Prisoner of God - extracts from my translations

Prisoner of God

Arrival at the abbey (page 10):

Suddenly there before me stands the abbey, utterly still, awesome.  A moment of hesitation: I step forward and ring the monastery bell.  Nothing but silence.

            It’s Brother Roger who’s let me in.  Once inside, I put down my suitcase and say simply: “Right, then.”  He’s wearing a broad smile that lights up his pale face beneath a close-shaven scalp.  I wait for the Father Guest Master; his mysterious whisper is my introduction to the world of the abbey.  He leads me to a reception room – bare, cold, where the voice makes weird echoes.  We don’t know what to say: he jokes, I give mechanical replies.

            The Novice Master arrives: a large man in a black habit, he seems to take everything as a matter of course.  He picks up my case, not heavy.  He conducts me to an internal chapel and kneels; I copy him, my mind a blank.  Then up a well-lit staircase, the treads covered in dark green plastic.

            On the first floor, at the end of a vast, broad corridor, is a glazed partition labelled in yellowish letters “Novices”.  We’ve not exchanged a word since the reception room.  Six doors open onto this area (from which there’s no other exit), and into each door at eye level is set a window of rough glass.  He stops at the first door on the right and opens it.  From now on this is my cell.

 I’m twenty-two years old, with two degrees and work experience.  I speak four languages.  I’m what they call a “bright lad”, with a high market value.

 I step gingerly into the cell ahead of the Novice Master.  He puts my case down near the door.

 I have chosen death.

 In my suitcase are just two shirts, so convinced am I that I can’t stay more than a week: they’ll get me out again; it can’t last…

 It lasted twenty-one years.

A papal service (pages 142-145)

Pope Paul VI was a small, frail man with huge forehead and very aquiline nose.  Mostly he held his eyes down.  But when he raised his face towards you and vouchsafed you a look – a true gift it was – you were struck by those slightly bulging eyes that were both full of sadness and profoundly gentle…

When a request came round for some monks to attend the Pope during the Easter vigil at St Peter’s, I was the first to put my name forward.  Strangely enough there was no rush of candidates on the hilltop, as the ceremony was extremely long and wearying.  For the seniors, what is more, the pope was not a sufficient attraction.  They had become Romans: they were living together with him, and the happiest households are those where people are wise enough to create some distance.

 After passing along Bernini’s colonnade one has to pass a security check at the entrance to the Vatican sacristy.  A Swiss papal guardsman in ample, gaudy-coloured uniform salutes my monk’s habit by banging his great halberd on the ground; he then asks to see my invitation in an Italian smelling of Emmental.  Here you are, good fellow.  Ah, it’s down there.  Thank you.

            The great sacristy is buzzing in every corner, like a beehive.  Monsignori are fussing and sweating under the direction of the notorious masters of ceremonies in white pleated and embroidered albs and frowning foreheads.  Here they are not just royalty: they’re supreme rulers under God – or even higher.

            “You are a monk-attendant.  You will stand at the Pope’s left, three metres away, without getting in the way of those who approach him.  Never take your eyes off the masters of ceremonies, and obey their eye signals.”

I take my stand in a corner.  On the six great polished tables are laid out the papal vestments and insignia, embroidered with precious stones, braided with gold, stiff and heavy.

All at once the Pope is there; I didn’t seen him come in.  I’m alerted to his presence by the buzzing of the hive, which rises an octave in pitch.  He spreads out his arms and lets himself be dressed like a dummy.  I cannot see his face, only his back, which soon resembles a shop window in the Rue de la Paix. 

The procession slowly forms itself up: about sixty people were there to carry just one man’s paraphernalia, to encircle him, support him.  For two hours he’ll not flex a muscle or say a word without being accompanied by these acolytes that lead the way and guide his slightest movement.

We enter directly into the back of the basilica, where the Service of Light isto take place.  Lost in the vast nave, the congregation does not look that large: they already seem restive, the silence less than total.

Finally the Pope turns towards me: two steps more and I could touch him.   The liturgy unfolds, in an unending ballet of church dignitaries; they place a mitre on his head, then remove it, offer him a book, kiss his hand, advertise their presence, their existence…  Trying to forget them, I watch the Pope.  I only see his face when he sits up straight: intent, serious, never looking at his entourage.

Then I’m struck by something I know must be true: amid all those bear-tamers Paul VI is absent.  Hands together, an expression that seems to look inwards, eyes lowered, head bowed, the Pope is at prayer – the prayer of a country priest.  That man, who no longer exists for himself, whose least movement is directed by the men of power that encircle him – he’s just a little priest from the Abruzzi at prayer, all alone in his mountain chapel.

At this point I too am trying to forget the choreography surrounding us.  As I watch the Pope, I’m just letting myself be caught up in the prayer he’s praying.  But I feel a sudden, sharp nudge: a master of ceremonies, eyes flashing, is signalling to me to move back.  They’re about to go up to the high altar; the cross-bearer is right in front of me; I’m in his way…