Saturday, June 12, 2010

Vocation by Greg Butler


© Greg Butler

BROTHER Vincent was feeling weary and discouraged. The monastery parlour was quiet, but inside his head the noisy voices were there again… voices of doubt and regret.

He thought about the last class that day. Maybe he’d over reacted. But Horgan was a stubborn boy, like his brother. His mother said there were problems with him at home. “Don’t spare the rod,” she sanctioned.

Brother Vincent was a big man with a formidable reputation. He got results. No one questioned his methods, least of all the parents.

He was a handsome fair-haired man, broad shouldered, and stood over six-foot tall. He moved quickly and elegantly round the classroom… with the leather strap tucked into the waistband of his black soutan- like a gunslinger- with the ever present threat that it might used to deadly effect.

His quiet voice and shy smile contrasted with his reputation. The boys knew him as Vincy. He called everybody John, sometimes with menace. When he said, in a low voice, “Out to the line- John,” the boys knew trouble was brewing.

His features belied his rural background. Were it not for his good looks and measured voice tone, his strong frame and big hands could have found their place behind a plough on the family farm in Kerry.

He didn’t hesitate to use those big hands when necessary. Throwing the duster with the dexterity of a baseball pitcher, twisting ears, pinching side locks, punching shoulders, or bringing the full force of the leather onto trembling hands. Small hands that might already be numb with the cold of a winter’s morning.

That was the only way he knew how to teach- fear and punishment… with lots of memorising and repetition- with the reward of good exam results. “Corporal punishment was unpleasant, I hate slapping big boys… but later the boys would understand it was for their own good… and anyway it didn’t do them any harm.”

“It’s the only way to get some of the weaker boys an honours Leaving Certificate- their route out of poverty to social advancement. Those who won’t learn must be punished. They won’t love us for what we do, but some day they’ll be grateful.”

Br Vincent was restless, yet he didn’t want to join the other Brothers in the reading room. He was troubled by the rumours about Brother Doyle, recently arrived from an industrial school. He didn’t want to be part of that conversation. Surely the Superior had heard the rumours? He wondered how many more schools this was happening in. “They’ll blame us for this some day,” he thought, “blame us for everything.

He got on okay with most of the other Brothers, but didn’t have a best friend among them since Donal left.

He often went to the Oratory to complete his Office, but right now he didn’t feel like praying. He rarely felt like praying these days.

He hadn’t been feeling well for months. He hadn’t mentioned it to anybody. Who could he tell?

He was thinking about how his Vocation began. Brother Mitchell had befriended him when he was12, and feeling vulnerable upon entering secondary school. He was inspired by stories such as “The harvest is great, but the labourers are few” and by the ideals and vision of the founder Brother Edmund Rice. When he was 17 he was an “A” student with many options- but now, in his late forties, he felt he had none. He worried about his future. Was this all there was?

At one stage he thought about becoming an engineer, he would have liked that. He used to dream about going to California-the New Frontier- with his best friend David. “I wish I had discussed that with my Dad,” he thought. But others told him he would never be happy if he denied God’s call to serve.

He wondered what it was like to hold a woman, to kiss her, touch her. Those thoughts troubled him.

As a teenager he had been popular with girls. He had a girlfriend when he was about fifteen, but when he told his mother that he felt he had a vocation, she discouraged him from seeing her. Besides, wasn’t the Church a higher vocation than marriage?

He worried about his widowed mother, now in her eighties and living alone. He had a brother Sean, a priest on the missions in Africa and a sister Mary teaching in Australia. The neighbours were very good to his mother, but it wasn’t the same as family.

He wrote to her every few weeks, even when she didn’t reply. They didn’t have a lot to say to each other, so many things were left unsaid. He hadn’t seen her in over a year. He remembered how proud she was the day he was professed. It would break her heart if he left.

He went to the kitchen to get a glass of warm water to ease his stomach pain. He would have liked a cup of tea but that kept him awake at night. Many things kept him awake at night. A whiskey would help him sleep, but was harsh on the stomach. Besides, alcohol was discouraged in the Monastery, because the community had several alcoholics.

Returning to the parlour he began to relax. He was looking forward to the brighter evenings of early summer. The Harty Cup would be starting soon. He loved hurling and was proud to be the coach in a school with such a famous tradition. He was a hard taskmaster, and the boys – fearful of his mood on a day following a defeat on the hurling field, would make an extra effort to ensure their homework was done.

The exams were not far away now. He would have to push some of his boys very hard if he were to achieve his promise to them… “Every boy in this class will get an honours Leaving Certificate.” He had one grand ambition…to have a student obtain full marks in the Maths exam. He almost achieved it one year. There were three boys in the current year that had the potential to do it. He challenged them. “Are you going to do a Gaisce (great deed) this year”?

He liked the boys in ‘Rang 6A’, one of the best classes he ever had. He rarely had to coerce them. He would miss them when the year was over. Thirty years he had been teaching, and he could recall some faces and characters from every year.

Feeling better now, he thought about the Harty Cup and the Exams. That’s what his vocation was about…helping boys realise their full potential in the classroom, on the sports field, and in life. Building patriotic leaders with character and Catholic values. Raising boys out of ignorance and poverty, giving them national pride. Brother Rice would have approved.

Vincy smiled as he opened his well-worn copy of the textbook…Leaving Certificate Mathematics, Questions and Answers, 1946-1962. A quick review of tomorrow’s lesson, night prayers and then off to bed.

You can read more stories by Greg Butler at

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