It’s 5 am and I’m fully awake.
Sun is streaming through the slatted beams of an ancient veranda, and the hum of life outside has already reached steady state.
It’s 1989 and I’m a third-year medical student from Glasgow on elective placement in a rural ‘Mission Hospital’, nestled deep amongst lush coconut plantations in the South West corner of India.
Sitting up in bed I count dead mosquitos clinging to the wholly inadequate mosquito net that surrounds my bed. An elderly gentleman appears from nowhere with a steel bucket of water, and catching my eye, he motions me towards it. I follow from a safe distance while he ceremoniously places the bucket in a large room with a toilet, then exits as gracefully and silently as he entered.
I stare at the bucket, at the grey concrete walls, at the oddity of what is a western toilet pan in a room which struggles to name itself by any western equivalent. This isn’t art I tell myself, it’s a place to get washed.
The water is beautifully clean and warm, an extravagance from this stranger which touches my heart.
Dressed simply I head downstairs to find Dr Leeser seated for breakfast. Dr Leeser is the most senior of the three doctors here. Her face is kindly though her words are few. She exchanges a nod only with the elderly gentleman who brought me the water earlier, and who now brings breakfast for both of us. Joseph, Dr Leeser tells me, works in the house, has done for many years.
The house is affectionately known as ‘The Doctor’s House’. It’s a large ‘colonial’ style dwelling, tired and worn inside and out. It’s once extensive grounds have been eroded by creeping hospital facilities, so much so that the doctor now lives amongst her patients.
I feel grateful to Joseph yet quite uncomfortable at his serving us. I want to thank him profusely. I want to tell him that I’ll be fine to get my own water tomorrow and that I’m rather good at making porridge too. But, my gushing words fall like rolling moisture off Joseph’s brow and he simply nods.
Dr Leeser nods too and that nod prolongs itself into a simple grace for the food, and for the day.
I soon learn what a typical day looks like for Dr Leeser but for me, there is no induction process, no formal introductions or even explanations. I am simply given permission to be here.
After many days spent in the company of Joseph and Dr Leeser, I learn much about simplicity and not nearly enough about Medicine. Joseph and Dr Leeser just doing what they each did, in the best way they possibly could, with limited resources, with the grace of two saints in a celestial palace. Their days are full and tiring, the Mission Hospital noisy and overcrowded. Heat and humidity intensify the stench of bodily, food and chemical odours. Insects cover every available surface. Occasionally there is a worry about a snake. Queue’s of patients gather from early morning for afternoon clinics, many hundreds of folk patiently waiting in full sun, crouched on the dusty courtyards.
Many of the patients in this hospital are extremely ill, too ill to wait really. But wait they must, on the wards, in the corridor, on verandas. There are only three doctors on site.
At the end of each afternoon, when the heat dissipates just a little, the doctors begin their ‘operating list’. The size of the list seems wholly inadequate for the need, but I remain silent, dizzy from Ether fumes from my position at the end of the operating table, faint from the unbearable heat of the day. I am too tired for now to consider the disparities between medical school in Glasgow and here.
And yet, this miniature humanitarian catastrophe is no freak event of Summer 1989, this is how this hospital operated most days. No-one hurried, no-one panicked, no-one really complained. No reporters told the story, no government officials stepped in to help. The staff simply did what they could, helping as many as possible, as humanely as possible within the confines of sunrise and sunset of each day.
Back in the doctor’s house, with evening shadows bringing welcome relief from the heat, Joseph serves hot salty soup, plain eggs, fruit and tea. Fellow hospital staff workers now gather on the veranda or in the sitting area of the main house – a makeshift hospital chapel where Evensong is the hum of insects complimented by the incessant murmurings of prayers.
Sometimes there is a funeral in the evenings. All of us walk together to the village. Elderly Indian ladies hook my arms in theirs. No ritual, just to protect me from snakes in the long grass.
Theirs is a simple life, happily contained within the confines of each sunrise and sunset. It is a simplicity which embraces this young stranger, which celebrates life, mourns losses, loves deeply and speaks out a liturgy of faith and trust amidst deep poverty and brokenness each and every day.
In my search for simplicity, I wonder if I can accept Jesus invitation to live a day at a time in 2017?
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”
Matthew 6, 34.
If only life were that simple!
Perhaps Jesus does not know that in 2017 in the UK, we need to take a long view on our careers, on life, on finances, on pensions,……and so on (the list is extensive).
I suspect Jesus does know all of the above, but He also knows that we are frail human beings.
Without observing the boundaries of sunrise and sunset, we miss out on a way of life which nurtures rather than holds us back.
Our children miss out on our availability in evenings.
We miss out on a relationship with God through prayer.
Our friends don’t feel able to trouble us with their concerns.
We become anxious, preoccupied, distracted and our priorities become distorted.
Living one day at a time means I leave things undone each day.
I give myself longer to complete tasks.
There are some things I won’t be able to do this season.
I plan to deliberately take time out to rest, to be with family and friends.
I deliberately root myself to a regular place of prayer and meditation.
I learn that simplicity begins with a sunrise and ends with a sunset.