The New Fire

Karen Radford Treanor 


© Copyright 2019  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of a fire outside.
The 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.

From 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.

People 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.

Footsteps 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."

I 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.

"What 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.

"It's 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.

A 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.

"Are you hiding your light under a bushel?" I asked, walking round to join him.

"If 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?”

"It's 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."

A 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.

The Bishop said, sotto voce, "He looks more of a Bishop than I do. Tall men with hair always make a better show."

I 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."

The 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.

"I don't suppose Our Lord minds, so who are we to cavil over a detail?" asked the Bishop.

From the steps Father Clement said, "If you are quite ready, your Grace," contriving to 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.

I 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.
Mass 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.

Father 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.

I 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.

The 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.

As 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.

Father 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.

Mr. 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.

When 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.

Things 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.

And 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.

The 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 them!

On 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 it

Eventually, 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.

It took many years for that memory to fade.

We were one of the first two families to be recruited in the summer of 1970.  We had a three month old and a three year old.  The Nieblas family from California had a pair of primary school kids.  By 1970 the Peace Corps brass had realised that it made more sense to recruit skilled tradesmen and run them through a cross cultural training and language course than to try and make BA generalists into tradesmen.  And since skilled tradies are usually grown men with families, they had to accept that concept in Washington.  I am sure there were many nervous nellies in Foggy Bottom worried about sending American children to the Third World, but in fact our kids had a wonderful life in several parts of Africa—one of them was born there—and never came to any harm.  None of my children ever got shot “by accident” as seems to be all too common in the modern USA.  We often joked about having infected the younger Peace Corps Volunteers with the baby bug, because there were quite a few babies born to young couples after we arrived.

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