MY TWO YEARS WITH GOD
“Big Jim would like to see you in his office.”
Would he now? Well, naturally he would get his way. After all, Brother Simon was the Captain of the Good Ship Edmund Rice Juniorate, wasn't he?
Going up the echoing stairwell, it struck me that it still carried that smell of concrete and brick that bespoke a young building. The office door was open, and as he saw me, the Headmaster motioned me in, and I was left perched uncomfortably just inside the door. His pen scratched busily for a moment, and what it wrote I am not sure, but what it said was “You will wait upon my pleasure, for I am the Boss here.” Brother Simon sat with his back to a large window, taking up the whole width of wall behind him.
“If it were my office,” I thought, “I would turn the desk round to face the window.”
I would then have had the view out across the tiled classroom roofs, past the fields of yellow grass, the aqueduct and the little canal, all the way to Mount Macedon, hazy and blue. But of course he had his back to the outside world, and faced a wall with a clock, a statue, some flowers and maps, and two flanking walls lined with bookcases and filing cabinets. I knew there would certainly be a fat one on me. It struck me that the office was perched atop the school like a prison watchtower. Over the Boss's broad shoulder I could see the gap between the Science Room and Classroom 5, which I had had to negotiate, unseen, in my midnight rambles. I wondered whether the grey blanket I had held squarely in front of me was as effective a camouflage as I had hoped.
“Sit down” he said, in a strange, tired and weary voice I was not used to. Was he about to launch into another marathon of religious propoganda? His voice didn't have that sound to it, that buckled up, ready-for-action, Church Militant sound.
He looked at me in a way I found hard to fathom. Was this the man who had terrorised and tortured us for two years, whose thundering voice had held us spellbound, who had lectured against the Evils of the World in such a way as to perversely promote their attractions enormously? Yes, certainly it was the same man, and what was he saying now? I had to ask myself, for I had already drifted off in my speculation. It was annoyance, unmistakeably, that I saw in his eyes now, as I re-focussed.
He seemed eager to get to the point now. The deep, resonant voice murmured on .
“I have asked your father to come to the school tomorrow at three o'clock to take you home. You can pack during the afternoon while the others are in class. I would appreciate you not mentioning your departure to anyone else.”
As he spoke, a surge of elation rose in me. I tried not to smile or smirk, but could feel the hope rising up from my chest, through my throat and up through the top of my head. I think I must have turned pink and possibly my eyes sparkled. I would walk once more on the footpaths of my town, their friendly cracks leading to the houses of my old mates and their sisters, I would see my parents every day, and my brothers and sisters. I would read what I liked and I would sing songs out loud and I would embrace life.
He was looking hard at me, and was clearly annoyed. What, had I said anything? He folded a paper in a most business-like way and closed a drawer, signs that this interview was to be mercifully short. But he also hadn't finished. His sorrowful look was back. “Paul” he said, and he spoke slowly and deliberately, “I have known some bad boys in my time-but you are the only evil one.”
It was three years later. I had returned from training camp with the Army SAS corps check. I had joined in order to do parachute jumping which I yearned to experience. However, upon selection, which was not easy, it transpired that it was not my choice, that I might just as easily be committed to mountain climbing or diving. Neither of these appealed to me and I was fast losing enthusuasm. Several of the boys were hopitalised during the training, which was brutal. I was constantly hungry, and very bored, missing my music and my girl-friend. Of all the boys there was just one I enjoyed talking to.
During outdoor weapons classes, I noticed the instructors eyeing me, and knew I was marked for the post class demo. Sure enough, they couldn't wait to wrap up in order to put me on the spot, so I worked hard, without showing it, to commit the final summing-up section to memory, and generally managed a decent showing, to the annoyance of the professionals.
“Would you like to know what your instructors think of you?” I was asked at the de-briefing session a week later, by a trim officer, sitting at the controls of a large, but rather plain and utilitarian military desk. His uniform was neatly creased and clung to his spare frame dutifully.
“They feel you have high survival potential,” and there was a pause, and he tapped his pencil, top down on the desk.
“But your friends might not be so lucky.” And he looked up without further comment.
“I think I can explain that Sir.”
“Yes? Go ahead.” At least he seemed interested.
''I don't have any friends here Sir.”
He laughed and said
“What do you want to do?”
I walked on air as I made my way back to the classroom. I had to think heavy thoughts to stop myself from levitating, and I was giddy with the thought of freedom. It was early next morning that Leo, a classmate, rounded on me suddenly, and demanded “They say you're leaving. Tell me you're not leaving!”
So I did as I was told and said “I'm not leaving.” Was that evil? I was annoyed, and refused to accept the weight of guilt which I knew had been loaded on to us all. Later that afternoon I absented myself from class and waited in the parlour by the Chapel till I heard the crunch of tyres on gravel. My father seemed very pleased to see me, and I was overjoyed to be sitting in the family saloon, now wending our way out of that picturesque property, every square inch of which I had come to know so well. The early Summer flowers glowed in the sun, the young lambs gamboled madly and the air was alive with bees and birds.
So different from my first glimpse of the place two and a half years before, when, with a group of like-minded, earnest and sincere young colleagues, I had entered the place in a Melbournian Winter miasma. The school emerged from the fog like a mediaeval beacon, its tower gently lit and its melodious bells pealing. Coloured sports outfits glowed from the football field where a fine standard was obvious. The pretty little cemetery was picturesque, with the roses freshly pruned ready for Spring. On to the Chapel where the ageless Gregorian chant wafted through the beeswax and incense. Through the classrooms, with fine library collections and science equipment in tip-top order. In the recreation room a couple of good-looking youths, freshly showered after sport, handled their billiard cues with ease and grace...they chatted easily to us and our superiors and I estimated their age at sixteen or seventeen, in contrast to my fourteen and a half.
The kitchen was a highly professional set-up and was stocked with much produce from their own farm. In the school lived about seventy boys, mostly in years 11 and 12, and about 15 Christian Brothers, some teaching and some running the farm.
“And remember boys” the teacher had said “you are in no way committed, but if you think, even think, that you have a vocation to the religious life, this is the place where you can try it out. You don't make a commitment, but try the life out. Only after you finish school, after year 12, do you take your first vows. Of course you are free to go anytime.”
As an earnest young Catholic, I felt I had no recourse but to think about the religious life. A weight of selective quotation from the New Testament had accumulated with nagging persistence. Here are some of the gems we had to consider at great length. “Go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
This advice to the rich young man was hardly problematic. The poor would be very annoyed with all I had to give away.
“He that is not with me is against me.” I supposed Hitler had said the same thing, but this had a certain stern authority.
“Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you.” Difficult, this one. This was a vocation, a holy calling, and who was one to ignore the summons from on high?
“It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The eye of the needle, we were told, was a small emergency gate in the city walls to allow stragglers in-not built for camels...but we clung to the hope that even if difficult, it was possible.
“I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This seemed almost treason. Hadn't He said, in a past life, “Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother”?
“Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Okay.
“Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” Sounds like a bit more fun at last.
“No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” ...and the other place doesn't bear thinking about. What choice does one have?
“I would that you were either hot or cold, but if you are lukewarm I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.” Strong language indeed...especially if you believe in “moderation in all things.”
No doubt those of a sturdy nature and a robust scepticism were unshaken, but as one who wished his life to have the greatest meaning possible, I felt I had to look seriously at it. The “try before you buy” option therefore had considerable appeal, and eventually, I took it.
At the beginning of the next year, in the full blast of the late Melbourne Summer, I was back, and with a manly shake of the hand I said goodbye to my father. He said in passing to one of the old hands “What's the food like?”
“Great - if you like spaghetti.”
Laughs all round, but a nagging doubt began to grow.
I needn't have worried. The food was fine. However, the old family joke “Our rule is you must keep one foot on the floor” was a hollow jest indeed as we sat, six to a table, presided over by a prefect, in the bright refectory.
Not having yet turned 15, I was somewhat surprised to see boys of 19 or 20 in the school, nuggety specimens with tenacious stubble turning their faces blue-black. I would be playing football against these fellows, and I could imagine them rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of barrelling into this new fellow, six feet two and slim as a reed. Oh dear, I knew I would have to rediscover my clumsy elbows again, for even united in the common cause of the Lord, man is a competitive beast.
The older boys, most of whom seemed to be called Jack, were friendly and helpful. We soon were involved in voting in the current crop of prefects, most of us, presumably, voting for the most personable and friendly ones.
Discipline was severe by normal standards, but since we had committed ourselves to the life, we were ready for it. Out of bed at 6.15 at the first sound of the bell, we were washed, shaved if necessary, toileted, beds made up, in no time at all. This was done in silence, in fact, in the Great Silence, during which you could not communicate with others, not even eye contact. Morning prayers, a lecture and meditation followed before we were recalled to the Chapel for Mass at 7. We sang hymns through the mass, and then retired to breakfast, still in silence. The silence was now a more companionable silence, and moderate communication, as might be necessary, was allowed.
During breakfast, we took it in turns to sit at a microphone and read from a novel or a book of ettiquette or some history or a biography. At a mistake or mispronunciation, a light on the microphone would blink, and the reader would have to hastily assess, and correct, his error. The Headmaster, Brother Simon, or “Big Jim” held his finger to the buzzer and pressed it often. Toward the end of the meal, we were read the newspaper headlines and allowed free conversation. After the meal, we returned to light silence, and pre-school chores. Dormitories and corridors were swept and the entire washup and re-set for lunch were done in about 15 minutes.
At lunch, a short prayer and a reading of the life of the Saint of the Day sufficed as we started a full cooked 2 or 3 course lunch.
After school we dispersed to sport (football, basketball, handball, cricket) or a club (bird, camera, music etc.) or farm work (once a week) or a free day (once a week).
After showering, we met for the Rosary, a fifteen minute chanted meditation while walking in a group, then another 3-course cooked meal of good quality, and good conversation. The meal over, more chores and then evening study, followed by recreation, time out with table tennis, billiard and music options followed by evening prayers, and maybe some cake and cocoa, after which we plunged back into Great Silence as we silently finished our study and made our way to bed, there to think deep and holy thoughts until roused by the morning bell, to do it all again.
There was no uniform other than “smart casual” and I had enjoyed buying up my outfit. My school outfit was a pink shirt with little broken black horizontal stripes, like the symbol for water in Chemistry, grey trousersand a blue sports jacket. I wore them in at the end of 1959 as I completed my last term at my day school. I wore this to school one day while I had my navy school outfit dry-cleaned for Speech Night, but was lambasted by the Headmaster as a “bodgie”...how ridiculous! I realised that he was unaware that this very outfit was the approved, even prescribed, wear for his own order's recruiting school.