in which Father Smith bikes twenty miles in rain to celebrate
his second Sunday Mass at the fruit market, then baptizes
Elvira Sarno and Joseph Scott, and finally hears the confession
of a non-repenting, dying sailor.
As he freewheeled down the long hill, Father Smith remembered with irritation that, as a member of the League of Saint Columba, he had promised to say a Pater, an Ave, and a Gloria daily for the conversion of Scotland. There was no dispensation either on Sundays, not even for priests who had to bicycle twenty miles on an empty stomach to say two Masses and preach two sermons in separated parishes, who had their office to recite as well and another sermon and benediction to give in the evening. 'Our Father, Who art in heaven,' he began but gave it up before he had proceeded more than one or two clauses, because the rain was dripping down the back of his neck and because he felt that praying for the conversion of Scotland never seemed to do much good anyway, as, for all the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, Caledonia, stern and wild, continued, in 1908, to remain as unimaginatively Presbyterian and unsanctified as before. What could even God and all His saints make of a country which preferred the metrical version of the Psalms to inspired English or Latin and whisky to wine? Was it not Hilaire Belloc who had written:
'Where'er a Catholic sun doth shine|
There's always laughter and good red wine,
At least I have always found it so,
He would like to quote the version in a sermon, but supposed that if he did he would probably be misunderstood, especially by those who had responded to Monsignor O'Duffy's: 'My dear brethren in Jesus Christ, it begins with a thimbleful and it ends with a bucketful, as all good Kartholic drunks have had to avow in the Holy Sarkrament of Penance.'
Instead, he began to pray for the souls of all those who must die and be judged that day, one hundred and forty thousand of them, according to the statistics. This he never found difficult, because he was filled with pity for so many ignorant blasphemers, liars, cowards, misers, successful business men, and fornicators who must wake up, in the last flutter of an eyelid, to the awful realization that Revelation was really true, after all, and that the graph of their compromisings, bibblings, cruelties, wenchings, and tattlings was going to be read out to them by Almighty God Himself. 'Je vous offre toutes les messes qui se célèbrent aujourd'hui dans le monde entier pour les pauvres pécheurs qui sont maintenant à l'agonie et qui doivent mourir ce même jour,' 2 he murmured, using, as always, the French prayer he had once seen hanging up in the porch of a Breton church, and thinking of all the forgetful people he saw daily walking with vacant eyes along the ugly streets. For it was people like that who were dying, dull men in Moscow and Madrid, raddled old women in Perth and New York, gathered into God's basket like so many surprised gasping fish. Of course they wouldn't all go to hell any more than they would all go to heaven. There was purgatory, wherein the weak and the worldly were made clean, because even the best of men couldn't hope to go clod-hopping straight into God's presence after spending a lifetime talking about umbrellas and colds in the head.
'Que le sang précieux de Jésus Rédempteur leur obtienne miséricorde et pardon.'3 But, in spite of the Precious Blood of Jesus some people, the wilfully bowler-hatted and the blind, the oppressors of the poor, politicians and bank presidents, lechers and lewd women on high sofas, seemed bound to go plumb down to hell, because they had died in the state of final impenitence, which was the sin against the Holy Ghost. And hell, according to the theologians, was a very unpleasant place indeed. Sorer than the sorest pain that had ever been suffered in the world and going on for ever and ever. 'Imagine being simultaneously burned alive and having your nails torn out and your entrails wound through a pronged mangle and having your eyes gouged out and your limbs pulled apart by horses and knowing that the pain would never stop - well, no Gaiety girl's worth that, is she?' Monsignor O'Duffy had once told the men's guild in Tobermory. The Bishop, however, had been inclined to take a more tolerant view. 'All we really know about hell is that it is a state that exists,' he had once told Father Smith when they had been climbing Ben Nevis together. 'We know that hell exists because God has told us so, and God can neither deceive nor be deceived. But we are not bound to believe that there is anybody in it. Even to Judas Iscariot, God may have granted the grace of final repentance between his falling from the tree and his bowels gushing out. And even if there are poor unfortunate souls in hell, we are, I think, entitled to believe that their agonies are spiritual rather than physical. For the essence of hell is separation from God, and even unbelievers and sinners shall love God in hell and feel their loss of Him. Indeed a Spanish priest once told me that he thought it not unlikely that the damned would be punished in hell by being forced to practise for all eternity those very vices through whose indulgence on earth they had forfeited heaven. And sometimes, Father, when out of Christian charity and social politeness I have to listen to the conversation of worldlings, I am not sure that he wasn't right. From an unsupernatural standpoint, the chief grumble I've got against sin is that it's so boring.'
The approach to the town lay through rows of long damp depressed streets, each so dismal that Father Smith found it both easy and difficult to understand why their inhabitants did not try to lead Christian lives: easy, because there was nothing about those streets to inspire men to the pursuit of the good and the beautiful; difficult, because the lack of inspiration should have been itself an inspiration, since it ought to have occurred to the beholders of such ugliness that life could not possibly have been intended to be so meaningless. Although the church bells were already ringing, there were few worshippers abroad in these streets, because the Church of Scotland had long ago lost the allegiance of the industrial poor. Here and there a few newsagents' shops were open, with pyramids of Gold Flake boxes and walking-sticks in the window. In the doorway of a tenement a brilliantined young Jew stood swinging a yellow cane. Father Smith said a prayer for him, too, as he passed, although he didn't think it would do much good.
Down along the tramlines he sped, down past the hoardings shouting Wincarnis and Van Houten, down, down, down, with here and there another Father Smith sailing briefly through the blue or the green glassy sea of an ironmonger's or a fruiterer's blinded window. In the centre of the town the burgesses were out in their morning coats and top hats and their wives with their feather boas and their bored young sons and their prunes-and-prisms young daughters, all trooping staunchly along under the bells to worship the God of Bethel and Balmoral and porridge and bagpipes and kilts and preference shares in jute companies. Father Smith prayed for them, too, as he passed, because he knew that they weren't really bad, but only slothful and selfish and stupid, and that there had once been something rather fine and noble about Calvinism, when men had erred in doctrine through a desire to speak with God. Past the gaunt High Kirk he sped, with the elders standing beside the collection plates at the open door, past the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, where all the real nobs went, on until he come to more newsagents and the slums and the docks, on until he came to the fruit market which had been hired out by the Town Council to the Catholics on Sundays, so that the holy sacrifice of the Mass might be offered and Christ come again through the morning in the swift white sacrament of His love.
The outside of the fruit market was often covered with bawdy monosyllables, but Father Smith had never paid much attention to them, because he knew that they hadn't been intended as an insult to God. Today, however, he noticed that there were anti-religious challenges as well, such as: TO HELL WITH THE POPE, and one whose misspelling made him smile: NO POPERY ALOUD. He knew that there had been opposition on the part of certain influential bigots to. the letting-out of the fruit market to the Catholics, but he didn't suppose that anyone very important had scrawled those crude letters. The sacristan, however, who was laying out the vestments in the shut-off space behind the packing-cases, took a grave view of the matter.
'There's trouble in the air, Father,' he said, as the priest took from his bag the little cruet containing the unswallowed ablutions from his first Mass at Drumfillans. He was a knobbly old sailor who had led the life of a saint all over the seven seas and the world's most stinking ports. 'Airchie Tamson and yon crowd of his are out for trouble.'
'Well, well, if trouble comes, it'll keep our religion from getting rusty,' Father Smith said. 'That's the great thing about persecution: it keeps you up to the mark. It's habit, not hatred, that is the real enemy of the Church of God.
'All the same I'd like fine to get the same Airchie Tamson a guid bang on the heid,' the sacristan said.
Father Smith did not answer, but bundled into his alb, flung a violet stole over his shoulders, and went down to the other end of the market to hear confessions, because, although it was a sung Mass, holy communion was to be given as there had been no other Mass earlier in the day. As he sat on his lonely chair shriving old women whose thoughts had wandered during their prayers and young men who had slipped their hands inside girls' bodices, the priest could hear Miss O'Hara testing out the cock-and-hen choir on the Agnus Dei.4 'Tum-tum, now all together: "Agnus Dei, Qui tollis peccata mundi." '5 The singing, as usual, was almost as bad as the accents, but Father Smith was sure that Almighty God would hear it with a lenient ear, because every false note was meant as praise, which was not always true of trillings from hired sopranos in Milan, Seville, and Vienna.
'Father, I'm downright ashamed of myself and I'm sorry, but I know fine I'll do it again,' an unhappy male voice came through the wire netting which the postman had detached from a rabbit hutch and nailed over the hole on the old pierrot ticket office to do duty for a grill.
'My child, of course you know that you'll do it again, because you're relying on yourself and not on God's grace,' the priest said. 'Pray for God's grace, pray to Our Lady, come frequently to holy communion, and you'll be surprised at the progress you'll make.'
'I'll do my best, Father, but if God kens as much about me as I ken about myself, He must ken fine I'm damned already,' the voice said. 'And in any case He must ken already because He's God and kens everything before it happens like.'
'That, of course, is true,' Father Smith said. 'Almighty God knows already whether each one of us is saved or damned, since omniscience is an attribute of His omnipotence but that does not alter the fact that each one of us will be saved or damned of his own free will, although God knows beforehand how we shall use our free will. It's like a man standing on a railway bridge watching an express train coming down the line and a cow crossing a field towards the line. The man knows that the cow will be killed, but the cow has still the free will to turn aside and not be killed, although the man also knows that the cow is too stupid to use her free will and turn aside and not be killed. For your penance you will say one Our Father and three Hail Marys. And now make your act of contrition while I give you absolution.'
'Thanks, Father. And I'll try not to forget yon bit about the cow.'
Miss O'Hara was still drilling her choir when Father Smith left the confessional, but she stopped as soon as she saw the priest approaching.
'I think I've got them all right now, Father, although the introit is still a little creaky,' she said.
'I'm sure they'll be excellent,' the priest said, and smiled at Miss O'Hara and at the whole tired earnest choir with their squee-gee hats and pouter-pigeon throats. The choir smiled back, because they liked the priest and thought that it was grand fun being able to praise the Lord in loud rumbling Latin.
The priest thought of the penitents whom he had just shriven as he walked away back down through the congregation to vest for Mass, and prayed for them that they might be given strength to go on struggling against their sins. Back in his makeshift sacristy, however, he thought of the great sacrifice of God's Body and Blood which he was going to offer and of the sweet ineffable unfailing mystery which his own unworthy human consecrated hands were about to perform.
The scrabble of acolytes were already in their scarlet cassocks and white cottas and were jostling and tumbling, although they were quite pious boys really and never passed the Blessed Sacrament without genuflecting and took it in turn to serve Father Smith's weekday Mass, which was said in the schoolroom. Three of them were caddies on the golf course and one was a fishmonger's boy, and they generally went about together, since it was difficult going about with Protestant boys, as they had to try and love our Lord and not tell dirty stories because they were Catholics. Father Smith looked at them and loved them as he took off his violet stole and put on a green one, crossing it under his girdle to represent Christ's passion and death. Then he put on a big faded green cope, which Monsignor O'Duffy had sent down to him from the pro-Cathedral, because a wealthy publican had presented the chapter with a shimmering new one, with alpha and omega embroidered in scarlet and gold on the hood.
The congregation stood up as Father Smith marched in to give the asperges, with Tim O'Hooley and Angus McNab holding back the sides of his cope. 'Asperges me,' he intoned in his throaty voice which the Bishop had once said he was afraid would never be quite the real Mackay and Miss O'Hara and her billiard markers, insurance touts, and untouched virgins zoomed and screeched back: 'Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor.'
Down through the files of the faithful went Father Smith, with Patrick O'Shea walking in front, carrying the bucket of holy water. Railway porters, dockers, sailors, schoolmistresses, shopgirls, and servant girls all crossed themselves as the silver glistening blobs came flicking out at them. Across hats and shawls and bold bald pates the priest sprinkled the holy water, symbolically washing them from their weekday thoughts and ambitions, out across the old women at the back wearing their husbands' tweed caps stuck on with a big pin, because, although Saint Paul had said that a woman's crowning glory was her hair, he had also said that she ought to keep it covered when she went into the house of the Lord. To the three chorus girls with hair like wood shavings Father Smith gave a special sprinkle because he thought their pale yellow faces looked so awful, and to Professor Brodie Ferguson in the third row because he thought that the metaphysician suffered from intellectual pride.
In the green chasuble with a lamb on the back which from a distance looked like a horse, in the little house of charity, with his hands joined, Father Smith began the Mass, confessing to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to Tim O'Hooley, Angus McNab, Patrick O'Shea, and the blistered old charwoman kneeling in the draught at the back, that he had sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, through his fault, through his fault, through his own most grievous fault. The choir ironed out, flattened, tore asunder, and sent bellying up to heaven like a shriek from a dying pig the introit for the third Sunday after Epiphany, 'Adorate Deum, omnes angeli eius', 6 right on to 'laetentur insulae multae,' 7 and then wheezed forth the Kyrie while Father Smith took the thurible from Angus McNab and blessed the incense and sent it whirling in fragrant blue puffs up to the throne of God.
It was raining again outside and Father Smith could hear the heavy drops on the corrugated-iron roof as he crossed to sing the Gospel. When he turned to preach the sermon, he saw that some of the congregation were sitting with their umbrellas up because the roof was leaking in places. He read through the notices at a rate because he didn't want the faithful to get too wet and he knew that few ever listened anyway. Then, when he had read the Epistle and Gospel in English, he began his sermon.
'All the glory of the king's daughter is in golden borders; clothed round about with varieties. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.' Father Smith knew that at the best of times he was no preacher, and this morning, after having preached and said one Mass already and cycled twenty miles and all on an empty stomach, he despaired of his ability to ram home the reality of the beauty of the Church of God into the porridge of holy, thoughtless Italo-Irish poltroons that faced him. As he hesitated after giving out his text, a baby began to whimper at the back and from the empty godless street outside came the moan of an urchin singing that winter's pantomime success:
'If I should plant a tiny seed or love|
in the garden of your heart...'
'The universality of the Church of God is a fact for which Catholics ought never to cease to give thanks. It is perhaps hard for us in this rusty, ramshackle fruit market in sorry, separated Scotland to realize that in our worship, faith, and doctrine we are at one with the great congregations in the Cathedrals of Europe. No Bishop in Chartres, no Cardinal in Burgos or Warsaw, nay, my dear brethren, no Pontiff in Rome, no, not even the Holy Father himself, consecrates more surely bread to Christ's Body and wine to Christ's Blood than do I, your unworthy parish priest. It is a thought which ought to make us both proud and humble: proud because we alone among our fellow countrymen are in step with European tradition and speak the good sane grammar of God; humble because we of ourselves have done nothing to deserve so glorious a privilege.'
Looking out over the faces at which he was preaching, he saw that they were looking neither proud nor humble, although here and there a mouth gaped and an eye peered. The three chorus girls sat with their faces spooned up under their hats and Professor Brodie Ferguson had his eyes screwed up and his nose wrinkled, probably because he thought he knew all about the Church of God already. Several women were openly reciting the rosary, clicking their beads along on top of their muffs.
'Yet it is not the universality of the Church that makes its doctrine true. If only one person in the whole world accepted the teaching of the Church, that doctrine would still be true. If nobody at all believed the teaching of the Church, the mathematic of faith would still be as true as was the law of gravity before Newton discovered it. For faith is not a sort of competition in a magazine, to which the various sects send in their doctrinal guesses and hope for the best; it is belief in revelation on the authority of God Himself.' The chorus girls' faces and the professor's nose were still unimpressed and at the back of them all the baby began to howl as though its mother were prodding it with pins.
Perhaps it was his rhetoric that was at fault, Father Smith thought as he meandered on. Or perhaps it was just that it was the hardest thing in the world for one human being to shine into another human being the glow that burned within himself, even when the glow was from God. Yet surely these Catholics to whom he was preaching and who had to suffer criticism and hatred in a land which spurned their faith, surely they must understand that in the spread of their religion lay the world's one sure hope, since the Church spoke the same things to all men in all tongues.
'So,' he concluded, 'so we may make for our own the words of the psalmist, when he sings of the future Bride of Christ in the words which I have chosen for my text today. All the glory of the king's daughter is in golden borders and she is clothed round about with varieties. But let us remember that the golden borders are there to honour Almighty God and not men. The priest wears rich vestments at Mass and incense is burned because Christ is coming on the altar and must be met with symbols of love and reverence, rickety and inadequate as they may be. And even if the symbols weren't there, even if a priest were to say Mass in rags and tatters, the king's daughter would still be in golden borders, because Christ would be there as He promised when He said: "Lo, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world." Thus, in this our rented tabernacle we know that God will come to His tryst; but we know also that it is our duty to provide a more fitting dwelling place for Him and so we hope that it will soon be possible for us to build a church of our own where we may worship Him and adore. A blessing which I wish you all in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.'
The priest felt happier as he turned back to go on with the Mass and began the Credo, because now he knew that he was again on rails and could not fail. Yet was not the very certainty of the hard fast safe words that he was going to utter itself fraught with danger, since it was so easy to say them carelessly? As he sat on the sedilia with his hands palms downward on his knees and his biretta big and black and bold on the back of his head listening to Miss O'Hara's cocks and hens bawling 'Genitum non factum,'8 he remembered having read somewhere that the first time Robert Hugh Benson had sung High Mass in Westminster Cathedral, he had felt sure that he had committed a mortal sin, because he had been paying more attention to music than to meaning. 'Et in vitam venturi saeculi, amen.' 9 With the tail of his chasuble flipping out behind him, Father Smith returned to the altar.
With his arms spread like Christ's upon the tree, he prayed for the living, for Professor Brodie Ferguson and Miss O'Hara and the three chorus girls and Mr. Balfour and Mr. H. G. Wells and old Mrs. Flanigan who kept the lodging-house in John Knox Street and hadn't been to Mass since she had had her ingrowing toenail cut out, that they might be granted fellowship with John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Cecily, and Anastasia. The mystery was quickly over. Saints' names came and went like windows lit with God, and God Himself in the orbit of His own chosen understandment. With his arms spread and his thumbs and forefingers joined, the priest prayed that the servants and handmaids of the Lord who had gone before in the sign of faith might rest in Christ and that to those whose souls and whose bodies had once itched and sinned far back beneath forgotten Spanish moons God might grant a place of refreshment, light, and peace. Then, when he had communicated himself, he was away from the altar and along the altar rails, popping the frail flake of Christ into the mouths of saints and sinners that Christ might keep their bodies and souls until life everlasting, because nothing else mattered.
He was happy when he was back in the sacristy and out of his vestments, because now the load of his priesting was lifted and he was able to say glad lovely words in the thanksgiving: 'Trium puerorum cantemus hymnum, quem cantabant sancti in camino ignis, benedicentes Dominum.' 10 But while he was calling upon the sun and the moon, shower and dew, fire and heat to bless the Lord, the sacristan came and told him that there were two babies waiting at the back to be baptized, so he had to scamper through the rest of his prayer, right down to 'praise him on well-sounding cymbals,' and hoped that God would pardon him for his haste, because God must know just as well as he did that it was important for babies to be baptized.
There was quite a clutter of hats and boas and new blue waistcoats and watchchains and creaky shoes round the portable font when Father Smith reached it in cotta and stole, and the babies themselves, with closed eyelids and spittle on their lips. One baby was a girl, the daughter of the Paolo Sarno, the Italian ice-cream merchant, and the other was a boy, the son of James Scott, driver of the Corporation tramways. The two families readily agreed to Father Smith reading the main part of the service for both babies at once, but of course he said that he would put the salt on their tongues and baptize them separately, because that was the part that gave them a chance of becoming saints and living with God for ever and ever in heaven.
Before he began the service, he spoke a few words to the parents of the baby girl in Italian, because he had been trained at the Scots College in Rome and loved speaking the language. The women's dark eyes glowed and the men smiled and showed their very white teeth, because they liked the idea of their baby being baptized by a priest who knew how to speak Italian. Father Smith spoke to the tramway driver and his men friends and womenfolk, too, and pressed the Scots baby's nose twice as many times as he had pressed the Italian baby's in case they should be jealous at his having spoken so much to the other parents in a language which they didn't understand. Then he opened his rituale 11 and hared off down the Ordo Baptismi Parvulorum, 12 because he was hungry and in a hurry for his lunch, which he knew that he couldn't have until he had transformed the two children before him into potential saints and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.
His thoughts wandered once or twice during his recitation of the rapid Latin, but they wandered in the right direction, and he knew that the Lord couldn't really be angry with him, because he was thinking about baptism and not about his lunch. 'Exorcizo te, creatura salis, in nomine Dei Patris omnipotentis...' 13 How easy baptism was and how kind God had been to institute so simple a sacrament, and how heavy were the responsibilities of godparents and how lightly they took them as a general rule! But that was just Almighty God's way of doing things: He sent sanctifying grace down in great splashes so that the silver shining puddles lay about all over the earth for people to tramp through or stoop and drink as their dispositions gave them perception. What were these two babies he was baptizing now going to become? Were they going to be for Christ or against Him or followers of the middle way, bowing both to God and Mammon. 'Accipe sal sapientiae'.14 The baby girl whimpered as she tasted the salt, but the boy took it greedily, opening his bright blue eyes in mild surprise. The parents creaked in their new shoes and stared at the priest out of dull vegetable eyes. Father Smith named the two infants in Christ for all eternity as he poured the water over their brows, baptizing Elvira Maria Francesca and Joseph Dominic Aloysius in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Once again the girl whimpered, but the boy was unperturbed. Father Smith had turned his stole from the violet side to the white side as a sign that Satan and all his works and pomps had been renounced. He finished the service, praying away happily. When he had finished, the Italians were all over him with 'Grazie tante,' but the tramway driver, James Scott, stood aside and remained behind even when the members of his family had left.
'Father, I'd like to show my gratitude to you,' he said as he pressed a crisp note into the priest's hand. 'I know you won't take it for yourself, but take it for that new church you're soon going to start building, please.'
Father Smith never liked taking money from his parishioners, even for holy purposes, because he felt that praying and doing God's glad work was an easy way of earning one's living compared with scrubbing floors or driving tramway cars, but he took the money all the same, because he knew that the tramway driver would have been insulted if he hadn't and that God needed a fitting home anyway.
The sacristan was waiting for him with a worried look when he came back to unvest.
'Father, there's an old sailor dying at Mistress Flanigan's and the auld besom's sent a laddie for to tell ye to come at once.'
With difficulty Father Smith repressed a snort of impatience. He was hungry and he was tired and he had been long enough a priest to bear a grudge against sinners for always choosing to die at awkward moments - in the middle of the night or when a poached egg had just been served. He remembered, however, the shock with which he had once heard Father Bonnyboat say on an Easter Sunday, 'I'm sick to death of giving holy communion,' and reminded himself that death was no less death to the sinner who was dying because others had died before him and that he was Christ's priest who had been marked and anointed and ordained to save human souls.
As he had no permanent church, Father Smith had to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in Montrose Street, where he had rented two rooms for a presbytery. Tearing out of his cassock, he hurried away down on his bicycle. The streets were still slippy and slimy from the rain and his back tyre skidded twice and once his frontĚ wheel got caught in the tram line. Even when she heard that someone was dying, his landlady wanted him to have his lunch first, saying that the roast beef would spoil if it were kept in the oven much longer, but the priest told her sharply that the fate of a human soul was much more important than any amount of roast beef, and rushed into the chapel, where with blundering fingers he plucked a Host out of the ciborium and hung it in a silver pyx round his neck and under his coat. He also took the holy oils with him as well, to anoint the sailor's eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, and feet and cleanse him from his sins of sense.
Because it was raining again when he came out, he took the tram because there was a direct line to John Knox Street and he didn't want to run the risk of a fall when he was carrying the Blessed Sacrament. The tram was empty because the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians had been out of church for a long time now and it was still a bit early for the brilliantined young men and their girls. The conductor took the priest's fare sullenly and then stood at the back whistling through his teeth and reading Photo-Bits. The tram zoomed and lurched away down the street with Father Smith making acts of adoration to the Blessed Sacrament opposite a stained-glass advertisement for Odol.
The priest knew that Mrs. Flanigan's lodging-house in Knox Street was not all that it should be, but he had no hesitations about taking the Blessed Sacrament there, because real sinners always knew how to respect our Lord and because our Lord Himself had been in even lower dives when He had lived on earth. Mrs. Flanigan was at the door to receive him, in a fine state of sweat and nerves and holding a monster lighted candle in her hand, because she knew that the priest would be carrying the Host.
'Praise be to Jasus, you've come, Father,' she said. 'It was only this morning that I found out that he was a Catholic and I sent for your riverence as soon as the doctor told me he was dying. Faith and he's lying cursing and swearing fit to burst himself, he is and all, but I've no doubt that yon'll be pleased enough to see you when you tell him who you are.'
The priest nodded and followed Mrs. Flanigan along the passage smelling of brussels sprouts and linoleum. From an open door three pretty girls in dressing gowns poked tousled heads and two of them curtsied and crossed themselves because, although they were bad girls, they didn't hate God at all and knew that it was Jesus of Nazareth Who had walked on the Sea of Galilee Who was passing by. 'Faith, ye trollops, and let the holy praist bay, will ye now,' Mrs. Flanigan shouted at them as she pulled the door shut, because she wanted Father Smith to imagine that it was a hotel she ran.
In the bedroom where the sailor lay dying, Mrs. Flanigan had already placed a crucifix, two lighted candles, and a glass of water on the bed-table, because she always kept these things handy, since she didn't want to run any risks when the Lord called upon her to kick the bucket herself. The sailor himself was a very ill sailor and he lay on a high bed in a pair of widely striped pyjamas. Lying there with his eyes closed, his face looked not unlike the face of His Holiness Pope Pius X, but Father Smith suspected that the thoughts which went on behind it were slightly different. When he had laid the pyx and the chrism on the linen cloth, the priest motioned to Mrs. Flanigan to leave him alone with the dying man. When she had gone, he sat down beside the bed and took the old sailor's hand in his. The old sailor's hand was very hot and Father Smith felt very sorry for him being so ill and dying, but he knew that there was no time to be lost.
'My child, I've come to hear your confession,' he said.
The old sailor opened a pair of very blue eyes. They appeared to take some time to interpret the priest's presence, but when they succeeded, they grew dark and angry.
'Leave me alone, won't you,' the old sailor said, half-raising himself from his bed and falling back again.
Father Smith smiled wearily. Fifteen years ago when he had been a young priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament to deathbeds, protests like this had both shocked and frightened him, because it had been hard for a young priest of twenty-five with strong black hair to reconcile hoary sinners with God. But the strong black hair was peppered with grey now and he had knocked about with his Lord in all corners of the vineyard and had learned a thing or two about motives of pride and human respect.
'My son, you are dying and nobody is going to think you a fine fellow any longer for denying our Blessed Lord,' he said. 'The time for acquiring merit is short. I am God's priest and I am here to hear your confession.'
As he had expected, his words had an almost immediate effect. The hostile glare vanished from the old sailor's eyes and he turned his head away from the priest and said:
'It's true, Father. I've been all sorts of a dirty swine, but it's too late now.'
'It's never too late as long as you're alive,' Father Smith said. 'That's just where God's mercy comes in.' But did it? Mightn't it have been a bit more merciful on God's part to have set a time limit on repentance, say forty-five? There would have been no inducement for sinners to keep putting things off to the last moment then and it would have been a lot easier for priests. Father Smith smiled briefly at his own impertinence and rather imagined that God was smiling too, and then he got back to the dreary business of getting a not very original sinner to acknowledge his sloth, his stupidity, and his cowardice.
It was obvious at once that the sailor had not been practicing his religion for years, because he said right away that he didn't remember when he had last been, to Mass or holy communion, although he had never gone to sleep without saying a Hail Mary, because out East a fellow never knew when he wouldn't wake up with his throat slit. Then he started off to tell the priest about all the women he had known in Buenos Aires and Hong Kong and said that he had liked the women in Hong Kong best, but Father Smith said that he though they had better go through the Commandments from the beginning and see how many he had broken because after all it was a bigger mortal sin to have forgotten to love God all one's life than to have known tawdry Jezebels in foreign ports. The sailor said that that was quite easy and that there was no need to go through the Commandments at all, because he had broken the whole lot of them right down to coveting his neighbour's ass, and that Father Smith was quite wrong, as the women weren't tawdry at all, especially the ones in China, who had had gold on their fingernails and worn black satin slippers with high red heels, and that now that he came to think of it he wasn't sorry for having known all these women at all, since they had all been so beautiful and that he would like to know them again if he got the chance. Father Smith said that that was very wrong of the sailor and that our Lord and our Lady and Saint Joseph and the saints were very much more beautiful than any number of Chinese harlots with high heels; but the sailor said that he wasn't so sure, and that he still wasn't sorry for having known all these women, because their dresses had made such lovely sounds when they walked, and in South America it had been much the same thing and the governor general had seemed to think so too, because he had always been at old Señora Alvarez's every Saturday night. The priest said that was no way for a man to talk to God when he was dying and that the old sailor had better hurry up and be sorry for his sins if he didn't want to go to hell and lose Almighty God for ever and ever; but the old sailor said that while he was sorry for having missed the Sacraments so often and for not having loved God more, he wasn't sorry for having known all those women, because they had all been so beautiful and some of them very kind as well. In despair Father Smith asked the old sailor if he was sorry for not being sorry for having known all these women and the old sailor said that yes he was sorry for not being sorry and hoped that God would understand. Whereupon Father Smith said that he thought that perhaps God would understand, and he absolved the old sailor from his sins, pouring the merits of Christ's Passion over the old sailor's forgetfulness of God and those long-ago dresses that had made such lovely sounds.
It was easy enough to anoint the old sailor, because he lay quite still and seemed to like it when Father Smith took the holy oil of chrism and healed his limbs and his senses walking away from and touching away from and hearing and seeing and smelling away from Jesus for so long; but it wasn't so easy for the old sailor to swallow the Blessed Sacrament, because his mouth was dry and parched and Father Smith had to help him by making him drink some water afterwards. Then the old sailor seemed to sink into unconsciousness, although Father Smith knew that he was still alive because the stripes on his pyjamas kept going up and down. Kneeling beside the bed, the priest began to recite the prayers for the dying: 'Go, Christian soul, from this world, in the Name of God the Father Almighty, Who created thee; in the Name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who suffered for thee; in the Name of the Holy Ghost, Who was breathed into thee; in the name of the glorious and holy virgin Mother of God Mary; in the name of blessed Joseph, the illustrious spouse of the same Virgin; in the name of angels and archangels; in the name of thrones and dominions; in the name of principalities and powers; in the name of virtues, cherubim and seraphim; in the name of patriarchs and prophets; in the name of holy apostles and evangelists; in the name of holy martyrs and confessors; in the name of holy monks and hermits; in the name of holy virgins and of all God's saints.'
Father Smith was still praying away when the door opened and Mrs. Flanigan and two of the girls entered and knelt with him round the bed, crossing themselves mightily. 'Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,' Father Smith began, but the stripes on the old sailor's pyjamas were going too quickly up and down for him to be able to answer, so Mrs. Flanigan and the two girls had to answer for him: 'Lord Jesus, receive my soul.'
Although the old sailor was too ill to be able to pray, Mrs. Flanigan said that she thought that it would be a good idea if he were to hold a crucifix in his hand, so that his eyes might get accustomed to the image of his Saviour before meeting Him face to face in the next world, and Father Smith said that he quite agreed. So they took the crucifix from the bed-table and pressed it into the old sailor's hands. At first he didn't seem to want to hold it, but at last he gripped it firmly and his eyes shone brightly and eagerly, and Father Smith told Mrs. Flanigan that he was sure that the old sailor was going to make a good death after all, and that he hoped that it would be a lesson to them all to forsake their sins, because Almighty God didn't always grant such wonderful last-minute graces.
The stripes on the old sailor's pyjamas began to go up and down more quickly and Father Smith shot out invocations at such a rate that Mrs. Flanigan and the two young ladies were unable to keep pace with him: 'Saint Joseph, pray for me. Saint Joseph, with thy Blessed Virgin Spouse, open to me the breast of divine mercy. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, be present with me in my last agony. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, let me sleep and rest in peace with you.' Then the old sailor's pyjamas were very' still and his face seemed to shrink away and away as though it were trying to become a baby's face again. Father Smith prayed to the saints of God and to the angels of the Lord that they might come and run thither and carry the old sailor's soul into the sight of the Most High, because he knew that the old sailor was dead.
More trams were running when the priest got back out into the street, all covered with red and blue and green advertisements, as though eating toffee went on for ever, and the young men were out with their pale pink young ladies. Father Smith walked home because he was no longer in a hurry and because he wanted to think of the old sailor being judged by the Lord and to pray for him.
At the bleak corner of a street, round the South African War Memorial, clots of working men in stiff blue or brown suits and stiffer tweed caps stood with their hands thrust glumly into their pockets, because there were no racing or football results to discuss. In front of their sightless mooning, a handful of women and elderly men were gathered round a harmonium, which a young girl with pink rims round her eyes was pounding ecstatically. Just so, Father Smith reflected, as he stopped for a moment to observe, must Saint Paul have appeared to the inhabitants of Pamphylia and Phrygia and Ephesus and Corinth, only his doctrine must have been slightly less emotional and of course there could have been no harmonium. He wondered whether, after all, Catholics might not learn from Protestants and whether the precursor of real religious conversion in Britain might not be the revival of an order of itinerant preaching friars, who would go about the lanes and the highways and the ugly cities preaching to everybody the great lovely truths about Jesus Christ and His Church. Of course there would be blasphemy and offence, but there would also be some gladness in the lives of those who listened and understood. As he stood there thinking this, a thick burly little man with an enormous bowler hat and an inflamed eye detached himself from the hymn-singing group and accosted the priest.
'So you're Father Smith?' he asked truculently.
'I am. And to whom have I the honour of speaking?'
'You're speaking to Councillor Thompson, Chairman of the Protestant Action Society. I'm warning you: I'm your enemy. We don't want any dirty Catholics in this part of the town. We don't want them carrying on their blasphemous activities in the fruit market. And if you'll no get out, we'll make you.'
For a second or two the priest thought that the man was going to spit in his face, but when he had uttered his threats he walked quickly back to the hymn-singers, bulging beneath his bowler hat. Father Smith stayed on just long enough to make people think he wasn't afraid and then moved on homeward, unhappy within, because he didn't like being hated, not even for our Lord's sake. He had always wanted to be a popular priest, loved by his parishioners, with the religion he preached respected and understood by all. In his wiser moments he knew that this was a weakness, because God hadn't intended religion to be easy for anybody, least of all for priests. Such a moment came to him now as he asked God to give him strength not to be a coward. After all, he thought, God let modern priests off fairly lightly, since He didn't ask them to be grilled alive like Saint Lawrence. But perhaps being grilled alive hurt less than one imagined if one had God's good grace to help one. Then he remembered that, although it was already past two o'clock, he hadn't yet said his daily prayers for the conversion of Scotland and he said them right then so that he could start straight away into his roast beef as soon as he reached home.
1 Bless the Lord.
2 I offer you all the Masses celebrated today in the entire World for the poor sinners, who are in agony now and who have to die on this same day.
3 May the Precious Blood of Jesus the Redeemer obtain for them mercy and pardon.
4 Lamb of God.
5 Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
6 Adore God, all you His Angels. (Ps 97:7)
7 Let many islands be glad. (Ps 97:1)
8 Begotten, not made.
9 And the Life of the world to come. Amen.
10 Let us sing the hymn of the three children, which these holy ones sang in fiery furnace, praising the Lord.
11 Roman Ritual
12 Ceremonial order for the Baptism of Infants
13 I exorcise thee, creature of salt, in the name of God the Father almighty ...
14 Receive the salt of wisdom.
|Back to index||
This page has been visited
00160 times since April 28, 2016