evening was becoming chill. Overhead purple clouds choked off the
last light of the sun, promising rain before the night was over. The
little stone church looked well in this diffused light: one saw the
essence but not the detail. The patched roof, the balding gilt on
the cross on the ridgepole, the weather-beaten door did not look as
shabby as they did by day.
the church the sound of the organ came on the evening wind, muffled
slightly by the moth-eaten velvet curtain just inside the door. At
this distance the old instrument's asthma was not apparent, and only
the gladdening melody of a Bach prelude came to the ears of the
listeners. A sudden gust forced its way through the warped window
frame in the chancel, and swept through the church bringing the scent
of frankincense and sandalwood into the front yard. On the flagged
pavement before the church steps a good-sized fire snapped and
crackled as the wind tugged at it.
stood around in groups of three and four: women, mostly; some
children, and a few men. Many wore or carried blankets; in this part
of Africa, high in the southern mountains, the blanket served as
greatcoat, raincoat, blanket and pillow. A low murmur of conversation
animated the group which waited patiently for the ceremony to begin.
sounded behind me as Mrs. Nojani hurried up. "Are we late?"
she asked anxiously, fussing with the white blanket that wrapped her
infant daughter. At her side stood her son, a sombre (and as yet
unbaptised) child of three. He looked a bit frightened, but smiled
as he recognized me. Mr. Nojani followed his family up the walk, his
sports coat still giving off fumes of benzene and hot ironing. He
looked quite grand, but a bit nervous. He cleared his throat and
said to me, "You know, it has been some while since I was able
to come to church. The school, the work of preparation--it takes much
of my time."
was unsure what to say. The pastor, Father Clement, was not noted for
his mercy and I
could only hope that he would not deal too scathingly with Mr Nojani.
Father Clement was quite capable of singling the man out and
blasting him from the pulpit. I could hear the basis of his sermon
in my head: "The leaders of the community, and particularly the
teachers of the young, have a solemn duty to the Church and the
furtherance of the Christian Ideal." I hoped that Nojani got off
lightly, for he was a good fellow despite his infrequent appearances
at Saint John's.
is the fire for--are we to have a braai?”
asked Mrs. Nojani, looking around as if expecting to see a fatted
calf tethered to a bush.
for the Easter Fire," I explained. Other churches might be
content to kindle the new fire with a Zippo
lighter, but not St.
John's. Here we had a
real fire, one worthy of the name, and a real procession, and every
parishioner had a real candle to carry. There would be no short-cuts,
no leaving off the old ways just because of civil fire laws! Father
Clement was determined that as long as he was pastor the old
traditions would be upheld.
flash of gold caught my eye, shining through the fading leaves of an
ornamental shrub. I peered around and found our new Bishop, Desmond
Tutu, resplendent in full canonicals. None of us then
present—probably including Father Desmond—knew that his
bishopric here would be of brief duration and was but a stepping
stone to much greater heights on the world religious stage.
you hiding your light under a bushel?" I asked, walking round to
I had any light I should be warming my hands at it. I'd stand closer
to the fire, but I'm afraid my cope might ignite," he said,
indicating the stiff and splendid gold vestment. Is it necessary to
wait until full dark to begin, or could we start now, do you think?”
not worth getting scolded by him to suggest it," I said in a
conspiratorial tone. There was a bustle of activity at the church
door. "I think the waiting is over; here comes Lebohang with
the incense boat."
gangling youth wearing an over-large surplice came down the steps
carrying the silver boat with a spoon in it. Another lad followed
him, struggling manfully with the unwieldy Easter Candle, which was
too heavy and tall for the candlestick that held it~ Last of all came
Father Clement, a commanding figure in any gathering, but standing
out even more in this congregation of thin brown people. His white
hair sprang back from his forehead in a way reminiscent of
Michelangelo's statue of Moses. His long hands were tucked up into
the sleeves of his surplice, which stood out stiffly around his
ankles, having been starched and ironed into submission by the ladies
of the altar society. Over it, the Gothic robes shone in the light
from the fire on the pavement. Father stood on the top step,
surveying the assemblage like Gielgud "counting the house". No matter
how many of us turned up, after mass he'd be sure to
express resigned disappointment at the turn out. Father Clement was
harder on the white parishioners than the black, saying that most of
us had cars and therefore had no excuse about distance or difficulty
of travel. Also, we were more conspicuous by our absence, as there
were only 20 of us who were regular communicants.
Bishop said, sotto voce,
"He looks more of a Bishop than I do. Tall men with hair always
make a better show."
leaned over towards him and replied in the same tone, "Perhaps
so, but you know the parish and the diocese would soon be broke if
they fell into his care. Administration is not his long suit. And
besides, one can't have a Bishop who wears sneakers."
Bishop followed my glance. Father was indeed wearing his sneakers
tonight He often said mass wearing them, and was just as likely to be
barefoot. Some days he wore sandals, which were somewhat more
acceptable than sneakers, but nobody had ever seen him in real shoes.
We weren't sure he had any, but no one dared to ask.
don't suppose Our Lord minds, so who are we to cavil over a detail?"
asked the Bishop.
the steps Father Clement said, "If you are quite
ready, your Grace,"
sound as if the Bishop were late and the whole parish had been
hanging on his arrival. Bishop Tutu gave me a knowing smile and
stepped forward to the fire. There was a slight air of one summoned
to The Inquisition about him.
wasn't sure why the Bishop had been invited to the festivities, nor
did he seem to know. Certainly Father Clement gave him little enough
to do. It was Father who sprinkled the incense in the fire, which by
now had assumed bonfire proportions, and he who read most of the
prayers. The Bishop was allowed to hold the Paschal Candle, but it
was Father who fixed the five wounds and drew the alpha and omega in
the wax. (St John’s in those days was very
High Church Anglican!) We lighted our tapers and the Bishop led the
procession into the church. He was given the seat of honour behind
the altar, from whence only his tall mitre could be seen.
began and we reached the place where the baptisms were to be done. I
looked at the Nojanis standing beside me. Mrs. Nojani looked
worried--she had been raised Evangelical Reformed, and clearly all
this pomp and circumstance was foreign to her. I held the baby, who
goggled around and seemed entranced by the candles and flowers and
interesting sounds all around her. Mr. Nojani held firmly to his
small son, as if fearing the boy might make a break for freedom.
Clement swept up the aisle to the back of the church where the font
stood. I walked behind him, tugging at the baby's bonnet strings,
which had become knotted. The satin strings were in a hopeless snarl,
and I could not undo them one-handed. I walked slower and slower,
frantically tugging at the strings. I cast a look around and spied
the rack that held the diocesan newspaper. Trying to be subtle, I
propped the child against the rack, holding her upright with my hip
as I fiddled with the wretched ribbons. At last I gave a tug and
pushed the bonnet off her head and left it hanging round her neck
like a knapsack. Father Clement raised his bushy eyebrows and I felt
his grey eyes boring into me. I knew he was thinking that a woman
with three children should be more reliable in these matters.
refused to meet his eyes, being overcome with an urge to giggle. I
juggled baby and prayer book, trying to find the correct page. This
was only my second time as a godmother and I was sure I'd do
something wrong. The baby screwed up her tiny face. I patted her
back hastily, knowing Father Clement didn't subscribe to the old myth
that it's a good sign for a child to cry at baptism.
Bishop, my husband, and another man stood behind us, all three of
them looking like spare wheels and wondering what they were supposed
to do. Against all odds, the ceremony passed without further
incident, save the small boy’s squeal of terror as the water
poured thrice over his close-clipped skull. Fortunately the baby
girl merely cooed when her head was splashed.
was his custom, Father dispensed Holy Water as we all walked back to
the altar. No cheapskate blessings in this church: the water was
delivered in literal handfuls as Father flung it right and left with
his bare hands from the large silver gilt receptacle. The floor was
wet under my feet, and I clutched the new little Christian to me lest
she be drenched and take a chill from too much holiness. She nuzzled
my neck happily, and we crept back to our pew thankful that it was
over and hadn't gone too badly.
turned on the top step with a look of triumph--no lurking devil could
possibly think that these children had not been properly baptized! He
then delivered what
was more of a lecture than a sermon, concerned with the benefits of
baptism, and carrying a scathing rider warning people of the dangers
of delaying baptism too long.
Nojani appeared to find his shoe-tips of surpassing interest during
this ten minute monologue. I thought to myself that he would not
wait three years to have the next child baptized. Father was milder
on the subject of the little girl--she wasn't quite four months--but
he gave indication that even she could have been received into the
Body of Christ sooner. Having impressed us all with the reckless
disregard of the Nojanis, Father mellowed and went off into a
discourse highlighted with obscure references from Irenaeus, Jewish
law, and ancient Maronite practices until we were all totally
confused as to the point he was trying to make. The Bishop waited
patiently on his elegant chair, and at last was permitted to deliver
the final blessing.
I had first come to this church, I had thought that Father should
pitch his sermons at a lower level, since I felt that none of the
African and few of the European parishioners could follow what he was
saying. I had
since discovered that the Africans adored his high-flown oratory
despite the frequent difficulty understanding it. They knew it
indicated that an intellectual dwelt among them, and because
book-learning was prized above all things as being the sign of a
successful man, how much more so was it to be desired in a priest?
Father usually gave a short précis of his sermon in seSotho,
which I discovered, once I learned a little of the tongue, was much
clearer than his English discourses.
here were not always as they seemed: I had learned that in the four
years I lived in St. John’s parish. Father Clement's long
white hands were not scorned by the hardworking Africans. They were
prized, for they proved to the world that here was a parish whose
priest did not have to grub in a garden to supply his daily wants. St.
John’s knew how to take care of its priest, and his smooth
hands proved it. Father's fierce sermons, sometimes full of violent
denunciation that could be and often was levelled straight at some
erring sheep, were valued because everyone knew that men needed
correction and punishment and Father supplied it. To be castigated
publically by Father Clement was almost a mark of merit. St. John's
people felt that only priests who didn't truly care about their
flocks would give mild milk-and-water sermons.
as for pomp and circumstance--much of which had long since been
retired to mothballs by the rest of the ecclesiastical world—well,
what better protection could there be against the snares of the devil
than an outward show of
the might of the
Church? It would be a brave devil who'd dare to stand up against
Father Clement and his archaic prayers and invocations. And the
incense, which could be overpowering on a still day--Father Clement
said that a church should smell like a church, so we had incense
every Sunday and feast day even if we sometimes had to hold discreet
hankies to our faces when it got too strong.
organ was old and wheezy, (as was the organist) but it responded to a
firm hand and a determined foot on the pedals. At St. John's on any
Sunday one could hear the full might of the Church Militant, blasting
out the open doors and sailing across the green, penetrating the
windows of the tavern and hotel on the next street where the wicked
slumbered after the excesses of Saturday night. Maybe they wouldn't
come to church, but there was nothing to stop the church's coming to
Good Friday, the Host was carried off the altar and taken in
procession twice around the church then installed in the vestry off
the porch, there to be guarded unceasingly until Sunday at dawn. Real
tears coursed down the seamed faces of old women as the
crucifixion Gospel was read out and real hosannas rang out on Sunday
when the Good News was brought. St. John's didn't just hear about
the Resurrection second-hand, it lived
as all expatriates must, we left Africa and settled elsewhere. We
found a nice little parish church there, with a proper priest and
everything that a church needs under canon law to operate. But as I
sat there on the first Palm Sunday listening to the Gospel, my mind
fled back to Africa, to the itchy feel of a real palm branch in my
hand, to the sight of the dawn mist quivering about the steeple as
the bell began to toll, to the smell of incense and the great bronze
roar of Father Clement announcing "Blessed is He who comes in
the name of the Lord." as if Christ's arrival were imminent:
here, now, in the flesh.
took many years for that memory to fade.
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