I live in Dublin, Ireland. Sometimes. Most times I live in my head, quite unaware of my surroundings – if you know what I mean… If you succeed in tracking Sean Walsh, please let me know, ok? I've been searching for him for years…
December, 1950. Franciscan Novitiate. The Friary, Killarney.
The chap who wagered that I would be back in civvies before Christmas has lost his bet. ‘Verging on the New Year and I am still here! Stronger than ever, at that. In my resolve, determination…
The “old Man” has ceased to complain about the strict life, I am glad to report. Why, my feet would turn up their toes at the sight of socks and I would not know what to do with gloves or scarf!
It was a White Christmas. The heavy rains of the day before had turned to sleet during the night, then snow. The morning dawned crisp and clear and cold. And very, very white. The garden was something to behold – preferably from an upper window!
‘Out then. We picked our way up the steps and over to the Grotto. There we read our cards, letters… You see, for better or worse, the Novice Master had held on to our post for days and days in the run-up to the Festival. So… surprises all round!
Six cards in all for Dear Peter! Mammy and Daddy wrote, Big Brother and Little Sister and – but of course! – Michael, my ever faithful friend!.. (And oh, yes! A few lines from the Brother Superior of my old school – and all the times he laid into me with that merciless leather!)
How did I fare during the Season of Peace and Good Will? Very well, I reckon. But let’s face it: ‘not the same as home, how could it be? There were things I missed so much – the big fire in the front room, Daddy carving the turkey, the lights and cards and presents, the warm feeling of belonging… In a word, home.
Yet I can honestly say that I spent this Christmas nearer to God than ever before, Michael…
‘Nearer the Inn that had no vacancies… the stables… the straw… the animals breathing warmth in the still, cold air… the smell of their manure… And in a makeshift crib, under a thousand stars, a new-born Babe… and a cry for milk, nourishment, at the breast of a young jewess… A long way from Tinsel town…
Midnight Mass found me on the high altar – my turn to “go on” as Master of Ceremonies. There I was, right up on the Predella, beside the sacred ministers, all hot and bothered and wondering what was next… I’ve never been so near a priest at Mass.
I stood beside the celebrant as he broke the Host over the Precious Blood and thought – “This is Christmas… this is God come down among us… this Emmanuel. If I can just keep close to Him, touch even the hem of His garment, then Christmas will be every day – and I shall live and die a Franciscan.”
We novices met afterwards to wish each other a happy Christmas. And did I detect a tear or two? Who knows? Perhaps in the well wishing and bonhomie, a sinking heart was rescued from drowning?
Not all the festivities were purely liturgical – of course not! Christmas pudding is Christmas pudding – wherever! And I had a fine head on my lemonade – while it lasted!..
On St Stephen’s night we really let our hair down – tonsure or no tonsure – when we staged a concert for the community. We had borrowed lights and lanterns from the Sacristy, sheets from the Laundry, boot polish from the Cobblery, pieces of this and that from the Tailory, anything and everything from anywhere and everywhere! What a show!
It was great. And judging by the applause, we rang the bell every time! Hidden talent bubbled to the surface in rich measure. Did you know? I live in community with two Black and White Minstrels, a mimic, an accordionist, two pianists, a Shakespearean actor and a vocalist who could pop several of last year’s Top Twenty, no bother!
So… The celebrations have ceased, the memories linger on… The Master, bless his heart, declared a “cease fire” over the festive season: No conferences – hurray! No Plain Chant or Elocution classes – hurray! No midnight Office – hip, hip, hurray!..
Grey days ahead, Michael. And cold. January, Feb – Now come on, Peter! None of that! How often you’ve been told to take each day as it comes!.. And what of Father Andrew’s wise words?
“Every morning as you awake and go to rise, say – Nunc coepi… Now I begin…”
Then here’s to Tomorrow, Michael. And every tomorrow that brings me near – and nearer still – to September and Simple Profession.
And – but of course! – to the New Year…
Past the inn with ne’er a vacancy,
raucous revelry, receding…
Around the back to the stables.
Animals stirring… then still,
in cold night air.
Aloft, a movement of wings.
In a makeshift crib
on a bed of straw
under a thousand stars,
a new born babe…
Gentled to her breast
by a young Jewess.
And by their side
a quiet man of few words,
Sean Walsh 2020.