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Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Oh, My Father....



Religion is a State of Mind

By Ralph J. Carreño
1.
A series of happy, work-related coincidences resulted in my being posted, in the mid-1960s, to a long-term assignment in Paris.

My wife Marion arranged for a flat in an apartment block in the 16eme arrondissement, in the Boulevard de Montmorency. Convenient location. Posh neighbourhood.

The flat was billed as having a garden-view, which I suppose was mostly accurate since the housing complex, consisting of inter-connected buildings, featured a central court and a fleure (garden court) during the summer. The front of our apartment was framed in a glass curtain and faced the Bois de Boulogne. With just a little effort, one could see, through the wood, the racecourse Longchamps. Pleasant and most appealing.

The building was the type that housed many expats, as well as les hautes fonctionnaires francaises, or top-level bureaucrats.

The most famous resident of our building, however, was no faceless homme d'affaires.

Orson Wells, with whom we'd share the lift from time time, was, of course, the famous director and actor. His obese bulk was always sheathed in black bloussons, wrapped in a black opera cape. Somehow, he was able to squeeze into a a Volkswagen bug. Driver included.

I also remember another 'personality,' the senior U.S. Marine Corps officer, assigned to NATO, a colonel who, with his family, lived across the hall. (There were two apartments per floor).

Our Marine neighbour was with us, of course, until DeGaulle, dear old Charles DeGaulle, bid 'adieu' to NATO in one of his frequent snits.

I was charmed by DeGaulle, or M Le President de la Republique Francaise; he was, of course, president at the time. Actually, I was charmed by the wonderfully sonorous speeches he delivered to the nation. I enjoyed the clarity of his French in these speeches, an oratorical quality, in French, that I hadn't been previously acquainted. The clarity of his voice, precision of diction, emphasis on pronunciation, resonance, and cadence could not be denied. This, surely, was impeccable French.

And I could understand him! I looked forward to listening. Content wasn't important. As Henry Higgins put it in My Fair Lady, 'The French don't care what they say, as long as they say it properly.' To my mind, M Le President was a
exemplar of elocution.

2.
My father had recently died, and we invited my mother, who was living in New Jersey, to spend as long as she wished with us in France. Well, at least the summer. It would be a family reunion of a kind. My son Richard had just graduated from prep school in Massachusetts was about to attend a semester of courses in Paris. My daughter Roberta was studying at the American School, just outside of Paris.

The school had recently purchased a replica of the Petit Trianon, which had been originally commissioned by the Coty of perfume and cosmetic fame. The building, and its grounds, had the charm of original. Still, I had some doubts as to the building's suitability. Despite this, the overall school environment was a wonderful surrounding to accompany Roberta's academic sojourn. I'm sure Roberta agreed.

One of the American School's requirements was that uniforms be worn. The children's daily exit from the school reminded me of a scene from one of Ludwig Bemelman's charming stories of Madeleine -- the girls all suited up in matching blazers and what have you. I suppose we could have bought Roberta's uniforms in town, but we had convinced ourselves that outfitting her Paris was barbarously expensive and disproportionate in price to buying the garb elsewhere, say London, where school clothes were known to be cheaper. Of course, a bit of logic had to be compromised in coming to this decision, as we, of course, had not accounted for miscellaneous extra expenses, hotel, dining, travel, and the like.

3.
Vacances in France, as is well known, mean an annual shutdown in August, when everyone abandons the great centres to travel to their holiday venues. We decided to spend the month on holiday -- a shopping holiday, for the most part -- in London. Our hotel was an old favourite, the Grosvenor, a Victorian pile attached to Victoria Station, not far from Buckingham Palace.

At the time, the Grosvenor had reached the heights of its elegant decadence. The bathroom in our suite was enormous, equipped with wonderful antique fittings. The lift was still a rope-and-pulley job. Post-war London was still struggling to squeeze into the 20th century.

This was the London that Richard was introduced to when he met us in London, arriving there on his first visit to Europe.

4.
My mother, a devout Roman Catholic, was steadfast in her religious duties, and had, in Paris, found a parish in rue de l'Assomption. The parish was suffering hard times; its congregants were of an older generation. The parish's cure was about my mother's age, in his late 70s, or early 80s.

My mother's French was of the same fluency as the cure's Spanish -- not good. Despite the language barrier -- my mother's native tongue was Spanish, followed by English after her immigration to the States in the 1920s -- my mother and the cure got on extremely well and communicated, somehow, splendidly.

To this day, I can't imagine what peccadilloes my mother could have committed that would have required confession. Still, she went regularly, and was assured by her friend, the old cure, 'Go in peace. I'm sure that God will forgive you.' As a man of the cloth, he represented all the standards imagined before the Second Vatican Council, which brought about many of the flamboyant and, some would say, catastrophic changes in the faith.

The old boy was happy to learn that my mother was traveling to London, and counseled her that she would find the English somewhat different in following Roman Catholic rituals.

5.
In London, we were quick to set out on our shopping excursion. Debenham's, Horrids, Marks & Sparks, and the like. My mother was a patient party in all this, and, quite frankly, we did more sight-seeing, lunching, and dining than shopping.

Sunday of one particular week arrived, and my mother announced that she would be going to Mass that morning. She had foreseen some of the inherent language problems -- maybe she wasn't quite certain about British English -- and she had made her confession prior to leaving France. I tried to help my mother to find a neighbourhood church in Victoria -- after all, Westminster Cathedral, the Roman seat of the London cardinal, was not far, off Victoria Street.

'Not to worry,' my mother responded. She had already spotted a splendid church during one of her afternoon walks. My mother left for church, and the rest of us -- turning to our own version of devotion -- descended to the Grosvenor's dining room for a grand English breakfast and service by waiters who still dressed in black frock coats, long white aprons, and who gave the impression they would have been better suited at working at the Connaught or the Savoy. We ate leisurely, sauntered back to our rooms, and, soon after, my mother returned.

She was excited by her religious 'experience' that morning. Her French cure was perfectly correct. The English were different, explaining that the English Mass differed from the strict liturgy she had gotten to know in France. The prayers were different, she noted. There was more singing, and, most amazing, the receiving of communion was at variance from the French method.

Instead of kneeling at the rail and having the host placed on the tongue, these Brits handed a wafer to each communicant. She watched the procedure, and followed suit -- placing the wafer in her own mouth.

I sensed something was amiss. I kept my mouth shut -- about that.

What was the church like? I asked. Would she notice that I had changed the subject? Large, monumental, magnificent, she responded. It was almost like a 'cathedral,' she added.

Maybe like Westminster Cathedral, the seat of English Anglicism? I mused to myself. We let it go.

6.
After returning to Paris, my mother told us that she was eager to tell Father about her communion in London. The cure was pleased to see my mother, and in their version of 'Spanglais,' my mother detailed her London holiday. Slowly, surely, the old cure turned serious and silent as my mother rambled on.

Finally, no longer able to contain himself, he blurted out, ' But, Madame, you went to Mass in the Church of England cathedral! This is a transgression of the first order. I don't know what we shall do.'

He continued in his vein, admonishing my mother for showing signs of 'physical weakness.' My mother finally halted him. Enough was enough. With total equanimity, she said, 'My dear Father, don't be worried. I am sure that God will forgive me.'

With this, my mother modified the Sacrament of Communion!

My mother thus demonstrated how 'religion is a state of mind.' Her ecumenical flexibility reflected her vitality, grace, a loveliness, qualities that had always marked her character.

My mother, later in the fall, returned to the United States. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Mexico to be near my brother Charles. She lived on for many years, giving us all hope, love, and a wonderful sense of direction. At 94, after taking up residence in a convent, so as, she said, to be closer to God, she passed away.

(This article differs slightly from its orginial version, written in 1995. It is being published here for the first time. Ralph J. Carreno, to whom Junto is dedicated, died in 2000).


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