June 30 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

8-PHIL-MILLAR

Story with a stigma attached to it

Writer Philip Miller recalls journalistic doubts of Faith and utilises them in his latest novel By Philip Miller

MANY years ago, when I was a young journalist at The Glaswegian, a weekly free sheet published by the Mirror Group, something very strange and memorable happened. I overheard two veteran journalists talking about a story. It was a story that, I am pretty sure, was never published.

That happens often in newspapers—there are many reasons why journalists might discuss a story that cannot, or won’t, be written. But this one was different—it involved God, the supernatural, and the wounds of Christ on the cross.

I overheard the reporter and photographer talking. It was in the old Mirror Group/Daily Record building beside the Kingston Bridge, which has since been demolished. There was a man who was living in Glasgow, it seemed, who suffered from the stigmata.

He had every wound of Christ, and, I seem to remember, the reporter said his wounds bled at Easter in particular. The journalists were talking about how they could not interview the man—his family would not allow it—and a photograph was out of the question. He lived in a high-rise, somewhere in the east of the city. I asked the photographer, who I knew better than the reporter, for some details, but he didn’t want to talk about it. It was, it seemed, a secret.

 

I never found out more, and—although it certainly seemed to be a real story—I never did establish whether it was ‘true.’

At the time I was far removed from my Christian upbringing: I was into clubs and music, nightlife and drinking. I did not pay a thought to the Crucifixion, the Passion, or anything from the Bible at all.

So the vivid story of this agonised man—I wondered if he was bewildered by his wounds, or somehow aware of why he was suffering so—both shocked me and surprised me in how it shocked me. It was a curiously powerful image and tale.

I wonder where that man is now. I think of him, still, when I visit churches and cathedrals, especially if I see a particularly explicit depiction of the Wounds. Perhaps it was the body-shock that impressed me: and the image of a modern man, in a concrete tower, suffering the supernatural Wounds of Jesus first borne 2,000 years ago.

The incident reminded me of one of the opening lines of The Wreck of the Deutschland by the Jesuit poet Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Dost thou touch me afresh? Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.”

Could the story of this stigmatic man be true? Did he suffer the finger of God? Part of me rejected the whole tale. Then I remembered the reporters’ hushed tones, and the photographer’s brusque rejection of my further inquiries. Something had happened, even if I could not see it.

 

It remained only in my mind as an image of my own creation. But the image stuck so fast that, nearly 20 years later, when I came to write my second novel, All The Galaxies, the image changed, and became a character, and one that is key to the novel.

In the novel, which is set both in an outer space that is also an afterlife, and in a dark dystopian future Scotland, one of the key characters is a religious one.

Fr John-Jo O’Reilly was a minor character in my first novel, The Blue Horse, which was set in the art world.

In that book, Fr O’Reilly is a functional, thoughtful, kind priest in a London church.

By my second book, he has for years been suffering all five Wounds of the crucified Christ. He has left the church, and has begun writing a ‘Testament’: a torrid series of visions of the end of the world, and recollections of his own suffering and despair.

He believes Glasgow had become an estate of the Devil.

He feels a reckoning is at hand. He sees angels—terrifying otherworldly forces of immense power (as I imagine them)—and demons. His sometimes poetic writings are interspersed throughout the novel.

He is joined in his suffering by animals—birds of many kinds, particularly peacocks, come to protect him—and a large wooden cross, which he brings into the world by pulling it from his side.

He lives alone, the last inhabitant of a Glasgow high-rise that is shortly to be demolished.

 

I won’t spoil the end of the book, but at its climax he rises from his abjection, is powered by another power, and faces his and the world’s enemy.

Fr O’Reilly is a tragic character. He suffers immense pain and sorrow. He has removed himself from the world, physically and psychologically. He faces, as Fr Hopkins also wrote, the ‘mind’s mountains… cliffs of fall/frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.’ He is also heroic. He bears the wounds and the agonies for a greater purpose, a higher cause, as he sees it.

And, through it all, he writes.

He is also sought—and finally found—by a young journalist working for a fictional newspaper, who is eager to investigate and tell his story. The journalist is not I, but a character called Shona. Unlike me, she has the persistence and fortitude to track down her quarry, and tell his story to the world.

Before writing the book, I thought much on the Wounds. I read around the subject. I read the excellent Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. In that book, Br Thompson notes that the wounds St Francis suffered were not holes or bleeding openings, but ‘fleshy nail heads.’

Strange and unusual—and very difficult to fake. He also notes how St Francis was desperate to keep the wounds a secret.

I also read the ideas of the body, flesh and God in the newer writings of Terry Eagleton, and, in a more general sense, God is New Each Moment, by Edward Schillebeeckx.

I also thought, long and sadly, of the physical pains borne by friends and family who have suffered or died. The frailty of this human body, how it betrays us, and the absence of any supernatural power to intervene in their illnesses and deaths.

Fr O’Reilly, therefore, is three things in one: a character; a reaction to something real and mysterious in the real, mysterious Glasgow; and a receptacle for my ruminations on our flesh, the inevitable failure of our failing bodies.

 

There is no God or Jesus in my book (or is there? Perhaps I shouldn’t be so definite here) but there is an afterlife.

It is not an afterlife of beatific bliss, it is one in which people are re-born, with real bodies, but they cannot be harmed: there is no disease, and no hunger, no murder, and enough space—in all the galaxies of the universe—for everyone to find their place.

There is also a planet called The Mothers, where grieving mothers wait for their children.

It is, of course, fantastical: humans can fly, animals talk, and angels of frightening scale hover around the edges of the new dominion. It comes from my imagination.

But back on Earth, a man is huddling in bloody robes in his doomed tower block, awaiting the end of the world: his comes from a real place, and would not exist if it wasn’t for that overheard conversation 20 years ago.

If that man is still alive, a tiny part of his life is in my book.

 

Philip Miller is the author of All The Galaxies (Freight Books) and The Blue Horse (Freight Books) and is the arts correspondent for The Herald.

 

 

 

 

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