PRIEST IN MY BED is a fun but revealing chapter lifted from Stones in my Clog. The damndest things sometimes happen in our chiropractic clinics.
"It was in 1074 that an ambitious man named Hildebrand, who had become Pope Gregory VII by irregular means the previous year, excommunicated all married priests."
Post modern is a term I never understood until Helen and I moved to Catholic Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands. My neighbours and acquaintances seemed outwardly quite religious with baptisms, the first communion at age seven, and high and holy days all widely celebrated, but it seemed to me that, for the rest, the Christian Faith made barely a ripple in community life. Beautiful churches, devoid of parishioners, have been turned into dance studios and accountants’ offices. Our first venture into the only church in our village of some 2000 families, found only 50 of the faithful gathered to worship, with two elderly priests presiding. The beautiful 12th century dressed stone church was cold, dark and depressing. No one greeted us.
‘Wim and I are getting married next month, Bernie. I hope you and Helen will come.’ Claudia, our clinic secretary, had befriended me when I first arrived and, by assisting with my medical reports, helped me surmount the Dutch Alps. She is certainly a Believer, both by conviction and practice but this perhaps absurdly conservative South African was nonplussed to discover she had been living with her ‘partner’ for nearly two years. The words husband and wife aren’t used much any more by the younger generation, nor for that matter by many of the older. For Helen and me, trying to distinguish between what was clearly unacceptable, downright wrong, and what was merely different, rocked our boat perilously in those first few months.
‘What shall we give them for a wedding gift, Helen?’ I asked that evening.
‘Mm, I still treasure those words on love from the Bible that your grandmother gave us. Shall we get them a copy, and frame it? 1 Corinthians, I think.’
‘Mm, love is patient …, great idea. Better yet, I have a patient who does calligraphy. I’ll ask him. They’re from chapter thirteen, I believe.’
The church service itself was simple and profound. In comparison the reception was a thumping affair in a local pub. Limburgers are known for their big-band music, and I swear that band could have played on any world stage. Helen and I made our way there on our bicycles on a cold and frosty night, our wedding gift tightly strapped to my carrier. Though we missed the street, the music soon led us to the reception, a brassy trombone beckoning latecomers. At the door we presented our gift.‘May I take a peep?’ asked Claudia. ‘Of course,’ said Helen, whispering something in the bride’s ear. She looked radiant in white.Ripping off a corner, Claudia read out the words, familiar to Christians the world over:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking …
‘That is so beautiful!’ she exclaimed. ‘Did you write it?’
‘I wish,’ answered Helen, bemused. ‘No, it’s taken from the Bible, Claudia.’
‘Really,’ said Wim, taking the frame. ‘Hard act to follow.’
Later, I discovered that neither Claudia nor Wim had ever owned a Bible, so we gave them a New Testament for Christmas. The music was unbelievably loud, so I took my dinner out to the patio, getting into conversation with Wim’s father. He had long been estranged from Wim, his son only recently returning to the fold as the wedding approached. Wim’s father had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the Prodigal Son. Even the most superficial knowledge of the Bible was seemingly almost non-existent to many. There were more surprises in store for the pre-modern stranger.
Acute, severe low back pain can be very frightening. Mostly the enormous pain lessens after a few days, with or without treatment, but when it endures for weeks despite treatment, people understandably become very anxious. It’s fairly rare that patients would arrive for their first consultation accompanied by a partner or friend so, when Mrs Heemstra arrived with ‘her man’, I realised this was not some ado about nothing. In fact, that was already a known - the physiotherapist who referred her sent me only very difficult cases with whom she had made little or no progress. Mrs Heemstra hobbled into the consulting room, dishevelled and barely able to walk, clutching the arm of a handsomely attired man.
‘Ah, good morning, Mrs Heemstra … Mr Heemstra,’ I said. He shook hands, simply introducing himself as Jan as Mrs Heemstra started to plunk /gingerly lower herself with a groan in the nearest chair. Dressing nicely for the chiropractor, doing her hair and the inevitable make-up had not been on her agenda that morning. She wore slippers. ‘Mrs Heemstra, it would be better if you lay on this couch,’ I said hurriedly, grasping her arm before she could sit. With difficulty, I helped her lie first on her side, and then on her back, carefully placing cushions under her knees. I knew it would not be easy to get her out of the chair, so we conducted the history and initial examination whilst she lay supine. ‘Would you please sit on that chair, Mr Heemstra,’ I said pointing. Neither of them had yet said much beyond the customary Goeden Morgen. ‘Gosh, you are obviously in trouble. Please start at the beginning and tell me everything.’
Jan passed me a letter. ‘Hettie has had a very sore back for two months. This is a referral letter from her physiotherapist.’I smiled inwardly, stripping open the envelope, recognising Mrs Schreurs’ handwriting. I took in a deep breath knowing there were going to be difficulties ahead. There always are with debilitating sciatica, but they didn’t seem to notice my own apprehension; severe pain can be a bit frightening for the doctor, too! I have treated thousands of similar cases over the years, mostly successfully but each case, with its own challenges and idiosyncrasies, is as unique as the patient’s thumbprint. That of course is why I love my profession. Often weary, I am never bored.
‘So, the pain in your back began two months ago after you lifted your grandchild,’ I said, glancing up from the letter. ‘When did the pain in your leg start?’
‘About a month later. The back pain had lessened by about half so we decided to enjoy a weekendjeweg. ’ She glanced hesitantly at Jan. ‘By the time we got back I couldn’t sit and I had a numb feeling down my right leg.’
Nodding, I said, ‘The long drive; it often aggravates this condition. My first rule, the most difficult and perhaps the most important, is that you are not to sit for a week, perhaps several weeks. Please go on.’
‘The next day I sneezed, and then it became completely hopeless. I couldn’t turn in bed, I couldn’t dress and even the toilet was a nightmare.’
‘You are lucky to have help,’ I said to her, smiling at Mr Heemstra. ‘Living on your own would be impossible with this condition. I see you’ve had no X-rays.’‘No, my doctor said they wouldn’t show anything, so there was no point.’
‘He may well be right, but that is what we are going to do after I have examined you. We won’t conduct very many tests today. They will be too painful, and may in themselves aggravate the pain.’ I checked the reflexes in her legs and tested whether she could feel the prick of a pin, as well as the strength of the muscles in her legs. Two specific tests, named after the famous doctors, Laségue and Braggard, were strongly positive, and I was relieved to find a fixation in the sacro-iliac joint on the opposite side. An adjustment of the sacrum usually does the trick in such cases.
The X-rays in fact showed only one abnormality, one that I already knew. Mrs Heemstra stood with a strong list to port, clearly evident on the AP radiograph, but just as obvious from simple observation. It wasn’t rocket science: she stood in the so-called ‘antalgic’ posture, looking like a flesh and blood leaning tower of Pisa. Her doctor had a point, but I still continue to X-ray such conditions. There are often other abnormalities present, perhaps not pertinent if one’s treatment is limited to prescribing drugs, but certainly important for the chiropractor who is applying a force to the spine and pelvis. If for no other reason, I like to take X-rays because it increases the patient’s confidence in their doctor, convinced that he is being thorough. It’s odd but patient compliance, absolutely vital in the treatment of serious conditions, has been found to be far better with chiropractors who take X-rays. In any case, as the Americans say, CYA. Cover your ass!
I outlined the usual protocol. ‘You should not sit or drive for a week or two, Mrs Heemstra, and please ice your back several times a day. I’m now going to coach you through a few very simple exercises. Please do them faithfully several times an hour. They take less than a minute.’
‘How often must Hettie come for treatment?’ asked Jan.
‘Two or three times a week for several weeks. Your wife is going to need plenty of encouragement and help, Mr Heemstra. Even the most basic tasks of daily living I’m sure have been extremely testing. Would you accompany her for the first few treatments, and would you mind doing the vacuuming for her please?’ It was not for two weeks that Hettie Heemstra arrived for the first time unaccompanied. I remarked encouragingly, ‘I see you feel you can drive yourself now. That’s wonderful, but please be sensible. I always say fifty percent less pain is the dangerous time. That disc hasn’t healed by 50%, you just feel half of the pain.’ Adjusting her sacrum was indeed the key.
Having been in practice for nearly thirty years, I can’t say that it’s very often these days that I’m completely flabbergasted. ‘You have a new patient in a few minutes, Bernie,’ said Claudia, just back from four weeks honeymoon leave. ‘He’s a parish priest.’ You could have blown me over with a feather when Claudia knocked on the door and ushered Mr Heemstra in; only he wasn’t Mr Jan Heemstra. It was Father Jan Kleindijk.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand,’ I said, shaking his hand. The Dutch have a fetish for shaking hands.
‘You wouldn’t,’ he said, with a look that came somewhere between a smile and a frown. ‘Let’s just say for now, that I am Hettie’s priest. She phoned me for help when she got into such dire straits, so I drove around to her home, and brought her to your clinic.’
‘But, …’ My voice trailed off.
‘Yes, there are lots of buts. Now, I’ve had pain in my shoulder for about nine months.’ The change of tone and subject was palpable. No more questions please.
‘Tell me about your shoulder,’ I said, quelling my confusion. Most families have a skeleton or two lurking in the cupboard and I’ve learned to subdue my curiosity. There’s no place for painful prying questions. Perhaps in time, he would tell all …‘It started last Spring. I’m not really sure what triggered it, but I started waking in the night if I slept on that shoulder. The outside door on the bicycle shed was jamming, and I had to give a very hard tug. Perhaps that was it. When it began waking me at night I decided it was time to consult my doctor. He said I had inflammation in the bursa and prescribed some pills.’‘Did they help?’
‘A bit – as long as I kept swallowing them, but as soon as I stopped, the pain was as bad as ever.’
‘After about three months, I took myself off to Mrs Schreurs.’‘And what did she do?’ It’s always important to find out what treatment has been tried. Repeating failed treatment that other therapists have already employed is unlikely to be of benefit.‘She gave me some exercises, and massaged it, and used some electrical apparatus.’
‘Did that help?’
‘A bit, but it was temporary. It’s worse now than when I first went to the doctor six months ago.’‘He has taken no X-rays?’
‘Does Mrs Schreurs know you are here?’ He had offered no referral letter. Father Kleindijk shook his head. He was neatly dressed as usual, with a blue and yellow checked shirt and matching cravat. The dark brown Harris Tweed couldn’t disguise the broad, powerful shoulders. Here was a man who worked out at the gym. Or, perhaps he was a swimmer. Was that the cause of a shoulder impingement syndrome?
Despite the obvious, unexpressed difficulties of his relationship with Mrs Heemstra, a tangible sense of a man of peace pervaded, though it turned out ironically that he was neither at peace with himself nor his God. I, however, had no doubts at all; my patient was a fellow Believer, despite the fact that we came from different sides of the religious experience. From the very first there had been no need to construct an artificial unity between us, Protestant and Catholic, laity and clergy.
‘Would you please slip off your shirt so I can examine you,’ I said, watching him closely, noting the obvious difficulty he had lifting his right arm whilst undressing. He winced as he tried to hang up his jacket on a peg, using his other arm to support his right elbow. Probably muscular I quickly concluded; active flexion was obviously painful. However it turned out to be more complicated, and I reminded myself again that a hastily-made diagnosis can be disastrous. Passive ranges of motion were equally limited, particularly internal rotation. His neck was stiff when I turned his head to the right, and the small joint between the collar-bone and the shoulder (the AC-joint ) locked stubbornly as I tried to lift his arm sideways. He gave a small grunt of pain.
I went through the rest of the Chiropractic examination, checking reflexes and doing a few orthopaedic tests. ‘We need to take some X-rays, Father Kleindijk.’ He nodded, and followed me to the X-ray room. While the pictures were in the automatic developer I sat him down, and explained. ‘You have what we call a frozen shoulder. I won’t pretend it’s going to be easy, because it probably won’t be. I expect we will see an old injury in your neck, probably a car accident or fall that has started irritating the nerves to your shoulder. Fortunately the reflexes are intact, and there are no sensory changes, but the result is that the capsule and muscles around the shoulder have shortened. There may be some calcium deposits in the bursa and tendons.’
‘I haven’t been in any car accidents,’ he said dubiously.
‘Perhaps a sporting injury; do you ski or ride horses?’
‘No, but I was a gymnast for fifteen years. I took a few tumbles.’
‘That’s probably it. Gymnastics I suspect is like horse riding. He who hasn’t taken a fall has never ridden.’
‘I did have one bad fall when I was seventeen; about two metres straight down onto my head from the parallel bars. I remember not being able to turn my head for about two weeks without excruciating pain.’
I smiled, happy to have been right and went to fetch the X-rays. Putting them up on the screen, I scanned them quickly, and then explained them to him. ‘There’s nothing to report in the shoulder. No calcium deposits but here you can see the old injury to your neck. This disc space is much reduced, and there are degenerative changes in these little joints,’ I said, pointing to the unco-vertebral joints . ‘See how they have reduced the space where the nerve emerges? The foramen.’ My doctor wants to inject cortisone into my shoulder. What do you think?’
‘I wouldn’t at this stage. It’s been proved to weaken the tendons, and in any case it’s not treating the cause,’ I said, thinking back to a another patient’s biceps tendon that had snapped after a cortisone injection, forming an odd-shaped ball in the middle of his arm.‘So what is the cause then, in your opinion?’ It was a thoughtful question from an intelligent man. He wasn’t going to be convinced by any simplistic ‘rubber band, or hosepipe’ explanations.
‘In my experience, almost all frozen shoulders are accompanied by this degeneration in the neck. It’s why Chiropractic is successful in treating shoulder conditions like this. We treat the cause.’
‘So, are you going to take away those spurs? That’s arthritis, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, indeed it is degenerative arthritis. No, I am not going to heal the arthritic changes. I don’t need to. My examination shows that the nerve is irritated, not pinched, and by loosening these little joints in your neck and your shoulder, we will get it working again. You’ll see. Give me two to three months.’He looked at me dubiously. ‘Forgive me for being something of a Doubting Thomas but I can’t see how you can undo this wear and tear. Isn’t it like grey hair?’
‘Yes, in part, it is. But the stiffness in these tiny joints in your neck releases noxious chemicals that inflame the nerve root as it emerges from the spine. Then the altered conduction of impulses in the inflamed nerve induces the soft-tissue changes in the shoulder itself.’
‘Is that your opinion, or … ?’ He hesitated.
I shook my head. ‘There’s oodles of Medical opinion. I’ll find it for you if you want.’
‘Are there other possible causes?’
‘Yes. I recommend you have a general health check up. Diabetes, or a thyroid condition, for example, may also be the underlying cause of a frozen shoulder.’
My patient nodded. ‘And is the treatment dangerous? I saw a film on German television about Chiropraxie. They said it can cause a stroke.’
‘Chiropraxie is not Chiropractic. The Medical Association in Germany continues to block the registration of Chiropractic and so lay-manipulators attend short weekend courses, taught by chiropractors I’m ashamed to say, where they learn crude manipulation. They even have the cheek to call themselves chiropractors but my profession’s hands are tied in Germany. Like any other procedure, in the hands of poorly trained people, the risks go up in leaps and bounds. Would you let me take out your appendix after I’d been to a weekend course?’‘But there are risks entailed?’
‘With any medical procedure there are risks. About one in two to six million manipulations of the upper neck may possibly cause a stroke, depending on whose research you believe. But why all these questions, Mr Heem … I’m sorry, Father Kleindijk? You trusted me to treat your … Mrs Heemstra’s back. The possibility of making her condition worse with manipulation was far greater than my treatment of your shoulder causing you to have a stroke.’He smiled. ‘Just a Doubting Thomas.’
‘Oh, ye of little faith,’ I said with a laugh. ‘May I ask a question? You obviously know of Doubting Thomas but why is it that so few Limburgers have heard of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, and other such characters that belong to our Christian tradition?’
‘Because they’ve now stopped going to church for about a generation.’
‘But that’s true in England too.’
‘Maybe so. I’m not sure. Is this treatment going to be painful?’ He changed the subject abruptly.
‘The treatment of your neck won’t be painful, but, yes, the treatment of your shoulder will hurt but only while I am doing it. There may be some residual ache after the treatment, but that is usually easily handled with alternating ice and hot packs. Then there will be a lot of rehabilitative stretching and exercises.’
Continuing education is fortunately a compulsory part of every chiropractor’s life; few courses have meant more to me than the sports chiropractic seminar in Denmark that I had attended. Watching two chiropractors who had accompanied their national teams to the Beijing Olympics treat an elderly boxer’s frozen shoulder was unforgettable. Within an hour they had performed something of a minor miracle. While I didn’t have their expertise or experience, I had treated enough difficult shoulders in that year to confidently predict that I could fix the doubting priest’s condition.
The treatment of his neck was not painful, as I had said, but he gave quite a start at the crackling sound emanating from deep within his neck. I did have to use rather more force than I would have liked causing three days of ‘after-pain’, contrary to what I had told him. I should have warned him. Like his shoulder, Father Kleindijk’s neck was very stiff, as it mostly is after a long-forgotten and neglected injury. Starved of nutrients and bathed in noxious waste-products that could not readily escape the fixated joints, his neck had become very arthritic after the fall on his head. I quickly discovered that the Subscapularis muscle under the shoulder blade was the core problem; doing the active release I had learnt at that seminar was extremely painful. Then I adjusted Jan’s so-called AC joint, and sent him on his way, with a set of exercises and other instructions.
‘So Jan has been to see you.’ It was a statement of fact, rather than a question.
‘Yes, he has. You’ve both presented me with quite nuggety (challenging) problems.’ I smiled at her.
‘You mean our relationship?’
Several weeks had passed, and the pain in Mrs Heemstra’s leg was almost gone. We were well into the rehabilitation phase, and were both well pleased with her progress. I had also suggested she go back to Mrs Schreurs for the rehab which would relieve my over-stressed appointment book.
I shook my head.
‘Has he told you about us?’
‘No. I haven’t thought to pry. Obviously I’m curious!’
She laughed nervously. ‘Do you want to know?’
‘Only if you want to tell me.’
She considered for a few moments, measuring her words. ‘When my husband was first diagnosed with untreatable prostate cancer - in his bones - Jan started coming to visit him twice a week. I didn’t think much of it, but my husband told me that those visits lifted many of the burdens from his shoulders. We weren’t very religious, but we did start taking mass again for the first time in many years and he – his name was also Jan – died in peace, I’m glad to say.’
‘Thank you for sharing that with me,’ I said, giving her the opportunity to stop, but the whole truth was forthcoming. Perhaps she needed to get it off her shoulders; only, I wasn’t qualified to give absolution!
‘The first six months were terrible and I went to pieces. We had been married for nearly forty years, and I couldn’t handle life without Jan. I started drinking heavily.’ She stopped, searching for words.
I interrupted. ‘Do you ever drink in the morning?’
‘Not any more, but after Jan died I would often be plastered before lunch.’
‘Oh dear. But you’re not drinking now, are you?’
‘No!’ She shook her head emphatically. ‘It was Jan who stood beside me after I hit rock bottom.’ I believed her. There had never been any suggestion of alcohol on her breath and she had started to dress attractively again, with a handsome gold scarf around her neck and a bit of makeup. ‘When I was thirty-five my husband and I made the decision not to have children. I had a wonderful career as the project manager for an international accounting company and giving it all up to have babies didn’t fit in with my ambitions. Jan was a bit sad, but we agreed that growing old graciously together would more than make up for no family.’
‘And did it compensate?’
‘Yes, it did, but Jan dying at fifty-eight wasn’t part of the plan.’
‘The best-laid plans of mice and men,’ I said.
She nodded. ‘Often go awry.’
‘How do you know that? It’s quite obscure poetry.’‘I did my Articles with a group of accountants in Edinburgh,’ she said, switching into perfect English for the first time, with just a touch of a Scottish accent.
‘Ah, that explains it.’
‘What I hadn’t considered was how it would be, as an only child, to be quite alone in the world. I don’t have another living relative. Anyway, I kept going to church, and Jan Two, as I call him, kept visiting our home twice a week after my husband died. My home. He went on visiting me,’ she finished lamely.‘And so?’ I realised we were getting to the spicy bit, my curiosity inevitably aroused.
Nothing much happened for nearly a year, but I realized that I was looking forward to his visits more and more. Those six months of depression were terrible, but I eventually realized being sorry for myself was getting me nowhere, and it wasn’t what Jan One would have wanted anyway. With help from Jan Two I realize now …’ she stopped mid sentence.
‘That’s why it’s recommended that one never make any big decisions for a year after the death of a loved one. So what happened then?’
‘I started enjoying Jan’s visits so much. Too much.’ She gave a crooked smile. ‘I cooked him meals, and started taking pride in myself again. You know, dressing up a bit, using some make-up.’‘The booze?’
‘With Jan’s help I stopped drinking completely. Actually it wasn’t that difficult, once I had someone to live for again.’‘There’s an English expression that says The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!’ I said.
She laughed. ‘The inevitable I suppose happened. Jan was as lonely as I was. Nothing unclean happened, you know. He never touched me, but a witch across the road started noticing, and made a complaint to the Bishop, so he had to stop his visits. We were both miserable.’
‘I think you will find that God will forgive you for the inevitable.’
‘My sister says it is unforgivable to have an affair with a priest. I could have, and should have, avoided it, I suppose.’‘She hasn’t read much of the Bible either. One of its most memorable characters, the great king and psalmist David, did far worse things. And Jesus is still known as the Son of David.’‘What things?’
‘He raped a beautiful woman, and had her husband murdered so that he could marry her.’
‘No, you don’t mean it!’
‘I sure do. But David repented of it, and put it right. It did cause him great pain, though.’
‘And you don’t think my relationship with Jan is going to cause me great pain? You don’t think I should repent of it, and move to another part of Holland?’
‘I really don’t know Hettie. For you it was probably inevitable. For Jan, perhaps, avoidable, but it’s certainly not unforgivable. So …?’
‘Nothing much happened for more than six months after he stopped visiting. We saw each other at church, and he would send me a card and some flowers now and again, but he wouldn’t let me write to him. He phoned of course quite regularly, and then one day he mentioned that he was going on a cycling trip in Drenthe , and asked if I wouldn’t like to join him? We booked adjoining rooms in a hotel in a little village. Every day we went for the most delicious rides through the forests and across the moors. We even went to that terrible Nazi death camp.’
She nodded. ‘And of course we talked, and talked and talked. Then one night he knocked on my door. I don’t need to say any more.’
‘I’m happy for you,’ I said.
‘You are?! Those who know about us have been so horrid. Even my own sister won’t talk to me.’
‘How did she find out?’
‘We started going away for a midweek-away once a month but the inevitable happened; Jan was recognized by another priest.’‘Also enjoying a secret tryst?’ I injected, laughing. She shook her head, sombre. ‘We were summonsed to a meeting with the Bishop. He told me that I was an adulteress because Jan belonged to the bride of Christ. The honey dripping from my lips had broken up Jan’s marriage and he threatened to ex-communicate me if I didn’t stop seeing Jan.’
‘Bad doctrine,’ I said. ‘If you’re a Christian then you also belong to the bride of Jesus. And in any case, I know that priests used to marry in the early days of the Church. And now?’‘We’re just more careful. We make sure we are never seen in public together. It’s terrible; I feel so guilty. Like a whitewashed tomb. Beautiful and happy on the outside, but on the inside …’ She couldn’t finish.
‘I think you are very lucky, Mrs Heemstra. You’ve just got to work it out between you. I suppose it’s why theology is really important. Bad theology leads to bad practice. God created priests with the same desires as other men; our sexuality is God-given, not something evil, but it does have to be channelled in the right way obviously.’
‘You mean, of course, that it’s better than what some priests do with …’ She stopped.
‘Naturally.’ I grimaced. ‘And in any case, priests, bishops, nuns and even Popes have had relationships out of wedlock ever since that senseless ruling by some Pope. Forcing priests to deny themselves of a God-given desire is not only plain cruel, it’s dumb.’
‘That’s why there are so few men going into the ministry now, I suppose,’ she said with a sigh.
‘Nuns too, for that matter.’
‘But Jan and I feel such hypocrites!’
‘That you will have to work out with your God. Hypocrisy is, after all, one of the mortal sins that Jesus condemned.’
I had lots of time to talk to Jan Two whilst bullying his shoulder. There wasn’t much progress for the first month. The pain increased a little but then, as the range of motion increased, the ache in his arm began to ease. Within two months, he was much improved.
‘Hettie tells me, you’ve had a long chat,’ he said one day.‘Yes, she chose to tell me about your relationship. I hope with your consent!’‘Not explicitly, but I don’t resent it. She has to come to terms with our relationship, just the same as I must, so, talking to people we trust, helps us to gauge the opinion of the Christian world. You don’t condemn us?’
‘No, of course not. In your situation, where you are precluded from openly conducting a normal relationship, it’s inevitable that you have gone underground. What’s your biggest difficulty?’‘We feel such hypocrites. I preach regularly about the importance of the sacrament of marriage, and of faithfulness within marriage. I have made a public commitment to celibacy. But I find myself in a secret relationship with a woman whom I love; one which has been very enriching to us both.’‘Your relationship with Hettie is certainly not unforgivable, Jan, at least I don’t think so, but to make a success of it, why not bring it out into the open? Do the honourable thing. Marry Hettie, and invite the whole church, and all your friends to the celebration. Me too, I’d love to come. Make sure you invite your Bishop!’
‘He would fire me. He’s a hard liner.’
‘He probably will. He doesn’t have another option really, I suppose. But somebody has to face the Vatican,’ I said attempting a valiant stab at vatic insight. The Pope knows that almost the whole Catholic laity ignores his ex cathedra on contraception!’Jan Two nodded.
‘He also knows perfectly well that thousands of priests, denied normal sexuality, have ventured into many sordid practices, and he surely cannot be unaware that the number of the faithful is dropping alarmingly.’
He nodded. ‘Parishioners regularly tell me how hard it is to stomach the sharp divide between what we preach and what they practise. It seems that it is we in the priesthood who are making them feel such hypocrites!’
‘Gosh, what a scary thought, Jan.’‘It’s been hard to accept, and I’ve really struggled with the issue. I’ve now come to the conclusion that it is we in the priesthood who are the real hypocrites when it comes to human sexuality. We know …’‘I agree, though I’m the first one to admit that it’s complex. Do condoms and the pill increase promiscuity and increase the risk of HIV? But the majority concur that condoms reduce the risk of all venereal diseases, not just AIDS. Not so?’‘Well, that’s your opinion, but that in itself doesn’t mean that what the people are doing is right! The Pope is after all God’s representative on Earth.’
‘I’m sorry, Jan, but every time a Catholic couple uses a contraceptive, they are denying that the Pope is God’s representative on Earth. It seems to me that nine out of ten Catholics probably think the Popes are old men who shouldn’t be allowed to pronounce on the rules of the bedroom, because they aren’t supposed to be participating in the game!’
‘No! That’s not true!’
‘It is Jan. Well, they certainly don’t practise what the Pope preaches.’
‘True. You’re right. In my relationship with Hettie, I suppose I too am snubbing the Pope.’‘Hasn’t the time surely come for all Catholics to start being honest with themselves, and with God, and with their Pope?’
He looked at me doubtfully. ‘Well, we do know why there are no more twelve-children Catholic families! It’s not because couples have stopped sleeping together!’ Jan Two laughed.
‘Of course they haven’t. Sex has become recreational rather than for procreation. Hettie’s feet haven’t led you straight to the grave, as your bishop accuses her, Jan. They have led you both to a new experience of life. The only death in it is the hypocrisy. Couldn’t you break out and do the honourable thing? Marry her? Make a public statement of your commitment to Hettie.’He shook his head slowly. ‘But what will I do? I can’t afford to retire!’ he said indignantly. At fifty-nine I could see his point. ‘It’s easy for you, in your position, to say that, but I have almost no savings, no home, and no life outside of the Church.’
‘But you do, Jan. You do have a life outside of your immediate church. You have Hettie. And never forget that no one, not even your Bishop, can deny you the privilege given to all those who have believed in the Christ, and have received Him into their hearts. You are both very much part of the Church Universal.’‘You know your Bible!’
‘Not nearly as well as I should, but reading the Scriptures, Jan, has been without a doubt one of the greatest blessings of my life.’‘For you personally, perhaps, but I have my doubts about it being a blessing for the Church. That is why there are ten thousand Protestant sects, but only one true Catholic Church. You each interpret the Scriptures for yourselves, and do what you think is right in your own eyes.’
‘And are you so sure that your interpretation of the Scriptures is one hundred percent correct? How about the very thing we’ve been discussing, the Church’s teaching on the marriage of priests? By the way, I know the first priests and even Popes were married in the early years. When did the Church stop the clergy from marrying?’
He frowned. ‘It was in 1007. Pope Gregory VII ex-communicated the last of the married priests.’‘Whaaat?! He actually ex-communicated them?’The priest nodded miserably. ‘So, which ten thousand years of Popes got that right? From the first or the second millennium?’ Jan hung his head and I realized that I was just adding to his confusion and guilt, rather than contributing to his peace. ‘You know Jan, we’ve really struggled with this since coming to Limburg. We were shocked when we realised that even committed Christian couples were ‘living in sin’, as we used to call it. But Helen and I have now come to the conclusion that when a couple live together in a committed and faithful relationship, they really are married. Even in the eyes of God.’‘Married! You really think so?’
‘Yup. I’m afraid I think that sex is the seal of marriage in a committed relationship, not the ceremony, nor the signing of a legal document.’‘Maybe so, but that doesn’t apply to me. I’m a priest. And I can tell you that a secret life with Hettie, albeit faithful and committed, is bringing us no joy.’
I sighed. ‘Be done with all the humbug, Jan! You and Hettie really are already married, you just don’t have the documentation. You’re not alone, you know. Did you see this article in the Spits last week from Stichting Magdala? I said, passing him the paper I had saved.
Institute Magdala: At least 100 priests in the Netherlands have a clandestine relationship – sexual and serious – with a woman. Accepted in small circles it includes withal younger and old priests alike. Reported in daily newspaper Spits (Monday 14.08.2006)
By this time I had finished with his shoulder and neck, and Jan was dressing. ‘Trust God to make the way plain, Jan. You, and the Pope, and your hard-liner bishop all know perfectly well that almost the whole Catholic laity is ignoring the teaching of the Church. And now you are too! Is that such a big deal? Isn’t the whole Church, laity and priesthood, simply saying: we’re sick and tired of the charade?’
‘Even if it is the right thing to do, I still couldn’t afford to quit the Church. I would be out on the street.’
‘Jan, I’ve been to your church. It’s the only Catholic Church that I have ever been to where you can’t be assured of a seat unless you arrive at least five minutes before mass starts. The Bishop knows perfectly well that if he fires you, you will open an independent church next door, and take ninety-five percent of the congregation with you. Isn’t it time to take a stand.’‘And what should I say to the Bishop?’
‘Give him an invitation to your wedding. And when he asks you why you are doing this, you can quote from St Paul: Don’t I have the right to take a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? He gave a deep sigh. ‘I will pray about it. But I can’t see myself doing it.’
‘You could even explore becoming an Anglican or Lutheran minister, though I’m not convinced that would be right. Remember you’re not alone. There are over one hundred priests in the Netherlands who have publicly confessed to being in the same fix …’
Jan and Hettie are still seeing each other, as are more than one hundred Catholic priests in Holland. They don’t burn heretics at the stake any more, but Jan is still bound by a lifetime of faithfulness to his Church. The poor man is between a rock and a hard place. And so the demise of Catholicism will probably continue. I, for one, am saddened by the whole sorry business.
Zeker 100 priesters in NL hebben een geheime relatie – sexuele en serieuze – relatie met een vrouw. Jongere en oude priesters. Adrie de Jong is ervan overtuigd dat dit aantal zelfs iets hoger en wordt geaccepteerd in kleine kring.
Note: This is an early edition of Priest. If you've enjoyed it, you can purchase Stones in my Clog as an ebook for only $2.99. Enjoy it on your phone whilst standing waiting in queues or travelling. Or on your Kindle, or iPad or Nook.
USEFUL LINKS @ PRIEST IN MY BED
Controversially, a married Catholic priesthood is something I pray for daily. It will come, or within a generation the Catholic faith will fade from its vibrant past to a tiny minority. There are simply very priests going into training.
My fourth book, a trilogy, A Family Affair, is now complete and will be available on Kindle, early in 2013. A sequel is ruminating: The Man who would be Pope. The first married Pope in nearly a millennium. It is alas at least a year off, probably longer.
In short, Santie Veenstra goes to Italy to discover her roots. There she finds her aged uncle with an adopted son, Aldo who is a cardinal. Aldo has a secret liason with Sophia. Three children too... meantime, enjoy A Family Affair. Be prepared to be shocked, challenged, stirred... each of the three books are only $1 each.
Not only the Catholic church is faced with change. Brian McLaren writes a challenging, and discomforting book for protestant Christians, challenging the evalengical notion that all that is required is that we are "saved" and will spent eternity in heaven. Rather, Jesus' intention is that we should "bear fruit", make a difference and be a part of seeing to it that God's will on Earth is done as in Heaven.
The best book I've read in 2012: Everything must change ...