Their faces became tiny as the train gathered speed. My parents, sister, and Father Bernard stood on the platform, hands above them, waving. I leaned from the window, mouth open in anguish. It seemed bitterly unfair that the harmless boast I had made in boyhood, that I intended to become a priest, which had so pleased everyone, should have brought me to that wrenching separation. There I was, leaning far out as the rear carriages curved between me and my family, leaving home for ever.
I was eighteen and brimming with the working-class young man═s usual fears in leaving his familiar world. Added to that was the unusual fear of what I was going towards. I was to become a Franciscan novice. I was dressed in a new black suit, traveling to London, where I would change trains, and continue to Guildford, then take a bus to the village of Chilworth, get off at The Percy Arms, and from there walk up the hill to the Franciscan novitiate. The instructions were in the often-read letter I had in my pocket from Father Romuald, the Novice Master. The novitiate experience had been described often enough by the Franciscan friars who had sat expansively in front of our fire helping my father to drink his whiskey. They began by saying it was a wonderful time in which one═s old self, or just one═s pride, in some versions, was broken and a new and better self built in its place. But they mostly talked about the alien punishments and humiliations, like sweeping leaves against the wind, that were a part of the process. I was far from sure what constituted my self, but the idea of having it broken was unappealing, and the sense of some new self, some superior semi-stranger, taking over my mind was also cheerless.
Sitting on the dusty seat of the train on that hot day, I knew there was no point reflecting on why was I going towards a form of life that held little attraction for me. It was indeed the result of claiming I was going to be a priest, and that was a result of an odd shadowy compulsion that had come along with me into consciousness as a young boy, a persistent obligation to do what an elusive God seemed, perhaps, to want of me; a sense of election to something I had numbly taken as a ˝vocationţ, and towards which the train was gathering speed. There were also other motives, no doubt, and some of them will become plain as the details of the novitiate experience emerge. Among the motives, worldly ambition was barely present in my mind, but if I had absolutely believed that I couldn═t eventually become Pope, I═m not certain I would have been carried to that train by the finer motives alone.
The raw and unique experience I suffered then seems now just a clich┌ of a Catholic upbringing in an Irish puritanical tradition, described by many before me. Of course one was guilty, of sins original and unoriginal, of general and unassuagable inadequacy; the problem was finding out what particular unhappiness to subject oneself to in order to expiate the guilt somewhat. In the context of that Catholic background, with the feeling of being special in some way, the idea that one had a vocation to the priesthood was the obvious solution: privation, celibacy, self-discipline, prayer to a God who seemed unlikely to actually be there. One couldn═t allow that last thought too much room in one═s mind, yet, however suppressed, it lurked like a ghostly presence, flitting into consciousness occasionally at unwelcome moments.
And if I look for the source of that Catholicism, there is my father and his mother. She more than anyone had wanted me to be a priest. I was led into her stifling room eight years earlier as she lay dying, to shake her long bony hand and be kissed on the head. The flesh, hanging loose from her arm, swaying as she reached towards me, her eyes clouded with cataracts, wispy gray hair loose from a wool bed-cap, blue-veined transparent skin barely concealing the skull. Holding my hand between her cold finger-bones, telling me through whistling breath that God wanted me for a priest. She knew it. I was surprised that her breath smelled sweet. Her long fingers and hard yellow nails grasped my joined hands as she═d had me kneel by the bed and say a Hail Mary with her. When I stood, my older sister, who had consistently declared no interest in becoming a nun, had been ushered forward. The old woman had coughed and spluttered, and as Barbara held out her hand she was given a handful of mucus. Then I had to kneel again to kiss the feet of her big crucifix while my sister screamed in the bathroom. Then solemnly giving me the crucifix as her breath became louder with the effort of it all. ˝I═ll see you in heaven. God will look after you as a priestţ-- and my father had nodded me towards the door.
It was the crucifix we had used to kiss Christ═s feet on Easter Sundays, when she insisted on repeating the ceremony at home even though we had been through it earlier at church. It had seemed impious to object, but if twice, I had thought, why not three or four times? My father always negotiating for shortened versions, though perhaps afraid of scandalizing my sister and me by suggesting there was no point going through it all again, and likely, too, he was concerned about God═s judgment on reluctance to do something holy. Thin, delighted smile as she would stand there, tall and spindle-legged, holding the crucifix in front of the big wooden sideboard where we knelt in turn to kiss it. Wiping its feet with her handkerchief after each one, just like the priest did, extemporizing some prayer that invariably cursed Protestants and those worse heathens, particularly my grandfather, who scoffed at her ceremonies and spent the time in the pub.
Well, perhaps that doesn═t capture the sense of Catholicism that led to my feeling I had a vocation. I read memoirs in which this period of life for young men is a romance of great expectations, of the sense of limitless possibilities, of burgeoning power, of setting sail confidently and eagerly onto the open ocean of life. But they were middle-class, secure, with some money they could call on, able to speak loudly in public. The Catholicism described in permitted writers, like Belloc, Chesterton, Greene, and Waugh, was a complex, socially-confident religion that, apart from some basic dogmas and Latin, was wholly unfamiliar to the Irish-oriented, working-class parishes I knew. That exclusive Catholic background seemed to give access to very few of the world═s possibilities. My education by priests did not provide even a vaguely proportionate sense of the social world I was on the periphery of. I knew, for example, that there were atheists, somewhere out there beyond Protestants, and Jews, and those pointless eastern religions that hardly recognized a proper God. But the idea that I might ever meet such horrific creatures was disturbing; they would have rabid eyes and be incomprehensibly vicious. I am not suggesting you should feel sorry for my condition; I recognize that we are all at the mercy of presuppositions we are largely unaware of, that distort our sense of reality. But the combination of puritanical and enveloping Catholicism, along with working-class insecurity, didn═t make that train ride hopeful or provide anything I can now identify as a positive emotion.
Prominent among my comprehensive bundle of fears was the prospect of meeting on the London railway platform other dark-suited young men with the same destination. These would become my fellow novices. I was sure that they would be stern and worthy, taking this decision with a clarity of mind and decisiveness that I lacked; their vocations would be confidently embraced, and they would know God═s will through profound prayer, quite unlike my own embarrassing talks into the darkness, the formal and superficial words. I feared that these severe young men I was soon to meet would look directly into my trivial soul and feel embarrassed and ashamed for me.
At Waterloo station, sweating in the heavy suit, carrying my black coat and white suitcase, I bought a ticket for the next stage of my journey.
˝To Guildford, please.ţ
˝No. No, thank you.ţ
My voice trembled and tears welled up as I stood in front of the ticket office.
I scanned the cavern of the station for other young men dressed in black. Within a few minutes I spotted one strolling ahead, beyond a string of trolleys weaving snake-like through the crowd. I pursued him, ambivalently eager to talk with someone who might share my fear of what lay ahead and the desolation of leaving family and familiar world, yet fearful of stern eyes turning to look into my inadequate heart.
I drew level with the pale face and leaned forward into his line of vision, hoping my own black-suit would catch his attention. I was surprised that the watery blue eyes were examining so intently the acreage of gleaming flesh exposed on the W.H.Smith newsstand.
˝Excuse me. Are you headed for the Franciscan novitiate?ţ
He turned, unembarrassed, ˝I am, I am. Terence O═Dwyer.ţ He drooped a limp hand towards me to be shaken. ˝I═m just on my way down from Osterley,ţ he said with evident pride.
˝What═s Osterley?ţ I asked after telling him my name.
˝Osterley! You don═t know about Osterley? Good heavens. Why, that═s an amazing thing. I hardly know anyone who doesn═t know Osterley. And yourself off to be a priest, too. That═s where the Jays run courses for late vocations or people needing some more academic background and some more Latin.ţ
˝Jesuits,ţ said Terence after examining me for a moment in silence. ˝The Franks have been keeping me there these last couple of years. The Franciscans. Need the vocations, dyasee?ţ He had stood too close for my comfort, eyes seemingly fixed on my tie-knot, then a quick glance up with a grin, ˝Vocations getting scarce these days.ţ
Once settled in the train═s restaurant car and moving south, the thick Irish- accented monologue picked up: ˝I was born back home in Connemara. The father died early so I had to work, dyasee, to support the mother till she died, Godrestersoul, just a few years back. Kieran, ha. I was at the Christian Brothers in Ireland, and we had a Brother Kieran who was a tall fella with a wedge shaped face, but when he took the strap to you then, by jimmeny, you were leathered so you really knew it.ţ
Terence═s fugitive eyes had rarely left the tea and scones he═d ordered, except to wink up at me, ˝Dyaknow, they gave me five pounds just to get down from Osterley to Chilworth.ţ
I remember Terence═s catalogue of the religious orders he had tried to join. ˝Well I tried my vocation with the Jays first off, but wasn═t really, I suppose, academic enough. The Cistercians were a bit too monastic, if you know what I mean. I tried the seculars then, but ran up against the academic thing again. The thing of it is, I left school early. Mother, Godrestersoul, The Doms then--that═s the Dominicans--they suggested I should go to Osterley to patch up the Latin and things a bit, and then they suggested I try the Franks. I was at Osterley these past couple of years. I told you that, That═s a grand place.ţ As he had discovered the extent of my ignorance of ecclesiastical affairs, and the famous Jesuits at Osterley, Terence rapidly poured out the highlights of his previous ten years of trying to get inside a Roman collar or religious habit.
My fears subsided, but bewilderment increased, as Terence told about his meeting with the Archbishop of Leeds and how his mother was an O═Dwyer too and so they might be related. Terence was not going to peer into my soul and say ˝Thou fool!ţ Indeed his eyes had seemed to see little except what was before him on the table, not glancing out at the house-backs of south London or the Surrey fields and woods. Was that what they called ˝custody of the eyesţ? Terence had not looked across the aisle at the thin, balding man with the newspaper close up to his face, nor at the plump, middle-aged, artificially-blond woman opposite him, with pink face and bright red lips, a short skirt, and prominent almost bloated white thighs, her eyelids closing against the smoke of her cigarette. I had kept glancing across in wonder as she blew perfect smoke-rings that broke and scattered soundlessly against the back of the man═s paper, stopping only when she caught my eye and, without moving another muscle of her heavy, tired face, winked.
But closer than brothers, they said. You always remain in touch with the men with whom you were a novice. My relief and brief rise in spirits was slowly crushed under Terence═s account of the world I was to become a part of, and Terence himself, cadaverous face, thin lips dropping crumbs, seemed so far from the young men I had expected and feared to meet. From the window the villages looked very dear and the trees unreally beautiful. The clumps of woodland, where I suddenly longed to be, as in the woods I cycled to outside Nottingham, dark and quiet and unbearably rich with blue-bells not many weeks ago.
At Guildford bus station we met Edwin Parsons. ˝Hello there! You fellows off to the monkey-house too?ţ he had shouted from twenty yards away, in what my father would have called a ´cut-glass═ accent. Tall, sweating inside a too-large black overcoat, prominent eyes and big, crooked teeth, he had laughed, or barked, at his joke. ˝Though I suppose for accuracy═s sake it ought to be fish-and-chip fryers.ţ It had seemed an odd sense of accuracy. He shook hands with us both vigorously --˝Call me Nedţ--and I felt the shopping-laden housewives looking cautiously round at the three black figures.
Ned led us onto the bus, checking loudly with the conductor where we should get off. ˝I say, he says he═ll tip us the wink. Have you heard that expression before? Tip you the wink. I rather like that.ţ As the bus wound slowly out of Guildford and through the green and idle Surrey lanes, I watched the world drifting by and away; men in cars, owners of houses, husbands of wives, fathers of children. An ordinary late August day. Ned too was nothing like the young men I had expected to meet.
The bus had crawled, then was stopped by an old woman crossing a village street with half a dozen cats on glittering leads, her hand up to the traffic while she solicitously herded the cats across. Her rapid matchstick legs encased in wrinkled purple stockings, a cheap flowered dress and sparkling jewelry round her neck. She had turned to the sniffing and spreading cats, holding up a silver bell whose pure tinkle could be heard faintly inside the bus. The cats responded rather to the tugs she gave the spray of leads.
Then, as she backed onto the pavement by a telephone box, the rapid movement of a blond head caught my eye. A small fist beat against the glass of the phone box, the skin yellow-white at the point of contact. The head of blonde hair was shaken vigorously. She seemed to say something, a single word. She looked up and out towards the bus for a second, then put her hand over her face and let the hair swing down to hide it. But I had seen the tears. The old woman urged the last cats onto the pavement, and as the bus moved the head of blond hair began to shake steadily.
There had been a sudden clear sense of the enormity of my decision to become a Franciscan, or, if not decision, as I could locate no point at which I had ever imagined I would be anything but a priest, a sense that I was moving unresistingly towards a life that entailed the loss of so many others. Could I do better than whoever was on the other end of that telephone line? Could I walk from that expensive car across that gray-pebble driveway to open the red door of that house, to be greeted by a wife and children? Imagining such possibilities laid open for a moment a world of unknowable richness that was being cut away, in favor of this one stark, drab, unwelcome vocation.
Ah, but that puts it falsely. The drabness so visible on the surface of the priestly life hid the magical power to remit sin, to change bread into God, to comfort the suffering, and to be potent in the forward ranks of the great cosmic battle between good and evil. I don═t recall these mystical benefits playing a large part in my thinking at the time, but they no doubt carried greater sway than I can now easily imagine.
In the long village of Chilworth we climbed clumsily down from the bus with our suitcases, no doubt appearing somewhat mad to those passengers who eyed us grimly from the windows, but glittering novice-warriors in the cosmic struggle of the Church militant to the throng of saints and angels who surely watched us from high above the bus. We crossed the railway lines by the Percy Arms, and ahead could see a heavily wooded ridge in the midst of which, Terence informed us, the novice house stood. He had visited it a few times from Osterley. The sky was deep blue with small puffs of clouds drifting slowly over. But the sweat rolled down my ribs as the steepening incline took its toll. We stopped every hundred yards or so. Ned discovered that my suitcase was considerably heavier than the smaller of his matched set, and insisted on the exchange:
˝You see,ţ he explained between gasping breaths, ˝much better to have two . . . equally weighted ones . . . considering my shoulders . . . a fulcrum . . . that should be maintained . . . horizontal . . . so that the weight may be carried . . . by those muscles . . . best able for it . . . No, no. These two are ideal . . . just equal to my strength.ţ
We rested for the last time under the gory crucifix at the entrance to the novitiate═s driveway, and then made a last effort up the steep path. Ned struggled the last few steps to the high Norman door, sweat seeping from his hair and running down his face. Dumping his burden, he stretched his arms wide, noticed the metal bell-pull, and gave it a tug.
Running steps from inside, and the door was opened by an old gnome in a Franciscan habit who ushered us in almost singing ˝Welcome, welcome, welcome!ţ Our cases bumped and scraped the walls of the narrow corridor as we struggled to keep up with his impressive pace. He mounted a few steps at the end of the corridor and heaved against an iron-encrusted door, whispering over his shoulder, ˝Papal enclosure. No women beyond here or its a Mortal. Automatic excommunication.ţ
˝Good show,ţ Ned whispered back.
We followed the flapping sandals up the steps and along a broad red-tiled cloister, onto which the sun shone through tall windows that looked in on a square of grass. At the first corner of the cloister, the lay-brother knocked at a door. ˝Novice house,ţ he confided with a wink.
The door was opened by a boy who seemed no older than me. I had only seen priests in habits before, and it was a shock to see so young a head sticking out from the brown cowl.
˝Hello, I═m Frater Wulfstan. Welcome, welcome. Come on in. Father Romuald will be down in a few minutes.ţ
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