Malcolm’s had a rotten week. Shingles. It sounds such a jolly complaint, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It began last Saturday with a sore area at the back of his neck. A couple of hours later, he retired to bed, his whole head a boiled orange-red and covered in flattish blisters. The caricature Englishman who fell asleep on the beach for several hours at Costa del Something never looked this bad. He ate nothing – not a morsel – for two whole days, and was prey to dismal and depressing thoughts and feelings whenever he wasn’t asleep.
On Monday I called the doctor. But as the news of his illness got out, the emails and phone calls started to tumble in. ’He must see a healer’, our French friends insisted. When ill themselves, some of these friends choose the kind of alternative therapies that make homeopathy seem mainstream, while other scurry down to the surgery demanding packs of pills at the first hint of a sneeze. Whatever their usual preference, they were united in believing that only a healer could help. And the doctor had admitted he could do little for Malcolm.
One friend came up with a specific suggestion. The mother of her childhood friend is a healer of shingles sufferers, and so successful that doctors often send their patients to her. Malcolm had nothing to lose, so he got in touch. Every evening for 3 days he’s been at her house at 6.00 for a short session. She’s rubbed hard at his troubled skin with one hand, while making sweeping movements with her other. Sessions last 10 minutes or less, but even after the first time, the improvement was noticeable and swift. Now, after the third, his skin is almost normal and he feels fine, but she’s expecting him to treat himself for a few days with poultices of olive oil, or olive oil, egg yolk and lemon juice.
Healers turn out to be very common indeed here. They have the gift of treating a single complaint, and they receive this gift of healing from another practitioner. They often work in very different ways . The mother of a friend worked in a way Malcolm wouldn’t have recognised. At sundown, she would briefly carry the sufferer on her back, back-to-back, whilst saying prayers in her Béarnaise dialect. She had received her gift when she herself was suffering from shingles, and having treated her, the healer passed on his skills.
What unites all these people – men, women, young, old, garage hands, housewives, teachers, highly educated or largely untaught – is their sincerity, and their real ability to effect change for the better in the sufferer. A true healer will not ask for payment, but most grateful sufferers offer a gift, which could well be money. It’s not necessary for the sufferer to have faith that the treatment will work, merely a willingness to be open-minded and give it a go.
We’ve both been astonished by the huge fan-base for healing in a country where patients routinely expect doctors to prescribe medication for any complaint, however trivial. At choir last night, discussing Malcolm’s experience with everyone there, they all nodded sagely and encouragingly. ‘Il n’y a rien que ça’. And it’s true. Doctors seem to have little joy treating shingles, which seems to persist for weeks in the unfortunate sufferer’s body despite antibiotics and other potions. Healers seem to deliver on their promise to have the thing sorted in under a week