Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Child of the Universe

I went to a corporate summer party in the City of London, and found myself sitting next to a man in his 30s.  We chatted about this and that as strangers do: work, home, life in general. I noticed his wedding ring and asked if he had a family.  He replied: "Well, I will do from Sunday".  I assumed this meant his wife was about to give birth; but he explained that, in three days' time, he and his wife would assume the care of his 7-month old great-nephew. The man's niece, the child's very young mother, was unable to care for her son, so a family decision had been made to hand him over to his childless great-uncle and his wife, to bring him up as their own son.

This information was delivered in such a matter-of-fact kind of way that I briefly wondered if I had understood correctly. "So you and your wife are going effectively to adopt your niece's child?"  He confirmed this impassively. They realised how much this responsibility would change their lives; but they had previously and inconclusively considered adopting, and were now being drawn into it naturally (as it were), by circumstance.

I was unaccountably moved by this, and it was not until later that I was able to think about why.  The man and his wife had no children of their own, and this was a matter of regret (I put it no more strongly than that - childlessness is not necessarily a tragedy, and he did not not appear to regard it as such).  But their desire for a child had been answered unexpectedly, indeed rather suddenly, and without the immediate need for official sanction. The boy would not be "theirs",  but would be a blood relative of his adoptive father.  If not the ideal circumstance for the boy's upbringing, it was as satisfactory a solution to the situation as might be devised.

It occurred to me that such arrangements were probably much more common and unremarked upon in the past (I had a "great-uncle" who was not my grandmother's brother but who had been taken in by her family when he was abandoned by his own parents) when they were an obvious and normal way of dealing with parental absence or inadequacy.  There were no official channels to be gone through, no social workers: just a child who needed bringing up, and relatives or others who, whatever their existing burdens, recognised a familial-social duty when they saw it, and made a space for it in the family circle.

A priest must always examine his own motivation; and I reflect that my own childlessness is also a matter of regret, and that, to me, an eventuality such as this would once have seemed like a gift from above, or at least a vocation. I am not sure that is how the man himself saw it: for him, it was just a circumstance that had arisen to which a potentially satisfactory solution had been found.  But I could not escape the strong feeling that God was present in it; and, as we said goodbye, I instinctively raised my right hand in blessing.  I sensed him recoil all but imperceptibly, and so simply (but unobtrusively) traced the sign of the cross on his forehead, and left.

I shall probably never meet him again, nor hear anything of his family's progress in their new life together. But I do pray that God will bless him, his wife and their little boy.  For, whether they know it or not, they are doing what the Lord asks of them.

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