Although he is not well-known outside his native Australia, Gerald Murnane has proven, over four decades and some dozen books, to be one of that country’s most original and distinctive writers. According to Murnane, his recently completed work of fiction, Border Districts, will be his last. These are its opening pages.
Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.
I got some of my schooling from a certain order of religious brothers, a band of men who dressed each in a black soutane with a bib of white celluloid at his throat. I learned by chance last year, and fifty years since I last saw anyone wearing such a thing, that the white bib was called a rabat and was a symbol of chastity. Among the few books that I brought here from the capital city is a large dictionary, but the word rabat is not listed in it. The word may well be French, given that the order of brothers was founded in France. In this remote district, I am even less inclined than I was in the suburbs of the capital city to seek out some or another obscure fact; here, near the border, I am even more inclined than of old to accept as well-founded any supposition likely to complete a pattern in my mind and then to go on writing until I learn the meaning for me of such an image as that of the white patch which appeared just now against a black ground at the edge of my mind and will not be easily dislodged.
The school where the brothers taught was built in the grounds of what had been a two-story mansion of yellow sandstone in a street lined with plane trees in an inner eastern suburb of the capital city. The mansion itself had been converted into the brothers’ residence. On the ground floor of the former mansion, one of the rooms overlooking the return veranda was the chapel, which was used by the brothers for their daily Mass and prayers but was available also to us, their students.
In the language of that place and time, a student who called at the chapel for a few minutes was said to be paying a visit. The object of his visitation was said to be Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament or, more commonly, the Blessed Sacrament. We boys were urged by teachers and priests to pay frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament. It was implied that the personage denoted by that phrase would feel aggrieved or lonely if visitors were lacking. My class once heard from a religious brother one of a sort of story that was often told in order to promote our religious zeal. A non-Catholic of goodwill had asked a priest to explain the teachings of the Church in the matter of the Blessed Sacrament. The priest then explained how every disk of consecrated bread in every tabernacle in every Catholic church or chapel, even though it appeared to be mere bread, was in substance the body of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. The inquirer of goodwill then declared that if only he were able to believe this, he would spend every free moment in some or another Catholic church or chapel, in the presence of the divine manifestation.
In our school magazine every year, in his annual report to parents, our principal wrote at length about what he called the religious formation of us boys. In every classroom, the first period of every day was given over to Christian Doctrine, or religion, as we more often called it. Students recited aloud together a short prayer before every period of the daily timetable. I believed that most of my classmates took their religion seriously, but I seldom heard any boy make any mention, outside the classroom, of anything to do with that religion. The chapel was out of sight of the playground, and so I was never aware of how many of my classmates paid visits there. However, I went through several periods of religious fervor during my school days, and during each such period I paid several visits daily to the Blessed Sacrament. Sometimes I saw one or another of my classmates in the chapel, kneeling as I knelt with head bowed or eyes fixed on the locked tabernacle, within which, and out of our sight, was the gold-plated ciborium filled with the white wafers that we thought of as the Blessed Sacrament. I was never satisfied with my attempts to pray or to contemplate, and I often wondered what exactly was taking place in the mind of my devout-seeming classmate. I would have liked to ask him what he seemed to see while he prayed; how he envisaged the divine or canonized personages that he addressed in his mind, and much else. Sometimes, by chance, a classmate and I would leave the chapel at the same time and would walk together along the return veranda and then through the brothers’ garden towards the playground, but for me to have questioned the boy then about his devotions would have been hardly less disturbing than if I had made him an indecent proposition.
In the quiet street where I now live is a tiny church that I pass every weekday morning on my walk to the shops and the post office. The church belongs to one of the Protestant denominations that I pitied as a schoolboy on account of the drabness of their services, which consisted, I supposed, of mere hymns and sermons and none of the splendid rituals enacted in my own church. Whenever I pass, the grass around my neighborhood church is always neatly mown but the church itself is closed and deserted. I must have passed countless Protestant churches in suburbs or in country towns and scarcely glanced at them, and yet I can never pass the nearby church without my thoughts being led in surprising directions.
I have always believed myself to be indifferent to architecture. I hardly know what a gable is or a nave or a vault or a vestry. I would describe my neighborhood church as a symmetrical building comprising three parts: a porch, a main part, and, at the furthest end from the street, a third part surely reserved for the minister before and after services. The walls are of stone painted—or is the correct term rendered?—a uniform creamy white. I am so unobservant of such details that I cannot recall, here at my desk, whether the pitched roofs of the porch and the main part are of slate or of steel. The rear part has an almost flat steel roof. The windows aren’t of much interest to me, except for the two rectangular windows of clear glass, each with a drawn blind behind it, in the rear wall of the minister’s room. The main part of the church has six small windows, three on each side. The glass in each of these windows is translucent. If I could inspect it from close at hand, the glass might well seem no different from the sort that I learned to call as a child frosted and saw often in bathroom windows. The glass in the six windows is by no means colorless, but I have not yet identified the shade or tint that distinguishes it. On some mornings when I pass, the glass in question seems an unexceptional gray green or, perhaps, gray blue. Once, however, when I happened to pass the church in the late afternoon, and when I looked over my shoulder at a window on the shaded, southeastern side of the building, I saw the glass there colored not directly by the setting sun but by a light that I was prevented from seeing: the glow within the locked church where the rays from the west had already been modified by the three windows on the side further from me. Even if I could have devised a name for the wavering richness that I saw then in that simple pane, I would have had to set about devising soon afterwards a different name for the subtly different tint in each of its two neighboring panes, where the already muted light from one and the same sunset had been separately refracted. The porch has one window, which looks towards the street. This is the window that mostly takes my notice as I pass and may well have been the cause of my setting out to write these pages. The glass in this window is what I have always called stained glass and almost certainly comprises a representation of something—a pattern of leaves and stems and petals perhaps. I prefer not to draw attention to myself when I walk in the township, and I have not yet been bold enough to stop and stare at the porch window. I am unsure not only of what is depicted there but even of the colors of the different zones of glass, although I suppose they are red and green and yellow and blue or most of those. The outer door of the church is always closed when I pass, and the door from the porch to the church is surely also closed. Since the tinted window faces northeast, the near side of the glass is always in bright daylight while the far side is opposed only to the subdued light of the enclosed porch. Anyone looking from my well-lit vantage point can only guess at the colors of the glass and the details of what they depict.
Perhaps thirty years ago, I read a review of a scholarly book in which part of the text comprised extracts from diaries kept by several men who traveled throughout England during the years of the Commonwealth smashing stained-glass windows. The men stood on ladders and used staves or axes to smash the glass. They reported in their diaries the names of each church that they visited and the numbers of windows that they smashed. They declared often in the diaries that they were doing the work of the Lord or promoting His glory. I have never traveled more than a day’s journey by road or rail from my birthplace. Foreign countries exist for me as mental images, some of them vivid and detailed and many of them having originated while I was reading works of fiction. My image of England is of a mostly green topographical map, richly detailed but comparatively small for an image-country. While I was reading the review of the book mentioned, I wondered how any stained-glass windows could have been left in the country after the men mentioned had done their widespread work. I wondered, too, what had become of all the smashed glass. I supposed the men had attacked the windows from the outside—had rammed their staves and axes against the dull-seeming glass without knowing what it represented or even what were its colors as seen from the other side. For how long were the colored chunks and shards left to lie in the aisles and on the pews? Were the smashed pieces gathered up by the dismayed congregation and hidden against a time when they could be melted or otherwise turned again into images of revered personages in otherworldly settings? Did children carry off handfuls of many-colored chips and afterwards squint through them at trees or sky or try to arrange them as they had formerly been or to guess whether this or that fragment had once represented part of a trailing robe, a radiant halo, an enraptured countenance?
According to the history taught to me as a child, the images in the smashed windows were expressions of the old faith of England. The glass designs had outlasted by a century the prayers and ceremonies and vestments that had been done away with during the Protestant Revolt, as we were taught to call it. If I had read during my school days about the smashing of the glass, I might well have regretted the destruction of so many admirable images but I would have considered that the glassless windows were no less than the traitorous Protestants deserved. The empty window spaces would have suggested to me the sightless eyes of a people blind to the truth. They had abolished colored chasubles, gold monstrances, the Blessed Sacrament itself. Now let them sing and sermonize in black soutanes and white surplices and in the plain light of day, unstained by any glass of olden times. I would hardly have thought thus as I read during my adulthood about the smashers of windows, but my first sight of the window in the porch of my neighborhood church caused me to feel a slight resentment that a Protestant sect founded not even three centuries ago should ornament their simple place of worship in the style of the church that had lasted for nearly two millennia before the beginnings of their upstart faction. Even the surroundings of the small stone building made me somewhat resentful. No footpath leads past the church. Between the roadside curb and the boundary of the churchyard, the ground is uneven beneath the mown grass. Not wanting to stop and stare as I pass, I have to learn what I can while fearing to turn an ankle.
What I learned a month ago from my first sight of the church I reported in an earlier paragraph. Until this morning, I had learned no more. I did not even know whether services were still held in the church. (The Anglican and the Lutheran churches, small weatherboard buildings, have each a notice outside showing the date and time of the next service. The weatherboard Catholic church was demolished a few months before I arrived here; the building had been infested with termites and was deemed unsafe.) This morning, I got ready for my first trip across the border. I was going to set out for a race meeting in a town named for its closeness to the border. While the engine in my car was running, I went to open the front gate. A row of cars was parked in front of the church. Apparently, a service was being held. I can hardly explain even now why I did so, but I switched off the engine in my car and set out walking slowly towards the church as though I was taking a morning stroll. I counted the churchgoers’ cars easily enough. There were seven. They were all large, late-model cars such as are owned by the farmers in the districts around this township. I surmised that each car had brought a middle-aged couple to church. Perhaps a few persons had walked to the church from houses in the township, but the congregation could hardly have numbered twenty. I heard no sound when I first strolled past the church, but on my way back I heard singing and the sound of a musical instrument. I had always supposed that the denomination whose church it was sang joyously, wholeheartedly. Admittedly, I was ten paces from the back porch, but the rear door of the church and the outer door of the porch had been left open on account of the heat, and yet the singing still sounded faintly and almost timidly. The voices of the congregation hardly rose above the sound of the imitation organ, or whatever they called the instrument accompanying them. I wrote the voices of the congregation just then, but they sounded to me to be all female voices. If the men were singing, they could not be heard outside the walls of the building.
I moved to this district near the border so that I could spend most of my time alone and so that I could live according to several rules that I had long wanted to live by. I mentioned earlier that I guard my eyes. I do this so that I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision; so that I might notice at once any sight so much in need of my inspection that one or more of its details seems to quiver or to be agitated until I have the illusion that I am being signaled to or winked at. Another rule requires me to record whatever sequences of images occur to me after I have turned my attention to the signaling or winking detail. I was preparing this morning to travel across the border but I put off my departure and went inside to my desk and made notes for what is reported at length in the paragraphs hereabout.
During one of the last years of the 1940s, I was taken by my parents on many a Sunday to a small timber church in the southwestern district of this state. At each side of the church were two long timber poles. One end of each pole was fixed in the ground; the other end rested firmly against the upper wall of the church. I assumed that the poles kept the church from leaning or even toppling. The building thus kept upright comprised a tiny porch; a main part with a railed-off sanctuary and perhaps twelve pews divided by a central aisle; and a small room for the use of a priest. The congregation of the church comprised mostly farmers and their families. A custom was followed in that church such as I never observed in any other. In the timber church with the four poles, the pews on the left, or the gospel side, were occupied only by male persons while the pews on the right, or the epistle side, were occupied only by females. I never saw anyone violate this strict segregation. Once, two newcomers, a young husband and wife, went in early and sat together on the men’s side. The church was not even half full before the wife understood her mistake. She hurried across the aisle, blushing, and joined the other women and the girls.
Many years later, while I was reading a magazine article about the Christian sect known as the Shakers, an image formed in my mind of a group of adult worshippers in a small timber building hardly different from the church mentioned in the previous paragraph. It was mostly an incongruous image, lit by the sunlight of a summer morning in southern Australia. The male worshippers wore dark suits and wide neckties, and their faces and necks and hands and wrists were red brown. The females wore floral patterned dresses and large hats of lacquered straw. The males and the females stood facing each other, not in pews but in choir stalls. Their standing in stalls prevented them from performing the sedate dance that I had read about in the article on the Shakers. This seemed to consist of two lines of dancers advancing towards one another and then retreating a little; advancing further still but then again retreating. One line, of course, was of men and the other of women. While they danced, they chanted or, perhaps, sang. In the magazine article were two lines of one of their best-known songs—or was it their only song?
Shake, shake, shake along, Dan’l!
Shake out of me all things carnal!
The Shakers would have sung this with sincerity; they aspired to celibacy. The men and the women of each community were required to live apart.
Many of the men and women in my fanciful image were husbands and wives, but these too sang softly the two lines of the old Shaker song. Rather, the women sang while the men merely mouthed the words. It was well-known that male Catholic churchgoers could hardly ever be induced to sing. Nor did the men in my image seem to move their bodies, although the women swayed in time to their chanting and some even made as though to lean or to step towards the chest-high wooden wall that barred their way.
The same small church was also the setting, many years ago, for the mental events that originated while I was reading one of a collection of short stories from a book that I long ago disposed of. I have forgotten the title of the book and I remember nothing of what was in my mind while I read the book except for a few mental scenes, so to call them. I bought and read the book because the author had been at one time a colleague of mine in an obscure department on an out-of-the-way campus of a lesser university. He was one of a not insignificant body of men to be met with in the last decades of the twentieth century: men who were pleased to have it known that they had formerly been Catholic priests or religious brothers. Some were teachers or librarians or public servants; a few worked as journalists or as radio or television producers; and a few were even published authors. Most of the books by these last mentioned had a preachy tone; their authors were still driven to rectify, or at least to deplore, seeming wrongs in society, which last was one of their most frequently used words.
In the unimaginable circumstance that I were writing a work of fiction with a representation of my onetime colleague as one of its characters, I would feel obliged to report to my putative readers his motives for having abandoned a calling that he had formally vowed to follow for life. Whatever crises of conscience I might attribute to the character and however detailed and wordy might be my accounts of his purported thinking and feeling, I would report at some point in my narrative that the man did what he did for the reason that he had found he was able to do it.
I have long subscribed to a simple explanation for the defection of so many priests and religious from what might be called my own generation. I can allow that the first daring few might have been pioneers of a sort, devisers of original moral issues, but those who came after them were mere followers of fashion. Once having learned from the example of their more daring fellows that so-called solemn vows could be set aside or broken at no great cost, they who had once sworn to be chaste and obedient set about indulging their restlessness or curiosity.
I seem to remember that several of my former colleague’s short stories had a priest as chief character. The only story that has stayed in my mind seemed to have no other meaning than to point up the unseemly awe that many lay persons felt towards priests in the 1960s, when the story was set. The priest in the story may have been the first-person narrator—I forget. He was certainly the chief character and almost the only character apart from a middle-aged woman of a kind once common in Catholic parishes. Holy-water hens they were sometimes called. As I recall it, the priest was visiting the small country church for the first time to celebrate Sunday Mass. When he arrived, his bladder happened to be uncomfortably full. Every country church has a men’s and a women’s toilet in separate rear corners of the churchyard. Why did the priest in the story not visit the men’s toilet as soon as he had arrived? I do not know, but if he had done so, my former colleague would have had no story to write. What happened, so to speak, was that the priest was met at the church door by the holy-water hen, who then accompanied him into the sacristy so that she could show him where things were stored. Instead of then leaving discreetly, the woman began prattling to the priest about parish matters or, perhaps, her own concerns. Again, questions arise: Why did the priest not ask the woman politely to leave? Why did he not simply excuse himself and visit the toilet? The story probably depended on the young priest’s being too nervous to dismiss the older woman or to cause her to recall that although he was one of God’s anointed, he had still a body that functioned as did other men’s bodies. The woman went on talking; the priest went on listening politely while his bladder ached. At last, he was able by some or another means to get rid of the woman. Perhaps she left of her own accord. Even then, however, the priest’s misery was not over. He flung open one after another cupboard in search of something that he could urinate into. The last sentence of the story reported his immense relief as he filled with his urine a bottle containing a small quantity of so-called altar wine for use in the ceremony of the Mass.
Recalling the silly story today for the first time in nearly thirty years I see not some fictional priest but my colleague of long ago dressed as I had never seen him in a black suit with a white celluloid collar at his throat and holding above his head a bottle labeled sevenhill sacramental wine. He holds the bottle between himself and a single east-facing window while he stares in through the brightly lit red-brown glass. Through the wall he hears the shuffling and the throat clearing of the farmers and their wives and children as they file into the church and settle themselves—men and boys on the gospel side; women and girls on the epistle side. Through another wall, he hears the heaving in the wind of the gum trees that border the grassy churchyard or the clinking calls of rosellas.
Why have I recalled today a piece of writing that I surely dismissed when I first read it: an embellished retelling of something that perhaps befell the author during his years as a priest? Why have I included in this report the tedious matter of the preceding paragraphs? One answer may be that I have learned to trust the promptings of my mind, which urges me sometimes to study in all seriousness matters that another person might dismiss as unworthy, trivial, childish. The discomfort of the fictional priest and the predictable motives of the pestering woman have long since settled among my own concerns, one of which might be called the life and death of mental entities. The author of the short story would have stood alone in many a sacristy in many a tiny church with parrots in the trees around and would have bowed his head and prayed that the ceremony he was about to perform and the sermon he was about to preach would bring nearer to God the persons coughing and shuffling just then on the far side of the sanctuary rails. Robed in his white or scarlet or green or violet chasuble, the young man would have sensed the presence of a personage that he took to be the creator of the universe and at the same time the friend and confidant of anyone who approached him from among the countless millions of the living but especially those who had been ordained as priests of the church founded by His only Son. It should be clear from some of the earliest paragraphs of this report that I would very much like to know what the young priest saw in his mind at such a time. I intend to mention later an autobiography published after the death of the short-story writer and former priest. Much of the writing in the posthumous book is frank and candid, but nowhere in it does the author try to describe what interests me most about his sort of person; nowhere does he report his religious experiences.
I strayed a little in the previous two sentences. I intended to remark on the great difference between the concerns of the young priest and those of the author of the short story, the one constantly aware of the presence of God and the other only wanting to make clumsy humor at the expense of his younger self. I intended to ask what had become of the imagined presence or personage who had ruled the life of the young man. I am not judging the writer but rather marveling that a powerful image-in-the-mind could thus seem to have lapsed into irrelevance.
Even while my sometime colleague, the former priest, was writing his fiction, the persons who had once respected him or been in awe of him would have been reading in newspapers the first of many accounts that they would read of priests found guilty at law of deeds incomparably graver than urinating into altar-wine bottles in sacristies. How many of those who read such reports decided at once, or after much reflection, that they no longer considered sacred some of the persons, places, and things that they had previously deemed so. I heard once from one such person, a woman who had gone to church every Sunday until she underwent the experiences reported below.
The woman worked as the receptionist and secretary of a psychiatrist. One day, her employer had asked her to type into his computer the contents of several long statements by a young woman who was making some or another claim for reparation from her local diocese. The woman my informant was middle-aged, married, and a mother, but her employer told her that she need not finish typing the statements if she found the contents distressing. The woman told me that she found the contents most distressing, although she typed all of them. She told me about the statements only that they were reports of acts of sexual abuse perpetrated against the author of the statements by a priest during several years of her childhood. The woman told me this in a crowded lounge-bar of a hotel late during an evening when she and her husband and my wife and I and several other couples were drinking after a day at a race meeting. I cannot be sure that I did not hear from the woman that the girl’s sister had also been sexually abused or that more than one priest was involved. Although the woman thought often about the contents of the statements during the months after she had typed them, her routine continued as before and she attended church every Sunday. She attended church also for the funeral of an elderly woman, a friend of her family. The funeral service was a so-called concelebrated Mass, with three priests together at the altar. Such a ceremony is an honor reserved for priests themselves, close relatives of priests, or lay persons who have given long service to one or another parish or religious order, as my informant’s elderly friend had done. Several times during such a ceremony, the priests bow in unison towards the altar or towards each other. At one point in the ceremony, they take turns to swing towards the altar and then towards each other a brass thurible out of which rises the smoke from burning incense. The woman told me quietly in the noisy lounge-bar that she felt increasingly distressed as the concelebrated service went forward and that a moment had arrived when she was driven to get up from her seat and to leave the church. At that moment, the chief celebrant had bowed low over the altar. His cocelebrants, standing on either side of him and with hands pressed together beneath their chins, had each made his own slight bow and had then looked on gravely while the celebrant kissed the white altar cloth. The concelebrated Mass had taken place several months ago, the woman told me. She had not stepped inside a church since then and she intended never again to do so.
How many times since I first heard the woman’s story have I tried to appreciate the notable mental events that must have followed her walking away from the ceremonious gesturing of the priests? If only I had had the wit to ask the woman on that evening in the lounge-bar what she supposed had become of the imagery connected with her lifelong beliefs, would I then have glimpsed for myself a version of her seeming to see the color draining from the tall glass windows in the church where she had prayed since childhood? The layers of vestments being stripped from the men who had vowed to be chaste? The withdrawal of the favorite image of her loving savior into the mental regions where flitted or wavered the figures of myth or legend?