The three days spent as an involuntary guest of the New South Wales Health Department, courtesy of Section 31 of the Mental Health Act, cannot be described as the happiest time of my life, but the memory of the second afternoon shall always make me smile.
I’d tried to kill myself. I’d come to sincerely believe there was no place in the world for anyone as worthless, incompetent, and perverted as me. My family, my parishioners, and the men leading my diocese (whom I’d diligently trained myself to respect) seemed as though they’d be better off without me. Dare I say it, but their actions in the years since have proved they probably really did think something along these lines, but from behind the bars of a locked ward the idea didn’t seem anywhere nearly as funny as it does now. Then again, in those days I didn’t realize Jesus was also a lunatic, and it was long before I’d met the wonderful people and dogs who’ve shown me life is more than a set of propositions defining the boundaries of hell and heaven.
It had been a cold afternoon, and I might have been running a fever, and no matter what medicine they gave me I couldn’t stop crying. Into the grey sorrow of my observation ward strolled a disheveled patient: he wore combat trousers, a stained purple singlet with a butterfly across the chest, and impenetrable bleached dreadlocks hung like jungle vines down to his thighs.
“Hi” he said. “You’re new here”. I didn’t know what to reply, so he continued anyway.
“I’m a professional golfer, but I take time off the circuit to stay here because they think I’m schizophrenic. But really I just come here because the food’s so great, and it’s great to have a break from the pressures of competition. Besides, I know everyone in this place. I’ve got great connections.”
This last sentence was said as he came around to my side patting my shoulder. I know about as much about golf as I do of speaking Swahili, but if ever someone didn’t look like a professional golfer, it was him. And yet the confidence with he spoke, and sheer warmth of his friendliness was overwhelming. For a moment the clouds of my tears began lifting.
I couldn’t say much in response, but he didn’t mind: “Don’t worry if you don’t feel like talking. What you need is a good round of golf. The fresh air, the green grass, and the sunshine; there’s nothing finer when you’re feeling down. Come on.”
He helped me to my feet, and began leading me into the corridor. I was too dazed to protest, and he asked “Do you play golf? What’s your handicap?”
Never having played the game, I mumbled something about not having a clue. This only made him even more cheerful: “Fantastic, it’ll be an honour to teach you. Let’s go”
We went to the nurses’ station, where having scrounged a tape measure and assessed my dimensions, he calculated my ideal club sizes. I wsa then encouraged to try several different imaginary sets, taken down from an imaginary shelf which only he could see. Eventually the right clubs were found: “They’re a bit pricey, but don’t worry. My sponsor takes care of all that, and it’s important to start out with good equipment from the beginning.”
I can’t recall if any of the nurses tried to intervene during this process; the enthusiasm with which this new friend was introducing me to something he loved was so infectious that I only remember the magic joy of his world, which began filling mine like the warm sunshine of morning. There was a long apology regarding why I couldn’t be fitted for a new pair of golf shoes (footwear other than the regulation patient’s slippers was forbidden on the ward), but, as he explained, the greenkeepers took this into account when preparing the course.
Carrying my new imaginary golf bag, filled with imaginary clubs personally selected for me by an international professional, I was brought me back into the ward. This was the tricky bit, he explained.
“They keep the course here camouflaged, so that doctors in the other parts of the hospital don’t get jealous of our facilities. Until you get the hang of it, it’s probably best if you just close your eyes and let me describe what’s going on. That’ll also help you concentrate on developing a good clean swing.”
And so for the next few hours we played 18 holes, travelling through the ward, out into the grimy concrete exercise yard (surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire – my friend lost a ball through that fence, and penalized himself the requisite number of strokes as a consequence), and back inside again through the empty rooms and storage areas. Each stroke I made, whether drive or putt, was carefully described and analyzed: after a while I began to get a feel for keeping my back straight, or angling my body slightly to account for the prevailing cross-winds. He was a brilliant instructor; a natural teacher who made every mistake an opportunity to learn something new, and every success a cause for spontaneous celebration. His joy when I scored a hole-in-one on the 15th was overwhelming, and when I repeated this feat on the 17th we were both jumping with excitement.
Tallying the card at the end of the game showed we ended in a tie – a result he considered truly astounding given it was my first game. Unlike me, he hadn’t managed any hole-in-ones, but experience of the course, coupled with years on the pro-circuit, had kept him consistently just under par, balancing us out. We weren’t allowed personal possessions in the ward, but from beneath his blankets he produced a half-consumed bottle of Spumante (“We need to remember this occasion with a toast in the finest French champagne”). How he had managed to have a personal alcohol cache I shall never know, but neither shall wine ever taste finer than that warm, flat, sickly-sweet sip from a paper cup surreptitiously removed from the water-cooler waste basket.
It was then time for the evening meal, and soon after I fell asleep, exhausted. The next morning I was woken early, and transferred to a different hospital. I’ve never played golf since, nor do I expect I shall. Some experiences can never be repeated, and are best left to stand alone.
I’ve never seen my friend again either, although I have tried to track him down and would dearly love to be able to help him in return – if such a thing be possible. It doesn’t matter so much though; I know we’ll meet someday. When we do I won’t be in the least bit surprised to learn he wasn’t a human at all, but actually an angel. Or more likely both.
At this point I can hear the evangelical lurkers (don’t worry guys, I know you’re there ;-) thinking “But you haven’t said a thing about Jesus, or even mentioned the Scriptures.” They’re quite right, of course. I haven’t, at least not in the propositional sense they’ve been taught to believe is the only authentic means of communicating Christianity. In my defence, however, I’d like to point out that neither did C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell when they insisted Jesus can be either a lunatic, or Lord, but not both. In fact, that these two could have suggested this makes me wonder if they’d ever heard any of the absurd things Jesus said. Weird stuff like “love your enemies” or “in my father’s house are many mansions”. Statements no sane person could imagine making.
Nowadays I think of Christianity as a kind of madness: that this whole messy business of incarnation and blood is a terrible folly we embrace lest we never again know what it is to be of sound mind and peaceful heart. We believe and we love, and therefore we shun that which the darkness calls sane. We are lunatics, and therein fnd our reason restored.