"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
This second excerpt from Dr Sutherland’s 1934 book, A Time To Keep, explains the consequences of a conversation in the mess at Blandford Camp.
In 1918 another milestone was passed. I found myself attached to the Royal Air Force at Blandford Camp. I had been sent to the B lines as an extra medical officer, because the Spanish influenza was there and my predecessor had died two days before. I slept in his bed on a straw palliasse on the floor. There was a stove that smoked, and when there was rain puddles formed on the floor. Housing conditions were primitive, but I was better off than the men in tents. Food was atrocious, mostly bacon from Chicago, which had to be steeped for twenty-four hours in running water to remove some of the saltpetre. The civil population also suffered from this shortage of meat, and more from the shortage of butter and sugar. To that I attributed the rise of that in the death rate from tuberculosis towards the end of the War, because phthisis is a disease of malnutrition. The germ, except in massive doses, has little effect in a healthy body, but once bodily resistance is weakened by improper feeding the germ makes headway. The influenza germ found Europe weakened by years of war and lack of food. Within twenty-four hours some of the victims were blue in the face, are within forty-eight hours were dead. It was curious that those who bled from the nose or ears often recovered.
On reporting to the Senior Medical Officer, he told me to examine two thousand men. On the previous day Parliament had been told there was no lack of doctors at Blandford camp! “Very good, sir,” I answered. “It will take me about a week.
“It will take you about two hours,” he replied.
The two thousand men were paraded in on the plain, and I told the officer-in-charge that I would like them to form a square of two rows.
“Two ranks you mean!”
“Yes, the old British square, Obdurman and Tel-el-Kebir,” I replied.
He did not look very happy about this, but turned to the sergeant-major and said: “Carry on, Sergeant-Major.”
After some manœuvring the men formed a square of two ranks six paces apart. I stood in the centre of the square and shouted: “I am going to pass along the front rank, and then along the rear rank! As I pass — any man who feels ill, has a headache, or a sore throat will step one pace forward!” When a man stepped forward, I stopped to take his pulse-rate. If that were raised I sent him to the sickbay to have his temperature taken, and if that were raised he went to hospital.
It was a cold afternoon, and I wore a heavy naval overcoat. On the ground was two inches of mud, and my service boots had no studs. As I marched round with the officer and the sergeant-major, followed by two orderlies, I remarked to the officer that this was an excellent scheme in an emergency and that we would have a similar parade each day. With that thought I stepped out more briskly. Suddenly my my feet shot forward and I fell flat on my back in the mud. I struggled to rise, but feet and hands were slipping in the mud. As I fell I heard the shout of the sergeant-major: “Silence in the ranks! Not a flicker! Not the flicker of an eyelid!” Three of them assisted me to my feet, but it was like raising a fallen cart horse on a slippery road. The inspection continued at a more cautious pace.
One night in the mess young psycho-analyst was arguing with the priest attached to our lines, and the priest was handicapped by not knowing the jargon of the new psychology. Merely out of interest I entered the discussion, and was soon upholding the Catholic doctrine of penance as superior to psycho-analysis. My argument was unsound, because the two were not comparable. After dinner the priest drew me aside, and our conversation was as follows:
Priest: “May I ask if you are a Catholic?”
Myself: “No, Father, I’m not.”
Priest: “Then God help you, for you are in a parlous state.”
Myself: “What do you mean?”
Priest: “I mean that you are a man who sees the truth and refuses to act on it.”
With that he left me, and I have never seen him again. I do not know his name, but he was a Redemptorist, and perchance he may read these lines. His words came as a blow in the face. A most ungrateful priest! A lesson as to the folly of entering religious discussions! That explanation did not suffice. The priest was partly right, but did not know everything. He did not know that if I were dying I would send for a priest. A much better defence, and yet — if a Church was worth dying in, was it not only fair to try and live in it? There might be something in that, but the War and the fear thereof was over. There was plenty of time.
During the following year I ceased attending the services of the Church of Scotland. As I explained to a friend in that Church, I seemed to myself to be worse after going to church than before. And he, being a wise man, then said I had better try to find some for form of worship better suited to my needs. I could not expect him to say more.
One Sunday morning in that year I was walking with an elderly professor, one of those men who patronise every Church without knowing they are patronising God. He told me the ideal Church had yet to come, and waxed enthusiastic on his ideal. The professor would offer the Creator better entertainment than He had ever seen before. “By Jove, sir, had I a free hand I would organise it to-day. Its service would combine the best of every liturgy, rite, and form in the world. Do you understand, sir? Its preachers would be the ablest and most eloquent orators of the philosophers of their time. I would ask men like Rosebery and William James to preach. The greatest composers would write its music, the greatest poets its verse, and the greatest singers would sing. By Jove, sir, do you know what I would have done? I would have said to Swinburne: ‘Algernon, put the Psalms of David into English verse.’ Heavens! What do you think of that?”
“Swinburne would have done the Song of Solomon all right.”
“Don’t rot, sir. What else do you need in a Church?”
“Only one thing,” I answered, “some man or woman on their knees asking God to forgive them.
To that he made no reply, for there was none.
That’s night in my bed I was recalling this repartee to my own great satisfaction, when something happened. My conscious mind ceased to function. All thoughts ceased, and in the mental silence I heard a voice, clear as a bell, which said: “What about yourself?” The conscious mind resumed its thoughts, but the experience so startled me that I rose, put on the light, and took my pulse. It was seventy-two, and regular. There was a psychological explanation. I had experienced a fugue, in which this conscious mind ceased to act whilst an idea from the subconscious had expressed itself as a hallucination of hearing. It was not a pleasant experience. There was no escape from the words of that priest at Blandford. They followed me — everywhere, relentless and insistent — for an answer, yes or no, was long overdue.
And thus I came to speak of religion to Major O’Shaughnessy, a Catholic friend in the club. He advised me to see a priest, and I agreed. Appointments were made, and broken by me, until my friend pointed out the obvious discourtesy of my conduct towards a busy man. Another appointment was made for 8 p.m. on a Friday evening, and on that day my friend took certain precautions. He entertained me at afternoon tea and at dinner. There was no escape. At 8 p.m. we approached Farm Street. Somewhere in that austere building my unknown friend, Father Joseph Keating, S.J., was waiting. As the bell rang I knew dimly that the real battle of life was about to begin. I also knew that my frail barque was making harbour for repairs.
Photo-credit: The altar at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Mayfair by Mark Sutherland.
Click here to view David Iliff’s excellent photograph of the Church of the Immaculate Conception.