Rant Number 496 3 July 2012
One day in a synagogue worshippers are about to celebrate the Day of Atonement. Alas, the legal number is one man short. It is then a complete stranger turns up. The faithful rejoice and the service gets going. Afterwards the rabbi looks for the stranger but he is gone. A rumour then starts that the Prophet Elijah had come down from Heaven and appeared in the guise of the mysterious worshipper. Perhaps.
A Taleban warrior in the mountains of Afghanistan. Foreign soldiers surround him in his hide-out. He has run out of ammunitions, he is alone but undaunted. ‘I’ll tear the infidels’ flesh with my teeth, rather than surrender’, he rages. Then a turbaned figure materialises, out of nowhere. Without a word the stranger takes the Talib by the hand and leads him out of the cave. ‘Wait, they will shoot us’, the Talib stammers but nothing happens. They pass through the enemy lines, untouched, as if invisible. Incredulous, the warrior wants to thank the stranger but he has vanished into the mountain mist. ‘It was the Mahdi! The awaited one! He saved me!’ the Talib concludes. Once again, it is possible.
The stranger. In London’s National Gallery hangs a riveting painting by Spanish artist Francisco Ribalta. ‘The Vision of Padre Simon’. Simon was a priest in Valencia who saw Christ carrying his cross in the city streets. Padre Simon, swarthy, Moorish-faced, is in ecstasy. He throws himself to his beloved Master’s feet, seeks to kiss them. Then he realises the Christ whom he is touching is actually a robber being sentenced to the gallows. Simon understands why Christ has appeared to him, what message the Saviour wishes to convey. Thereafter the priest devotes his life to ministering to imprisoned murderers and criminals. (The Church discouraged devotion to Padre Simon, by the way. He was never canonised. Maybe that is to his credit...)
The stranger motif is powerful. I am no special mystic and yet I am fascinated by it. Once in my parish a tall, young, bushy-bearded stranger turned up. ‘I am a beggar’, he said. He started me as beggars do not normally state their profession like that. He had a foreign accent and I quickly realised what he really meant to say was ‘I am a pilgrim’. He explained that he was a Pole, on his way to Jerusalem, to fulfil a vow. I emptied my pockets, a few coins were all I had. He thanked sweetly me and walked out. ‘I should really go and get some more money for this poor fellow’, I felt. I ran out after him. Kensington High Street was thronged with shoppers and he was nowhere to be seen. ‘Did you notice that tall, bearded young man I was talking to?’ I asked Dick, the churchwarden. ‘Fr Frank, there was no one here.’ Amazed, I insisted. Dick swore he had been standing a few paces away from me during the previous half hour and has seen no one speaking to me. ‘The church was empty’. I saw he was beginning to wonder whether the Curate had gone a bit funny in the head so I gave up. Yet the Polish chap seemed real. Had Christ come down from Heaven to teach me... Hospitality? Generosity? Or what?
Some time ago the papers wrote of a Hare Krishna devotee. One of those fun, saffron-robed guys who chant to the tune of jolly tambourines in the streets. Discouraged by the very long queue for Visas at India House, he was moving away when a light-skinned and handsome man proposed he would stand in line for him. For free. And he did. After performing his service, he vanished into the Aldwych. ‘He was the Lord Krishna, I know. He was so kind and radiant. Not a mere man but a god...’ Unmysterious? Maybe. Yet the devotee saw meaning in it.
Strangers are in our midst. All the time. They come and go. When you glimpse a black-hatted Orthodox Jew in Golders Green you may be looking on the face of Christ. A heedless, secularised Muslim may unknowingly rub shoulders in the London Underground with a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. ‘Do not forget the stranger because some have entertained angels unawares’ teaches the Letter to the Hebrews. Poet William Blake did indeed believe he had discerned angels in Peckam Rye. Think me insane – I don’t care. The priest too feels he sees angels. Regularly. They appear in the London Tube, they sit in Cafe Nero, they walk the busy streets, they frequent Selfridges’ store...Entertaining them though is a different proposition. Angels are not necessarily the easiest of beings to approach. They can be scary. They belong to a different order of reality. The Scriptures rightly warn about coming too close to the supernatural. When Muhammad first heard Jibreel speaking to him he was terrified. Yet, it is a great privilege, as well as a burden, to have even the slightest intimation from Above...
‘Come on, Fr Frank! Most people are not religionists. People who see angels are few and far between. They attach no special meaning to peculiar encounters with pseudo-enigmatic strangers. What you say is merely amusing, quaint, irrelevant to modern man’s real concerns, such as the economy, football, sex, celebrities and so on.’
Perhaps. But these things are not one-sided. The other side can intrude, whether you like it or not...In the Book of Genesis we read of Adam and Eve hearing their Creator walk in the garden of Paradise, ‘in the cool of the day’. Vivid, wonderful anthropomorphic language. Our progenitors have just done the deed, eaten the forbidden fruit. God walks, hurries in to meet them, in chastisement but also in love. And ever since God has been doing that. Often unknown, in disguise, through emissaries, seeking, pursuing his fallen creatures, relentlessly desiring their sempiternal good...
Next time you meet a stranger be sure not to miss your chance. Don’t dismiss him out of hand. Recognise and welcome and celebrate the goodly messenger from on High.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli