Chapter 31

in which Father Smith, along with his compadres, accompanies the Bishop at his death bed.

In his palace, which was a semi-detached villa on John Knox Road, James Michael Gabriel, by the grace of God and the favour of the Apostolic See, Lord Bishop of the diocese, lay dying. He had been shriven and received holy communion. His tired old hands and feet and ears and eyes and mouth and nose had been anointed with the holy oils which he himself had blessed in his own cathedral on Maundy Thursday. In a creaking voice he had recited the creed for the last time, confessing that he believed in the Holy Catholic Church, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting. Around his bed the canons knelt in their big boots while Canon Muldoon read aloud the prayers for the dying. The canons were all old men, too, now, with wrinkled pouchy faces and scrubs of hair growing out of their ears, except Joseph Dominic Aloysius Canon Scott, of course, who was only thirty-three, but a braw bonny priestlet for all that ... '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 ...' As he listened to Canon Muldoon broguing out the Church's thunder, Canon Smith wondered how much longer it would be before they were saying the same words for him. Then from the bed the Bishop whispered that he would like to bless them all before he died and one by one the canons went forward and knelt under his hand.

'Ego te benedico in Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,' the Bishop said to Canon Poustie. 'Francis Xavier, go in peace,' Canon Poustie's eyes were so blurred with tears that he nearly tripped over Canon Dobbie as he came back to his place, but Canon Dobbie quite understood because he was weeping too.

For most of them, too, he had a special message, as for Canon Bonnyboat to whom he said: 'Christopher, go in peace; perhaps I'll be better at keeping my mitre on in the next world than in this and thank you for putting me right so often.' To Canon Muldoon he said: 'Go in peace, Aloysius Patrick Francis, and I hope the money comes in for that new organ.' To Canon Sellar he said: 'Go in peace, James; I'm sorry I shan't be able to preside at your Forty Hours for you.' To Canon Dobbie he said: 'Go in peace, Peter, and I hope the new brassie turns out all right.' To Canon Smith he said, just as though their argument about poetry had been yesterday and not thirty-three long dusty petrol-y wrapped-up years ago: 'Go in peace, Thomas Edmund. For the world to be safe the young man has got to live his poetry as well as murmur it, and thank you for being so often right when I was wrong.' But it was to Canon Scott that he spoke the most of all, laying his hand on the young man's shoulders after he had blessed him and telling him a lot of things that must have been very holy indeed, because he whispered them so low that nobody else could hear.

'Deus misericors, Deus clemens,' Canon Muldoon began to pray again when the Bishop had finished, but the Bishop whispered that he wasn't quite ready to die yet and would like to say a few words to them all.

First of all, he asked their pardon for any harshnesses or injustices or incomprehensions of which he might have been guilty, saying that it wasn't easy to be a bishop sometimes, because, although a bishop had the Holy Ghost to help him, he was still in most matters an ordinary man liable to err, because that had been God's way of building the Church, out of the rickety human planks and bits of odd wood He had found lying about the world.

Secondly, he commended to their care their thought, and their charity the diocese which he had loved and ruled for more than thirty-five years. Especially did he enjoin upon them the duty of seeking heavenly guidance in the matter of choosing his successor, since his task would be hard in a world which did not seem to understand that it was at war solely because men and women had not been willing to go on practising those reticences, moderations, and obediences out of which had grown their civilization.

Thirdly, he asked them to persevere in their own vocations. It was difficult sometimes, in face of the vast apathy of men, to feel that what one had said from the pulpit had been of much avail. When one thought of all the sermons that were preached every Sunday all over the world and when one considered the bitterness and the hatred in men's hearts today, one was tempted to conclude that the Church of God had failed. But the Church of God had not failed, because God had promised that even the gates of hell should not prevail against her, and, besides, her mission was set in eternity and not in time. It was perhaps they who as preachers had failed and not the laity who as listeners had failed. Perhaps the truth had been too big for them and had ridden clumsily on their lips. He was sure that at least his old friend Canon Smith would know what he meant when he quoted a phrase he had once read in a book by a man named Thornton Wilder to the effect that rhetoric had ruined religion. Perhaps they had thought and expressed themselves too much in phrases, wrapping Christ's truth in verbial reach-me-downs instead of themselves cutting and tailoring individual telling words.

Let him give them a secular instance. The first savage who had beaten out the phrase 'as white as snow' had been both an original thinker and a poet, but thousands of millions of repetitions by the thoughtless of his simile had robbed it not only of beauty but of meaning as well. The same held true in sacred matters. The laity had grown so used to hearing certain phrases flung at them that they could sit and listen unmoved. Or, what was worse, the familiarity of the words, the monotony of the same concatenation of sounds, aroused in them an apathy to religion and deadened all desire to co-operate with sanctifying grace.

He was not going to ask them to become poets, because the perfect carving, moulding, and ordering of words was a special gift from God and one, unfortunately, which was not granted with the laying-on of hands; but he was going to suggest that they should write their sermons word by word instead of phrase by phrase. He could give them no rules in the matter, but he would suggest that there were times when it was more telling to say 'Church' instead of 'our Holy Mother the Church,' 'mercy' instead of 'everlasting mercy,' 'Lent' instead of 'the penitential season of Lent,' for adjectives could petrify as well as qualify nouns. Finally, he thanked them for having been such good priests, unobtrusively reflecting Christ's martyrdom in the austerity of their daily lives. He asked them to pray for him when he was dead, as he had no doubt at all that he was in for a good dose of purgatory, as he had often been slothful and worldly in his unguarded moments.

'Deus misericors, Deus clemens,' Canon Muldoon began to pray again, but before he got to the end of the prayer the Bishop was dead.

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