Today is the last day of the year 2019 A.D. and I feel the need to complete my limited number of posts this year with a light-hearted tale by Fr Bernard Bassett S.J. entitled 'St.Aloysius and the Tomatoes',. probably written in the 1950s, and subsequently published in his delightful book 'The Seven Deadly Virtues' published by Sands and Co., London.
Saint Aloysius and the Tomatoes
'I discovered only the other day that Marjorie entertains some very odd notions about saints. Of course, I have known for some time that her prayer book was packed with pictures of saints in impossible postures, but now I know that her head is also full of impossible ideas. For myself, I own with some confusion that sanctity has often appeared a dull and rather monotonous profession, for I was never much use at prayer or preaching, and certainly should be tongue-tied if called upon to preach to the birds.
Marjorie’s difficulty lies rather in not preaching to everybody and everything which comes within range of her batteries, but I cannot picture her standing for all eternity with a lily in her hand. Perhaps she is right when she calls me a cynic, but I would rather be sceptical than commercial in my devotions, and her love for the saints is measured by their ability to get her out of a muddle, or to find her other pair of spectacles which she had put in so safe a place that they have not been seen for three months.
Marjorie is very lavish with sanctity and attributes it to anyone who dares not say boo to a goose. “Oh, she’s a perfect saint,” she once remarked of Mrs Heskith, “you can see it from the way that she walks back from the Communion rail”,; though what Marjorie was doing staring about at such a moment I did not dare to ask. Anyway, I had a squint at Mrs Heskith myself next Sunday, and I agree that she does not look unlike the pictures in Marjorie’s prayer book; at least she has her head on one side. Far be it for me to say anything against Mrs Heskith’s candidature for a niche over the altar, but I should be sorry if St Peter decided our places in heaven by the elasticity of our necks.
Then there was Sister Raphael, the portress at the convent, “a saint if ever there was one,” to use Marjorie’s expression, whose qualifications as far as I can judge. were an inability to raise her voice above a whisper or her eyes above the lowest bolt on the convent door.
On the other hand, Mother Aphonsus, the headmistress, who could call a spade a spade and who told Marjorie that she could not have the children home two days before the term ended, was dismissed by her as “one who means well but who has no manners and is not at all my idea of a nun.”
From these and other examples it is clear to me that Marjorie’s saints suffer from spiritual tuberculosis in this life, while in heaven they spend their time looking for her spectacles with their heads on one side.
To Marjorie I am the complete Philistine, for I see sanctity in cheerfulness and a sense of humour with plenty of spiritual fresh air and exercise. I would not condemn old Mr Herringbone, as Marjorie does, because his fingers are stained with tobacco, for such trifles are beside the point. Marjorie says that St Aloysius would not have had yellow fingers, nor would he have yawned as Mr Herringbone does in church. She goes further and accuses me of picking my saints to fit my own low standards so that I can settle my conscience. Few of my favourite saints, like Thomas More or Thomas of Canterbury, had any recorded vision, they expressed no particular affection for dumb animals, and they did not hold their head on one side. Marjorie in her nasty way says that my heaven is going to be an eternal cup-tie final, and the only snag for me will be that as it is eternal there will be no half-time.
As far as I could make out, the Canon did not agree with Marjorie at all when he held forth on the saints the other evening, but Marjorie maintains that it might have been herself speaking, which is partly true. There she was chatting away and trying to reduce the Canon’s contribution to an occasional affirmative at the end of each paragraph, but his Reverence was not to be silenced by such propaganda.
It happened like this. The meal was progressing according to plan, when suddenly Marjorie looked at me with her famous imitation of Garbo and begged me to be a saint and fetch the tomatoes from the second shelf on the left just inside the pantry door. I replied with dignity that I would gladly fetch the tomatoes, but that sanctity did not enter into the matter, and I added that quite a number of saints might have refused to answer her request. Marjorie countered by dragging in St Aloysius who would certainly have fetched the tomatoes for his mother, though he was a great prince. That gave me the chance of saying that I could not appreciate the virtue of St Aloysius and that he would have brought the tomatoes with downcast eyes, for his biographer tells us that he always cast his eyes down.
After that Marjorie fell back to other saints and other stories, and told us about St Elizabeth of Hungary, feeding a beggar and then finding hundreds of roses in her lap. I could not see what this had to do with St Aloysius and the tomatoes, so I said so, appealing to the Canon for support. Before he could finish his mouthful, Marjorie was off on a tale about St Francis Xavier tearing up his letters from home unopened, and another of St Lawrence Justinian, who buried both his parents without shedding a tear. She had just reached another story about a saint hanging his coat on a sunbeam while sweeping his cell at the command of the abbot, when the Canon interrupted to arbitrate.
The Canon agreed with me that not all the habits and customs of the saints could be appreciated by twentieth- century Englishmen, but he thought it was foolish to condemn where we did not understand. Marjorie was delighted at this and began to nod approval, but the Canon caught her a dig with his next sentence, for as he said, we only know the saints as their biographers portray them, and not all biographers are saints. They stress the wrong points or they emphasise trivial qualities, or they try to make the saint what they imagine a saint should be. This was particularly the case in Victorian biography, when Little Lord Fauntleroy was in fashion, and poor St Aloysius had been decked out in velvet breeches and a sickly smile.
The Canon was so annoyed by stupid stories that I took the opportunity to kick Marjorie under the table, but in such a way that she might think that the Canon had done it by mistake.
As the Canon rightly said, one century cannot judge another, their whole outlook and atmosphere and customs were different, and if some cynics laughed at the early saints for not washing, it is well to remember that Queen Elizabeth and Shakespearian England was just as bad. Each age has its own standards, its own peculiar virtues and vices, and the saints are typical of their age.
“Sanctity,” said the Canon, “can show itself in a hundred and one ways, all quite different, but though it varies in its manifestations it remains the same in essence wherever it is found. I’m not sure that it is possible over baked apples and custard to analyse its ingredients, but it was accurately and humanly explained by Our Blessed Lord when He told the story of the merchant who sold all that he possessed to buy a pearl of great price. Now that merchant was a wise and shrewd man, not a fool nor an enthusiast, and we may be sure that when the priceless pearl was in his possession he did not pine for the money by which it had been obtained. So it seems to me that the saints were not idealists or fanatics, but common-sensed and hard-headed men. Once grant that the pearl for sale is priceless and they become the most logical men in history; nor were they people who set out to make themselves miserable, but carefree enterprising merchants, who had picked up a tremendous treasure at a trifling price. If the saints puzzle us it is not because they were crazy, but because we have not properly estimated the value of the prize.”
The Canon paused to consume some baked apple, and Marjorie was off on St Aloysius and the tomatoes again. The Canon swallowed quickly to cut her short.
“St Aloysius,” said he, “is the most maligned of all the saints, thanks to his biographers, who present him as a sickly young man wearing a cotta and carrying a terrific scourge in his hand. That is what comes of one century trying to judge another, without remembering the essential that a saint is a merchant out to buy a pearl of great price. The merchants of every century are hard-headed and so are the saints. The contract, the price, the methods of purchase vary, the prize is the same. Don’t judge a saint by mere accidentals, put him in the circumstances which we all understand. I cannot repeat too often that a saint has to get up in the morning, perhaps talks to himself while shaving, fills in the days and weeks with occupations which we ordinary twentieth-century Englishmen can appreciate. His life is not made up of ecstasies and scourgings, and though the methods differ, the essentials of sanctity remain the same.”
The Canon put down his spoon and fork.
“I’ll admit,” said he, “that Saint Aloysius seemed very insipid to me until I had an intimate glimpse of him many years ago. I was a young curate then, working in a poor parish, and I was invited to spend my fortnight’s holiday with rich titled friends. There I was in a country house, with a feather bed, and trout for breakfast, and several dignified servants to put my pyjamas and tooth-brush away.. At first I was shy of these servants. I rose early and said my breviary in the garden, but it did not take long before I was growing used to the leisure,, enjoying the lovely garden and the excellent food and wine.. Gradually my breviary got pushed into the last hours of the evening, and I stayed in bed longer in the mornings to have what my hostess called a real rest. I began to fish about for further invitations, I delayed my departure, I saw a new world which I had never known before. It seemed to me that I was squandering my youth and talents in my poor parish, when I was so obviously a success with my cultured friends.
“Well despite all my efforts and evasions, the famous fortnight at last was over, and I returned to the presbytery with a heavy heart. My poky little room and the Irish stew gave me jaundice, and I looked at my boy’s club and other activities with a yellow eye. On one terrible occasion, I don’t mind confessing, I sat at my desk, a man of twenty-six, five foot ten and a half in my stockings, and cried like a brat. For one dreadful moment I doubted if I could ever resume my parish drudgery, and at that very moment old Canon McSweeney burst in, without knocking, to ask about a baptism. He stopped dead in the doorway, for not even he expected to find his curate crying, and then he began to chuckle in his cheerful way. “Don’t tell me,” he said, “I need no explanation and will give no advice. I know what’s the matter, and you’ll get over it, and the experience will open your eyes. At any rate, my lad, you can’t do better than have a word with St Aloysius, for how that boy ever had the grit to leave a palace and a ducal crown and pomegranate toothpowder, to rough it in a presbytery or its equivalent, is more than we fish can understand. Small wonder that he had to use extraordinary methods and that he wore himself out in a short time.”
The Canon put down his napkin.
“There you are,” he said, “that was McSweeney’s biography of St Aloysius, and my own short experiment as a country gentleman endorses his account. We who have never enjoyed his means cannot appreciate his methods, but we ought to raise our hats or birettas to his strength of purpose. Aloysius would have fetched the tomatoes, he might have cast his eyes down as he brought them, but the fatigue of getting them, like the pain of quitting his palace would have been no less than the common-sense of the young merchant who sold all his possessions with joy to buy the pearl of great price.” '
'Wishing all readers a blessed and happy New Year'