More years ago than I care to remember, I was a teenager at Wimbledon College in south-west London, a boy’s Catholic Grammar School, administered by the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). In the middle years it was customary for the boys to attend a Retreat lasting two or three days, the object being to reinforce knowledge and appreciation of our Catholic faith. The Retreat was given by a Jesuit priest, not necessarily from the school, and on two occasions in separate years, I was fortunate to attend a Retreat given by Fr Bernard Basset S.J., a well - known and much sought after Retreat Master. Father Bassett was an excellent speaker with the ability to capture and retain the attention of his young listeners on spiritual matters, no mean feat, with light-hearted humour a potent weapon in his armoury.
Recently I came across a copy of an old book entitled ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues – and other Stories’, by Bernard Basset S.J. published by Sands & Co. London. The stories are a delight to read and not too long, and I offer you one that I think you will enjoy and appreciate; an antidote to the current helping of gloom and doom within the Church, which of course is but a glitch in its divine mission, and one which will pass.
These stories first appeared in Stella Maris and the Southwark Record, with permission granted for the author to publish them in book form.
Mr. Bumbleby’s Outburst
The Church recommends that we should spend fifteen minutes in making our thanksgiving after Holy Communion, and the story is told of St Philip Neri that he once sent two altar boys with lighted candles to escort a culprit who had darted off the moment Mass was done. Of course we all agree with the Saint, and would not ourselves cut away without a suitable thanksgiving, but if two acolytes with lighted candles came and stood by us while we arranged our thoughts after Holy Communion, we might better appreciate the honour which is ours.
As it is, we must all admit with some confusion that our knees are often more impressionable than our minds and hearts at that time of the morning, and that with the best intention in the world we find it very difficult to pray. That at least is what we think, and when five minutes have taken half an hour in passing, we find it hard to believe that it is worthwhile struggling with distractions and hunger any more.
Perhaps it might help someone if I set down Mr. Bumbleby’s views on thanksgiving after Communion, for though I know all the theory and was already a weekly communicant on paper before I talked to him, yet he certainly helped me a great deal. Up to that time, Marjorie and I, suffering from the common complaint of inability to feel holy or prayerful before breakfast, had alas, become remiss about going to early Mass.
For six days in the week we proudly grouped ourselves among the regular congregation for the eight o’clock Mass on Sundays, and I would even stay in bed a wee bit longer on Saturdays to compensate for rising early on the next day. Yet by Saturday evening I invariably had a scraping feeling behind the nose, or a tooth which might give trouble, and I would decide after much humming and hawing that it would be inviting trouble to go to early Mass.
Marjorie used to laugh at my complaints but she too had a battery of excuses on occasion, the children looked peaky, or she was so behind with her housekeeping, and after all, she must sometimes think of cook. Why cook should have a figure in our spiritual pie was a question that I could never answer, but Marjorie seemed satisfied, and in the end, after a long discussion, I would announce that we’d better go to late Mass just for this once, while Marjorie would say, “No, let’s leave it till the morning and we’ll see what the day is like.” We both know what that meant.
Now Mr. Bumbleby was the newsagent from whom I always bought the Sunday papers on my way home from Mass. This was easy, for Mr. Bumbleby had no shop but used to open his pitch on the pavement not far from the church. His glaring posters were strapped to some railings, his stock of papers screamed their headlines at you from the tarpaulin cover on which he had laid them, while Mr. Bumbleby sat by the side reading all about the latest murder, hoping that no purchaser would remove the last copy before the police had inspected the body. I had seen Mr. Bumbleby inside of the church on occasions, for he was a Papist, but usually he was already doing a brisk trade on the pavement before we arrived for Mass.
It so happened on the particular Sunday in question that I had for once overcome the temptation which beset me, and had struggled from bed to early Mass. Either the children were looking peaky or cook was being thought of, for Marjorie had remained at home. I remember feeling that I might as well have stayed at home myself, for after Holy Communion I found it almost impossible to pray. And this disturbed me, for if you firmly believe as a Catholic that Our Lord is truly present on the altar, and that He comes to you in the literal sense at Holy Communion, then it is very humiliating when the mind pops off on to trivial subjects at the most sacred moment of His arrival.
Well, my mind was certainly on the spree that morning, though I clutched firmly at my prayer book, rattled my rosary, compiled a long list of petitions to be asked for, and generally set about the duties of prayer. I thought of Marjorie and cook, Jimmie’s bad leg, Joe Stalin and Tottenham Hotspurs, and then returned with shame to my own lack of gratitude and respect. Unfortunately my rosary on the seat in front served admirably as a rough map of the Mediterranean, and in the midst of remorse I was planning naval dispositions. Within five minutes it was clear to me that progress in prayer was no longer possible, and following the mood of the moment I swept the Mediterranean coastline into my pocket, seized my hat and went.
Mr. Bumbleby was in position when I bounded across the road to greet him, but he was not reading the paper as I had expected, but was sitting on his heels beside his posters with a huge prayer book in his hands. He was so busy that he did not notice me until I had said good morning, and then he shut his book and whipped off his glasses.
“Hello” said I, speaking without purpose or consideration. “don’t tell me you are saying your prayers?”
Mr. Bumbleby was not in the least embarrassed by my stupid question, but replied with alacrity that was exactly what he was doing, for what with the blooming trains running late, and the R.C.s going to church so early, he’d had the very dickens of a rush to open up in time anyhow, and that he had had to cut away from church with his thanksgiving half unsaid.
“What’s more” he added, pointing menacingly at the newspapers with his glasses, “it ain’t ‘arf ‘ard to be saying your prayers squatting on the public pavement with all them latest London editions to be read.”
Partly from surprise, partly as a result of my own experience in church that morning, I agreed that it was very difficult to make an adequate thanksgiving after Holy Communion, but my admission seemed to affect Mr. Bumbleby in a most unexpected way.
“That’s just where you’re wrong,” said he, looking fiercely in my direction, and then he flung open his battered prayer book, licked his forefinger and began turning over the pages as though they were treasury notes.
“I used to think it was hard,” he said, “ in the days when I was always fussing about my own feelings, because if I didn’t happen to be in the mood, then my prayer was a washout from the start. That’s what you think too, and you’re wrong. After all we’d never get nowhere in ordinary life if we only thought of ourselves. When the Master comes to us in Communion, He’s not thinking of Himself, is He? No, He’s out to give us a big help and pleasure, and so we in our prayers shouldn’t think about ourselves but about Him. It’s because we’re always watching ourselves, worrying how it’s going, wondering if it’s doing us good and can we possibly fill up the quarter of an hour, that we get all knotted up in five minutes.
“ ‘Let Him look after me, and I’ll look after Him.’ That’s how I see it now, but mind you, I’ve not always ‘ad the sense to see it. And then there’s far too much asking in our prayers. Of course, He told us to ask, that’s just like Him, and we have every right to do so, but it seems to me that we oughtn’t to overdo it, because ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ comes well before ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer. Our first job in prayer is to stage a sort of reception, such as a town might give to His Majesty, the King, God bless Him, with a guard of honour, streamers, flags and the like fluttering about. Now we can’t be waving no flags in church I know, though the flowers and vestments and our best clothes are for the same purpose, and there are one or two prayers that take the place of ‘God Save the King.’”
Mr. Bumbleby had been turning over the pages of his book while he was speaking and at last he found the required place.
“Ever heard mention of the song of the three young men in the furnace?” he asked fiercely, and then went on without giving pause for reply.
“I can’t rightly pronounce their names, not being educated, and I ain’t ever been in a fiery furnace myself either, but it seems to me that it is ‘ardly the ideal place for a spot of quiet prayer.
Well, there they were those three, all crammed into the blaze because they wouldn’t worship no idols, and instead of calling on God to help or preserve them they started singing about His glory for all they were worth. If they could do it then, we can do it in the cool of the church or even out here on this blooming pavement, and we can use their very words. That is what Holy Church thinks anyway for she gives their song in full for the priest to say after Mass.
“And that is what I was doing when you came along, for it’s an easy prayer to say when you’re stuck for words or don’t feel able to make much effort, for you’ve only to run through the list of hills and seas and mountains, and say O.K. to each one of them and see how good and how powerful God is to have made them all. ‘Mountains and waters bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all for ever; all ye priests bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all for ever; Ernest Bumbleby bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all for ever’.”
Mr. Bumbleby slammed the book and began fishing about for my Sunday paper.
“That’s prayer,” said he, “real prayer, and it don’t matter a hoot what you feel while you’re saying it because you are calling on the mountains and other creatures to praise God, and mountains don’t have no moods like you and me. Just you stick to the song of the young men, whose names I can’t pronounce though I’ve said them every Sunday morning this last decade, and when that song is sung then move on to the next psalm in the prayer book, all about praising God with harps and cymbals and the rest of the band.
“We forget that we all look one way in church, Jesus Christ from the altar looks the other way. What does He see? He sees Mrs. Somebody in the front bench praying for a whole list of odds and ends and maybe He gives her some of them’, and further back He sees Mr. Somebody else and a crowd of others all asking for things, and because He’s so kind He listens. But right at the back or even out here on this blooming pavement He sees an old sinner like me saying ‘Glory be to the Father’ over and over again, and you may be sure that He’ll give me what I need too.
“Now I don’t say He isn’t pleased with all the others, because He’s bound to appreciate their effort, but I know what sort of prayer would give me most pleasure were I in His position, and what I would like best He would like best also, for Jesus Christ is God, but He’s a human being after all.”
Mr. Bumbleby resumed his prayer, and as I walked away I did not read the paper but I opened my missal and called on the mountains and waters to praise and exalt the Lord. It was certainly easy and I dawdled as I read so that I was very late for breakfast and Marjorie had to fall back on her favourite admonition, “We must think of cook, sometimes.”
Ack. 'The Seven Deadly Virtues & Other Stories' by Rev. Bernard
Basset S.J. published by Sands & Co. London. These stories first appeared in Stella Maris and in the Southwark Record, with permission for the author to publish in book form.