Of Dogs and Doctors
01 August 1988
In countries that face oppression one can find people possessed of an inner liberty which many of those living in conditions of external freedom have yet to discover.
By JOHN LESTER
On May 1st I went to mass in the beautiful Polish city of Krakow. The church, which must be one of hundreds in the city, was full of university students. Ten masses are held there each Sunday and every one of them is full. At the end of the service the congregation sang a prayer, 'Mary, Queen of Poland'.
As they did so, I felt that I was touching the soul of free Poland. The next day I had occasion to visit a police station. It was an eerie experience, for here I was quite clearly in contact with the instrument of coercion.
For Poland is, in political terms, imprisoned. It is made up of a Christian, Western-orientated, freedom-loving people, kept in a system which they regard as both alien and wrong and which stifles so much of what they believe in.
Yet many Poles living in that system are free -because they have conquered fear.
Here lies one of the paradoxes of the age. In countries that face oppression one can find people possessed of an inner liberty which many of those living in conditions of external freedom have yet to discover.
The country to which I belong has known no occupation for more than 900 years. But it is painfully clear that many people are in the grip of fears which deprive them of real freedom.
Fear can take many forms, and it is something that cannot just be wished away. Fear is the instrument of internal imprisonment, and the degree of deprivation it produces is often greater than its victims realize.
One of the most subtle of the fears which can afflict us all is the fear of what other people think. It is this which produces `group think' and stifles independent thought.
There may be a number of ways to cure fear. But there is certainly a spiritual dimension to it.
One of the first occasions I can remember feeling and facing fear by myself came when I was about eight years old. I took my three-year-old sister to post a letter. From the opposite direction came a large and ferocious dog. I was scared, my sister petrified. Quickly I grabbed her hand and said `Let's pray - Dear Jesus, please take this dog away.' To my relief and astonishment it shot across the road and disappeared. I have never forgotten it.
Years later as a young man that faith, first ignited by the dog, was more developed. But so, too, were the fears which beset me. I remember being so troubled by my fear of people that I said to God -`I do not know how to cure it. Please will you do something?' Later that day I was rung up, as a doctor, by one of the men I was most afraid of. `Please come round and examine me,' he said. `I am supposed to go abroad. I do not think I am well enough. Can you confirm that this is so?'
I went round. Immediately I sensed that there was nothing physical wrong and nothing to stop him going. Suddenly I was filled with great fear. I knew that I was expected to say he was ill. I knew I was finished if I did say that. So I told the truth. `You are the first doctor in a long time to tell me the truth,' he said. We were both cured.
As I have discovered a relationship with God which comes first, and through this a commitment to truth, so the chain of fear has broken.
It is, I suppose, what we count as most important that determines our actions. Whenever I consider that my friends, my crowd, mean most to me, then I become more likely to deny the truth to keep in with them. As I begin to consider God's love for me to be the most important gift of all, then I want more and more to hold to him and his standards, regardless of the consequences. And I am learning, as experience, that real love always wipes out fear.
The bravest man I have met recently, who happens to be a Pole, has seen the inside of prison for his beliefs and suffered long separations from his family. He may well do so again, but he is at peace because he has sided with truth.
I found myself wondering, when I met him, whether I could, and would, show the same courage. In a free country the need for such heroic self-sacrifice seems less likely. Yet on the answer to that question, in my heart and in countless others, depends our faith and our freedom.