“In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray; Gone from the path direct…” So begins the epic poem through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the now infamous Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Dante is an everyman. The experiences of his life are those which many of us can identify with; his family were not wealthy, he lived with regret and he had one great love, Beatrice Portinari. Some commentators have used Dante’s vision of hell as a way of portraying the poet experiencing something of a mid life crisis. Again, another element many can identify with. It’s not hard to see why: Dante’s family had been thrown into exile and his one great love Beatrice had died. If he was in the pangs of depression it was no surprise. So much that we see written above the gates of Hell:
“Through me you pass into the city of woe: Through me you pass into eternal pain: Through me among the people lost for aye… All hope abandon ye who enter here.”
One of the awful ironies of depression is that it causes the sufferer to believe they are alone, when in reality they are in the company of many unknown fellow sufferers. Upon seeing such a vision of hopelessness and isolation who would wish to continue? Who would enter such a pain filled hopeless state willingly? Yet Dante proceeds, fully aware of what is ahead of him and knowing that he cannot go on to Paradise until he has passed through Hell. Dante understands an inevitable reality: suffering is at the heart of the Christian life. These themes of journey and pilgrimage are something we all undertake. Each of us is on a journey.
One such person I have met on my own journey who has impacted my own life profoundly is Stephen McCoy. I have come to know Stephen through my participation in the annual Down & Connor diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. Stephen’s story is one which may not be well known but one which fully illuminates three key areas of suffering which are found in the Bible and ultimately the life of each Christian: suffering is painful, suffering is perplexing, but ultimately suffering is purposeful.
In 1989 Stephen was only 16 and was a Light Featherweight boxing champion for County Antrim and Ulster. He began boxing at 11 at ‘the Loop’ and showed remarkable promise before joining All Saints Boxing Club in Ballymena. He had been visiting a cousin in London for a holiday when he boarded the plane home. After taking off from Heathrow and climbing at 28,000 feet a blade suddenly detached from the left fan engine. The pilot did not know the source of the problem. He was notified to make an emergency landing at East Midlands and disengaged the autopilot. What followed was a series of events of trying to figure out where the problem was and combining this with the fact that the aircraft was relatively new resulted in the wrong engine being shut down. Finally the left engine burst into flames and the plane crashed into the M1 embankment where fortunately no vehicles were travelling at the time. 139 passengers died outright and another 8 died as a result of their injuries. All crew survived and 79 passengers survived; one of whom was Stephen McCoy.
I asked Stephen if he wouldn’t mind discussing the disaster and the aftermath and he was happy to take part. When I arrive at their home Stephen and his sister Yvonne welcome me incredibly warmly. The house has been renovated to allow Stephen to have full access to it in his wheelchair. As Yvonne makes a pot of tea Stephen and I chat about various news stories and he makes quick fire jokes. While his sense of humour is infectious it’s tricky to tell if you’re being told a joke or on the receiving end of one. In his presence you immediately feel at ease and at home.
Suffering is painful. We talk about his recovery after the crash and both Stephen and Yvonne are incredibly open about his struggles. Once in hospital Stephen was in a coma for some six months. The extent of his injuries was so severe that his mother could only identify him by his teeth. Yvonne tells of how “they were about to switch off the life support machine, but before that Stephen’s boxing coach Ned flew over and had him blessed with the mitt of Padre Pio. They were going to switch off the life support but Stephen’s nurse saw his big toe move and they decided not to.” At this time I notice the picture of Saint Pio standing among family photos; a firm reminder of Stephen’s devotion to the great saint.
As we discuss his time in hospital Stephen lets me in on another reminder of his own brand of humour; at the time of the air disaster he had borrowed a travel bag from his friend Gary. Inevitably once the police discovered Stephen’s body and saw the bag they contacted the family…of the wrong man! Yvonne reminds me “trust Stephen to confuse them.” Once out of his coma Stephen needed to learn everything again; moving, eating, hygiene etc. Indeed his experience was and continues to be immensely painful just as Christ’s way of the cross was.
Suffering is perplexing. I can’t help but wonder if he questions why this awful thing happened. Stephen gives me an immediate answer which leaves me floored; “The engine caught on fire and the pilot got confused.” Did he ever wonder why God allowed this to happen? Yes, but as he says himself “I had to get on and forget about it.” There is no sense of blame or bitterness. For Stephen helping him overcome this questioning was simple, “Yvonne, prayers and my faith in the Risen Son.” I am reminded of the Book of Job, the great man of holiness who cried out to God eventually.
And finally Stephen’s own suffering held a deeper meaning. The July after the accident he was offered the opportunity to join the diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. He relates how he loves “the prayers, the choir, the Youth Team, the Torchlight Procession where I ask Jesus to cure me and the baths. When I am in the baths I look back and say ‘Please don’t crucify Him.’” Stephen’s relationship with the Risen Son is a very real, powerful and personal one. As is his empathy with those who suffer. While there the then Bishop Cahal Daly instructed Stephen’s family that they must take him back to Lourdes every year at least until he could walk on his own. They have never reneged on that promise. Stephen is committed that he will be able to walk on his own again. As we discuss how he hopes to do this he tells me about one night at the Grotto where he stood up to kiss the rock of Massabielle and before doing so he prayed, “Mary; heal me. And thank you for my life.”
Stephen believes everyone should visit Lourdes at least once. The reason for this is again very simple: “So they can see the truth about Sunday Mass and what it means; the Truth about the Readings and the Truth about Communion.” As we finish he offers his own thanks for the Youth Team, Choir, Handmaidens, Brancardiers, Doctors, Nurses and clergy who serve in Lourdes and for all they give him, possibly unaware of how much he has given to us. So much that he continues to raise much needed funds each year with his family for the pilgrims who travel to Lourdes. Every year Stephen continues to inspire and uplift us and I know in my heart that when I return to Lourdes next year the voice I will hear singing the loudest will be that of Stephen McCoy and again I will see the kind witness of Yvonne. I cannot wait for the day when I see him walk onto the airplane on his own with nothing to aid him other than the love of the Risen Son.
As I leave I can’t help but feel emotional. I think on my life and my own struggles; I realise that my sufferings do not pale in comparison to Stephen’s but rather I gain new perspective and know that while my own suffering is different it is no less important to God. We are all united in our suffering. None of us walk this journey alone; we all must pass through Hell at least once in our lives. But like Dante we shall never have to endure it on our own. As I drive away I find myself singing a hymn from Lourdes and can almost hear Stephen sing along with me:
“Do not be afraid, I am with you, I have called you each by name, come and follow me, I will bring you home; I love you, and you are mine. I am the Word that leads all to freedom; I am the peace the world cannot give, I will call your name, embracing all your pain; Stand up, now, walk, and live.”