Michael Harding: ‘The nuns disappeared very fast in the end, like snow off a rope’

The last nun in town, switching off church lights and the plastic statue I came to own

The tiny plastic statue of Padre Pio I received was a small cream and brown figure, probably made in a factory beyond in Asia. It certainly wasn’t a work of art. Photograph: AP Photo

The tiny plastic statue of Padre Pio I received was a small cream and brown figure, probably made in a factory beyond in Asia. It certainly wasn’t a work of art. Photograph: AP Photo

 

I was in a small town not far from Athlone one night, reading from my book at the local arts centre. Afterwards some of the audience queued in the foyer with books for me to sign.

After a few signings, a shy man wearing a tattered raincoat buttoned up to his neck, stood before me like a stranded cow in a field of rushes.

“Do you want me to sign something?” I wondered.

“No,” he said. “But I have something for you.”

He took a tiny plastic statue of Padre Pio from his pocket. A small cream and brown figure, probably made in a factory beyond in Asia. It certainly wasn’t a work of art. And it was clear from the saint’s garish face that the makers didn’t have much clue about mystical contemplation in the lives of Christian monks. 

Padre Pio can be scary enough at the best of times, especially with holes in his hands, but this particular grinning monk was so garish that he resembled someone intending to chop up the cat in tiny pieces.

I accepted the gift with gratitude, and went back to my hotel where I disposed of it in the waste paper bin.

But I couldn’t sleep.

And I guessed it was because disposing of a saint in the dust bin was not a way to develop good sleep karma. So I took him out, and stood him on the dressing table and apologised. When I turned off the light I could feel him still looking at me, but I slept like a baby and, in the morning, as I opened my eyes I wondered what to do with him.

I enjoy churches. They’re like trains, in the sense that you can sit back and feel you don’t have to drive for a while

It wasn’t right to abandon him in a small hotel near Athlone. And I didn’t want to take him home. So it was a difficult conundrum to solve, as I stood at the bedroom window, until I noticed a church across the street.

“The perfect place to bid him farewell,” I thought.

I enjoy churches. They’re like trains, in the sense that you can sit back and feel you don’t have to drive for a while.

So over I went, with the little man in my pocket, dipped my fingers in the waterfont and splattered my forehead with the droplets.

The morning Mass was just over. A handful of elderly people were arming themselves with umbrellas inside the porch, ready to brace the morning sleet. And a tiny little woman was shuffling about the nave, turning off lights.

As I knelt in a pew and gathered my thoughts into a half-baked state of mindfulness, the old lady spoke in loud whispers to another elderly woman who was sitting a few benches behind me.

“I’m sorry Mary,” the first woman said, “but I must turn off the lights now. I hope you don’t mind. Fr Cardigan said we were to save money on electricity so I’m trying not to leave too many on after Mass.”

To which the second woman replied: “The only light we need in here is yourself. You brighten up the place for everyone.”

They both laughed and then the first lady moved away and clicked another switch on the wall.

Outside, the morning was frosty and a grey winter sleet battered the back door. Eventually the woman behind me genuflected, but instead of leaving, she came up to where I was sitting.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” she said, “but are you who I think you are?”

Which is a dangerous question to answer. Although I risked answering.

“Yes, I probably am.”

After a few words about how she enjoyed me on the television last winter in the middle of a snow storm, I inquired about her.

The nuns disappeared very fast in the end

“I’m the last nun in this town,” she said proudly. “I have a little apartment, off main street. The convent closed years ago.”

“The nuns disappeared very fast in the end,” I agreed.

“Like snow off a rope,” she said. “But sure the same will happen to the bishops in the next few years.”

She paused and then, rather brightly, added; “I’m 82, but I hope God spares me to see that.”

We chatted a while in the porch later, and I bade her farewell at the gates outside, and watched her frail body as she negotiated the slippery pavement and disappeared around the corner of main street.

Padre Pio was still in my pocket, but I resolved to take him home and give him a prominent position among all the Buddhas on my Shelf of Holy Objects. 

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