Sunday, July 30, 2017

Prayer, providence, and importunity

[Peter Bide was a student of C. S. Lewis who later became an Anglican priest.] 

I had come up to Oxford in 1936, at the age of 24, to read English. After I took my degree in 1939, I kept up with Lewis during the war when I was a Royal Marine. When I came through Oxford I used to go and see him, and later on, when I was ordained, I continued the habit.

My first parish was Hangleton on the edge of Hove. As well as having this tiny medieval church in the middle of a down, with great fields around it, I had care of the local "fever hospital", as we used to call it in those days. In 1954 I think it was, we had a terrible epidemic of polio, and people were streaming into the hospital.

There came an afternoon when the Bishop of Lewes came to baptize my latest child,and after the baptism I came out of my tiny church and somebody said, "Do you know that the Gallagher's boy is seriously ill"? Now the Gallaghers were Roman Catholic Irish who had just come to live in my parish. I said, "No I didn't know that he was ill, but I'll go and see him as soon as I've got rid of the Bishop.

I went down to the Gallagher's, and it was clear from the beginning that something very serious was going on because there they all were, with Mrs Gallagher at the center, handkerchief in her hands, and all the local Irish community around her in a tiny room. I said to her, "What's the matter, Mrs Gallagher?" and she said, "Michael's up in the hospital and they say he's doing to die." "Well," I said, to her, "there's one thing I can say about that; the doctors haven't got the gift of life and death. Only God has the gift of life and death, and what you've got to do is to relax your fear and your distress insofar as you can, and rest on the mercy of God. Meanwhile I'll go and see him."

I got on my scooter and I went up the half-made road to the hospital. And as I went, it was as if a little green man was sitting on the handles, babbling away in my ear: "What the hell do you think you're going to do? Have you got your bones with you? Why don't you take those out and thrown them round? You're going to see this boy? What can you do about it?"

Well, I didn't turn around and go back; I don't know why, but I didn't. I got to the hospital and put on my gown and my mask and went into the room where the boy was. It was absolutely clear that something very serious was happening to this child, because the sister was sitting in the room with him, an unusual thing for a sister to do. There was nobody else there, but she was sitting there with him, and I went up to the bedside and there he lay. His face was the color which I had come to associate with death, a sort of leaden, blue-y white. His eyes were wide open and turned up so only the whites were visible. He was flailing the pillow with his hands. If there was ever a child dying, it was this boy; and at the same time, as I saw this, I had this sort of feeling that this was a crux. Something about my whole vocation hung on it.

I didn't touch the boy. I went down on my knees beside him and I said some simple, naive, corny prayer like, "Lord, look at this Thy child, if it be Thy gracious will, let him recover in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen." Then I got up and  I turned to the sister and said, "Well, now I hope he'll be all right". And she looked at me as if I was mad not unnaturally, not unnaturally: I thought I was mad myself And I went back and I got ready for that evening.

This was Lent, and I was giving a whole series of Lenten evening lectures on the nature of faith, such as most of you have suffered under at some stage or another. The preceding week, I had been discussing the healing of Jairus's daughter, which makes a very good story for discussing the nature of faith and what is involved in faith. And I said to this group, "I'm sure that since last week, in your prayers and thoughts, you have been concerning yourself with the nature of faith. Now here is Michael Gallagher. I you will set everything that you have learnt in this church, all the many blessings that have come to you through sacrament and worship, and put Michael's welfare at the heart of this, then he will get better." I heard myself say this, and of course it was a terrible thing to say. I was putting all these people's faith at risk, and equally well I'd drawn a blank check on the Holy Spirit, which is not in my judgment a very good thing to do. But I went on with what I had to say to them that particular evening, and when I got onto my scooter again, I went straight up to the hospital.

When I got into the ward, the night sitter was on duty. I can remember her face very well. I said to her, "How is he?" and she said, "I don't know why, but he's getting better." Two days later, the chief physician at the Children's Hospital in Brighton rang up the "fever hospital" and asked what the result of the autopsy was, and was told he was sitting up in bed having his breakfast.

Now, I found this theologically extremely puzzling. I had visited all sorts of other patients in this hospital: I'd prayed for them, I'd laid hands on some of them, and they'd died. Why was Michael (who incidentally turned out to a right tearaway) selected from all this? It really worried me. It may not worry you, but it worried me like nothing else, and the next time I went up to see Jack Lewis, I discussed it with him. So we went over the top of Shotover, as we nearly always did, and I told him how I found this incomprehensible.

I don't think he'd got any special answers to this–I don't remember what he said about it, to tell you the truth. But this is the basis on which he sent me later on. When Joy was diagnosed as having a sarcoma, he wrote to me and said would I be kind enough to come up and lay hands on her. Well, how could I say "no"? He was a friend of mine and this was a terrible situation, and of course I had to say "yes". So I went.

When I got there, up to the quarry where he lived, Jack said, "Peter, what I'm going to ask you isn't fair. Do you think you could marry us? I've asked the Bishop. I've asked all my friends at the faculty here, and none of them will." He said, "It doesn't seem to me to be fair. They won't marry us because Joy was divorced, but the man she married in the first place was a divorced man, so in the eyes of the church, surely there isn't any marriage anyway. What are they making all this fuss about?" 

Well, I must admit that I had always thought that the Church of England's attitude to marriage was untenable…And so I married them in the hospital, with Warnie and the ward sister as witnesses. I laid hands on Joy, and she lived for another three years.

I don't understand this, I never have done; but that is the story, and what you see in Shadowlands had little or nothing to do with it. It made me very cross that there have been about six different treatments of this episode in the course of the last ten years and nobody has every come and asked me what happened. It strikes me as absolutely extraordinary. A. N. Wilson went all the way to America to talk to somebody who had spoken to me: an expensive journey, when he could have walked down the road and found me himself. It's a very odd thing, but now you know what the truth is. My own wife died of cancer about a year before Joy Lewis, and I wrote him and told him about it, of course, and he said "There's nothing I can say Peter." Peter Bide, "Marrying C. S. Lewis." Roger White, Judith Wolfe, & Brendan Wolfe, C. S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society (Oxford University Press 2015), 187-90.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of C.S. Lewis, here are links to the 1st and 2nd half of the 1985 version of Shadowlands. In my opinion it's much better than the 1993 version with Anthony Hopkins.

    1st half:
    2nd half: