I was on holiday last week, the most exciting and relaxing and amazing holiday in years. I went on a cruise to the Norwegian fjords for a week. And it was beautiful.
I have much to unpack from that week but I’m going to just start in 2 sections inspired by quotations that were given to me during the week. The first, is a short poem, given to me by Dr Peter Dean who is a highly qualified Forensic Medical Examiner and Senior Lecturer at Barts’ and The London Medical School. He delivered a couple of lectures, and revealed himself to be a very gentle, and empathic man – not qualities usually found in pathologists in my experience – and I do not know if he is of any faith or none, but whilst lecturing on “The Elephant Man” he shared the following:
Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God.
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you
If I could reach from pole to pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul:
The mind’s the standard of the man.
The Elephant Man’s real name was Joseph Merrick, and he suffered from what is generally thought to be a very rare type of Neurofibromatosis, a condition guaranteed to have any medical student quaking*. He had tumorous growths of the nose, palate and of the bone surrounding the jaw and within the skull, and during his teens and early twenties he was transported through England and Holland as part of ‘freak shows’ in the years leading to their outlaw. He lived his last 4 years in some degree of comfort, after being taken under the wing of the eminent London surgeon Sir Frederick Treves.
This poem was written by Joseph Merrick during his last years. This isn’t a literary criticism, because I am itching to sort the punctuation out and it’s dying to be made into proper sonnet form – but this man had relatively little education, and what it shared here, and what speaks to me, is his heart. This man looked wrong, in the eyes of the world – but he knew that God ultimately looked at his soul. He had been treated quite literally as an animal and stripped of dignity and still he knew he could not please people on the Earth – he realised that what he had was more valuable than an external form that looked good.
And how that can be a lesson for us today. For me – to value my soul, bought at a price, and to stop getting so worked up about my external form. One of the consequences of chronic mobility problems, for me as for many, is weight gain. I dislike it, and for all that I am concerned with the health complications, when I look into my heart I know it is at least as great a part down to aesthetics. What-do-I-look-like and What-will-people-think. And the other issue is that for those of us who have acquired disabilities (as opposed to having been born that way, congenital abnormalities) is that we have to get used to having a form that is – to use Merrick’s turn of phrase – unpleasing. How many times I have said “I never realised about… how difficult steps are or how few places are wheelchair adapted”, or not quite joking “I’m getting well acquainted with disability services, toilets, assisted travel, etc.” I’m not saying it’s worse, or better, than something which is lifelong, but there is a sudden shift of focus and the associated loss that must be dealt with. And in the midst of that, be confident that I am still myself, and the bit of me that counts is still functioning.
In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
These verses and many like them were just bursting out of me throughout our days in the fjords. The photos, I hope, do a little towards explaining why. The landscape was just awesome. I cannot think of a better description of it. It was beautiful, vast, and majestic, and I just couldn’t see how anyone could look at it and not see the hand of our creator God.
Others far more capable than me can expound the verses, I just want to say a couple of things about what Scripture, combined with these wonderful holiday opportunities, has given to me this past week. I tend to be someone who learns more easily in the hard times, and like all of us I depend on God more completely when things are really tough, because that’s all I really can do. When things are good, I do one (or both) of two things, firstly, I start to take God for granted and forget where and whose the power really is, and secondly to feel guilty, especially in this instance as being able to be on holiday in a really luxurious way. But I was forgetting the power of Scripture to transform me in any situation. My whole being leaped with joy at His creation, and I don’t think I’d have been able to enjoy the other parts of the holiday so much if I hadn’t been able to have my heart redirected into praise. It bubbled out of me more than a couple of times – in any company. What an amazing way to start to bear witness to the might and power of God, to be in a landscape that dramatic, and so full of life and creation.
Mainly, the response that I felt called to was exactly as the psalmist says – let us worship and bow down before the Lord our maker. What other response could there be but to praise Him with a heart full of joy and thanks.
*due to its complexity. Around a quarter are familial, and they can be broadly classified, but it’s a difficult diagnosis to make, and they crop up far too often in finals considering how infrequently encountered in clinical practice.