Catholic Distance University

The Letter of Magdalen Montague, Part IV: The Disciple

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

11 July 1914
St. Mary’s College, S–

Dear R.,

I recently encountered a face from our joint past–a young earl and eager profligate, though not so young as formerly and certainly more inclined to high-minded pomposity. He obligingly provided me with your address. Although I remember well your abhorrence of all things resembling sentimentality, I own that I have thought of you often in the passing years. I shall venture into even more objectionable territory when I assert furthermore that I remember you daily in my prayers. I hope you are well and have remained safe in these anxious times.

Yours, etc.

* * *

30 August 1914
St. Mary’s College, S–

My dear R.,

I rejoice to learn that the years have not dampened your fervency of spirit, nor age withered your compositional imagination (particularly in the use of invective). I do fear, however, that your originality is on the wane–your letter reads rather like an Evangelical sermon of a century ago.

I am not “repressed and ashamed” and have not deliberately “concealed” my current abode. I think it is very likely that I am a “superstitious fool”. I am, in any case, a willing “slave of the Scarlet Lady”. Yes, I am at the College of St. Mary’s at S– and shall soon graduate from the ranks of “priestcraft” tutelage into full-fledged “Papist villainy”. As for MM, you seem to think that all priests and nuns are massed together in a sort of underground network of infamy where I can “finally relieve” that “bizarre passion”. I have not seen her, though she is present in my thoughts–not in the way you imagine.

Despite this shocking revelation, I hope you can accept me to be,

Yours, etc.

* * *

19 September 1914
St. Mary’s, S–

Dear R.,

I have attained heights of complicated amazement (to rival Mr. Willet the elder)! Can it be that curiosity has conquered revulsion? If you meant it in jest you should have said so, for now I feel licensed to bore you with sundry spurious details of my present life.

I spent some years abroad–years that were as unlike as can be from those long years wasted on the Continent. Time spent in another world. A monastery of Dominican friars took me in. They suffered my moods, soothed my troubles, and guided my wandering interests. They soon disabused me of the delusion that I was master of all things Catholique. Several of them have merited sainthood by their resistance to the impulse to throttle “Montague” (for as such was I known, owing to habits of talking out loud in my sleep). I left shriven, baptized, anointed, and full of religious zeal. I have been led here.

As to the “Hungarian horror”, Domokos, my faithful acolyte, is with me still. I wonder how many men bring a gargoylian guardian angel with them to the foot of the altar. I could not dismiss him if I wanted to, and I do not want to. He is at home every place where God is most palpably present. Thus, in addition to his other duties, he serves me as a spiritual Virgula divina.

He does not bother to improve his English, and yet everyone understands him. The townspeople were more inclined to distrust him, but he has overcome even the staunchest country prejudices. Even the feelings stimulated by the news we hear from Europe cannot make Domokos anything less than a local favorite. They shower gifts upon him–baskets of fruits, vegetables, meats, small animals, flowers, or whatever they have to hand.

Who can know his feelings regarding the present turmoil consuming his homeland? A letter came for him one day. Perhaps it informed him of death, perhaps it maligned him as a traitor, perhaps it said nothing at all of importance. I could not ask him, and he did not say. I know he has no family to speak of–none but I.

One day I asked him if he ever yearned to depart from me, and commence his own life.

He frowned, creasing his eyebrows together for a moment before his face broke into a hideous, glorious smile. And then the fellow laughed–boldly–right in my face! He left me, shaking his head and still rocking with hilarity. I heard his merry laughter echoing down the hall long after he had gone.

As to my pedantic endeavors, I have learned that Dionysian revels and Paterian self-aggrandizement are not particularly conducive to scholarly prowess. Often when I articulate some lofty thought, supporting the brilliance of that truth with what I consider to be fittingly beautiful language, old Father Jordan smiles indulgently and urges, “Lovely… but, now let us develop strength of understanding before we craft clever, fancy phrases.”

Do not think from this that beautiful language is condemned or discouraged. Those few times when I have escaped the habits of eclectic and unintelligible musing, successfully wedding language and truth, the priests have enthusiastically applauded my performance. There is nothing more satisfying than capturing a glimpse of truth. Even in Greek.

With regard to my “fellow priestlings” you are quite right. While many of those here are agreeable companions, there is one– the very apotheosis of a self-righteous driveller! Avid dislike of him is the familiar staple of my confession. He insists he has been guilty of a dark, sinful past, and imagines between our two selves a sort of camaraderie of reformed profligates and circulates on dit too insidious to risk an outcry against open libel. I am forever suffering his hypotheses about the sins I have or have not committed. I do not know whence he has discovered a catalog of my past peccadillos since I avoid confidences with the man as I would hope to avoid the plague.

I came upon him the other day, holding forth on the subject of repented transgressions. It was not an hour for recreation and I earnestly hoped the rector might come upon the fellow and chastise him for speaking without necessity, but human justice is yet imperfect and the vigilante went on, unchecked.

“We reformed men of the world,” he self-importantly declared to the unfortunate young seminarian he had captured as an audience, “do not dwell upon our past sins, and yet we must not forget them. We must strengthen each other in the sincerity of our conversions. There is one brother here whom we all know well. He has been the most egregious sinner of them all. Should I, who know the appalling experiences of his youth, hold it against him? No! Shall we condemn the man because of the follies committed in the past? Orgies are nothing! Greed is nothing! Drunkenness, debauchery, and licentious cruelty are nothing! His women!–score upon score of women! It does not matter that he has been the personal lieutenant of Beelzebub! He is forgiven! And every day, the sufferings heaped upon him in this life are nothing–he should be eternally grateful for such discomfort! And he is! I am sure! If he were here . . . ”

I scurried away into the garden that I might not be called upon to give testament! It is not that he is wrong in accusing me of past sins, but this assumption of intimacy offends me deeply. I am deeply thankful that my indiscreet babblings while asleep have not lasted to the present day, for what horrible rumors could the man concoct about the name of MM! I pity the affable yokel who turns to that sensationalist gossip for counsel. Some days I think he was formed by God specifically to try my patience. But instead of setting about his head with whatever piece of furniture is closest to hand, I pray that God grant me more patience and him more discretion. This is the way of my new life–weaknesses are simply the opportunity for poignant requests to the Almighty for His intervention. If I can simply keep myself from beleaguering the man with chairs (no matter how much the blighter deserves it) and abandon myself to Divine Providence at regular intervals, all manner of things shall be well.

I anticipate your next question: what sort of God would have such an insufferable fellow as His priest? How foolish you are! You have openly invited me to patronizing catechesis! And here is my response: if I did not believe that He can transform even the most irritating of sinners, I could not believe in my own reformation. There. Now I am done with preaching. For now, at least.

You ask how I like this life. I am at peace. I am joyful. At the same time, do not think I frolic merrily along a gently winding path strewn with pale pink rose petals. In fact, I should say that the overwhelming feeling of my present life is exhaustion. With studies, duties, and the pressing needs of the people hereabouts that cannot be thrust blindly into either category, there is no time left. And far too many things are left undone.

Aside from our religious duties, there are many activities to fill our time. Some of our more vigorous members spend every available moment playing cricket. The less energetic dedicate themselves in thespian revels. Last year I played Oedipus with a Jocasta rather inclined to impromptu hilarity during the performance (taken as hysteria appropriate to the character and encouraged). We performed in Greek, of course. Our tastes are chiefly but not exclusively classical. Occasionally we take on the Bard himself, and this year we played The Importance of Being Earnest to great acclaim. Aside from such frivolity, I spend a great deal of time with old Father Thomas, a simple old man and devotee of the sick. I often rise early and assist him in the infirmary.

There are days when my brain is so overcharged with thought and study that I feel incapable of praying. One evening, some weeks ago, I received special permission to remain awake past time and remain in Adoration before the monstrance. I knelt down, joyous at the prospect of reorganizing my scattered wits. I woke up the next morning curled up across the kneeler, profoundly cramped and frustrated. I had dreamed of Magdalen–Magdalen as my wife, and the strange life we would have shared.

I am daily reminded of how much I lack of holiness. I have been reading the autobiography of a little French saint–Therese of Lisieux. I wonder if it is sinful to find a saint tedious. I did so at first. You would disdain her entirely. I have been told by Father Thomas–not unkindly–that I have a streak of ambition that mitigates against humility. He supposes it is because I have read too many French novels.

I must go–Domokos has come to remind me of evening obligations. My prayers are with you always.

Yours, etc.

* * *

12 October 1914
St. Mary’s, S–

My dear R.,

I am writing to you out of pure selfishness–I hope thus to exorcise restlessness and clear my head, stupid with exhaustion, so that I may simply sleep.

Domokos is gone. He came to me some days ago and requested permission to return home for a time. I gave it, weeping. He is gone, and I feel strangely alone. Shall he be one of those thousands we hear dead?

But enough of such melodrama.

Word came this evening of old Sally Heaton, a poor woman who lay suffering in extremis. Father Thomas went out to minister to her and I accompanied him–Father Thomas is an old man, inclined to neglect care of his own aged frailty.

The old woman lived–if it can be said that such a miserable wretch could live–in a dank, smelly hole, stagnant with filth and disease. Not even Victorian officiousness could rescue the Heatons from anything less. They are of a breed that clings to privation as a personal birthright.

Old and wrinkled like an emaciated monkey, Sally Heaton lay huddled under a pile of faded rags. I have seen rags like those before– worn by prostitutes and cripples alike. There is no moral requirement for abject wretchedness. One need only rot through life and into death. You may think that I am too imaginative, or that the immoral caprices of my youth have made too profound an effect on my impressionable mind, and now I am determined to put on a sort of perversely apocalyptic philanthropy. But I know that place for what it is.

Sally Heaton’s only surviving relative was there–an illegitimate granddaughter. The girl stood, ragged and frightened, huddled against the door, staring in wide-eyed horror at this picture of her own future. What could she expect in life but poverty and wretched death?

It was a ghastly sight. In her racking pain, the old woman looked with bestial desperation towards Father Thomas, and, despite his own age and frailty, he moved quickly towards the bed, a graceful picture of benevolent and unselfish concern.

As he bent down, she retched into the air and into his face. Sally coughed impotently as the young woman, still frightened, struggled to clear the refuse from the bedclothes.

I stepped forward in shocked concern for the priest, but he gently rejected my overtures of assistance and simply wiped his face with a handkerchief. Old Sally grabbed at his arm and whispered, spitting the remnants of vomit as she urged Father Thomas to lean toward her face. He did so without hesitation.

I moved away until I saw Father Thomas raise his hand in the blessing of absolution, and then stepped forward to help where and if I could.

What little blood had been in the face of Old Sally Heaton was gone. Thus shriven, she seemed more shriveled and corpse-like than before. She breathed with rough heaviness, as if the air itself were practicing for a death rattle.

Suddenly her body was racked with the pain of an unseen frenzy, and she writhed upon the bed. After a moment, she settled, or seemed to settle, but her mind was feverish and she stared wildly from one to the other of us. Father Thomas moved forward, yet again, to soothe this dreadful anguish.

She flinched involuntarily, as if frightened of his hand, and as she did, the swift perverseness of fatal illness showed itself. The change was horrible. Her eyes had shone with the light of a desperate spiritual hunger. Now they were a picture of irrational and frenzied hatred.

She moved with alacrity disproportionate to her age and sickness, drawing her hand back and then thrusting it forward to strike the priest brutally across his face.

Father Thomas started back from the slap in stunned surprise, and then rested into gentle pity. I stepped in, once again to protect the old man from her violent delirium, and once again I was gently repulsed.

The repressed exhaustion of so many weeks rushed over me in a blind indignation. This poor old man had been summoned like a dog to serve this pathetic old woman, a rotting soul, half-crazed in her old age and delirium. And this was to be the repayment for so holy an old man? Was this how God repaid his loyal servants? The world is collapsing, thousands dying in horrendous agony and without consolation, and this wretch, blessed by the presence of a priest, would strike him? And I thought of you, my friend, and was fiercely angry with you for your willful blindness.

These thoughts flashed across my mind in a mere instant… and were as quickly thrust aside in recognition of what I saw before me–and that was something of Magdalen Montague. Father Thomas raised one hand unconsciously to his rapidly discoloring cheek, but did not take his other hand from her clammy arm. The woman’s face changed yet again.

The earnest hunger reappeared, wedded now to poignant dread.

Death was in the room.

Father Thomas began to administer the sacrament.

I cannot describe the reality of the anointing. Divine power, palpably present in all of the sacraments, is most clearly felt in the last of them. It is as if God’s ultimate gift in this earthly life, the supernatural grace of final perseverance, were so great that it needs must shake the very room.

We stayed with Sally Heaton until she was dead, and brought the weeping, frightened child to stay with a charitable farmer and his wife who live nearby.

You may expect that this was the catalyst for an intense religious vision, full of torrid melodrama and mysticism. From your past experience of my letters, you may think I would have been catapulted into some extraordinarily visionary experience, confronted by the shattering revelation of a spiritual reality. This letter to you would demonstrate my trauma through stuttering ellipses and sentence fragments.

No, nothing of the sort. If my style seems at all deteriorated it is because I am growing more and more tired as the minutes pass–too tired to be artful. On our return home, the old man was talkative and pleasant, but he spoke mostly of flowers (he is an amateur horticulturist). We saw some mice along the road, and it made me think of Browning.

It was not an extraordinary scene, really. Death is the everyday prerogative of this church. At the moment where humanity is at its most vulnerable, these priests stand like guardians, warding off the fiends who would carry this or that soul to hell. Each victory is itself wondrous.

I do not express myself well.

I have read your letter, and it has troubled me deeply. How can you ignore the chaos all around you? You must not think that by burying yourself ever more deeply in corruption, you will escape from the reality of death. You only bring greater desolation upon yourself.

I shall not think of it now. I shall sleep. Anything I think or write now is sure to be histrionic. For now, believe me to be your very exhausted friend,

– J.

* * *

25 May 1915
St. Mary’s, S–

Dear R.,

I apologize for the time it has taken me to respond to your several letters. I cannot think why you persist in this correspondence–I know the joy it brings me, and know likewise how much you despise what I have become.

I am glad to have received the repeated assurance of unruffled, dismissive calm in the face of this tragic unfolding in Europe. Should you not depart from the city–not in admission of denied concern, but as a practical consideration for safety?

Here, the days continue hectic and exhaustion fails to distract from the horror of thought. Even as the days pass and we draw nearer to that most blessed day, all things are overshadowed by the destruction of Europe. I think of Domokos, and pray. Shall I ever know what has become of him? I think too of the dear Magdalen, and pray.

I shall depart soon–but for what place? We green recruits evince all of the reckless eagerness of our sort. We all want very much to be doing something or other very intense and dangerous indeed. We would be caring for the sick, but only those with deadly and contagious diseases. We would be missionaries serving wherever persecution is most fierce and we are assured of violent and dramatic martyrdom. We would travel to the farthest reaches of the Empire and convert savages (preferably cannibals). We would be at the Front, ministering in the midst of Hell. We would be doing something. We cannot stand by in silence while the world obliterates itself.

Word comes daily, but the news is so belated that thousands more may have died in the interim. A new terror has been unleashed beyond the wildest of nightmares. One fellow here insists this is the end of time… but there is no time to speculate. What man, woman, or child, can be helped by it? Thousands and thousands are dying. The world is drowning in a sea of suffering. Shall there ever be peace again? Can Ypres ever be forgotten? What will the world be like when this horror stops? Will it stop?

I pray for you constantly, my friend.

– J.

* * *

22 June 1915
St. Mary’s, S–

My dear R.,

It is done. I heard no voices and saw no visions.

Last night I prayed long in the chapel, like a knight holding vigil, preparing and purifying before battle. My weaknesses were heavy upon me and I was haunted by the past. I thrust all thought of past sins away. Even at this late hour, my mind could not articulate prayer. It needed not.

My father was in attendance at the ordination. He spends a great deal of his time in London now–an aged secondary politician, making feeble attempts to stop the onslaught of a world collapse.

He must have decided that an expression of bemused indulgence was most suited to the sacramental occasion. He brought me a gift too: a box of highly decorative and thoroughly impractical candles–for my “bibble babble spells”. I knew that my father wept when I stepped forward and the bishop’s hands were laid upon me. He always clears his throat violently when in denial of such emotions. That noise accompanied my mother from the church to the graveyard. His gruff “Hrumph!” sounded loud and frequent through the nave again today.

Another figure entered belatedly, and stood in reverent silence at the back, like a vagrant awaiting permission before entering this sacred house. His ugly face was aged and tired, but unchanged. It was one of the most beautiful faces I shall ever see. I do not know where he has been or what he has seen. Has he searched in vain for a lost family? Is he an escaped prisoner? What carnage has he witnessed? I cannot tell. I know that Domokos could see Hell itself and yet retain the unshakeable outward serenity of an authentic interior peace. I am full of aching gratitude for his restoration, knowing full well that there are few so restored in the present conflict.

I am not my own. There comes a time when self-abandonment so overwhelms you that you cannot articulate or express it in any way other than through the most theatrical body language. Thus, I lay prostrate with my fellows before the sanctuary. In that posture of transcendent self-sacrifice, we were swallowed up into the mere shadow of our crucified Lord–such were the words of the bishop.

These hands are no longer mine. When Domokos knelt before me and begged a priest’s blessing, I felt smaller and more gloriously insignificant than the most pitiful of beings… and yet profoundly significant, for I am His priest.

But what of MM? Nothing? Have I forgotten her in the thrill of my new life? No, now she is my dear sister. She too was with me on that cold, worn floor, with its wooden planks of once-vibrant color drummed into dun-colored familiarity by the tread of eager feet. She is with me now. Dreams of another life are nothing now. Even so far away, she must always remain close to me. Shall I ever see her again? One day, I shall.

The orders are given and we are sent forth. One man goes to the Front, and it is not I. No martyr’s crown shall be mine. He shall go, and minister in memory of a brother, killed in the wasteland of Ypres. The rest of us shall scatter across this cherished island, commissioned to win back what once was lost. This Catholic island.

Domokos and I shall retire to the small village of M– in chilly Devon. If I freeze to death, I shall do so with pious enthusiasm. Shall we retreat from the horror that has overshadowed the rest of the world? No. Like the rest, we shall wait, and watch, and pray. I must comfort those left behind, and cherish this empty world until our loved ones return. What is the world that is our legacy? Can it be the brave new world we were promised?

I beg God to teach me how to serve Him in this time of crisis. I cannot lie and assure those who mourn that all shall be well. I cannot assume an insouciance I do not feel. I can only assure them of the certainty of things to come.

I met a very talented young man in London some years ago. You will not know his name. His was a talent destined for future reverence, not the hollow din of a prodigy’s triumph. He sent sonnets composed on the battlefield to a friend, and that friend has passed them on to me. It is his words that resonate with me now, and I pray God to keep us all safe:

Safe though all safety’s lost; safe where men fall;
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.

He died but a few weeks ago.

My new home shall not bar me from plaguing you with sanctimonious epistles. I shall continue to pester you with such unwarranted encouragement in the hope that someday you will become so exasperated with my pestering that you will accept God simply to silence me. And when He has you, He shall not let you go. Till then, may He protect you and keep you from harm.

Your devoted friend
and His obedient servant,

– J.

Eleanor Bourg Donlon, a Dappled Things assistant editor and a UVa alumna (M.A., English ’07), works as a freelance writer and editor based out of Charlottesville, VA. Her writing has also appeared in The Saint Austin Review. More of her work is available at eleanorbourgdonlon.com.

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