Experience, Narration and Community: Reflections on a Visit to the Doctor

Every year I go to the doctor for a check up. This year he said “Normally, for a person o of your age, we book you in for a colonoscopy.’ I took a gulp. “OK” I replied. So a couple of Mondays ago I went. The whole thing, including the two day’s preparation was not all that pleasant, but like childbirth, the unpleasantness was was soon forgotten.

My spouse said “Too much information!” when I tried to tell her about it. But I am going to write this reflection about the experience.

The thing that I notice is that I do want to tell people about the experience. Something has happened to me that is new for me, and the retelling seems to be, for a while at least, a kind of compulsion. Like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem. The mariner is compelled to repeat  his story of crime and forgiveness . He says

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

This is not new. Whenever there is a significant event, the person who has experienced that event wants to tell other people: “This is what happened to me.” In the Christian faith, that is often the means by which the Gospel is passed on. We remember about John Wesley that he became a new person when his ‘heart was strangely warmed.’ We don’t remember perhaps much  of what he taught, but we remember his story. For Christians, the authenticity of the faith for them depends upon having an authentic story about their own experience to tell.

There is an idea about the loss of Christian faith that goes like this (John Westerhoff, Stanley Hauerwas): There used to be a lot of social support for faith and going to Church. But now, this social support has been gradually reduced by there being lots of other options like shopping, or sport ot television on a Sunday. We all recognise the truth that the ‘Sunday Night Movie’ on television killed off Evensong! Many Christians had a ‘belonging’ kind of faith: a faith that is held by ‘the group’ but is largely unconsciously held by the believer. As well, for a belonging faith, what is important is the moral life and the ethics of Christianity.

But when the social supports, that make a ‘belonging faith’ possible, are removed then there is no individual experience to relate that can be convincing. The next generation may get the ethics of their parents perhaps, but they have not been told the experience of their parents. So it becomes difficult to pass on the faith.

In any attempts to rekindle Christian Faith, I think that it is important to have some authentic experience to narrate.We need to be ‘credible witnesses’ That is why, during the Easter season we invite members of the congregation to tell their faith journeys. That is why I invite members of the congregation to participate in a ‘deepening faith’ process: so that by doing the course some new experiences of  what it means to be a Christian can be had.

The other thing that happened to me was that some people said ‘too much information.’ Like soldiers coming home from war who want to share their stories, to create a connection between the ‘selves’ that they were at the war, and the ‘selves’ they are back home, sometimes the nature of the story is too unpleasant for the people ‘back home’. So the effect of the new experience is that it separates the people who have had it from the ones who haven’t. This too was the experience of the early Church. Jesus says ‘I have not come to bring peace, but rather division’ because the Church knew that the experience of conversion will sometimes create a difference between people who have had the experience and those who have not.

The other thing that I noticed after me visit to the doctor’s was the opposite of this experience of separation: Through the telling of my story, I found new sympathies and companions. A friend of mine has had intestinal problems. This involved a colonoscopy for them too. After mine, I went up to my friend the next time with renewed affection and fellow feeling because we had shared the same experience. Other people, with whom I was looking for points of contact, became ‘buddies’ through the sharing of the medical story.

At one point, I was thinking about the nature of community. When talking to a wise friend of mine about it he said ‘Well what do you do together that creates the community?’ He was echoing what I have re-discovered. That community derives from a shared experience. This is also the idea behind our congregation’s community building events and the ‘team building’ exercises that some companies organise for their staff.

It is also the reason for the power of organisations like the British Legion, and the Returned Services League. These clubs provide a community where people whose lives have been shaped by war can find a community of people who have share the same experiences, and where they can tell their stories to people who want to   listen.

But this, too, is the Church. A Priest whom I know made it a norm in his congregation that the many people who came to be married, also participated in his ‘Faith Deepening’ programme. This programme lasted about a year or so. When I met him, he had been doing this for over twenty years in the one place. Most of his congregation had been through the process. This created a very different ‘feel’ to the congregation than might had been the case. They were unified by their shared experiences of faith formation.

So, while the dimensions of my experience at the doctor’s may be very different in degree  from some of the more traumatic things that happen to soldiers in war, or to people becoming Christian, this small event highlighted for me some of the important facets of Christian life, as I tried to tell the story of my visit to the gastroenterologist.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Religion and Society, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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