THERE’S A very pretty church at St Florian, newly decorated, fresh, warm and welcoming, and you can’t ask much more of a church than that. Under a curious French arrangement the building belongs to the state, and the priest is merely the tenant – with all a tenant’s rights, of course, including the right to a makeover every now and again.
At the last makeover there was a general clearout of the clutter that gathers in anybody’s house if you take your eye off it for a moment, and several items of redundant and wormy church furniture found their way to the dump, or, as happened when we had our roof renewed recently, incorporated into someone’s hen-house.
But the devout of St Florian held on to the confessional. Maybe you’ve never seen a confessional? They come in various designs, but the St Florian one is like a sentry box or photo booth, with a door and a seat and ear-level grilles for the priest, and kneeling pads with elbow-rests either side for those needing a general clearout of the clutter that gathers in anybody’s conscience if you take your eye off it, etc., etc.
Anyway, they kept the confessional, not for use, because formal confession seems to have died out as a common practice among the faithful, but for ornament, because it really is a handsome piece of furniture. There it stands, at the back of the church, a reminder to priest and people of the Good Old Days when a night on the binge might cost a few Aves but mon dieu it was cheap at the price. ‘O God, make me good,’ as St Augustine prayed, ‘make me good – but not just yet.’
My choir gave a concert in St Florian church the other day. Between choir items I make them sit at the back, to allow the audience the best seats. Some of the ladies aren’t too keen on this, because it means leaving their handbags unattended when they troop up to sing. Ever resourceful, they’ve taken to bringing their bags with them and depositing them in the bénitier, a sort of font up there by the altar, while they sing.
This pragmatic attitude doesn’t stop there. ‘Where’s Michèle?’ the urgent whisper went round the other day as the sopranos assembled, ready to process down the aisle after the interval.
‘Her tights are a size too small, they’ve ridden down,’ the answer came. ‘She’s just adjusting them. In the confessional.’
Well, any port in a storm.
THERE’S TALK in the St Florian mairie of installing some public toilets behind the church, not specifically for Michèle to adjust her tights in but for the general convenience of the church-going public.
This is political dynamite in a place like St Florian. Anyone who’s read Gabriel Chevalier’s Clochemerle, that wonderful – but sharp-edged – romp through French village life, will recognise the dangers of linking physical and spiritual functions too closely. So we can expect fireworks as the secular mairie digs the drains by day and the faithful fill them back in again by night.
WHO CONFESSES the priests themselves? In Clochemerle the Abbé Ponosse had a splendid system worked out. Every time his housekeeper Honorine accommodated his not entirely spiritual desires he would mount his bicycle, ride to the next village and slake his conscience in his colleague the Abbé Jouffe’s confessional, a practice which, in reverse, suited his colleague equally well.
But with the flush of youth past and the need, precipitated once by a heavy snowfall, for some measure of economy in physical energy, in any question of getting legs over the bicycle saddle lost out, and they found confession by reply-paid telegram much less exhausting than a 25-mile round trip.
So Ponosse might receive: SAME AS USUAL. ABSOLUTION BY RETURN, PLEASE. JOUFFE
- and Ponosse’s reply might be: ‘CONSIDER YOURSELF ABSOLVED: 5 AVES. SAME AS USUAL MY END, PLUS THREE. DEEP REPENTANCE, ABSOLUTION V. URGENT. PONOSSE’
Nowadays, of course, all this would be done by e-mail. Now there’s a thought . .
WELL, I’VE started, so I suppose I’d better finish: a correspondent tells me – but you’d better have it in his own words:
In order to meet the conditions for joining the Single European Currency, all citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must be made aware that the phrase "spending a penny" is not to be used after 31st December 2001.
From this date, the correct terminology will be: "Euronating"
Thank you, John, but why do people send me this sort of thing?
ANOTHER CORRESPONDENT, Jean-Claude, has sent me an old bill for church repairs, possibly not for St Florian, but there’s a certain charm to it . . .
To furnishing a new arm for St Stephen, painting his nose white and covering up the hole in his head . . . . . 10 francs
To washing St Louis front and back . . . . 3 francs
To fitting a new tail to the Holy Spirit . . . . . 4 francs
To removing the eyes of the 12 apostles and replacing them with new ones . . . . 6 francs
To washing down the Virgin and providing her with a new baby and a new arm . . . . . 24 francs.
I DON’T expect it was while the church at St Florian was being decorated that a desperate spinster sidled into the apparently empty church one day, sat at the back and began to pray as hard as she knew for a husband. Her prayers became more and more agitated as the prospect of a husband excited her, until she cried out loud ‘O God, in your great mercy, send me a husband!’
Up in the gallery among his pots and brushes the painter, lonely and celibate, heard this agonised plea and shouted down in a deep, booming voice: ‘Et un artisan peintre, ça vous arrange, Madame? How would a painter and decorator suit you, Madame?’
‘Anyone will do as long as it’s a man, Lord,’ the spinster breathed with relief, and scuttled off home to await events. The painter cleaned his brushes, went home and changed out of his bleus de travail, and that evening tapped on the spinster’s door . . .
SMALL, UNIMPRESSIVE prize to be won!
You’ve probably heard this story before. In fact Laurie Lee, a squirrel for such tales, takes it back across the Channel and re-heats it in his classic Cider With Rosie. But given that many saints have a sort of trade-mark for recognition (keys for St Peter, a cockleshell for St James, a wheel for St Catherine), what trade-mark item would the artisan peintre have had to invoice for if he’d refurbished St Laurence?
First correct e-mail answer past the post wins a bunch of rosemary from our own garden.
Par exemple! as the French say. Wow!
Tagged in: Campbell's Diary, french lifestyle