St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare), 26 February 2017
Your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6.18).
‘Mother?’ Under the fever, a gentle tapping. ‘Mother? Mother Micaëla, can you hear us?’
All that you hear is a faint rustling, the distant, muffled rustling of leaves. ‘Her fever’s over 103. Yes, 104’, you hear the young nun’s voice. ‘Hear the rattling in her chest. She won’t last the night’. ‘She has confessed. She’s been anointed’, the older voice replies. ‘Now it is only a question of time’. Time, time. The higher the fever mounts, the deeper you sink. Rustling assorted leaflets in your handbag, in that church so long ago, you pretend never to notice a thin queue forming in the aisle. ‘Hypocrites’, you swear, seated. ‘I will not join them. What have I done to be forgiven? What do I have to forgive? Just look at them all. Flaring cheekbones. Olive brows. Icon-kissing, incense addicts, hurling themselves into open coffins. Pressing wet lips on paint and wood. I’m not one of them. I’m still the child of the Norfolk Broads. Alone at midnight, in farmer Tooley’s field. I am what my past has made me’. As the fever climbs, you sink deeper. 1943. ‘Fair ter middlin’, Ma’am’, you still hear old man Tooley stuffing a scarecrow’s head with straw. ‘Dunt fare tew sharp terday’. ‘Mr. Tooley, do speak English’, Mum scolds. Bare, bony knuckles, tightening around your bruised wrist. Fever mounts. Where are you now? 1943? 2003? Memory, inside memory. Demons of your past demanding toll. Nothing to forgive? Too much to forgive.
Shoulders arching stiff, rigidly pressing into the pew, you refuse to ask anyone to forgive. By now, the line of wet-eyed worshippers files past you. Never looking back.
1943. Back then, a dozen eggs cost 1 shilling 6 pence. A Mars Bar, 6 pence only. And by God, you never heard of the Orthodox Church. Puritan stock dies hard in those little East Anglia villages. Matthew Hopkins’ buckled black hat, hunting witches along the waterway. Since you were five, you could never cast the image of that scarecrow from your dreams. ‘Mawkin’, as the country folks call it. A grim, gaunt mockery of a man, his moth-eaten rags flapping in the North Sea breeze. Late into the evening, you would watch his dismal skull take shape in a chimney fire. Hear him chuckle in the dry, dead leaves, in the birch twigs, and the stitched, stilted grin on his lipless face. She knew that you were afraid of him, the mawkin, more than anything else. As the embers burned grey, your Dad would scoop you up. How could you tell him what was following you? Straw footsteps climbing a staircase, down the corridor, into the little bedroom in the attic. You clutched your pillow, unbending. Nothing else to clutch. Every time you wet your bed, she took away a toy. A dolly. A bear. How could you ever turn over in the night, let alone rise and relieve yourself – if overhead a bald, burlap skull, a fleshless grin stares you in the face? One wintry night, to ‘cure’ you of your fear, she left you there. Alone. In the field. Five-year-old wrists bruised by a strap. A fox’s piercing howl to shatter the nerve. An owl’s hunting call, striking deep in the mind. Flapping in the Norfolk night, the scarecrow’s grin. Sucking away your every tear.
The next morning, you never wept. Never bent low. Never forgave. Anyone. Anything.
Anything is easier to forgive, any debt easier to pay … than the past. Rusty gate and bar, iron fetters bind you to a coffin if your limbs are too rigid to hurl yourself inside. Shoulders carry a crippling weight, if they arch stiffly, rigidly, never bending to embrace a frail, fellow sinner and be embraced in return. In the feverish delirium of a dying nun, faces from your past appear. Flaring cheekbone, olive brow … or the stitched, stilted grin of a stiff-lipped, Puritan stock. Too proud to weep – and with a tear, put out the flames in your dying mind. Dry, dead leaves of memory, too long repressed. Tears, too long held back. Demon faces demanding a toll from every one of us at the hour of our death.
The tollhouse is our own soul. The toll, three or four words. ‘Forgive me, a sinner’.
When your fever exceeds 103 and life draws to its close, will you hide behind a thousand masks of denial – or pay your memory its toll? Will you settle for a ‘fair-to-middling’ middle class Christendom of quaint cosy cottages and lurid leaflets titled: ‘Am I Good Enough to Get into Heaven?’ Knowing now on your parched lip and collapsing lung, that no one is? Will you stuff your meddling mind with idle talk, feed your lust for power that blinds you to the greatest weakness of all: a soul that cannot see itself? ‘What have I ever done, to be forgiven?’ you boast from your stiff, rigid pew. Never noticing the child that you left, alone and afraid, in some windswept field at night. ‘What have I to forgive?’ you ask. Forgetting that until you forgive your oldest injury, the past will hover above your bed, a bald, burlap skull and fleshless grin, staring you in the face? Many, many tollhouses you must pass in and out before your soul can rest. Haunted fields and bridges of dread. Thorny woods of dry, dead leaves – but once you have paid your debts to memory, you shall hear the faint music of rustling leaves long forgotten.
The lost leaves of paradise.
Beloved in Christ: on this the last Sunday before Great Lent, we forgive. To forgive is not to feel: riding blind nightwinds of pain and joy over a desolate field. To forgive is never to condone. To call good evil or evil good, like a black-buckled, icon-smashing Puritan, who has his reward. To forgive is never to rehabilitate your past. It is to let it go. It is never an easy way out, a stroll in the wasteland called memory lane. It is a declaration of war. ‘You have no hold on me’, we tell our past. ‘I break my bonds and begin to live’.
‘I am what my past has made me’, the unforgiving soul snarls. ‘I am what I make myself’, says she who forgives. Whom the Father’s eye sees in secret, and secretly sets free.
Before the fading eye of the Schema Nun, Micaëla, many images pass. The stiff-necked, stiff-spined convert, bound immobile to a pew by fetters of custom and manacles of pride. A five-year-old inside her, deprived of toys, tears, and any tender thought at all – until one Sunday, she falls at the feet of a stranger and embarks upon a new life. As her heartbeat mounts, then drops, Mother Micaëla feels it grow … quiet. On icy-cold lips, no trace is left of the stitched, stilted grin of Death’s dream kingdom. Only the peaceful smile of one who has opened all her doors, faced all her demons, and laid all memories of evil aside.