Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A Smile on the Face of God

I first read A Smile on the Face of God in 1993 whilst living in Eastbourne on the south coast. 

Adrian Plass was a local author then, famous in the Christian world for his sideways glance at the sometimes odd things we do in church, but which nonetheless don't stop God from working healing and forgiveness into the most mundane or hopeless situations, often through those who have come to terms with their own brokenness.

The subject of his beautifully written biography knows all about brokenness - he is Father Philip Ilott, an Anglo Catholic priest whose life has been characterised by unusual suffering - emotional, spiritual and physical. 

Born in 1936, Philip was an unwanted baby whose dysfunctional relationship with his mother (he was sexually abused from a young age) defined much of his life. A period of singing in a Cathedral choir provided an awareness of something spiritual, greater than himself and his own troubles, and gradually the ceremony, incense and meaningful ritual he encountered there drew him towards Anglo Catholic worship. After a spell of very real and lively Church Army Evangelicalism, he took Holy Orders in 1967.

He finds some happiness in marriage and family life, though his dark childhood traumas still lie buried deep within. As is the way of things, these surface through irrational behaviour and a tendency to overwork. He collapses one day in church, and, extremely worried, his wife and the doctors advocate rest. But the blackouts get worse. His condition is finally diagnosed as epilepsy. He must give up parish ministry completely. Absolutely mortified, Philip tries to hide the dreadful situation from the rest of the church for as long as possible. Will God really let his whole role and identity as a priest be taken away so ignominiously? 

When a visiting preacher says he has come to offer him the gift of healing, rather than being delighted, he feels embarrassed, but agrees to go through with a midweek healing service in church, with some parishioners coming to pray and offer support. But he is mortified. A priest serves others; should he be so feeble as to need others' prayer for his own weakness and physical failing?

Philip feels justified in his scepticism of miraculous healing however, when his epilepsy worsens shortly afterwards. But God has other ideas. Exactly three months later, another visitor (this time, ironically, the local Church Army Captain) comes to him enthusing about the 'gifts of the Spirit' after some local involvement in a Charismatic group. This time he allows his hopes to be slightly raised, trying to be polite to this keen fellow Christian, but he feels on balance it's 'not for him'. 

But in the kitchen, about to wash up a mug after his visitor has left, Philip is suddenly overwhelmed by the healing presence of God. Like the haemorrhaging woman who touched Jesus' cloak, he somehow 'knows' in his spirit he has been healed. He says to his wife, 'I feel like I've been 'born again' again!' His epilepsy completely disappears, never to return. 

This extraordinary physical healing begins to impact church life immediately, as Philip begins a monthly healing service in the context of Benediction, an Anglo Catholic contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament. Soon others are being healed in various ways, some receive the gift of tongues, which heals their emotional life, sometimes leading to physical healing. There is no blueprint; all cases are different; and not all are physically healed. Throughout, as praying priest and one who wants to offer God's blessing whatever the outcome, he relies on the inner voice of God to guide him, sometimes against all the odds. 

One of the most remarkable accounts of gradual physical healing is of a baby who is brought to him with life threatening encephalitis and water on the brain. Several sessions of prayer and laying on of hands by Philip and the baby's mother and grandmother, and the baby recovers completely, to the astonishment of the local hospital.

All the while, however, dark memories from the past haunt Father Philip. The things that happened at home at night when his father was in the War. His parents' agonising fights. The un-forgiveness he harbours towards his father for never standing up to his mother. The feelings of bing unwanted in the womb. He knows he must eventually confront them and seeks prayer from an experienced fellow priest. This results in some distressing, vividly recalled episodes as he brings before God's Spirit the memories which have lain buried for so long. The Eucharist brings him immense comfort in this context, as he contemplates how we are fed by Christ, even as the placenta feeds an unborn baby.

Throughout his faithful and prayerful parish ministry, in a number of different settings, Father Ilott's life is a mysterious mixture of trauma, healing, pain, release and disease. He prays unstintingly for the most difficult parishioners, sometimes going into the church at night to sit in the pews where they sit, and feel the things they feel which make them react the way they do. He is challenged  as a young priest by powerful people he cannot stand up to, and plagued by impotency as if still a child.

He has prophetic dreams which appear to mark different periods of his ministry. In one he himself is being crucified. After a long spell in a happy Isle of White parish, he takes a disastrous appointment to a wealthy Sussex parish which turns out not to be in keeping with his humble and spiritual approach. He feels all he is wanted for is to be a guest at sherry parties. On the day of his installation (he only stays 18 months) he has an overwhelming feeling 'that I was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time'.

But even in the next parish the road is not smooth. In another dream he is in a wheelchair and the Lord leads him to a locked door. He asks Philip if he will open the door with a heavy key. He has the choice. He decides he will. Beyond the open door he sees hundreds of people suffering various illnesses, maimed, hurting, in wheelchairs. The dream finds real life fulfilment as Father Ilott, settling into this new parish, becomes seriously ill for the second time - losing the feeling in his limbs one by one. Again he is mortified at being so weak and unable to continue his parish duties. Hospital tests ensue: this time the diagnosis is devastating. Incurable MS. 

Again he must contemplate giving up parish ministry, and this time he feels it may well be forever. Finally, at the end of his own resources, he visits Walsingham, the Catholic place of pilgrimage in Norfolk. Mary the mother of Jesus has played an increasing part in his spirituality, a poignant image of the loving mother he never had. Here, sitting in peaceful contemplation in his wheelchair, in the half light of the small church, he feels she is asking him to endure his suffering for sake of her son and for others. Instead of being a busy parish priest leading a church, he will becoming someone to whom many sick and hurting people come for spiritual prayer and counsel, though at great cost to himself. 

This is more or less how the book ends, though with a surprising postscript...

Sometimes people say that faith is for people who can't cope with real life, but there's enough 'real 'life' in the story of Philip Ilott for most of the rest of us. 

As well as his deep experiences of suffering and healing he seems to have been someone with a strong awareness of the paranormal, describing at least three occasions when he either saw objects moving by themselves, or had an intimate conversation with someone who had died. One time, in anguished prayer for his troubled teenage daughter, he 'sees' her as a new born baby floating down the aisle in church, helpless and needing his love. It is this which teaches him to value his family as much as his beloved ministry.

I loved the book the first time I read it, especially since living in Sussex around about the time the story draws to a close (1989) I could imagine some of the places where Father Philip found himself. Now I'm a minister too, I mine the story for ways of being which promote prayerfulness, facing reality and being aware that God still longs to pour healing into many situations and lives, whether healing of relationships, conversion, emotional healing, physical healing, or resilience in the face of continued suffering.

For we are complex beings, driven sometimes by forces from the past, or from spiritual realms of which we are unaware. And God desires our wholeness, our final 'conversion'.

The story of Father Philip Ilott is a powerful reminder that we often swim in some murky depths which only Christ can heal; that forgiveness and healing after even the most damaging of actions can be possible in Christ. 

The ongoing life of Christ in the sacraments, prayer, confession, spiritual gifts and bible study are the means by which the Spirit of God cleanses, heals, renews and sets us free; and the means by which we offer that freedom to one another.

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