1 The Abbot’s Shoes

Autumn always finds me restless. I am beset with the feeling that I ought to be getting ready to go somewhere else. Perhaps it is some ancient memory of migration. Maybe an impulse inherited from agricultural ancestors, who knew when to obey nature’s signs and move from summer to winter pastures.

In the autumn of 1972, I was 22 years old and living with everything “up in the air”, anyway. I recall feeling hopefully restless. At the time my “home” was what appeared to have been a shoemaker’s workshop, which was part of a long timber and iron shed, used mainly for storing machinery and onions. It sat buried in an orchard towards the rear of the enclosure of Our Lady of the Southern Star Abbey on Kopua Road in central Hawke’s Bay.

My days were then framed by the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours and clothed with farm labour. I revelled in both. For the most part I worked with the sub-Prior, Father Basil, who looked after the monastery’s sheep farm. One afternoon he told me that he was “away to Wellington” the next morning, and the Abbot had said I was to travel with him. I suppose that this was some kind of “mental health” break; a day off from the “isolation” and “intensity” of a contemplative community that could trace its roots back a thousand years to France. I think I felt rather ambivalent about the expedition. I’d waited for three years to “escape” my world of newspaper deadlines, pub culture and selfish relationships. I was in no hurry to return.

That evening there came a knock on the door of my shed, and there in all his abbatial splendour stood Father Joseph … “the Boss”. Described by others as “a tall, big-boned and impressive man … (with an) aura of calm authority”1, here was someone not to be trifled with. I do not think we had exchanged many words up until that moment. He was in a very real sense of the word a “prince” of the Church, whereas I was a scruffy, half-baked Protestant who wanted to be a monk. Father Joseph held in one hand a pair of extra-large, black shoes; his shoes … solid, well worn, well polished. “Ye’ll be needing these, Brother … for your trip tomorrow.” The Abbot disappeared quite quickly back along the orchard path, with my mumbled, slightly baffled thanks bouncing off his black-scapulared back. I can only assume that a higher power had decided that neither my sandals nor my filthy work boots were suitable footwear for a day-trip to New Zealand’s capital city.

My “big” day out was remarkable for two things … a conversation and discomfort. With time to kill in the Big Smoke, I remembered that a former colleague was working as a journalist for Radio New Zealand. Jack was a good deal older than me, but I had grown to respect and admire him. He was an old-style, hardworking reporter and a quietly devout Catholic. He was surprised when I turned up at his desk, and amazed to hear about my situation. He had last observed me, probably drunk, and doing a whole lot more talking than serious work. Jack listened silently and intently to the description of my new life of prayer that was work, and work that was prayer. When I paused my monologue to draw breath, he quietly said, “I do really envy you. I wish I had done that. Chaos and decay … chaos and decay.” Jack’s lunchtime reverie was not a moralistic, puritanical rant. He was a mellow and tolerant Christian, a seasoned newspaperman not easily startled by vice and corruption. His statement affected me profoundly because he was touching something of the depths of existence; that mankind so carefully and beautifully fashioned for Heaven could degenerate and slide so easily into Hell.

As for the discomfort? Well, the Abbot’s shoes had tacks sticking up through their soles. Walking was painful. To this day Father Joseph’s shoes are a great mystery to me. Was the monastery’s shoemaker guilty of poor workmanship and did “the Boss” out of Christian charity decide not to upbraid a brother? Or had he, as an old-school “son” of the ascetical Bernard of Clairvaux, chosen to walk in His Saviour’s footsteps? “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”2 I don’t know. I do know however that on that day Father Joseph wore his slippers to work to pray, so his littlest Brother could wander the streets of Wellington suitably shod.

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