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Chapter 19 of The Novice

Chapter 19

The most boring of the classes was Liturgy. It wasn═t so much that liturgy itself was so boring; there was a pleasure of gaining professional and privileged knowledge about all the services of the church and about the details of the clerical life. The problem was Father Thomas. He used to stand beside the small table in the convocation room, slowly reading from his blue exercise book on Liturgy, while we copied the words into ours. His voice was prissey with a slow sing-song drone as he read, whose affectations to tight precision and a middle-class accent irritated me, like a small torture from which there was no escape.

My Liturgy book, as I look at it now, has a question mark on the third page, where I missed something that Father Thomas recited. The question mark represented Father Dominic, whom I saw only once. It appears in a section which we copied one morning early in the autumn:

"The Canonical Hours of the Divine Office . . . are directed by their composition . . . to the sanctification . . . of the different hours of the natural day . . ." Father Thomas read so slowly we could cut the words on a clay tablet. ". . . approximately the time proper to each . . . ." And there is the question mark. He had said something--what I guess now was probably ˝Canonical Hourţ--but turned as he did so, interrupted by someone noisily opening the door from the cloister into the novitiate and slamming it shut behind him. Surprised, we looked at each other, then towards the entrance to the convocation room. No-one ever came in unless it was the priest who was giving a class.

An enormous, habited figure lumbered into the room, one hand out towards the snooker table as he came unsteadily over the loose tiles at the doorway. I had seen him in the sacristy that morning before the eight o'clock masses, stumbling around clumsily as though straight from bed, tossing vestments on and pushing Casimir before him to serve his mass at one of the side altars. A pure white fringe of hair across his forehead, round rimless glasses that magnified his eyes alarmingly. He looked well over seventy, perhaps eighty.

"Father Thomas, good mornin' to ye." A strong Irish accent, waving a benediction more like an irritated gesture that we should sit down as we climbed out of the benches to genuflect.

"So these are this year's lot, eh?" He surveyed us. I tried not to smile, as the old friar frowned in pretended distress.

"Very ordinary looking collection, wouldn't you say, Father?" very loudly, half-flicking his head in Father Thomas's direction, but not looking at him. Father Thomas smiled weakly and nodded. "The usual varieties of shape and size. Dear God, but they look like babes in arms. Has anyone told them what they're letting themselves in for, eh?" Thomas's smile unchanging.

˝Has anyone told you?ţ he bellowed at us, to an uncomfortable silence. The question was asked in earnest. "No? Well, I'll tell ye. Up you get. Too sunny a day to be sitting around inside. Too few days to waste them this way. Well come on, up, up!" We looked uncertainly at Father Thomas, whose mouth was open, eyes dashing around finding nothing to land on. I stood with Alberic and Ned, drawing the rest with us.

"No problem now, Father," the old priest said as he lumbered towards the door. "I have Father Master's permission to engage in a colloquium and offer some brief homilies and encomia to these poor helpless children."

Father Thomas stuttering after him, "But we're in the middle of class. Their recreation is during the afternoon, Father."

"I'll be asleep then, Father. Grasp the nettle when the iron's hot! Come along, chickens." Ushering us out the door ahead of him saying to no-one in particular. "Do you know it's a quarter of a century since I was in this room, and before that visit thirty five years again since I was a novice. So I'll give you a bit of perspective on what you're at. See you in a while, Father. We'll be along to Sext and Nones." He followed us towards the back door, then paused and called back, "What are you doing with them? What's the class? What? Liturgy? Good. I'll continue it on our perambulation."

He joined us in the shadow outside the back door, magnified blue eyes doleful. "I'm Father Dominic. Come on along now." We fell in around him as he led us into the sun, moving towards the woods. I dropped back as I found that Father Dominic needed plenty of girth. He moved at a good pace, but unsteadily, slamming his feet down at each stop throwing his weight from side to side, swaying like a great galleon up his more than six foot length. He stopped before reaching the wood and addressed us, sadly shaking his head.

"I'm afraid there's been a great decay in the quality of novices during my lifetime." He paused looking each of us in the eye in turn. I tried not to smile back at the clownlike scowl. "When I was a novice nearly sixty years ago we used to jump over those pine trees." Shaking with a quick burst of laughter, then back into his tank-like progress. "But they were only about three feet high then. Let's see how yer Latin is." I tried to edge closer round Sergius to hear as Father Dominic began to chant in Latin. It was a delicate plain-chant, running down rapidly at the end. I couldn't hear most of it, the breeze and the sandals on the cinder path drowned it out. Father Dominic looked around at us. "None of you understood that?" He seemed genuinely disappointed, and began chanting it again.

"About a horse, taken to a river, was it Father?" said Alberic.

"Yes. What does the horse do though? Aqua. . ."

"Walk passed?ţ asked Ned.

Father Dominic groaned. I was frustrated and cut across behind him to the other side thinking I'd hear better. "No. No. Passed water. Micturated. Oh dear. We'll try some more. Don't you know any dirty Latin chants yet? This is terrible. Well now I'm supposed to continue your lesson on the Liturgy. What were you doing when I came in?"

"That ideally we should say the Canonical hours on the appropriate hours of the day, but that it is all right as long as they are said within the twentyfour hours," I said.

"Ah, yes. You'll find that what most of our holy brethren in the Province do is sit up with their cigarettes and coffee and begin the day's Office at about 10.30 p.m. They read like crazy, belting through the psalms like locomotives, and finish off at around five to twelve or ten to twelve. Then, with that piety which has been inculcated through long years of progress in the spiritual life, they have a few fags and a cup of coffee till about five past or ten past twelve and they do a repeat performance with that new day's office, sanctifying the new day, by galloping at a meaningless mumble through psalms and lessons and hymns. Now aren't they evil men? Blackguards all." I was shocked at the image.

"Where are you from?" he nodded at Alberic, as we crowded along one of the narrow paths of the wood. I was over the edge trampling on the ferns to keep up and hear.

"Buckingham, Father."

"Do you know Father Elias? Of course you do. But I bet you didn't know he had a wife in the town, did you? More or less a wife, I mean. A conscientious man at visiting parishioners. One parishioner anyway. And Father Barnabas is as queer as a coot. I've been telling them to get him out of that school before he runs amuck in the showers some day. It's a terrible life, boys. It's not a matter of it being the ideal life for saints, you see, but if you aren't a saint it will be an utter disaster. If you want to see human misery just travel around our province. More than half of them would leave if they weren't even more terrified of the world. They couldn't survive any more without the Order. And they can't get jobs now, poor dears. What can they do? No qualifications or skills. You should all go away and get degrees from university and then come back, so you could at least earn a living if this life became intolerable. You see, I know over a hundred men in this province who are living intolerable lives. And where are you from?" he nodded at me.

"Nottingham, Father."

"Ah, you'll know Bernard then. I stayed at Nottingham for a couple of days last year. Bernard comes in at all hours, taking his horse upstairs with him." He stopped and drove ahead, waiting for the question.

"His horse, Father?"

"Must have been a horse. Nothing else would make that kind of noise going upstairs." I laughed, a little surprised at myself, but with a sense of relief and freedom, knowing so well Father Bernard═s constant noisiness, drawing attention to himself in everything he did. "A rather heavy footed man, you see," he explained to the others, who laughed politely. "I hear they're going to build a new friary up on Blue Bell Hill. Big arguments in the Province about it now. A lot of our brethren want to have washing bowls in the rooms and others oppose it. Instead of a common lavatorium, you understand."

"But that sounds like a good idea, Father," said Ned.

"It does, eh? You all think so, do you?" He looked us over. "Can't anyone think why some of us might oppose it?"

I looked across at the big silver head, that was flicking from side to side examining the trees and path. I wondered whether it might be to foster community spirit, but felt too unsure, a little afraid of appearing innocent and ignorant to the old man.

"No-one any ideas."

"For the community, Father?" asked Casimir.

"Well that's what is talked about, yes. But no. You see, now, if there were washing bowls in the rooms most of the dirty blackguards would hardly leave their cells at all. They'd pee in the bowls." I looked across in shock, revolted at the idea, revolted that such a reason could even be contemplated. "It can be a slow death, living without the influence of women. This province is full of men in decay. Even young men. They live in dirt and squalor. And would live in greater dirt and greater squalor if they could. They are without any hope or joy. You don't know what that means, of course. Think carefully while here. Remember that men quite as good as you have decayed, and are dragging themselves sluggishly through their lives because they lack the particular and peculiar qualities that surviving celebacy requires. Think very hard about yourselves. You're doing no-one a favour by becoming a dirty friar.

"And then you've got to remember the brutality you'll suffer under different Guardians. With the decay of self-respect, the slightest glimmer of human sympathy dies quickly too. Think of your own disagreements here. And then think of being totally subject to the novice you like least. The little annoyances will become big ones. And you'll want revenge. And there's many worse and bitterer men in this province who'll be your superiors. Oh yes. Power, especially total power in a small friary, corrupts horribly.

˝The province is full of young men with lists. Lists of friars whom they have suffered under who one day will be under them. And they live out their days nursing their desire for revenge. Aye. Aye," he grunted in conclusion.

We walked on, the novices silent, Father Dominic humming cheerfully. This image of the province as cold friaries full of bitterness, squalor, and decaying men had chilled my heart. Instinctively I knew it was true.

"And we have a new Lawrence, I understand?ţ Lawrence looked up, half raising his hand. ˝Two Lawrences before you used to walk along here with me just a little while ago when we were fellow novices. He was a nice young fellow. A trail-blazer in many ways. He was a good friar in Manchester. Great promise. Guardian and Provincial without a doubt. You know what happened to him?" Shaking heads. "Well, he disappeared one day. Just never came in. Then a few weeks later he turned up, only about quarter of a mile from the friary, with this very pretty young woman. They had bought a fish and chip shop. Her father put up the money apparently." He shook with laughter. "They had five children, and a lovely home. Fourteen grandchildren, now. I always visit them. Better to sit in a warm and happy home, boys, than in a cold friary. The shop thrived because all the parishioners liked him, well, except some of the old prunes.

˝Celibacy does strange things over the long term. You'll find it isn't natural; and if you are less than a saint you may have the strange experience of watching yourself go mad in a more or less interesting way. Oh yes, I'm mad too--no doubt you can tell that. And so is Rom. And Adrian. I came into the lavatorium in the priests' quarters this morning to find it in pitch darkness, but there was someone splashing about in there. In the dark. I switched on the light and there was Adrian washing himself, no soap of course-can't afford that--but he's very clean, I'll give him that. I threw some water at myself, and went out, and do you know as soon as I was out he crept to the door and switched the light off again. The man's got a string of ulcers that are erupting like Vesuvius all day long. He═s so worried about money I can═t imagine that he believes in God. You know, all that stuff about a sparrow═s wing.

˝Paul's holding out quite well. He's a tough lad. And Thomas . . . well. Let's go up by the pines. I'd like to see them again."

Humming as he swayed hugely ahead. I was hedged in behind Ned and Lawrence on the path, crushing browning ferns at the side as I struggled to stay close to Father Dominic. Every word seemed infinitely valuable.

"Looks like you'll be getting a new novice master at the next Provincial Chapter."

"Won't they leave Father Romuald, do you think, Father?" asked Ned.

"Possible. Doubtful. He's had six years, and he's let through too many lads who've had to be given the push later. You can look forward to someone tougher. And knowing the Custodes they'll likely go overboard in the other direction."

Chill on chill, and fear on fear. The prospect of a new Novice Master frightened me more than Father Dominic═s stark vision of the Province. I liked Father Romuald, was familiar and becoming comfortable with the novitiate. I was unready for a new and tough Novice Master.

We stopped at the end of the broad pathway between the pines. Father Dominic stood legs apart, hands hooked over his habit cord, pulling it down at the sides.

"I can see it so clearly, boys, as it was more than half a century ago." His voice for the first time without any overtones of irony. "People always say it seems like yesterday. But it does, you know, it really does. It's only childhood makes life seem long. Along there," he pointed to the end of the row of trees. "We--there were five of us, Frater Anselm, Frater Lawrence, Frater Gerald, Frater Esmond, and me. Only me and Lawrence still alive, though their young faces are so clear still, racing up here, jumping over the trees," he looked up at their tips, "from this side to that and back again. I knew them throughout their lives but when I call them to mind it's always their young novice faces I see. Isn't that odd? Much like you, we could see our futures as good priests in the province, hearing confessions, preaching, and saying masses. Ah God, we knew nothing." He shook his head and looked down.

"Anselm died in bed," his voice suddenly ironic again, sweeping his doleful eyes over us, and pausing. "Alas, in the bed of a Mrs Carbonell." He walked slowly up the path, hands still hooked in his cord. I followed close behind, expecting visions of my own future. "Gerald decided God called him to the missions, and died heroically of malaria just a couple of months after landing in India. Esmond killed himself." He put the palm of his hand on one of the pine trunks, leaned on it, patted the rough bark. "And here stand I"

The bell in the church tower rang three times. Father Dominic joined his hands and began the Angelus.

"The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary"

"And she conceived of the Holy Spirit."

"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . ."

I watched Father Dominic as he prayed. Eyes closed, sun on his white hair shining like a halo. We finished the Hail Mary.

"Behold the handmaid of the Lord," Father Dominic began with the second ringing of three bells.

"Be it done unto me according to Thy word"

"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . ."

I listened closely to Father Dominic's intonation in the prayer he must have said a million times. Calm, unhurried, with no affectation at all. That seemed an heroic accomplishment, a sign of sanctity.

"Pour forth, we beseech Thee, 0 Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the incarnation of Thy son . . ." A serious voice, talking to God. I was impressed that his cynicism about men seemed to have left his faith in God untouched. I felt awed by Father Dominic. A sense of great strength, and innocence, and clarity of vision. If only I could become an old friar immediately, I had a model I admired. But I couldn't imagine Father Dominic as a novice or as a young priest.

"Amen."

He continued strolling towards the end of the pine path, drawing us after him. Sergius moved alongside Father Dominic, leaning forward to speak.

"Em... Father? The Angelus is at twelve. And Sext and Nones are before it. We've missed the office and it's meditation now. I'm Senior Novice, Father."

I was furious, wanting to pull Sergius back and shut him up. To swap this for meditation!

"By God, you're right. Well, off you go. I'll stroll about here for a bit." The novices genuflected for his blessing. He joined his hands and said in his calm serious voice: "Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus," making a sign of the cross over us, "Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus. Amen. Along with you now.ţ

I was reluctant to turn with the others, searching for a reason to call them back, to stay and hear more. I looked up at Father Dominic, who was turning away to walk back along the pines. He pausing to nod down at me, then swayed heavily forward. The novices were walking between the pines down onto the football pitch. I stuffed my hands into my sleeves, kicked the habit hem before me and followed my fellow novices across the sandy football pitch.

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