Author Archive: Ted Witham

The Great Filly Race of Lake Grace


The family story is that when my mother became a teacher at South Newdegate School, the young men of the district would race to the school to claim the privilege of driving her back to her lodgings. I’ve taken liberties with the story, knowing, of course, the identity of the winner of the Great Filly Race. 

 

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Horse and sulky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Filly Race of Lake Grace

There was not always a literal filly in the Great Filly Race of Lake Grace in 1938. Once Roy’s Dad realized why his son was disappearing from the farm every Friday after lunch and returning around dark, Dad positively encouraged Roy, ‘Take Man O’ War, he’s only had a day with the plough this week,’ or ‘Take Arrabella, she’s frisky today.’

Roy harnessed the horse of the day, whether filly or gelding, to the sulky and sped off. The road journey from Lake Biddy to South Newdegate School was (and is) a roundabout S-shaped route. In the first few weeks of the Race, Roy quickly refined a more direct route across farms and alongside uncleared bush near Breakaway Ridge. Once he had established the route, Roy could make the journey in under 90 minutes.

Each week, however, he tried to shave minutes off his travel-time, especially when one Friday Walter Lloyd had turned up at the school fence five minutes before him.

Roy estimated that riding Arrabella he could cover the same ground 30 minutes faster than with the sulky, but arriving with a horse only would negate the whole purpose of the Race. So he bounced along tracks and over rough white clay as fast as he dared. Dad would not be happy if he rode back to report that the sulky had a broken axle and one wheel stuck in a clay pan.

This was clearly an important Race for Roy. He was 29 years of age, and few romantic opportunities had come along for Roy and other young farmers of Lake Biddy. He dressed in clean shirt, grey trousers and polished shoes. He wore his Sunday jacket over the shirt, buttoned on a collar, combed his hair and wore his best grey fedora, ready to lift it to salute Miss Thackrah. At his feet was a jar of mulberries or a box of figs, summer fruit he had personally picked, as tribute for the lady.

For his vehicle Walter Lloyd drove a buggy, no doubt imagining that Miss Thackrah would prefer its upholstered seat to the wooden board of the sulky. Roy drove his family’s buggy in the Race one week, only to find it too big and cumbersome to travel fast through the bush. Arrabella could scarcely raise a canter with the buggy behind. That was the Friday Walter arrived before he did. The next week Man O’ War was again pulling the more streamlined sulky.

On four occasions (Roy counted them) both Roy and Walter were waiting at the school fence when Miss Thackrah emerged from the one-roomed school. Both young men stood next to their vehicle with a hand extended to invite the lady to climb up and sit in their carriage.

For this was the prize of the 15-Mile Great Race: the privilege of driving Miss Thackrah the mile to the finishing line: Jackson’s farm where she was staying. Then, with another hat flourish and the handing over of the gift, the winner would turn the horse and head home.

A summer storm boomed over South Newdegate one Race Friday. Miss Thackrah laughed when Roy, his coat and shirt dripping from driving through the rain, produced a dry but greasy mackintosh from under the sulky seat and draped it over her head and shoulders.

‘It smells of sheep!’ Miss Thackrah exclaimed. Roy wasn’t sure from that whether lanolin aroma pleased the lady or repelled her. ‘But it’s better than getting wet,’ she added. Roy didn’t know what to say. He produced little conversation, but his manners spoke volumes. He worried that when she became his wife she might not like the smells of farming.

nuytsia-floribunda-26-01-2017-444Fridays went by. The dry hot season turned to autumn. The bright golden flowers of the native Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda, had faded and fallen, and its three-pronged fruit was now maturing. The first rains brought cooler days and the brown grass flushed green. Miss Thackrah went away for the two weeks of the May holidays.

Roy made sure he met the train at the Newdegate siding on the Sunday before the next term started. He raised his hat as Miss Thackrah opened the door of the compartment and leant forward to take her suitcase in his left hand, and with his immense right hand he gingerly took her dainty hand as she stepped down from the train onto the packed earth platform. As he straightened his back, their eyes met, and Miss Thackrah smiled.

‘August holidays,’ Roy said quietly, ‘Come and stay with us.’

After that, Walter did not bother to participate in the Great Filly Race, but Roy still dashed to collect Miss Thackrah on the last day of every school week.

They married the next Easter Monday, on a shining autumn day.

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Another commended


I come home to the excellent news that my story “The World’s Greatest Mesmerist” is highly commended in the Stringybark Short Story contest. (The book contains the story.)

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Bush Funeral


It was hot when I arrived in the main (the only) street of Burdup in the south-west of Western Australia. ‘Bloody hot,’ said the barman. I had stopped at the pub to ask for directions and, somewhat nervously, for a lemon squash. In the cool darkness of the bar I felt the eyes of the four or five customers and their suspicious curiosity when my question about the way to the rectory gave me away as the ‘new Rev’rend’ – and as rather naïve. In a country town of perhaps a hundred houses, only the most complete stranger needs directions.

Heat seemed to pour out of the old weatherboard walls of the rectory that Friday. The fridge had been turned off, so there wasn’t even any ice or cold water. And it took an hour for the tap water to freeze even in the freezer. I determined to brave the pub later again in the afternoon, to buy a few cans of beer for the evening. I was too hot to care what the locals thought of a priest in the pub. Meanwhile a little unpacking. I trudged in and out from the car, which was broiling in the back yard. The lawn was brown and crisp with dryness.

Fortunately, the phone in the study was working. I rang the furniture company to confirm that the mattresses I had ordered were on the way. At least I would be able to sleep as comfortable as the heat allowed. And I would have organised one or two essentials for my wife and children due next week.

I realised that was only the heat, but I felt all enthusiasm dwindle for the task the Archbishop had given me. There seemed to be very little attraction in being temporary priest of Burdup parish during Advent and Christmas. There would be visits to the five out-centres as well. The day before, at our interview in Perth, the Archbishop had said: ‘Check that list with the diocesan property officer, and tell the vestry at Burdup they won’t get a new rector unless they put in a new oven and fly-screens.’

Out here in the near outback, the mind has to strain to see the connection between such earthly politics and the everlasting Gospel I was to preach to the people of Burdup.

The heat wore on. After finishing the essential unpacking, I filled a mug with water, now refreshingly cool, and retired to the coolest room of all, the bathroom. There the darkness and cement lowered the temperature a little.

The phone rang.

‘Darn,’ I thought out loud, and made my way to the study. There a few boxes of books lay disorganised near the old desk and the filing cabinet with the parish records, I didn’t know who knew I’d arrived. But my curiosity was low as I rather abstractedly lifted the receiver.

‘Hello.’

‘Ah, is that the new Rev’rend? Jest heard that you’d arrived in town. You’ll know me pretty soon. My name’s Fred Moynihan. I’m the undertaker. Most people call me Bushie.’

My heart sank a little. I expected undertakers to be same in Burdup as in Perth, and there was something depressing about beginning my ministry, even a short one, with a funeral.

‘I’m Frank Newman. Nice to meet you.’

‘Yeah. Got a job for you. Noongar lady, one of the best. Died at the reserve yesterday. She was Granny of the local natives, you understand. I wouldn’t bother ya with it, only the Baptist Rev’rend won’t do it, and the nearest Uniting minister’s two hundred miles west.’

I sipped my water.  The ice-blocks were getting thin.

‘I see, Fred, D’you know if she was a regular attender anywhere?’ A funeral and a conflict with fellow clergy was not a good starting combination.

‘Don’t think she went to church, Reverend. She had some papers, and one of them I’ve got here is a Church of England christenin’ paper. Guess she’s more yours than anyone else’s.’

‘Oh. Well, is there are time worked for the funeral, or any arrangements been made at all?’

‘Sunday morning, eleven o’clock. Straight after your Communion.’

‘Sunday? That’s unusual, isn’t it?’

‘Pretty normal around here. Then we don’t get many funerals.’

‘Look, Fred, er … Bushie, I’ve written all that down. Can I get back to you later this afternoon? I can see you need an answer pretty soon. So I’ll phone you back before five.’

There was a chuckle on the line.

‘Gunna ring the other guys? Okay, you do that, but I’ll expect you to ring. Number’s 365. Ya dial 9 then 479 365. Will meet you Sunday.’

His confidence bothered me. The phone book showed the number of the Baptist manse. I would have to ring enquiries at Wagin to get the Uniting Church number.

I was following the usual procedure of checking there were no lines crossed. Too many quarrels have started between clergy of different denominations over funerals, particularly when the dear departed is presented to the minister as a non-church-going person. It wasn’t the way I had hoped to introduce myself to the other clergy of the area, but after a friendly chat with the Baptist man (and an invitation to join him for afternoon tea the next day) I began to see that this funeral was normal. Granny Wilson had been nominally Anglican. The town was well aware of her death, and for traditional reasons to do with distance, funerals were often held on Sunday after the main service in the particular church.

I thought I would still ring the Uniting minister. So I went back into the kitchen to get another glass of water and replace the slippery ice. Just as I shut the fridge door, the phone rang again.

‘Now, that is odd,’ I said to myself, and carried the plastic tumbler back to the table in the hot study. I was more aware than every of my sweaty hands and the shirt clinging to my back.

‘Hullo.’

The Australian accent knifed at my brain.

‘Listen, new Rev’rend, and listen good. You do that funeral for that nigger woman and yer gunna learn what violence tastes like. Y’ever hear of using ten-gauge fencin’ wire as a whip? Works well on niggers, jest like on nigger lovers.’

The phone clicked dead. A small, rational voice in the back of my mind told me there was nothing I could do about the threat. Threats like that are almost never carried out. The purpose of making them in a cowardly way is their immediate effect on the recipient. It succeeded. I stood with the receiver uselessly pressed against my ear, almost paralysed for some minutes.

I vaguely knew the priest in the next parish, which was technically in the Bunbury diocese. I dialled his number and told him about the conversation I’d just had. He heard me out, then commented enigmatically:

‘Can’t say I’d do the same as you. Not worth my while. I leave native burials to the Baptists or Fundo missionaries. But I admire your courage, old chap. We’ll see you round, I guess.’

The click of the phone deepened my feeling of being cut off from all that made sense.

A blowfly buzzed loudly, caught between the louvres and fly-wire. I had met the wife of the rector’s warden at Church Office in Perth, and decided to ring him. This was back to front. Normal courtesy required waiting for the lay leaders to welcome you before you consulted them.

‘Number 403,’ it said in the battered Teledex near the phone, so I dialled 9–479–403. The warden himself answered. It was an awkward conversation.  His most helpful compromise was to ‘have the box at church door and not take it inside. Keep the torkin’ all for the cemetery.’

I bridled. To my ears that compromise was a sell-out. But I wasn’t sure enough of myself to tell him so.

‘I’ll think about it,’ I lied.

My next call was to the undertaker, begging for more time.

‘Sure, ring before ten tomorrow.’

To my surprise, it was after 5 o’clock. I was thirsty. (God, did I thirst!) but I decided not to buy beer. I sensed I had more important things to do. I rang my wife. The conversation was short and strained. I felt too isolated to share with her the agony and uncertainty I was going through.

At 7:30 the darkness fell, as it does in the bush, suddenly and deeply. The stars were a glorious blaze of light. Except for the occasional dog barking, and the endless crunch of crickets, there was a profound silence. After the last few hectic weeks in the city, it was deathly quiet.

I discovered a spy novel on top of one of the boxes of books and read on the back veranda until 10:30. I locked up all the outside doors. I spread a sheet over the queen-sized mattress and tried to sleep. In the heat I rolled from side to side, sweated, read some more and tried to sleep. At one stage I sat up straight in bed and said out loud, ‘I must do it. I have no choice. It is finished.’ I flicked on the bedside light. My watch said 3 o’clock. I turned out the light and slept deeply.

 

Most of the Saturday I spent at a humpy at the reserve, talking about Granny Wilson and planning the service. But it was like a dream.

Saturday night was ominous. The temperature actually climbed at 7 o’clock into thehigh 30s, making the evening nearly as hot as the day. Dry, impotent thunder rolled around the dark sky. I tried to look over my sermon for the 9:30 Mass. I slept better than last night.

 

No-one came to church at 9:30 that Sunday morning. I wasn’t sure that the parish was so run-down that this might be a regular occurrence. I waited at the altar for 20 minutes, hot in the purple vestments that ran with red dust, then made my spiritual communion.  My prayers seemed empty words echoing back at me round the sanctuary.

I returned to the vestry and disrobed, noticing the heat even of my light alb, and looked again at the service register. I was making history. This was the first Sunday on which there had been fewer than four communicants.

I sighed. A purple stole over my alb would be vestments enough for the funeral.

 

By 10:30 they began to arrive. First, the ancient hearse, a 1930s Chevrolet, backed up to the door. Bushie Moynihan single-handedly rolled the casket onto its trolley and up to the chancel steps. Unable to find any candles on stands, I took the altar candles and placed them either side of Granny Wilson.

By 10:45, the church was overflowing with black faces. Dreamlike, I began the service, aware only of the keening. Such crying I had never heard. Subdued anguish, but almost conventional, as if the deep hope of the Christian good news was only just beginning to penetrate the hearts of Granny Wilson’s ‘children’.

I chose to ride in the hearse, with its round pedals and anachronistic strip speedometer (broken, of course) to the cemetery). The sky, normally intensely blue, was black with clouds.

As I read the words of the committal, I felt nothing. The dull thud as I threw earth onto the coffin brought forth a muffled response from the skies. Lightning flashed around in desultory fashion. I felt alone, alienated, useless. I gave the blessing and walked back to hearse.

‘Jest wait an’ watch, Rev’rend. This ain’t yer city funeral.’ At least Bushie was an expert in this business. The shire workers in thongs, black shorts and grey singlets, came with their shovels to throw back the red earth onto the casket. The crowd keened more loudly. Many joined in pushing soil into the grave.

Within 15 minutes the grave was covered with a mound of earth. Some of the women – and Granny’s son, Johnnie Wilson – threw themselves onto the mound, moaning loudly. It all seemed distant, documentary-like: ‘modern Australian Aborigines demonstrating indigenous mourning customs.’

I leaned against the front mudguard of the hearse. A figure detached itself from the gradually dispersing crowd. It was Jeanie, Mrs Wilson’s daughter, a full-breasted, middle-aged woman with straggly grey hair, wearing a vaguely coloured print cotton dress.

‘Thanks, Rev.’ She took my hand in the formal Aboriginal way. ‘Yer let us mourn like we need ter.’

She walked on proudly on her bare feet. The new Granny.

I noticed the only white face in the crowd. It was the wife of the church-warden, the lady I had met in Perth. She walked stiffly, like porcelain I thought, and seemed in danger of breaking into a smile.

‘Welcome, Father,’ she said. ‘Yer’ll do f’r us. We might yet see Christ here.’ And I couldn’t tell whether her eye was wet from a tear or from the first drop of the thunder-storm.

‘Christ is risen,’ I mumbled – well outside the Easter season.

  • * * *

First published in Celebrate (Melbourne: Dove Communications), Vol.7 No.3, July 1988

 

The Tyrolean Yarmulka


Often when he travelled through Austria and Germany, Papa brought the boy a present. The boy took care to look after each present; the plush bear, the wooden truck, and the tin spinning top. He kept them in a neat row in a wooden toy box in his bedroom on the first floor of their comfortable house in Innsbruck.

When the boy was ten, Papa brought the boy a Tyrolean yarmulka. The boy cherished this gift more than all the others. He thanked Papa with a little smile.

The yarmulka made the boy proud to be from Tyrol: the tailor had decorated it with Tyrolean Yarmulka.jpgwhite Edelweissen and the red Tyrolean roses. Papa brought it home just in time for the Succoth, Tabernacles, and the boy wore it proudly as they celebrated the feast camping in the backyard of their home. Papa also covered the Tabernacles wooden frame with bright new fabric bought from the old department store in Müllerstraße.

It was a pretty yarmulka, and the boy loved it. From then on he wore it every Friday night when Mama lit the candles on the eve of Shabbat. He showed it to Reb Joachim. The old rabbi smiled every Shabbat morning when he looked out over the first row of the Innsbruck synagogue and saw the boy sitting proudly next to his father like a little tower of the Second Temple: a tower that was festooned with a colourful yarmulke!

The years passed quickly. The boy’s thirteenth year was 1938. Hitler had cast a long shadow over Europe, and Jews everywhere feared for their lives and their loved ones.

This was the year of his Bar Mitzvah. He studied hard: he worked at his Hebrew lessons and he learned about the responsibilities of Jewish manhood. Reb Joachim asked all the boys to learn especially carefully the Shema: the ancient prayer which is sometimes called the Jewish creed:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

“This is a time of martyrs,” the Rabbi said mysteriously, “and you may need to know this, for this is the heart of our faith.”

The boy couldn’t understand this – not really. He said to the other boys, “Why is he treating us as through we don’t know the Shema?”

 

The Bar Mitzvah approached. The boy and his friends planned their parties. Older relatives kept asking the boy what he would like and the boy’s present list grew and grew.  Aunt Hanna even teased him, “You’d think being a Jew was about the number of things you are given!”

A few weeks before the ceremony, Mama called him to her room. “Here are your tefillin. Don’t tell Papa I’m showing you how to put them on!” She quickly covered the boy’s head with a yarmulka – to the boy, it just seemed to be one that was sitting there on the dressing table – and then unfolded the prayer shawls and tefillin and put them on, helping him place the box with the scriptural text centrally on his forehead.

“Remember,” she said, “after the Bar Mitzvah, this is your first mitzvoth, your first duty. To put these on and to say the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to put on Tefillin’.”

“Yes, Mama,” said the boy.

“And what do you think of your new yarmulka?”she asked.

“Is that to wear on my Bar Mitzvah?” he asked, afraid. She nodded.

He raced from the room, so she wouldn’t see his tears.

Mama knew her son well, but couldn’t understand his resistance to the new yarmulka. When he finally said that it was because he wanted to wear the bright Tyrolean yarmulka she was horrified. It wasn’t dignified enough for a man to wear at his Bar Mitzvah. And it was hurtful to display too much sentimental patriotism when the Nazis had turned that to their own propaganda ends.

The boy’s grandfather arrived from Poland in time for his first grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. He understood. “If that’s what the boy wants,” he said, “that will please Adonai, the Lord of the Universe.”

And it was what the boy wanted. Grandfather was pleased too, as Mama eventually gave in. Grandfather knew that this might be his last visit to Austria. He was old, and the cancer was creeping through his body. He needed to be back in Katowice in the familiar surroundings of home with the right nursing.

The morning of the Bar Mitzvah came. The boy dressed and wore proudly his prayer shawls and tefillin and on top – to show there is someone above – his bright childish Tyrolean yarmulka.

As the boys came one by one to the lectern to recite his passage, the old rabbi winked at each. “Don’t forget to take the Shema with you,” he whispered mysteriously. But the boy had no time to puzzle out this rabbinic puzzle, because the rest of the day was a family day – the Bar Mitzvah party. There was food, there were presents, there was more food and more presents, and the boy was the centre of attention in all of it.

That night, the boy was exhausted, and was about to go to his room to prepare for bed. He looked at his new jacket hanging outside the wardrobe. He looked at the tefillin neatly laid out in the drawer. Suddenly, he thought of his grandfather and ran to his room to thank him for being at the Bar Mitzvah, and for persuading Mama to let him wear the yarmulka.

He ran into the room and embraced his grandfather. Tall and gaunt, Grandfather’s arms gently knocked the boy’s head and the little cap went flying, unnoticed. “Thank you, Grandfather, for, for … for everything!” “May Adonai be with you,” the old man replied. The boy didn’t see the tears in his eyes. He turned again and ran back to his room, and was soon in his bed asleep surrounded by all the symbols and gifts that come to Jewish boys when they become a man.

It must have been midnight. There was a crunch of boots on the gravel of the front drive. There were shouts and yells of “Juden”. The boots were in the house. The boy woke terrified. He heard his parents reply to the yells and walk past his room. His father’s voice, “There’s no one in there!” But strangely the key was turned. The boy stayed where he was. Then a feebler voice. Grandfather being led away, crying “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.”

The voices and the boots receded. The boy lay there for a very long time, and then crept over to the door. He unlocked it from the inside, and walked quietly to his parents’ room. Empty. Then to his grandfather’s room. Also empty. But the yarmulka was gone. Not on the floor where the boy had last seen it. Not on the bedside table.

Next morning, the boy crept from his home and fled across the fields to Switzerland. He carried nothing. He grieved the Tyrolean yarmulka as he ran. But he discovered he had on him something to be carried with him always. Reb Joachim was right: we Jews carry the Shema in our hearts.

 

The Missing Iota


In the sacristy, Father John Wilson bent to remove the green brocade robe. He laid the chasuble – as decreed in Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook – on the vestment table, followed by the girdle, which he laid in an ‘S’ on top of the green. He then lifted the stole from his shoulders and kissed the embroidered cross at its centre. His courtly hands, out of long habit, now folded the cloth strip in to the Epsilon or ‘H’ shape. He knew that older priests had worn a maniple until the nineteen seventies, and without the symbolism of the Iota, the ‘I’, made by the maniple and superimposed over the second and third letters of the sacred name, these ritual foldings were meaningless. Without the iota, with only the rope girdle and stole he had written nothing more than the second and third Greek letters of the name of Jesus.

The concentrated attention Fr John seemed to be paying to his disrobing was deceptive. He was conscious more of the heat: outside the sacristy door, the grass in the church yard had long since turned brown, and the river was an intermittent creek.  Somewhere a crow cawed, and flies buzzed on the warm church wall.  He was cooler with the removal of each layer of robe; the heavy chasuble, the stole and girdle and then the alb.

Under his alb today, he wore light slacks, sandals and a blue polo shirt. His parishioners had seen him recess three minutes earlier from the sanctuary as a priest in robes. Now the only thing that distinguished John as a priest was the tiny cross on his shirt collar. He thought about taking that off as well, but left it there where it glinted self-consciously.

He looked up for a moment into the mirror and checked his brown hair. He pushed an errant lock up from his forehead and pulled the sacristy door closed behind him. He walked away from the stone church without a further glance, and jumped eagerly into the seat of the restored MG-A coupé waiting in the rectory driveway.

The 150-litre motor purred proudly as John Wilson pointed his cherished MG along the main street of Kannarup away from its landmark jetty and out onto the main highway. About 15 minutes later, Fr Wilson slowed the sports car and turned it gingerly onto a gravel track that led into thick karri trees.  It was cooler here in the shade.  He frowned as a tree limb brushed the MG’s paintwork, and a light cloud of dust rose from the tyres. But the place where he was headed had to remain hard to find. Eventually he arrived at the shed. Peppermint trees camouflaged the size and shape of the steel structure. If you knew what you were looking for, you could see the outline of a large satellite dish on the roof.

The priest pressed a remote. The shed door slid smoothly aside, and he nosed the MG inside. Bright LED lights revealed a roomy interior. Three large locked gun cabinets were at the end furthest from the MG. On one wall was a long desk and chairs. Opposite was a sound-proof booth with state of the art recording equipment. A special cupboard housed the computer server. Fr John leaned under the MG’s glove-box and unlocked a flat drawer under the dashboard and drew out a large laptop computer. He got out of the car and sat at one of the desks and looked up at the large Arabic words calligraphied on the flat wall. ‘Allahu akhbar,’ he breathed.

The laptop connected to the server through the wireless modem. Within minutes, Wilson was absorbed in uploading a detailed map of the Perth CBD to the website he had been working on in the three months following the great feast of Idu’l-Adha. In this secluded place, he could concentrate entirely on his work for Allah.

His digital watch beeped. It was midday. Time for Salat was 12.03. He saved his work, powered down the laptop and, as Rollinson had instructed, he locked the laptop under the long desk.

He spread a prayer rug on the concrete floor. ‘God is great,’ he intoned, ‘I bear witness that there is no divinity but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammed is Allah’s messenger. Hasten to the prayer. Hasten to the prayer.’ In his mind’s eye, he saw Rachid in his barber’s shop in the main street of Kannarup hastening to prayer. Rachid would not kneel in that public place, but would stand still and recite the prayers. The image of Amir and Ida in the back of their stall in the food hall also came to his mind as they hastened to their prayer rug unrolled in the cramped space between the kitchen benches.

As Fr John salaamed in the shed in the forest, his tiny cross tinkled against the floor. There was a line somewhere between taqqiyah and betrayal, and he could not be honestly sure whether he had crossed from necessary strategic deceit into betrayal. He did know that he could not keep up this life for much longer. Each day began and ended for Christ with the Eucharist and Evening Prayer, and the Dhuhr midday prayer and sometimes Asr at around 3.30 kept the middle of the day for Allah.

He rolled up the prayer mat and glanced upwards at the security camera over the entry door. He knew that Rollinson checked the images every day, and that if he failed to keep his appointments with Allah that he would receive a visit from Rollinson late at night, with the usual threats to take away the MG-A and to expose him to the congregation. He clenched his fists briefly before sliding into the MG and backing out into the forest.

As the white sports car headed slowly back to the highway, two men approached the shed. They looked around carefully before the small man unlocked a narrow side door. These men were not local. No-one in Kannarup except Rollinson knew of their existence, but their presence was already beginning to have a strong effect. They were federal agents and their powers under Canberra’s anti-terrorism legislation were extensive.

But they were beginning to doubt their power to control the priest Wilson.

The small man was compact and fit. He kept watch while the larger man retrieved the laptop and searched its contents. Wilson hadn’t even used a password. His Google map of the Cabinet Room in Havelock Street annotated with points and times was cached in Firefox’s history and it took the larger man less than a minute to find, and then download it onto a thumb drive. Rollinson had briefed him well. With this evidence and with Rollinson out of the way in Majorca or Peru, they would be able to prove the existence of a plot emanating from the Muslims of Kannarup to assassinate the Premier.

The bosses in Canberra calculated that this would give the Premier’s party enough bounce to guarantee the Federal branch’s re-election at the House of Reps election in December. But it all depended on Rollinson’s ability to persuade the priest that he really had been recruited to an Islamic terror cell. They thought that the classic MG had clinched the deal, but they hadn’t counted on his sincerity. Now they feared that the contradictions of being both a good Muslim and a devout priest couldn’t last.

Meanwhile the priest took a different turn onto a minor road. ‘Always go back to Kannarup a different way,’ Rollinson had commanded. With the roof of the coupé down and the wind in his hair, Fr John pushed the MG up to 140 km/h on the narrow bitumen. He laid out in his mind the contours of the plan: driving to Perth in the MG with the bomb hidden in the false bottom of his large travelling communion set. This, too, with its exquisite engraving of the Passion of Christ on the silver cup, had been a gift from Rollinson. He would take this past security at the Premier’s office to the meeting on rural issues. Security would let him through: he was a priest and the bomb was well hidden, and his confidence would carry it off. Inside the meeting, he would rest his briefcase on the communion case, release the false bottom and fasten the small bomb to the underside of the Premier’s Jah-Roc Cabinet table. In all the movement at the conclusion of the meeting, Fr John would set the digital timer to 20 minutes and leave with the other visitors.

Rollinson had hacked the Premier’s diary, and established that the Premier had meetings for the rest of the afternoon in the building, most in the Cabinet room.

As Father John rolled through the farmland south of Kannarup, he smiled at the similarities between his plot and that of Bonhoeffer trying to assassinate Hitler – only this time the plot would succeed.

His attention was caught by a field filled with the Easter lily weed; as cut flowers in church they were eye-catching, but growing wild in farm-land they were a menace. This was the Johnsons’ farm. Fences were down. A few scrawny cattle sheltered under trees from which large branches had fallen, probably during winter storms, and no-one had cleared them away.

He had taken Ross Johnson’s funeral only 18 months before. He remembered the church packed for the popular 55-year-old, who had still been playing hockey and was a luminary in the tennis club. Ross had been killed in a car crash on a gravel road near where Fr John was driving today.  He’d lost control in slippery conditions, and rolled and hit the only tree on the road reserve for several kilometres.

The teenaged children had almost had to carry Wendy, Ross’s wife, into the front pew of the church on the day of the funeral. She was disheveled and distraught, sobbing and hugging each of the boys. She and Fr John had decided to have the committal from the church, and when Fr John approached the casket with the proclamation, ‘We here commit the body of our dear brother Ross to be cremated, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ the woman had rushed forward to the casket knocking over a large vase of Easter lilies under the lectern in her haste. Wet white and green organic stuff was scattered over the casket and the floor, while Wendy put her body between the casket and Fr John and wrapped her arms around the end of the casket.

Fr John had paused, then summoned the two sons to hold their mother while she wept over the casket. He remembered the surge of irritation inside himself as he decided to abandon the rest of the prayer of committal and instead recite the old prayer of commendation: ‘Go forth on your journey from this world, Christian soul, in the name of God the Father who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for you; in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you; in communion with the blessed saints, and aided by angels and archangels and all the heavenly host. May your portion this day be in peace.’

Then he recalled the moment his brain snapped on the word ‘peace’. He had carried on praying, ‘O Lord forgive him, have mercy on him, pardon him and grant him prosperity and be a good host to him. Broaden his grave and wash him with water and with snow and with hail. Cleanse him of his sins just as a white piece of cloth is cleansed from dirt.’ Then he blanched, like a white piece of cloth, realizing that he had switched to the Islamic funeral service – in public, in his church.

In that moment, he thought of his newly acquired MG-A outside in the driveway. He thought of the shame he would experience if his then new double life were exposed to his congregation. He thought of the Panel of Triers and the de-frocking by the Bishop. The scandal would be immense.

He looked around the congregation, panicking. But there was no flicker of recognition. If people thought anything, he realized, they thought he had just added some prayers because Wendy was so upset.

Taking some deep breaths, he had walked to the front of the casket taking Wendy and the boys with him, he had signalled to the organist, and they had processed out to the hearse.

After the day of the funeral, Wendy and the boys continued to take Ross’s death very hard. The younger boy, Barry, headed off to Perth and buried himself in study. The older boy, Cliff, stayed on the farm. But his behaviour became erratic and six months after his father’s funeral, Wendy had discovered his body hanging in a shed, a large quantity of ice in his trouser pocket.

This time, Wendy refused to have a church funeral. She chose a private service at the crematorium, with only a close friend and Barry with her, and the crematorium staff as the celebrant.

Fr John had driven out to the farm, but Wendy had shut the door in his face. On the rare occasions he had seen her in town, she quickly crossed the street to avoid contact. Fr John heard that she had dismissed most of her friends, and that she and Barry were not talking. As he drove along their boundary fence now, he could see that they weren’t working the farm either.

Rollinson had insisted that he should always go straight back into town after his sessions in the shed. But for some reason, the Johnson farm-house was now calling to him across the field. Fr John had a strong feeling that he should make a pastoral visit to Wendy and her son Barry. It had been years since he had experienced such a strong feeling. As a young priest, he had several times responded to a strong inclination to visit and discovered on arrival that he was in fact needed.

He pulled the car to the side of the road, turned off the motor, and gazed towards the old farm-house. On a sudden impulse, he looked around in case Rollinson was watching. ‘Damn that,’ he thought. ‘Rollinson could be watching and I’d have no idea, so I may as well do what I’m going to do.’ But he wasn’t actually sure what he was going to do.

***

The attack on the Office of the Premier and the Cabinet Room in West Perth was now only days off. The meeting on social capital in the regions was scheduled for the coming Wednesday, and he knew that Amir and Ida would head off to the city immediately their food-stall closed after serving takeaway Halal dinners in the food hall on Monday. Rachid would head off on Tuesday morning, leaving his brother to cut people’s hair on Tuesday and Wednesday. Rollinson hadn’t explained to John Wilson exactly what role the Kannarup Muslims were to play in the bombing; he seemed to have the lead role himself.

As Rollinson had explained it, the priest would be killing the Premier not so much as a political stratagem, but because it was important for Muslims, especially white-faced brothers in the faith like him, to de-stabilize the country as much as possible. The siege in the Lindt café in Sydney was a good example of how Muslims could attack at the edge, rather than the center. So many questions swirled about Man Horus Monis, beginning with the shahadah flag he had placed in the window, that kept the story alive and journalists questioning his motivations for weeks. As Rollinson explained, in the Lindt siege, the propagandists at ISIL weren’t making a play for power, they were just knocking things out of kilter so that people could see the corruption of this consumer society, this weak, chocolate-addicted people.

The West Australian Premier and people close to him equally made an ideal target. Killing the Premier wouldn’t put an end to the godless government in Canberra, but it would grab  people’s attention right around Australia – and beyond – and have them talking at barbecues and water-coolers about the greed and militarism of the government. When the Caliphate comes, then its logic and grace will already be established in the minds of Australians. The priest saw a deadly explosion at Hale House as a small thing, a helpful step on the way to a better society.

He looked again at the Johnsons’ farm-house, turned the key in the MG’s ignition, gunned the engine and drove back to Kannarup in time for Evening Prayer in the church and Parish Council in the Rectory living room.

The heat rose early with the sun the next morning, beating down and drying everything in its glow. By 7 o’clock, a brief walk was hard, sweaty work, and Fr John was finding it hard to keep his temper in check. He quickly served himself some muesli – breakfast before Mass these days – and headed to the church for Morning Prayer and Eucharist. The pages of the Prayer Book and lectionary stuck together with sweat. The alb and stole were soaked. John decided to leave off the chasuble, which made him feel more uncomfortable and improper. Even with delicate handling, some of the communion wafers became soggy, and the Body of Christ was administered into the mouth of every one of the ten Friday communicants to reduce the sweaty handling.

On this day, Fr John went to the door after the service to greet his people with a hot sweaty hand-shake. Everyone made obvious observations about the heat, and the priest found this repetitive commentary irritating.

‘Yes, it’s hot,’ he snapped. As he walked back along the side wall of the church, there was Wendy Johnson. Fr John noticed that her face was moist, maybe sweat running down the sides of her forehead.

‘John, stop,’ she put her hand on his arm. ‘I need you…’

Maybe it wasn’t sweat.

‘I nearly stopped yesterday,’ John said hesitantly.

‘I know, I saw the car. The MG.’

‘Oh.’

‘You’d better come to my study where it’s cool,’ he said. “I’m hanging out for a cool drink.’ They walked to the air-conditioned house, and John invited Wendy to sit in a comfortable chair in his study while he went to the kitchen to pour some fruit juices. Turning around from the bench, he was surprised to find Wendy standing silently behind him. He nearly dropped the glasses of juice.

‘Oh, sorry,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean… I didn’t want to be on my own.’

It was quite clear now to John that Wendy’s face was wet not from sweat but tears. He put the glasses down on the central work-bench. Wendy again touched his arm. John realized that the touch on his arm was hot, or nipping, like the charge from a battery. He warily picked up the juices again and carried them back to the study. He was acutely aware of Wendy following him through the house. They sat down in the comfortable chairs.

‘Well,’ the priest started. ‘It’s been a difficult time.’

Wendy ignored the pastoral opening.

‘It’s about you,’ she stuttered.

‘Me? What about me?’ The priest pushed at his errant lock of hair in embarrassment.

‘I’m not sure where we stand,’ Wendy pushed on.

The priest looked in astonishment at the woman in front of him: she was roughly 15 years his senior, her accent placed her the alumna of an elite boarding school, her long blond hair was tied back on this hot day in an untidy pony tail, her brown eyes were glinting, and there was a mark on her left cheek which he had never noticed. He was suddenly aware of a strong old-fashioned perfume. All of a sudden he thought of his Aunt Joan, who had been part of family Christmases on the farm until she had died when he was about twelve.

He found himself staring at Wendy Johnson as if for the first time. And with a feeling of clarity, the irritation that had stirred him along all morning drained out of him leaving him with a new feeling he couldn’t quite identify. This woman… this woman… he didn’t want her to die too. He felt overwhelmingly protective towards her. He would move heaven and earth to prevent happening to her what had happened to Ross and Cliff.

‘No more deaths. No more death and dying,’ he said softly. ‘Please, Wendy.’

It was Wendy’s turn to look with astonishment at her priest.

‘No. I know,’ she said, and began to weep quietly, ‘You can help me see…’

‘You can choose to live,’ he replied, ‘yes, I’ll do everything in my power to….’ He stopped then started again. ‘For my sake, no, for Barry’s sake, for your sake. But really I think it’s for heaven’s sake, for God’s sake.’ Even though he had been a priest for nearly 20 years, the words felt strange as they escaped from his mouth.

Wendy stood up and spoke in her patrician voice. ‘The word you’re looking for, John, is compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’ Then, for the first time in their conversation, a warm smile creased her face, making the lines crinkle.

On her way out through the study door, she touched his bare arm again, leaving John’s skin tingling. ‘The word is compassion,’ he thought. On the corner shelf of his study stood a small Buddha, a Ganesh, a Bahá’í calendar and a star and crescent flag. He looked at the flag and recited silently, ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate, in the name of Allah, the merciful’; the Basmala, the invocation before each sura of the Qur’an.

Compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’ Wendy’s words had set off a great confusion inside Fr John Wilson. Surely the messy tragedy and petty grieving of a farmer’s widow in Kannarup carried no weight in the great scheme of things.

A message popped up on his mobile. ‘Where are you?’ The number was blocked. Rollinson.

‘Oh, shit!’ The priest scrambled for his car. He headed out of town to the secret shed. As he drove he pressed the button that brought the roof of the coupé over to keep some cool in. Today before Friday prayers he was supposed to record a message in case something happened on the day. A martyrdom video. Rollinson thought he might die. Another death.

With his hands slippery with sweat on the steering wheel and sweat running down his temples, it was hard to think, but something was wrong. Something did not add up for Fr John Wilson. He tried to put his mind to the words of his martyrdom video, but could not concentrate. Each time he started with the Basmala, ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate,’ he would stop and his brain would respond, ‘Compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’

He thought his response was selfish and that he was afraid to die. ‘No more death’ was his own death. But he wasn’t going to die. He was going to leave an explosive device under a table and be 20 minutes away when Hale House exploded.

He tried again, ‘In the name of Allah. I, John Wilson, a Christian priest and new Muslim convert wish to express my contempt for the corruption of Western society and my opposition to the greed mentality which pervades every level of it. In the name of Allah, the compassionate.’ But would a compassionate God express his contempt and opposition by more deaths? ‘Didn’t I say to Wendy Johnson that I would move heaven and earth to prevent more deaths and dying?’

He thought of Rollinson waiting for him at the secret shed. ‘Toughen up, you idiot. Your actions will bring in the glorious Caliphate!’ But the words felt empty in his mind. This feeling of compassion felt real, much more real than the enthusiasm for the cause Rollinson had recruited him for.

He thought of the people he had shared communion with that morning; people he had known and encouraged for the five years he had been parish priest in Kannarup. Some he had married. For others he had buried their spouses, or heard their secret problems with their children. For others he had discussed Christian faith and hopefully helped to deepen and strengthen their relationship with God. John Wilson decided he would not want these people dead. He had vowed to keep Wendy Johnson alive at all costs.

There was no-one at the secret shed. John Wilson drove the MG-A inside. He found the laptop in its hiding place, and fiddled with its underside. He walked out of the building, closed the garage door with the remote and flung the device as far into the forest as he could.  Then he walked as briskly as the heat allowed him along the forest track towards the highway. 20 minutes later there was an enormous explosion behind him. Without turning to look, he took out his mobile, dialled 000 and reported the fire and location. The operator repeatedly asked him for his name and address, but he refused politely, saying he was only a bystander.

When the sirens of the trucks and appliances screamed along the road towards him, John Wilson turned off onto a smaller farm track that led across country to the Johnsons’ farm-house. He was fairly confident that Rollinson wouldn’t know this short-cut, and, besides, why would Rollinson think that he would head for the Johnson farm, of all places?

Wendy saw the priest limping up from her back fields in his city slacks and sandals, head bare to the sun. She snatched a jug of iced water from the fridge and ran towards him.

‘John, it’s 43 degrees, for goodness sake! What are you doing here?’ She held out the jug and he swigged it down, as she pulled him into the cool of a patio. ‘Sit down. I’ll get some more from the fridge.’ She ran back into the kitchen while the priest collapsed at an outdoor table.

‘Did you come from the fire over there?’ Like all country folk, Wendy was on edge on fire warning days, and she had seen the smoke and heard the sirens in the distance.

John nodded. ‘I think I started it,’ he smiled wearily at Wendy, whose eyebrows shot up. John held his head in his hands, brown curls glimpsed between sweaty fingers. ‘And, you know, it wouldn’t have made an iota of difference.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Wendy demanded.

‘The shed I just blew up. I thought it was a matter of principle. I thought I could do something to stop the world, to help it get off the roundabout of consumerism and greed and corruption. I thought if I got the world’s attention, then people would want to live, would want to be better human beings, but…’

‘But how, John? What were you going to do? I mean, you were doing that, you are doing that. You’re our priest. You…’

Wendy noticed that John had torn the once-tan slacks, probably when he climbed the barbed-wire fence. She saw the sweat and dirt on his blue polo-necked shirt. She saw that his fingers and the hair poking through them were trembling.

‘But you told me,’ John continued, and Wendy could hear that he was almost crying, ‘that religion is about compassion. About no more dying. No more deaths. I had it so wrong.’ He paused. ‘That killing the Premier wouldn’t make an iota of difference.’

He looked up at Wendy through tear-filled eyes.

‘They’ll be here soon,’ he continued, his voice under control again. ‘They’ll take me away.’  He gave a rueful little chuckle. ‘The MG is in that fire. That was my reward. They’ll tell the congregation that I was a secret Muslim. That was their hold on me. I’ll end up in some secret lock-up in Canberra, no doubt, for the plot I worked on to kill the Premier. I’m glad that you showed up in time to remind me that faith’s about more than reciting the prayers, folding the robes.’

At this point, Wendy looked confused, and she heard the engine of a car approaching along her driveway.

‘I’m not sure what it is you’ve done,’ she said, ‘but do you need to hide? Or run away?’

‘No. I’ve put you at enough risk coming here. I’ve got to give myself up, so that there are no more deaths, no more dying. Look on the bright side, Wendy, it’s Australia. It won’t be Abu Graib where I’m going.’

Neither of them laughed at that.

‘You know my Grandad was a priest?’ Wendy asked suddenly. ‘I’ve got something of his. I’ve often thought to give it to you. Thought you might be interested, but with Ross and Cliff and all that… Before they come, quick.’ She led John into the lounge room, which had the appearance of not having been used for decades: everything was clean, but the fat armchairs dated from the nineteen-fifties, and an old-fashioned glass display cabinet dominated one wall. Wendy hunted through drawers at the bottom of the cabinet.

‘Ah, here it is,’ she said and offered John a short piece of brocade wrapped in white tissue paper.

‘A maniple. Extraordinary.’ He looped it – as decreed in Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook – over his left arm. ‘A maniple for compassion and service. Purple for penitence.’ He removed it and laid it flat on a coffee table. ‘An “I”. An “Iota”.’

Two men showing Federal Police badges knocked at the front door of the farm-house.

John smiled at Wendy. ‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘for the missing Iota.’

Death in Paris: A Fiction


Giovanni hurried out of the side door of the Franciscan College. It was cold, and he tugged his tattered habit tight around him intoning his favourite prayer for warmth: “Father Francis, if you had lived in Paris, you might not have insisted on sandals.” The icy wind curled around his ankles.

He turned the corner from St Hilaire’s Church as his tall slim figure rushed through a narrow alley towards the great Boulevard of St Genevieve. Thomas had asked to meet him in Rue St Nicolas, but as always in Paris in November, the streets were crowded and it would take Giovanni the time of Vespers to reach him.

Thomas’s message was urgent, but unclear. The messenger had slurred, whether from beer, running too fast, or simply being nervous in his presence, and all Giovanni had understood was “corpus sal… sal… sal,-something”.

As he walked under the grey sky, Giovanni tried to unravel the message. “Corpus” was easy – a body. But then, what sort of body would interest Thomas? Certainly not his own great hulk, which had earned Thomas the nickname of “The Dumb Ox”. A corpse, perhaps, but why? More likely a body of work, a new manuscript, or even his ever-expanding Summa!

And sal– could mean ‘dirty’. It did in their native Italian. A dirty body. But it could be the start of saliens, a jumping body, a leaping body, maybe a body in the process of resurrecting. Now, that would be interesting. But then, Giovanni thought, it might be something central to their work as doctores on ‘salvation’: the salvation body. But then why an urgent message, and not the usual scroll? No, nothing really fit.

Students were everywhere, many drunk. The smell of piss was strong on the air. Giovanni heard a group of young Poitevins, their yellow scarves proud around their necks, abusing Bretons for their fickleness. Leather-jerkined German youths shouted boisterously that they were proud not be drunk like the English. Giovanni felt homesickness pull at his stomach when he heard an Italian accent in the crowd. It could even have been a Viterban from Giovanni’s home province just north of Roma.

Giovanni pushed his way through the rowdy crowd. Some made way when they saw his brown habit and tonsure. A friendly voice greeted him, “Ave, Magister” and he recognised a student from his class seated on a rough chair in the shade of the building. “Ave, mi fili,” he called back cheerily and hurried on.

Giovanni loved this town, its chaos, its boisterous students, its love of learning, its devotion to God and the saints. He turned the corner of La Marche, the Lombard College, into Rue St Nicolas. The smells of stale beer turned to cabbage from the kitchen where the cooks were preparing stew for their resident students.

He saw his friend straight away, standing and waving to him from a doorway. “Salve, Tommaso,” he smiled. “In here.” Thomas waddled through the door. Giovanni followed, his mind still trying to work out the message. Sal-, salve, maybe, but surely Thomas wanted to say something more than just ‘hi.’ Greetings were rare in Thomas’s conversation.

Thomas filled most of the dark room, and Giovanni could just make out a body on the floor. “Mortis,” Thomas grunted in Latin. A large sword had entered the body just below the rib-cage. Illumination flushed through Giovanni, almost as though he were deeply embarrassed. “Corpus alienum,” he whispered. A medical term. No wonder the messenger had macerated it. “Oc.” ‘Yes’ in the language of the south. “Corpus alienum in corpore,” finished Thomas.

“But why call me?” asked Giovanni. “What has it to do with us?” Thomas lit a small torch from the one candle in the gloom. “Perspice. Look,” Thomas pointed to the floor next to the body. Giovanni was feeling queasy, and the flame showed a large pool of blood. Thomas saw his friend hesitate. “Concentrate,” he said. “It can’t hurt you.” On the edge of the blood was a piece of scroll. The blood has soaked into it part of the way, leaving a few words visible: …gne Dominus diiudicatur et in gladio suo …

Fratre piccolo,” Thomas’s choice of title was intimate, “you know your Bible.”

Quia in igne Dominus diiudicatur et in gladio suo ad omnem carnem et multiplicabuntur interfecti a Domino,” Giovanni quoted fluently.

“I knew you’d know it, I knew you’d know it.” Thomas jigged incongruously about in the small space. “The prophet of Emmanuel, isn’t it?”

Giovanni was surprised. “Yes, the great Isaiah. But my friend, you didn’t recognise it?”

“No,” Thomas replied. “But now I do.” He repeated the verse, “For by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many.

“Some one believes this is judgement,” Thomas continued, “but I do not believe it. I do not believe it, because I know it cannot be true.” Thomas crossed himself, and Giovanni noticed a tear beading in his friend’s eye. He couldn’t bear to hold Thomas’s look and turned his eyes back to the corpse. The robes were grey, like Thomas’s. The face was young, much younger than the two doctores. The hair had not been tonsured, so this young man could be a novice or postulant.

In horror, Giovanni asked, “Who?”

“Brother Corrado,” Thomas clenched his teeth as he mentioned the name. “They think I did it.”

“Who? The university proctores?”

“Non,” whispered Thomas, “mi fratelli. My brothers. That’s why I called for you.”

The situation was beginning to become clear to Giovanni. He knew his friend evoked a variety of strong responses among the Dominican brothers. Some, particularly the novices of latter years, believed him to be a saint and a genius. Giovanni suspected they might be right. For other brothers, Thomas was a cause of fun, the lumbering ox who couldn’t tell a lie, the social incompetent who, while dining at the royal palace, simply because a thought struck him, took out his scroll and quill. Many were jealous, especially those who knew that he had turned down the Holy Father’s invitation to be a cardinal. Others, knowing that his writings were known throughout Christendom, took an ignorant pride in their local celebrity. It was this group that was pushing for him to be Regent of the University of Paris, a position Thomas knew could bring him into conflict with his friend Giovanni and the Little Brothers, and so was resisting this pressure.

Thomas and Giovanni had agreed that the times were becoming dangerous, but had determined whatever the politics to continue as friends.

For the first time since entering the tiny room, Giovanni looked to the door. Two burly novices stood there, one nearly as big as Thomas himself. Thomas followed his eyes. “It is so,” he said. “You and I need protection, and I want you to help me survive what’s happening.”

Giovanni was moved by the pleading in his friend’s eyes, but felt bewildered. “What can I do for you, mi caro, besides locate a quote?”

“Help me unravel it, fratello piccolo. It’s a puzzle, and if I don’t understand it, then who knows who else could receive a corpus alienum thrust through their ribs? When will it start; the many being slain by the Lord?”

There was a commotion at the door. “Brother Thomas, Brother Thomas, it’s time to go,” one of the novices said. “Come with us, Brother Thomas, come with us, Brother Giovanni.”

Without thinking, Giovanni scooped up the torn scroll from the flag stones and thrust it into the interior of his habit.

As Giovanni came back out into the street, he noticed that dark was fast approaching. The two novices threw their cowls over their heads and set off at a pace, the two doctores having no difficulty keeping up. Both were fitter than they appeared, accustomed as they were to walking to Rome every three years or so. They headed up with the crowd along the Great Street St Vitor, and headed towards the great complex of St Vitor. A side gate opened and suddenly they were out of the noise and crush and in the monastery garden. Birds were singing in the trees, and they could hear the mighty Seine lapping on its shore over the great wall.

“Wait here, Brothers.” Brother William rushed into the kitchen door of the monastery, and returned several minutes later with Brother Cook.

“Will the Benedictines come to our aid?” whispered Giovanni to Thomas.

“Indeed,” said Thomas. “Brother William is the brother of the Cook.”

Ave, Brother Thomas. Ave, Brother Giovanni. Dominus vobiscum.” The Cook inclined his head in a reverent bow, and kissed the hands of each of the mendicant brothers. “The Lord has brought us together, and salvation is on His mind.” He smiled. “At least, I can help with your present salvation, Brothers. The kitchen barge awaits you on the other side of the wall. Brother William will take you to the barge-driver, and will escort you down river. Your destination will become clear. But go, the swords of the Lord are beginning to gather.”

A few moments later a small gate on the river side of the garden opened. The two novices ushered the older friars through the gate, hurried them down the barge path, and jumped on to the barge. Thomas and Giovanni followed.

“Brothers, an honour. But there is no time to waste,” the barge-driver rasped out in his Parisian accent. He cast off, ran to the back of the barge with a huge pole and guided the flat boat down-stream. They slid under cover of the growing darkness under the looming tower known as Latournelle.

Soon the lights of the monastery of Notre Dame de Paris and the great church itself were coming into view.

“Notre Dame?” queried Giovanni.

Non. Before then, I think,” said Thomas. “The great church stands out, but St Denis de Paris comes first.”

St Denis shares l’Île de la Cité with Notre Dame. In the citadel of St Denis, French kings were buried, but it was the monastery at which the barge tied up.


Le bon Dieu te bénisse.” Thomas bowed to the barge-driver, who was clearly surprised that this scholarly cleric would address him in his own dialect.

Brother William escorted the doctores off the barge and directly to the reception room in the abbot’s house. He and Brother Novus bowed to Thomas and Giovanni “We leave you here, good Brothers, where you will be safe, at least for tonight. Novus and I are attached to Notre Dame, so we can make our way home without drawing attention to your presence here. May our Lord Jesus bless you and keep you safe, holy fathers.”

They withdrew, leaving Thomas and Giovanni alone in the room. They looked about them at expensive furnishings and draperies. A huge gold crucifix hung over the main door, and a lavish tapestry showing the foundation of the monastery of St Denis covered the main wall. The room was lit by an opulent candelabra and twelve sconce candles along one wall. A large fire burned in a huge fire-place, and for the first time that day, Brother Giovanni felt warm. Both men knew that few places in Paris boasted such space and comfort. They moved to the fire, took their hands out of their large sleeves and held them to the warmth.

After some time, an internal door opened. A Benedictine appeared, his rank immediately clear by the pectoral cross glinting about his fat middle. Both friars bowed, muttering, “Dominus vobiscum, Pater,” and receiving a quickly traced benediction in reply.

“Welcome, little brothers,” the Abbot began smoothly. “I am glad you have been brought here. You will be safe. Dedicated to your studies, you may not have noticed passions are inflamed at the University, and you are unwittingly the cause of them.”

Labbra lusinghiero. The Italian phrase came unbidden to Giovanni’s mind: ‘Flattering lips.’

“There are certain factions among the Dominicans, Brother Thomas, who would have you appointed as Regent to the University. As you now know, the faction has started to use violence to push your claim.”

“Father,” said Thomas impatiently, “You know I cannot accept the appointment. Such a move would cause great division between the Preachers and the Little Brothers, some of whom are representing Giovanni here to be Regent.”

“No,” gasped Giovanni.

“Neither do I wish our brother here to be elevated to Regent. I fear our Master could not control the Dominicans if a Franciscan were appointed, and our scholarly work would be lost in the ensuing hostilities.” Thomas spoke passionately. “It has always been the Benedictines who can supply the balance and continuity for these great positions, and there are one or two and at Notre Dame who would be much preferable to either of us humble friars. Dom Justine, for ex–”

“No,” the Abbot cut across firmly though courteously. “There is no monk who brings the same intellectual and scholarly weight to the position as you do, Brother Thomas. The name Benedictine would be a laughing stock if I even proposed the name of Dom Justine. And there is another reason that you must accept.”

He paused, and rang a small bell. A novice nervously entered and bowed to his Abbot.

“Show our visitor in, Brother,” the Abbot ordered.

Just as quickly, the novice disappeared. The door opened again and a secular man in fine, brightly coloured court clothes entered, and bent to kiss the abbot’s ring.

Dominus vobiscum,” said the newcomer.

Benedicamus te,” replied the Abbot. Giovanni gasped as he recognised the newcomer and registered the Abbot’s ambiguous phrase. A benediction, of sorts, true, but it sounded like the Abbot was condescending to the royal person by arrogating the royal we to himself.

Giovanni bowed. “Altissimo,” he breathed.

Thomas grunted. “Domino mi.” Thomas’s obeisance was considerably shallower than Giovanni’s. Giovanni could see Thomas’s decreasing patience with what appeared to be an elaborate courtly game.

“Highness,” said Giovanni, “Father Abbot says one of us must accept the position of Regent. Both Brother Thomas and I are highly flattered by this attention, but must decline if only because the appointment of either of us would inflame the situation between Franciscans and Preachers. What can Your Highness say to attempt to change our minds?”

“Brother Giovanni,” said the Dauphin, “you saw the man who was killed. The corpus alienum. Did Brother Thomas tell you the man’s name?”

“Yes, Lord,” Giovanni replied. “Brother Corrado.”

“And his last name?” queried the Prince. Giovanni looked at Thomas, who averted his gaze.

“No, my Lord.”

“Would it shock you to know that ‘Brother’ Conrad was not a brother at all. His last name is d’Aquino.” Thomas continued to look away from his friend.

“Thomas,” said Giovanni. “Your kin.”

“And not just cousin to Brother Thomas, but son to the King of Sicily. A prince, like myself, sent to discover the court in Paris.”

“Then, Lord, what caused Prince Conrad to …?” Giovanni’s question trailed away.

The Dauphin looked at the two friars grimly.

“Our cousin the King of Sicily sent his son to be under our protection,” the Dauphin explained. “Conrad quickly became bored with our court and wanted to experience the University. But he was a prince, and we could not allow him to mingle with the students when there was a threat of violence. We approached the Master of the Preachers and persuaded him to disguise the Prince as a Dominican novice so that he could pass unnoticed through the streets. But somehow…”

“Somehow,” Giovanni continued “the pro-Thomas idiotes picked him off.”

“No, Brother,” the Prince shook his head. “It is more complicated than that, and that is why we sent for you to help us unravel the mystery. We believe the hand that plunged the sword into Conrad’s heart is working to undo the court of my father the King of France. It is convenient for him to have us believe that it is motivated by the cause to promote Brother Thomas.”

Giovanni withdrew from under his habit the scroll, still soaked on one corner in Prince Conrad’s blood and examined it thoughtfully using the light of the chandelier.

“Do you see this mark?” He pointed to where the paper was torn. The Prince saw as if engraved into the paper a crude shield with a crown above and a griffin on one side. Presumably a twin griffin was on the other half of the shield.

“A watermark,” said Thomas. As scholars, both were intrigued by this new technology.

“Sicily’s arms!” exclaimed the prince.

“It does confirm what your Highness has told us,” said Giovanni.

A bell tolled, its great voice muffled by the thick stone walls of the Abbot’s house. Giovanni pictured several hundred monks blearily rising from their cots to make their ways to the great churches on the island, those of St Denis and Our Lady.

“Only the Holy Father can command,” continued the dauphin, “but you would earn the gratitude and friendship of this prince if you could discover who committed this ignoble murder, and reflect on the invitation to you both to serve as Regent of the University.”

The prince turned and swept out of the room. Giovanni and Thomas made their bows to his retreating back.

“But I do command you,” said the Abbot, smiling. “you are my guests and you must stay overnight or until the culprit is found. Here you will be safe.”

Thomas thought for a moment that such hospitality was akin to that of the governor of a jail, but forced a smile nonetheless.

“We are honoured to be your guests,” said Giovanni, reflecting that St Francis would have accepted the offer of hospitality with an open heart and deep gratitude.

A novice showed the two mendicants to the Abbot’s guest room.

Both Thomas and Giovanni ignored the beds with their soft furnishings and took covers and laid them on the wooden floor as sleeping mats. Not only was this in accord with their Rules, but they were more comfortable sleeping as they normally did. Just before he blew out the candle, Thomas reached out an arm and lassoed a pillow to place under his head. Giovanni smiled in the darkness.

The two brothers lay in silence for some minutes. Giovanni was not about to sleep.

“Thomas,” he said, “remind me of why the Trinity is indivisible.”

“It’s after Nocturna,” grumbled Thomas.

“You know that I am not permitted to attend your lectures, and it would give me great pleasure to hear you lay out the argument.”

Thomas grunted, and sat up in bed. “Questionis: Cur Trinitatis indivisibilis?” he began. “Responsus: Primo: Each member of the Trinity is bound to the other and is ever found in company with the other two. Secundo: The Trinity itself is uncaused, but the action of one member on another causes movement in the world. With each action of love in the world, there may be a different face of the Holy Trinity, but the effect of its action is one. Tertio: ergo, the effects of the movements of the Trinity in the world will appear consistent as they arise from an indivisible first cause.”

Sequi,” Giovanni smiled. “I follow. When you see a unified effect, the three elements of a trinity have acted in concert to produce that action. Thank you, Brother.” He fell silent again.

Some minutes passed. Giovanni could hear the earliest roosters greeting another day. It was still dark in the guest room and would be for some hours. The roosters were full of optimism, but Thomas began to snore.

“Brother,” said Giovanni, “help me again.”

Thomas rolled over on his mat, and tried to settle into sleep on his left side, the pillow tucked up between his shoulder and huge neck.

“What, Brother?”

“Tell me the tale of the disgraced Sicilian.”

“Now, Brother?”

“If you please. You tell these stories of intrigue so beautifully.”

“Seven summers past, a Sicilian called Gennaro Luigi from Roccasecca, my town, came to the University. He was an aspirant for us Preachers. He did some study, but he was a wild man, and assaulted some of the King’s men in the street. The Prince sent him back to Roccasecca in disgrace. But Gennaro Luigi was a clever man, and vowed to take revenge on princes everywhere. News about his disgrace had travelled before him to Sicily, so he changed his name to Cropus Aliud – the Other Cropus, borrowed a brown habit from a passing friar, leaving the Little Brother naked on the hills outside Rome, and continued on to the court of Sicily. There he claimed to be a priest, a doctore like us. His Latin was polished, and his appearance sufficiently ecclesiastical, for him to gain entry to the court. He involved himself in all manner of scandal in the court, robberies and assaults, and disappeared about two years ago when the King of Sicily threatened to have him imprisoned. No one has seen or heard of him since. Now, why all these questions, Brother?”

“A trinity of things is acting together,” Giovanni replied. “The watermark on the blood-stained paper, the quotation from the Prophet, and the message brought to me. The paper can only have come directly from the Sicilian court, which is where Cropus has been making havoc. The writing can only be that of a literate man who has attended this University, or perhaps Padua or Genoa. The quotation was of revenge. And the messenger told me his name. Not corpus sal, but Cropus Aliud.”

“But where will we find him?”

“Here: in the monastery of St Denis, pretending to be a monk, and hiding as near to the French court as possible.”

Thomas was waking up. “So Father Abbot was wrong to think we would be safe here.”

“Indeed, Brother, this is the place of least safety in the whole of the city of Paris. And more than that. Father Abbot of the flattering lips knows Cropus is here. Brother, we are not safe.”

“He will not act against us while the Prince knows we are here,” Thomas stated. “But we will not be able to leave this place until the Highness is informed.”

The two friars listened as the monks shuffled to Lauds and back and then to Prime, and the sun eventually rose over Notre-Dame de Paris, bringing a new crisp day. The friars recited their offices in the guest room.

Well before Terce, Brothers William and Novus appeared. Giovanni related to the two brothers the conclusions that he and Thomas had reached during the night.

“Go to the Dauphin with a message from us,” they asked, “and request His Highness to come here to the Abbot’s house. Only he can ask the Abbot to deliver up Cropus Aliud.”

An hour later, an embarrassed Abbot stammered to the Dauphin that he hadn’t really known who the stranger from Italy in the other guest room was, but he owed him the ministry of hospitality.

The Dauphin called soldiers while the Abbot summoned the accused. The moment Thomas addressed him in Sicilian as Frate Gennaro, Cropus turned to the dauphin and begged for mercy.

“Do come and enjoy the ministry of hospitality at the palace of St Denis,” the Dauphin said grimly and nodded to the soldiers to escort him to a lower level of the citadel. “We will keep him there for some time,” he assured the Brothers. “You may now go home with our thanks and friendship.”

The two friars blessed the Prince and he bade them godspeed.

The next day a messenger from the Prince arrived at the Dominican friary. “The Dauphin thanks you for the service rendered to him and his father the King. The court is more deeply convinced that you are the only one who can be Regent of the University. Would you consider the post if a tabulam of Benedictines and Franciscans, led by Dom Justine of Carcassone, care for the University day to day, and you would then be free to continue your lectures and be for the University a symbol of the best it can be.”

Thomas grumbled, but to the Dauphin’s surprise sent back a message of acceptance.


Ten days later on the Lord’s Day, the Franciscans had celebrated their great Mass, and then gathered in the refectory to break the fast together. Giovanni took his turn in the kitchen, and plunged his hands into a great bowl of water filled with dirty plates. He smiled, thinking of his friend Thomas, who had been asked not to present himself for kitchen duty at the Dominican friary. Too many plates were broken, and too often the dishes had to be done again. Thomas composed his Summa in the kitchen, as in every other place.

There was a disturbance behind Giovanni. “The Pope’s messenger,” excited voices called to him, and indeed a messenger pushed into the kitchen, knelt before Giovanni and extended to him a red hat. “His Holiness has work for you in preparing for the great Council,” said the messenger.

There was a long pause. All in the kitchen were silent.

Giovanni smiled. “Hang the hat on the tree outside until I’ve finished the dishes,” he said, “then I will wear it in all humility.”

* * *
Historical note: Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (baptismal name Giovanni) and Thomas Aquinas were the two leading intellectuals in the University of Paris through the 1250s. They graduated Master in the same year and must have at least been acquainted with each other, but the historical record does not speak of any friendship such as I have described here. Thomas was first appointed Regent Master in 1257. It was actually not until 1274 that Bonaventure finally accepted the Cardinal’s red hat. He was elected the Minister General of the Franciscan order in 1257.

* * *
First published in Lacuna: Journal of Historical Fiction April 15, 2013

Pentecost past; Pentecost present


Sermon for Pentecost 2018

at St George’s Church, Dunsborough

Acts 2:1-21

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

In the Name of the living God, + Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

The older I get, the simpler I feel Christianity is. It could all be condensed into Jesus saying in the sermon on the Mount: ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’  (Matthew 5:16)

Do good works. Allow them to speak about God. That’s Christianity in a nut-shell.

lhbnm2qqThere’s a mystery about some people who are credited with being wonderful Christians, but they aren’t. I’m thinking of great souls like Mohandas Gandhi and Florence Nightingale. Gandhi’s reputation was made by his non-violent resistance to the British in India. But Gandhi was not a Christian. He lived in a Jain community, and his personal spirituality combined bits of Christianity with Jainism and Buddhism,

Florence Nightingale pioneered a scientific approach to nursing, first in practical ways in her Field Hospital in the Crimea, and later in policy-making in health. She said she was inspired by St John’s Gospel, but it’s clear she didn’t read the part about Jesus dying and rising or Jesus being the Son of God. She didn’t even like the church, so if she was a Christian, she was a strange one.

Yet the behaviour of Gandhi and Nightingale speaks loudly. I guess the light shining through them, if it’s not the light of Christ, is divine light. The goodness of God shines through their good works. God speaks through them.

It’s clear to me that if I am to do good works, I need help. And Jesus promised to send me help, in the person of Holy Spirit. The Spirit shows me the way, motivates me, and helps me put into action the good work; and the Spirit may testify to the world about my good works, as she testifies to those of Gandhi and the Lady with the Lamp.

Holy Spirit is given to all Christians, and the story is told in our readings this morning. But there seem to be two time-lines for the giving of the Spirit. You can roughly say there’s a Luke time-line and a John time-line.

Most scholars believe that Luke wrote both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.  Luke’s time-line takes us from the Jewish Passover to the Jewish Feast of Shavuot. Passover is celebrated after the first full moon after the spring equinox, or late March to mid-April. Shavuot is 50 days later: so, Shavuot was often called ‘the Fiftieth Day’ or ‘he hemera pentecoste’ in Greek, making Luke’s timeline the Resurrection, then 50 days, then the giving of the Spirit.

John’s Holy Spirit is in much more of a hurry. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the Eleven on the very day of the Resurrection.

8395850-3x2-940x627Luke portrays a day of high drama: there are devout Jews visiting Jerusalem from all over the known world. Holy Spirit sweeps in, a cyclone and bush-fire, and all 120 disciples burst into life: they all become powerful preachers, they speak a multitude of languages, and Peter alone converts three thousand people.

Luke makes us think of the cyclonic wind that stirred over chaos at creation. The giving of Holy Spirit is a new creation, and the new creation is people, the community of Christians, the church.

Luke also takes us back to the legend of the Tower of Babel, when God confused the tower-builders by dividing one language into mutually incomprehensible tongues. At Pentecost, God reverses this confusion so that ‘we hear them speaking in our own language about God’s deeds of power’ (Acts 2:11) and unity is restored.  Luke portrays the church’s potential, acting in unity, to reach every language group in the world.

Luke has Peter renew Old Testament predictions about the drama of the last days, the portents, the signs, the blood and fire and smoky mist.

Luke also tells a joke. People are complaining that the disciples’ behaviour is so bizarre that they must be drunk. ‘We can’t be drunk,’ says Peter, ‘It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning and the pubs aren’t open.’

Luke paints a memorable picture of that Day of Pentecost, the historical day in the life of the Christian community when Holy Spirit was first given to God’s people, and we became a people in mission, telling the story of Jesus and his Resurrection to the whole world.

Luke invites us to celebrate that first Pentecost.

I exaggerate; but Luke is Pentecost PAST, and John is Pentecost PRESENT. Luke is INSPIRATION, John gives PRACTICAL ADVICE.

John has everything happening on the one Day –  all on the first Easter Day, the appearance to Mary Magdalene in the morning, and in the evening, the appearance to the Eleven then the giving of Holy Spirit.

John’s description is simple: ‘He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive Holy Spirit.’.’ (John 20:22)

I’m wearing my red priestly stole today, and I am reminded that Archbishop Sambell The Preacher Pentecost 18spoke these words over me at the solemn moment he ordained me priest, ‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.’

It’s an awesome responsibility. In addition to the formal words I say in Absolution, the words I say, the way I behave, the attitudes I communicate can facilitate a person’s connection with God. On the other hand, the solemn warning is that my words and attitudes can also obstruct a person from getting close to God.

Melusi, you will also remember that moment in your ordination, and the responsibility God has given us as priests.

I was ordained just after coming out of hospital. I was worried about the moment in the service after the Bishop would lay hands upon my head followed by the hands of all the priests. Archbishop Sambell said he had a solution. He would lay his hands on my head, and he had to do that firmly for the ritual, but then when the weight of all the priests’ hands came on top of his he would lift, and my neck and spine wouldn’t have to bear the weight.

+ Geoffrey and priests

Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell, shortly before his death, with all the priests he had ordained in the Diocese of Perth.

On the day, the Archbishop laid his hands on my head, firmly, as he had said, and then I felt the weight of the priests’ hands start to bear down. The archbishop lifted. He held their weight for a second, then they came bearing down again, twice as heavy.

I needed help to stand. But I sure knew I was ordained!

But the giving of Holy Spirit broader than my ordination. We, as the Christian community, are a priestly people. As a community we have priests like Melusi and me and Lucy, and as a community we are a priest. Our mission as a people who have received Holy Spirit is to talk, act and believe in such a way that others are drawn closer to God. And we can stuff it up. ‘Whose sins ye do retain, they are retained.’

Luke emphasises the gracious and amazing action of God: John emphasises the effect this action has on people now. For John, Jesus is risen now, so our lives are changed now.

Holy Spirit, John says in the Gospel reading we’ve just heard, is a Paraclete (as opposed to parakeet!) In the Ancient Greek law-courts, you didn’t have an Advocate. You pleaded your own case. But you could bring to court a Paraclete, a person of moral authority who had two main roles. One was to be a kind of character witness. Having a Paraclete indicated to the judge that you are a worthy person. The more weight the Paraclete had in the community, the more effective his presence. His second task was to be an encourager.

Now that Jesus is risen, we have a task. This is Pentecost present. Our task now is to take the Gospel to people. God provides the Paraclete we need, the Paraclete of Jesus. When we speak, the Paraclete assures the listeners that we are worth listening to.

We speak the Gospel when we believe that Jesus is the Risen One and trust in Jesus to help us live victoriously. The Spirit may bear witness to the world of our good works.

‘You’ll know they are Christians by their love.’ ‘See how those Christians love one another.’ These familiar quotes were originally spoken by non-Christians in North Africa, but they are divinely inspired, the Paraclete at work.

I think of Agnes in a parish I served as a deacon who had painful arthritis in her wrist. She allowed surgeons to perform multiple experimental procedures, all of which were agonising. Yet every Sunday at Church, she was full of joyful smiles. Every time I visited her at home, despite the pain, she was overflowing with thanksgiving. Her task was to trust; the Paraclete’s task was to allow people to see the result of her trust in the way she lived.

I had the privilege of being Executive Director of YouthCARE WA for four years. YouthCARE employs the chaplains and oversees the Scripture teaching in Government schools. The chaplains are a good example of the Paraclete speaking to the world when Christians act faithfully. Chaplains’ mission is to be a ‘sensitive Christian presence in Government schools’. They are forbidden to ‘proselytise’, though the Education Department doesn’t know how to define ‘proselytise’. Their day-to-day task is to build up the students and the school community. Their continuing employment is precisely because the world sees their impact and likes it. The Paraclete speaks for them.

st-augustineOf course, we see the work of the Paraclete in great preachers like St Augustine who filled the Roman stadium in Pula in North Africa. It held 26,000 people. They obviously liked what they heard, especially his sermon about Psalm 42. ‘Think of the deer,’ said Bishop Augustine, ‘when they cross a stream, they cross single-file. Each deer lays its head on the back of the deer in front. The leading deer changes places frequently. In these ways, they bear each other’s burdens. They fulfil the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ If we behave like deer, bearing each other’s burdens, the Paraclete both cheers us on and commends us to the world. People loved hearing Augustine preach. The Paraclete invited them back again and again.

Or John Bunyan, the tinker from Bedfordshire who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, and yesterday would have protested the royal wedding just as he protested the return of King Charles II. When Bunyan preached in London even on just one day’s notice, thousands came. Holy Spirit invited them also.

But our task, the mission of most of us, is not to be stadium preachers. Our mission is inviting the world to share the joy we know in Christ. Our tasks are to let our lives speak by our trust in Christ, letting our light shine both in the church and in the community. Not so dramatic as Augustine, or as Luke, perhaps, but this is Pentecost present, the Paraclete of Jesus encouraging us and speaking up for us, authenticity being our watchword.

 

An Intense Life


GMH coverINSCAPE OF AN INTENSE LIFE IN CHRIST 

Mariani, Paul. Gerard Manley Hopkins: a Life. 

New York City: Viking Adult, 2008

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

The 13th century Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus was one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ heroes. Duns Scotus invented the idea of haecceitas. This ugly Latin word is usually translated by the equally ugly ”isness “, but would be better rendered as “uniqueness.” Haecceitas refers to the quality that makes a thing itself and not anything else. In other words, Scotus was encouraging his readers to gaze at things until they disclosed their unique quality. Gazing, according to Sister Ilia Delio among others, is a characteristic aspect of Franciscan praying. Duns Scotus’ philosophy places him firmly in this Franciscan tradition.

Hopkins pays homage to Duns Scotus in his poem ”Duns Scotus’s Oxford.”   This sonnet deplores the way Oxford has developed and grown since the 1200s.

”… graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping – folk, flocks, and flowers.”

Hopkins has evidently informed this judgement by gazing  at the buildings and trees he so loves until he sees what makes Oxford unique.

”Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river­ rounded.”

Hopkins was expert at gazing. Ilia Delio tells the story of Hopkins gazing at a tree in Ireland for three days until it disclosed its haecceitas. Hopkins felt at home in the natural world of Ireland and Wales. It is this world, gazed at and wondered about, that is “charged with the glory of God.”

Paul Mariani’s biography reveals that Hopkins’ expertise was profound but narrow. His powerful intellect was trained at Oxford in the classics, and he remained absorbed in Latin and Greek even after the Jesuits had thoroughly trained him in theology.

The Jesuits seemed not to know what to do with this strange, intense young man, so they eventually sent him to Ireland on the pretext that he would help other Jesuits establish a Catholic University in Dublin. Even though he was on the Catholic side, Ireland was not a congenial place for an English patriot, especially one who found it difficult to make friends. In practice, his lonely years in Ireland were an almost endless task marking the Latin and Greek exams of all the children matriculating in Ireland.

Depressed and physically ill, he battled on until his death in 1888 aged only 44. He cried out, presumably in the mid-1880s:

“My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter, kind,
Charitable; not live in this tormented mind.
With this tormented mind, tormenting yet.”

Only hours before his death, Father Wheeler heard Hopkins whispering over and over again, “I am so happy. I am so happy.” Mariani’s simple telling of this story leaves us with the impression that Hopkins is finally happy because he knows he will soon be passing from this unhappy life to his glorious reward.

Mariani’s Life is richly textured. The biographer gathers a mass of detail and tells the story of Hopkins’ life chronologically. His sources are so detailed that he often reports verbatim conversations that Hopkins had on a given day, and records what he was thinking and confiding to his journal.

-.

Hopkins’ story is simple. From the English upper-middle class, Hopkins would have been expected to remain lifelong Anglican were it not for his awkward conversion to Rome. This choice, made at Oxford, determined his direction.

It was a time when young Oxford men agonised over ‘going over’: John Henry Newman, another of his heroes, had done it a generation earlier, and several of Hopkins’ circle either converted or seriously contemplated it. It was a decision to be made, as Hopkins did, with lengthy deliberation and careful disclosure to family and friends. Some never forgave or understood his decision.

His lifelong friendship with the poet Robert Bridges only just lasted this decision time.

Hopkins did well enough at his theological studies and loved the setting of the Jesuit Novitiate at Roehampton, Wales. His daily walks inspired his poetry; he learned Welsh to better minister to Welsh-speakers; and he regaled his fellows with erudite jokes at end of term dinners. He was happy – or at least as happy as he would ever be.

His engagement with the craft of poetry started to flower at Roehampton. Paul Mariani shows how original Hopkins was both in developing the idea of ‘sprung rhythm’ and in paying attention to ‘inscape’. These are both complex ideas, and Mariani helped me understand them better.

Hopkins’ concept of ‘inscape’ is the poetical descendent of Duns Scotus’ haecceitas. Where landscape is exterior, ‘inscape’ is interior. It describes the qualities revealed when you gaze on something in nature or on the action of a person. Poetry is partly about capturing inscape, as a painter, in depicting trees and sky, communicates the qualities of the landscape.

Hopkins deeply understood the contribution Shakespeare had made to poetry and to the English language by adapting iambic pentameter to English poetry in both drama and poems. Hopkins believed that English is not a syllabic language and questioned whether iambs and dactyls and other syllabic patterns were best for English. So he experimented with a line of five beats – still a pentameter – that was independent of the number of syllables: this was sprung rhythm.

Mariani explores at some depth the influence of Duns Scotus on Hopkins. In a book of over 400 pages, I was a little disappointed not to find more about another influence: Ignatius of Loyola. I felt Paul Mariani played down the Jesuits’ influence of Hopkins. However, there is no way that a sensitive man like Hopkins could have completed the 40-day Exercises without being deeply permeated by Ignatian spirituality. Mariani may have thought that David Downes in his study on the Ignatian spirit and Hopkins had sufficiently covered the notion of Hopkins the priest-poet.

While still in simple vows, the Jesuits put Hopkins into a classroom. He taught zealously, and students remembered him as gentle and trustworthy.

They would surely remember his illustration of how Achilles hooked Hector’s bloodied corpse behind his chariot and dragged it beneath the walls of Troy. ”Hopkins lay on his back and had a student drag him around the floor.” (p. 333) His zany pedagogy sometimes connected with his students, but often, his students simply found him over-scrupulous and strange. Teaching was not his vocation.

Meanwhile, Hopkins struggled on with his craft: sprung rhythm and internal rhymes pressed into service to express his insight into the true nature of the world around him. Not that Hopkins was always convinced that being a poet was the heart of his vocation. He stopped writing for some years, disappointed that he was not being published, and unsure of what his superiors really thought of his poetry.

And so to Ireland, and to the lonely room with the desk piled high with papers to mark, and the daily walk and his poetry his only escape.

We might be tempted to conclude that he had lived the life of the archetypical Romantic poet: the genius whose suffering was transmuted into Art. This was the ideal that Byron, Keats, Coleridge and others proposed. Yet I doubt Hopkins would want to be placed with the Romantics. Every day, he might say, he had the privilege of seeing the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’, and though to the observer, his life may seem to carry the shape of the Crucified Lord, Hopkins knew every day the presence of the Risen Lord:

‘EnoughI the Resurrection,//A heart’s clarion!
Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.’

This disciple was not waiting for the after-life to taste the joys of life in the Risen One. He was enchanted by it now.

Bridges and GMH 1863For this lover of Hopkins’ poetry, this life was not only fascinating to read, but it was also good to hold such a beautiful book. The narrative is sustained with clarity over 435 pages, and a handful of illustrations add much it. I found myself often looking back to the photos of Bridges and Hopkins taken in 1863, and used as a pictorial epigraph for Part 1, and then flicking forward to the photos taken in 1888 months before Hopkins’ death in Dublin. These show  Bridges as a mature man with a vital eye looking forward to the future. Hopkins, by contrast, looks exhausted and grim, with his hair receding and his head tilted slightly backwards as though he already looking up in anticipation.

Mariani has captured for me the haecceitas of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest and poet. Mariani’s inscape is an insight into his intense, short life.bridges-and-gmh-1888.png

 

 

 

 

 

Is the Pope Catholic?


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Christopher Lascelles, Pontifex Maximus: A short history of the popes, Crux Publishing 2017.

404 pages

ISBN 9781909979468

E-book $AU 8.99

 

Years ago, while teaching French, I showed my Year 9 students some slides of the Popes’ Palace at Avignon. ‘This,’ I declared, ‘was where the Popes lived when there was more than one Pope.’

Two girls, my best students, were aghast. ‘But the Pope must live in Rome,’ they said. I

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Le Palais des papes, Avignon. Image courtesy tourisme-avignon

knew that these students were Roman Catholics, so I suggested they should check the story out with the nuns that visited the school. Next lesson, they returned with an ‘official’ list of Popes, and were intrigued that this list did show that Clement V, Innocent VI, John XXII and Urban V, all ‘proper’ Popes established their Curia in Avignon.

Rome has good reason to police papal history. The papacy has been a fallible institution, and Rome would prefer an official list that presents the story that God was working through sinful men.

christopher_optimised

Christopher Lascelles

Christopher Lascelles’ new book, Pontifex Maximus, is not the story that Rome prefers. Lascelles is the author of A Short History of the World, and in both books, he gives evidence-based history. The style is journalistic and accessible, but it is not flattering to the papacy.

Popes are shown to be quarrelsome, ambitious and self-serving. Some rode at the head of papal armies. Some sponsored their children and nephews into rich positions as Cardinals or Archbishops. Some, like Pius XI (1922-1939), supported Mussolini. Lascelles shows how Pius was even implicated in the rounding up of Jews, naively believing Mussolini was a good Catholic because he had promised favourable treatment for the Church. Once trapped into the deal, he continued to believe that the advantages to the Church outweighed the evils of Italian Fascism.

Lascelles rightly makes the Gospel of Jesus the standard by which he judges Popes. He identifies three only that lived the Gospel and had the opportunity to reform the Church – Gregory I the Great being the prime example. Gregory refused to accept the title of Universal Bishop, and exemplified Christian values as he saved Rome from a series of disasters.

He believes that the new Pope Francis may also serve the Gospel well.

There were times when I felt that Lascelles was unduly critical. For example, he criticises the political power that Innocent III (1198-1216) amassed for himself, without showing the good for the Gospel that he also achieved.

Overall, this is an entertaining and informative run-through of the history of the papacy. I considered myself reasonably well-informed and learned many new things in the reading. Above all, Lascelles makes the story of the papacy interesting.

It is clearly written for a general audience, for readers who would rather not be fobbed off by pious propaganda. I doubt there would be teachers brave enough to set it as a text in Catholic schools or tertiary institutions, but it would be a rich resource for senior students.

In all, to cram so much history into such an accessible book is a praiseworthy achievement.

 

Choosing an Indigenous Subject for a Statue


First published in the Busselton-Dunsborough Mail, June 21, 2017

We ‘wedulah’ (whitefellas) can do better than complain about the choice of Gaywal for the representative statue of a Noongar in Busselton. We might instead take a solemn moment to remember that after Gaywal speared George Layman, a posse of settlers, including humanitarian John Bussell, hunted down Noongars indiscriminately and according to the Perth Gazette of the time killed ‘at least seven Wardandi’.

The settlers were unwilling to share land. Under John Bussell’s leadership, they were generous to the local Aboriginal people in every other respect, except the land needed for their mission of settlement. John Bussell seems to have been genuinely baffled that the first people did not immediately see the benefits of colonialization and jump at them. The Wardandi, on the other hand, were equally baffled at newcomers who would take all the land and refuse to share the necessities it provided.

The tensions were inevitable. Vernon and Alfred Bussell grew vexed because the Noongars continued to trespass to hunt kangaroos. The hungry Noongars took cattle and speared horses. The Bussells started taking hostages, including women and ‘a little girl’. The dispute escalated until a Bussell servant was killed by the Noongars. According to E.O.G. Shann’s 1926 Cattle Chosen, nine Wardandi men and women were shot dead in retaliation.

Isn’t it time we ‘wedulah’ accepted both that the Bussells and the Laymans deserve honour for their noble achievements in settling the Vasse and also that lethal misunderstandings arose between our forebears and the Noongar people? It’s a sobering history, but to ignore it is an ongoing disrespecting of the first people. Acknowledging this past seems to me essential if we are to arrive at reconciliation and healing.

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Cattle Chosen