The supremacy of the Church over magic and superstition demanded that it should take over their functions ‘Everything that can be naturally done is done by God’ a 12th century writer opined, and by the same token ‘God can make the dead alive’ which is known as ‘a miracle, because when it occurs it is something astonishing for men and people’; because it is not natural ‘as people see every day the deeds of nature and thus when something is done that goes against it, they are astonished’.
The Church appropriated the extraordinary, miraculous phenomena of nature, competed with wizards and devils, and considered it evidence of the miraculous power of God.
The Catholic Church, the only church for medieval man, taught that they were needed for man to communicate with God. They also taught that to get to heaven man needed to go through the church, and qualify for approval by the church. Without that approval, a lengthy period in limbo and an undignified exit to Hell beckoned.
Medieval man shivered and averted his eyes as he passed that building that loomed in the midst of his village. He muttered strange incantations to himself; he performed curious rituals; both consumed and denied himself various foods; followed the instructions of the ‘gatekeepers’ of the church as closely as he could, those who claimed to be able to see into his very soul and predict his future, and berated himself when he failed in some task – would he still receive the blessing and approval of the church? Would he avoid limbo and Hell?
I was struck by the strange symmetry of medieval man’s view of his church and the building that stood in the centre of the village that I have recently inhabited. The Village of the Damned.
Standing centre stage in the Village of the Damned lays the secularist version of the church. The House of the Scanner, or St Scanner as some refer to it. It is impossible to avoid, all roads lead to it and past it. The cells of the devoted, or patients as they are oft times called, routinely overlook this sacred spot.
There is no other view. It is the centre of all our lives. We give thanks as the blood red morning sun rises over it – still there, our chance will come! – We observe it squat, silent, brooding, as it waits out the night-time hours. Occasionally its lofty windows are illuminated in the darkness, white robed priests can be observed hovering over a ravaged soul with no time to wait for morn.
Daily, the wagons arrive, bringing more penitents for a brief pilgrimage. They mutter incantations to themselves – ‘ I swear I will always be faithful to my wife’ or ‘I’ll never smoke again’ as they wait to hear the High Priests interpretation of St Scanners penetrating view of The Devil within their very soul. They have renounced foods, they have partaken of potions, they have risen and slumbered at the priest’s orders – will it be enough?
The truly devoted, the army of legless, armless, eyeless, earless, noseless, breastless, aimless souls who take up residency within the shadow of the great shrine, amble past on their ceaseless quest to find a few yards in which to exercise their new found prosthetic, eternally pushing their IV drips before them. Grim faced, grey faced, sour faced, angry faced, sad faced, hollow eyed. Theirs are not the faces of Hope. The only feint glimmer of hope lies in their heart, implanted there by the High Priests.
‘Do everything I say, follow my teachings, and in three months you can visit the great shrine of St Scanner and we will see’.
Half of the cells are filled with penitents who did visit St Scanner in three months – and were found wanting. A stain on their soul was discovered, a mark of the Devil still lurking within. Actually it is inevitably a stain on their lung, the most vulnerable part. They are wheeled into place alongside those still awaiting the chance to beg forgiveness from St Scanner. Pour encourager les autres.
Encourage us they do. ‘We shall not be like that, when our time before St Scanner comes, we will be found pure of soul, and free of devilment – give us our daily potion oh High Priest, cleanse our system, we renounce all other means and put our faith in you’.
We exist only to prostrate ourselves, feet first hopefully, before the altar of St Scanner, for yeah, headfirst is an extra tribulation only accorded to those muttering weird sayings. The woes of the outside world fade into insignificance. Britain is going to the dogs? It matters naught besides the impending date with St Scanner. You begin to understand how medieval man could cope with the trials of floods, pestilence and plague, consumed as he was by thoughts of his appointment with the High Priest of Friday Mass.
Last week I could write nothing. My brain was empty of earthly thoughts. St Scanner had called me before him, my three months was up, and the great day had arrived. Cleansed of body, in my ‘Sunday best’, suitably painted with woad in an effort to convince the High Priestess, for it was she, that I wasn’t one of her sickly penitents; I was English, strong of upper lip, (and faintly hairy too, for lo, the second coming of the hair has occurred, chin first, naturally) invincible, and entirely, utterly, free of Devilment.
Had I not paid due accord to her every mutterance? Partaken of every potion, even the one I swear was luke-warm wallpaper paste? Had I not lain silent and immobile through every piercing, prodding, poking, and introduction of foreign digit into English orifice? Given myself unto the knife, even on Bastille Day, that knife happy annual celebration when you can’t even buy a loaf of bread?
I lay before St Scanner, naked before my interlocutor, posed my arms in the proscribed manner, and slid into his embrace. Gave myself to him freely, I did. Heart and Soul. All over in 20 minutes I whispered – to myself, ‘cos St Scanners attendants speak in foreign tongues.
And the Bitch came out of her confessional and said ‘Again, I can see something’.
‘No you can’t you crazy French Broad’, said I, forgetting not only my French but my due deference. ‘You can’t see naff all, you’re dreaming, I’m English, English I tell you, not one of your sickly French penitents’. And yeah, anger rose up in my gorge, or it might have been the radioactive muck they pump you full of.
T’was useless; St Scanner had me firmly in his embrace, and back I slid. ‘OK twat features, another 20 minutes and I’m out of here’.
20 minutes passed, 30, 40 – and the High Priestess emerged. ‘ Je suis désolé, Madame’. From the waist down it is perfect – but… She recited the ancient incantation that consigns you back to the limbo land of the lost souls. ‘I can see a shadow on your lung’.
‘Shit, Bugger’, and other ancient Saxon liturgical responses.
Honestly, my first thought was ‘Thank God I’m not in England – Lung? They’d have me down as a smoking related death in five minutes……’!
My second thought was drowned as Madame High Priestess donned the rubber gloves…’Ere we go’. She prodded, she poked, she pried, and finally she announced that she had found a lump in my right breast.
I had been determinedly resilient throughout all this. I refused to believe that I would succumb to the downward spiral of metastasis. That was for other people with cancer; not Ms Raccoon.
The power of St Scanner though, the eight months of intensive indoctrination into its ability to be the all seeing omnipotent eye, its infallibility, its power of miraculous cure or portentous death. I had fallen into the cult of worship of St Scanner – and accordingly I now fell into the vale of utter despair. I was doomed. St Scanner had found me wanting. The incantations, the potions, the rituals, the leeching – all for nothing.
I shuffled out into the afternoon sun, already practicing my ‘shuffle with IV drip’; falling into silent pace behind the other lost souls, ready to join the queue for the morgue, the wagon that arrived in the night to take the other failures away that I had watched so many times.
I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t tell anyone. Possibly the most miserable week-end of my life. Clutching the card that entitled me to return on Monday for more tests, more poking and prodding, more pictures of where the knife must fall next. One doomed, downhearted Raccoon.
Come Monday I crept back to take my place amongst the other sinners. Sullenly taking off my clothes and shivering with anticipation. A different High Priest this time. Warm hands at least.
‘You have a cyst, Madame, a very ordinary, perfectly harmless cyst. So harmless I shan’t even bother with the biopsy.’ He was wreathed with smiles. ‘But, but, the shadow on my lung.’ ‘I think’, he said, in that wonderful Charles Aznavour accent, ‘I think, someone forgot you had that ping-pong ball implanted; the shadow is from the implant –nothing more. Look, perfect lungs, you have no sign of your cancer. You are a very lucky lady’.
Told you I could do it, didn’t I? Told ya!
Now, is that the work of nature, something that I can merely be astonished by since it goes against the deeds of nature that we see every day? Did I need St Scanner and the High Priests to lead me to this salvation – or have they, like the medieval church, appropriated the extraordinary, miraculous phenomena of nature, and convinced us all that without their intervention, a lengthy period in limbo and an undignified exit to Hell beckon?
We mock medieval man’s simple faith in the power – and necessity – of the church. Have we merely replaced it with worship of the power and the necessity of the Doctors and St Scanner?
Just call me ‘Lucky Raccoon’.
Whatever! I’m celebrating. Thank-you for joining me on this journey.
Drinks are on the house tonight.