Read CHAPTER XIV of My New Curate , free online book, by P.A. Sheehan, on ReadCentral.com.

FIRST FRIDAYS

I notice, as I proceed with these mnemonic scraps from my diary, and try to cast them into shape, a curious change come over me. I feel as one waking from a trance, and all the numbed faculties revive and assert their power; and all the thoughts and desires, yea, even the capabilities of thirty years ago, come back and seem to claim their rightful places, as a deposed king would like to sit on his throne, and hold his sceptre once more before he dies. And so all my ideas are awakening; and the cells of memory, as if at some magic Sesame, yield up their contents; and even the mechanical trick of writing, which they say is never fully lost, appears to creep back into my rheumatized fingers as the ink flows freely from my pen. I know, indeed, that some say I am passing into my second childhood. I do not resent it; nor would I murmur even at such a blessed dispensation. For I thank God I have kept through all the vicissitudes of life, and all the turbulence of thought, the heart of a little child.

There is nothing human that does not interest me. All the waywardness of humanity provokes a smile; there is no wickedness so great that I cannot pity; no folly that I cannot condone; patient to wait for the unravelling of the skein of life till the great Creator willeth, meanwhile looking at all things sub specie aeternitatis, and ever finding new food for humility in the barrenness of my own life. But it has been a singular intellectual revival for me to feel all my old principles and thoughts shadowing themselves clearer and clearer on the negatives of memory where the sunflames of youth imprinted them, and from which, perhaps, they will be transferred to the tablets that last for eternity. But here God has been very good unto me in sending me this young priest to revive the past. We like to keep our consciousness till we die. I am glad to have been aroused by so sympathetic a spirit from the coma of thirty years.

It is quite true, indeed, that he disturbs, now and again, the comforts of senile lethargy. And sometimes the old Adam will cry out, and sigh for the leaden ages, for he is pursuing with invincible determination his great work of revival in the parish. He has doubled, trebled, the confessions of the people on Saturday, and the subsequent Sunday Communions. He has seized the hearts of all the young men. He is forever preaching to them on the manliness of Christ, His truthfulness, His honor, His fearlessness, His tenderness. He insists that Christ had a particular affection for the young. Witness how He chose His Apostles, and how He attached them to His Sacred Person. And thus my curate’s confessional is thronged every Saturday night by silent, humble, thoughtful young fellows, sitting there in the dark, for the two candles at the altar rails throw but a feeble light into the blackness; and Mrs. Darcy, under all improvements, has retained her sense of economy.

“Where’s the use,” she says, “of lighting more than wan candle, for wan candle is as good as fifty?”

She has compromised with Father Letheby for two, for his slightest wish is now a command.

And so the young girls and all the men go to Father Letheby’s confessional. The old women and the little children come to me. They don’t mind an occasional growl, which will escape me sometimes. Indeed, they say they’d rather hear one roar from the “ould man” than if Father Letheby, “wid his gran’ accent,” was preaching forever. But young men are sensitive; and I am not sorry.

Yet, if my Guardian Angel were to ask me, What in the world have you to grumble about? I couldn’t tell him. For I never come away from that awful and sacred duty of the confessional without a sense of the deepest humiliation. I never sit in “the box,” as the people call the confessional. A slight deafness in one ear, and the necessity of stretching occasionally a rheumatized foot, make it more convenient for me to sit over there, near and under the statue of our Blessed Mother. There in my arm-chair I sit, with the old cloak wrapped round me that sheltered me many a night on the mountains. And there the little children come, not a bit shy or afraid of old “Daddy Dan.” They pick their way across the new carpet with a certain feeling of awkwardness, as if there were pins and needles hidden somewhere; but when they arrive at safe anchorage, they put their dirty clasped fingers on my old cassock, toss the hair from their eyes, and look me straight in the face, whilst they tell their little story to me and God. They are now well trained in the exact form of confession. Father Letheby has drilled them well. But dear me! what white souls they are! Poverty and purity have worked hand in hand to make them angelic, and their faces are transfigured by the light that shines within. And their attenuated bodies show clearly the burning lamp of holiness and faith, as a light shines soft and clear through the opal shades of porcelain or Sèvres. And the little maidens always say, “Tank you, Fader,” when they receive their penance; and the boys say, “All right.” I sometimes expect to hear “old fellow” added. Then the old women come; and, afraid to touch the grand carpet with their feet, they leave rather vivid impressions in brown mud on the waxed floor, which is the very thing that Miss Campion does not want; and they throw themselves backward whilst they recite in the soft, liquid Gaelic the Confiteor; and then raise themselves erect, pull up their black cloaks or brown shawls with the airs and dignity of a young barrister about to address the jury, arrange the coif of shawl or hood of cloak around their heads, and then tell you nothing! God bless them, innocent souls! No need for these elaborate preparations. Yet what contrition, what sorrow, what love they pour forth over some simple imperfections, where even a Jansenist cannot detect the shadow of a venial sin! No wonder that my curate declares that we have material in Ireland to make it again a wonder to the world, an Island of Saints once more! But something is wanting. He does not know what, nor do I. But he says sometimes that he feels as if he were working in the dark. He cannot get inside the natures of the people. There is a puzzle, an enigma somewhere. The people are but half revealed to us. There is a world of thought and feeling hidden away somewhere, and unrevealed. Who has the key? He is seeking for it everywhere, and cannot find it. Now, you know, he is a transcendentalist, so I don’t mind these vagaries; yet he is desperately in earnest.

But he is very kind and tender towards his old pastor. When he “started” the devotion of the Nine Fridays in honor of the Sacred Heart, of course he set them all wild. Their eternal salvation depended on their performing the Nine Fridays successively. And so one Thursday night, when the wind was howling dismally, and the rain pattering on the windows, and the fire in my little grate looking all the brighter from the contrast, a timid knock came to my door. I put down the Pensees of Pascal, a book for which I have a strange predilection, though I do not like the man who wrote it.

“Some children want to see you, sir,” said Hannah. “I hope you’re not going to leave the house in this weather.”

“Send them in and let us see,” I replied.

They came to the door reluctantly enough, one pushing the other before her, and there they stood bashfully, their fingers in their mouths, staring at the lamp, and the pictures, and the books, like Alice in Wonderland.

“Well, what’s up, now?” I said, turning around.

“’T is the way we wants to go to confession, Fader.”

“Hallo! are ye going to die to-night that ye are in such a mighty hurry?”

“No, Fader, but to-morrow is the fust Friday.”

“Indeed! so it is. What has that to do with the matter?”

“But we are all making the Nine Fridays, Fader; and if we break wan, we must commence all over again.”

“Well, run down to Father Letheby; he’ll hear you.”

“Father Letheby is in his box, Fader; and” here there was a little smile and a fingering of the pinafores “we’d rader go to you, Fader.”

I took the compliment for what it was worth. The Irish race appear to have kissed the Blarney stone in globo.

“And have you no pity on a poor old man, to take him out this dreadful night down to that cold church, and keep him there till ten or eleven o’clock to-night?”

“We won’t keep you long, Fader. We were at our juty last month.”

“All right, get away, and I’ll follow you quickly. Mind your preparation.”

“All right, Fader.”

“’T isn’t taking leave of your seven sinses you are, going down to that cowld chapel this awful night,” said Hannah, when she had closed the door on the children. “Wisha, thin, if I knew what them whipsters wanted, ’t is long before they crossed the thrishol of the door. Nine Fridays, begor! As if the Brown Scaffler and the first Sunday of the month wasn’t enough for them. And here I’ll be now for the rest of the winter, cooking your coughs and cowlds. Sure, you’re no more able to take care of yerself than an unwaned child.”

She brought me my boots, and my old cloak, and my muffler, and my umbrella all the same; and as I passed into the darkness and the rain, I heard anathemas on “these new fandangos, as if there weren’t as good priests in the parish as ever he was.”

I slipped into the church, as I thought, unperceived; but I was hardly seated, when I heard the door of Father Letheby’s confessional flung open; and with his quick, rapid stride, and his purple stole flying from his shoulders, he was immediately at my side, and remonstrating vigorously at my imprudence.

“This is sheer madness, sir, coming out of your warm room on this dreadful night. Surely, when I got your permission to establish this devotion, I never intended this.”

“Never mind, now,” I said, “I’m not going to allow you to make a somersault into heaven over my head. In any case, these little mites won’t take long.”

They looked alarmed enough at his angry face.

“Well, then, I shall ask you to allow me to discontinue this devotion after to-night.”

“Go back to your confessional. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. There’s plenty of time to consider the future.”

He was much annoyed over my indiscretion; but he resumed his work. Mine was quickly gone through, and I passed up the dimly lighted aisle, wondering at myself. Just near the door, I could not forbear looking around the deep sepulchral gloom. It was lit by the one red lamp that shone like a star in the sanctuary, and by the two dim waxlights in tin sconces, that cast a pallid light on the painted pillars, and a brown shadow farther up, against which were silhouetted the figures of the men, who sat in even rows around Father Letheby’s confessional. Now and again a solitary penitent darkened the light of the candles, as he moved up to the altar rails to read his penance or thanksgiving; or the quick figure of a child darted rapidly past me into the thicker darkness without. Hardly a sound broke the stillness, only now and then there was a moan of sorrow, or some expression of emphasis from the penitents; and the drawing of the slides from time to time made a soft sibilance, as of shuttles, beneath which were woven tapestries of human souls that were fit to hang in the halls of heaven. Silently the mighty work went forward; and I thought, as there and then the stupendous sacrifice of Calvary was brought down into our midst, and the hands of that young priest gathered up the Blood of Christ from grass, and stone, and wood, from reeking nails and soldier’s lance, and the wet weeping hair of Magdalen, and poured it softly on the souls of these young villagers, I thought what madness possesses the world not to see that this sublime assumption of God’s greatest privilege of mercy is in itself the highest dogmatic proof of the Divine origin of the Church; for no purely human institution could dare usurp such an exalted position, nor assume the possession of such tremendous power.

As I knelt down, and turned to leave the church, I felt my cloak gently pulled. I looked down and faintly discerned in the feeble light some one huddled at my feet. I thought at first it was one of the little children, for they used sometimes to wait for the coveted privilege of holding the hand of their old pastor, and conducting him homeward in the darkness. This was no child, however, but some one fully grown, as I conjectured, though I saw nothing but the outline of wet and draggled garments. I waited. Not a word came forth, but something like the echo of a sob. Then I said:

“Whom have I here, and what do you want?”

“Father, Father, have pity!”

“I do not know who you are,” I replied, “and wherefore I should have pity. If you stand up and speak, I’ll know what to say or do.”

“You know me well,” said the woman’s voice, “too well. Am I to be cast out forever?”

Then I recognized Nance, who had followed and blessed Father Tom the evening he left us. She did not bless me nor address me. I had to speak publicly of poor Nance; perhaps, indeed, I spoke too sharply and strongly, it is so hard to draw the line between zeal and discretion, it is so easy to degenerate into weakness or into excess. And Nance feared me. Probably she was the only one of the villagers who never dared address me.

“What do you want here?” I gently said.

“What do I want here? ’T is a quare question for a priest to be afther asking. What did the poor crature want when she wint to a bigger man dan you, and she wasn’t turned away aither?”

“Yes, Nance; but she repented and loved Christ, and was prepared to die rather than sin again.”

“And how do you know but I’m the same? Do you know more than the God above you? and He is my witness here to-night before His Blessed and Holy Son that all hell-fire won’t make me fall again. Hell-fire, did I say?” Her voice here sunk into a low whisper. “It isn’t hell-fire I dread, but His face and yours.”

I stooped down and lifted her gently. The simple kindness touched the broken vase of her heart, and she burst into an agony of passionate tears.

“Oh, wirra! wirra! if you had only said that much to me three months ago, what you’d have saved me. But you’d the hard word, Father, and it drove me wild to think that, as you said, I wasn’t fit to come and mix with the people at Mass. And many and many a night in the cowld and hunger, I slept there at the door of the chapel; and only woke up to bate the chapel door, and ask God to let me in. But sure His hand was agin me, like yours, and I daren’t go in. And sometimes I looked through the kayhole, to where His heart was burnin’, and I thought He would come out, when no one could see Him, and spake to me; but no! no! Him and you were agin me; and then the chapel woman ’ud come in the cowld of the mornin’, and I would shlink away to my hole agin?”

“Speak low, Nance,” I whispered, as her voice hissed through the darkness. “The men will hear you!”

“They often heard worse from me than what I am saying to-night, God help me! ’T isn’t the men I care about, nor their doings. But whin the young girls would crass the street, les’ they should come near me, and the dacent mothers ‘ud throw their aprons over their childres’ heads, les’ they should see me, ah! that was the bitter pill. And many and many a night, whin you wor in your bed, I stood down on dem rocks below, with the say calling for me, and the hungry waves around me and there was nothin’ betune me and hell but that ”

She fumbled in her bosom and drew out a ragged, well-worn scapular with a tiny medal attached, and kissed it.

“And sure I know if I wint with ’em, I should have to curse the face of the Blessed and Holy Mary forever, and I said then, ‘Never! Never!’ and I faced the hard world agin.”

I detected the faintest odor of spirits as she spoke.

“’T is hardly a good beginning, Nance, to come here straight from the public house.”

“’Twas only a thimbleful Mrs. Haley gave me, to give me courage to face you.”

“And what is it to be now? Are you going to change your life?”

“Yerra, what else would bring me here to-night?”

“And you are going to make up your mind to go to confession as soon as you can?”

“As soon as I can? This very moment, wid God’s blessing.”

“Well, then, I’ll ask Father Letheby to step out for a moment and hear you.”

“If you do, then I’ll lave the chapel on the spot, and maybe you won’t see me agin.” She pulled up her shawl, as if to depart.

“What harm has Father Letheby done you? Sure every one likes him.”

“Maybe! But he never gave me word or look that wasn’t pisón since he came to the parish. I’ll go to yourself.”

“But,” I said, fearing that she had still some dread of me that might interfere with the integrity of her confession, “you know I have a bad tongue ”

“Never mind,” she said, “if you have. Sure they say your bark is worse than your bite.”

And so, then and there, in the gloom of that winter’s night, I heard her tale of anguish and sorrow; and whilst I thanked God for this, His sheep that was lost, I went deeper down than ever into the valleys of humiliation and self-reproach: “Caritas erga homines, sicut caritas Dei erga nos." Here was my favorite text, here my sum total of speculative philosophy. I often preached it to others, even to Father Letheby, when he came complaining of the waywardness of this imaginative and fickle people. “If God, from on high, tolerates the unspeakable wickedness of the world, if He calmly looks down upon the frightful holocaust of iniquity that steams up before His eyes from the cities and towns and hamlets of the world, if He tolerates the abomination of paganism, and the still worse, because conscious, wickedness of the Christian world, why should we be fretful and impatient? And if Christ was so gentle and so tender towards these foul, ill-smelling, leprous, and ungrateful Jews, why should we not be tolerant of the venial falls of the holy people, the kingly nation?” And I was obliged to confess that it was all pride, too much sensitiveness, not to God’s dishonor, but to the stigma and reproach to our own ministrations, that made us forget our patience and our duty. And often, on Sunday mornings in winter, when the rain poured down in cataracts, and the village street ran in muddy torrents, and the eaves dripped in steady sheets of water, when I stood at my own chapel door and saw poor farmers and laborers, old women and young girls, drenched through and through, having walked six miles down from the farthest mountains; and when I saw, as I read the Acts and the Prayer before Mass, a thick fog of steam rising from their poor clothes and filling the entire church with a strange incense, I thought how easy it ought to be for us to condone the thoughtlessness or the inconsiderate weaknesses of such a people, and to bless God that our lot was cast amongst them. I heard, with deeper contrition than hers, the sins of that poor outcast; for every reproach she addressed to me I heard echoed from the recesses of that silent tabernacle. But all my trouble was increased when I insisted on her approaching the Holy Table in the morning. The thought of going to Holy Communion appalled her. “Perhaps in eight or twelve months she’d be fit; but to-morrow ”

Her dread was something intense, almost frightful:

“Sure He’ll kill me, as He killed the man who towld the lie!”

I tried to reassure her:

“But they say he’ll bleed if I touch Him.”

I gently reasoned and argued with her. Then her objections took a more natural turn:

“Sure the people will all rise up and lave the chapel.”

Then it became a question of dress. And it was with the greatest difficulty, and only by appealing to her humility, and as a penance, that I at last induced her to consent to come up to the altar rails after all the people had received Holy Communion. There was a slight stir next morning when all the people had reverently retired from the Holy Table. I waited, holding the Sacred Host over the Ciborium. The people wondered. Then, from the farthest recess of the church, a draped figure stole slowly up the aisle. All knew it was Nance. So far from contempt, only pity, deep pity, filled the hearts of old and young; and one could hear clearly the tchk! tchk! that curious click of sympathy which I believe is peculiar to our people. The tears streamed down the face of the poor penitent as I placed the Sacred Host upon her tongue. Then she rose strengthened, and walked meekly, but firmly, back to her place. As she did, I noticed that she wore a thick black shawl. It was the quick eye of my curate that had seen all. It was his gentle, kind heart that forestalled me.

I got an awful scolding from Hannah when I came home that night in the rain.

“Never mind, Hannah,” I said, when she had exhausted her diatribe, “I never did a better night’s work in my life.”

She looked at me keenly; but these poor women have some queer way of understanding things; and she said humbly:

“Than’ God!”