By Aidan O’Shea © 2011
The convent of Marie Reparatrice in Cork was home to a community of prayer from 1885 to 1987. The sisters of the community led an enclosed and virtually silent life defined by daily adoration of the Eucharist. Those who visited the convent chapel at any hour would see two sisters kneeling in silent prayer before the monstrance in a recess high within a gothic altarpiece. The only sound was the ticking of a clock under which was a brass plate quoting Christ’s reproach to his sleeping disciples in Gethsemane: “Could you not watch one hour with me?”
It was my privilege to be an altar boy or acolyte there for six years. I learned later that an acolyte is just the first of the holy orders of clerical life. Acolyte recruits were the responsibility of Mother Dunstan, a lady seemingly ageless, since her elaborate blue and white habit covered all but her pale face and bright eyes. My first encounter with her was the fitting. Each of us was measured for a handmade soutane in scarlet with matching hand-made scarlet slippers. Over the soutane, a starched linen surplice was fitted from stock. Each surplice had beautifully embroidered cuffs and hems featuring sacred symbols in fine detail. I recall clusters of grapes, the Greek capital letters Alpha and Omega, and stylised crosses radiating beams of grace. We had especially ornate surplices for the high feasts of Easter and Christmas. Mother Dunstan took a justifiable pride in our gradual transformation from scuffed schoolboys to little scarlet and white soldiers of Christ. As our training progressed, we did not walk or shuffle, we processed. Our handmade slippers allowed us to glide silently over the perfectly polished sanctuary floor.
Next came the recital of Latin responses. Not for us the garbled prayer of “Blessed art thou a monk swimming”. We mastered “Benedicta tu in mulieribus” which added depth and mystery to the words. “Pleni sunt coeli et terra Gloria tua” still carries a resonance not matched by “Heaven and earth are full of your glory”. Progressing from the spoken word to song, we added our boy soprano notes to the “Tantum ergo” at evening benediction.
The tools of the acolyte’s trade had to be mastered one by one and used with solemnity and pride. Firstly there was the brass gong with its padded mallet. Strike too softly and the congregation beyond the wrought iron sanctuary screen would not hear. Strike too loudly and the whole chapel would vibrate for half a minute. The cut glass cruets of water and wine, the finger bowl and linen hand towel were further points of promotion for the novice acolyte. As we grew in confidence and in height, so we progressed.
The heavy Latin missal on its brass stand called for a taller boy who moved it from right to left of the altar for the gospel reading and back again afterwards. Remember to genuflect on the right knee when crossing the centre line of the tabernacle. Genuflect on both knees and bow the head momentarily when the Eucharist is exposed in the monstrance.
The summit of the acolyte’s skills, my Everest so to speak, was the thurible, so important that its bearer carried the additional title of thurifer. The base of the thurible was firstly loaded with a slab of heated charcoal. This charcoal was kept hot by gently swinging the thurible from side to side. At the appropriate time, incense, a fragrant crystalline gum, was sprinkled over the charcoal, causing a dense cloud of resinous smoke to rise. We had learned that incense was one of the three gifts brought by the kings to the infant Jesus. A skilled thurifer was allowed to salute the celebrant and the congregation with incense. Raise the vessel, swing it once from its foreshortened chain, then two more swings and bow. Practice made perfect, but some overenthusiastic thurifers created enough holy smoke to trigger asthma attacks! For such excesses, demotion to gong striker could result.
My clerical career came to an end in my thirteenth year. My singing voice had broken. A light stubble crept across my upper lip. My heart raced when a pretty girl passed by. Something told me that poverty, chastity and obedience were not for me, and that acolyte was to be the sum total of my holy orders. Even so, thanks to Mother Dunstan, I still cherish these words from Psalm 26:8:
“DOMINE, DILEXI DECOREM DOMUS TUAE, ET LOCUM HABITATIONIS GLORIAE TUAE.”
“O Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwells.”