I was sitting with a 91 year old man yesterday morning. He tried to eat his breakfast as his wife kept pampering him, reminding him to tuck his serviette into his collar. “Here my darling, let me do it, it just keeps falling out and you’re going to ruin your clean shirt.” His long body had begun to stoop like the branches of a solid old tree, reaching back towards the ground. As he stooped, drool would sometimes trace the bottom curve of his gravity-defeated cheeks and fall to his shirt. He wasn’t conscious of it and I didn’t feel compelled to pity him in the least. His character far surpassed his frailty. “We need to leave in ten minutes.” She said, a bit more sternly. I was struck by how tenderly they both still spoke to each other. He nodded reassuringly as he continued to slowly scoop at his yoghourt. She was worried he was going to make her late for hymn practice.
“What’s it like to be in the pew rather than the pulpit,” I asked. “Well”, he started, looking up at me, “I get to criticize for a change”. As he looked up at me, a smile momentarily lifted the droop of his cheeks. We both laughed. His sense of humour a sign that senility had not yet caught up with him. He then went on to tell me a story, making his wife even more nervous as she fidgeted around him. He told me how, many years ago, he had been serving a community and there was a woman he used to talk with every time he noticed her taking groceries up to her apartment. She started to confide in him. He sat telling me this story with such humility. It reminded me of the how the Dalai Lama might address a topic. He could be speaking about watch-making, gardening or quantum physics. Simple, short prose, punctuated with good laughter. One day, father Cecil was hosting a cell group and this particular woman joined. She was horrified to find him wearing a collar. “She was so angry…she felt so cheated” he said. To this day, he still had genuine empathy for her. “From that day onwards, I decided to always wear my collar.”
Perhaps he heard my question as – why was he still wearing his collar even though he was no longer standing at the pulpit? I wasn’t, but I was touched but his story. He doesn’t strike me as a man who ever approached his parishioners from a position of pre-eminence. I can imagine how, through his lama-like-simplicity, he might have really mingled in with the community. But his story left me pondering the responsibility someone like him might hold to always be true to his position in the community. It also left me thinking about something a colleague quoted at a recent meeting – That if you want to explore a career in sex therapy, you have to be willing to uphold impeccable ethics. It left me wondering what my own “collar” could be. What is my ultimate obligation, to myself and the community I service? Perhaps it starts with examining my own life as thoroughly as I expect my clients to be examining theirs? Perhaps it means to follow through with my commitment to write more? Or, to demonstrate as much self care as I advise my clients to? To make sure I walk on the beach everyday or continue with my martial arts training with the rigour that it requires?
I also asked Father Cecil about the impressive compost heap he had been nursing in the backyard. He only relinquished one or two secrets to the art of composting. Even made it sound deceivingly simple. Although you could tell he considered himself to be still trying to perfect it at 91. As I left he gave me a book about compost. You must understand, this house was littered with books upon well-fingered books. But, I got the sense that this was a particularly valuable book. “This is my guarantee that you will come back and stay with us again.” It was published in 1963. This is how long this profoundly studious man has been trying to perfect the art of composting. What hope do I have in trying to perfect the art of therapy if one could write a whole book on compost?
Perhaps it’s about sticking to a few basic principles? Perhaps there is value in keeping things simple, sticking to something and getting as good as you can at it? Maybe we all have our own “collar”, regardless of doctrine – a set of beliefs and rituals that we can hold ourselves accountable to?