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  • Writer's pictureAlaric Mark Lewis

On questioning and a pigmy mule, darling

Nearly 28 years ago I was making a private directed retreat prior to being ordained. My retreat master was a priest named Jack, who was as camp as a row of paisley tents, spoke in clipped tones not unlike Bette Davis, and always had a cigarette that he waved around to punctuate his points. He said "darling" a lot, and I got the sense that it wasn't always used as a term of endearment. I soon discovered that"Not exactly, darling," could also clearly be Jackspeak for "You're being a numpty." 

Once when meeting with Jack and his pet pigmy mule named Mavis (yes, he had a pet pigmy mule named Mavis) I was expressing my angst at feeling neither worthy nor up to the task of being ordained. Jack - scratching behind Mavis' twitching ear with one hand and holding a cigarette with the other - listened to me and nodded; Mavis seemed uninterested, as her long-lashed eyes never met mine once. How would I respond, I asked to no one in particular, if people who are faced with inestimable suffering want to know why such things are happening to them? How could I possibly begin to address their "why's"?

"Darling, darling, darling," Jack interrupted me, gesticulating and causing some ash to fall on Mavis (who then looked at me as if it were my fault, the irksome little beast). "For Christ's sake - literally - do not strive to be a priest who has all the answers. How terribly dull! People don't need their priests to have all the answers, they need priests who'll just be with them in the questions." He pointed with his cigarette to the beach near which we were sitting. "If you ask me, 'What's the water like?' I could tell you. But wouldn't it be better if I just took your hand and we walked into the water, wondering together?"

It was, I think, a rhetorical question, but Mavis was staring at me with judgement in her eyes and so I felt compelled to answer. "Yes, of course."

"Yes, of course, darling. But I would say, darling, that being with one another in the questions isn't just what priests should do, it's what all Christians should do. Yes let's start there, darling - with being a Christian."

Mavis had apparently had enough at that point, as she arose slowly and walked out into the garden, not without first emitting some sort of gastric sound that I could only take as a comment on my numptitude.

It's a fantastic image, that of Christians going hand in hand whilst we ask the questions. In the face of so much that is wrong in the world many of us can't answer the question Why?; What now? is at times beyond us as well. And - no disrespect to the Lord Bishop - What would Jesus do? might just elicit a "Beats me" in response. We don't have all the answers and, though that is unsettling, the fact that we're together in some way asking the questions gives me great comfort.

The great Elie Wiesel wrote: "All my life, until today, I have been content to ask questions. All the while knowing that the real questions, those that concern the creator and his creation, have no answers. I'll go even farther and say that there is a level at which only the questions are eternal, the answers never are. And so, the patient that I am, more charitable, repeats: 'Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers.”

May God strengthen us as we search for him in the questions. Together. 

Darling: it's what all Christians should do.

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