The Rebel Angels. The Cornish Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

I suppose I gave rather a display in the Consulate, and wept and wasn’t able to speak. But at last things straightened them­selves out to the point where I was able to touch the Consul himself for the price of a cablegram to Henry, promising to pay as soon as my money arrived, because Consuls have to be very careful with people like me or they would be continually broke.

For a few days I really felt I knew what redemption was and when, at last, the reply cable and the assurance of credit at a bank came I did something I had not done in my life before; I went to a church and vowed to God that whatever happened in the future, I would live a life of gratitude for His great mercy.

That vow was a deeply sacred thing, Maria, and God tested me sternly within a few days. I was returning to North America by way of England, where I had to pick up some things I had left — books of my trade, principally — and in London there was another cable: Henry was dead. No explanation, but when I found out what had happened it was plain enough that he had done for him­self.

This was desolating, but not utterly desolating. Because, you see, I had had that letter, with its assurance of Henry’s change of feeling for me, and his concern for me, and that kept me from going right off my head. And I knew what Henry had intended to do, and I knew what I had vowed in that Greek church. I would become a monk, and I would give up my life to the unlucky and unhappy, and I would make it a sacrifice for my own bad mistakes, and for Henry’s memory.

But how do you go about becoming a monk? You shop around, and see who will take you, and that isn’t at all easy, because religious orders are pernickety about people who have a sudden yearning for their kind of life; they don’t regard them­selves as alternatives to the Foreign Legion. But at last I was accepted by the Society of the Sacred Mission; I offered myself to Anglican groups, because I wanted to get right down to the monk business, and didn’t want all the fag of becoming a Roman Catholic first. I had some of the right credentials: I had been baptized and was dizzily above the level of education they wanted. I had an interview in London with the Father Provincial, who had positively the biggest eyebrows I have ever seen and who looked from under them with a stare that was humbling, even to me. But I wanted to be humbled. Also, I found his weak spot; he liked jokes and word-play and — very respectfully, mind you — I coaxed a few laughs out of him — or rather shakes of the shoulders, because his laughter made no noise — and after a few days I was on my way to Nottinghamshire, with a tiny suitcase containing what I was permitted to call my own — brush and comb, toothbrush and so forth, and though Father Prior didn’t seem to be any more enchanted with me than Father Provincial, I was put on probation, instructed, confirmed, and in time I was accepted as a novice.

The life was just what I had been looking for. The Mother House was a huge old Victorian mansion to which a chapel and a few necessary buildings had been added, and there was an un­ending round of domestic work to be done, and done well.

Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws

Makes that and th’ action fine —

that was the way we were encouraged to think of it. And not just sweeping rooms, but slogging in the garden to raise vegetables — we ate an awful lot of vegetables because there were a great many fast-days — and real labourers’ jobs. There was a school attached to the place and I was given a little teaching to do, but nothing that touched doctrine or philosophy or whatever was central to the life of the community; Latin and geography were my jobs. I had to attend instruction in theology — not theology as a branch of philosophy but theology for keeps, you might say. And all this was stretched on a framework of the daily monastic routine.

Do you know it? You wouldn’t believe people could pray so much. Prime at 6:15 a.m., and Matins at 6:30; Low Mass at 7:15, and after breakfast Terce at 8:55, followed by twenty minutes of Meditation afterwards. Then work like hell till Sext at 12:25, then lunch and work again till tea at 3:30, preceding Nones at 3:50. Then recreation-chess or tennis and a smoke. After dinner came Even­song at 7:30, and after study the day ended with Compline at 9:30.

You seem to be a great girl for silence. You would have liked it. On ordinary days there was the Lesser Silence from 9:30 until Sext; the Greater Silence extended from Compline until 9:30 the next morning. In Lent there was silence from Evensong until Compline. We could speak if absolute necessity demanded it — gored by a bull, or something of that kind — but otherwise we made things known by a sign-language which we were on our honour not to abuse. I soon found a loophole in that; there was nothing in the Rule against writing, and I was often in trouble about passing notes during Chapel.

Chapel demanded a good deal of mental agility, because you had to learn your way around the Monastic Diurnal and know a Simple from a Double and a Semidouble First Class and all the rest of the monkish craft. Like me to give you the lowdown on the Common of Apostles Out of Paschaltide? Like me to outline the rules governing the use of bicycles? Like me to describe ‘reverent and disciplined posture’ — it means not crossing your legs in Chapel and not leaning your head on your hand, when it seems likely to fall off with sleepiness.

No sex, of course. The boys in the school were to be kept in their place, and monks and novices were strictly enjoined not to permit any familiarity, roughness, or disrespect from them; no boys in men’s rooms except those of the priest-tutors, and no going for walks together. They knew the wickedness of the human heart, those chaps. No woman was allowed on the premises without the special permission of the Prior, who was top banana, and in the dis­charge of his official duty he was to be accorded obedience and res­pect as if to Christ himself. But of course the Prior had a confessor, who was supposed to keep him from getting a swelled head.

Sounds like a first-rate system for its purpose, doesn’t it? Yet, you know, Maria, within it there was all kinds of difficulty, where what people now call democracy and the old monastic system didn’t gibe. So, now and then, somebody was not confirmed as a Brother after his noviciate, and went back to the world. I mean, he became part of the world again; our order did lots of work in the world besides teaching, and there were missions for down-and-outs where particular monks worked themselves almost to death — though I never heard of anybody actually dying. But they were not of the world, you see, though they were certainly in it.

Now, let me give you a useful tip: always keep your eye on anybody who has been in a monastery and has come out again. He is sure to say that he chose to leave before taking his final vows, but the chances are strong that he was thrown out, and for excellent reasons, even if for nothing more than being a disrup­tive nuisance. There are more failed monks than you would imagine, and they can all bear watching.

Including you, Brother John?

I wasn’t thrown out; I went over the wall. I’d made it, you know; I’d expressed my intention to stay with the Society all my life, and I’d passed the novice stage and was a Lay Brother, vowed to poverty, chastity, and obedience, and I had hopes of going on to priesthood. I knew the Rule inside and out, and I knew where I was weak — Article Nine, which is Silence, and Article Fifteen, Concerning Obedience. I couldn’t hold my tongue and I hated being disciplined by somebody I regarded as an inferior.

Yes; I thought so.

Yes, and undoubtedly you thought something totally wrong. I wasn’t like some of the sniffy postulants and Brothers who hated being told off by Father Sub-Prior because he had a low-comedy Yorkshire accent. I wasn’t a social snob. But I had won my place in a demanding intellectual world before I ever heard of the Mission, and the Rule said plainly: Everybody is clever enough for what God wants of him, and strong enough for what he is set to do, if not for what he would like to be. Father Prior and my confessor were always unyielding when I asked, humbly and reverently, for work that would use what was best in me, meaning my knowledge and the intelligence with which I could employ it. They could quote the Rules as well as I: You cannot seek God’s will and your own too, unless your own is perfectly con­firmed to it. If it be so, there will be no need to consider it, though if it be not, there will be much need to mortify it. So they mortified me, but as they too were fallible beings they made one wrong choice and put me on the job of getting things ready for Mass, and that meant that big jugs of Communion wine were right under my hand, and after some sipping, and swigging, and topping the jugs up with water, there was a morning when I forgot myself and they found me pissed to hell in the vestry. Never drink that cheap wine on an empty stomach, Maria. I suppose I took it too lightly, and did my penances in a froward spirit. Anyhow things went from bad to worse, and I knew I was in danger of being thrown out, and the Society made it clear when a postulant was accepted that there would be no argument or explanation if that happened.

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