Wednesday 30 May 2012

Father Gaston

Father Frederic, our Parish priest, is away for two weeks and has been replaced by Father Gaston, a priest of French origin, until our regular priest returns.

Father Gaston doesn’t say much, maybe because he hasn’t much to say to us. Who knows! He is tall and thin and looks very severe. He has one of those unfortunate white skinny faces which look like a skull. A long oval shape with sunken eyes and boney features revealing the contours of his jaws as he grins benignly rather than smile. I bet he could turn someone into a pillar of salt by just thinking it.

I don’t mean that he is nasty or evil in any way; he just looks that way and would frighten any cat out of its nine lives. Maybe I should introduce him to mine.

Last Saturday I went to confession. Father Gaston was in attendance.

We have one of those wooden confessionals which consists of a compartment in the middle which the priest enters and sits on a bench, and we genuflect on either side, pulling the curtain behind us so no one sees us, and tell him all our wrong-doings. We have to whisper, of course; otherwise everyone in church would hear our sins. If they were to hear mine they would no doubt be in hysterics of laughter!

I knelt down and whispered closely to the opening in the confessional: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned …”

“I cannot hear you!” said Father Gaston in his strong French accent loud enough to be heard in Paris.

“Ehmmm…” I cleared my throat as I got nearer still to the little window opening in the confessional. At that point my knee slipped off the kneeler on the floor and I crashed forward hitting my face hard against the panel behind which the priest was sitting. He must have jumped out of his tightly stretched skin dropping his jaw to the floor in the process. I know that the rest of the penitents in church must have been startled out of their meditations too as I heard murmurs echoing behind the confessional curtain.

I straightened myself and soon realized that the knock to my face had started a nose bleed. I took out a handkerchief quickly and said in a loud enough voice to be heard by everyone “We’ll have to continue this conversation at another time …”

I got out of the confessional holding my head back and covering my face with the now red handkerchief.

As I made my way to the exit I heard a lady say to another: “I’m not going to confession today. This new French priest is rather violent with his penance!”

Monday 21 May 2012

Uphill young life

Father Ignatius came out of the Sacristy and found a young boy at the back of the church crying. It was Tim Bryant.

The priest knew the eleven year old well. He came from a very poor family and had a difficult life despite his few years on this world.

Tim often worked hard after school to supplement the family budget. He delivered groceries for Mr Harris to all the customers in the vicinity. The priest had seen him often pushing his bicycle up the steep hill in Carrington Road and Heath Avenue. Those two roads were steep all right … but not as steep as Nelson Gardens right up the hill where Tim often delivered cans of food as well as vegetables and other items purchased from Mr Harris.

He certainly enjoyed the ride down the hill when the deliveries were finished and his bicycle was light; but going up was really difficult, especially when it was dark and cold in winter.

He’d been working for Mr Harris for about a year now and proudly gave his mother the £3 a week he earned to help her pay the rent and buy food.

She too worked hard. She took in washing from a number of people every week to earn a little more than what she got by cleaning people’s homes.

Some time ago Father Ignatius decided to help her without appearing to be charitable and risk losing her dignity. He decided that the Altar boys vestments needed washing and ironing at least once a month, as well as various other church items such as the Altar cloth and other items of linen. He asked Mrs Bryant to take on this task for a monthly fee, which she gladly did.

However, this upset Mrs Davenport, his housekeeper, who felt she was perfectly capable of doing this work as she had done for years … thank you very much!

The priest diplomatically explained that Mrs Davenport’s talents were in the kitchen and that her culinary expertise made many a professional chef green with envy. It would be wrong to waste such skills on washing vestments.

Mrs Davenport acquiesced and peace was restored once again in the Parish House.

Tim’s father, Mr Bryant, was partly the cause of much unhappiness in the poor household. He earned a pittance doing odd jobs as a gardener; but whatever he earned was soon spent on drink. He often got home in a bad state, got into an argument which he started, and then beat his wife and son.

Mrs Bryant often begged Father Ignatius not to say anything to anyone, least of all the Authorities for fear that her son Tim would be taken into care and she’d lose him for ever. The priest understood well this dilemma, yet could not let such a situation continue where mother and child are often beaten up, sometimes violently. He had spoken to Mr Bryant on many occasions, sometimes harshly threatening to report him to the police, yet Mr Bryant would be totally and fully repentant, promising not to lay a finger on his family ever again and to stop drinking forthwith … only to repeat his behavior in a few weeks later.

Understandably, young Tim performed very badly at school. When you work hard delivering groceries every night, and you go home not knowing whether your parents will be there, or whether you’d be beaten for no reason and often went to bed hungry because there is no food in the house, it is very difficult to concentrate on your studies.

And now there he was … the poor eleven year old crying at the back of the church.

Father Ignatius approached him and asked gently, “What’s the matter Tim? Has your dad beaten you?”

“No … it’s much worse.” said the boy wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

What could be much worse, thought the priest. “Would you like to tell me about it?” he asked.

“You know I deliver groceries for Mr Harris?” said the young lad.

The priest nodded.

“Well … today as I was delivering in Wilson Lane someone stole from my bicycle when I left it there to go to one of the houses. They took a few vegetables and packets of sugar and flour.

“Mr Harris got very angry with me and said I stole them. He didn’t believe me when I told him what happened and he fired me.

“Mom will be very upset because she needs the money I give her every week. Dad will go mad … as always.”

“Is Mr Harris the greengrocer just by the corner at the end of the street?” asked the priest gently, not forgetting to say a silent prayer for the Lord to help in this situation.

“Yes!” said Tim.

“Well … I need some fresh air. Let’s walk there and see what the Lord Jesus will do to help us about this! Always trust in Jesus, Tim. He will help change a bad situation for the good, if you trust Him.”

As they arrived at the small shop Father Ignatius asked the boy to wait outside and went in alone.

“What can I do for you Padre?” said Mr Harris from behind the counter.

“We haven’t met,” said the priest, “I’ve come with that young boy outside. He used to work for you until today …”

“Oh … yes …” said Mr Harris looking through the shop window.

“I’ve known the boy for years … he’s not the type who would steal, Mr Harris. I tend to believe what he told you …”

Mr Harris raised his eyebrows.

“Are you the priest from the church up the hill?” he asked.

“Yes, how rude of me. I should have introduced myself. I’m Father Ignatius from St Vincent Church!”

“Yeh … I’ve heard about you …” continued Mr Harris, “you lot buy a good deal from me. Good customers you are.

“Your housekeeper, Mrs Davenport, is always here fussing about what she buys. ‘Must have the best vegetables for Father Ignatius’ she says … ‘These are not fresh enough … these are too big … these are too small …’ and on and on she goes. My wife calls her Mrs Fusspot … behind her back of course.”

“Oh!” said the priest who had no idea where his household purchases came from, “is she here often?”

“Yes … every week! She fills her trolley to the brim and pulls it behind her up the hill. It must be very difficult for a woman her age.”

“Why doesn’t she have everything delivered?” asked the priest.

“She’s too mean …” said Mr Harris, “I suggested the idea to her but she said that the church is short of cash and she will not waste good funds on delivery charges!”

“I tend to agree with you!” Father Ignatius went on, “it’s wrong for her to pull a heavy trolley up the hill every week. She should have everything delivered … if only you had a delivery boy!”

“I see where you’re coming from …” laughed Mr Harris, “perhaps I was wrong to accuse the lad of stealing. He’s a good boy and works hard. Bring him in and tell him he’s hired!”

And that’s how the Lord Jesus helped Tim Bryant get his job back delivering for Mr Harris.

Father Ignatius had a little difficulty explaining to Mrs Davenport why it was better to have everything delivered, but it wasn’t a task that his diplomacy couldn’t handle. Three months later Mr Bryant, Tim’s dad, died suddenly of a heart attack. The beatings stopped once and for all, and in time, Tim started to improve with his work at school.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Understanding Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

I entered the house after delivering another load of tents to the local Outdoor Pursuits Shop.

Paul was sitting at the table writing on another pile of parchment papers.

“Hello” I said, “would you like a hot drink?”

“What have you to offer?” he asked without looking up.

“Hot boiled fish water sweetened with honey …” I replied casually.

“The same old brew …” he mumbled in disgust, “when will someone discover coffee, or tea or hot chocolate drink?”

“There’s also hot milk and honey from the Promised Land!” I said encouragingly; but he did not answer.

I asked him what he was writing.

“It’s a letter to the people of Corinth …” he said, “I have to finish it today and send it before postage costs go up yet again …

“They’ve asked me for advice on how to live … just basic advice. I mean … can’t these people think for themselves. Here, have a read” he continued, as he passed me some bits of parchment which smelled like old goat skins.

I read … “Chapter 7 - Verse 1”

For some reason Paul always wrote his letters by numbering every chapter and every verse. I don’t know why he did that. Must be some affectation of some kind I suppose. He wrote:

“A man does well not to marry.”

“Hein?” I thought, “what’s he on about?” I kept on reading what seemed to be rather personal advice to these Corinthian people; albeit good advice I must say, and then again, at Verse 7 he wrote:

“Actually, I would prefer if all of you were single as I am …You single people and widows, it is better if you continue to live alone; just as I do …”

I stopped and looked at him writing there. I wondered why he’d never got married. Perhaps having met my mother-in-law he got frightened out of matrimony altogether.

But his advice made no sense. How can he possibly say a man should not marry, and in fact he’d prefer all of them to remain single and live alone?

I asked him “How would people multiply if they followed your advice?”

“What’s Mathematics to do with it?” he replied without looking up, “they can learn their multiplication tables like every one else!”

“No …” I said hesitantly, “I mean … you know … doing it … having babies …”

“Oh … I gave them a let out clause in Verse 9” Paul continued nonchalantly, “I told them if they can’t control themselves they’d better get married anyway.

“I really can’t understand those people … why can’t they distract themselves by playing card games, or Monopoly or similar board games. The shops are full of them!”

I kept on reading and I must admit I got a bit embarrassed at the personal advice which followed. He meant well, I suppose, and maybe those Corinthians were a little slow on the up-take and needed very detailed advice on how to live as early Christians.

Then at Verse 26 he repeated his opinions again.

“If a man is unmarried he should stay this way. If he is married he should not get rid of his wife!”

“Charming” I thought, “no doubt he’s considered the costs of divorce and alimony when giving this advice.

But then his letter continued:

“Are you unmarried? Then don't look for a wife ... I would rather spare you the everyday troubles that married people will have.”

Well, my mother-in-law certainly has had an influence on him; I thought.

I got out of the house somewhat more confused than those Corinthians will be when they receive this letter.

I was met by my wife and mother-in-law coming home from a shopping trip. Before I had time to welcome them mom-in-law said:

“What are you doing lazing in the sun? Have you no work to do?”

Monday 14 May 2012

God and Logic. Logic and God.

Harry was a practical man. Pragmatic, calculating and very very logical. He always thought things out thoroughly and his conclusions were logical and well worked out.

One day he asked Father Ignatius if he could spare some time for a chat. The always approachable priest took Harry to his office in the Parish House and after a cup of coffee and biscuits he encouraged him to speak.

“It’s something I’ve had on my mind for years Father,” started Harry, “I’ve never actually confessed it at Confession, which might be a sin in itself I suppose, but it still keeps niggling me at the back of my mind. So I’d assume this chat is a Confession in itself.”

The kindly priest smiled and nodded to encourage him to continue.

“Years ago,” Harry said, “someone hurt me very badly. It totally changed my life, and even today, my circumstances and my life are the result of that person’s action towards me.

“That person then moved on to another town far away and we haven’t seen each other since.

“I believe I have forgiven that person. Truly and honestly forgiven them in the sense that I do not seek any retribution, revenge and nor do I bear any ill will whatsoever towards that person. Even though, as I said, my life is still affected by what that person did. I even pray for that person sometimes, would you believe Father!”

The priest smiled and said nothing.

“But I tell you in all honesty Father,” continued Harry, “I hate that person. I don’t wish that person bad as I said, but I don’t like that person at all. I still get angry at times, thinking at what has been done to me. Even though I forgive again deep in my heart I still hate.

“That person never asked for forgiveness. And the likelihood is that the person doesn’t even care for forgiveness.

“Does my private hate negate … wipe away my forgiveness?”

Father Ignatius said nothing for a while; then, cautiously he said.

“When we forgive, our forgiveness should be total. Without any conditions and given in love.”

Harry interrupted.

“Yes I understand that. And strictly speaking Father I have forgiven totally. But how can I possibly love a person who has totally changed my life for the worse; and that of others too?

“My hatred, as I call it … my anger towards that person … is a private hatred and a private anger within me. The person does not know about it and is not harmed by my personal feelings in any way.

“That person has moved on to another life and doesn’t even care about forgiveness.

“How can a personal feeling, which technically speaking does not harm another person, be considered a sin? Surely God can’t accuse me of harming that person?”

Father Ignatius waited a while and then replied, “You say the person does not know nor cares about your forgiveness, and is therefore not harmed by your private thoughts and feelings towards them.

But … is your sin against God perhaps. In that your forgiveness is not total since you hold some hatred back?”

“But Father …” Harry continued, “I have done my utmost best to forgive totally in that I wish that person no ill-will whatsoever.

“I just can’t help disliking, and sometimes hating that person.

“Surely God knows how I am made up as a human. He created me and He gave me all these emotions we humans share.

“Dislike and hatred are such emotions. God knows very well that my hate is borne from anger and perhaps unhealed hurt and a sense of injustice within me. God gave me all these feelings and He can’t possibly blame me for reacting naturally to what’s happened to me.

“If my hatred resulted in harm and revenge towards the other person, then I understand it’s wrong.

“But my private hatred hurts no one. Neither that person, nor any one else, knows about it so how can it possibly hurt them or be a sin?

“If anything, the hatred is hurting me as it burns inside me … but I can’t help it. It’s the way I’m made.”

The priest prayed silently for a few seconds. He understood that the man was still hurting badly and yet, Harry used his impeccable logic to reason that his private feelings were no sin towards man or God.

“Let’s look at it another way” said the priest calmly, “you’re right Harry in saying that your private hatred is not physically or in any other way hurting the other person.

“You’re also right in saying that your hatred is an emotion given to you by your Creator together with all the other emotions we have as human beings.
“But God also gave us the emotion and power to love. In fact Christ told us clearly to love one another; especially our enemies.

“So by hating the other person, however privately, you are denying them your love. You can’t love and hate at the same time.”

“So is it a sin?” Harry interrupted again, “because I can’t help how I feel about this person. No matter how I try. I bear no ill-will as I said, but I just can’t like or love the person as you suggest!”

“I understand …” Father Ignatius said gently, “the world has seen many evil leaders do many evil things over the years. It is not always humanly possible to love them and forgive them as Christ did on the Cross.

“He is God … and we are not.
“But at the very least we should try as best as we possibly can to forgive wholeheartedly, even though, in human terms, our hearts can’t always genuinely love as He commanded.”