Chapter 16

in which Father Smith's faith is questioned and ridiculed by a young, emancipated novelist.

On the Feast of Saint Andrew, 1924, when Father Smith went to say his prayers in the High Kirk, Angus still hadn't found a regular job and was making a living as best he could, touting bootlaces and matches in the street and selling pencils from office to office. Of course, his red-and-blue D.C.M. ribbon helped a little, but not as much as it should, because businessmen were now saying that Britain had made only one mistake in the war and that was in fighting on the wrong side, and that in any case it hadn't been such a bad war for the soldiers as some of them tried to make out. There was no sign of a religious revival in the land either, but the clergy of all denominations didn't seem to be worrying about that any longer, but instead were denouncing war as a crime, a treachery, and a cowardice, so perhaps it had been illogical to expect any good to come from it.

In the West End of London, Edna Best and Miss Tallulah Bankhead were most modern when they got tight, blotto, and squiffed together in Fallen Angels, a play by a young man called Noel Coward, who also had another two plays running simultaneously and was an actor himself as well and could play the piano quite dandy, too. An older man called George Bernard Shaw also had a play called Saint Joan running, and there was a marvellous speech in it about the danger of heresy, but people who really knew were beginning to whisper that he wasn't a patch on Mr. Aldous Huxley's pants, which were very enlightened indeed. The Constant Nymph kept Mr. Augustine Birrell awake into the small hours of the morning and The Green Hats grew all around.

In politics Mr. Ramsay MacDonald had come into power, but Signor Sarno still changed the advertisements outside hill cinema twice a week, only the ladies that were appearing in the epoch-making smashing slices of life were now called Miss Gloria Swanson and Miss Lillian Gish and Miss Pola Negri, and the great big world kept churning out Mr. William Gerhardi and Mr. Beverley Nichols, because there was room for them as well, and one was getting rather tired of Chesterton and Belloc and Wells and Galsworthy, although even stockbrokers knew that their works were literature, because they disliked reading them so much.

This year when Father Smith came out from saying his prayers in the church, he didn't find the minister standing in the porch, but he found instead a painted golden young lady in a blue pleated frock. She regarded him with interest as he approached and asked him, with her frock blowing all about her lovely legs:

'Tell me,' she asked, 'do you get much response to the old, old story these days? I'm not asking out of idle curiosity, but from professional interest. I'm a novelist, you see, and I have my public to satisfy.'

'Well, Miss ...' the priest began.

'Miss Dana Agdala, author of Naked and Unashamed, twelve thousand copies here and twenty thousand in America, but perhaps you haven't read me.'

'Well, Miss Agdala, if by "response to the old, old story" you mean correspondence with sanctifying grace, I should say that the world is neither better nor worse than it was,' Father Smith said. 'You see, I'm a Catholic priest ...'

Miss Agdala regarded him with open-mouthed delight.

'A Catholic priest!' she exclaimed. 'But how simply marvellous! I've been dying for years to meet a Catholic priest, but somehow there never seem to be any at any of the parties I go to. I've got such oodles and oodles to ask you that I don't know how I'll ever have time.'

'Perhaps if you were to accompany me part of my way,' Father Smith suggested. 'I've got to return to my presbytery, I'm afraid.'

'That'll be just too devastating,' Miss Agdala said. 'I like "devastating," don't you? Such a crimson word. Well, the first question I want to ask you is: Do you really believe it all, and if so how?'

'I beg your pardon,' Father Smith said as he walked heavily beside her fluttering frock. 'Believe all what?'

'All that poppycock about baptism and purity and the Virgin Birth, of course. My dear man, it's against all modern science and obstetrics.'

'My dear young woman,' Father Smith said, trying hard to keep his voice from trembling, 'my dear young woman, I believe the poppycock about baptism and purity and the Virgin Birth for the same reason as every other Catholic in the world believes them: because God has revealed them as facts and not to believe them would be tantamount to telling God that He was a liar. And I do it by the simplest of all methods: firstly, by obedience, because God tells us to believe these doctrines; and, secondly, by logic, because it is only reasonable to suppose that He Who stuck in the stars and twirled the planets and tugged the tides can override the limitations which He Himself has imposed upon their movements. It is surely for Him Who hewed out heaven to impose His own conditions of admittance, just as it is for Him Who worked out the mathematic of procreation and reproduction to omit the first step if He wants to. And a God Who has done such high things with flowers and trees and kittens' tails can surely give us His own Flesh to eat and His own Blood to drink in the Eucharist. For the miracle of rule and regulation is every bit as much a miracle as the miracle of the suspension of rule and regulation. It is just as much a miracle that your coat should hang where you put it last night as that it should fly to Siberia: for both an act of God is necessary, an act of conservation or of transference. And as for purity, my dear young lady, that is God's business too, since He made children come that way and not daisies or buttercups.'

'My dear Father, you really are a perfect case of sublimation,' Miss Agdala said. 'Shades of Freud and ghosts of Jung! But what do you do about sex yourself? How do you manage to live without us?'

'That is perhaps the easiest part of the religious life,' Father Smith answered. 'To begin with, touching daily the hem of His garment, priests do not see these things as other men do; and, to end with, women's bodies are rarely perfect; they soon grow old and sag, and always the contemplation of them even at their best is a poor and boring substitute for walking with God in His House as a friend; and they make themselves even more unattractive than they are by smearing and plastering and painting themselves until they cannot eat or drink without leaving the rust of their beauty on cups and napkins. I sometimes wonder, Miss Agdala, what a fashionable young woman would do if she awoke to find that her lips had turned permanently, overnight, the colour she painted them. In any case, if I were Pope, I think that I should commend the practice in an encyclical, because it makes women as unattractive as wet railings. But perhaps their conversation is the best antidote to priests seeking their society, because it is so inevitably frivolous, foolish, and boring.' He spoke with such anger that he felt he really meant what he said.

'What you have just said proves what I have always maintained: that religion is only a substitute for sex,' Miss Agdala said.

'I still prefer to believe that sex is a substitute for religion and that the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God,' Father Smith said.

'Read D. H. Lawrence if you don't believe me,' Miss Agdala said. 'Read any of the moderns. It's no use struggling against nature. People must be true to their chemistry. I'm a varietist myself.' She rolled her eyes and swung her haunches as she spoke. 'I may as well tell you once and for all that I don't believe in inhibitions,' she said.

'Only in exhibitions, is that it?' Father Smith said, still finding it difficult to keep the rage and hurt in his soul from rocking his voice. 'Well, let me tell you that Christ came into this world precisely in order to teach men how to struggle against the chemistries, if so you must call them, of desire and self-love. All through the ages the Church of God has worked and prayed for this one end: to persuade men to obey Christ; its mission is and has always been and will always be an immense effort for a small effort: to storm, to threaten, to controvert, and to plead people into trying to correspond with sanctifying grace. Call the practice of this discipline an inhibition if you will. In that case there is not only one inhibition but many, for Christ called men to refrain from murder and theft as well as from impurity. The Catholic Church, however, has another name for this obedience, because it is a rigour which makes saints.'

'But who on earth wants to be a saint these days?' Miss Agdala asked.

'It is not what we want, but what God wants,' Father Smith said. He knew that there was a cleverer answer lying about his mind somewhere, but his anger was such that he could not lay his tongue to it. 'God wants us to want to be saints,' he said.

'My dear sir, you're a masochist, that's what you are,' Miss Agdala said. 'Like three-quarters of the rest of humanity, you are convinced that an action must be wrong if it's pleasant and that virtue consists in self-torture. Paganism is the only true philosophy, running carefree with bare loins across the golden sands of time, lusting with fair nymphs in the forest glades, for it is only when one has been impure that one is pure, because then and only then is one absolved from one's hormones.'

'You do talk a lot of balderdash, don't you?' Father Smith said.

'I am happy if men account me a fool for Pan's sake,' Miss Agdala said. 'And yet it is not I who am the fool but you, because you still believe in the exploded fable of Christianity. Read Bertrand Russell, if you don't believe me; read Lytton Strachey; read Sinclair Lewis; we modern writers have debunked the old myths.'

'Perhaps you have not read your contemporaries quite as intelligently as you imagine,' Father Smith said, wishing that his holy religion did not forbid him to slap the young woman's face. 'I shall tell you why. There are two kinds of agnostics: those who are sorry that they cannot believe the Christian revelation, because they realize both its beauty and its justice; and those who are glad that they need not believe it, because they can murder, steal, oppress, and lust without fear of punishment after death. It is to the former class that the majority of worth-while modern writers appear to me to belong. When Lytton Strachey wrote of the flaws he found in Cardinal Manning's, Florence Nightingale's, General Gordon's, and Queen Victoria's characters, I am prepared to believe that he was actuated by no motive less worthy than a desire impartially to make known the truth. He erred, however, in two respects. As a clever man he ought to have known that the surprising thing is not that a Cardinal Manning should be on occasion an ambitious and an unscrupulous man, but that an ambitious and an unscrupulous man should ever have been a Cardinal Manning. For it is a more astounding proof of God's grace that a sinner should raise himself to practice virtue than it is a proof of the inevitability of the Devil's victory that a virtuous man should in an instance or two sink to sin. The second thing that he should have known was that the process of debunking, pursued from however lofty a motive, is in the end a danger to society. It is so because the majority of readers are so stupid that they do not see the moral end viewed by the author, that of knowing and making known the truth, but come instead to be persuaded that nobody in the whole world is inspired by a disinterested love of God or humanity, but that even the best men are consciously or unconsciously grafters and self-seekers, and that they themselves will be worse than fools if they do not become grafters and self­seekers too. Take Mr. Noel Coward, for instance, whose plays seem to be shocking people into paying him a fortune. I am quite persuaded that the young man is himself on the side of the angels and that his plays are written as sermons, but I am not at all convinced that that is the spirit in which the public goes to applaud them.'

'You can say what you like, but Christianity has outlived its usefulness,' Miss Agdala said as she stopped outside the Hotel Carlton-Elite and stood with her silk legs wide against the marble steps. With its windows like rows of snapshots in a photograph album, the hotel stretched and stretched and stretched.

'On the contrary, Christianity has not even begun to live its usefulness and I doubt if it ever will, because God never promised that it would,' Father Smith said.

'Communism is the only philosophy that will save the world,' Miss Agdala said. 'Did I tell you that I was a communist?'

Father Smith wanted to ask her if she gave all her royalties to the poor, but he didn't because he felt that it would have been too unkind, since a practising communist could never have afforded to stay at the Carlton-Elite where Oliver Ogilvie's Ohio Octette played Yes, We Have No Bananas to the nobs. Instead, he took off his hat and left her with the wind blowing her dress about her knees.

On the fringe of the damp slum of the pro-Cathedral parish he came upon Monsignor O'Duffy, standing outside a chemist's shop and blowing up balloons for a cluster of noisy urchins. The monsignore seemed to be enjoying himself enormously, for when he had blown up the balloons he taught the children a song which he sang himself at them, beating time with his hands and bawling with gusto:

'I wish I was a bobby,
A big, fat bobby.
I'd wash my mither's lobby
Wi' washing sody.'

'I've just been talking to the most objectionable young woman,' Father Smith said as the monsignore and he waved their hands to the children and left them. 'She's a novelist and imagines that she's discovered the secret of the universe, which is that there is no secret at all. That's the worst of all these moderns; they've no sense of the mystery. Now, Donne and Blake ...'

'Aye,' said the monsignore, 'give me good old Sexton any day of the week.


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