SOMETHING strange, but strangely beautiful, happened to me the other day when I was hearing mass in Clare Priory. I say “hearing” because, as an Anglican guest in that lovely old Roman Catholic house, which has made me so welcome, I knew I could not receive the sacrament, but I still delighted to be in its presence. I like making retreats there, amid those ruins come to life again, because I so often feel myself to be just that — a ruin come to life again.
What happened was this. When we stood to share the Peace, a very well-dressed man, whom I had noticed glancing at me at various points in the service with a look of kind concern, slipped a folded paper discreetly into my hand as he shook it. I couldn’t look then and there; so I slipped it quietly into my pocket, and returned to my place as the service continued.
After the mass was ended, and we went in peace, I took the paper from my pocket — it turned out to be a tenner! I was nonplussed at first, and then it suddenly dawned on me that he had taken me, or mistaken me, for a tramp, for one of those gentlemen of the road whom the religious houses of England still occasionally shelter and set on their way again.
Well, I suppose my appearance was against me. I may have been, I confess, a little dishevelled (shevelling was never my strong point), and perhaps my longish white hair and beard and my favourite old tweed greatcoat all contributed to the mistaken identity. I suddenly recalled the day, 40 years ago, when I set off from school for my university interview, wearing a new-bought suit and having actually combed my hair, and, as I left, one of the schoolmasters opened a window and shouted after me “Guite, you look like a tramp who is pretending not to be!” (they didn’t go in for “affirmation” in those days), and I realised why even my wife has given up on keeping me tidy as a lost cause.
But what to do? My benefactor had long since gone, and, even if I found him, it would only have embarrassed him to return the money. Well, I thought, perhaps, I can be a courier, and I can make a special delivery to the next “gentleman of the road” I meet, the one for whom this gift was really intended.
It didn’t take long. I don’t remember beggars in Cambridge when I was a student in the 1970s, but now I counted seven in my short walk from the bus station to another bus stop. I made the first one’s day with my recorded delivery, but something strange was happening: as I met the other six, I somehow found there was a little more money in my pocket than I thought, that my wallet was somehow a little easier to open — or was it my eyes that had been opened, too?