Chapter 6

in which Father Smith realizes that learning Catechism by heart does not cut it and tries to correct the shortcoming in his own way.

At the convent the nuns had hung the parrot which Father Bonnyboat had given them in one of the classrooms, because they thought that it would be elevating for the pupils to hear a parrot that made holy noises, especially as such birds weren't reputed to be pious. Mother Leclerc said, each time she heard the parrot say 'Dominus vobiscum,' that she felt sure that our Lord must have died for cats and dogs and birds as well as for men, but Reverend Mother told her not to be silly and that our Lord had died only for men, because it was only men who had immortal souls, and that if our Lord had died for cats and dogs and birds, why not for mice and rats and fleas as well? Mother Leclerc had said that, of course, Reverend Mother was right, but deep down in her heart she had cherished the hope that the parrot one day might sing in the heavenly choir with Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Cecilia and all the rest of them.

Father Smith said Mass at the convent on Sundays and Tuesdays and Thursdays and Monsignor O'Duffy and Father Bonnyboat said it on the other days of the week between them, because the nuns were too poor to afford a chaplain of their own; but Father Smith was the only priest who went there to teach catechism, because he loved the nuns even more than the others did, and he liked talking to young children about God as well. The parrot had been put in the classroom in which Father Smith taught, but it said 'Dominus vobiscum' only when he entered and 'Per omnia saecula saeculorum' when he left and never interrupted at all in between.

When he was with children, Father Smith always found it easy to believe that God had made the world. They looked so fresh and pink and chubby that it was impossible not to see God's finger smoothing their youth. Of course, as the doctors of the Church and some of the high-up saints had pointed out, children could sin and wilfully disobey God just as much as grown-up people, but the priest believed that children all started out in life loving Jesus naturally and became false to Him only through the itch of the senses or the fear of being thought more righteous than their fellows. When he had been a boy himself, Father Smith had longed to be grown up, because he had believed that it would be easier to obey our Lord as an adult than as a child, and he had been disappointed when he had found out that it was more difficult. He supposed that this was everybody's experience and that the great difference between priests and nuns and ordinary people was that priests and nuns went on trying.

There were boys as well as girls in the class to which Father Smith taught catechism in 1913, because, although the school was really a girls' school, the nuns taught small boys as well until they were seven. Elvira Sarno and Joseph Scott were both in the class. The Sarnos and the Scots had had other children since, but Father Smith remembered Elvira and Joseph especially because he had baptized them both together on a rainy Sunday morning in 1908. On the blackboard above Father Smith's head was a statement, 'Rubber was grown in Brazil before it was grown in Malaya,' because Mother de la Tour had been teaching geography there half an hour previously, but the faces in front of the priest were too young to care and Father Smith's face felt too old to care, and he didn't think that God cared either.

'What is sin?' he asked the rows of round, round faces through the scaffolding of dusty sunbeams which came criss­crossing in from the high windows.

'Sin is an offence against God by any thought, word, deed, or omission against the law of God,' the round, round faces chanted back.

'How many kinds of sin are there?' the priest asked their sailor suits and the ribbons in their hair.

'There are two kinds of sin: original sin and actual sin,' the sailor suits and the ribbons chanted back.

'Very good,' the priest praised; and then suddenly he knew that it wasn't very good at all, because the children didn't understand what they were saying any more than the parrot did when he said, 'Dominus vobiscum.' They would have chanted, 'Sin was grown in Brazil before it was grown in Malaya' with equal enthusiasm if they had been taught to do so. Sadly he thought of all the children down the ages and through the climes to which the Church had taught their catechism and of how much wickedness there was still in the world, because wisdom had been learned only by rote and not hammered in with sharp words like new nails. Perhaps it was the priests who were to blame for the rottenness of things, because they themselves had not felt the raw meaning behind the smooth phrases with which they had sought to make others feel. Closing his penny catechism, Father Smith resolved that, however often the Message had been mocked and mauled, the children who now sat in front of him should understand and obey for ever.

'There is just one thing I want you all to remember and I want you to remember it all the rest of your lives,' he said. 'It is what you learn in this classroom that matters most and will always matter. God sent you into the world to save your souls, and nothing else is important. When you are bigger, wicked men and women will perhaps try to make you believe that this is not so and that all that matters is to grow rich and powerful and be honoured by your fellow men. This is not so. Remember always that God does not see as the world sees, and that a dirty ragged tramp with the grace of God in his soul is infinitely more lovely and beautiful in our Lord's sight than any sinful monarch in his palace. Try to obey our Lord always. Remember that you may be right in your own soul when the whole world is wrong with its noisy tongue. People may try to tell you that religion is only for church and Sundays and that it is foolish to try to be a saint; they will be wrong: as this world and its pleasures will pass away, it is foolish not to try to be a saint, and one cannot be a saint without being religious all the week through. The toffee you tasted yesterday won't give you any pleasure tomorrow, but it may make you sick. Sin is like that; it is only pain and not pleasure which it will give you in the next world.' He caught sight of Joseph Scott tugging Elvira Sarno's hair. 'Joseph, what was the last word I said?' he asked.

'Please, Father, "original sin and actual sin," ' the boy answered.

'Do you know, Elvira?' he asked.

'Please, Father, "an omission against the law of God," 'the girl said.

'Please, Father, I know,' another boy answered. 'You were talking about what toffee would taste like in purgatory.'

The boys in the class were too young to laugh at this answer, but Father Smith saw that Reverend Mother was standing by the door and that she was laughing. 'Per omnia saecula saeculorum,' the parrot screeched, because as soon as Reverend Mother appeared he knew that it was the end of the lesson. Feeling slightly foolish, Father Smith left the dais and walked with Reverend Mother along the cool corridors of the convent out onto the green lawn at the back where the sun shone and Mother de la Tour was watering the flowers.

Father Smith had lots of holy relations in high places in the Church. He had a cousin at the Rota in Rome and another cousin who was a bishop in England and an aunt who was a Benedictine abbess, and they were all very pious and had very blue-blooded notions about loving our Lord and drinking soup out of their spoons sideways. Father Smith always felt very common and ordinary when he met them. He felt common and ordinary now as he walked in the garden with Reverend Mother, but not because she was a superior and he was only a humble priest, but because she had caught him out at trying to be cleverer than the holy men who had compiled the catechism.

Far away out along the bend of the railway line, at the junction of the golf course and Sir Dugald Ippecacuanha's estate, a puff of smoke appeared above the trees, and a miniature worm of train rolled tinily along the embankment, just as it had done five years ago when the nuns had first come to the town. The sight soothed Father Smith as it always did, and he realized that Reverend Mother couldn't really be laughing at him, because she loved our Lord just as much as he did and must have understood what had prompted his foolish zeal in the classroom.

'Cela se peut que vous avez raison, monsieur l'abbé,' she said. 'Perhaps it is a little our own fault that the world hates us so.'

It usually amused Father Smith when Reverend Mother called him 'monsieur l'abbé,' but today it did not amuse him because she had so accurately measured his thoughts.

'Perhaps it is because we don't know the right way to be fanatics, ma révérende mère,' he said. 'And yet we must be fanatics if we are to teach the world all things which He has commanded us.'

'Euntes ergo ...,' Reverend Mother said with a delicious accent. 'No, monsieur l'abbé, we must not be afraid to be called fanatics, because fanaticism is only another name for acting logically.'

Out on the main road a surge of touts in tweed caps trudged to a football match. In the inside of their caps they had wire rings to make them look stiff, but they did not need any wire rings inside their faces. Looking at their red jaws all the same, Father Smith was suddenly afraid. There were so many people in the world and most of them were so ugly that he could not understand how our Lord could love them. Then he caught sight of Monsignor O'Duffy trudging along with the touts and brightened because he realized that with God all things were possible.

'Il est bien brave, celui-là,' Reverend Mother said as the monsignore took off his hat and waved a huge red handkerchief at them. 'Football matches cannot be very wicked, if Monsignor O'Duffy goes to them,' she added.

Father Smith agreed with Reverend Mother. His cousin, the bishop in England, would never have gone to a football match, although his lordship had once gone to a Rugby International and boasted that he had been mistaken for an Anglican clergyman, which was a strange form of spiritual pride, because, although the Anglican accent was all right, their doctrine was wrong and their orders invalid, as Pope Leo the Thirteenth had pointed out only the other day, in 1896.

'I'm afraid that you may have thought me a little foolish, speaking to the children like that just now, ma révèrende mère,' he said. 'But I am convinced of one thing: unless we all try to be greatly good we shall all be terribly bad, an it is by the practice of goodness alone that men will be saved from the material and spiritual consequences of this age of the machine. Perhaps you will laugh at me, ma révèrende mère,' but I cannot help thinking that it was exceedingly indiscreet of your fellow countryman Monsieur Blériot to have flown the Channel in that contraption of his.'

'Voyons, monsieur l'abbé, pourquoi?'

'Because history shows that most human inventions tend to be used for evil rather than for good purposes. If I were Almighty God, ma révèrende mère,' I should not have allowed James Watt to watch that beastly kettle boil. And I think I should have silenced Marconi and Edison as well. For all these inventions defeat the main purpose of the Church: that man should be still and know that He is God.

'Perhaps you are a little right, monsieur l'abbé,' Reverend Mother said. 'Sometimes I, too, feel that there is a great calamity in store for the world. There must be something wrong when great countries like my country can banish those whose only crime is to serve the Lord zealously.' A shining film came over her eyes as she spoke and Father Smith knew that she was thinking about French villages with BYRRH and QUINQUINA painted on the walls of houses.

'Perhaps men don't learn better because God doesn't let them live long enough on earth,' Father Smith said. 'As soon as they have made a pretence of school, they have to be teaching their sons and then their teeth go long and yellow and they are dead. It is the same with our civilization: things move too quickly. Men haven't ploughed enough fields to be able to work safely in factories.'

'Poor France,' Reverend Mother said. 'And now, monsieur l'abbé, let us go and talk to Mother de la Tour about her flowers.'

Father Smith wondered whether Reverend Mother was trying to rebuke him by changing the subject, but when he looked sideways up at her laughing eyes, all that he could see was the miniature black-and-white image of Mother de la Tour, bending patiently over her flower beds.


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