Last week, while I was taking annual leave, my wife let me off the leash to visit London for a week and dig up some old friends, see the sights, and sample metropolitan Catholicity. I managed to do all of these and had a great time doing them.
I got in touch with an old chum from prep-school days who I had been inseparable from between the ages of seven and nine. We had both been bright young things, in our pre-pubescent ways, but to be honest, he was far the brighter. Even then he had a mature love of classical music, and took naturally to dramatic art. His performance in the school play as “The Dyspeptic Ogre” would have won a Tony Award had it been on Broadway.
Sadly, he moved away with his family and we had no further contact until his sharp-eyed mother spotted my name in the newspaper listings of Oxbridge entrants. She put us in touch by phone. I learned he had been through the hard educational regime of Presentation College in Reading, which had been punishing to his free spirit, but he excelled academically in spite of this.
We went up to Oxford together in 1980 and met up to carouse the town a few times, but we had grown too far apart to still be close. I pursued medicine and he did history. He got into the Oxford Union and Brideshead Revisited scenes, and I only discovered the college bar. After this we didn’t hear from one another until about 2010.
By that time I was a “Consultant in Rural Anaesthesia”, and he had become a leader writer, journalist and blogger, specialising in Catholic matters, with a top UK national broadsheet. I started commenting on his blog, and thereby met the likes of GC, Gertrude, Kathleen, Maryla and Raven (in alphabetical order), and many others too numerous to mention.
In May/June 2010 his blog, which had become the supreme meeting and debating place for many on-line Catholics, came under sustained and heavy attack from aggressive secular atheists and other fiercely anti-Catholic voices. It became intolerable for many of us to stay there, and by a miracle of organisation, a core of us met up in a separate online forum and formed the Catholicism Pure & Simple blog, which you are reading now. We went public on 4th July 2010, exactly five years ago.
Anyway, I met up with him for a late breakfast. He had a busy day of journalistic business ahead of him but we had an hour and a half of quality catch-up time together. He told me a remarkable story about his spiritual life. You see, despite being a leading writer on all things Catholic, he had for most of his adult life stopped practising the Faith, going to Mass or even praying. The lure of the world, and the cynical, sceptical circles he moved in, had turned him into a “burned-out old hack” as a mutual friend (a priest) remarked to me.
However, he remained a devoted and dutiful son to his mother, a devout Catholic, who was now getting old and frail, and last Christmas unable to think of a suitable present he promised he would start going to Sunday Mass again. His mother’s tired face came to life with joy, and he knew then he would have to keep his rash promise, and so he has done.
He described how it was difficult at first to overcome the shame of all that lost time with God, and all his accumulated prejudices against the Faith and his fellow Catholics, but he had promised his mother and so persisted at it. Of great help was that his parish church was only a short distance from his front door, and the priest and parish were very easy-going, and orthodox enough not to be off-putting. By the time we met, he was already experiencing the peace and joy that comes from regular simple participation in the life of Christ, and described himself as becoming a man changing slowly but surely for the better.
He no longer works for that newspaper but is freelancing. In retrospect he realises that this is a blessing as he no longer has to toe the party line which was often hostile to the Church, and which had become unbearable. He retains all his contacts in the Catholic world of letters, and seems happy with his lot. In fact, his inner and outer life are in greater harmony than ever before.
I rang him last night to ask his permission to write this story, and he was very glad to oblige me. He had just seen his mother and had told her that we had met up after all those years. She clearly remembered her son’s cheeky, chubby playmate from 45 years before, and again, her face shone at the thought that such close childhood friends from more innocent times were seeing one another again at last.
He plans to write about his re-conversion at some future date, under his own name. His story illustrates to me that Grace is always at work, even in the most unlikely of places. Oddly enough, this reminds me of the plot of Brideshead Revisited, his beloved book and TV mini-series, which is basically about the invisible power of God sanctifying the hearts and minds of his chosen.
Please pray with me for him and his dear mother, whose own prayers are now bearing fruit.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot, his name is Damian Thompson.