‘Bonté’

The alarm is beeping and the sleeper rolls over and pushes the button to off. It’s cold and dark.

‘This is wrong,’ he thinks. ‘No one should ever have to get up on a day like this.’ The chill of a black winter morning is not the only reason he doesn’t want to get out of bed. He has a heavy heart. One that seems to have been journeying back through the years during the night and has only just returned, bearing armloads of disappointment and wounds. But the day is coming, so the man pushes his way past the sorrowful heap, rolls back his warm blankets and walks into a cold bathroom. Here, whilst showering, and without thinking about the words, he recites the intro of a long poem he’s been writing and memorising.

I say you are gods, all of you … sons of the Most High. Out of your hearts shall flow rivers of living water!’

‘Well then let’s ice the cake. But wait!

What’s this ache that trembles in the heart?

What’s the thing that wrestles in the dark?

What’s this song that’s scribbled in the art?’

‘Let it shake and let it break.

Let it wake and let it make.

This myth is your myth,

Seed in the grape,

Complication …’

Ten minutes later, taking his inner wince with him, he walks across the wet grass of a front lawn, away from a home where he is the father and the husband to a fog-shrouded, school-style building where, for the next half hour, he will be a worshipper along with other members of his community.

It is not his favourite time of day for this kind of thing, given the fact that he is an introvert, and a contemplative, and a long time ago came to terms with the knowledge that he is never going to be one of those ‘cheerful at breakfast’ people, which means that he tries to position himself in the worship room so that he will not have to make too much eye contact during the session. Although he usually enjoys the time—especially the singing—as far as he is concerned this is the time of the day when, as an act of courtesy and sympathy, you mostly keep your eyes to yourself—lunch and afterwards is the time for eye contact and conversations over a cheerful glass.

Thirty minutes go by, his inner grimace has softened and he is walking from the worship room into a warm room of jokes, laughter and loud conversation; white boards and recorders, cameras and google docs. Here, he is the Unit Convener of a subject, and although this is before lunch and expectant eyes are looking to him, he is able to forget his morning melancholy and to plunge into a lecture on courage and motivation without any sense of irony.

An hour passes and morning tea arrives along with freshly baked bread, butter and pepper. After the break he finds himself talking about Florence Nightingale and the remarkable ‘bonté’14 that emanated from her in the midst of the chaos of a bloody battlefield hospital, political infighting that barred her nurses from any real work; attempts to stop her at any cost and even perhaps to kill her; and the horror of having to watch an endless queue of horses and donkeys ferrying bleeding and bandaged soldiers up a long hill to her filthy hospital.

Astonishing and grotesque details in the story—which he read a long time ago—have caught this father/worshipper/lecturer’s imagination: a man’s stone dead and frozen body, strapped to the back of a horse, his leg sticking up in the air like a broken tree branch; Florence’s little room with an unfixable leak and a stove that never worked; politicians in the English parliament accusing her alternately of being a Catholic or a Protestant agent and then an exasperated member making a famous reply: ‘The great sin of this woman seems to be that she belongs to the faith of the Good Samaritan!’ Then as the grinding weight bears down on her, the ‘bonté’ diminishing, until, as the author says, ‘it is no longer’.

But the sweetest part of the story, which the lecturer now relates, is that years afterwards, when she has been given a hero’s welcome home and treated as a ‘useful celebrity’ by her mother—a mother who steadfastly refused to give this daughter’s work her parental blessing—the mother becomes frail, crippled and blind, and this same daughter, putting aside all her other work with politicians and government leaders, now goes to live with her mum and nurses her through the last part of her life. As the months go by, the author tells us, an old but sweet breeze begins to blow and Florence’s ‘bonté’ returns.

Hours later, the lecturer walks out of his warm, flouro and googled teaching room back to his place of fatherhood, where he cooks himself a lunch of sizzling bacon, eggs and tomatoes and wonders some more about Florence and her ‘bonté’, all the while meandering deeper into his own gloom. It strikes him that there seems to be almost no hint of her ever indulging in self pity. Then he remembers a story from her teenage years when her father took the family on a magnificent sight-seeing, ballroom-dancing with nobility, and concert-attending coach trip across Europe. Florence was in a teenage heaven where young princes seemed to be forever wanting to dance with her. Then one evening, as they were leaving yet another opulent French city, Florence looked back over the place and began sobbing her heart out.

In the biography, the author allows the reader to take it all in without comment, and today—as the father is recalling the event in the book—he can’t help but remember a much earlier moment in her teenage life when it is said that (although she mostly kept it a secret) she heard an audible voice (assumed to be from God) call her into the work that became her calvary road and flowed out into every hospital in the empire. Given that Florence never had much time for religious people, and given the stories of the voice, the sobbing, the ‘bonté’ and the calvary road; the father now feels an unmistakeable musical score playing in his own soul and he is overwhelmed.

14 a French word meaning ‘a great kind-heartedness.’

 

Cherry Tree Love

Today, having just completed a road-trip of several thousand kilometres, the father has risen late, enjoyed a long hot shower and is now seated with his notebook computer in a chair of white painted bamboo that’s lined with cushions. The stillness of the chair a major improvement on the constant shudder of the one he has been in for days. The view is not quite as good but even a good view can become a cliché when framed by a windscreen. Across the room, a wall of matte gold absorbs soft winter light that’s coming through a window next to his right shoulder. Through the window a grey wool and blue sky radiates light that seems to come from everywhere.
Having just gotten himself settled and written a few sentences, the father is interrupted by he can’t remember what and now it is a late evening five days later and he is at the other end of the house—the late night end—with his books, his lamp and his swollen pile of cords, papers and unopened mail, attempting to remember what he had been writing about but deeply distracted by something more compelling.
All the memories of his road-trip have been relegated by a re-playing-in-the-mind video of a moment the day before when he and his wife visited a young girl and her family in town. It is raining and they are walking to the front gate, which is low enough to step over, a brindle bull-dog is already running, followed by a small off-sider, and both of them miraculously stopping at the gate, their tails wagging.
The girl is there, looking up at them: grinning from ear to ear, her face framed by a tangle of red hair, delight pouring out of green eyes. As they are speaking, the younger brother is jumping up and almost over the fence for a hug. Further back, the older dark-haired sister is smiling happily. And now the mother, with her lean and kind face radiating stories—not many of them happy.
Ever since that meeting at the gate in the rain, the father feels as if he and his wife have had a moment of great luck, which was arranged by the feathered wing of a mysterious loving spirit who nudged their boat up to a favourite shore. He knows of course that much of this has come about because of prayers and plans and invitations, but he also knows that two families met at a front gate on a miserable and rainy day and exchanged gifts of grace through smiles and greetings and are now touching each other more closely than they were before.
Tonight, for some reason, he has been provoked and finds himself thinking of the sort of words that are frequently used to describe what he has just experienced: ‘being kind’; ‘doing good’; ‘caring.’ All words that have their place in the English language, but which feel obscene in this context. He remembers having the same feeling thirty years before when he watched Jesus Christ Superstar performed on stage. Mary Magdalene was singing:
‘Try not to get worried,
Try not to turn on to,
Problems that upset you,
Oh don’t you know, Everything’s alright.
Yes everything’s fine,
And we want you to sleep well tonight,
Let the world turn without you tonight,
If we try,
We’ll get by,
So forget all about us tonight’.
Although the father still cherishes the musical and it’s poetry, there is a suggestion in these words that the Nazarene is a sweet kind-hearted boy trying to make a nicer world, but who, if he doesn’t chill out, will one day become just another hand-wringing law-maker like those who are about to crucify him. The father is reminded of a line from one of his own poems: ‘All appetite for life was lost in a mean spirited sulk against noise, colour, tang. Middle aged imam, bishop, teacher, scientist, guru, lama in his pyjama; gobbled up my panorama!’
So—on the horns of the dilemma—we have two options: 1. Get serious about saving the world and sulk against life; or 2. Do a few bits of nice stuff, chill out and have fun.

But for the father, the very idea that his meeting in the rain came from a place of being worried or from some determination to fix the world’s problems, feels obscene. If he were asked to describe it, he might say that an ‘impossible to understand’ love regularly re-enters his soul at time of lost-ness, and rather than coming from a place of ethics, comes from an encounter with what some writers refer to as a ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, a dreadful and captivating presence … of joy, confession and laughter that lives a thousand miles away from anxiety, and where the doing of good deeds is a taken for granted, don’t mention it, after-thought, in the same way that a cherry tree might first put its roots down into the earth and water and seem to die, then blossom and then say to its owner, ‘By the way here’s some cherries.’
The father knows that what bothers him most about Mary’s song is that it describes what happens in him when he loses his way and becomes what George MacDonald has described as a ‘noble slave’ who makes God’s will his law. He wonders what the cherry tree might say about this dark posture, which enjoys feeling that one has made some great sacrifice and must therefore keep a score-card for the record, or failing that, subtly make sure that others know and are impressed with the superiority of his cherries. He suspects that the cherries may have a bad taste.
He remembers one night travelling on a freezing cold train and noticing a drunk lying on the floor, then seeing a young man taking off his own coat and placing it on the man’s shoulders and the young man seeming embarrassed that he had noticed. This furtive, self-forgetful, cherry tree style love, instead of coming from a place of stoical score-card keeping, coming from what MacDonald described as the heart of a ‘free son’, whose will—rather than becoming his law—has somehow happily fallen in tune with the will of the maker of both heaven and earth. As George MacDonald himself said, ‘The only door out of the dungeon of self is to love thy neighbour.’