Books are extraordinary in the way they provide stepping stones through the dilemmas and difficulties of life. With the usual serendipity of reading, I’d followed up a mention in Susan Hill’s collection of essays, Howard’s End Is On The Landing, to a slim volume by Michael Mayne, A Year Lost and Found, which is a memoir by a clergyman about his experience of ME. Michael Mayne was a rather starry sort of vicar, having been Head of Religious Programmes for the BBC, and Dean of Westminster, definitely a top dog job in the church. Just prior to his appointment to Westminster, he was vicar at Great St Mary’s, the central church in Cambridge, and it was over the course of his time here that he fell ill. It began as a kind of glandular fever, complicated by chest pains and exhaustion, that attacked him in May 1985. A whole barrage of medical tests failed to indicate any notable cause, but as time passed, the illness maintained its hold, keeping him weak, fatigued and suffering. A year later and he might be conducting a few services, and resuming some of his duties, but any exertion leaves him worn out, and some of his symptoms linger on. Almost two years later, he finally gets the ME diagnosis, and I’m not surprised it was hard to achieve. It is only very recently that chronic fatigue has gained any credibility in the average doctor’s mind, and still so little is known about it.
The first half of the book is written in diary form, detailing the progress of the illness. The second half, however, uses his experience as the basis for a meditation on suffering and spirituality. Effectively it’s a return to the formidable question ‘why does God allow suffering?’. Now, I have very little understanding of theology, and don’t trust myself here to summarize the argument, so I’ll quote Michael Mayne at the crux of his discussion instead:
‘[T]hat which has most to say to the sick or suffering person… is the Cross of Christ. That Cross shows us at our most hateful and destructive: equally it shows God in Christ as his most forgiving and creative. Whatever we do or fail to do, whatever we feel or fail to feel, though the heavens seem barred against us when we try to pray and no answer comes, yet there is no diminution of his love. “If I go down to hell thou art there also.” ‘
This made me think about spirituality. It’s such a nebulous word, and I feel that I use it without really understanding what it means. But having read this book, I began to think about it as a kind of embrace or possession by the life force that runs through us all, from our ancestors and onto our dependents, in a permanent, unshakeable current. Rather in the way we can all turn on our televisions without diminishing the signal, so we are all tuned into the electric spirit at the heart of life, running through our veins, regardless of the kind of programme we’re receiving, good, bad, indifferent. Spirituality is, I think, the solid awareness that we are attached to something indomitable in living, some might call it love, some might call it trust, some might visualize it as a river that constantly changes whilst remaining ever the same.
And having thought about this, I realized that my own connection to this spiritual source is very weak. It could be the experience of twelve years of chronic fatigue – it does rather undermine your sense that things will turn out right eventually. But maybe the absence of spirituality is partly what caused the illness in the first place. I don’t believe in my unity with a benevolent force greater than myself; I think the buck stops here with me. I don’t have faith that everything passes, or that things will be the same once the current storm has passed, or at least not unless I put in a great deal of effort to ensure they’re sorted myself. I feel far more convinced that people’s love for me will wither and fail, that chance will pass me by and that disaster will be my fate. Reading this book gave me the uncomfortable awareness of this spiritual dimension as collapsed in on itself. Alas, I don’t think it’s something I can fix overnight.
Michael Mayne’s account of his own response to ME is reassuringly honest. He readily admits that his capacity to pray was severely reduced, and he was dependent on the knowledge that his parishioners were praying for him. Being grateful for his suffering, which one colleague pressed him to do, was ordinarily, humanly, beyond him. And one phrase from a healer he saw struck him particularly. When he asked him why he had been so vulnerable to the virus in the first place, the doctor replied ‘Perhaps because your inscape does not match your landscape.’ As troubling as it was to admit the truth of this, Mayne could see that he was right. Priests have to take in a lot of other people’s negativity, their sorrow, anger and sadness, without having much chance to express their own. Years of being receptive, not to mention overworked, had left him prey to unacknowledged tension and guilt. What he needed to find once again was congruence, the sliding into harmony of inner and outer worlds, and that meant restoring a measure of peace and spaciousness to his soul. Whether he managed it or not, I don’t know. The account ends before he is cured, and yet having already begun his job at Westminster, not a role one imagines could be restful. But what is so admirable about this little book is the portrait it paints of an intelligent, spiritual mind working on the hardest challenge it’s ever encountered. He was without doubt a man who had the courage of his convictions, and who worked to remain loyal and passionate to his calling and to his sense of himself within it. There are very few books out there about the experience of ME, and this is a heartfelt one.