THROUGH A GRILL, DARKLY
Through the grille in the monastery parlour she seemed like a three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle. I had to keep putting the pieces in place: I would focus for a time on a patch of her face that included one of her eyes, but that portion with its eye disappeared every time she or I moved. To her, of course, I was the jigsaw puzzle.
The grille was not the only thing that made us puzzles to each other: there was also her accent and her constant mobility between several languages. She was recounting what La Priora had said to her: 'You are forty and totally cosy.' This puzzled me at the time, for she was nowhere near forty years old, nor had I ever thought of her as being 'totally cosy', in the sense of being smug or easy on herself. But there were so many other puzzling things, not least the discomposing grille, that I let it pass.
In a while, however, it crossed my mind again, and I asked her, 'What did La Priora mean by saying that you were forty? Surely she knows your age better than that!' I had just remembered too that La Priora knew no English.
'No, no,' she replied, 'not forty but forte.'
Not English, but Italian. Forte in Italian means 'strong'. In a moment all the pieces came together: not forty and totally cosy but forte in tutte le cose! – meaning 'strong in everything.'
That double phrase has remained with me as a small treasured possession. Like a pretty box it springs open and its contents leap out to startle me. On the outside, nice and cosy; but from inside it, a challenge right to my face. It stays in my memory because we often laugh about it, but in addition it appears a symbol of many things, even the deepest.
That wise nun in her monastery has often pointed the moral of it for me: we have an urge today for the cosy things in our Faith - the loving indulgent Father, the gentle virtues like empathy, kindness and simplicity. We had suffered greatly from spiritual terrorism; in church we expected to hear of cruel and unusual punishment, and in school we often had a foretaste of it. It was high time to hear that there is also comfort in our Faith. Yet now the comfort has gone so far that it begins to cloy: you feel like someone who has overslept and yet lacks the will-power to get out of bed. God is a sort of giant eiderdown enfolding you.
Prayer, in many versions of it, is like pillow-talk – God whispering in your ear, telling you how special you are. The warnings from psychology about 'anima absorption' might have helped us to be wiser about this. It seems wise now to come back from this extreme as we came back from the other. 'Be watchful,' St Paul said, 'stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong' (1 Cor 16). 'Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might' (Eph 6). There is comfort in our Faith, she said, but it is not the comfort of pillows. There is an expression in Italian, dormire tra due guanciali, to sleep between two pillows. It means to be totally cosy. But Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, and when he died it was not between two pillows but between two thieves.
Out of the cosy box of interiority, suddenly a challenge to go out of oneself, to be strong, forte in tutte le cose. It is something precious I learned by mistake in that austere monastery parlour; it slipped through the grille of another language.
And as for that metal grille: I have spent many hours peering through it at different faces, but it remains visually disturbing; the eye is made uneasy by it. Faces were not meant to be divided like jig-saw puzzles. But one can make the best of it; I try to see it as a symbol: our understanding is always piecemeal, our view of the truth a matter of partial glimpses.
The wonder lies in trying to put the pieces together.
From In a Fitful Light: Conversations on Christian Living, Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, Dublin 1994)