Call Me Catholic!
God buys fresh fruit
by Michael McGirr
You can't call yourself a Catholic until you've thought that you'd be better off handling your own baggage.
The early days of winter see the observance of various rituals in the rural community of Inner Springs. These rituals may not all be sacred. But at least they are old. Foremost among them is the lighting of the first fire in fireplaces and combustion stoves which have been dormant since last year. Our resident tautologists are inclined to say that these fireplaces slept dormant. Tautologists tend to be self taught. They use their PIN Numbers to get money from ATM Machines. They like to Do DIY. They eat al fresco outside. Occasionally, they may even pray prayers.
Without repetitive tautology, the male conversation of Inner Springs, never extensive, would be reduced to punctuation marks. God also appreciates the subtle charms of tautology. That is why we have winter every year when one single occurrence in a lifetime would suffice adequately to make the point.
Fireplaces are curious creatures in that they hibernate during summer. They are also temperamental and like to be approached with deference. They treat careless suitors with cold contempt; they respond with warmth to those who kneel patiently before them. Cardinal Shallots, my neig hbour, says he has met episcopal bishops who behave in much the same way.
By the middle of May, our cold winds have turned up punctually on time and have relieved our no less notorious hot winds of their duties for another season. It is the task of our winds to play upon our nerves and insinuate their way through the smallest cracks in our personalities. We know what it means to have the wind put up us and it isn't nice.
This is the time of year when our citizens brace themselves and walk the streets for one last time before the weather will force them inside behind closed doors. Special notice is paid to which chimneys give off black smoke and which ones give off white smoke. It is not uncommon for small groups to hang around outside a house where the chimney is yet to be lit, waiting for the first puff of smoke, debating whether it is black or white. Great importance is attached to the outcome. Black smoke is a sign that the households have not had their chimney cleaned. White smoke is a sign that they don't have black smoke.
Once the weather turned cold this year, I noticed that my friend Cardinal Shallots was nowhere to be seen. Shallots likes to do things his way so I did not expect an explanation but I was concerned about the old chap. I wondered if perhaps he might have moved from his makeshift camp up to the local presbytery for the winter. This would have been surprising as Fr. Thong, the parish priest, who discourses eloquently about the crying need in the world for community and what he calls 'connectedness', does n ot like visitors. He speaks a lot about the way God surprises us but he doesn't like anyone to come to see him without an appointment. He preaches about the fact that we have to be ready for God to break through our defences, that God will reach into our lives at any hour of the day or night. But he doesn't answer the phone after eight thirty. On some days, that means eight thirty in the morning.
Shallots, on the other hand, doesn't preach at all these days. But people like talking to him and he listens and chuckles a bit. He told me once that there is no sermon as powerful as an open ear.
At different times, members of the Catholic parish have made their way to Shallots' camp to complain about Fr Thong and his abrupt manners. Shallots is always patient. Fr Thong doesn't like anyone talking in Church. Other than himself, of course. And that includes God. The Catholics get pretty hot under the collar about him. But Shallots only listens to them. He once told me that one of the strangest traditions of Catholicism was to find the person in the church who has least to say and then make sure no-one other than that person gets to use the pulpit. He believed it was an important tradition because it brought home the painful truth that words are cheap.
Shallots believes that his own life evolved slowly. For a while, he thought that a sermon was something he spoke. Then it dawned on him that a sermon was not something he said, but something he heard. And last of all, he realised it was something he saw.
'In most places, the word of God is preached when people talk to each other about their lives. Even more so when they notice the burdens each other has to carry.'
I don't mind saying that I was missing the bloke. He'd been gone for almost a week during which time there was nobody to look after the pedestrian crossing outside Inner Springs Public School. I kept an eye on his campsite, looking for signs of smoke, but there was none. Cardinal Shallots generally adds a bit of rubber to his fire to make sure the smoke is black. He finds the sight of white smoke pretty traumatic. He associates white smoke with bad memories in his past, most of all with the memory of workplace restructuring.
At all events, about the time that Shallots seemed to vanish, reports started to emerge that baggage was being tampered with on the school bus.
Every day, a brand new bus takes our older children into the High School in Dry Reach, about 50km away. It is one of those buses which has a large compartment for luggage underneath the sitting area and the students are now required to put all their bags and equipment into this cargo hold. The idea of this was to stop them eating on the bus and making a mess of it. The young people of Inner Springs have an appalling diet by any standards. I have seen the old bus when it has come back from a school excursion and it looked like a garbage truck. It stank too. Chips, pies, sauce, soft drink, milk, biscuits, chocolate and the remains of a dozen different types of fast food all created an unholy sight.
So when the new bus was delivered, a swanky new luxury liner, the rules changed. No eating on board. All bags in the luggage bin. One result was that the minute the kids were let off the bus, there was a sudden orgy of junk food. The kids ate their rubbish with a sad urgency.
Then strange stories started to emerge. A year nine girl opened her bag to find that somebody had planted a fresh apple in it. She knew it was n't hers. She would never touch such a thing. The next day, a year ten boy found that his daily supply of coke was now sitting alongside three juicy mandarins, items which he swore black and blue he knew nothing about. He didn't even know what they were supposed to be for. Over the next week, all sorts of things appeared, things seldom seen in possession of our young. Tomatoes fresh from the vine. Watermelon cut into enticing pieces. A small bag of grapes. Sticks of celery. Plump carrots. The most exquisite strawberries. Pears. Apricots. Peaches with a seductive blush to their cheeks.
The kids were affronted. Their parents were confused.
It wasn't long before the secret was out. A quick search of the depths of the luggage area and all was revealed. There were blankets folded neatly on the other side of the bus' emergency tool kit. And so me prayer books. A copy of the Bible without its cover. These were clearly the belongings of a certain eccentric cardinal.
Cardinal Shallots had decided to escape the first cold blast of winter by seeking refuge in the luggage compartment of the school bus. It was a cosy spot, safe from the weather and had suited him well as he undertook his annual retreat of eight days. He returned to us renewed in mind and spirit. And Cardinal Shallots was never one to go into a small space without making the world a bit bigger for someone else. He'd been buying fruit for young people who'd been eating nothing but processed food.
'The life God offers us is as fresh as an apple. And so many of us settle for a version that someone else has processed into a packet.'
'You mean,' I said, helping him to light his fire. 'That it is uniquely one of a kind.'
'That's right. It can never be repeated.'