Azazel stood alone on the edge of the Great Desert. The guide from the Meeting Tent had led him here and promptly left him. In front of Azazel there were only two colours: tawny dunes of sand swimming under the blue sky. The air felt empty and dry, like a great waiting, an intake of breath in anticipation of God only knows what.
Azazel knew, as his father Aaron had taught him, that life abounded even here in the silence of the desert. Reptiles kept house in burrows deep under the sand. Great monitor lizards were hiding from the heat in their shaded dens under rocks. A diverse kingdom of insects found shade around the few straggly trees in the landscape. The termite nests looked like Lot’s wife and her companions who looked back and were turned to salt.
All these lives huddling in the shade were waiting for the new morning when the sparse dew would provide enough water for another day.
He, Azazel, could not go back to the camel-skin tents which had been his habitat for the twelve years since his birth. Now he had been deliberately abandoned to the desert by his community. He was chosen by lot. His twin brother, Ithamar, favoured by the same drawing of lots, was free to go on living.
There were two sheepskin bags over Azazel’s shoulder. Both were empty. They had given him no survival rations, but at least the bags gave Azazel the opportunity to scavenge and survive. He began scrabbling for kindling and larger pieces of wood, thrusting each stick over his shoulder into the bigger bag. The other bag would stay empty until nightfall.
Azazel was gratified that his survival instincts had begun to kick in, because, apart from the urge to plan a fire for warmth and cooking, his whole body was numb. Numb with the shock of being cast out. He could feel the blood on his face where his father had sprinkled the goat’s blood, and he could smell the iron taste of it, but apart from the stickiness of the blood, he felt nothing.
Azazel thought of his father earlier that day, dressed in the holy clothes, the white linen leggings, the embroidered tunic, the turban, and the weight around Aaron’s neck of Urim and Thummim, the stones for soothsaying. All the regalia in the world and he would still be the paragon, his father, the man who was there, loving, caring, correcting, singing from before Azazel could remember: the man who had made Azazel’s world safe.
Now standing alone, Azazel remembered the strong warmth of his father’s arms and chest as Aaron picked him up and threw him in the air, catching him again and holding him tight. Azazel’s toddler’s legs wrapped around his abba’s waist. The rough kiss of his long beard; the earthy scent of his body; and the games with the twins, with Ithamar and Azazel, with slingshot and ball made of camel’s bladder.
And on Aaron’s tongue there was always a joyful song.
They were tight in love, the three of them, Aaron, Ithamar and Azazel. Azazel knew that he and Ithamar, Aaron’s only sons, were Aaron’s precious family.
The sun was nearly gone now, and the desert was beginning to cool. Azazel hugged himself. The sky was the deepest of blue, and the yellow sand had turned beige in the fading light. Azazel’s stomach growled with hunger. He hadn’t eaten since the bowl of camel’s milk and bread which was his breakfast.
But there would be no warm stew tonight.
Azazel climbed down a small rock and put his hand under a ledge and tightened it around the neck of an ornate mastigure. As he pulled out the green lizard, it squealed and scratched at Azazel’s clothes. Azazel took care to avoid the sharp claws. He quickly killed the lizard against the rock and placed it in the smaller of the empty bags.
He made a fire, cooked the lizard, and ate. The meat in his stomach felt warm and nourishing. Azazel stoked the fire and put bigger logs from his bag onto the blaze. He wrapped his cloak tighter around him, lay down and gazed into the flames.
He thought of Ithamar and Aaron in the warmth of their big tent, his mother coming and going with food from the room behind, and the shy appearances of his betrothed Adah, her head covered and her pert face smiling at him as she brought dishes and drinks to the men. The smoke stung his eyes, and the black desert lay huge and silent around him. The bright eternal stars above were the only lights.
Then he remembered Adah’s absence these past weeks.
Azazel knew that he was meant to die. From infancy, Aaron had stressed the dangers of the desert. No man on his own could survive the harsh conditions. This morning’s ritual was a casting out unto death. As he watched the flames flicker and die, he wondered whether he would beat the odds and survive, and, if so, for what? He knew that the ritual signified he could never return to his own community, and any other nomadic tribe he approached would surely kill him on sight.
But he could not understand why his father had convoked the ritual. Certainly, Moses had ordained it, and Azazel hated the influence the old man had over his father. But why had it been necessary at all?
Azazel cast his mind back three months to the night visitors who had so unsettled their camp. Three strangers on camels had come requesting hospitality. Despite the late hour, Aaron had roused the men and women of their tent to receive the guests. A huge steaming bowl of stew, rice, spices and bread was produced. The guests had pride of place on the rugs around the bowl and they ate, as was the custom of all nomads, with their hands. Hot fermented camel’s milk was offered and imbibed.
‘Sing to us,’ the guests had requested, and Aaron had been happy to oblige, accompanying the songs with his bow and rebab.
Azazel and Ithimar had taken the strangers’ camels to the spring, watered them and tethered them in the sweet grass that grew there.
Then everyone had gone to bed. The men and boys in the main room of the tent made space for the three visitors. The women and girls slept beyond the beaded curtain in the kitchen. The lamps were extinguished. Azazel remembered a few murmurs of conversation in the darkness, then all was quiet.
Azazel woke in the early hours, when the moon was nearly over the horizon. Azazel was vaguely aware of the little wheatears beginning their dawn chirping. Azazel’s father was shouting; Azazel did not know at whom, but Aaron’s voice drowned out the little birds’ song.
In the confusion, Azazel thought his mother was there in the main tent, and Adah, his betrothed, but that could not be. He thought he could hear both crying. Azazel sat up on his quilt. His father turned to him. ‘Back to sleep, my little twins,’ he urged in a softer voice. ‘There’s no need for you to be concerned.’
Azazel had lain down again, but was aware of more movement in the tent, and the clank of camel harness just outside.
Next morning when he and Ithimar woke, the three strangers had gone. His father refused to explain anything. The 12-year-old twins were no longer young men, but little boys denied knowledge of momentous secrets in the family.
What Azazel knew was that, from that night on, his father had stopped singing.
Six weeks later, his mother told him that Adah could no longer be his betrothed. She was being sent back to her family.
‘But why?’ Azazel asked reasonably. He knew that for a family to break a betrothal brought great shame.
Elisheba gently grasped Azazel’s arms. ‘I can’t tell you,’ she said. ‘Your father… Your father has forbidden me.’ Her moist eyes beseeched her son not to question further.
Days later, Azazel and Ithimar bounced around the outside corner of the tent. Moses and Aaron were speaking to each other quietly and intensely. For a moment they were not aware of the boys.
Moses was saying earnestly to Aaron, ‘… a scapegoat to take the shame out of the camp.’
Aaron started, ‘But that’s superstition…’ He caught sight of his boys and stopped. Azazel thought his father looked guilty and frightened. ‘Another time, Teacher.’
‘No,’ continued Moses, ‘it may prove to be God’s way of dealing.’ He marched off, his head high, towards his own tent next to the Meeting Tent.
In the desert, the fire died down. Azazel reached into his bag for the last log, and watched the flames dampen down, then take again with greater warmth.
In Aaron’s tent, Ithimar lay silent. His twin had gone. Earlier in the day, he thought he had escaped, but now he was beginning to feel in his gut what he would pay for their father’s actions.
In the women’s part of Aaron’s tent, Elisheba sobbed. Such a huge price, she thought, and such a terrible crime. Her sobbing reverberated through the tent.
Aaron lay quietly listening to his wife’s disconsolate cries and his son’s ragged breathing. Something heavy lay on his chest, a guilt and grief that would never end. As High Priest, he understood the ritual. Moses would counsel that there’s no going back without incurring God’s wrath for eternity.
But his wife’s loud distress and his son Ithimar’s silent grief and his own heavy heart were too great to ignore.
He lit a lantern, and gently prodded the other twin.
‘Come, Ithimar,’ he said, ‘We’re going to find him and bring him home.’
As Aaron harnessed the camel, Ithimar was astonished to hear his father sing.
Azazel was first published by the Writing Quarter, the winning story for September 2018
Memoir – Father Ernie (Michael) King OSB
Father Ernie King – Vicar of Fitzroy in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne
Hospitality was the key to understanding Father Ernie King (who later took the name in religion of Father Michael to become the first Abbot of Camperdown).
Sunday mornings begin for Fr Ernie with putting a large roast – a leg of lamb or pork – into the oven, before robing for the 8 a.m. Mass. He presides and preaches, and sings with his beautiful tenor. He has the gift of pitching a note in perfect key. ‘How do you do it?’ I asked once. ‘I listen,’ he said seriously, ‘to the reverberation of the last note in the walls.’
He greets the 8 a.m. congregation and rushes to the Vicarage. Here he checks the progress of the roast and adds a variety of vegetables into the roasting pan.
Then he returns to the Church for the 10 a.m. Mass. Worship finishes at about 11:15 a.m. and we file to the Church Hall for morning tea. Most of the 100-strong congregation stay for fellowship.
Then the household (15 people live in the Vicarage with Fr Ernie), student priests like me and selected guests adjourn to the Vicarage garden – or the lounge-room if the Melbourne weather takes its usual turn and rains – for Cinzano on ice.
A long table is set. It is glorious in the garden. The Cinzano turns to red wine. The conversation is loud and varies from a theological discussion of the sermon to the price of bagels in Fitzroy. Tony is a medical technician, and he often throws in macabre details of installing Pacemakers during open-heart surgery.
I am not surprised when Fr Ernie retires for a nap at 3 o’clock while we tackle the huge washing up.
But Fr Ernie is a priest on Monday to Saturday as well. There is a whisper in the household that he has given away all his stipend to beggars at the door by each month’s end. He gives away his clothes, and even his clergy shirts appear on the backs of the homeless in Fitzroy’s back alleys.
There are rewards (this side of heaven) for Fr Ernie’s generous hospitality. He explains to me that if I wear my cassock, I will be safe walking the streets of Fitzroy at night. Because of Ernie, the priestly garb is respected in this perilous suburb.
Fr Ernie has courage. He invites prisoners on paroled release to join the household in the Vicarage. Some flourish in the community environment. Others steal from the Church and threaten Fr Ernie and others with violence. Ernie takes all this as a normal part of ministry.
I have met Benedictines since my year in Fitzroy. They have their gifts. Some in New Norcia are musical, some are scholars, some are entrepreneurs running the large tourist operation, some are pastors. But none has impressed me as did Fr Ernie (although scholarship was not his strength!) With his gift for creating community, his open-handed hospitality and his joy in living, he is in my mind as an exemplary follower of Saint Benedict.
A life redeemed
Jon Doust, Return Ticket, Fremantle Press, 2020
Paperback 264 pages, from $25 online
Kindle edition $15.34
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Return Ticket is the third and final instalment of Jon Doust’s trilogy of memoir/novels following the adventures of the hot-headed Jack Muir. It follows the acclaimed Boy on a Wire, where Muir pursues justice for a boy bullied at the boarding school Jack attended. To the Highlands charts Muir as a wild young bank johnnie in Papua New Guinea, his hot-headed and heavy drinking lifestyle a snap-back against the repressive hypocrisy of his school. At the end of To the Highlands, Jack Muir is a damaged drifter.
Return Ticket is set first in South Africa, where Muir encounters laid-back marijuana smokers and the vicious racism of the apartheid regime. In two kibbutzim in Israel, a failed love affair and arduous work begin the task of redeeming the man. Jack Muir’s sense of justice, first kindled by the bullying at his boarding school, is honed by the socialist and utopian vision of the kibbutz.
Muir returns to Western Australia, where he loses the moral compass of the kibbutz and drifts dangerously again. Eventually his mother, despairing of her alcoholic son, gives Jack the money for a return ticket to Israel. There in a different kibbutz, Jack eschews alcohol and drugs and meets a woman who loves him, damaged as he is.
Jack feels he is a grown-up man and returns to Western Australia to mend relationships with his family. His reconciliation with his father on a riverboat on the Blackwood River is a touching episode.
As with the former two books, it is hard to know in The Return Ticket where memoir ends and novel begins. While Jack Muir is fiction, Doust has mined his own life and experience to bring this trilogy to life. The broad outline of Jack Muir’s life has many parallels with Jon Doust’s own life, but the real life is skilfully crafted into a narrative that reveals an arc from damage to restoration.
I have a sliver of insight into the narrow path Doust is treading between memoir and fiction. I was in Jon’s year at boarding school, and I am honoured to continue to call him friend 60 years on.
The books are each self-contained and can be read as separate novels. However, reading the three books reveals the larger themes and triples the reading satisfaction.
The key theme of Return Ticket is that one person’s genuine love for another can draw that person out of the neediness of addiction into responsive love. It is a timely and timeless message.
The writing has about it clarity and beauty. Jon made much of his living since returning to Australia as a comedian. As you would expect, a dry Australian humour permeates the narrative and lightens the serious themes. Buy your Return Ticket to Jack Muir’s story; it is an entertaining and thought-provoking journey.
The World’s Greatest Mesmerist
Highly Commended in the Stringybark Short Story contest 2018, and published in Timber!
The trouble with Western Australia, mused Harry Mason, is the distance that lies between towns.
He held the reins loosely and stared ahead, not really seeing the horse in front of him, as the gelding stepped along the two ruts which passed for a road here, 15 miles west of Katanning, and about 10 miles east of Kojonup on this route. His sulky was reasonably comfortable, and his horse knew its job, so Harry relaxed, drowsy in the afternoon sun.
50 delicious guineas, made up of the Queen’s pennies and shillings and seven nuggets of Kalgoorlie gold with two silver dollars from the wreck of the Rapid were locked in the safe-box snug beneath his seat, safe, he hoped, from any opportunistic thief on the road. This far south of Perth he was unlikely to meet any bushrangers. In fact, he was unlikely to meet anyone, and he desperately needed an accomplice for his next show. Despite the indignity of being driven out of Katanning to the shouts of “Fraud!” he calculated that he could stay ahead of any trouble in Kojonup.
He pushed back his black bowler hat and wiped his forehead with an outsized white handkerchief. His shabby three-piece suit was hot and discommodious. He longed for the cool breezes of evening and a camp near a creek. His stiff stand-up collar and striped frock coat for show-time were neatly folded in a trunk tied behind the seat, but thankfully he wouldn’t be needing those for some days.
The trunk had the words “Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist” stencilled in large yellow letters and announcing his profession to anyone coming up behind the sulky. In the heat, he continued his reverie, fantasizing nights playing the big stages in Perth, perhaps even taking the boat to the metropolises of Melbourne and Sydney, nights where people would believe the healings he could perform while audience-members were in a somnambulist state. The ignorant country people of Western Australia had caused him pain: they did not know what was real when they saw the genuine act before them.
The ruts in the road were reducing in size, and the sulky bounced gently on a sandy stretch of track. The rocking motion made the great mesmerist close his eyes and sway with the cart.
“Howdy, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist!” Harry jerked awake and turned in his seat in the direction of the voice. The sand must have muffled the horse’s footsteps, so the rider had been able to creep up behind him, Harold thought. On a spotted Appaloosa mare sat a man with tan-coloured trousers with leathers sewn on the inside, the side where human flesh gripped horse-flank. He wore a cream shirt without a collar. Over this unconventional outfit sat a black ten-gallon hat with wide brims, and a sun-browned face with a broad open smile.
“G’day,” Harry replied. He slid down from the sulky and allowed the horse to stop at his own pace. “I’ll boil the billy.” The stranger dismounted, and Harry shook his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist. Cassidy Rider at your service,” said the American, “returned from the goldfields.”
The two men were silent as they gathered kindling and boughs for a fire. They didn’t speak until the water had boiled, and each man held one of Harry’s battered enamel pannikins, steam curling up into the leafy branches of a large she-oak.
Harry Mason prided himself on his ability to read a person. In the silence, he inspected his guest. The clothes which seemed to make the American even more of a Yankee had seen many years of hard wear. The leathers had been re-sewn several times onto the trousers, leaving tell-tale marks on the khaki. The shirt was worn, soft and tending to brown. Harry’s eyes looked to the horse: he noted the thickness of new burnished horse-shoes and the Appaloosa’s shining coat, signs of a cherished and tended horse. But the harness was just slightly loose, indicating sagging – old – leather.
“Do well in the goldfields, Mr Rider?” he asked conversationally.
“Middling well, Mr Harry Mason,” the man replied.
“What did you do?”
“A little of this, and then a little of that.”
Harry raised his eyebrows and stayed quiet.
“Some dredgin’ for gold, though them’s not the place for much water, is there? A little riding in the ro-dee-os. A little totin’ for the big miners, carrying bags of gold and bags of legal papers to and fro.”
Harry imagined he would not have come away with much profit from these activities, but did not say so.
“Do you think you might be of use to me, Mr Rider?”
“How so?” Cassidy replied.
“I need someone to help me in my show in Kojonup. It’s vital that no-one there knows who you are.”
“Would this be difficult?”
“Not at all,” said Harry. He leaned across the coals of the small billy fire. “You just volunteer for a bit of dental work on the stage.”
Cassidy jumped. “But sir, I … I don’t need no dental work.”
Harry smiled. He could smell Cassidy’s fear – and his fascination.
“No? Well, everyone in my experience needs a bit of work on their teeth.” Harry continued. “You would still need the dental work after the show, if you see what I mean. But then you’d be able to afford a real dentist with three guineas.”
“Three guineas?” Harry saw the eagerness in Cassidy’s earnest face.
“A guinea each show, Mr Rider; and we might do three shows in Kojonup.”
“Do we have a deal, Mr Rider?”
Cassidy replied by reaching out his hand to Harry and shaking it firmly.
“Tie your horse to my sulky,” Harry commanded, “and sit up front with me.”
Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist, languidly flipped the reins and smiled to himself as his gelding plodded across the sand.
The good thing about Western Australia, he thought to himself, is the distance between towns, and the opportunities it brings.
Psalm 74 for Western Australia
12 Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
13 You divided the Indian Ocean by your might;
you broke the heads of the cobbler fish on the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of the crocodile;
you gave him as food for the bungarra of the desert.
15 You split open waterholes and creeks;
you dried up the waters of the Swan River, the Derbal Yiragan. .
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter.
18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and a foolish people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the dingoes;
do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for the covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the memories of violence.
21 Let not the refugees and the homeless turn back in shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Based on English Standard Version
Granny Bridgeman and the 1888 flood
GRANNY BRIDGEMAN AND THE GREENOUGH FLOOD OF 1888
The people of Greenough, Western Australia, were keenly aware of the heat of the third day of February 1888. Many stayed working under the oppressive sun in their paddocks along the river flats a few miles south of Geraldton on the central coast.
Granny Bridgeman, my father’s great-grandmother, was probably alone in her cottage for much of that day. The Malay servant was in and out, engaged in household tasks, as well as helping the younger Bridgemans and their two children in the summer warmth.
Gray’s Store, brick and two-storeyed, was only a short 300-yard walk from the Bridgeman cottage on the road which ran from the sand dunes along the beach, past the Bridgeman’s and across the flats.
Many people were about that day. Maybe they were reflecting on the generosity of Her Majesty’s Imperial Government that had set aside these small rich lots for pensioned guards and soldiers.
Most were working on the higher ground on the Gray’s Store side of the flats, when the first flood came sweeping down the valley northwards to the sea.
The Bridgeman’s house was high enough up the rise of the sand dune to be safe, at least from the downstream sweep of the flood-waters. The river was then running seawards from an inland tropical storm at the source of the Greenough River.
A mile or so from the Bridgeman’s cottage, the Greenough River runs up against a high and impenetrable sand-bar which separates the sometimes wild sea from the swirling greeny-brown river, but only the sea can breach the bar.
The flood-waters late on 3rd February met the height of this sand wall and were simply turned back, gaining height and speed back upstream all through the night.
Nobody could really have imagined what they saw in the dawn light. The newly running river was now horribly swelled and pushing along the flats in the opposite direction.
Most were safe on the Gray’s Store side or on the east side of the river itself. The store manager, William Moore, set off on horseback to warn the settlers.
His horse was wary of the wild rushing waters and tripped and threw him. Without his horse, he had to swim for his life in the chest-deep river.
According to the reports of the time the Warreners, Bridgeman’s neighbours, rescued Moore from the clothesline to which he was clinging. The loaned him another horse. He rode cautiously higher into the dunes to make his way to the Bridgeman’s cottage.
The Bridgemans had been taken completely by surprise. The sound of running lapping water has wakened them. They acted with the speed of panic. The Malay worker literally used his head to batter a hole in the cottage roof, and the younger family members scrabbled to safety on the rooftop.
Sometime between their waking and the rescue from the roof by William Moore, Granny Bridgeman had opened the door, and was simply gathered up and away in the rush of water. Her body was found days later when the waters receded. Family legend claims she was found in the higher branches of a tree.
Like Granny Bridgeman, the Greenough settlement lost its heart to the flood. Still the richest soil in Western Australia, the Greenough flats are now used for broad acre wheat-cropping.
The Bridgeman cottage is now scattered stones. A remnant of wall holds up a water trough for grazing sheep. The General Store is a ruin being reclaimed by the National Trust.
The dream of small farms to reward fighters for Victoria’s Empire was violently washed away in a few hours.
The Way of St Francis: poverty or littleness?
Kenneth Baxter Wolf, The Poverty of Riches: St Francis of Assisi reconsidered, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
ISBN 9780195182804. Paperback 165 pages.
$52 online, $40 used. In State Library system.
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf
Being a Franciscan is all about poverty. Right? Kenneth Baxter Wolf’s study of poverty in relationship to Saint Francis challenges our common conception.
Maybe it shouldn’t.
Many of the early Brothers came from the same class as Saint Francis. More to the point, the roll-call of those early Franciscans who became saints includes royalty and nobles. We hear of sainted King Louis IX and his sister the Blessed Princess Isabelle of France. Elizabeth of Hungary was the wife of a king. We visit Assisi and puzzle over the dazzling riches of basilicas and churches dedicated to the poor man of Assisi.
There are ironies here.
Kenneth Baxter Wolf walks us through the early sources and shows that Francis was about a different sort of poverty: a poverty that was more attractive to the wealthy burghers of Assisi than to the involuntary poor. Wolf teaches history at Pomona College in California and is well placed to compare Francis with other medieval saints. His ideas in this book, however, are controversial among fellow-historians.
Dr Wolf says that Saint Francis chose poverty; a strange choice because, firstly, his poverty did not help the poor. What he begged decreased the total possible alms in the area and may therefore have resulted in fewer resources available to the poor.
Secondly, choosing poverty romanticised it to some extent.
Thirdly, to ‘become poor’ was (and is) an aspiration open only to the wealthy, the middle class in particular. The involuntary poor cannot aspire to ‘become poor’!
As Wolf claims: “The point is not that Francis and his friars were never charitable toward the poor. The point is that charitable distribution was clearly ancillary to the Franciscan spiritual program, a program that put much more emphasis on the virtue that followed from acting poor than the virtue that came from relieving the poverty of others. “ [p. 25]
Wolf argues that Francis chose poverty as the concrete way of imitatio Christi, of identifying with Christ. What is crucial is not the poverty, but the imitation of Christ. For St Francis, poverty ‘was simply the most direct means of achieving a personal identification with Jesus, the practitioner of voluntary poverty par excellence.’ (p. 43)
Wolf contrasts St Francis with his near contemporary St Raymond of Piacenza (1140 – 1200), who became poor so that he could live with the poor and alleviate their poverty. From a similar background to Raymond, Francis began his ministry helping lepers, but it soon changed to be largely preaching to the wealthy.
This is one of those points where Professor Wolf may be criticised. The early biographers of St Francis most likely assumed that the ministry to the lepers continued while they described other aspects of his life, not that it disappeared with the descriptions of preaching missions and Chapters.
Why was Saint Francis so popular? Wolf argues he offered the wealthy a way to repent and return to God. Saint Francis used the techniques of entertainers and of merchants, attracting attention with strange antics, and then selling them the benefits of a renewed life with God.
Francis offered a way of being Christian which was ‘about redefining poverty altogether in such a way that only Christians of means could really appreciate it and aspire to it.’ (p. 89)
We read this text as First World Christians. Our nations’ welfare sytems make it difficult for us to really divest ourselves of our wealth. I found it helpful to be reminded by Professor Wolf that Franciscan poverty is not an end but the means to a deeper connection with Christ.
To those of us who live in relative wealth and privilege, the Franciscan call is not that we should live in abject poverty, but that we should repent our privileged view of ourselves and live in humility. Saint Francis appeals to us because he uses the language of commerce, the 13th Century equivalent of capitalism, to draw us in to a counter-cultural, liberating and humble way of living our faith.
Adagio for Viola
The heat in the wind stung as it lifted Laura’s long brown hair. Like the devastated landscape she was catching her breath, kneeling in the ashes. The old willow tree, which had sheltered the tennis pavilion, was all that remained of her house.
The clouds were a reddish-brown and swirled behind her. Night would come soon, but for Laura it was already here. It appeared that her beloved Ma and Pa, her Nanna, her two sisters, were all gone in the inferno. The wind picked up a scrap of roof-iron, still red-hot, and swung it dangerously through the air. Laura didn’t duck. It didn’t seem to matter.
She looked down at herself. Her long dress was clean except where her knees pressed it to the whitened soil. Her hands were holding tightly to the neck of her viola, one hand over the top of the other, her chin nearly resting on them. She held the viola primly vertical, its chinrest on the earth in front of her knees. If there had been anyone in the blighted landscape to see her, they might think that this girl, a still brown statue in a burnt orange stage, was at prayer.
There were no tears. They might come later. For now, there was just an emptiness.
If only the 4 o’clock bus had not been delayed by the smoke. Laura had taken the 2 o’clock bus into the town for her weekly viola lesson at the Conservatorium. Her teacher had been pleased with the progress she was making on the Hummel Romanze¸ and had dismissed her 10 minutes early giving Laura lots of time to make the 4 o’clock. When she came out the carved doors of the Con, she saw the smoke off in the east in the direction of their isolated house, and had hurried down to the bus terminal, and settled in impatiently to wait.
At 4:10 the bus was still not there. Laura put the viola and bow down on the seat and began to pace back and forth. The bus pulled in with a squeal of pneumatic brakes. Laura grabbed her viola and sprang up the steps into the bus. The driver apologised, ‘Sorry. I couldn’t get through the smoke.’
The trip home was agonisingly slow. Laura ached to see her Pa in his study and to be held safe in his strong arms. She longed to have her family around her, to skip rope on the grass tennis court with her little sisters, to help Ma and Nanna bake in the large country kitchen.
The driver let Laura out at the nearest point to her house. Laura hurried along the drive peering through thick smoke, looking, looking for her house and family. It was the willow tree that finally convinced the girl that the house was burnt down, and with it, presumably, her dear parents and family.
Somehow, Laura thought as she knelt in the earth, I can feel them here. She closed her eyes. Her breath was shallow. Ashes brushed her cheek.
Far off in the distance, Laura heard trucks and men, probably mopping up after the fire. They seemed to be at the gate far away down the drive. Laura continued to grip the tuning keys of the instrument, tightening the strings. Next time she played the viola would be sharp.
A hand on her shoulder, ‘Laura darling. We’ve been in the trucks.’ It was her Pa’s voice.
She burst into tears. ‘I’ve lost my bow.’
First published in Studio: A Journal of Christians Writing, Issue 142,  Exhibition Award Winning Prose
* * * *
I called him God. I didn’t imagine he was an old man in the sky with a white beard, but he was the one teacher who instilled in me a sense of awe. When we had finished our work on Henry IV or Wordsworth’s poetry, God would tell us little anecdotes of his life and we would piece together some of his life. God was a man of consistency. Every day he wore, as convention and the school demanded, a white shirt and tie. According to God, his tie was ochre-coloured. We thought it had been dipped in a can of tomato soup.
He had competed at least once in the Olympics, because we had heard from the Headmaster how God had won Gold in the hurdles. It was fitting that we learned that not from God, but from the Headmaster, who wanted to hold God up to us boys as an inspiring example. No, what we heard from God was not the crass business of winning but the heavy feel of competing: the determination in the heart, the wind in the hair, the solidity of the wooden hurdles when your running shoe clipped one, and the leaden feel in the shins when you have exhausted the lactose in your muscles, and lie panting for life on the track-side turf.
This is what God talked about, and sharing a room in the Olympic Village with John Landy, and the great miler’s bleak depression after winning the famous race in Melbourne during which Landy had gone back to check on the fallen Ron Clarke. And about Maria, his first wife, whom God met in a Rome night-club during the 1960 Olympics, and brought back to marry in Australia over her father’s strong opposition. God told us, in moments of candour, how happy he and Maria had been together, and even about the grief they felt at not being able to have children. Such intimacies to be shared with teenage boys!
God knew, I think, about our family, my Mum and me living in a cramped caravan on the edge of town. God knew, or suspected, the extent of Mum’s drinking, her total lack of house-work and the days when there was nothing for me to eat. He found me in the library one lunch-time where I had gone to hide rather than open an empty lunch box in front of other boys.
‘It’s alright,’ he said gently, ‘I’ll get you something,’ and five minutes later he returned with a chicken sandwich. I’m sure it was half his lunch. ‘You can’t eat in here,’ he said, ‘Take it outside to the lunch area.’ I turned to ask, or say thanks, or something, but he shooed me out with a wave of his hand.
In Grade 12, I was 17 and living in the squalid caravan mainly on my own. My mother had met a bloke from the eastern wheat-belt, and her interest lay more there than with her son at home. I convinced myself I cared nothing for my mother. She did make sure I had money most weeks (I suspect now it was Brian’s money, not hers), so I budgeted for food, carefully saving any money left over for the weeks when Mum didn’t show up.
I began to take school more seriously. I knew that I would have to pass English, God’s subject: the other subjects not so important, because University entrance that year required English and any four subjects.
Sadly, I didn’t have God for English that year. Miss Peters was a new teacher, and I couldn’t tune into her approach which she called Higher Criticism.
One morning I went to the teachers’ room and asked for God.
‘Mr Cross left some weeks ago, Thackrah.’ The Deputy Headmaster, like most teachers, called me by my last name. He went to close the door. I pushed back on the door.
‘When will he be back?’ I asked.
‘He’s not coming back,’ replied the Deputy.
‘At all?’ I stuttered.
The door closed as I stood there, the chill July wind at my back. I tried to think. How would I get through the year without God?
I knocked again.
‘You again,’ said the same Deputy, irritated.
‘Where – where can I find him?’ I asked, ‘Where did he go?’
The Deputy shrugged, then decided to take me into his confidence.
‘Nobody knows, Thackrah. He failed to come into school three weeks ago. We tried to contact him at his home, but he was missing, gone.’
The Deputy saw the expression on my face.
‘Sorry,’ he said, and shut the door again.
Through the wooden panels, I could hear him laughing merrily at some joke.
I went away stunned. I had counted on God being there. He made the shit world I lived in okay. God gave me a reason to hope, to look forward to making something of my life. Now I felt like I had when Dad died; a sadness, and an emptiness scraping my insides.
I couldn’t face school any more that day. I went back to the cramped caravan. I dug out from my biscuit tin the $50 I had been saving. At the train station, I bought a one-way ticket to Perth.
In Perth, I wandered aimlessly. The first night I slept near the train station on the steps of the G.P.O. They were cold and hard. I think I slept for only half an hour. A guy sleeping nearby offered me a tablet ‘to get through the night’. It helped. The next night I bought another. My $50 was gone. I walked over the Causeway to Victoria Park. I scavenged food from rubbish bins behind the supermarkets. I could just exist on the bread, fruit and vegetables I foraged. I was bashed several times, breaking my upper jaw bone and having my lacerated lips sewn up at Royal Perth Hospital. I lost track of days. I was living day to day like a wild animal. It was frightening, depressing and lonely. I had no reason to go on; and insufficient reason to end it. The tablets, when I could get one, made life almost bearable, but I needed two, then three, to get the same effect.
Then one day – it must have been six months after I arrived in Perth, because it was so hot and dry the bitumen paving crackled – one day when little kids played in the water-feature at Elizabeth Quay and their delighted peals of laughter were the only sign of life in the city, I had my few possessions wrapped in an Anglicare blanket and slung swag-like over my shoulder. My shorts were dirty. My torn T-shirt smelled. My thongs were cracked, but I needed them to protect my feet from the heat of the pavement. I dragged one foot after the other, so weary that my thongs sometimes caught against the cracks in the footpath. I was using all my energy just to walk down Barrack Street towards the river. One foot after the other. No lactose in my muscles. I felt drained and exhausted – every muscle ached. There was no juice in my legs. I wanted to lie down on the grass in the Supreme Court gardens, sleep and never wake. God, I wanted to die.
‘It will be alright, Brett.’
At first, I thought God’s voice was coming from high in a tree, then I saw him. He was standing on ground higher than where I was. He must have recognised me, and his face showed deep concern. He was dressed as for school with white shirt and his orange striped tie. I reached out to touch him, to check he wasn’t a heat mirage. I fell to the ground at his feet. It will be alright, Brett, a voice said in my head. God, missing; but I had re-connected.