THE DARK NIGHT OF GETTING THINGS WRONG AS YOU GET OLDER
Dear friends and enemies of all ages,
My wife and I have been having some ridiculous conversations lately. They are ridiculous because they involve prolonged and wearyingly intense journeys across the desert of our minds in search of some simple name or date or event or television programme or film actor or city or town or village that has been immediately accessible to our memories for as long as we can - well, for a very long time. It drives us mad and, thank God, occasionally makes us laugh. Fortunately, when only the two of us are present we can bring ourselves to ask each other such questions as, ‘Doh! What’s the name of the town right in the middle of the country with lots of roundabouts and fake cows in the fields as you get nearer?’ The other can then generously pretend to react to the query as though it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to have forgotten.
When others are around it gets more difficult. I remember being involved in a quiz once and being asked a question that was ludicrously easy to answer. It wasn’t quite as bad as ‘What do you call the thing on the end of your arm with four fingers and a thumb attached?’ but it was certainly on the extreme edge of that ballpark. Nowadays I don’t get embarrassed as much as I did in the section of my life in which when I tried to exercise the talents that I admired in myself but didn’t actually possess, but this particular stubborn vacuum in my memory was excruciatingly difficult to handle. I think it became necessary to develop a sudden acute gastric problem. To be honest I would rather have had an acute gastric problem.
Will our memory troubles get worse? No idea. At least Bridget and I are neck and neck, as it were, in our race towards the abyss. Next month I intend to describe some of the other pitfalls that await the careless tread of the elderly as they make their way towards - whatever you call that thing they use for the bodies when there’s a funeral. 0h, for goodness sake, you mustknow what I mean! It’s six feet deep and - oh, never mind…
Anyway, in the meantime, here’s another sort of dark night. Years ago, I tried to imagine what might have happened if Saint John of the Cross had been booked to speak at an afternoon Ladies Tea Club in the twentieth century. This stretch of the mind involved drawing on my fairly scant knowledge of the famous sixteenth century Spanish mystic, and my actual experience of rather unsuccessfully addressing a similar group in Sussex back in the early nineties. Recently I turned this conjecture into a sketch or dialogue.
All you have to picture is a somewhat uncomfortable almost truculent looking man in a long brown habit-like garment, and a slightly over-bright president of the organisation whose task it is to introduce this week’s special guest. It begins as the organiser is offering her speaker a little advice before he begins his talk.
SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS
PRESIDENT: Err, word to the wise, Saint John - do I call you Saint John? Or just John? Or do you prefer - Mr Cross?
JOHN: Er, I don’t mind. Saint John is fine..
P: Right. Word to the wise, Saint John - some of our more elderly ladies will more than likely drop off after about ten minutes or start to need the - you know - the (almost mouthing the word) facilities.
J: The what?
P: The facilities
J: Oh! Right. Right.
P: Yes, so, if you could speak up nice and loud and cheerful and keep it to no more than fifteen minutes, that would be wonderful. And then we’ll all have tea. (giggles) To be honest, our ladies look forward to the tea and cake more than the speaker - unless there’s slides. (brightly hopeful) Are there slides?
J: Slides? No, I don’t think so. No slides.
P: (blankly disappointed) Shame. They like slides. (bright again) Anyway, I’ll introduce you now, shall I, and we’ll get going? (taps the edge of a table) Right Ladies, we’ll make a start, shall we? Lovely to see so many of you here - twelve at a quick count, and that is very nearly thirteen. So, last time Mr Simmonds gave us a real treat with Slides of West Brunton as it was’. We enjoyed that, didn’t we? (notes nodding heads - whispers to Saint John) They enjoyed that. The slides, you see.
J: Can we get on?
P: Yes. This month, ladies, we are very, very fortunate to have secured (makes it sound very exciting) Saint John of the Cross as our speaker! Saint John is a (checks notes) Saint John is a mytsic, and he is also -
J: (taps her arm) Mystic.
P: Beg pardon.
J: I am not a mytsic, I am a mystic - mystic. I’m not a mytsic. I am a mystic.
P: Saint John is a mystic, and - ooh, now, actually, ladies, that’s like that Julian of Norwich who came the time before last and turned out to be a woman - did you ever! - and told us all’s well that ends well. She was a mytsic.
J: Mystic! Mystic, mystic, mystic, mystic! She was a mystic. So am I. I am a mystic!
P: (after a pause) Saint John is a mystic, and he’s going to address us on the subject of - let me just check my notes from the telephone call - yes, here we are, he is going to address us on the subject of (with significance) The Dark side of the Knoll. Over to you, Saint John! (she joins in the patter of applause)
J: No, sorry, that’s not right, is it? That’s not what I said. It’s not the Dark side of the Knoll. Is it? That sounds like - the edge of some gloomy little hummock. It’s actually the Dark night of the Soul - Dark night of the Soul.
P: (unperturbed) Sorry, silly me. Right. Saint John of the Cross speaking to us about the Dark Side of the Soul. Over to you - ’
J: No - no, that’s still wrong, isn’t it? It’s not the Dark Sideof the Soul. That wouldn’t make sense. It’s the Dark Nightof the Soul. It’s the Dark Night! The Dark Night! It’s the Dark Night of the Soul!
P: (wide eyed but in control, she has been an infant teacher) Sorree, Mister Cross. Right, ladies. Our visitor is speaking about (enunciates clearly) the Dark Nightof the Soul. Over to you, Saint John! (joins in patter of applause once more)
J: Yes, thank you. The first thing I would like to say is that the Dark Night of the Soul refers to the experiences of the soul on encountering two necessary purgations –
P: (sotto voce) Bit more cheerful?
J: It refers to the experiences of the soul on encountering two necessary purgations on the road to divine union. The first purgation is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul, and the second is -
P: Sorry to interrupt when you’re just getting into gear, Saint John, but (points) Mrs Wheeler’s already got a question. (leans forward) Yes, dear? (listens) Right. Right. Mm. Mm. (turns to Saint John) So - are there slides? (collusive smile) I think we know the answer to that one, don’t we?
J : (a crescendo) Right! Let’s be quite clear about this. There are no slides. I do not do slides. Actually, I do not even know what a slide is. I am a contemplative and mytsic who has -
P: Mystic. Mystic.
J: I am a mystic who has been divinely vouchsafed insight into an extremely complex and profound phase in the development of the human soul. And I do not - repeat, I do notdo slides! I have no idea what slides are, but whatever they are, I do not do them.
P: (dispassionately, after a pause) Shame. They do like slides.
Of course, I have no idea if the great man regularly went out gigging with his poetry and his philosophical notions, but if he did I do hope they went a bit better than this. I have to say, I would dearly love to spend an hour in a corner of the pub with him, just swopping stories and eating thrice-cooked chips. Perhaps in heaven.
See you in May.
Love to all, and especially sundry,