It’s just over six years since my old mum died at the grand old age of 86. She was the most saintly person I have ever met, except that sometimes her fertile sense of humour could get a little bit unruly.
She used to say to me that when I’m standing beside her coffin, ‘...listen carefully. You might hear me chuckle, for surely there’ll be something to smile about.’
And in the event there was. My dad, always a strong man; he’d been a boxer in his day, was now 87, and showing signs of his age. He stood tearfully between my brother and me, supported partly by two walking sticks and partly by us. But when the undertaker handed him a single red rose to throw into the open grave as his final tribute to a devoted wife he took a step or two and tripped.
Instinctively we each grabbed an arm and steadied him, and while I can’t be sure, I thought I heard a gentle giggle as my brother whispered to me, ‘That would have saved us all a few quid!’
My favourite story, that might or might not have appeared in this publication is entitled, ‘The Boxer and the Saint,’ but it bears re-telling.
Billy and Peg were two elderly folk who lived in North Belfast. One Saturday evening when the old fellow had gone to bed, Peg was pottering around, tidying and preparing for the next day. It was 10.30pm and she was frightened when the doorbell rang, but she opened the door and was confronted by a man in his twenties who demanded money. She didn’t have much, ‘I’ve only a fiver,’ she said, and she gave it to him. But he grabbed her frail arm roughly and demanded more, ‘… or I have a friend outside who will shoot you.’
He followed her as she went upstairs to waken her husband, then a 75-year-old ex-boxer, and in the struggle that followed the intruder found himself in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.
In due time the thief was apprehended and jailed for a string of similar offences; he was a drugs user it seemed and had found an easy way to fund his addiction.
Now the old couple were quiet respectable people. Billy, a preacher and Peg, one of those gentle angels who says nothing bad about anyone. Understandably they were relieved that their assailant was safely behind bars and the old boy felt proud that at his advanced age he could still defend his wife and his territory.
The family called him Barry McGuigan and he smiled and said, ‘That young upstart has got his just desserts. People like that shouldn’t be allowed on the streets.’ But when the laughter subsided I found Peg weeping quietly for the young upstart. ‘He’s somebody’s son,’ she sobbed.
She said that even as he was crashing down the stairs she wanted to hug him, to hold him as she would her own. She wanted to show him the love of a mother that perhaps he had never known, to tell him that she forgave him, but she never got the chance.
Billy’s form of Christianity is ‘right, just and fair,’ and who can blame him, it was self-defence. But Peg’s glowing Christian love cannot be taught from book or pulpit, she can’t help it, for she was filled with the Spirit of Christ and it seeped from every pore.
Granny Peg and Billy were good people, but which of them most accurately reflected what the New Testament calls the ‘Spirit of Jesus’? Billy’s approach is morally unimpeachable, but isn’t it true that it can be used as a ‘legal mask to cover moral failure’? The way of love, mercy and forgiveness renders us vulnerable, but isn’t that the way of the cross?
I frequently ask myself which of the two I would model myself on, which attitude is most common among religious leaders, which of the two most resembles Jesus, our great example?
Granny Peg was a saint, I hesitate to even mention her name and mine in the same sentence… but maybe someday, just maybe.