The Pathway

Leonardo Da Vinci airport in Rome must be one of the few in Europe, mused Monsignor Mark Hennessy, where ecclesiastical attire raises no eyebrows at all. He was trying to relax, his eyes regularly flitting to the Departures board, hoping his flight would be boarding soon. He had noticed gaggles of African nuns, coteries of earnest Canadian bishops, and bewildered priests from almost anywhere there was a Catholic church.

He had spent the last few days staying in a glorious twelfth century building near the Vatican City, where the scent of basil and rosemary wafted in from the sunny kitchen garden. He had been working in opulent surroundings in that City. Hennessy preferred the materials almost any aircraft lacked: carved wood, marble, space above your head. 

He smiled at the irony that someone whose profession was occasionally referred to as ’sky pilot’ should be so uncomfortable at flying. It was during such events that he found some comfort in the works of Thomas Aquinas, and the Talisker Distillery.

Another flickering of the board and his flight to London Heathrow was displayed. He heaved himself onto his feet and strolled to the desk to have his ticket and passport checked. 

Outside of his wide circle of fellow psychiatric practitioners, Dr David O’Leary regularly needed to explain the difference between a psychiatrist – MD qualification required – and a psychologist – don’t need that qualification. Inside of that circle he was regularly frustrated at the lack of understanding or sympathy for the mental health of psychiatrists. That was the purpose of the paper he presented at the international symposium in Rome, backed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

O’Leary stroked his greying wavy beard and wondered what the indicator was for a successful conference speech. The absence of social media bile? Impolite applause? As far as he was concerned his presentation went well. The IT did not break down, the questions were intelligent, and he made several international contacts that would be of enormous help in the book he was still drafting.

The symposium had produced its own glossy conference pack, and O’Leary’s name and lengthy qualifications were embossed on the cover of his pack. He was still carrying it as he scuttled with his hand luggage along the entry corridor to the afternoon flight back to London Heathrow.

He reached his seat in First Class and glanced at a portly figure in a black and white collar and black clothes in the window seat, hands together in his lap, head bent forward with his eyes closed. The slap of O’Leary’s conference pack on the neighbouring seat made him snap to attention.

O’Leary pushed his bag into the overhead locker and smiled. The movement was like lifting, long ago, one of his giggling toddlers into the air.

“Sorry Father!” 

“Actually it’s Monsignor, but call me Mark”

“Monsignor? Does that make you part of …(air quotes) ‘The Management?”

“Not really. It’s a lot like being knighted. It changes what people call you, not what you do.”

O’Leary smiled and pushed out a hand “Call me David”

A firm handshake from Hennessy. “Doctor David, I see” The Monsignor had taken in the details of the front cover of O’Leary’s conference pack.

O’Leary picked up the pack and dropped into his plush seat. “Yes, but if you’ve lost your libido, I’m not that sort of doctor. If you’ve lost your marbles, I’m your man.

“Libido and my calling seldom go together”. Both men chuckled.

The seatbelt signs were now lit and O’Leary had to stow his conference material in the overhead locker before take off. He was careful not to scratch the elegant bag containing new Italian leather goods for his wife. 

The men fell into conversation about the purpose of their visit to Rome. It emerged that Hennessy had been meeting with a Vatican working group on the psychological support for the ageing population of priests in the UK. O’Leary was interested at the parallel of this topic to his presentation. Once the take-off was complete and the signs had gone off, they heard that the drinks trolley would be on its way. 

Hennessy leaned over, conspiratorially. “When you dropped your folder on the seat, you may have thought I was praying” O’Leary pulled back slightly, embarrassed’. Hennessy raised a hand and smiled “I was praying that the quality of scotch on this flight has improved” O’Leary laughed and relaxed. 

When the trolley arrived, both men shrugged and picked a scotch from the list. There was a jovial conversation about the quality of airline drinks trolleys and catering in general. Hennessy found out that O’Leary had travelled around Europe and the US to seminars and conferences, usually presenting his thoughts on the emotional and psychological impact of caseload on psychiatrists.

“Since you’re a scotch drinker, you might appreciate this” O’Leary dropped his left hand into his jacket hip pocket and presented a miniature of a Japanese scotch. Hennessy looked from the bottle to the donor. “May I?” O’Leary raised an eyebrow and broke the seal of the bottle top. Hennessy proffered his tumbler. O’Leary gently poured the bronze liquid. The cleric took a sip, and his fat face beamed like a Buddha in a gift shop.

O’Leary sipped his scotch and tilted his head to one side “Is it fair to say that both of us spend time every week listening, in compete confidence, to the inner fears and anxieties of people who expect us to give them absolution or a means of recovery from actions they know to be morally, spiritually, or legally wrong?”

Hennessy looked down and then up at O’Leary “You mean that we, professionally, have things in common?’ O’Leary nodded slowly. Hennessy straightened his spectacles.“What you call a consultation, I call the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Without breaking the seal of the confessional, I can say that most of the sinners who come to tell me what God already knows, do not describe things that would give me any nightmares. However…” Hennessy’s face became serious and slightly pained, “I have some experience of visiting prisons to hear the confession of, usually, men serving time for acts of violence. That is entirely different. ” 

“Psychiatrists in the Prison Service do exactly the same” said O’Leary, his hand chopping the words as he had during his presentation. “But a few Hail Marys, or Glory Be’s will not reduce the sentence of those people, eh Mark?”

“You appear to be familiar with the Catholic faith, David. Were you brought up as a Catholic?”

“Yes. Both my parents were devout. But I lost my faith at university. Not through the exposure to a new philosophy or way of living, but through the suicide of a very dear friend.’

“Can you talk about it?”

“Talk about it. Hah. That is exactly what I did, to a Catholic priest in a Highgate church thirty years ago. Because of my upbringing, I thought it a courtesy to let God know, though his ‘agent’, that I had no use for him any more. God robbed me of a friend I admired and who inspired me. The priest, who sounded only a little older than I was, gave me advice I have never forgotten. He acknowledged my grief, and said I would find a path, with people for signposts, to remember my friend and use the wisdom he had given me.” 

“Was that your parish church?’

“No. I knew my parish priest too well to tell him. I chose a neighbouring parish where I did not think anyone would know me or my parents, and a priest I would never meet again”

“My friend had been sexually abused by a priest when he was nine. Somehow, Martin had buried the event, but it had created a psychiatric condition that did not emerge until the priest was arrested for abusing another boy ten years later. His parents had not believed him at the time when he told them. He knew he may be called as a witness during the trial, and would be forever labelled as a victim. Beyond that, he had not been believed by his parents and another priest, who told him: “That is a terrible slander on a fine priest. You must be a very wicked boy to invent such a thing”

“Martin had kept a diary leading up to his drowning and this came out at the inquest. It was after the inquest that I went to that Highgate church. I expected to feel vindicated for confronting the institution that had ruined Martin’s life, but I came away with an unexpected sense of purpose. As if Martin had thanked me, and pointed out what I needed to do next. He had always been really smart at solving problems.”

“I understand” nodded Hennessy.

“Martin must have been a pretty boy because at 19 he was like a blonde greek god. The girls fought to get close to him, but he could not bear to be touched. There was one girl, April, who was always hanging around. She obviously loved him, but always kept a slight distance. The three of us went around together. I had quite a crush on her. When Martin died, she took to me for comfort, and we married a year later. But that marriage was built on sand, and I was so focussed on qualifying as a psychiatrist, April and I just drifted apart and divorced after eighteen months. We had no children.”

Hennessy had his hands together on his lap. “Go on”

“At that stage” said O’Leary “I felt I had got nowhere in my life. I qualified top of my year as a psychiatrist, but could not celebrate because my marriage had gone, and I had not a clue how to become the kind of psychiatrist I wanted to be”

Hennessy steepled his fingers and nodded. “That must have been very painful for you. How did you find your way to the success you have now?”

“This is your captain speaking. We are now making our final approach to London Heathrow.” The announcement went on to give the usual safety instructions to passengers, and the men sat back, exchanged glances as if to say “Catch you later” and buckled in.

Once the seatbelt signs had disappeared, there was the usual unholy scramble to disembark the plane. Hennessy lifted his valise and squeezed his girth past O’Leary, who was still clutching at the bags in the overhead storage. Hennessy paused next to O’Leary. “David, I still want to hear what happened. I will see you by the baggage collection.” 

Several other First Class passengers apologised as they wove past O’Leary. With the exception of the cabin crew, O’Leary was the last to leave the small First Class section. One hand full of small shopping bags, the other pulling a small wheeled valise, that skipped and clicked along the enclosed corridor to the Arrivals area. 

Passport Control, for a change, was a breeze. O’Leary followed the familiar signs to Baggage Reclaim and saw Hennessy seated on a bench, looking for the carousel number of their flight. Hennessy saw O’Leary and raised a hand. O’Leary raised his head in acknowledgment and steered over to the priest.

“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” said Hennessy as he shifted along the bench. O’Leary sat down, his small wheeled case at his side, the pair of them bookended by their luggage. “Well Mark, it was love that saved me.” 

“I knew it would be” Hennessy wagged his head.

“ I was at a practitioners conference and met a woman whose brilliance dazzled me, and enthusiasm for helping damaged minds enthralled me. She was slightly older than I was and had a better understanding of how to set up a practice, or find work in the public sector. We hit it off right away and she not only boosted my career, but became my wife. Now, two brilliant children later, she will be picking me up from here in, err, fifteen minutes”

“I knew there would be someone to show you the path again”

O’Leary felt nettled by the priest’s smug satisfaction. “Mark, all the way through the flight you said you understood what had happened to me”

‘I know”

“How can you know? You can’t know the pain of ruining a marriage. You can’t know living with uncertainty and the threat of your job disappearing. You can’t know how deep I had to dig into my heart to find the strength to carry on, for the love of my family.”

Hennessy stood up, square-on to O’Leary and looked him in the eye “I know because I heard your confession in that Highgate church thirty years ago. I listened and gave you the advice to follow your heart, but know that God would still be with you, whether you acknowledge him or not. You were a good young man, blessed with intelligence and a care for those who are ill. I said then if you had further questions, or if you wanted to let me know how it was going, you could come and see me again. You never did, but by God’s grace you have now, and I am glad that you have.”

“You bought a ticket to this life, David, the day your parents had you baptised. Okay, so you became uncoupled after a time but you were still on the track, and the line controller knew where you were headed. David, things happen for a reason and, just like when we were children, those reasons are not always explained to us. It has been an absolute joy to talk to you again and know that the blessing I gave you thirty years ago, steered you to success and a happy family life ” Hennessy smiled, turned on his heel and collected his small suitcase from the carousel. O’Leary looked down, smiled, and shook his head.


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