I was reading about Chaucer’s Monk, and I thought: I know this person. He lived just down the road.
Chaucer’s Monk is not your usual religious man. He is rebellious, fully alive and in complete control of his existence. Our resident Monk in Puhoi was called Brother Francis. I was never sure why he’d chosen to be a man of the cloth. His irreverent jokes and bawdy laugh always seemed to give him away.
He was nearing 70 when we first met and my brother and I were 12 and 10. He looked like he’d stepped out of a Renaissance painting, always dressed in classic brown robes and roman sandals he was proud of. A humble rope propped up his round belly, bulging with egg sandwiches, sugary tea and anointed with sips of whiskey. Every week as the final hymn ended, he would slip out the back to have a cigarette before shaking the congregation's hands.
Francis lived behind our small cloistered church, the first stop in the village, which meant one thing: reliable internet connection. We’d watched them lay all the cables, straight past his house. We hung around a lot playing shooting games on the parish computer. While one staccato’d the space bar, the other would do stocktakes of the half-full Benson & Hedges packets scattered throughout the house.
Chaucer’s Monk hunts animals, and rides horses instead of praying. He does not follow the ways of the church ; he ignores the rules, because they go against his very nature. In symbol a religious man, but in the world just a man. Francis had no pretenses either. He was just someone who liked a four-part harmony and a good morning tea.
I wonder, does anything really change, except in the language we tell it in?
As soon as my brother and I graduated to two-wheeler bikes, we were volunteered to run the church proceedings by our mother. Sometimes we ran the whole machinery of it in what felt like a brother-sister show. There were others who helped. Sometimes one of the older members of the congregation felt compelled to take up the collection with their walker. This took a while, and it was often just easier just to do it all ourselves. When the time came to pray I would look downward and press my palms firmly together, which was the only way I knew how to pray: in imitation. Sometimes after a particularly athletic performance, the congregation would clap – something about our youth and similar face, while we would aim scowls at our mother.
The church music was another story. Francis was constantly frustrated with the organ which was so old it should have been in a museum or a bonfire somewhere. He was also frustrated with the voices the organ was too frail to drown out. There were some trained singers in the village, whose voices had been reigned in from their extremities. However, even more impressive were those who were able to quiver on the wrong note, right on queue, every Sunday morning. One day, Francis ceremoniously went out and bought a new organ. It was a huge thing I had to climb up onto. More like a heart than a kidney – it was the beating, pumping star-of-the-show. During mass he would station himself behind the volume dial standing with hands on hips, belly out, as he turned the dial up to full. If Francis himself were playing, it would be nothing short of a religious adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. Do you know what ‘Amazing Grace’ is like at the highest volume? You feel terrified, and very small, and also, perhaps, like you might accidentally believe in something.
Another notable acquisition of Brother Francis’s was a bespoke spa bath made for the Pope on his 1986 trip to New Zealand. It had gold taps and was so big it filled the whole bathroom in the presbytery, except for a small square from which one could admire it. Francis had never used it, because it was a trophy, and because the pipes had never been connected. Anyone on a tour of his house would inevitably wind their way to the spa bath to hear its regal story and the declaration of its superiority above other mortal spa baths.
I left my little community as many did, feeling uniquely tormented, just like everyone else. I looked for interesting people, elsewhere. It took a long time to find them hiding in plain sight. I left so I could come back properly and see it all from a step away, to realise that people like Francis had taught me about community: that it is an organism. I saw it when he got sick and for months no one left his side. His friends and neighbours, religious or not, would stay over and clean up after his failing body, talk to him, and walk obligingly down the road to buy him cigarettes until the day he died.
Nothing changes except the language we tell it in. It’s always comforting for me to think that Chaucer’s monk only lived just down the road:
His name was Francis and he smoked B&H. He had a monumental liquor cabinet.
He wore the same brown robes everyday but was hardly invisible. Doves would come and eat pellets from his hands every morning.