Walking to the Rectory from church the other night: ‘Father, can you help me?’ Can you guess what’s coming? A child in hospital, a mother dying in Dublin, needs money for bus fare, food, accommodation. Yup, spot on. All of ’em.
This is common enough. He might be telling the truth. Shall I look at his teeth for signs of crystal meth use? Shall I ask to see his forearms for signs of needles? Will anyone visit me in ITU if I do? I think: ha, I’ll see if a few questions will catch him out. Where does he live? Which hospital in Dublin? Has he been to social services? (What social services? you may well ask.) But I know there’s no point asking questions. I am naïve, he is smart. Anyway, who am I to judge?
Of course, I part with money. He goes off: a small victory for him. I’m tired, and there’s something on the box in two minutes, and for a moment I’m relieved. Then the nagging guilt: I should be doing more. I can’t blame him: what do I expect from someone who hasn’t been dealt the same cards as me?
A phone call from prison asking if a man could put my number on his phone card. Again, common enough. Yes, of course. Next day I had a call from the gentleman who asks me questions about the C of I – are we Presbyterian? (No, but congregations behave as if we were!) What do we believe? (Ye Gods! What do we believe?) Can I change religion? (Why?) Will you come and see me? Of course I will.
I’m uneasy, not least because the exchange doesn’t conform to my expectations of a conversation with someone I’ve never met. And I’m left from childhood with a wariness of people not like me. Then I think, what do I expect from someone with a different view of society who has not been dealt the same cards as me?
Like the people who gather on Coote Street waiting for their drugs from the clinic, and like the people who chuck used needles and syringes over the Rectory wall, just down the street, these men are prophets.
Prophets make us uncomfortable. Prophets say what others dare not. Prophets reveal our values. Journalists like Veronica Guerin, killed for her trouble. Journalists who report the Dublin ‘poor’ given an extra €135K from donated money to top up a salary of €116K (and we vote for people who turn a blind eye).
It’s not just about what happens ‘out there’. It’s about ‘in here’ too—the John the Baptist that lives inside my head and nags insistently when I go for the easy option, like handing over money and thinking that the problem is dealt with. It’s not dealt with at all—it’s compounded.
Prophets force me to judge myself: have I ordered my life to attend to what is most true, most important, most essential?
And if not, what will I do about it?