I am not a sensationalist. In the ministry to which I am called, you encounter such extremes of emotion in other people and are party to such a wide range of events, both joyous and terrible, that there is no need to seek cause for emotion, and nor is there, in the life of the Christian disciple, any space for ‘compassion-fatigue’: such a thing does not exist, it is a myth which we now sometimes turn to to justify pulling the shutters down between ourselves and some other human beings. But one need not be visibly emotional in order to be compassionate, nor be visibly moved in order to feel emotion -in fact there are often situations when as a priest one is called upon to help others to get through an occasion of great sorrow or pain, and that often means dealing with one’s own emotions separately -setting time aside supported by God in prayer, and if necessary, to cry privately, before coming calmly to help others with their pain and grief.
So I am not a sensationalist. However the media are, and I always bear that in mind as I watch news reports, seeking to understand situations from a position of holy indifference (peaceful impartiality) before reacting to them. Sometimes, however, a story comes to light that just hits me like a car crash, because of the spiritual and emotional awfulness of the situation.
In the UK today, a news story has broken, that is just such a one.
A young woman is on trial, because police officers uncovered, in her house, in her room, the tiny, mummified corpse of her four and a half year old son… Dressed in babyclothes, tucked in a cot with a teddy. He was the size of a nine month old as he had been malnourished.
You may wonder if I am now full of judgements? Perhaps blame for the mother, who did not feed her child, nor report his death; or blame for the father, who had apparently been violent towards the woman, and who walked out on both mother and child; perhaps you expect me to blame drink and drugs, both of which played a large part in the young woman’s life; or society or social services for not spotting the problem and intervening earlier? All these things are hinted in media reports and will no doubt come up in the trial. But I am not interested in apportioning any kind of blame in this tragedy. That is not my job, nor my way of thinking.
I am just so deeply sorrowed. Sorrowed for the child, who in four and a half years of life knew almost nothing of the world, and quite possibly almost nothing of love or hope… who was unregarded in life and death but whose little anxious face now graces the front cover of many newssites. I am sorrowed for the mother, whose life also was so devoid of love and hope that she did not know how to impart it to the child she bore, or, it seems, how to live without the chemical crutches of drink and drugs. Such lives are barely human… to live without hope or love… Even in the concentration camps of the second world war, there remained in many places a shared humanity stronger than death, a desire for life, both for self and neighbour that would not have seen a little one slip away without hope.
And what darkness, to live with such a hellish vacuum of hopelessness and silence, that a little child’s body could share the same room, hidden, but certainly not truly forgotten.
My own daughter is four and a half years old. She is tall, and cheerful and this year she has just started school. She wakes in the morning singing, and she draws pictures of knights and dragons and teddy bears… And, except once or twice perhaps when waking in the night from a nightmare, I have never seen on her face, the look of fear and longing that the little child on the newspapers wears.
And yet, though I type this with tears in my eyes. There is hope, albeit costly and painful. Because no human life is truly unnoticed, no life is without meaning, no matter how tragic; and no human life is separate from our own -no man is an island, entire of itself…
‘No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. ‘
John Donne -Priest & Poet
And so, though there is no happiness in this, this terribly sad and lost little life, and the empty and darkened life of his mother. I cannot forget them, but will pray for them both, because that little mummified body hidden in a cot beneath some junk; could be any one of us -and we are painfully, infinitely, precious in God’s sight.