Sunday, December 11, 2011

"WE ARE AT WAR . . . "

England, Sunday September 3, 1939

Outside, it was bright and warm, a typical English September day. The traffic streamed down from London to the Kent beaches, amid the all-pervasive summer smells of melted tar and the exhaust of cars.
They knelt together; Margaret in a powder blue dress and a matching hat, just like the Queen Mother's, wordlessly mouthing her aves, her rosary tapping on the pew in front of her. On her left knelt David, already, at eleven, studiously bespectacled and grave. To her right, nearest the aisle, was fidgety Christopher, seven and a half, at one moment watching the priest and the altar boys through half-closed fingers, at another staring at the people in the row behind. 
When Christopher closed his eyes tight he found he could still picture the altar clearly in his mind's eye. He could still see the sun shining down through colored glass on the golden candlesticks, the chalice Father Hauber was holding up for God to bless, the crystal decanters, one with deep red wine and the other with water. He could still see the flickering rows of candles.
Christopher always found it hard to believe this was the same Father Hauber who came to tea once a month at their house, laughing his big laugh and telling stories in his funny German voice. Though the old priest reminded him and his brother of Friar Tuck, he could jump over the flower beds like an athlete, and swing on the swing so high that his outstretched feet brought the apples bouncing down from the tree.
For this is the Chalice of my Blood . . . for you and for many unto the forgiveness of sins. 
Three times a little bell chimed, with long pauses between.
The Latin flowed comfortingly over the congregation. That Christopher didn't know what the priest was saying was unimportant. God was here. God loved us. God loved everyone.  Clouds of incense rose and swirled in diagonal strips of sunlight, bearing Father Hauber's prayers to heaven.
Father Hauber held the little white disc upwards and then, with bowed heads, the congregation prayed aloud together. "Our Father, who art in Heaven, allowed be Thy Name . . ."
Our Father, Christopher had always thought, was a prayer to Father Hauber. It had never occurred to him that it might be to God the Father, gray, bearded and stern, who was somewhere up there over the altar. And he knew it was not a supplication to his own father, who never came with them on Sunday mornings.
Dad was a Protestant, and rode his bicycle to the village church at Haversham.  Christopher was sad for Protestants, and for Dad because, while they said they believed in God, they could never go to Heaven. Sister Ignatius had told him that in class. Sister Ignatius said Church of England churches weren't like real churches.
In Protestant churches there were no confessional boxes, no stations of the cross, no little boxes for Peter's Pence, no shiny domed tabernacle like a secret treasure chest with its little gold embroidered curtain that opened miraculously when Father Hauber pulled a string. Dad was okay but, much as they loved him, being Protestant set him a little apart.
This Sunday, Father Hauber's sermon was about peace. Peace was the word he kept using, yet it seemed to make him angry. Christopher had never seen him angry before. His voice, always loud but louder than usual today, echoed through the rafters above them. He boomed about a "Gray Tide of Evil," and something about Poland, while his flock sat silent and immobile.
Christopher didn't know where Poland was, but he had often heard about it in the past few days. His mother and father talked earnestly at the kitchen table about the "Polish Corridor," and about some people marching down it. He knew what a corridor was;  when he went to the Cottage Hospital to have his tonsils taken out, there had been white corridors everywhere. In his head he saw hundreds of gray soldiers tramping down those shiny corridors.
He could see that the priest’s forehead, above his big red face, was shiny [1]with perspiration. He glanced up at his mother exactly at the moment that she seemed to be brushing something from her eye.  She caught Christopher’s eye for a second, and quickly turned away.
And then, in a mumbling monotone, they prayed for peace. They were half-way through the prayer when Christopher noticed a man standing just inside the altar rail. He was short and hairy-faced, in a brown robe belted at the waist with a thick white cord. He stood quite still with his hands hanging straight down at his sides. As Christopher watched, the man ambled up the steps and took up a position beside the priest.
Father Hauber stopped speaking and seemed to be listening intently to what the man had to say, stooping toward the shorter man and cupping his ear with his hand. The conversation went on and on, while all the people sat still. Some stayed on their knees in positions of prayer; others had eased themselves back onto the smooth wooden benches.
Christopher tugged at his mother's sleeve, whispering urgently. "What are they talking about, Mum? What's the man saying to him?  What --"
But his mother put her finger to her closed lips, and the congregation waited. 
Presently, Father Hauber turned and walked down to the communion rail, leaving the altar boys and the man in brown standing awkwardly together on the top step.
The old priest cleared his throat and then, unexpectedly, spoke in a voice that was almost too hoarse to hear. "Brethren, I have something to tell you  . . ."
The congregation craned forward to hear him better. The one hundred or more worshipers sat motionless in shocked silence, waiting in vain for more news, for encouragement.
"It has been announced on the wireless that Britain is at war with Germany. Please go home, now.  I have nothing more to tell you. Put your trust in God, and in the power of prayer."
And then, although the mass was not really over, he rejoined the little group at the altar and gave the final blessing.
Benidicat vos omnipotens Deus . . .
Amen. The congregation filed down the aisle and through the open doors into the bright street, still subdued. A little to the right of the church gates a black Austin police car was parked discreetly. Christopher watched an officer climb out, cradling his blue Bobby's helmet under his arm, and walk up the steps with studied casualness and into the church.
Minutes later, watched by his waiting, bewildered parishioners, Father Ludwig von Hauber was led gently out, carrying a large, battered suitcase. As the old man passed by Christopher on the steps he smiled at the boy, and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"Where's he going, Mum? Where are they taking Our Father?" Christopher asked.
His mother did not reply, looking away from him, apparently preoccupied with something else.         
His elder brother answered instead. "Don't you see, Chris? Don't you see, silly? He's a German. They're going to lock him up."
"But they can't do that; they just can't!"
Slowly, the car drew away, with the priest and the officer sitting side by side, like close friends in the back seat.