Way of Carmel
knew that he was never, in this world, going to be warm again. In the heat of
the summer his hands and feet reddened and froze, and hiding his icy fingers in
the sleeves of his habit helped not at all; while his feet dragged slowly and
heavily about the stone stairways and corridors, the ups and downs of the
ancient building containing, now, so few of the brothers. Even when, on the
hottest days, he replaced his habit with a decent black suit, and a black shirt
with a white clerical collar, and pointed black shoes and black socks, and a broad-brimmed
black hat, still he felt as if he were encased in some iceberg impervious to
the vicious rays of the sun that were beating down on everyone else.
turned the monastery into an icy hell – surely not what was intended, however
much it mortified the spirit. The great green porphyry columns installed almost
two centuries earlier, transported from Caesarea down the coast to their place
in the reception chamber, among the frayed armchairs and naïve embroideries of
good women, gave off a freezing vapour, and were surrounded, as far as Felix
was concerned, with an icy aura. Cold he felt, cold he was, spirit and marrow,
body and soul. His nose remained pink and prominent, the flesh melted off his
bones, and his weariness was so intense that it was all he could do to complete
his duties and his devotions. Huddled beneath his modest covering at night in
his spartan chamber, he imagined sleep, a blessed oblivion, descending and
warming him through, but his feet remained unthawed, and his gaunt form shuddered
on the bed.
was the matter of the lump. He had first noticed it, of all inappropriate
times, when he was kneeling in the chapel, hands folded against his chest in
prayer. Inadvertently, his thumbs had pressed there against his ribs, and this
foreign body got in the way. For a second his mind, too, had frozen, and he had
felt as if he were dangling over a limitless space. Then he had shifted his
hands, ever so slightly, away from his chest, and continued his private
dialogue with his Maker. Later, he had felt the lump again, even explored it
warily with his fingers, and there it had remained, inconspicuous, but growing
without a doubt, growing and invading and overtaking him. Ah, well.
came to visit him, bringing small gifts, disregarding the understanding that
the brothers in the order should not accumulate worldly goods. He thanked them
courteously, accepted gratefully, and in return he gave them his blessing and
the tokens left by previous visitors. He became a conveyor belt of goodwill,
passing on and receiving back, bread upon waters, abstention, round and round.
And as time went on his body took up less and less space in those musty
armchairs in the reception hall. The other brothers watched him carefully, and
took upon themselves small extra duties that had formerly been his. And they
prayed for him.
came – a kind Jewish Irishman whose father had known his, Felix’s, father when
they were neighbours, farmer and country doctor, hacking around the green lanes
of Galway in the mud. The doctor’s fingers, almost as bony as his own, prodded
him carefully, and noted how tight the skin was stretched over his bones.
spoke to the abbot, that jovial, pear-shaped Spaniard who, in turn, summoned
Felix and, with extreme kindness, told him – there was no question of
disobedience – that it had been decided. Felix was to return to Ireland, to their retreat in Dublin, where the sisters of the Order would take care of him.
your strength will come back,” said Father Gaetano, “and you will return to us.
Meanwhile, pray for us, Felix, as we do for you.”
They made a
farewell party for him, a small affair on a summer night, sitting in their
trellised arbour looking out beyond the lighthouse to the moon-silvered Mediterranean. The Arab ladies who tended the kitchen of the monastery made pasta asciutta.
The brothers drank their own wine and talked quietly among themselves and to
their guests, Jews, Arabs, Christians, who had been invited to the gathering.
The pipe smoked by the Dutch brother, Aloysius, glowed occasionally, lighting
up a gaunt cheek here, curls of grey hair round a tonsure there, a flash of a
woman’s smile, a stain of tomato sauce on an empty plate. They discussed how to
set the country to rights, and elaborated for their visitors on the meaning of “discalced”
which was in the name of their order – Discalced Carmelites – meaning “unshod”;
and just before midnight they took their guests up onto the roof of the
monastery to look out at the sea extending to infinity on three sides of the
promontory of Stella Maris, and to watch the bell in the cupola swinging as it
tolled the hour. Then down they all trooped and raised a last glass of wine in
salute to Felix. It had been a fine evening, everyone agreed.
little more ado, Felix said “shalom” to his Israeli friends, promising them
that “your prime minister, Mister Eezhack Rabeen, will bring back peace to the
country. He is a fine man”, and left.
In Dublin, away from the harsh gutturals of Hebrew and the glottal stops of Arabic, he was
comforted by the softness of the Irish brogue; comforted too by the kindness of
the sisters who took care of the retreat, of himself, of anyone who had need of
came from one of the ladies who had befriended him and taken him to her home
from time to time, for tea and little sandwiches and fruit cake. How good those
sandwiches had been, and how he had savoured that steaming russet tea, though
politeness forbade him to exceed his limit. – “No gentleman ever takes more
than two cups,” he had said to his hostess as he thanked her for her
hospitality, “and please could I trouble you to take me back now. It is getting
late, and the others will be waiting for me.” The letter said that the Carmel was missing him, that they had been promised plenty of rain for the winter, and she
sent greetings from her daughter Dizza.
He wrote a
little note in reply – “…I think of you and your daughter, and remember the
biblical quotation ‘She is a true daughter of Israel. There is no malice in
her’.” But by the time it was done, the effort of finding her address and
getting it posted was too much for his frail self to tackle, and he was already
embarked on his last great journey.
and wasted, and prayed and rested, and thanked everyone and apologized for
causing trouble. And in the end the Mountains of Mourne swept down to the sea,
and the pipes called to Danny Boy, while Macushla’s sweet voice called to
Felix, and the Rose bloomed in Tralee, and Eileen Aroon smiled at him, and
Felix, smiling in return, was borne away in effulgent light to where he would
never be cold any more. From Galway to Carmel in California, from California to Carmel in Israel, and round and back again to Galway: a modest life and an
unpretentious departure for a second son. Requiescat in shalom.
afternoon in late spring, and very hot indeed. I was reluctantly doing the ironing,
and sweating copiously, though all the doors and windows were open. I’ve never
learned to keep everything shut when the weather is hot. So from all the
neighbouring houses were wafted to me the smells of chicken soup and roasting
meats, as Sabbath meals, hot Sabbath meals were being prepared
traditionally, in the weather’s despite.
Ironing too was in the weather’s despite, but we’d run out of shirts, and
drip-dries are so hot in summer – like being encased in sausage skin.
I looked up
to wipe the sweat off my forehead, and was confronted with the spectacle of two
odd bodies making their way up the path. So I switched off the iron, and went
round to the inner side of the latched screen door and opened it. The male odd
body, whose head was inclined to the right, was wearing clerical garb, and
spectacles, and carried a black hat. He twinkled at me.
announced, with a strong Flemish accent, “am Mr – (I’ve never been able to
recall the name), and I come from Denmark. And this lady” – indicating his companion
– “is from Ireland.”
was leaning on a walking-stick, and her head was inclined slightly to the left.
They looked like book-ends, the two of them, and she wore a lilac printed
cotton dress and a lavender cardigan. Thick lisle stockings encased her poor
thick legs, and her feet were tightly laced into sensible black shoes. She had
a fine growth of grey curls round her mouth and chin, complementing the soft
grey curls on her head. Her eyes were wide and grey and solemn, little-girl
eyes, and she said to me earnestly, in a rather breathy brogue -
wish to intrude or be a bother, but we’d like to talk to you about the Lord’s
both stayed quiet and regarded me, patiently, expectantly. I thought a bit. I
sighed. After a little while I said, honestly –
don’t mind, I’d much rather not.”
repeated that they did not want to offend. The cleric’s smile grew mightily
broad, fairly blazed at me.
he said, with seeming delight, “di-rrect!” and nodded so hard that his
spectacles flashed signals at me in the sunlight.
what had brought them to my door, of all places. I do not live on the road, and
there are a lot of steps between me and it, all carefully camouflaged in
shrubbery. They ignored the question. It appeared that they felt they had a
mission to spread the word. I wondered if they knew that, in this country,
proselytizing is a punishable offence. They were such innocents.
apologized for not inviting them indoors to sit down and rest, explaining that
my husband was sleeping. Which was a lie, for I knew he was hiding behind the Friday
paper in the living-room, listening to every word.
sleep” said the little pastor, with a benign wave of his hand. “Let the good
them a cold drink, which they accepted gladly. Mango juice it was, and the lady
told me it was the most refreshing, the finest drink she had had in Israel so far.
of their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his third, her first. I found out where they
were staying – on the other side of the Carmel, at the monastery’s hostel, and
I began to be anxious that they might miss the last bus and have to walk. Buses
stop early on Fridays.
I asked the
lady where she came from, and she told me she lived in Dublin, but was
originally from County Galway. We spoke of Stella Maris, and finally I asked
hesitantly whether she knew my old friend, Father Felix, who also came from Ireland.
course I knew the dear man,” she said sweetly. “He passed away, you know, last
year.” I told her I’d had no reply to the letter I’d written him, so I assumed
that he had died. I talked about the times he came to tea with us, and how he
had once met my daughter Dizza (which means felicity) – how he’d shaken her
hand and introduced himself – “Felix to Felicity, Felicity to Felix,” he had
said – and how he would never take more than two cups of tea.
know him well,” said the lady, “but there is another brother in the Order with
exactly the same name, so I never forgot it” – she mentioned his family name –
“who told me he made a good death.”
said briskly that they must be on their way. I told them where to get the bus,
and begged them not to walk any more in the heat. They thanked me, and blessed
me, and left.
earth” asked my husband, coming out of hiding, “did they get here in the first
perhaps?” I said. “And not necessarily from earth.”
©2010 N Joseph
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