What is one to make of these things? Two weeks ago Sarah, my wife, was travelling home from London on the train. She was restless and couldn’t find the right place to settle. One carriage was too cold. Another was too noisy. She finally found a table with only one other person at it, a pleasant-looking man in his sixties.
She sat down and almost immediately he embarked on a phone call, evidently of a very personal nature. She left, tactfully, and waited till she could see he had finished, then returned and sat down again. In due course they got chatting.
It transpired that he was a Catholic priest, on a sabbatical and heading for a retreat at a small monastery in Perth. Sarah is a counsellor and as they talked more they found that they shared a lot of the same pyschotherapeutic background, both through their training, and in her practice and his ministry. They became thoroughly engrossed in conversation.
When she got home Sarah was energised by the encounter and told me about it over dinner. He was well spoken and well educated, she said, and had a parish somewhere in London. Something pricked my imagination. I ignored it. She continued to recount the journey. He seemed quite worldly, she said, he was working on a laptop. I asked her more about him. Was he very thin? Yes, she said.
This was not possible, a preposterously long shot. How many thin Catholic priests are there in London? And on any given day how many of them might be travelling by train? A little sheepishly, and more in hope than expectation, I voiced the remote possibility that he might be someone I once knew. ‘How would we know?’ she asked.
I got my iPad and Google-imaged the name, another ridiculously long shot for a parish priest, I thought. But there was a photo, just one. I showed it to Sarah. Her eyes widened. ‘Yes, it’s him!’ she said. We both nearly fell off our chairs.
Forty years ago, a university friend had stunned us all by announcing, on completing his law degree, that he was going to become a priest. Throughout our time at Aberdeen he had been one of the lads, charming, handsome, a party goer, and beloved by us all for a certain quality that at the time none of us could quite put our fingers on.
I visited him once, shortly after we’d all left, at the seminary where he was undergoing his novitiate. A grimmer place it was hard to imagine. Black-cassocked novices shuffled down dismal corridors like anxious young rooks. After that I saw him a couple more times, the last of which was probably fifteen years ago, though I did continue to hear occasionally of his movements through a close mutual friend.
I Googled again, unearthed an address for him and sent him an email. To our dismay there was no reply. Two days later I phoned the monastery, and asked if he was there, then explained what had happened and left a message. He called back later that day. On Wednesday night he came for dinner and stayed the night.
It was an evening of tremendous warmth and joy, all the more so for the fact that he and Sarah had made their own connection, quite independently of me and both oblivious of the fact that I was the link in this unlikely chain.
In the course of the evening I also discovered that he had been to school at Ampleforth, a Catholic public school for which I wrote much of the fund-raising literature a couple of years ago. Not only that, he had returned much later with the intention of becoming a monk there; while I had also written the case for support for the Ampleforth monastic community, an experience I had been greatly touched by, resulting in a piece of work of which I remain particularly proud.
And what is one to make of these things? Probably nothing. That night round the dinner table, and later by the fire, all the meaning was in the moment, in the immediate pleasure of re-connection. Knowing for certain that it was pure chance, or that it had been pre-ordained, would not have changed a thing.