In the fourth of our Lenten short stories on the seven deadly sins, Morris West (left), the Australianborn novelist whose latest work "Lazarus" was published last week, tackles the sin of covetousness.
And Jesus said to them: Take heed! Beware of covetousness . . . And he told them a parable. (Luke XII 15 et seq.) ve given up asking people "Do you remember?" I've
had too many shocks recently, as fellows with grey hair and pot bellies, or matrons with marriageable daughters, remind me: "For God's sake! I wasn't even born then!" So I won't ask whether you remember 1934.
I remember it, because I was then 18 years old. I was on my first mission as a professed religious in the Congregation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools of Ireland, in one of the inner suburbs of Sydney. I was full of zeal and innocence, woefully ignorant of what was going on in the world — which, one way and another, was quite a lot.
The Japanese installed Pu Yi puppet Emperor of Manchu Kuo, Russia and Finland signed a ten year non-aggression pact. Hitler and Mussolini met in Venice. Chancellor Dollfuss was murdered in Austria. King Alexander of Yugoslavia was assassinated in Marseilles and Hitler was confirmed by plebescite as Fuhrer of Germany. Marie Curie died and, unbeknownst to any of us, Sophia Loren was born.
I was teaching basic skills in reading, writing, mathematics, geography, social deportment and the rudiments of Christian belief to 40-odd third graders, most of them from urban industrial areas, with a mixed population of Irish, Greek and Italian migrant stock. Our community served three schools, and numbered, if my memory serves me right, some 20-odd brothers, among them the subject of this cautionary tale, Brother Avellino.
He was a tubby fellow,. with a bald pate and black eyes and an ever-ready smile. I still had the bloom of the novitate on me and the veil of innocence draped over my head, so I missed the shrewdness in the eyes and the facile shift of the smile and the extraordinary mobility of his 'opinions — yea one moment, nay the next, a saving "maybe"
if the mood of the audience seemed uncertain. I also missed the cautionary comment of the senior member: "Avellino? I've
served three terms with him now, in three different communities. Never tell him a secret that you don't want told alt over town. He's everyone's man but always his own — and he's as shrewd as a Kerry horsecoper."
Avellino taught the form above mine, so we worked in adjoining classrooms. Each of us had a choir in training for the City of Sydney Eisteddfod in which choirs and soloists from all over the state competed every year. We were considerate of each other. Each kept his classroom very quiet while the other was rehearsing his singers. We were also discreetly critical, noting examples of ragged phrasing, poor attack, bad intonation. I was too much the junior, too recently trained in monastic manners to announce my opinions; but, as the weeks passed, I began to nurture a fair hope that I might not only beat Avellino at choir work, but even have a chance of winning our section of the Eisteddfod.
There were no tape recorders in those days. We didn't even have a piano in the classroom. For four days a week we sang unaccompanied, using a pitch pipe and a tuning fork to set the key. On the fifth day we had an hour in the music room, with an accompaniment. In between, I would run the pieces over and over in my head — an obsessional exercise in musical memory.
The obsession, however, ran more deeply and darkly than I dreamed. The Eisteddfod was a public competition, an open test of my untested abilities. I wanted desperately to qualify for the finals. Even if I didn't win, I wanted to be there, to step for a brief moment out of the anonymity of conventual life and have other people confirm to me who I was, or who 1 dreamed I might be.
Under the system then prevailing, I had been recruited as a postulant at age 14 and had spent four years in tutelage before taking my first annual vows. Such identity as 1 had was uncertain and fragile. All my social reflexes were as conditioned as those of Pavlov's dogs. My convictions had been handed to me ready-made by a novice master who, even in my most charitable recollection, remains a tyrant figure.
Came the day when I was absolutely convinced that I had a real chance at the prize. The headmaster, who was also the Brother Superior of the community, paid me one of his rare compliments. With an unexpected grace, Brother Avellino conceded defeat. His own group was no match for mine. He was withdrawing it from the competition. From that moment I coveted the prize, with an urgency I would not have believed possible. My passion infected the choir itself and the whole class. We were an elite of the elite — almost as important as the school football team. We invented games for ourselves a burst of four-part harmony in the middle of an arithmetic lesson, a round to finish an afternoon English period. It was all good clean fun and we knew, with the serenity of total faith, that the prize was just at our fingertips.
Then I fell sick, very sick. The doctor was called. He diagnosed double pneumonia. My monastic cell was at that time a glassed-in verandah, cold and draughty. Hurriedly, one of the other juniors was moved into it and I was lodged inside, to be cared for by the housekeeper who, whatever her nursing abilities, was certainly a cure for concupiscence! Those were the days before antibiotics — you see, the dates are significant! so my recovery was slow. Brother Avellino took over my classes, managing some 80 boys like a roly-poly sentinel at the communicating door.
He took over my choir, too, and in the evening bouts of fever I remember his voice, soothing as a seabreeze, delivering his reports: "There's nothing to worry about. They're in splendid voice, singing like angels. All you have to do is get better and we'll walk away with the prize!"
I was sick. I was young and stupid. I was innocent still. I missed the plural pronoun "we". On the other hand, why should I have adverted to it anyway? A choir was a collective. A religious community was a collective. -I", so my masters had taught me, was a dangerous literal; all their training was designed to suppress it, debase it to petty currency.
o, full of faith and confidence, I moved from illness to convalescence. I saw no sinister possibilities in the fact that I was forbidden to return to the classroom for at least two weeks after my release from confinement. I knew I was weak and unsteady. I was happy in the fraternal support of the community and the friendship of Brother Avellino in particular.
On the other hand, I wasn't too happy with the sounds I heard during choir practice. I knew Brother Avellino had a tin ear, but I was confident that with the Eisteddfod still a month away I could whip the group back into shape in a week. They had to present only two pieces. We had ample time to repolish the performance.
So I caught up on my reading, strolled in the garden, rested in the afternoons and joined the brothers for evening chapel. When the two weeks were up, the doctor pronounced me fit for duty. I moved back to my old draughty verandah. The Brother Superior handed me a new teaching roster. It showed that I would take Brother Avellino's class for one period a day, while he took mine for choir practice. He had, it seemed, taken over the choir and would present it at the Eisteddfod.
I was devastated. I demanded to know why. The Brother Superior reminded me coldly that I was a man under obedience and he was not obliged to offer me any explanation for his actions. I protested that he owed me both courtesy and charity.
His answer was curt. I was still a junior in religious life. I should remember the lessons of my novice master and bow my neck under the yoke of discipline. I should never, never cling to anything so tightly that I would be unhappy to let it go. I
should never covet anything so much that I would commit sin to get it. And I was in sin, was I not, however venially, for questioning the judgment of my lawful superior, for wanting the worldly satisfaction of a stage appearance, for lack of charity to Brother Avellino, who had shouldered the burden of my classes for nearly six weeks and had earned the right to this small concession on my part. I should go to the chapel, beg forgiveness for my faults and pray for light to understand the wisdom of what had been done.
My visit to the chapel produced a small light: a boyhood memory of my favourite aunt, who had kept house for her widowed father, an Irish police sergeant, and brought up my mother, two other sisters and a brother. To me she was and is a second mother — and if she's not in heaven I don't want to go there! Whatever small wisdom I have came from her.
"Morris darlin'," she told me one day. "Never argue with the Irish! They're slippery as eels in a bucket and they've always got God on their side! So don't buy into their squabbles. Button your lip and walk away. You'll keep your dignity and save yourself a lot of heartache."
That took care of the Brother Superior, with whom 1 knew I couldn't win anyway. It didn't answer the larger question about Brother Avellino. He and I were supposed to be brothers in a community; we were supposed to be living under a common rule; but clearly a different set of rules was being applied to him. In my folly, I decided to confront him. I wasn't about to demand the return of my choirmaster's baton, only to seek his personal explanation for what had happened.
Well now! Eels in a bucket, was it? Kerry horse-toper was it? This was the great Daniel O'Connell himself, back from the dead, eloquent with righteous amazement. Had he not tended me and done my work every long day of my illness? Had he not held my hand and mopped my brow while I babbled in the fever? Had I not pleaded with him to take over the baton and conduct the choir in a triumphal marching chorus to victory? He smote me hip and thigh with singulars and plurals. "I said, you said, we agreed, and was it not so now? And for the sake of the boys that have put so much into this, should we not put an end to rivalry and confusion? Besides, I'm the senior and the more experienced and the better able to handle a public occasion. The Brother Superior himself recognised that."
My sainted aunt was right. There was nothing for it but to button my lip and walk away, wrapping the last rags of my dignity around me. Still, my trials weren't over. Every day Brother Avellino walked into my classroom for choir practice, while I was shunted into his domain, out of sight but not out of earshot of my singers. Every day he offered his brightest smile and a variation on the same bit of blarney. "You'll be keeping an ear cocked now, won't you? And if you hear anything that fails to please you, you'll let me know, won't you? They're still your boys. I try to make them feel that, and they do . . ." After a week of it, I gave up listening. After two, I was past caring. When the choir was eliminated in the first audition, I managed to find enough grace to tell the boys it was a good try and enough irony to offer tea and aspirin to Avellino, who was taking to his bed with a migrane.
The Brother Superior, however, went public with lavish praises for what he called Avellino's splendid effort under difficult circumstances. He pointed out that my compliance had saved me from the great disappointment which Avellino was bearing valiantly in my place. J Irk like throwing up. Instead, I poured out my anger to the senior member.
"Why is he acting like this? The competition's over. We lost. Why does he have to keep on justifying Avellino?"
The senior member studied me over the steel rims of his
spectacles. He keened over me like a mourning dove. He quoted the Apocrypha at me.
"Weep for the dead one because he has been taken from the light. Weep for the fool because he has no understanding. Where do you think you're living, boy? In
Thomas More's Utopia? This is real life, the purgative way; and
the sooner you wake up to it the better. But as to your question, don't you know there's an election coming up?"
"What election? I haven't heard of one."
"Because you don't listen. You're so busy contemplating your own navel, you don't watch what's going on around you. These are elections to the provincial council, the governing body under which, believe it or not, you live!"
"I haven't seen a ballot paper."
"But you wouldn't, would you, because you're a junior under temporary vows 2, you don't have voting rights. l'hat's the constitution you choose to live under, but obviously nobody's directed your attention to its meanings!"
"But what's this got to do with Avellino and the Brother Superior?"
"Give me strength! The Brother Superior's a candidate for election. His nomination is in, signed by Brother Avellino and some others. Now does it make sense?"
"Not quite. What does Avellino get out of it — and don't tell me it's a choirmaster's baton!"
"Not at all. He fancies himself as a musician but he's got no talent for it. What he really wants is to be appointed a superior and run his own community. What quicker way to arrange it than to have a friend on the council?"
"That's despicable!" Even now I can hear the outraged innocence in my voice. "Canvassing for oneself or another is forbidden by the rules!"
"Is it now? So you're beginning to remember a few
things! Sure it's forbidden, but that doesn't mean to say it's not practiced — under another name. The idea disgusts you?" The senior member nodded placidly. "But that's what happens when you want anything too much. You end up licking boots and backsides to get it. It's the way of the world, boy — and if you think the world isn't here inside our own walls, you're too damned innocent for your own good!"
And there it was, plain as the nose on my face and I'd have seen it if I'd looked in a mirror. I was just as guilty as they were, just as ridiculous in my search for a iuvenile satisfaction, redress for petty wrong.
In one particular, however, I was different — not better, just different: I had not attempted to use the mechanisms of power to procure my own satisfaction or subdue an adversary who threatened me. I had not used them because I did not control them, as the Brother Superior did or, in his own degree, Brother Avellino. But the mechanisms existed. They could be used. They would be used. They had been used in my case.
As I look back now over a gap of 56 years, I see that moment as the beginning of the slow erosion of my convictions about the authenticity of my own vocation to religious life. For one thing, the life wasn't religious of itself, only insofar as its practitioners made :t so. In another, my own innocence was spurious because it was untested. I was not a Milgrim in progress. I was a raw youth in flight from certain unpleasant realities in his life. I would not solve my problem by making other illusions out of other and harsher realities. It would take me a long and painful time to face the truth. At the end of that year, 1 applied for a transfer to a different community. The pilgrimage had just begun.
For a long time, I could not rid myself of the presence of Brother Avellino. I knew him, or thought I knew him, for a trivial man who could neither harm me nor help me; but, every now and then, on the faces of total strangers, I would see his dark gypsy eyes studying me, his easy horse-caper's smile flashing at me. Inside the monastic walls and long afterwards outside them, his phantom presence was always associated with the same kind of experience. I would want something very badly —
cont'd on page 7