November 24 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Are priests the barbers of the Church?

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS on the surprising similarities between hairdressers and the clergy — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

The other day I was woken up by the phone at 6.15am. As I had left the handset in the office, by the time I had come to my senses and found the phone, the call had gone to the answering machine.

As soon as the line was clear, I dialled 1471 and contacted the caller, but it went unanswered. And then nothing. No other calls later in the day to say what had happened or who was looking for me. Not a whisper. To say that was frustrating is an understatement.

It annoys you to miss what might be an urgent call in the first place, but then to be left hanging without knowing if it was a deathbed summons or a call centre in Mumbai puts you off your stride.

6.15am used to be my regular rising time when I was teaching at Glasgow University and had to make the commute to work, but lately I have something of a slugabed, preferring to extend my duvet time to 7.15am whenever possible. Jasmine sometimes has other ideas about that, as you might imagine!

Chapel houses sometimes get early morning calls from parents of poorly kids who have mixed up the Church and school phone numbers. Of course, they’re always very apologetic about burdening you with Linzi’s medical condition while you’re tucking into your Frosties.

The most bizarre wrong number I’ve had to deal with was when I was living in Clarkston and my number was almost identical to that of a gentleman who ran an advert in The Sunday Post offering caravan hire. Many a Sunday I had to fend off caravan queries, let me tell you. I still laugh when I recall one persistent customer who, even after I had explained the nature of my business, demanded ‘So you don’t have a caravan then?’ I even toyed with the idea of changing my answerphone greeting to ‘Hello, this is Fr John. Sorry, I don’t have a caravan.’ There are many things about which I have been sorry in my life, but not having a caravan is certainly the strangest of them.

Among the administrative responsibilities of being a parish priest, at least as the job is currently configured, is ensuring that the church is kept wind and watertight and that its finances are in good order. Thankfully, as far as the former is concerned, we have someone to look after that for us.

One day last week, as I was heading out with Jasmine for our morning walk, I was greeted from on high. As I live in a state of constant readiness for the Rapture, I at first took this to be a sign that I was about to taken up ‘to meet the Lord in the air.’

It turned out, however, to be Raymond, who is second only to Michelangelo in roof-related contributions to the Catholic Church. While Michelangelo at least stayed dry during his labours in the Sistine Chapel, poor Raymond is to be found clambering about church roofs in all weathers.

As well as his help in plugging leaks and patching up chimneys, Raymond is charged with keeping our guttering free of leaves. This is more than an aesthetic task, since our insurance is dependent on us keeping the drains unencumbered. That is easier said than done here, where the glorious spectacle of nature’s autumnal colours quickly becomes a thick carpet of fallen leaves. Still, Raymond does it cheerily, and with a great head for heights.

As for my other responsibility, I’m slightly nervous about this afternoon, when the accountant is coming to look over the parish finances for 2017 so far. As I’ve mentioned before, our stewardship of the parish pennies is carefully scrutinised (and rightly so), but there are all sorts of horrors lurking in the petty cash receipt tin, from indecipherable receipts from the corner shop to labels peeled off from a pizza box.

Caroline, the accountant, sounds lovely on the phone, but I’m afraid she may give me a Paddington hard stare when I offer her our fiscal scraps.

Perhaps my nervousness is heightened by the approaching celebration of Christ the King, which reminds us of the great accounting which none can avoid. Matthew’s last judgement (25:31-46) brings the liturgical year to its sonorous climax.

This time it’s not the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but the ‘back wall’ which comes to mind, in Michelangelo’s later and somewhat more pessimistic masterpiece, the Last Judgement. This is the scene evoked by the Dies Irae, the hymn which was used as the sequence during the Requiem Mass.

Although somewhat lengthy—and perhaps a little too scary for modern tastes—it is actually a beautiful prayer imploring the judge to have mercy. It reminds the ‘King of fearsome majesty’ that he died to set us free.

While Michelangelo’s judge is apparently impervious to pleas for clemency—even his Mother seems to turn away from the cosmic swirl of divine justice which emanates from her Son—the Dies Irae actually concludes with the Pie Jesu, the merciful Jesus. Although the titles of King and Judge are interspersed throughout the hymn, on the two occasions we hear the holy name it is in conjunction with the adjective pius: merciful, faithful, full of pity.

For all the drama of the Last Judgement, the Gospel itself reminds us that we are judged on the extent to which we have allowed the love of God and neighbour to actually flow into our actions towards the least of Christ’s brethren.

That is the litmus test of our quality as Christians, and the ultimate test of our readiness for the Kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world. In the end, Christ the King is a feast which also speaks of the royal dignity of all the Baptised, in that we have all been anointed as sharers in his life.

Speaking of Baptism, I had a nice conversation recently while seated in the barber’s chair. Chris, who was trimming my increasingly silver locks, remarked, ‘I see you have a Baptism this weekend.’

I told him that I did, in fact, have three but was impressed that he knew my movements better than I did. He revealed that his knowledge came from a customer the day before who had mentioned he was going to a Christening.

When Chris enquired where it was, the chap replied, ‘St Joseph’s.’ This struck our friendly barber as an admirable and atypical response, since ‘most people will tell you the pub or function suite for the ‘do’ afterwards, but he named the Church.’ So well done, whoever you were: your religious education was not entirely wasted

It’s often said that barbers and priests have a lot in common. People tend to open up to us and confide things in us which they might otherwise keep to themselves. Perhaps the barber’s chair elicits a similar sense of loosening—which is what ‘absolution’ means—as the Confessional itself.

Maybe it has something to do with the sense of trust which you place in the hands of the one who is cutting your hair. One slip with the clippers or the ­scissors and you might be sporting a Van Gogh look or a combover which would make Arthur Scargill look on in envy.

Or maybe it’s just the prospect of that feeling lighter and tidier that comes both as one leaves the barber’s or the confessional.

Admittedly, we don’t do the whole mirror bit, so you can check the back and so on. But there is an argument for putting a mirror on the door of the box with the caption, ‘this is what a new Catholic looks like,’ above it.

In fact, just as barbers were once surgeons, maybe priests should be given hairdressing skills? That way we could greet our customers: “What’s it to be today? Shriven or shorn?” In an ideal world, we could do both.

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