian, not about myself,` Patrick protested.
`How could this conversation not include yourself when you are Brian`s mentor?`
`I see …` Father Patrick suddenly grasped the significance of the Cardman`s questioning. `You think I`m not doing very well in training my curate?` It was not asked defensively, but honestly, like that of an innocent child. The Cardman just looked back at him. There was no need to answer, Patrick already knew. `So … how can I help Brian? What do I need to learn?`
`Firstly, to believe and experience that God loves you …` the Cardman paused.
`And then?` Father Patrick asked.`
`Then … the wonderful extent of His love.`
No-one has ever spoken to me in such a way, Father Patrick thought as he drove back to the rectory. He has such authority about him. Who is he, this man with the cards? He`s a stranger, and yet, I trust him.
Things to think about
Perhaps it would be good to ponder on the characters in Father Brian`s story. Each of them had an encounter with the Cardman – at first, they were all defensive; and yet, they did not dismiss the Cardman`s words without, at least, thinking about them more deeply. As a consequence, they each accepted a better way, for the benefit of all concerned, and a closer walk with God.