Year B – 6th Sunday of Easter

Year B - 6th Sunday of Easter

The Elephant Man

(Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1Jn.4:7-10; Jn.15:9-17)

Have you seen the movie The Elephant Man?

It tells the true but tragic story of an Englishman named Joseph Merrick (often called John), who was born in the slums of Leicester in 1862. He began life as a happy and healthy boy who did well at school. But as he grew, his appearance changed markedly, especially his face, arms and legs, and he became severely disfigured.

It appears he had a severe genetic disorder called Proteus Syndrome. [i]

He remembered his mother as very loving, but she died of pneumonia when he was eleven. He described this as the greatest sadness in his life.

Soon afterwards, his father married a widow who had her own children, but they all rejected Joseph, and his life became a ‘perfect misery.’

At thirteen he left school to support the family, and got a factory job rolling cigars. But he was sacked because his deformed hands were too slow.

His father then got him a job as a door-to-door salesman. Poor Joseph tried hard, but again he failed. Too many people couldn’t understand him or refused to open their doors to him, or they quickly slammed them shut.

In frustration, Joseph’s father started beating him, and at 17 he was thrown out of home. A kindly uncle rescued him, but Joseph didn’t want to be a burden, so he moved into a squalid workhouse for cripples and drunks.

His life became so miserable that he then offered himself to a carnival owner as a travelling sideshow act. There he was labelled as ‘half-man, half-elephant,’ and wore a cape and veil to hide his face. He was quite a hit, but he was also often harassed by mobs.

One day in London, Joseph met Dr Frederick Treves, King Edward VII’s surgeon. Treves took great interest in him and was appalled by his mistreatment. He offered to help and gave Joseph his card, but soon lost track of him.

The police disliked these sideshows; they always caused trouble. So, Joseph moved to Belgium where he found himself robbed and abused, and a year later he returned to London. When his train arrived at Liverpool Street Station, a crowd mobbed him and the police were called. They couldn’t understand his slurred speech, but they did find Dr Treves’ card, so they sent for him.

Dr Treves rushed over and took Joseph back to London hospital, where he was well looked after. Treves organised a successful fundraising appeal and gave Joseph a home of his own in the hospital grounds.

This marked a turning point in Joseph’s life. Instead of being frightened and hiding from visitors, he gradually began to talk. Dr Treves visited him daily, and they became close friends, enjoying long conversations together.

Joseph once said that apart from his mother, no woman had ever been kind to him. So, Treves asked an attractive widow to visit Joseph, to smile at him and shake his hand. When she did that, Joseph broke into tears.

That was a breakthrough, and in the following years he met many more kind men and women, including royalty. He regularly received letters and visitors, he wore nice clothes and went to concerts and parties, and he got to have intelligent conversations about things like poetry.

With all this loving attention, Joseph changed. He began to develop self-confidence and he started spending time travelling in the country.

But because of his deformities, poor Joseph could not sleep lying down. He tried to do that one day in 1890, and sadly it killed him. He was only 27. [ii] [iii]

In today’s Gospel, it’s just after the Last Supper and Jesus says to his disciples, ‘This is my commandment: that you love one another, just as I have loved you.’

What is this love that Jesus talks about? It’s caring for someone else with mercy and compassion. It’s being totally selfless and even sacrificial in what we do for them. And it’s unconditional, in that we expect nothing in return. 

This is the love Jesus gave to the poor, the sick and the hungry, and it’s the love that Dr Frederick Treves gave to Joseph Merrick.

Poor Joseph lived a tragic life, but his tragedy wasn’t so much his deformities; it was the way people ridiculed, rejected and abused him.

Dr Treves had a loving heart. He helped Joseph to find happiness, by making him feel accepted, valued, encouraged and protected.

What can you do to change someone else’s life?

[i] [ii] Sir Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences,