Other Writing

Chapter Two of The Novice

Chapter Two

I was woken next morning by a noise outside my cell door. Was it the signal to get up? I pushed off the blanket and sat irresolute in the dark. A faint yellow light came through the gaps around the door, enough to make out the high, narrow desk with its two empty shelves against the pale plaster, and my suitcase beside it. There was a draught on my shoulders. The arched window was darker than the stone around it.

No, it was sandals on the linoleum and the ocassional chink of rosary beads; the footsteps of the novices hurrying for a quick wash in the lavatorium before going down to choir. We were to sleep in this first morning and join them later for breakfast. I lay back and pulled the rough gray blanket tight about my ears. I could hear the novices moving around on the bare planks of the lavatorium, the cold water splashing them awake.

Last night I had crowded with my fellow postulants and the eight novices over a long slate-bottomed trough in the lavatorium. I was at the end above the drain, struggling to share a tap with two brown-habited novices, each of us yielding to the others with such charity my teeth were on edge. The room was filled with the energetic flapping of the heavy cloth of Franciscan habits. Tooth-brushes under the slow stream of water, one after the other; my elbow jostled by a retreating and apologizing novice as he had tried to ease paste onto his brush. Then forward again, after waiting with a mouthful of tingling foam, bending my head sideways under the tap to gather enough water to wash my mouth out. I had my first glimpse of community life as the accumulated toothpaste, spittle, and water oozed sluggishly along the trough and into the sink below me.

I reached my fingers under the blanket to touch the dark wall of my cell--rough plaster, not the embossed wallpaper of home. Yesterday was real; it had all happened. My parents, sister, and Father Bernard had stood on the platform waving me away for ever. I lay straining after their images in the darkness, tears threatening again. Moving my head to find a dry spot on the pillow, finding only the cold dampness from last nightÍs crying. I remember forming a question that recurred often in the following days, perhaps weeks--Dear God, what am I doing in this strange place?--until it became obvious that this question might equally apply to the world I came from as to the novitiate.

A faint sound of chanting began somewhere in the distance. I raised my head to be sure, catching the slight change of tone as the chant alternated verse by verse across the choir. I settled back, tucking the blanket in behind my shoulder, curling up tighter against the cold and the sharpening pain in my stomach.

The cell seemed unfinished, with its broad, bare planks. I felt that I could be here only as a visitor, for a few days, and then I would return home. Always I had gone home from strange places. But I knew I had to stay at this one until it was as familiar as home, until I knew the unwelcoming trees and lawn I had stared at numbly from this cell window yesterday as well as I knew the garden at home. Otherwise I might make the decision to stay or leave on trivial, worldly grounds. The pain in my stomach grew sharper, like gnawing hunger. The novices would be in the church a couple of hours yet before breakfast.

I listened for the distant drone of the choir chanting the psalms. Father Bernard had told me that the chant and plainsong of the church were the only survivals of ancient Greek and Roman music. We owe the style of chanting to St. Jerome--or was it St. Ambrose? I sounded both names in my head, trying to hear which better echoed what Father Bernard had said that morning in the Nottingham friary as we sat over Franciscan bowls of coffee after early mass.

On bleak winter mornings I used to cycle down to the Victorian house that served as the friary on Blue Bell Hill, to serve as altar-boy at the seven oÍclock mass. One hand freezing on the handlebar, the other hand in a pocket, to be brought out quickly to cup around an icy ear. If I arrived early in the little chapel that had been built into the front room of the house, or if the priests were late, I would come in on them still chanting the psalms and hymns that made up the first of the canonical ïhoursÍ of the dayÍs Office. Usually there would have been just two or three of them, brown habited, often unshaven, standing at the lecterns, chanting loudly at enormous speed. Sometimes it had gone on well after seven oÍclock, drowning the sound of the occasional car outside, or the clicking of high-heels past the altar-hidden window.

Looking up at the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling of my cell, I tried again to call back that moment of sudden clarity yesterday while I had watched the old woman with the cats and the young womanÍs head shaking in the telephone box. That moment had been like a flashing vision that exposed the proper course of my life. I tried hard to recapture it, but couldnÍt. It had become clouded or submerged under the urgencies of getting up at the right time and behaving in ways that those around me would approve of. But it created the hope that I could perhaps find again that buried knowledge of the proper course my life should take. If that was what I had seen, then decision-making is just constant regulation of our lives to their true lines, if only we can keep these visible through the thousand nothings of each hour. The immediate trick was to see simply whether mine was a clerical or a lay line. But I was stuck in the clutter of the present looking forward and back, unable to find much help either from the direction that had brought me to this day or from that which extended emptily forward.

When next I opened my eyes, the sky was light blue and I could make out clearly the furnishings of the cell. Yesterday, Frater Wulfstan, the senior novice of the previous yearÍs group, had led me up the stairs, slipped the metal latch and pushed open the cell door, announcing cheerily ñHereÍs home!î I had stood holding my suitcase, looking into the cell, chilled by the bare boards running over to the rough stone wall and by the stark furnishings--desk, stool, and iron-framed bed.

A cock began crowing, crazily, wildly, as though suddenly furious that anyone should still be in bed. I had not heard the chanting for some time. Perhaps the other five newly arrived postulants had heard the knock while I was dozing. Were they already downstairs eating? I listened for some sound from nearby cells--the creak of a bed or foot-fall or cough. Nothing.

I decided to get up, to be ready as soon as I was called. I swung my feet out and lowered them onto the cold planks, quickly lifting them to put socks on. A fierce draught whipped my legs. After dressing to trousers and shirt, I walked over to the leaded window and leaned into the deep sill. There was heavy condensation on the inside of the glass.

A fresh sunny morning. Everything looked newly made. The trees on the small rise beyond the grass were richly green, dew dampness evaporating in front of the line of shadow cast by the novice house. The only movement was away to the left. The cock strutting darkly, then a sudden flash of red as it jerked its crest up to scream again and again. Sedate white hens pecking in nearby coops. I pushed the window open and leaned out to look to the right along the grey novice house wall, following the pathway below my window leading into the woods, tangled with ferns.

ñLaudetur Jesus Christus!î

ñCome in . . . I mean, Amen.î

I grabbed my sponge bag and towel from the top of my suitcase, and flicked up the latch of the cell door. Wulfstan was continuing down the corridor, beating on the other postulantsÍ doors, inviting them to praise Jesus Christ till he heard the ñAmenî that told him they were awake.

That half minute leaning on the window sill and looking out on the grass and trees, at the crowing cock and the ferny wood, deposited one of those lucid memories in my mind. I am aware of just a few of them; images so complete and clear that it seems only a small effort of will is required to make them again oneÍs present and to re-emerge into them. Everything about that self of thirty-five years ago leaning on the cold stone feels so familiar, yet so much of his mind and motivation seems incomprehensibly distant from the experience of my children, and I have to wonder too about how any of us gets from the there of our childhood and youth to the here of our later adulthood; from that postulant, in my case, to this atheistical academic.

I am reminded of a poem by Philip Larkin about revisiting Oxford and his old tutor, who, while evoking uncheering memories, tells Larkin that the son of one of his contemporaries is now at the college. On the train home Larkin wonders what made his contemporary choose to marry so young, and to have children so young, and what made Larkin choose to do otherwise. He cannot recall making the decisions that brought him to being unchilded and unwifed. The decisions seemed rather products of a style our lives bring with them; something that ñsomething hidden from us chose.î

If the past can seem like an uncertain territory that shuffled itself into some plot that didnÍt really need much in the way of our decisive participation, one can only wonder why we bothered murthering anxiously through it--we could have floated freely on the strong tide that brought us irresistably to this present. And the past that plotted me from that novitiate window to this Vancouver house, to this particular carpet and wallpaper that I know my wife and I chose, or somethings hidden from both of us compromised to choose, seems to have changed me from that alien being to a familiar piece of furniture to my children.

They say that our memories contain all that has happened to us, and past experience just needs the right evocation to unroll into our present minds. As I have written this account I have been bemused to realise that what they say seems true; the past is all in there, ready to be drawn into the bright circle of our consiousness. I wasnÍt so alien, of course, but the daily forms of life, the things I did and believed, seem alien now, certainly to my children. The days were regulated by bells, and filled with prayer, work, and study, as we were initiated into a life that strove to achieve a medieval ideal of male sanctity. Now that makes it sound alien or odd. But itÍs not that far from the video-arcade, from surfing the Net, from the engagements of my children. Superficially, a medieval ideal of male sanctity is, well, medieval. But I recognize in my childrenÍs lives much the same struggles and accommodations.

While I have paused, perhaps I might mention that as I have worked on evoking memories of that time and place, the voices of my fellow-novices have become clear again in my mind. I have included a lot of conversation in the text, and no doubt it will seem that this must all, or mostly, be invented. And I suppose much of it may not be exactly the words spoken. But the words used are those that come back to me as the animating sound-track of the remembered events. My memory, though, hasnÍt delivered up a continuous narrative. It usually locates a particular incident, or emotion, or sensation, and I then have had to do some work to unfurl the penumbra of details that create the somewhat discontinuous sections that follow. I have arranged the incidents more or less in chronological order. I have also changed a number of names, to avoid causing offence or embarrassment to people still living.

This memoir is of the period of the Second Vatican Council in the late 1950s. The changes of ritual instituted by this Council, including the use of English in place of Latin in the Catholic Mass and in other areas of the ChurchÍs activities, brought to an end some of the traditional forms of the novitiate experience that had existed for over seven hundred years. Part of my intention is to recover something of the flavor of that form of life as I experienced it before the CouncilÍs changes were implemented.

The Franciscan Order was founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1222. Shortly before that, in 1214 at the fourth Lateran Council, the novitiate year was made obligatory for all young men who wanted to join a religious order. During this novitiate year, they were to live the daily life of the community, under the supervision of a Novice Master.

For the first ten days, the incoming young men are called Postulants. On the tenth day, at the Clothing ceremony, they become Novices. For those ten days they overlap with the previous yearÍs group of Novices, who pass on to them all the lore about the daily life --work, prayer, and study--of the novitiate. Those days, which take up the next few chapters, were by far the longest of my life.

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