“I haven’t been to church in nine months, after 70-odd years of never having missed a day of it. I don’t like religion anymore.”
Reverend Desmond Payne-Jeremiah. Seventy-nine years of age, and one of the most remarkable souls I have ever known. Priest, friend, patriotic Welshman, ex-doctor, ex-magistrate, ex-midwife during the birth of the King of Saudi Arabia’s son, ex-friend of Mother Teresa’s, walking embodiment of the Biblical notion of “lov[ing] thy neighbour”, and… an active and proud Freemason. Desmond, known to others as ‘Father’ but to us as ‘Des from next door’, deserves to have a lengthy biography written in his honour, simply by virtue of who he is but certainly aided by his fascinating life story. For now, however, this meagre blog article will have to suffice.
My earliest memory of Des is from when I was seven. We had moved into this flat (No. 6) in the prior year, and had become acquainted with our next-door neighbour (No. 7) in a somewhat less-than-ideal way: the cosy smallness of our home, in volatile reaction with the crazy immensity of my extended family, made us a magnet for noise complaints [but we apologised profusely and often, by habitually sending over containers of rice and curry]. From this noise complaint-curry-conversation cycle eventuated an important friendship between my parents and Des, and one that granted me access to his beautiful cats. My mother frequently sought his counsel for such matters as dealing with the local council, and plumbing issues we occasionally experienced; he started to frequent our flat on his own accord too, presumably when he tired of the sole company of his cats (and Jesus). Once, at the age of eight, when I had somehow managed to break the lock on our main door from the inside (thus preventing myself from being able to go swimming with my aunt and cousins, who were waiting on the other side) Des came to the rescue, equipped with a ladder (so as to help me escape via the small window beside the door) and a toolbox.
When I was fifteen and struggling to fully mentally grasp the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, I knew exactly where to go in order to get my questions answered. Des’ living room is a truly unique and interesting place; it is at once a museum to the richness of his life thus far, and a sizeable shrine to Jesus. The windowsill is lined with photo-frames: there is one that depicts a younger him with his old friend Mother Teresa; one that shows him sitting outside his family home in Wales with his ten cousins; one that shows what Wapping looked like decades before our arrival. The biggest photo-frame of them all is the one he keeps of his mother, her beaming smile immortalised, right there, in the centre of things. Scattered across the aforesaid museum are clay figurines, paintings, books, all dedicated to Mary and her (in his view, divine, in my view, prophetic) son. But the most mesmerising artefact that lives in Des’ living room, I think, is the large antiquated copy of the King James Bible that sits, beside a pair of cotton gloves for handling purposes, atop a circular oak table next to the sofa. It is over two centuries old, and was given to him by his grandmother.
Today, a decade after the other incident involving keys and our priestly next door neighbour, I came home from an appointment and realised, much to my frustration, that I had forgotten to add our new front door key to my own set of keys. It is, perhaps, my belief in Islam that leads me to accept that things happen for a reason – that God works in mysterious ways, and that His wisdom is at once magnificent and incomprehensible in its entirety. My parents were both at work today, and the only other person who has a spare set of keys to our house is Des.
Eighteen – as well as being my first year of legal adulthood – has been the most difficult year of my life thus far. There are cosmetic reasons for this – extended family issues, intense bouts of anxiety and depression, a missed Cambridge offer – and some deeper, more complex reasons that I would prefer not to publicly divulge [we love a bit of mystery and intrigue]. When all possible (legally, and morally, acceptable) avenues for relief are stripped away, we often find ourselves standing with nothing but the twin tools of hope and faith in our arsenals. It is under such circumstances, and as a culmination of my ongoing existential crisis (which I so frequently refer to) that I began to delve more deeply into questions pertaining to theology [my current situation looks rather like that part in Life of Pi when the protagonist finds himself restlessly trying his hand at different religious traditions, in pursuit of Truth]. I have finally found it – doctrinal satisfaction – in Islam, which is the religion of my forefathers, yes, but I have (re-)discovered its truth in a way that speaks uniquely to me. I do, however, think it is ignorant to outright reject Christian doctrine and its related exegetical works, like so many fellow Muslims often hastily do. In actuality, part of our declaration of faith includes accepting God’s books – plural – which include the Bible (Injīl) and Torah (Tawrat).
Christians are taught to “love [their] neighbour[s]”, while Muslims believe that “He is not a true believer who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. Today’s theological gossip sesh with Des – a conversation between a religion-wearied priest and a Muslim teenager-in-crisis – instilled in me a profound sense of hope, especially when my wonderful neighbour told me that this intense crisis I find myself experiencing at this age – of life, of identity, and of faith – Mother Teresa (a human epitome of awesomeness) herself had experienced in her seventies. Often, admittedly, I do feel like an old woman trapped inside a youthful body – like a retiree who has already experienced life’s traditional stages, and who now finds herself sitting in comfortable solitude, contemplating the nature of reality. But I digress. Des – my neighbour in real terms and as a fellow follower of Abraham – reminded me, through a series of ancient and modern parables, that there is light, somewhere, at the end of this tunnel. And as hackneyed as the phrase is, gap years are a wonderful time to ‘find oneself’ – and to draw divinity, somehow, from downright decay [I really am a fan of alliteration!]. After teaching me about the adapted version of the Trinity doctrine that Hindus believe in, Des told me that, by the 200-year-old Bible whose magnificent and palpable presence we were sitting in, he is able to wholeheartedly promise that I can and will be able to find refuge and reconstruction from this overwhelming rubble, and that
Wherever there is life, there is always hope.
Sadia Ahmed, 2019