Fr Kevin Neal
London’s Clapham Common became very familiar when I lived in London because I often crossed it on my way home to Putney.
In earlier days, Clapham Common was an enormous graveyard. Here, many centuries ago, victims of the Black Death were quickly buried.
According to Wikipedia, ‘The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1348–50 CE.
‘Although there were several competing theories as to the etiology of the Black Death, analysis of DNA from victims in northern and southern Europe published in 2010 and 2011 indicates that the pathogen responsible was the Yersinia pestis bacterium, probably causing several forms of plague.
‘The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of central Asia, where it then travelled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1346. From there, it was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships. Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed up to 60 percent of Europe’s total population.’
With the plague you would be healthy one day and, after a few days of excruciating agony, you would be dead. Victims had no warning.
The plague showed no preference for the poor or sickly either – anyone could catch it. Death was inevitable. For this reason, only the bravest would look after plague victims.
When one of these few hardy souls was called to a plague victim, they first isolated them with a crucifix. Jesus died alone and was terrified, too. The afflicted had to get used to the idea that, like Jesus, they were going to die and die quickly. No amount of wealth or good nursing would help. I’m told this is how the crucifix became popular.
This is not totally unlike the way many discover their fate today. A person goes to the doctor with a stomach ache and leaves in an ambulance with a diagnosis of bowel cancer, or they keep noticing a dark spot and discover, too late, they have advanced melanoma.
In my own case, I was fit one day and then I had a stroke. Life became radically different and there was no going back, even for a day.
There’s a distinct before and after so try to understand when a friend receives such life-changing news. Often you’ll be called on to do a great deal of listening. Don’t mistake doing every little thing for the person as a substitute for listening, either.
When you have lived happily for 60 or more years, life altering takes some getting used to.