Celebrating East African Writing!
THE FIRST READING.
A READING FROM THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTICUS VERSE 4 TO 9.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
It was the last Holy Mass that Fr. Joseph was presiding over. He looked at the congregation – his family as he fondly referred to them – and almost choked with love for them. They were simple rural folks who truly believed in God, which is where the problem lay for Fr.Joseph: he had long stopped believing in God.
“The Lord is with you,” the priest invoked, spreading his hands as he had done for the last 28 years.
“And also with you,” the congregation replied reverently, also spreading their hands to the heavens to reciprocate in kind.
“The mass is ended. Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,” he said softly.
“Thanks be to God,” they all replied in unison. The choir took over to belt out the exit hymn
Nimeahidi Bwana Kukutumikia!
Wewe ubwana wangu
It was beautiful singing, as usual, the blending of the soprano, altor, tenor and bass reverberating on the walls of the building. The choir was one of the strongholds of the Church. Commitment came without say and Fr. Joseph had witnessed the growth in quality and variety of songs sang.
Fr. Joseph joined the procession of eight altar boys as they made their way out of church. He turned to bless the parishioners who made the sign of the cross as a way of acknowledging the priest’s blessings. When he reached the church’s outer door, he stopped to greet those who had left before him. He blessed rosaries scapulas, and small children who were just happy to be around him and be patted on the head. This took him some time but at least it was his best way of saying goodbye without a fuss.
After some 7 or so minutes of socializing, Fr. Joseph made way to the sacrist. Again here, he heartily shook the hands of each of the 8 altar boys and thanked them for their service and dedication to Mother Church.
The boys had already changed to their civilian clothes, a far contrast from the flowing white robes they had been wearing in church.
“Later, Father,” the boys shouted as they went to complete the rest of their Sunday routine. Only John, the head of altar boys did not move.
“Father, are you okay?” John asked softly. He was an orphan, 14 years of age and lived in one of the nearby informal settlings at the market with his uncle and three siblings. The Church, through Fr.Joseph’s initiative, took care of all John’s academic and material needs. The relationship between the two was a paternal – filial one.
There was a brief stint of silence as Fr. Joseph weighed his words. “Sorry John, some weighty matters are bogging me down my son!” He placed his right hand on the young boy’s shoulder. They were almost the same height. Their eyes locked.
John looked at the priest and said, “I will offer a decade of the rosary for you!” He extended his hand and the priest took it, squeezed it before letting go. He watched sadly as John sauntered off. How was he to tell the young man that today was his last day at the parish?
Fr. Joseph slowly made his way to his residence just within the church compound. Behind the priests’ residence, which housed 4 priests, was the convent of Sisters of Tradition – a congregation of sisters who had been rooting for the return of traditional rites within the church: priests should be in cassocks, collars at all official times; the clergy should dress differently from the laity. It was a battle the nuns had refused to give up on, despite the odds being overwhelmingly staked against them.
There was a knock on the door and the priest mumbled absent-mindedly. “Come in.” He did not turn to see who it was.
“How are you Father?” Sr. Mary asked softly. This time the priest turned and looked at Sr. Mary.
“I am not very fine Sister. I don’t think I can pull this off,” he told the Sister as he turned his gaze to the giant crucifixion picture which adorned the wall.
THE RESPONORIAL PSALM IS:
Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.
Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself. RESPONSE
If you have find honey, eat just enough,
too much of it, and you will vomit. RESPONSE
Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house—
too much of you, and he will hate you.
Better is open rebuke
Than love that is concealed.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy. RESPONSE
At 48 years old, Sister Mary – born Mwende Musyoki – had been with the Order her entire life. She was born and brought up at the doorsteps of the convent because her mother – a single parent - for many years worked as a gardener at the Convent. Mwende was a constant companion to the nuns right from the moment she learnt how to walk and talk. She would accompany her mother to the convent where the nuns immediately fell in love with her, and she with them. The nuns’ angelic singing, immaculate robes made a life long impression on the small girl.
“I want to be a nun when I grow up,” was a constant song in the house. Mwende grew up in a strict Catholic upbringing. She attended Catholic schools, spent her holidays and free time working in the Convent. When she completed her secondary schooling, she shunned a college offer to join the Order as a novitiate. Her mother was ecstatic.
Sr. Mary put her hand on Fr. Joseph’s shoulder. His face relaxed, a sign of the effect that she had on him.
“We have been through this so many times, Father. It’s now or never!” she firmly asserted. “You will find me at the town centre – Ukali Building – in an hours time. Please don’t let me down this time!”
She walked out of the room, her immaculate white robes swaying sideways as she moved out. Fr. Joseph stood up and walked towards the picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and muttered: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for me a sinner, now and at the hour of my death. Amen!”
Twice he had developed cold feet at the crucial time. After 4 years, how could he just walk out of the parish and leave it orphaned? He who had preached in the pulpit about virtues, vices, the 7 deadly sins was now walking out. He who had inspired boys to become priests, girls to become nuns and poor parents to improve their skills was now giving up. He who had taken on politicians head on and made them accountable for injustices was now giving up. What would happen to all those self help projects, like boreholes, irrigation schemes, saving schemes, he had instituted?
Yes, he Fr.Joseph, was spiritually bankrupt, and was shedding his priestly robe to join the laity in the world. It had been a tough 4 years in which he had wrestled with his conscience and his creator. Each year, he had stayed on, only to suffer sleepless nights, tossing around on whether it was better to hang on or to walk out.
The solution had come, surprisingly, in a confession box two years back.
THE SECOND READING:
A READING FROM THE BOOK OF ONE CORINTHIANS 13 VERSE 4 TO 13.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned. My last confession was yesterday,” came the voice which Fr.Joseph had no problem placing as Sr.Mary’s, the Convent’s Vice Superior.
“The Lord has blessed you, my daughter,” the priest invoked reverently.
“I have lost my Faith and my vocation is in trouble,” replied Sr. Mary, her voice dropping to a whisper.
“For how long has this been going on?” the priest probed, shocked that there was someone, not very far away, who was going through the same tribulations like him.
“For close to three years now,” Sr. Mary replied, the whisper getting lower as if the walls had ears…
“Pray to Our Lady for guidance. You have come a long way to and you will go a longer way,” Fr. Joseph advised, though he felt his words ringing hollow.
“I want to leave the Order!” Sr.Mary muttered softly, the last words hardly audible to the priest.
There was silence as Fr. Joseph looked across the grill at the woman who had just stolen the words from his mouth. How dare she?
“And go where? Do what?” the priest asked, more to himself than to the nun.
“I want to get married, have my own children and serve God in a different capacity,” she affirmed, this time her voice sounding desperate.
“Pray more about it,” was all the priest could say.
“I have prayed about it and I am now convinced that this is my path. I shall leave in a month’s time,” were her parting words.
When she left the confession box, Fr. Joseph was in turmoil, his heart pounding with excitement and confusion. Maybe his prayers had been answered. Fr. Joseph did not hear the next person confessing his sins.
The following day Sr. Mary was there again in the confession box. This time she skipped the formalities.
“I did not sleep last night,” she told him. “I kept on seeing this beautiful baby boy calling out to me and saying ‘mummy’ over and over again! It was so lovely!” Her voice was musical, love struck by what she did not know.
The priest did not tell her that even he had not slept a wink.
“Father, you know I have seen your unhappiness in the last two years and I think you should also leave,” she spoke as an expert.
“Who told you that I am unhappy?” Fr. Joseph asked defensively.
“You are not the same fire brand priest that you were when you came here. You look more troubled,” she continued.
“I will pray about it!” he said weakly.
A READING FROM THE BOOK OF JOHN 15 VERSES 12 TO 15
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.
Sr. Mary’s words haunted Fr. Joseph for the next two years that the two sparred, the priest always succeeding in convincing the nun that the tribulations were part and parcel of their vocation.
But the priest had his own share of self disbelief, his words ringing hollow each time. Each year was worse than the previous ones. The retreats did not help and the final straw came when he received a letter transferring him to Rome for a 3 years sabbatical. He was to leave in 3 months time.
He shared the news with Sr.Mary.
“Let us leave next week,” she told the priest who had managed to hold himself together in the whirlwind emotional state that he was in.
He reluctantly agreed, more out to experiment with the unknown world. He packed his things but lacked the final courage to walk out. He did not make it to their rendezvous – Matiliku Centre – and when they met again in the confessional, she gave him a tongue lashing.
“I did not know that you are such a coward,” she chided him, her whispers coming out like lashes on a bare back.
“It is more of courage to stay on,” he defended himself, lacking the convincing power.
“Do you or don’t you want to leave?” she asked him fiercely. She took his silence as a sign of approval for their plans, thus instructing him on what to do.
A week later, he again failed to make it and this time she, for the first time, screamed at him.
“You are wasting my time Fr. Joseph!” It is the first time in almost a year that she had ever referred to him as Fr. Joseph. She always called him Joe or Dear. He got the message.
The third time, just after mass, she walked out of his office with the parting words. “I am gone and this time I am not coming back.”
“Where will you go?” he asked her.
“To start a new life!” she replied as she looked at him. “At my cousin’s place in Matuu! I leave town at exactly 2pm!”
For the third time in as many months, Fr. Joseph packed his belongings. This time he knew he was going to leave – the heaviness in his heart was absent and the regrets were few!
He left the books, mementoes, the car and all worldly things he could think of. The Church compound was deserted as he walked out, through the metallic gate that was never manned. He locked the gate and walked to the roadside where he stopped a town bound matatu.
“Father, where is your collar today?” asked the matatu tout, who was one of the products of the Youth movement in Church.
Fr. Joseph smiled at the young man. “Today is my day off as a priest!”
The young man laughed.
The priest removed a book from his bag. It was ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran. He flipped through the pages before settling on the one that spoke of marriage.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone.
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts but not into each other’s keeping
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
It took less than an hour to reach the town centre. Fr. Joseph alighted from the vehicle, thanked both the driver and the tout for the smooth ride.
“Be blessed,” the tout replied, “and I promise to come for mass next Sunday!”
Fr. Joseph walked his way to Ukali building. There was a restaurant on the 1st floor. He slowly took to the stairs, wondering what the future had in store for him. It was 1:45 pm.
She was there. At the furthest corner, huddled over a book was the familiar figure of Sr. Mary. She was reading a book.
“Hi Mwende,” Fr. Joseph croaked.
“Hi Joe,” she smiled back, a genuine 180 degrees smile that almost knocked the priest off his feet. Gone was the veil and in its place was beautifully plaited African hair – just the way he loved it. In his sermons, he had always admonished fakeness and encouraged women to shun those ugly weaves and chemicals that made them look plastic.
Sr. Mary stood up and gave him a hug. He responded, a long and tight hug that seemed to summarise that turmoil over the years.
“Let us go,” she said as she held his hand and led him away out of the restaurant.
He followed her, just like Adam had followed Eve.
© Clifford Oluoch 2009, Around Kenya In 9 Provinces.
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