So that next morning Maitland was firmly persona grata again. He was glad. To live in that grey elephant of a house on any other terms would have been a test of sanity he did not wish to undergo. Yet his success had its blemishes, as when Costello bombarded him with applause. Nolan, having carried so funereal a face on the question, kept clear. It was not until two mornings later, himself and Maitland passing in the corridor behind the high altar, both vested for Mass and bearing chalices, that Nolan smiled with an aged wistfulness and whispered, ‘So you talked His Grace round to your view of things.’
During that brief springtime when Maitland seemed to bear His Grace’s cachet, Costello came to him a second time and said, ‘It seems there’s a nun in St Thomasine’s College—that’s across the city. She’s apparently a little unorthodox but the mother-superior has tended to be tolerant of her. However, two parents have complained now, and mother is shaken. His Grace is so far on your side over this other matter that he wants you to be one of the three members of a sort of informal enquiry.’
Maitland, caught in his shirtsleeves and in a contemplative mood, said, ‘I’m not a good inquisitor.’
‘It doesn’t matter. I’ll be there. I’ve done this sort of thing before. You just sit back and look as magisterial as get-out and learn the ropes.’
Moored on a hill against a high wind and vibrant south-easting clouds, St Thomasine’s was neither as huge nor as Lord Alfred Peacock as the house-of-studies, yet fit to make hysterical any girl returning from summer holidays. Down to the last digit on its crass garden statuary, it seemed exemplary, the last place to harbour a radical nun. Inside was the browning winter light of institutions, waiting for them in the parlour like something they had been unsuccessful at leaving at home. Also waiting were Monsignor Fleming, the third member of the committee, and the mother-superior. Both were young sixty-year-olds. Their serge clothing lapped them about in unchallengeable snugness as they spoke of the signs of decline, angina and gall and kidneys, in old nuns and priests known to both of them. Introductions over, the mother superior began to present the dossier on Sister Martin, the danger. She asked them to sit at the head of the table so that the thing would look judicial. She said reluctantly that she thought it had come to that.
‘Sister Martin is a brilliant young woman, university trained. If I say that I’m alarmed at her cynicism about questions of church administration and history, you’ll receive the wrong impression. She’s gentle and pleasant and, practically speaking, docile. What I’m trying to say is this—I don’t think that a church history period should be an opportunity to describe how a medieval Pope got in such a hurry to go out hunting that he ordained some poor priest in a stable instead of a church. Nor to look into the lives of some of those cardinals of pre-reformation days.’
Costello chuckled. ‘The sins of the fathers …’
‘Yes, doctor. But you see, one of the girls’ parents complained. Two excellent Catholics. The mother is a member of the Catholic Women’s Guild Committee, the father is an executive of the Knights of St Patrick …’
Maitland blinked. He said, ‘Excuse me, mother. Not that it matters, but is the name of these people Boyle?’
The nun frowned as if an effort of memory were involved. ‘No … no. Not Boyle, father.’
His sigh was too audible. He settled back to suffer the dull malaise that the brown light, the buffed pearliness of the oak table, the terrifying cleanliness-next-to-Godliness of the cedar floorboards awoke in him. (The cobbler allergic to leather, the claustrophobic miner were not more star-crossed than Maitland.) Beyond the window, girls yelped on the tennis-courts; the resonance of nylon racquets came to him; and in some music room a child with a violin assaulted the jolly scarps of Humoresque. None of it failed to add layers to his discomfort. ‘They were very reluctant to complain,’ said the mother-superior of the exemplary parents. ‘They claim, however, that Sister Martin has criticised the traditional formulas of belief—not violently. Firmly. I must make that clear to you. There is no arrogance in Sister Martin. Absolutely none.’
‘Have you questioned her about these matters?’ Costello asked. ‘Yes, doctor. That is how I know—not violent, but firm. She uses terms for almighty God which, it seems, were coined by Protestant theologians. She speaks of ‘the ground of our being’, although she has reservations about that term, as about all other terms.’
Costello’s eyes narrowed.
The nun said with a hint of pride, ‘I thought of letting old Father Royal speak to her, but the trouble is she’d run rings around him. Shall I fetch her now? Oh, her views on the sacraments are a little revolutionary.’ Her eyes dropped. She had the grace not to like what her conscience demanded, not to like giving up her sister to theologians.
‘Before you go, mother, did the parents complain on all these points?’
‘No. Actually, their sense of outrage centred mainly in that she’d called perpetual novenas magic.’
‘Did you ask her about that point, mother?’ Monsignor Fleming asked.
‘Yes, monsignor. She said that—well, that for her, magic wasn’t necessarily a nasty work, that mankind deprived of magic wouldn’t be the richer.’
‘You seem to be careful not to misquote her,’ Costello decided.
‘Yes, I took notes of our interview and allowed her to reread and amend them. However, I am no expert, so I didn’t think it quite just to burden you with them.’
‘You have been merciful, mother.’
‘She’s a lovely girl …’
Costello closed his eyes and made a harsh male sound with his sinuses. ‘There are questions, mother, on which we cannot yield an inch even to those we love.’ Maitland noticed for the first time that the theologian had actually been taking notes of his own.
‘I had better let her speak for herself,’ the reverend-mother decided.
Waiting for Sister Martin, Costello and the monsignor sat up straight and ready, knowing that theology was a man’s world and that here were men enough for the job. Maitland wished on the poor girl the guts of Joan of Arc, the wit of Heloise.
Costello told him, ‘James, we may not be able to observe all the amenities with this young lady.’
‘Why not?’ Maitland was preparing to say. ‘She sounds civilised enough.’
But that was when she came in; and in an attempt not to look judicial, he took to playing with the cuff of his coat. It was impossible though, massed at one end of a long table with an august theologian and a monsignor in purple stock, not to seem to be what he was. Which was, of all things, a judge.
She was young with pale, fine-grained skin that reminded him of Grete’s. She said, ‘Good afternoon monsignor, fathers,’ and waited like a schoolgirl to be invited to sit. Maitland blushed but lacked the courage; and in the end Costello glanced up and ordered her to take a seat. It was rudeness justified by the need for orthodoxy. Maitland became so angry at it that all he could do was sit on the rim of his chair and swallow. He thought, ‘One day, when you’re a bishop, you’ll be all worldly grace to the baggy wives of Q.C.’s.’
As it was, the expanse of table between the three priests and Sister Martin too clearly imposed the status of culprit on the woman. The monsignor unexpectedly found it alien to his nature that it should be so, that the girl should be kept at such an inquisitorial distance. He pointed to the gas-fire glinting inappositely under an antique mantel-piece.
The chair being massive, Maitland helped her shift it. ‘Here?’ he asked, grounding it. ‘Thank you, father,’ she said. ‘Father’ came out broken in two by a nervous lack of breath at the back of the throat. Maitland felt his profound lack of innocence. He was glad to return to Costello’s side.
‘What’s all this then, sister?’ Costello wanted to know. He smiled leniently, the sort of male leniency that provokes feminists. His fingers played sensitively with the edges of his notepaper. ‘Been scandalising the parents?’
‘It is possible for these things to be reported out of context by children,’ said the nun. ‘I believe I may have been reported a little out of context, father.’
‘Of course,’ the old monsignor said pacifically. ‘It happens.’
Costello raised his voice. ‘Just the same, aren’t some of the things you’ve said rather rash whether in or out of context?’
The nun told them, ‘When a class hasn’t been fully prepared, it’s unavoidable that something rash will be said.’
‘And you don’t prepare your classes fully?’ Costello asked her in a voice that only just managed to maintain basic human trust in her.
‘We’re very understaffed. It’s impossible to prepare every class fully at the moment, father.’
As a first principle to which he required her assent, Costello stated, ‘The teaching of the one true faith comes first, sister.’
Seeing that she was not meant to win, ‘Of course,’ she said.
‘Let us begin at the beginning,’ Costello suggested. ‘I have always thought that God was God, sister, that we confuse the faithful by calling him by any tautologous terms as “The ground of our being”, and that other meaningless and downright blasphemous title, “the God beyond God”.’ Tautologous terms such as ‘Our father who art in heaven’, Maitland thought. He began to wonder if he also were not the object of the enquiry—two anarchists for the price of one.
‘Don’t you agree, sister?’ Costello persisted.
‘When one spends all one’s energies pursuing the vision of God, one is disturbed when people find it possible to say that God is dead.’
‘That God-is-dead business is just a university fashion.’
‘Partly, father, yes, but fashion is an extension of society. So that one is still alarmed.’
The nun, her skin smooth with those cosmetics which mother-church considered best for her—these being humility in argument, the seeing of God’s will in the decrees of people such as Costello, modesty about the eyes—nevertheless managed her small ironies; mainly by speaking to the tribunal as a whole, trusting to its joint good reason, using ‘father’ in a collective sense. There was a marginal hint about her manner: that she did not trust entirely to Costello’s good reason, that she did not consider him unqualifiedly as her father. This was so tenuous an implication that Costello would lose dignity by responding to it. Yet, while tenuous, it was also unmistakable. Maitland felt very pleased with this nun. She underlined one of the few things he knew about women: that they were essentially ungovernable.
He himself broke in. ‘What do you think people mean when they say that God is dead, sister?’
‘I hardly dare say,’ she answered immediately, but gave signs of being about to show considerable daring. ‘But human organisations limit God by identifying themselves with him. They express him in terms that accord with their nature and needs. Then the terms get old—like the organisations. The terms die.’ She glanced at Costello. ‘If I used the term “God beyond God”, which I can’t really remember doing—but we’re very busy—if I used it, it was to make the girls realise that no matter how old terms and organisations grow, the real God is still untouched and unknowable and speaks in silences.’
Quickly, she sat back, alarmed to discover herself eloquent before priests. She had, in fact, given the word ‘unknowable’ a ring of triumph, of passion and blood. This helped bring all that was most arid to the forefront of Costello’s mind.
‘You say “unknowable”, sister,’ he observed. ‘What do you mean by unknowable?’
She tried to say, grimacing. ‘Words are a trap, father. Yet I suppose it is what you theologians would call unknowable in his essence.’
That particular theologian became taut with delight.
‘The first Vatican council rejected your opinion as heretical.’
‘Did they, father? It’s so hard to express oneself, but then if one is a teacher one has to try. However, I’m sure we both ultimately agree, Vatican I and myself. So many of these theological squabbles are only matters of semantics.’
‘Are they just?’ said Costello.
‘I was reading last week,’ the girl began; and then, ‘Did you want me to continue speaking, father?’
‘Why not? You’re the informed member of the panel.’
‘Oh no,’ she said softly. ‘I’m sorry. I realise how annoying it must be for a professional theologian to have to listen to me.’
‘At the moment you must speak. That is why we are here.’
The monsignor smiled and assured her. ‘We’re fair game.’
For a second, a small girl ran beneath the window taunting, ‘Boarders are getting cabbage for tea.’ The nun took her crucifix out of one place in her girdle and stabbed it back into another. Her flummoxed hands found this the first thing available for the doing.
‘I was merely going to say that I read an article last week in an English review about Luther and Aquinas—that Luther meant by faith what Aquinas meant by hope, that Luther needn’t have been excommunicated and all that religious and political agony could have been prevented. The predicament we are in with words, you see. Now, when one speaks of God, one has to apologise for the poverty of words, one has to mistrust them. Yet we have to speak about the unspeakable, don’t we?’
‘Of course,’ old Fleming said, as if for the sake of keeping well in the game. ‘But a teacher of the young has to be so careful, sister, so very careful …’
In the meantime, Maitland, though not expert on legislation, decrees and anathemas, saw reason to suggest, ‘If I might correct an impression sister may have taken from what you said a moment ago, Doctor Costello … I don’t think that either yourself or the Vatican council intend to imply that Sister Martin is a heretic because she believes God is, as she says, untouched and ultimately unknowable.’
Costello sighed. ‘Let me assure you, Dr Maitland, that that is what the Vatican council condemned.’
‘Of course, the relationship between man and God is personal and can’t be legislated for,’ said Maitland. ‘All the council claims is that God can be known by reason. But surely not in his essence—whatever that word means.’
‘That is casuistry!’ Costello cried out. He stared ahead of him. There was an unwonted pallor in the eye-pouch and cheek that Maitland could see. ‘How can something be known if it is not known in its essence?’
‘Indeed,’ said the monsignor, who had none the less lost track of the hounds.
Costello announced, very loudly but to no one in particular, ‘What I have said is aimed at proving the dangers of playing inexactly with theological terms.’
Monsignor Fleming nodded. ‘It’s done for many a good man. Look at the great Père Lammenais in nineteenth-century France …’
But the other three had too much on hand to take this invitation.
‘I must say in fairness to Sister Martin,’ Maitland enjoyed observing, ‘that she seems to have a profound sense of these dangers.’
‘No,’ said the nun herself, and meant it absolutely. ‘Not enough sense. Not enough.’
‘Ipse dixit,’ said Costello. ‘Or should I say ipsa?’
There was a silence. The nun bowed her head, obviously accepting on it the blame for having spoken inexactly of the diety. Since this same guilt was shared by Moses, Augustine, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, and an army of other master spirits, Maitland hoped she was proud of the crime. She gave no sign, however.
‘And now what about these sacraments?’ Costello asked, restored to victorious joviality.
After listening to Sister Martin on sacraments for a short time, and having watched that fool Maitland nodding his lean head, forebear- ing, perhaps even approving, Costello cut the drift of the girl’s pleadings with one downward stroke of his hand. Passionless, breathing hard, he spoke.
‘I have something to tell you, Sister Martin. I tell it without malice, merely with some sadness.’
He once again made that sinusitic rumble already tested on the mother-superior. It sounded, and was almost certainly meant to be, male and harsh and mastering, gruff as a navvy’s fart and, to Maitland’s mind, even less creditable. ‘You are a modernist. And modernism is a heresy.’
The woman sighed. She sounded feminine and soft as any deep waters; and indicated ever so slightly the vulgarity of the doctor’s nasal cavities. ‘Do you wish to conclude I am a heretic, father?’
‘Not yet.’ He waved his right hand spaciously. ‘We presume your good faith up to this moment. However, now that you have been warned … I beg you, my daughter, in this hour of your extreme need, to prostrate yourself before Christ your Spouse and His Blessed Mother.’
Maitland, speechless, battled for composure; as Monsignor Fleming quoted, ‘Woe unto him who scandaliseth a little one …’ He was sure that she had not merited mill-stones. But all those who dealt with the young had to be careful, so very careful.
Suddenly, Costello became therapeutically kind. He said that he would draw up, prayerfully and with specific attention to her peril, a list of theology texts she was to con thoroughly. In the meantime she should not teach the one true faith to children. After some months he would return and interview her once again. ‘Agreed?’ he asked the monsignor, who certainly didn’t want to seem severe, but thought that such a course was proper. Not that he didn’t realise she did her level best. But until her small inaccuracies were cleared up …
‘Remember that you are the bride of Christ,’ Costello demanded of her, and shut his awe-struck lids.
Something began to pulse in Maitland’s throat, and out of the pulse, full of the rhythms of his blood, grew unaccountably his voice. It swung across the room like a pendulum.
It said, ‘The bride does not need a formula for the bridegroom, her knowledge of him surpasses formulas.’
‘That’s all very well for the bride,’ Costello agreed after a silence.
‘Exactly’, said Maitland. He told the nun, ‘I know each of the books Dr Costello has recommended to you. Let me say that you will find them alien, legalistic, sterile. None the less, perhaps mother-superior will order you to read them, and in that case you must not let them influence your life as a nun or give you despair.’
The nun said, ‘I’d prefer you didn’t continue, father.’
‘Ah, but preferences aren’t your business. Dr Costello has made that clear enough. However, the only other thing I wanted to say was that I disassociate myself utterly from Dr Costello’s concerted rudeness to you.’
‘Thank you,’ she told him with classroom firmness. ‘But, of course, I understood from the beginning that none of you were acting from spite.’
As she was going, Maitland opened the door for her to pass into the hall. Here the lights shone. Two barbarous statues, lolly-pop coloured, postured across the void of carpet and stained boards, and from a place where showers and taps ran, boarding students could be heard giggling towards cabbage-time.
‘Sister Martin,’ Maitland called after her from the door. ‘I haven’t time to stand on ceremony. Have you—’ He lost his temper at his powers of speech and ended in saying lamely, ‘Have you seen God?’
Behind them, at the far end of the parlour, Costello could be heard rumbling in judgment of this flourishing woman.
She smiled. ‘If I said yes, father, I could hardly blame you for calling me a liar.’
‘In this frantic world, how can a person be sure he isn’t pursuing a nullity, or worse still, himself?’
‘But what would you expect to be told, father? That you see God as you see a town clerk, at a given time on a given day. And as if by appointment?’ She frowned. ‘Father, I don’t think there’s one being that pursues a nullity.’
Costello coughed a summons to him. The nun formed a sudden resolve. She told him, ‘One knows by the results. Nothing is the same afterwards. Everything has a special—luminosity. You are able to see, well, existence shining in things.’ She shrugged, ‘Words again!’ and seemed very sad.
‘I have never experienced a more blatant attack on religious obedience,’ Costello told his notepaper softly as Maitland once more took the seat beside him. ‘If I were the type, I would count the number of times I have attempted to make you feel welcome in the happy brotherhood of this archdiocese. This is the second time I have been fanged as a result. I know that there’ll be a seventh and eighth time. Therefore,’ and he made an ample gesture of cancellation, ‘I wash my hands. Of course, I may relent—Christians are meant to be professional relenters—but I have rather genuine hope that once and for all, I have left you to your own juice.’
The old monsignor chewed his lips and concentrated upon surviving the contretemps. Maitland did not make this task easier, contending, ‘No doubt, when the Holy Spirit sees fit to raise you to the episcopate, you’ll treat the society wives at charity openings with the same honest brutality you showed that girl.’
‘If ever it becomes necessary I will. Oh, what’s the use of explaining old methods to novices. Do you know how to begin to rehabilitate a woman? Do you know what the basic step is? To make them weep. Once you have, the work can begin.’
‘Ask any long-service husband,’ the doctor advised.
‘Might I be excused? From the room, I mean. From the whole turnout.’
‘You had better wait till mother shows.’
Costello kept working on the list of texts for Sister Martin, and when he was finished, showed it first to the monsignor, then to Maitland. In a short time the mother-superior returned.
‘Would a retreat be possible?’ he asked her. ‘I believe that sister should make a retreat soon. There is a crisis of faith pending there, and it should be brought on quickly.’
‘My God!’ Maitland said loudly.
‘There are crises of faith in all directions,’ the doctor opined tangentially and gazed into the ordered depth of the gas fire.
Maitland stood and turned to the mother-superior. ‘Mother, thank you for having me. If I might be bold enough to say so, you gave signs earlier of thinking that perhaps you owned a jewel in Sister Martin. I concur utterly in your suspicions. Please don’t burden her with those deathly books on Dr Costello’s list.’
‘I don’t think you can go that far, young fellow,’ the monsignor protested behind him.
‘Believe me,’ said Costello, ‘he’ll go all the way one of these days. All the way.’
Maitland certainly went further there and then. ‘As for a retreat, silence can’t hurt her. How far is it to the bus-stop, please?’
‘But surely Dr Costello would drive you …?’
‘Dr Costello is not safe at intersections,’ said Maitland. ‘Monsignor, it was a pleasure to meet you.’
Outside, it was night in an avenued suburb. The leaves spoke elementally in the wind, you would never have known that they were all tame and pampered vegetables pollarded yearly by the municipal council. Maitland felt refreshed and free.