Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Padre Blazon was almost shouting by this time, and I had to hush him. People in the restaurant were staring, and one or two ladies of devout appearance were heaving their bosoms indignantly. He swept the room with the wild eyes of a conspirator in a melodrama and dropped his voice to a hiss. Fragments of food, ejected from his mouth by this jet, flew about the table.

“But all this terrible talk about the saints is not disrespect, Ramezay. Far from it! It is faith! It is love! It takes the saint to the heart by supplying the other side of his character that history or legend has suppressed — that he may very well have suppressed himself in his struggle toward sainthood. The saint triumphs over sin. Yes, but most of us cannot do that, and because we love the saint and want him to be more like ourselves, we attribute some imperfection to him. Not always sexual, of course. Thomas Aquinas was monstrously fat; St. Jerome had a terrible temper. This gives comfort to fat men, and cross men. Mankind cannot endure perfection; it stifles him. He demands that even the saints should cast a shadow. If they, these holy ones who have lived so greatly but who still carry their shadows with them, can approach God, well then, there is hope for the worst of us.

“Sometimes I wonder why so few saints were also wise. Some were, of course, but more were down-right pig-headed. Often I wonder if God does not value wisdom as much as heroic virtue. But wisdom is rather unspectacular; it does not flash in the sky. Most people like spectacle. One cannot blame them. But for oneself — ah, no thank you.”

It was with this learned chatterbox that I set out to travel from Brussels to Vienna. I was early at the station, as he had commanded, and found him already in sole possession of a carriage. He beckoned me inside and went on with his task, which was to read aloud from his breviary, keeping the window open the while, so that passers-by would hear him.

“Give me a hand with a Paternoster,” he said and began to roar the Lord’s Prayer in Latin as loud as he could. I joined in, equally loud, and we followed with a few rousing Aves and Agnus Deis. By dint of this pious uproar we kept the carriage for ourselves. People would come to the door, decide that they could not stand such company, and pass on, muttering.

“Strange how reluctant travellers are to join in devotions that might — who can say? — avert some terrible accident,” said Blazon, winking solemnly at me as the guard’s whistle blew, the engine peeped, and we drew out of the station. He spread a large handkerchief over his lap and put the big snuffbox in the middle of it, skimmed his dreadful hat into the luggage rack to join a bundle held together by a shawl strap, and composed himself for conversation.

“You have brought the refreshment basket?” said he. I had, and I had not stinted. “It might be provident to take some of that brandy immediately,” he said. “I know this journey, and sometimes the motion of the train can be very distressing.” So at half-past nine in the morning we began on the brandy, and soon Padre Blazon was launched into one of those monologues, delivered at the top of his voice, which he preferred to more even-handed conversation. I shall boil it down.

“I have not forgotten your questions about the woman you keep in the madhouse, Ramezay. I have said nothing on that subject during our last few dinners, but it has not been absent from my mind, you may be assured. Invariably I come back to the same answer: why do you worry? What good would it do you if I told you she is indeed a saint? I cannot make saints, nor can the Pope. We can only recognize saints when the plainest evidence shows them to be saintly. If you think her a saint, she is a saint to you. What more do you ask? That is what we call the reality of the soul; you are foolish to demand the agreement of the world as well. She is a Protestant. What does it matter? To be a Protestant is halfway to being an atheist, of course, and your innumerable sects have not recognized any saints of their own since the Reformation, so-called. But it would be less than Christian to suppose that heroic virtue may not assert itself among Protestants. Trust your own judgement. That it what you Protestants made such a dreadful fuss to assert your right to do.”

“But it is the miracles that concern me. What you say takes no account of the miracles.”

“Oh, miracles! They happen everywhere. They are conditional. If I take a photograph of you, it is a compliment and perhaps rather a bore. If I go into the South African jungle and take a photograph of a primitive, he probably thinks it a miracle and he may be afraid I have stolen a part of his soul. If I take a picture of a dog and show it to him, he does not even know what he looks like, so he is not impressed; he is lost in a collective of dogginess. Miracles are things people cannot explain. Your artificial leg would have been a miracle in the Middle Ages — probably a Devil’s miracle. Miracles depend much on time, and place, and what we know and do not know. I am going to Vienna now to work on the Catalogue of Greek Manuscripts in what used to be the Emperor’s Library. I shall be drowned in miracles, for those simple Greek monks liked nothing better and saw them everywhere. I tell you frankly, I shall be sick of miracles before I am taken off that job. Life itself it too great a miracle for us to make so much fuss about potty little reversals of what we pompously assume to be the natural order.

“Look at me, Ramezay. I am something of a miracle myself. My parents were simple Spanish people living a few leagues from Pamplona. They had seven daughters — think of it, Ramezay, seven! My poor mother was beside herself at the disgrace. So she vowed solemnly, in church, that if she might bear a son, she would give him to the service of God. She made her vow in a Jesuit church, so it was natural enough that she should add that she would make him a Jesuit. Within a year — behold, little Ignacio, so named after the saintly founder of the Society of Jesus. To a geneticist, I suppose it is not breathtaking that after seven daughters a woman should have a son, but to my mother it was a miracle. The neighbours said – you know how the neighbours always say — “Wait, the trouble is to come; he will be a wild one, this Ignacio; the jail gapes for these sanctified children. Was it so? Not a bit! I seemed to be a Jesuit from the womb — studious, obedient, intelligent, and chaste. Behold me, Ramezay, a virgin at the age of seventy-six! Of how many can that be said? Girls laid themselves out to tempt me; they were incited to seduce me by my sisters, who had only ordinary chastity and thought mine distasteful. I will not say I was not flattered by these temptations. But always I would say, “God did not give us this jewel of chastity to be trampled in the dirt, my dear Dolores (or Maria or whoever it was); pray for an honourable and loving marriage, and put me from your mind.” Oh, how they hated that! One girl hit me with a big stone; you see the mark here still, just where my hair used to begin. This was a real miracle, for every morning I had unmistakable assurance that I could have been a great lover — you understand me? — but I loved my vocation more.

“I loved it so much that when the time came for me to enter the Jesuits my examiners were mistrustful. I was too good to be true. My mother’s vow, my own abstentions — it worried them. They raked around, trying to discover some streak of unredeemed nature in me — some shadow, as we were saying a while ago — but I had none. Do you know, Ramezay, it stood in my way as much as if I had been a stiff-necked recalcitrant and troublemaker? Yes, my novitiate was very rough, and when I had got through that and was a formed scholastic, every dirty job was put in my way, to see if I would break. It was a full seventeen years before I was allowed to take my four final vows and become a professed member of the Society. And then — well, you see what I am now. I am a pretty useful person. I think, and I have done good work for the Bollandists, but nobody would say I was the flower of the Jesuits. If ever I was a miracle, it is done with now. My shadow manifested itself quite late in life.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson