The Sunday Sermonette – Inner Beauty.

     I have always been intrigued by stage and movie makeup. From the cotton and collodion build-ups, gum, and greasepaint that movie actor Lon Chaney used in 1926 to create his frightful “Phantom of the Opera” to the complex arrangement of prosthetics Christopher Tucker used in his remarkable 1980 movie transformation of John Hurt into the horribly disfigured Joseph Merrick, better known as “The Elephant Man,” this art form never ceases to amaze me.

     When I saw the movie, I was mesmerized by the makeup and the evocative recreation of 1880s London but equally horrified to learn that Merrick was a real man. Born in 1862 in Leicester, England, his severe physical deformities began to manifest themselves when he was five. At eleven, his mother died, and when his father remarried, his stepmother could not stand the sight of him. During that time, he stated that his home life was “a perfect misery.” She eventually kicked him out of the house, and he then went to live with an uncle. When he died, Merrick ended up in the Leicester Union Workhouse and experienced the horrors therein.

     To earn a living and escape the workhouse, he traveled with different circuses as one of the “freaks” in the Freak Show, thus the moniker “The Elephant Man.” While touring Europe, his manager abandoned him, leaving Merrick penniless. He eventually made his way back to London, but ended up in another workhouse. However, Merrick’s life was about to change for the better.

     The workhouse was across the street from the Royal London Hospital. There, Merrick was befriended by Sir Frederick Treves, a doctor, who eventually made it possible for him to live in the hospital, which Merrick did until he died in 1890. When Treves examined Merrick’s body, his death was ruled accidental; the certified cause of death was asphyxiation due to a dislocated neck resulting from the weight of Merrick’s massive head. Knowing that Merrick always slept sitting upright out of necessity, Treves concluded that Merrick may have “made the experiment”, attempting to sleep lying down “like other people”.

     Can you fathom the immense hardships Joseph Carey Merrick faced in his 28 years, yearning to be like other people while his disfigurement repelled them? Yet, those who knew Merrick were struck by his unshakeable Christian faith. His character and courage in the face of his disabilities earned him their deep respect. His faith, instilled by his mother, a Baptist, was a guiding light. His middle name, Carey, honored William Carey, a Baptist missionary who said, “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit.” Merrick embodied this spirit.

     Despite his life being a living hell, he persevered in pursuing one that was pure, loving, and kind. His face may have repulsed people, but the inner beauty of his heart and soul did not. Imagine being that deformed, yet never blaming God, and always looking to Him for the strength to survive the day and knowing one day he would be rewarded with an eternity of peace and happiness. This stark contrast between his physical appearance and his inner beauty is the true marvel of Joseph Carey Merrick.  

     Often, in written letters to friends, Merrick ended them with a paraphrased version of a poem adapted from “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts: 

“Tis true my form is something odd,

But blaming me is blaming God;

Could I create myself anew

I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole

Or grasp the ocean with a span,

I would be measured by the soul;

The mind’s the standard of the man.”

Ponder this and go forth.