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St Bernadette, a medallion and the miraculous saving of a soul

Peter was a cradle Catholic who lapsed from the faith. Years later, as he lay dying, came an extraordinary turn of events

This is a true story, the details set out as accurately as knowledge and memory permit

Peter was born in Thurso, the most northerly town on mainland Britain, where the wind and the turbulent waters of the Pentland Firth carved the rugged geography of the coast. He was subsequently brought up in a large happy home in Elgin, a sedate market town enfolded by farmlands in the lee of the Grampian hills. His mother was a devout Catholic, her faith inherited from a line of ancestors traceable back to the days of Mary, Queen of Scots and the Auld Alliance. Like many cradle Catholics, her belief was rarely reinforced by intellectual ponderings but was the simple, natural devotion born of practice, ritual and the unquestionable comfort which came with it.

Peter was therefore raised in the Catholic Church, his liturgical and spiritual education provided with diligence and hope by priests who were members of a Benedictine monastic order. They lived nearby at Pluscarden Abbey where, with some hardship, the monks were restoring the ruins of a once-derelict 13th-century monastery. The abbey – in those days a mere priory – is situated in a long, lush valley sheltered by a rising hill of woodland to its north. Surrounded by arable fields, the buildings of the monastery can be glimpsed from a distance through copses of mature trees, the warm stone latticed on sunny days by the angled shadows of northern latitudes.

Each Sunday after Mass, Peter would enter one of the small, bare visitor rooms in the wooden annex of the abbey where Father Maurus, bustling, head shaven in tonsure and wearing the white habit of his order, offered an hour of religious instruction. Along with a couple of other Catholic boys from nearby Gordonstoun School, in this plain room decorated with a single crucifix, Father Maurus taught some of the fundamentals and mysteries of religion, and offered up strategies for arguing the defence of their faith in the face of occasionally hostile questioning from other boys at school who had been raised in the land of hard Knox. Children seek out difference, and religion was as good a source to be mined as any other. It was during those years that Father Maurus and Peter began to develop a lifelong bond.

Dom Maurus Deegan OSB – to give him his formal title – was born Frank Deegan and raised in some poverty in Liverpool. He was among the first of the Benedictine community to occupy the derelict abbey in the late 1940s. He was a man of profound faith, contemplative, rigorous yet also gregarious and humanely pragmatic. A woman friend was once surprised to run into him on the platform of Aberdeen station, his slightly grubby robe frayed and his battered suitcase subsequently discovered to contain no more than a toothbrush, underwear, a chasuble and stole, the Rule of Saint Benedict and a Mass book. She asked where he was travelling to.

“Ghana,” replied Father Maurus, explaining that he’d been invited to spend a few months helping with a religious community in one of the remoter areas.

“But the London train’s just left,” she said.

“Ah yes,” replied Maurus, “But I have no money for the journey yet.”

She looked at him, momentarily perplexed.

“I was just waiting for the Lord to send you along so I could ask you to buy me a ticket for the first stage of my travels.”

Despite the religious nurturing and the regular stream of intricate and lengthy letters from Father Maurus, Peter began to leave the practices of his faith behind when he grew up and moved out into the world. As an adult, like many others – though perhaps more carefully than most – he joined the legions of the lapsed. It was, in his case, a curiously “conscientious” separation. He felt unable to believe and unwilling to employ the rituals in the absence of a core belief.

Father Maurus and Peter’s mother did what devout people are supposed to do: they continued to love him in their various ways and they prayed for him. Throughout university and various jobs, Peter remained in touch with both his family and his former spiritual mentor. He worked in several parts of the world, eventually settling back into the community in which he’d grown up, living in a rambling old house just outside Elgin. He had a job in the whisky industry, took part in local activities and during an election campaign outraged some of his neighbouring squires by attaching a “Vote Labour” poster to the driveway gates.

Peter was comfortable among the people with whom he had grown up and confident that he had found the place and the career he enjoyed. But there was still a sense of restlessness about him which had earlier led him to travel extensively. Moray was his home and his base but it was clear that he felt there was yet more to be sought. And in the prime of his life he intended, one day, to seek it.

And then, aged 34, he got cancer.

He was recently married when the first diagnosis was made. It was, said the doctors, an unthreatening cancer, one of the few likely to respond to prompt treatment. So following surgery and radiation therapies, he returned to his work, his marriage and his life with some optimism for the future.

Once or twice a year Peter would see Father Maurus at family ceremonies – weddings, baptisms, funerals – and, despite Peter’s lapsed faith, they remained on good terms. He made donations to the Pluscarden community willingly and the monks quietly continued with the work of rebuilding their abbey, farming the land and succouring the needy who came to them.

A year later, when the cancer returned, it had metastasised in a more threatening way and Peter agreed to undergo the radical and debilitating treatments on offer. He declined his well-meaning friends’ offers of magical cures, the hi-tech US hospitals which only dealt with VIPs and all the other medical and anecdotal snake-oil salesmen who seem, with good intentions, to emerge when distress strikes. He continued to work as best he could but in the long winter months between treatments he quietly and diligently set about organising matters for a less certain future.

It was during this period that I happened to have dinner with Rita, an actress friend, and her husband. I told them of Peter’s struggle with the advancing tide of illness and of the doctors and others who kept offering him glimpses of hope. I also told of the weekend he stayed with us when he picked up a spoon instead of a fork and couldn’t quite understand why he was having difficulty cutting his meat. Of how he now put his hands on my shoulder – I can still feel the touch – to ensure that he didn’t stumble as we walked down a long passageway. Of his frailty and quiet courage.

At the end of dinner Rita went to a cabinet drawer and took out a small medallion and chain. She didn’t much believe in the tokens of religion but somehow she had once been given this medallion, said to contain a tiny fragment of cloth belonging to St Bernadette of Lourdes, and insisted that I lend it to Peter. It was no more than a gesture of awkward superstition. But what harm could be done by the wearing of a small medallion? Faintly embarrassed by the warmth with which the loan was made, I quickly dropped it into my pocket and mumbled that I would pass it on and return it in due course.

When I told Peter about it, I was surprised that he smiled so brightly, promptly taking it and putting it on. “At least it won’t make me feel nauseous,” he said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was only on loan.

Within weeks he was diagnosed with a new tumour, this one lodged deep in his brain. It was inoperable. They gave him drugs to restrict the tumour to a minimal size. At least for a while.

Perhaps because the chemotherapy had stopped, he began to grow stronger over a period of remission. Though still easily tired, he continued to work, and when we were separated by continents he was often on the phone, discussing this issue and that, business problems, political events and the rest. He rarely spoke of his health and indicated that he was enjoying the gathering weeks of mental clarity and physical strength. But he cleared his office desk, preferring to work from home.

One day he invited his old friend, Father Maurus, to come to the house for lunch. It was a Monday, the beginning of another week. They had a simple meal, joined by Peter’s wife and by his mother, and afterwards Peter asked to be left alone with Father Maurus for a chat.

They had been alone for about an hour when they emerged together. Peter said he felt tired and was going to lie down for an afternoon nap, so he did not go to the door to bid farewell to the priest. Which gave Maurus the opportunity quickly to report to the wife and the mother that he had just formally received Peter back into the Church and had given him Communion.

As Father Maurus left, he did not know that Peter had fallen into a sleep from which he would not wake.

Summoned by the news that he was now in a terminal coma, I was present when Peter died at three o’clock in the morning. I lay awake during the remaining few hours of the night, knowing that I had two duties to perform. The first of which was to trudge up the long pathway to the cottage where Peter’s mother lived and to tell her of his death.

She did not weep. “Thank God,” she said, so utterly certain in her faith that her son was now in a better place, free of pain and reunited in heaven with his long-dead father.

The whirl of activity which results from a death at home conceals many emotions. The practicalities of the obsequies need to be dealt with. Dozens of little decisions need to be made. How is the body to lie out? In which room? Who will announce the death? Who will deal with the legalities of registering it? Should the doctor be called immediately or can that visit wait until later in the day? How to dispose of the powerful drugs which sustained consciousness and held pain at bay in the last days?

I hesitated over my second duty – which was to remove the medallion from the body. But before the undertakers arrived I walked into the sitting room, where the body lay, and steeled myself for the task. I was alone in the room as I reached down to Peter’s chest and looked for the catch on the chain. Glancing up at his face I was momentarily startled to notice the eyes half open, glinting sightlessly at my fumbling fingers. I removed the chain and slipped it into my pocket to return it to its owners in due course.

The funeral took place three days later. It was held at Pluscarden Abbey as if he were being somehow returned. The monks sang plainchant, echoing and resonant, and the coffin stood in the aisle where the walls of the 13th-century abbey rose on either side, silently oppressing the congregation with history and the passage of time. The burial was at Elgin cemetery, a bleak hillside even on sunny days. He was laid into the ground next to his father.

The strange thing about funerals is that they are often oddly social events. The house in which someone has died suddenly becomes the hub of social activity, laughter, eating and drinking. Peter’s widow found herself as hostess to almost a dozen friends and family, gathering from all over the country, and who somehow had to be found beds in dusty corners of the house. Improvised catering had to be arranged, linen provided, drinks bought and downed. There were some 20 people at the lunch that followed the funeral. The day had brightened and I wandered outside when I saw Father Maurus standing alone for a moment.

“Late have I loved Thee,” said Maurus, quoting the words of St Augustine, as he quietly told me of his visit five days previously and of how Peter returned to his faith only minutes before he lost consciousness forever.

I told him of my uneasy time having to remove a medallion from the corpse. “It was something borrowed from a friend,” I said.

“A crucifix?”

“No, a piece of cloth,” I replied. “Supposedly from the robe of St Bernadette.”

Father Maurus stumbled suddenly, reaching out to find support as the blood drained from his face. I was about to help to steady him but he was already recovered and laughing again.

“The entire abbey community has been praying for your brother to find his way back to his Church,” he said, and I nodded without speaking, knowing there was more.

“It needed a miracle. Which is why, for the past six weeks, all our prayers for him were made to Bernadette of Lourdes.”

Postscript: 25 years after these events Dom Maurus Deegan became, as the Scots say, “wandered”. Despite his age – 95 – he took regular, vigorous walks down the lanes and byways in the valley. In 2005, on a clear spring day, he went out for his constitutional and never returned. Despite extensive searches, his body has never been found.

Allan Scott is a screenwriter and producer. Peter was his brother