In search of French Past (8): Pope John XXiii and other homos


In In Search of French (7): the hermit, the poet and the clown,  I described my visit to Lourdes and a hermitage, and some of the books that Louis-Albert Lassus, my traveling companion had written on the hermitic life. I continue our travels with our visit to Rome (1962). 

It was the early days of the Second Vatican Council, which was opened by Pope John XXIII on 11 October 1962. We took a taxi to St Peter’s square, red and scarlet hats bobbing all around us in vehicles heading in the same direction. At St Peter’s Square we were met by a sea of red and purple, as in the picture.


st peters square vatican 2

Louis-Albert and I went to one of the Pope John’s audiences of about 100 people in one of the rooms of the Vatican. I shall never forget Pope John’s eyes flashing with what seemed to be joy. No, not at seeing me. Here is an excerpt from an entry in his diary when he was 20 years old  (Pope John-xxiii. Journal of a Soul. London:Geoffrey Chapman, 1965, p. 64).

Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? I am nothing. Everything I possess, my being, life, understanding, will and memory – all were given me by God, so all belong to him. Twenty short years ago all that I see around me was already here; the same sun, moon and stars…..Everything was being done without me, nobody was thinking of me….because I did not exist. And you, O God….drew me forth from the nothingness, you gave me being, life, a soul, in fact all the faculties of my body and spirit…you created me.”

A “traditional” Catholic website relates: Just before his death, John XXIII composed the following prayer for the Jews. This prayer was confirmed by the Vatican as being the work of John XXIII.(73) “We realize today how blind we have been throughout the centuries and how we did not appreciate the beauty of the Chosen People nor the features of our favored brothers. We are aware of the divine mark of Cain placed upon our forehead. In the course of centuries our brother, Abel, has been lying bleeding and in tears on the ground through our fault, only because we had forgotten thy love. Forgive us our unjustified condemnation of the Jews. Forgive us that by crucifying them we have crucified You for the second time. Forgive us. We did not know what we were doing.” Catholic magazine The Reign of Mary, “John XXIII and the Jews,” Spring, 1986, p. 11.

Besides the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus is a unique unrepeatable event, it is wrong for the pope to identify Jesus, in any way, with those who rejected him and continue to do so to this day, even when Jesus was also a Jew. Although it is right that not every Jew should be blamed for the crucifixion, it would not be right to say that some Jews were not responsible for it. And it would also be wrong for a Christian to call the Jew – or any one who does not believe that the Son of God came in the flesh to die for sinners – his spiritual brother.

With regard to Christ’s sacrifice, this time unrelated to the Jewish Holocaust, is it ever possible that Jesus could be crucified again. Absolutely not. And, when it comes to such a crucial event, literally so, let us not reduce it to metaphor, for any reason. (See  Pope John XXIII and the “crucifixion” of the Jew). 

Besides my visits to the usual tourist sites such as Michelangelo’s Pietà, the Mona Lisa and the Sistine chapel, I accompanied Louis-Albert on his visits to various religious orders. I met the Abbot General of the Cistercian Order, who was very kind.

After Rome, I left Louis-Albert and returned to Paris, where I rented a room in a narrow side street, Rue Senlis, off Rue Soufflot. At the top of Rue Soufflot loomed the Pantheon, where famous French people are buried, among them the architect of the Pantheon, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, of course, writers such as Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo) Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) and Voltaire (Candide), and scientists such as Pierre and Marie Curie. I’ve been back to Paris a few more times since this first sojourn in 1962. On my last visit in 1993, I searched for Rue Senlis, but it seemed to have vanished.

My room contained a single bed, a chair, a little table big enough to hold my primus stove, and a tiny space on either side of the bed. The foot of the bed almost touched the door, which opened onto the pavement. It’s dinner time. Lying on the bed, primus stove on the table, fumes of paraffin mixing with the steam from the pot of boiling water heating the tin of bully beef. I got a clerical job in an ice-cream factory. I went to the Comédie-Française theatre a few times to see plays by Molière and other famous French playwrights. Although I sat in the cheapest seats (the “gods” – at the back, the top circle in the picture), the acoustics was very good. (“Acoustics” is not a countable noun so it is grammatically singular. Hence “the acoustics was very good.”).








Although Notre Dame was close by, I never attended Sunday Mass there. I preferred my usual church of St Julien the Pauvre, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame. It is a Roman Catholic
Church of the Melchite Greek rite, a branch of the Byzantine church. I met Louis-Albert for the first time at this church. (See
In Search of French Past (5): Why are you so downcast, oh my soul?).

Most of my days back in Paris were filled checking pink ice-cream slips and eating free ice-cream lollies. After about two months of bully beef and ice-cream, my bowels locked down. I went to hospital for an enema. A short time later (January 1963), I left Paris and returned to London to take a Union-Castle liner home to Cape Town. I described in an earlier chapter my train-airplane journey from Cape Town to London. At the end of my second-year B.A. I had booked to fly to London (From Maputo, Mozambique) and was to return to Cape Town on a Union-Castle liner from Southampton, the port that generally served the Cape Town route. (See In search of French Past (1). The British Union-Castle fleet operated between Europe and Africa from 1900 to 1977. My grandfather (mother’s side), Mendel Gilinsky and his children, one of which was my mother, Feiga (Fanny), arrived in Cape Town in 1912 on one of these Union-Castles, the Galway castle, a new addition to the fleet. it was sunk a few years later by a U-boat (See Russia and the Jew). I arrived home in January 1963. I had been in France for more than a year.

Union Castle

Union Castle  The mountains in the distance are the “Twelve Apostles” a few miles from the centre of Cape Town.


Before I left Cape Town for my first trip to France, I had already completed two years of my B.A. at the University of Cape Town (1960-61). On my return from France I registered for my final year of philosophy (Ethics, Logic and Metaphysics, and Political philosophy). In 1961 I had completed a course in “French Elementary,” which was a misnomer; it included enough complicated grammar to give you subjunctivitus (to wit, the imperfect subjunctive Il eût fallu que nous allassions; so simple in English “We had to go”). I wanted to do a further course in French in this my final B.A. year. I went to see the Head of French, Professor Shackleton, and asked to skip French 1 (which followed French Elementary) because in my humble opinion my French, after my studies at the University of Strasbourg had reached at least the French 1 level. (See In Search of French Past (4): Student at the University of Strasbourg). He said my French language wasn’t the issue. (We were talking in French). He asked me, “What do you know about French literature?” My French courses in Strasbourg focused only on language. My knowledge of French literature was scanty. I mentioned Moliere. The Professor wanted something less dated. I went numb. Then a flotilla of billboards floated out of the fog festooned with titles of various plays that were on during my stay in Paris. I had little idea what these plays were about. I chanced a few titles. The upshot: I sailed into French 2. I graduated at the end of 1963 with majors in Ethics, Logic and Metaphysics (one course) and Political Philosophy, and French 2.

Here would be a good place relate how I got into the B.A. French Honours programme (the next degree after the B.A.) at the University of South Africa. In South Africa, I had completed my French major, Course 3 (1971) as an external student at the University of Cape Town. In 1983. I was teaching French at Mmabatho High School, South Africa. I wanted to do a B.A. Honours in French so I went to visit Professor Haeffner, the Head of Modern Languages at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. It was our first meeting. I met him in the corridor outside his office. He said that he was not taken in by bits of paper (B.A. ShmeeA). He didn’t invite me into his office. He proceeded to interrogate me then and there – in the corridor – to establish whether I was Honours matériel. Now what could this scabrous man ask me in a corridor that would convince him I was up to scratch? As it turned out, it was what I asked him that convinced him that he had taken on more than he could spew. Here is our conversation. My comments are in italics:

Prof – What is a “military parade” in French?

He’s trying to stymie me with one of the many English-French “false friends” faux amis, in this instance the French parade, cannot be used to translate “military parade.”

Me – Un défilé militaire.

He wasn’t expecting the right answer. Before he could ask me another, I shot back with my question.

Me – “What does de fond en comble mean?”

This means “from top to bottom” or one could say “from top to toe.”

Prof – “From top to bottom.”

Me – Wrong. That’s only half-way (I twist my arm behind me and pointed down to my derrière; in Yiddish, toches, and said: It means all the way down: from top to toe.

And that’s how I switched off Professor Bok Drol (Afrikaans for “Buck Poo”) and got to do the B.A. French Honours. It was the hardest studies I had ever done. I completed the degree two years later (See my “A Jewish view of a French bottom).

After my B.A. Graduation in December 1963, I longed to return to France. I wrote to Louis-Albert and he invited me to accompany him on more of his travels. On my first trip to France, my father paid for a return fare and gave me a monthly allowance of 25 British pounds. This time I had a little more difficulty convincing him to pay for me to go back to France so soon after my first trip. I told my father that he need only pay for a one-way ticket and I would fend for myself. I planned to go on to Israel to join my brother Bennie on a kibbutz. I had very little money. I returned to Paris late in the evening. My bed for the night was a sleeping bag on the bank of the Seine.

I spent the night  in my sleeping bag a few metres from the steps on the other side

I spent the night in my sleeping bag a few metres from the steps on the other side


Before sunrise I was awakened by a tap-tap on my head; a gendarme’s boot. I had the address of a fellow philosophy student, Rick Turner, who had also graduated in 1963; Me with a B.A. In philosophy and him with a B.A. Honours in philosophy. He was doing a doctorate at the Sorbonne on the political philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. I visited Rick and his wife, Barbara and baby girl, Jann, in their little flat. Barbara was also a student at the University of Cape Town. Barbara later remarried and is known today as Barbara Follett, who became a Labour MP in the UK. I was surprised that Rick was doing a doctorate at a French university. I had no idea that he knew French well enough to write a thesis in French. Jean Paul Sartre wrote the foreword to his thesis.

I told Rick I was going to the South of France. He gave me some money to buy a book for him that was unavailable in Paris but was available at a bookshop down South. I said I would post the book to him. I never did; instead I used the money to buy a train ticket to Bordeaux where I was to rejoin Louis-Albert. A few years later, I was visiting the University of Cape Town where I bumped into Rick. He yelled “Where’s my money?” I gave it to him. In today’s money it was about £7. And that was the end of our meeting. I never saw him again. Rick is well known as an anti-Apartheid activist. In 1974, He was shot dead through the window of his house, and died in the arms of his daughter Jann, who was that sweet little baby I saw in her mother’s arms in Paris exactly 50 years ago.

From the Daily Maverick, 15 July, 2014:

“Four months after Steve Biko was beaten to death in police custody in 1977, fellow activist, academic and philosopher, Rick Turner, was assassinated in his Durban home. Both men offered South Africans – black and white – transformative new ways of thinking about and framing themselves and society. Their ideas were such a threat that authorities at the time tried to wipe both men off the face of the earth. MARIANNE THAMM revisits Turner’s legacy and what it might offer contemporary South Africa.”

A short biography of Rick can be found here.

Louis-Albert and I went by train Belgrade, Yugoslavia where we spent ten days in a religious house. I think it was the Augustinian fathers. We then took the long train trip over the mountains to Thessaloniki where we stayed with the Marist Brothers. I enjoyed walking along the pier where Paul, the Apostle, must have walked. I accumulated a large amount of luggage on this second trip. I asked the Marist Brothers to store most of it in their loft, which I would retrieve on my way back to London, where I intended to fly home. Louis-Albert accompanied me to the port of Piraeus in Athens where I took a boat to Haifa.

I visited Paris again in 1973 for a few days. At the time I was a French teacher at the Jesuit St George’s College in Harare (Salisbury in 1973) and it was the July-August holidays. I did not see Louis-Albert on this occasion. From Paris I went to Florence and then on to Istanbul. Istanbul is more hilly than Rome. I walked everywhere. My most memorable experience of my ten days in Istanbul was not the Topkapi museum or the mosaics in the Hagia Sofia but the savage images of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” I had no idea what the movie was about. Here is a description of the movie:

A Clockwork Orange is a 1971 British film written, produced, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange. It employs disturbing, violent images to comment on psychiatry, juvenile delinquency, youth gangs, and other social, political, and economic subjects in a dystopian future Britain.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the main character, is a charismatic, sociopathic delinquent whose interests include classical music (especially Beethoven), rape, and what is termed “ultra-violence”. He leads a small gang of thugs (Pete, Georgie, and Dim), whom he calls his droogs (from the Russian друг, “friend”, “buddy”). The film chronicles the horrific crime spree of his gang, his capture, and attempted rehabilitation via controversial psychological conditioning. Alex narrates most of the film in Nadsat, a fractured adolescent slang composed of Slavic (especially Russian), English, and Cockney rhyming slang. (Wikipedia).

I walked out of the derelict stone movie house into the fresh summer light. A great depression came over me. I began the long walk back to my hotel gulping in the fresh sweet air trying to drive out the darkness that saturated my soul; a darkness endemic to our human condition – “man’s estate,” from which there is no earthly rescue. This morning I was reading Paul’s letter to the Colossians 1:12-14:

[Give] joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”

I visited Albert for the third and last time three decades later in 1993 at the Dominican priory in Nice. I was on my way home to my university (Fort Hare) in South Africa from Moscow where I had attended the XIX World Congress of Philosophy and presented a paper entitled “Multiculturalism in Education: An African view.” (My paper appears here). Louis-Albert had just returned home from one of his monastic retreats. I stayed a few days in an hotel opposite his priory. He gave me a French Pilot’s leather fleece-lined jacket from World War II, a raincoat and a large painted hand-carved wooden crucifix. The leather jacket would have added at least five kilos excess to my baggage so I carried it onto the plane.

I flew from Nice to Heathrow for my return flight to Johannesburg. Before boarding the plane, I stuck the foot of the crucifix into a tog bag on my back. Most of it protruded out of the top. I was wearing a blue T-shirt that was given to delegates at the Moscow Congress. The front of the blue T-shirt was decorated wit the emblem for the Congress: HOMO with the globe of the world in place of the first “O”. Here is a picture of the T-Shirt selling on Ebay for $39. Change the world, bro.

Emblem of XIX Congress of  Philosophy, Moscow, 1993.

Emblem of XIX Congress of Philosophy, Moscow, 1993.


How meanings have morphed! “Homo” is also Latin for “Man.” Philosophy is about Homo’s wishto be Sapiens. Nowadays, homo just wantsto be homo. Many of the passengers were Afrikaners. I walked down the aisle to my seat to the tune oftitters and gasps. I could swear I heard: “Man, wat diefok’s met dié ou!” (Man, waht the f-k’s with this bloke).

I gave the crucifix to my daughter. A few years ago, the heavy thick leather jacket later saved me from great injury. I was riding my scooter in a busy section of my home city, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, when the scooter slipped on a section of road under repair. The scooter fell over on its right side and slid along the ground. I was not badly hurt. I noticed that the leather on the right elbow side of my jacket had been shaved away. If not for the thick leather, I would have no more elbow room.

In search of French past (7): The hermit, the poet and the clown


In In search of French past (6): To a monastery you will go,” I described my stay at several monasteries in France. The last one was the Abbey of Lérins on the island of St Honorat off the coast of Cannes.

I don’t remember when we went to Lourdes, but this is as good a place as any to say something about it. This market town in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains is famous for the apparitions of Mary, the mother of Jesus. These apparitions were reported to have been seen by Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Lourdes is the most famous of all Marian shrines. It has the second most hotels per square kilometre after Paris. Mass pilgrimages, many for physical healing, take place from March to September. The water in the grotto is said to have healing properties. Whether it is the clear water that heals or the faith poured into it, is not clear. With regard to miraculous cures, the big difference between the Roman Catholic Church and many of the modern “Charismatic” churches, for example, the “Word of Faith” prosperity movement (Benny Hinn, TBN, God TV) is that whereas the Roman Catholic Church is very cautious about miraculous cures – only about 70 have been declared authentic since 1858 – the Word of Faith “miracles,” in contrast, are legion, and some of their names may be legion too (Mark 5:9). Here is a picture of Lourdes with the Rosary Basilica towering over the landscape.


When I was at Lourdes in 1962, the sides of the walkway down to the basilica (in the picture) were festooned with booths marketing their wares: statues of Mary and rosaries of all shapes, colours and sizes, and other objects of veneration. During the pilgrimage months, you couldn’t see the lawn for the market. Several decades later, when I had left the Roman Catholic Church for Protestantism and, consequently, read my Bible, I found a striking comparison between a passage in the book of Acts and the booths at Lourdes.

About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

If you want to search for other photos of Lourdes on the internet, you’ll need to search for more than Lourdes, otherwise you’ll end up with photos of Madonna – the other Madonna, and her daughter, Lourdes, in the mix.

After France, we visited a few monasteries in Italy and then on to Rome. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) had begun the previous month. One of the monasteries was a hermitage whose name I was only able to recall with recent help. I sent two photos, one of Louis-Albert and I standing on a hill to Frère Laurent Béthoux at the Dominican priory (couvent) in Nice, France. Louis-Albert had been moved from Bordeaux to the Dominican priory in Nice, where he lived for many years until his death in 1992. I asked Frère Laurent whether he recognised the background in the photos. As there were many details lost in the fog of time past, I also asked him whether there was any record of Louis-Albert’s peregrinations for the years that I had travelled with him.

Louis-Albert and Raphael. I m wearing L-A's cape.

Louis-Albert and Raphael. I’m wearing L-A’s cape.



Louis-Albert Lassus

Louis-Albert Lassus

Frère Laurent said he thought the background in the photos was the hermitage of San Girolamo in Italy. He sent me an aerial view of the hermitage.


Here is the translation of his email to me followed by the French original in brackets:

Hello! Nothing, alas, in the papers of Father Lassus about his peregrinations. Thank you very much for these beautiful photos of the young Father Lassus. It seems to me that they were taken near the hermitage of San Girolamo in Italy. I am sending you these aerial pictures of the hermitage. Best wishes. Fr. Laurent Béthoux).

(Bonjour!  rien, hélas, dans les papiers laissés par le Père Lassus concernant ses pérégrinations. Grand merci pour ces belles photos du jeune P. Lassus : ont été prises me semble-t-il, près de l’ermitage de San Girolamo en Italie dont je vous envoie ces vues aériennes. Avec mes sentiments les meilleurs. fr. Laurent Béthoux).

Louis-Albert wrote about a dozen books, most of them on hermits; for example, Romuald of Ravenna, the hermits of Camaldoli (Les Camaldules) , Denys of Chartreux, Séraphim of Sarov, and Nazarena.

Louis-Albert never created the impression that he wanted to become a hermit. He seemed content with his life in community, not only in the Priory but also socializing with other people. On several occasions we visited his friends, sometimes spending a few days. There was an artist whose house was his studio, which he shared with his wife and several children. Finished and half-finished paintings covered the walls. Easels, brushes and twisted tubes of paint were scattered everywhere. A scruffy sofa and other soft furnishings hinted that the room was once a lounge. The artist had a son called Jean-Baptiste. He was about 14 years old. Jean-Baptiste and I went to visit the Rodin Museum. When we came upon Le Penseur “The Thinker,” Jean-Baptiste stood very still in front of the marvelous sculpture. I asked him what he was thinking. What else would you ask somebody gazing in rapture at “The Thinker”? Jean-Baptiste replied in a quivering voice: Ça me donne le cafard “It gives me the blues.” I was surprised that such a young person could be so affected by this kind of art. But I was forgetting that Jean-Baptiste was from an artist family. We walked around the museum and looked at other Rodin sculptures.  Jean-Baptiste limbered along. I tried to cheer him up, but it was no use.  He had, it seemed, lost all hope, all belief; in retrospect, he had – already at 14 years of age -lost the desire to live. I was also quite down in the dumps. Years later, I heard that he had killed himself. He was in his early twenties. I thought back to the cluttered “salon” that was his home. Did it mirror Jean-Baptiste’s turbulent soul? I often think of him. Why are you so downcast, o my John the Baptist? (See THE PASTOR, THE PENSEUR AND THE INFIDEL).

Le Penseur (The thinker) -Auguste Rodin

Le Penseur (The thinker) -Auguste Rodin

On our travels through Southern France, Louis-Albert and I stayed the night with his friends in several towns such as Narbonne and Arles, who regaled us with gourmet dinners, the finest vintage. Conviviality good food and wine and being together was good.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is

    when brothers dwell in unity!

 It is like the precious oil upon the head,

    running down upon the beard,

upon the beard of Aaron,

    running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon,

    which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,

    life for evermore (Psalm 133).

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

there’s dancing, laughter & good red wine;

at least I have always found it so,

Benedicamus Domino!

(Hilaire Belloc)

Here is a description of the hermitage of San Girolamo and the daily life of the hermits, which shows not only the stark contrast between the “world” and the monastic life, but also a radical difference between the monastic life and the communal life of the Dominican Order to which Louis-Albert belonged. This is a general description of all hermitages in the West.


The phenomenon of hermitic life was prevalent in the years between 900-1000 AD and 1100. At that time, there were many men who sought to flee the world, dedicating themselves to voluntary solitude, silence and converse with God. These were the solitary Christians, anchorites and hermits typical of the time, for whom, in accordance with the teaching of St Girolamo: “The city is a prison; solitude is paradise”. This was a particular phenomenon within the Church, which began after the fall of the Roman Empire and flourished conspicuously in around 1000 AD. The mountains of Italy were widely inhabited by these solitary hermits. They lived in wild, inaccessible places, either in caves, or in huts made of stones and wood.

A collection of these cells together formed the Hermitage. Some individuals, however, felt the need to have a common base, and so the Monastery came into existence: a place where they could live together, with adjacent cells, an oratory, a church and sometimes a cloister, a refectory, a chapter-house, a library and a scriptorium.


They always lived a solitary life within the hermitage, even though they shared the roof over their heads. They could never enter each others’ cells: at most they could walk to the confines of the cells. They could talk to each other twice a week, when they went outside the cloister, but within the restricted area they could only converse in whispers. They had an inviolable rule of silence, which always had to be obeyed. On days of abstinence, they took their meals sitting on the floor, with bare feet. Meat was never eaten in the Hermitage, and during Lent the monks abstained from dairy produce (eggs, milk, cheese etc.). The consumption of meat was only permitted when someone was ill, or going on a journey. The monks always slept in their habits, either on wooden palettes or on hard straw mattresses. They dedicated themselves to manual labour, according to their individual capacities: they dug the ground, hoed, pruned, built walls, carried stones and dressed them, made bread, cooked, made clothes, did repairs, wrote and composed. They were very charitable towards guests and to the poor. When they fell ill, they were taken to the infirmary. The dead were interred in the church, in the cemetery next to the Hermitage, or in the graveyard at Paracelsus.

I continue:

In 2002, the year of his death, Louis-Albert’s ELoge de l”enfouissement (“In praise of reclusion by a hermit of Camaldoli”) was published. It was on the spirituality of the Camaldoli hermits of Monte Corona in Italy. The English term “reclusion” does not capture the connotations of total abandonment contained in the French “enfouissement.” Fouiller means to dig deep into something. Here are some examples of how fouiller is used:

  1. Archaeological dig – fouille archéologique.

  2. To search a place thoroughly, say, for something lost. “They (fouillé) searched (fouillé) the whole house but couldn’t find him.

  3. To meditate deeply on a problem before coming to a conclusion.

The prefix en (in) added to fouiller means to dig deep into hole and bury something in it – (enfouiller). Enfouissement in the hermitic life embraces all the meanings listed above, which is to bury oneself deep below the surface of the world into the mystical sedimentations of the soul, in search of the priceless treasure.


Here is my abridgement in English of the French review of the Eloge de l’enfouissement d’un Ermite Calmaldule(“In praise of reclusion by a hermit of Camaldoli”).


The  front cover of “In praise of reclusion.

Mount Corona has a Dominican friend, Fr. Louis-Louis-Albert Lassus. He published these notes for the benefit of others. The author focuses on the key values of the hermitic life, which, above all, is his cell, the “parlour of the Holy Spirit” (“parlour” derives from French parler “to speak”). With astonishing acuity he reminds us of some of the indispensable requirements of the ordinary Christian life, namely, to accept failure and not idolise success, self-effacement, unceasing prayer, mourn our sins, not to be idle, search for God and his truth by abandoning our spiritual selfishness, serve one’s brothers with alacrity, etc. Much advice on how these will also help us to remain in the love of God. The author leaves no ambiguity about the true nature of the reclusion (“burial” enfouissement) he extols: it is a burial in God alone. Heed his call.”

(Monte Corona à un ami dominicain, le Fr. Louis-Louis-Albert Lassus. Le Fr. Lassus eut le projet de publier ces notes pour que d’autres âmes en profitent. L’auteur veut souligner les valeurs fondamentales de la vie d’ermite. Avant tout la garde de la cellule, « parloir du Saint-Esprit ». Avec une acuité qui nous étonnera, il nous rappelle par la même occasion certaines exigences incontournables de toute vie chrétienne ordinaire : savoir accepter l’échec et ne pas idolâtrer le succès, veiller au recueillement, à la prière continuelle, pleurer ses péchés, ne pas rester dans l’oisiveté, chercher Dieu en vérité en abandonnant son égoïsme spirituel, servir ses frères avec disponibilité, etc. Autant de conseils qui nous aideront à demeurer aussi dans l’amour de Dieu. L’auteur ne laisse pas d’ambiguïté sur la véritable nature de l’enfouissement dont il fait l’éloge : c’est un enfouissement en Dieu seul. Un appel à suivre).

Being a devout and freshly baptised Roman Catholic, I was in awe of mystics, hermits and the like. Many decades later, I have changed my view. “Hermitic” for me now evokes “hermetic.” “Hermetic” means literally, completely sealed, especially against the escape or entry of air, and figuratively, impervious to outside interference or influence. We speak of the hermetic confines of an isolated life.

Historical linguistics teaches us that meanings of words often change over time. One must, therefore, take care not to ascribe past meanings of words to their contemporary meanings. For example, “hermetic” originates from Hermes Trismegistus (thrice great), a name attributed to an Egyptian priest or to the Egyptian god Thoth, who in some attributes is identified with the Greek god Hermes. Various alchemical, mystical, astrological, and writings were ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus . Although, we should take care not to conflate past meanings with modern meanings – I’m sure that no one in the packing business is thinking of Hermes or alchemy when they hermetically seal an item, there are occasions when such conflation may provide new insights into the modern meaning of a word. The literary technique of “deconstruction” (fathered by Jacques Derrida) digs, playfully and seriously, into the hidden sedimentations (etymologies) of language, which reminds me of the extreme hermitic forms of purifying oneself of the dross of the world and of self, striving like the alchemist, to transmute base metals into gold. The alchemist in the material realm – divination, the hermit in the spiritual domain – divinisation.

Although Louis-Albert was passionate about the hermitic way of life, this passion didn’t express itself in the desire to abandon his Dominican life for a hermitage. A reader of his books might be forgiven for inferring that his passion about the hermitic life was a yearning for reclusion. “Nomad,” not “hermit” sums him up best. He writes in his Les nomades de Dieu (1974, “The nomades of God”:

“I have been and am nothing more than a nomad, the man with a suitcase. I have run all over the world, never ceasing to encourage those of my kind, monks and nuns, and sometimes tramps and the unstable of every kind. I told them never to stop because it is they who yank the church out of its sluggish complacency.”

(Je n’ai été et ne suis qu’un nomade, l’homme à la valise. J’ai couru le monde, ne cessant d’encourager ceux et celles de ma race, moines et moniales, et parfois clochards et instables de toute sorte. Je leur ai dit de ne jamais s’arrêter car ils arrachent l’Église et le monde à l’installation et à la torpeur).

If you can’t imagine tramps (les clochards) and the unstable rattling the Church’s complacency, if you think tramps are not famous for getting off their bums, and would, therefore, not be in a position to inspire the Roman Curia to pull their fingers out of their own bums, then you can’t be French or a Francophile. Charlot (Charlie Chaplin) the tramp, the clown (pronounced “cloon” in French) means much more to French than to English speakers. Louis-Albert often talked about the sadness of clowns. In his room, Rouault’s clown hung on his wall.

George Rouault; The clown.

George Rouault; The clown.


 And then there’s the vagabond, Arthur Rimbaud, the French symbolist poet, another nomad. Rimbaud’s biography, in brief, can be found hereHere is one of Rimbaud’s poems, Ma Bohème (Fantaisie) “My Bohemian life (A fantasy).” The original French follows the English translation:

I went off with my hands in my torn coat pockets;

My overcoat too was becoming ideal;

I travelled beneath the sky, Muse! and I was your vassal;

Oh dear me! what marvelous loves I dreamed of!

My only pair of breeches had a big hole in them.

Stargazing Tom Thumb, I sowed rhymes along my way.

My tavern was at the Sign of the Great Bear.

My stars in the sky rustled softly.

And I listened to them, sitting on the road-sides

On those pleasant September evenings while I felt drops

Of dew on my forehead like vigorous wine;

And while, rhyming among the fantastical shadows,

I plucked like the strings of a lyre the elastics

Of my tattered boots, one foot close to my heart!

Je m’en allais, les poings dans mes poches crevées ;

Mon paletot aussi devenait idéal;

J’allais sous le ciel, Muse ! et j’étais ton féal ;

Oh ! là là ! que d’amours splendides j’ai rêvées !

Mon unique culotte avait un large trou.

– Petit-Poucet rêveur, j’égrenais dans ma course

Des rimes. Mon auberge était à la Grande Ourse.

– Mes étoiles au ciel avaient un doux frou-frou

Et je les écoutais, assis au bord des routes,

Ces bons soirs de septembre où je sentais des gouttes

De rosée à mon front, comme un vin de vigueur ;

Où, rimant au milieu des ombres fantastiques,

Comme des lyres, je tirais les élastiques

De mes souliers blessés, un pied près de mon coeur !

We saw earlier that Louis-Albert extols the hermit’s cell le parloir de Dieu, the parlour of God, where God speaks (French parler) in the silence; the only sound the flicker of the candle flame. Yet, the tramp, the vagabond, the nomad – if only in their mind or their poetry – rebels against incarceration; of both body and mind. They must always be on the move. Space offers vistas of opportunity. Rimbaud’s nature speaking to him alone: sky, stars, the Great Bear, the open road. Always departing, never arriving, yet wanting to possess – oneself most of all. “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it?” (André Gide). Rimbaud’s “nature,” as with most poets, is his spiritual milk, his substitute mother. Louis-Albert’s mother, in contrast, is not nature, fallen nature (corrupted by sin) but the sinless “Mother of God.”’

Jesus said “Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Louis-Albert said “Unless you become as an owl….” Si tu ne deviens comme un hibou (the title of chapter 1 of Louis-Albert’s La prière est une fête “Prayer is a celebration,” 1978). He writes (I translate):

I’ve always loved owls and I can’t understand why they are regarded as birds of ill omen…you have to become an owl yourself to cease to be afraid of themselves… I love their eyes, those enormous eyes, those eyes like icons. They fascinated the Byzantines long before me. For them, owls became the eyes of Christ Pantocrator (Greek pan “all”; cratos power), of the All Pure, of the angels and the saints. Is this blasphemy, a sacrilege? Come on now! Can’t you see, you who are wise, don’t you see, you with your rational rheumy (chassieux) eyes, you, men and women, with small half-closed eyes that God made the owls eyes so enormous to see in the night, when things are what they are and nothing else? To plumb (fouiller) the darkness…Then the darkness becomes light.” (Fouiller – ferret, pry, frisk, scan, examine, dig into, investigate, explore, plumb).

Earlier in the discussion of Louis-Albert’s “In praise of reclusion by a hermit of Camaldoli” Eloge de l’enfouissement d’un Ermite Calmaldule, I said more about fouiller).





I am reminded of an incident at boarding school in my final school year. One evening we went to a hall in town to see a Billy Graham film. I was overcome. I “made a decision” for Christ. A few weeks later, I was preaching to the boys at the Homestead. We used one of the dormitories. No standing room. They were standing in rows on the beds, supporting themselves against the dormitory walls. They were sitting on the floor between the beds. On one occasion, Jan Malan, lumbered into the hushed dorm with his owl in a cage, tight shorts hugging his  khaki crack.  This photo captures the feathery camouflage, eyes lost in shadow of Jan’s owl.

The grey  of the owl’s feathers  matched the dim-wit glaze in Jan eyes.  The focus shifted from spiritual things to the owl, from one spiritual thing to another spiritual thing, from the revealed Word of God to omens. It’s very important, for what is to follow – to know whether the omen was Greek or Roman. For the Greek, the owl augurs good fortune – the “wise old owl”, the messenger of Athene, the goddess of wisdom. If an owl flew over the Greek army before a battle, it foretold victory. The Romans borrowed the owl –as they did most things – from the Greeks. The Romans were not sure whether the owl was Arthur or Martha. On the one hand, they made the owl the companion of their own goddess of wisdom, Minerva. On the other hand, the hoot of an owl meant imminent disaster. The hoot of an owl predicted the murder of Julius Caesar. The only way to thwart the owl was to kill  it.

I told everyone to close their eyes – “not one eye open” was one of the phrases I picked up somewhere in my very short exposure to preaching. If I had known the whole altar call speech it would have gone like this:

At this time, I’m going to ask those of you who have a need in your life for God’s touch to slip up your hand, with every head bowed and every eye closed. No one will see you. We’re not here to embarrass you in any way. If you’d like us to pray withyou, I’d like you to slip out of your seats while every head is bowed and come to the front, where our team of counsellors will meet with you. This is YOUR special time, it’s just between you and God. No one is peeking. As the choir very softly sings “Just As I AM”, I’d like you to search your heart. If you feel God calling you, get up out of your seats right now and come to this altar, and our specially trained counsellors will be happy to pray with you and give you some helpful literature to guide you in your new Christian walk.”

I couldn’t see the owl, because of the press. Had he one eye closed? I was too ignorant to understand that this type of altar call – perhaps any kind of altar call – is not the way to evangelise. Many evangelists and preachers use this instant coffee approach.

In the dormitory, there was no standing room. Everyone was standing, including on the beds. You could have heard a feather drop. How was anyone to know that it was not only one of the owl’s feathers that would drop? It happened so suddenly . Where a moment before, everything was rapturous attentive, suddenly a flurry of feathers and a wild surge of screaming and shouting boys jumping over one another making for the dormitory door. Jan’s owl had fled the cage.   The terrified bird was trying to find its way between the forest of stampeding legs. It got swallowed up in the crush of the fleeing  mob. The dorm was now empty; except for Jan, the feathers and me; and the poor owl dead on the floor.

At the time I never asked God why this strange thing happened. I can’t understand to this day, what I was doing preaching to crowds so soon after “giving my heart” to Jesus. Many decades later I learnt that you can’t give your heart to Jesus; he takes it, your heart of stone, and gives you a new heart, a heart of soft warm flesh. (See THE RABBI, THE EVANGELIST AND COMING “HOME.”).



What I am going to say now about the monastic, contemplative and hermitic life, and Roman Catholicism in general would probably have hurt my dear friend Louis-Albert with whom I had shared so much.

For about two decades, Catholicism was not only intellectually impressive to me, it also appealed to the “deeper” spiritual side. Not only could you theologise and philosophise about God, you could also become one with Him. I read the mystics. The two outstanding ones are St John of Cross (I wrote about his “Dark night of the senses” whom I wrote about here) and Teresa of Avila.

The mystical kind of spirituality is very popular today among all kinds of religions and non-religions. Those who get tired of the world yearn for an experiential connection to God. But, this yearning downplays the place of faith and Scripture. It exalts “transcendental” experiences that propel the person out of the mundane into a higher “spiritual” plane. But this talking with God is not Biblical prayer. If any practice – be it prayer, or some other contemplative practice – does not square with the Bible, it is not of God. For this reason, mystical meditation and “centering” (Richard Foster, Abbot Thomas Keating) is more a flight of fancy than Biblical Christianity. Biblical spirituality involves the study and meditation upon the literal truth of the Scripture; mystical spirituality, in contrast, looks for a “deeper meaning”, where scripture is regarded as allegorical rather than literal (the normal meaning of grammar, meaning and context, where history does not become allegory).

Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein” (Jeremiah 6:16).

Jesus, the Son God, writes Andrew Murray, is our High Priest. Our boldness of access is not a state we produce in ourselves by meditation or effort. No, the living, loving High Priest, who is able to sympathise and gives grace for timely help, He breathes and works this boldness in the soul that is willing to lose itself in Him. Jesus, found and felt within our heart by faith, is our boldness. As the Son, whose house we are, He will dwell within us, and by His Spirit’s working, Himself be our boldness and our entrance to the Father. Let us, therefore, draw near with boldness!” (Andrew Murray, “The Holiest of All,” Oliphants, 1960, p. 174).

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we read:

No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). The Church invites us to invoke the Holy Spirit as the interior Teacher of Christian prayer” (CCC 2681).

It is not the (Catholic) Church who invites us (Christians), but Christ. He invites us (who is His body, the “church”)  through his Word (the scriptures) to invoke the Holy Spirit to dwell in us in a deeper way.  “He breathes and works this boldness in the soul that is willing to lose itself in Him” (Murray above).

Here is a response I received from a Catholic with regard to my argument that if prayer (for example, what I described as “transcendental” prayer) does not  square with the biblical kind of prayer, then this non-biblical kind of prayer is not talking to God, the God of the Bible.

My respondent says: “How can you say that …But this talking with God is not Biblical prayer…’ Your narrow minded, prescriptive view of the world is really sad. The sadness is that you really believe the nonsense you sprout. God is infinite – to limit him to one narrow written tradition, and to damn all other prayer is arrogance which is breath taking.”

Yes, I do limit valid prayer to one “narrow written tradition.” That is the difference between many Catholics, for example, Thomas Merton (whom I wrote about here) and Carlo Carretto (whom I wrote about here).

In Newsweek, Sept 2005, appeared a feature article  “Spirituality in America.” It said: “Americans are looking for personal, ecstatic experiences of God.” The article went on to describe the Catholic use of Buddhist’s teachings. For example, Father Thomas Keating, the abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey, noticed how attracted Roman Catholics were to the Eastern religious practices As a Trappist monk, meditation was second nature to the Abbot. Americans, like everybody else, is looking for transcendental prayer, transcendental meditation (TM), which could, it seems, also stand for “Trappist Meditation.”

The contemplative life. Here again, people left the world to pray for the world and to be closer to God. “The act of contemplation, imperfect as it needs be, is of all human acts one of the most sublime, one of those which render the greatest honor to God, bring the greatest good to the soul, and enable it most efficaciously to become a means of salvation and manifold blessing to others.” (NewAdvent).

In the last decade, contemplation as a fruitful pursuit is gaining in popularity. A popular modern author on this topic is Richard Foster. He says:

The apostle Paul withdrew for thirteen years from the time of his conversion until he began his ministry at Antioch. He probably spent three years in the desert and then approximately ten years in his home town of Tarsus. During that time he no doubt experienced a lot of solitude. This was followed by a period of very intense activity as Paul carried out his mission to the Gentiles. Paul needed both solitude and activity, and so do we. (Richard Foster, “Solitude” in Practical Christianity. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986), 305.”

I gather from the Apostle Paul’s life that he did very little withdrawing, but was continually in the thick of people. Having said that, it is true that “time spent in quiet prostration of soul before the Lord is most invigorating. . . . Quietude, which some men cannot abide, because it reveals their inner poverty, is as a palace of cedar to the wise, for along its hallowed courts the King in his beauty designs to walk. . . . Priceless as the gift of utterance may be, the practice of silence in some aspects far excels it” (Charles Spurgeon in his “Lectures to students”).

The Bible advocates time for solitary devotion, prayer and adoration of God, but not the kind of sustained and continuous withdrawal from life. Why does the Bible not contain any pattern of isolation? One might respond that an argument from silence is no argument at all, that is, just because the Bible doesn’t say anything explicit about leaving the world for a hermitage, this does not mean that it is wrong to do so. My response: the Bible stresses in many places the importance of community, how Christians are knitted together in the Body of Christ, that I should not be an Island; as much as I often wish I was.

“Let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water [the “water” of the Holy Spirit] let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: 24 and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh” (Hebrews 10:22-25).

“Be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot, but be filled with the Spirit; speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; subjecting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-21).

This does not mean you can never have a pious tipple – even if you are a Calvinist. But it does mean that the melodies you sing be sincere and true; for example, if you are going to sing “I wanna be with you-hoo-hoo, Lord,” don’t add “but not yet.”


In search of French past (6): To a monastery you will go

At the end of  In search of French past (5): Why are you so downcast, oh my soul?  I described how Albert-Louis and I met. One Sunday after Mass at St Julien le Pauvre in Paris, I was sitting on a bench in the courtyard when a Dominican priest, sat down next to me. He said he was sitting close to me during the Mass and was struck by my fervor. His name was Louis-Albert Lassus, an itinerant retreat master serving the monasteries of Europe. His birth name was Louis and his priest name, given at ordination, was Albert. I admired the monastic life very much; most Roman Catholics do, especially recent converts like me. I found Roman Catholicism not only intellectually impressive, it also appealed to the “deeper” mystical side, the nectar of the soul. Louis-Albert invited me to his priory in Bordeaux. This was the beginning of many journeys and retreats with Louis-Albert in different monasteries in France and other parts of Europe. A few weeks later, I quit my job at the food depot and joined Louis-Albert in Bordeaux whence we departed on our peregrinations “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10).

Before Louis-Albert and I leave Bordeaux on our journey, I say something briefly about the rationale, or rather mysticale, for the monastic life. In brief, monasticism in all religions is the struggle to overcome concupiscence (lust, inordinate desire): the lust of the flesh, of the eyes and of the pride of life for the soul and sole purpose of uniting with God. The most conducive environment for this purpose is generally considered to be reclusion (permanent seclusion) – in a monastery or hermitage. A key verse for such aspirations in Christendom is 1 John 2:15-17: Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 17 And the world passes away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of God abides forever.

Here is the Haydock Roman Catholic Commentary on 1 John 2:16:

All that is in the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, under which is comprehended all that pleases the senses, or the concupiscence of the eyes; i.e. a longing after such things which enter by the eyes, as of riches in gold and silver, in apparel, in houses and palaces, train and equipage, &c. curiosity as to vain arts and sciences; or, the pride of life, as to honours, dignities, and preferments. But the world passes away, and all these things that belong to it. — He that doth the will of God, abides for ever, with God in heaven.”

Matthew Henry’s Protestant commentary below says practically the same thing. Protestants, though, would would not seclude yourself away from world to be close to God.

The things of the world are classed according to the three ruling inclinations of depraved nature. 1. The lust of the flesh, of the body: wrong desires of the heart, the appetite of indulging all things that excite and inflame sensual pleasures. 2. The lust of the eyes: the eyes are delighted with riches and rich possessions; this is the lust of covetousness. 3. The pride of life: a vain man craves the grandeur and pomp of a vain-glorious life; this includes thirst after honour and applause. The things of the world quickly fade and die away; desire itself will ere long fail and cease, but holy affection is not like the lust that passes away. The love of God shall never fail.”

These three concupiscences incite the corruption of morals, indifference, unbelief, pride; in sum, the rejection of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the divinely appointed guardian and restorer of the virtues. Here is Pope Gregory XIV in the introduction to the first volume of the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, describing the strides that the Church has made in controlling concupiscence. I translate from the French, which follows in brackets:

“Societies and their institutions have undergone essential modifications: polygamy is eschewed, divorce abolished, monogamy uplifts ennobles marriage and defines the family; the wife is liberated and rediscovers her dignity as encouraged in the Gospel; chastity purifies morals; celibacy, embraced by a multitude of Christians, becomes the yardstick of higher vocations; maternity is given due honour and respect; and, above maternity, hovers the angelic virtue of virginity, which elevates the soul to a heavenly perfection. (Italics added). All these facts attest to the tempering of the flesh (the “law of he flesh”) and the beginning of a return to the unity of the spirit.

(French: Les sociétés et leurs institutions subissent des modifications essentielles; la polygamie est réprouvée, le divorce aboli; la monogamie ennoblit le mariage et constitue la famille; la femme, affranchie, reprend sa dignité avec la liberté que l’Évangile lui présente; la chasteté purifie les mœurs; le célibat, embrassé par une multitude de chrétiens, devient la condition des vocations supérieures; la maternité est entourée d’honneur et de respect; et, au dessus de la maternité, plane une vertu angélique : la virginité, qui élève les âmes à la perfection du ciel. Tous ces faits attestent l’affaiblissement de la loi charnelle et le commencement du retour à l’unité de l’esprit).

It’s very hard for most to remain celibate or virginal in this world, and consequently to rise to the virtuous heights of angelic beings, who, by nature, are sexless. Is the solution a monastery? Much more, of course, goes on in a monastery than the mortification of the body. I describe monastic life as I go along on my journey.

I stayed with Louis-Albert in the residence of the Dominican Order in Bordeaux for a few days.

We left Bordeaux for several monasteries where Louis-Albert would lead retreats for the monks and nuns. Our first monastery was a Carmelite monastery for nuns deep in the hills. I don’t recall its name. We spent about a week there. The Roman Catholic Church has decreed that The Carmelite Order is under the special protection of the Virgin Mary, and therefore it has a strong devotion to her. But then, all monastic orders, in fact all Roman Catholic priests, indeed all Catholics have a special devotion to Mary, regarding her as the mother of all graces and the way to Jesus, “the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus, the head, Mary, the neck, the conduit between the head and the Body of Christ – the Church. The “Church” for Romans Catholics means the Pope and his Magisterium in Rome; for Protestants it means believers.

Newly converted Roman Catholics often acquire very quickly a strong devotion to Mary. When I was a student at the University of Cape Town, there was another Jewish student Andrew (not his real name), who was taking instruction with me in the Catholic faith at Kolbe House, the university residence and chaplaincy. Father Peter Paul Feeney was the chaplain and our instructor in the faith. At the end of our instruction, Fr Peter Paul baptised us together. During our year of Catholic instruction together at Kolbe House, Andrew and I used to spend time sharing our joy in our new found faith – two wondering Jews wandering no more. I had rented a room in a quiet part of Rondebosch near Kolbe House. Andrew lived in the main residence on campus. Whenever Andrew talked about Catholic things, his voice quivered, his eyes shone; he was in love. I was not too far behind him. He had a special love for the mother of Jesus. Many Catholics tend to gravitate to the mother of Jesus more than to her Son. This is generally true not only of born Catholics but also of converts. There’s just something special about “Mother”, Ma-me-le (Yiddish). If you can have a heavenly father, why can’t you have a heavenly mother. Sometimes your father can be so “other.” That’s why you need mother. Mary’s role for Catholics, though, is far more than that, as several papal encyclicals make clear. For example: “Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself “in the middle,” that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she “has the right” to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession: Mary “intercedes” for mankind. And that is not all. As a mother she also wishes the messianic power of her Son to be manifested, that salvific power of his which is meant to help man in his misfortunes, to free him from the evil which in various forms and degrees weighs heavily upon his life. (Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church, 1987.03.25). (See Enough already with serving the Mass, have to get home to recite why this night is different from other nights – the Passover).

As with most of the monastic orders dating from medieval times, the First Order of the Carmelites consists of the friars , who combine activity and contemplation, the Second Order is the nuns, who are cloistered, and the Third Order consists of lay people who live in the world, who can be married, and who participate in the liturgical prayers, the propagation of religion or doctrine (the apostolates), comtemplation and prayer. There are also Carmelite sisters who are active in the world such as schools, hospitals and other social institutions.

Louis-Albert told the nuns I was Jewish and knew Hebrew. The mother superior asked me to sing for the nuns a few of the Psalms in Hebrew. She led me into an alcove, drew open a curtain in the centre of the wall opposite to reveal a grill behind which sat rows of sisters seated on tiered benches. The original tunes of the Psalms is unknown, so I made up my own, adapted from the tunes and “davening” (Yiddish for recital of prescribed prayers of the synagogue), which I was familiar with from the synagogue. “Daven” is probably derived from the church Latin divin, as in “divine service.”

I couldn’t have been closer to a mystic, if not to mysticism, than Louis-Albert, who, in his lifetime, published about a dozen books on the great hermits (solitaires, recluses) among them Romuald of Ravenna, the hermits of Camaldoli (Les Camaldules) , Denys of Chartreux, Séraphim of Sarov, and Nazarena, the recluse. He also had been leading retreats (prédicateur de retraites “retreat preacher”) in monasteries for many years. Monks on retreat – retreating deeper into reclusion (long-term seclusion).

Not all monks are hermits. Hermits hardly speak to anyone; neither do they seek one another’s company. Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk (Trappists are Cistercians who hold to a stricter observance) relates that he only spoke to another human being twice in six years. Keeping mum for such a long time does not mean that he was a hermit, that is, seldom in human company, because Trappists gather in the church several times a day for the liturgies. Don’t you want to be a monk? a Cistercian? Haven’t you had enough of the vanities of this world? The ideal life is possible. Here is a phantasmagorical version of the peace you’ve been looking for written by the Cistercian Fr. Raphael in his “The Praise of Bells.”

A call from God is how a Cistercian vocation is born. Throughout the course of a monk’s or nun’s day, this divine call finds expression in the sound of bells that call us to prayer, to spiritual reading, to manual labor, or to simple enjoyment of the company of our brothers and sisters. When night falls, the heart of a Cistercian savors the impressions of a day in which body, mind, and spirit have been formed by Christ whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light. We remember the gentle rhythms of prayer chants, the scent of a well oiled tractor rolling through fresh cut fields, the way aged wooden floorboards retain the smell of burnt incense, the heaviness of weary legs stretched out on a simple hardwood bed prepared with fresh laundered sheets. It is remarkable how swiftly the days pass in a monastery. At days end, a last bell is heard whose music delights for a moment and passes away — like a life given to God.  (In “A Monk’s Diary”, March 24, Fr. Raphael )

The real picture is not so rosy. Truth gives the low-down as well as the highlights; blurbs, in contrast, highlights only.

In the monasteries where I stayed, I spent much time alone, reading theology, the saints, the mystics, trying to pray. If I don’t pray and dwell on what I read on these topics, it remains nothing more than information (notitia) and mental assent (assensus). There would be no divine sap coming up the vine to feed the dry branches. “I am the vine, you are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Knowing stuff is not abiding. According to the world’s most famous and dangerous “theologian,” Oprah Winfrey, all that matters is to believe in a higher force (fortz, in Yiddish ). Knowing who God is, however, is crucial; our eternal destiny depends on this knowledge. Knowing who or what God is, is only the beginning. In Christianity we learn who God is through Christ, and in Christ. To know Christ in a personal way cannot be done without information about him, without learning who he is. This knowledge is found in divine revelation, which, for Protestants, is found in scripture alone, but for Roman Catholics in scripture and post-biblical tradition.

Like most Roman Catholics, I didn’t read much scripture outside the missal – the book of instructions and texts used for the Mass. “Mass” is the English for the Latin missa from the phrase Ite, missa est (“Go, it is the dismissal/sending”), which came to mean the ceremony of the Mass itself. Far was it from me to know that my missal was to revert to revert to dismissal two decades later when I left the Roman Catholic Church. They say, once a Catholic always a Catholic. They also say once Jew oiveys a Jew (See When is an “ex-Jew” not a Jew? Once (your mother’s) a Jew Oiveys a Jew . And once a Catholic Jew always a Catholic Jew.

Louis-Albert and I never discussed mysticism. Although my French was still more effluent than fluent – effluent French is good enough to pass at many universities in the English-speaking world – I could still understand quite a lot on philosophical and religious topics in French. The reason why I could understand was, firstly, because I had some knowledge of the subject matter, and secondly, French and English have many words in common with regard to mysticism, philosophy and theology. For example, here is the French translation of the italicised portion of the previous sentence, which even Peter Sellars’ English minkey would understand: “Le français et anglais ont beaucoup de mots en commun à l’egard du mysticisme, la philosophie et la théologie.” From a teacher’s view, one of the main reasons for the failure of learners who use a second or foreign language as a medium of instruction is not only poor knowledge of the language but also a lack of knowledge of the subject matter and of mental – I have to politically correct – energy. (See my Language, Content and Skills in the Testing of English for Academic Purposes).

Having joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1960, I had only been a Roman Catholic for two years. In 1961, I started my philosophy courses at my university (Cape Town). I didn’t get high marks in philosophy partly because I neglected the secular philosophy of my courses in favour of the Scholastics, the “schoolmen” of the Middle Ages such as Anselm, Abelard and Aquinas, and partly perhaps – though my children will vehemently deny this (love you Dad) – because I was not as mentally energetic as the others in my class. There were six of us majoring in philosophy. One, his surname was Cobban, went “up” to Oxford University (is Oxford on a hill?); another, Heard was his surname, became an editor of a prominent newspaper in Cape Town, and another, Rick Turner, went to the Sorbonne in Paris to do a doctorate on Jean Paul Sartre. I shall say more about Turner later on.

After the Carmelite monastery we went for the day to visit a a Cistercian monk, one of Louis-Albert’s friends, at the Cistercian monastery of Senanque. The monastery was founded in 1148. In 1544, it was badly damaged during the Wars of Religion, and was vacated. The state bought it during the French Revolution in 1791. It was restored in 1854, and the Cistercian monks returned, but in 1903 new laws against religious congregations forced the monks to leave. When Louis-Albert and I visited the place in 1962, there were hardly any monks – a skeleton staff; skeleton in more ways than one, which will become clear shortly

Before we went to this monastery, Louis-Albert and I spent the previous night with a well-to-do friend. The next day, the three of us went to visit the monk at the monastery. We didn’t enter the grounds of the monastery. It seemed we weren’t allowed to do so. We stopped on the gravel path that sloped down to the gate of the monastery. We waited for while. Two moving figures in the distance, one quite far in front of the other. As they came nearer, we saw that the one in front was dressed in normal worker’s clothes, and the one behind, the monk, was wearing a “habit” consisting of a black strip over a white robe. “Habit” is derived from the French habillement “clothes.”


cistercian habit

Senanque Abbey

Senanque Abbey

It was close to sunset and chilly outside. The monk approached Louis-Albert and knelt down before him. Louis-Albert said, “No, no, it is I that should kneel before you.” Next to Albert and the kneeling skeletal soul stood Louis-Albert’s ruddy-faced friend, puffing a cigar, swathed in a beige coat of pure wool. I think of another skeleton, this time without a soul or flesh sitting in a cage above the altar of the church in Mondsee, Austria, orbiting the extravagant wedding Mass for the dashing Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews, his bride. The hills are alive. (See The Bishop under the Bell Jar – and the food!).

skeleton konrad_basilika_mondsee

Louis-Albert and I went to Barcelona to spend 10 days with Jaime Torres (“Jaime” pronounced like the Jewish name, Hymie – add the guttural ch) – James Bull in English. Wh en it came to Spanish I knew as much as Edith Piaff’s “Non, rien de rien” (no, nothing of nothing). Louis-Albert spoke Spanish fluently because he had been a missionary in Argentina for many years. There was much festivity in Jaime’s house over those ten days.

On the train journey back to Bordeaux, France, we broke our journey at Miranda. I had previously asked Louis-Albert if I could spend some time at a hermitage. He arranged for me to spend a solitary night, in both senses of the word, at a hermitage. I left Louis-Albert behind and took a tatty taxi with bad shocks. We travelled about14 kms on a narrow pot-holed road into the winding hills. It was dark and very cold when I arrived at the hermitage. I knocked on the front door, a little panel in the door opened. I couldn’t see the face behind it. I pushed the note Louis-Albert had given me through the opening. The big door opened. A hooded smile greeted me and with few words, which is less than a few words, the monk came outside and led me to a very large building with many windows and several storeys. We entered the building and climbed a few flights of stairs. My host led me, candle in hand, down the passage into one of the rooms. He lit another candle from his own, left one on the table, turned round and left, closing the door behind him. In the morning I learnt that this building had been abandoned for many decades; the few hermits that remained occupied the part of the monastery whose door I had knocked on the previous night.

A thin quilt covered the hard mattress on the iron bed. The candle flame threw flickers of shadow and light across the ceiling and stone walls. It was freezing. I lay on the bed, covered myself, and thought of Edmond Dantès in the dungeons of the island fortress of the Chateau d’If, the first prisoner to escape from the island. I heard a scratching sound coming from the bottom of my door. A hatch I had not noticed, opened and a tin plate slithered into the room. The hatch flopped back. I heard no footsteps coming or going. Hungry as I was, I couldn’t eat the mess of pottage.

I crept back under the quilt and tried to sleep. I was alone in this giant deserted building that use to house thousands of monks over the centuries. Shadows skated up and down the window. No angels for comfort. The wind howled. I had a “madeleine” moment; a remembrance of time past, of time lost. Marcel Proust wrote a gigantic novel called “A la recherche du temps perdu (In remembrance of time past). The most famous passage in Proust’s novel is “La petite Madeleine” (a small cake):

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?”

My “madeleine” moment, in contrast, was more of a maudlin moment. I’m seven years old, in the Cape Jewish Orphanage’s holiday camp at the beach town of Muizenberg, South Africa. I have a cough. They’ve left me all alone after lights out; the other children are in the hall doing nice things. It’s so windy. Something is scraping at the window. Please come back quickly, please! I shivered myself to sleep. The scraping against the window was the unsurprising branch of a tree.

After Toulouse that we went to stay at the Cistercian Abbey of Lérins on the island of Saint-Honorat (Lerina in Roman times) very close to Cannes in Southern France. In 410 Saint Honoratus, a disciple of a local hermit,Caprasius of Lérins built a monastery on the uninhabited island. Saint Honoras intended to live alone as a hermit, but before he could say “peace” was ambushed by disciples, who formed a monastic community around him, which, 17 years later was bursting, it seems, at the you know what.

One of the greatest leaders of this monastic community, the famous Vincent of Lérins, a semi-Pelagian, attacked Augustine’s theology of grace.Two of Augustine’s most popular sayings are, the more know, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” and “Grant what You command, and command what You desire” – both his “Confessions”. It was the second that got Vincent of Lérins’s goat. For most Christians and all Jews, “Grant what You command…,” evokes dismay, outrage and total contempt. That was Pelagius’s reaction, the famous rival of Augustine, in their dispute of the role of God’s grace and human will in salvation. For Pelagius, as for Judaism, the role of grace is highly exaggerated and leaves little play for man’s free willy. Nilly, says Augustine. When an Augustinian (we say Calvinist today) reads the Bible, he sees man freely following his heart. The man thinks, he desires, and his mind directs that desire to its object. The will is not a noun, it is a verb, a present continuous, always willing, moving, in its natural state, away from God (of the Bible). Man is dead, totally dead, totally deprived of the love for God; in other words, totally depraved. And that includes his willing. And that is the original Bible doctrine of ”original” sin; willy-nilly. (See The pith of ”It’s not he who willeth.” Romans 9 and free will).
One morning at passed a cadaverous monk shuffling his way to one of the daily liturgies in the chapel. His pallor melded into the marble hue of his robe. It w
as all sunshine and green outside. When I went to Rome a few weeks later and saw Michaelangelo’s Pietà’, I thought of the white marble face of the monk wafting past me in the corridor of the church in Lérins.



Island of St Honorat and monastery

Island of St Honorat and monastery

Lerins Abbey

Lerins Abbey

Coastline of St Honorat

Coastline of St Honorat

I left Louis-Albert to spend 10 days at the Dominican priory in Toulouse, which served as a training centre for priests. Here is an abridged description of the Dominican vocation to the priesthood.

“The 7-year process of becoming a Dominican priest or brother (known as “friars”) is called “formation”. The first year is called the novitiate. Novices engage in prayer, study, and various ministries. The Dominican formation process is both rigorous and balanced to ensure that candidates are well-adjusted and suited to this special calling. By offering a unique combination of tradition and contemplative life (wearing a “habit”, engaging in common daily prayer) balanced against preaching, teaching, and ministry in the greater community, the Order seeks to produce well-rounded, spiritually mature men who will provide outstanding leadership and genuine pastoral care to the People of God. The second step of formation occurs after the novice completes his year-long process of study, discernment and ministry in Denver. After taking first vows at St. Dominic Church in a ceremony called “Profession of Vows,” the novice becomes a professed student brother. The student brother engages in philosophical and theological graduate studies for approximately six more years before his ordination to the diaconate and priesthood.”

In Catholic seminaries, three of the first four years of study are devoted to Greek philosophy, mainly Aristotle. Aristotle is central to Catholic theology because Thomas Aquinas ((1225 – 1274) built much of his theology on Aristotle.  The bulk of Catholic theology derives from the dazzling intellect  of Aquinas whose Summa Theologiae/Theologica covers almost the whole of Catholic theology. He stopped working on it the year before he died in 1274 . (Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy and Education in the Middle ages)..

I aped the student priests’ routines. At meal-times, the only voice heard was that of the reader at his lectern. The books he read were not always of a religious nature, which is a good thing, because most Dominican priests work with people, and need to know what’s going on in the world. Although Christians are not meant to be of this world, they are meant to be in this world, which the Bible says applies to every Christian.

“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:14-16).

I asked one of the senior priests to observe me during my stay and tell me, not whether I was following the rules of the place, but when I was being selfish. He raised his eyebrows, said nothing and walked off. Now, how on earth could he or would he want to spend time filching through the trough of my soul? Monsieur Raphael you took too much butter at lunch and poured too much olive oil on your salad. Plus (de plus) you flare your nostrils at others. He didn’t understand: I often got a blocked nose. How else was I too breathe?

After dinner, I joined the student priests in an alcove outside the dining room, where they were allowed to socialise. The ceiling of the alcove was very low. Two close rows of stooping young men facing each other, walking in the same direction. When we reach the one end of the alcove, it’s the turn of the row that walked forwards to walk backwards. Backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards. One of the students told of a good laugh he had one time. What amused me was not what he was amused about, which escapes me, but how he expressed himself. J’ai vachement ri, he said. This means “I laughed my head off” or “I was in stitches.” Allow me to translate“I laughed my head off in French” into French: J’ai ri (I laughed) matête (my head)… shucks French has no word for “off.” “Erf” should do it: J’ai rima tête erf. Wonder what’s the French for “Gamar off.”

The literal French of J’ai vachement ri is “I laughed cowly.” Turning a noun into an adverb ”cow” to “cowly,” that was funny. There is a French processed cheese called La vache qui rit “The cow that laughs.” A laughing cow is a happy cow; a happy cow is a healthy cow. The same with people, including monks. There is the French insult: Vous parlez français comme une vache espagnole “You speak French like a Spanish cow.”

La vache qui rit

La vache qui rit

It was October 1962, the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Louis-Albert and I were off to Rome. Home?



In search of French past (5): Why are you so downcast, oh my soul?

In the previous chapter, I described my student days at the University of Strasbourg and my sojourn in Perugia, Italy. After three weeks in Perugia, I hitch-hiked to Rotterdam to collect a letter from my father that contained my monthly allowance. A Belgian gave me a lift all the way from Strasbourg to Brussels, a distance of 431 km. As he was a Flemish-speaking Belgian, not a French-speaking one, and didn’t know French, I spoke Afrikaans to him, a South African language, which I learnt at school. My first language is English and I speak Afrikaans well because not only did I take Afrikaans as a school subject – which was compulsory in South Africa at the time – now no longer so but I also attended a dual-medium school for five years where all subjects except languages was taught in both languages, where the teacher would switch between English and Afrikaans in the same lesson. Afrikaans originated from Dutch. The Flemish consider their language to be Dutch as well, but the Dutch think of it as “ a funny little lingo.” There are many Dutch and Flemish variants. The variant of Flemish my Belgian spoke was very similar to Afrikaans: his funny little lingo and my kitchen Dutch.


When I arrived in Brussels, I took the train to Rotterdam and went to the Post Office to collect my letter. It wan’t there. I didn’t think that in 1962 you could phone South Africa from a public phone in Europe. I no longer had any strength to carry my heavy brown bag. I saw a man standing outside his house near the river bank who let me store my bag in his garage. I walked to the centre of the small river bridge close by, leaned over the barrier. ”Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Psalm 43:5a).

I backed away from the the barrier, crossed the bridge, came to a stone church and entered the poorly lit dank interior; a Protestant church because there were no statues. I knelt down in one of the pews prayed. What I prayed, I cannot recall. The rest of Psalm 43:5 I quoted above would have been appropriate: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” I left the church and aim for the centre of the city. I was walking along eyes on the pavement when I nearly crashed into a young “couple” (which in 1962 still could only mean a man and a woman) walking in the opposite direction. I must have looked wretched because they asked me whether I would like something to eat. They led me into a restaurant where they treated me to a ham omelette, toast and coffee. My hands quivered so much from hunger and fatigue that my fork battled to find its destination. The good Samaritans pretended not to notice. This pretense had, of course, the opposite motivation of the priest and the Levite of the parable , who “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:25-37).

The couple contacted the authorities who retrieved my bag and put me up in a youth hostel, where I was told to stay until they had contacted my home in South Africa. After four days, they informed me that they had phoned my father who said that he had posted the money not to Rotterdam but to Amsterdam. I was given the train fare to Amsterdam. The letter was there with my monthly allowance of £25.


My student card from the University of Strasbourg was valid for all French universities, which meant that I could eat lunch at any university restaurant in France at a cost of £14 a month, which though cheap in absolute terms was expensive for me, because I only had £25 allowance. I needed a job. I took the train to Paris where I found accommodation in a university residence close to the Jardin du Luxembourg, which was not difficult to find because the students were on long vacation.

jardin du luxembour


“Regrets, I had a few, too few to mention.” A familiar line from the song “I did it my way,” and a big lie. One of my regrets was making an appointment with someone but letting him down. At the university residence I met Luc, a Quebecois, who was studying cinematography. We had arranged that he would fetch me from my room and we would go out to a restaurant. When Luc arrived to fetch me, I was in conversation with an English-speaking student, and had forgotten all about my arrangement with Luc. He knocked on my door. I opened, and for some reason, I looked surprised to see him. He said he was sorry to intrude and left. I was stricken. My thought was that Luc felt that I preferred someone someone who shared my mother tongue to him. The truth was that the Englishman was a big yawn. What is more, although English is my mother tongue (not my mother’s tongue, which was Yiddish), I wasn’t “English.” I felt much more comfortable with the folks from Calais than from Folkstone.  

After a few days, I registered with the tourist bureau as a French-to-English interpreter. My first job was a trip to the Palace of Versailles. I was the guide’s interpreter on the bus. After the tour, the group asked me where they could spend a good night out. This was my chance to return to the small restaurant in the Latin Quarter where I had been a few days earlier and had fallen in love with the Spanish dancer in the band. My first visit to this restaurant was at the invitation of a two North American students. When the boy went to the bathroom, I asked her if he was her boyfriend. Not at all, she said. She seemed to take to me. I wanted to ask whether I could see her again. She gave me her address but I didn’t contact her again. What I did instead was slip a postcard into the post box at her university residence wishing her a good life. And rode off into the night like the man of La Mancha – on my ass. “O! that ye would read [the scriptures] oftener, and ponder them better, how there is nothing in this world,—which may seem to fall out by chance to you, that you know not how it is to come to pass, and can see no cause nor reason of it,—but it falls out by the holy will of our blessed Father. Be it of greater or less moment,—or be it a hair of thy head fallen, or thy head cut off,—the most casual and contingent thing,—though it surprised the whole world of men and angels, that they wonder from whence it did proceed” (Hugh Binning). In short,  “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33).

I took the Versailles tour group to the restaurant. The meal was very expensive and second-rate. I couldn’t eat the black inky paella. They were shocked at the bill. They paid my share. An elderly American in the group was furious for wasting his last precious night in such a tacky, expensive place. What I could have pointed out to him was that the Folies Bergère would have been much more expensive if not less tacky. Besides, all that matters in this life is to see the Spanish girl again, which I did, boxed in by her extended family.

The job at the tourist bureau was not well paid – the guide gets all the tips (“tip” in French is pourboire; “for drinking” – what else?). I got a job as an interpreter at a big food supply depot. Trains delivered the supplies and workers would unpack them from the trains and load them on to trollies that transported them to the hangars. The workers would rip open random boxes and help themselves to some of the contents. Chocolate bars were popular because they could be wolfed down quickly. I don’t recall participating. I lunched with the workers. A morass of red faces – not because caught red-handed, but because of all the bottles of red plonk they drank at, or more accurately, for lunch. On rainy days, I brought my umbrella to work, which caused much merriment. My nickname was “parapluie” (umbrella).

I attended Sunday Mass in the small church of Saint Julien le Pauvre situated near Notre Dame Cathedral. The church was first mentioned in the 6th century in Gregory of Tours “History of the Franks,” which makes it the oldest church in Paris. It is now a Roman Catholic Church of the Melchite Greek rite, a branch of the Byzantine church. Its interior is like a Greek Orthodox church, embroidered with icons and frescoes. There are no statues as would be customary in Roman Catholic churches of the Latin rite (the vast majority of Roman Catholic churches). Since Vatican II, the Mass in most churches is no longer celebrated in Latin. I felt the same Byzantine ambience in Saint Julien le Pauvre as I felt in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London, which also has a Byzantine interior. I preferred icons to statues because, they were less physical, and therefore, more “spiritual.” I never liked that song “Let’s get physical, physical, I wanna get physical, let’s get into physical, Let me hear your body talk, your body talk, let me hear your body talk.” Talk about what? What not.

st julien le pauvre

One Sunday after Mass, I was sitting on a bench in the courtyard (behind the trees on the left of the picture) when a Dominican priest, sat down next to me. He said he was sitting close to me during the Mass and was struck by my fervor. His name was Louis-Albert Lassus, an itinerant retreat master serving the monasteries of Europe. His birth name was Louis and his priest name, given at ordination, was Albert. Here is a photo of Louis-Albert, which he gave me.


Louis-Albert Lassus

Louis-Albert Lassus


 I admired the monastic life very much; most Roman Catholics do, especially recent converts like me. I found Roman Catholicism not only intellectually impressive, it also appealed to the “deeper” mystical side, the nectar of the soul. Louis-Albert invited me to his priory in Bordeaux. This was the beginning of many journeys and retreats with Louis-Albert in different monasteries in France and other parts of Europe. I describe some of these in the next chapter. A few weeks later, I quit my job at the food depot and joined Albert in Bordeaux whence we departed on our peregrinations “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10).


In search of French Past (4): Student at the University of Strasbourg – and much ado about lying

Most people either cannot write, are too lazy to write or don’t have the time to write, or all three. Some who can write, and have time to write and are energetic enough to write will do so but avoid writing about their own lives – an autobiography. The reason why some shy away from autobiography is because there are thoughts and actions in their lives that are either too painful or too shameful to disclose. Many – probably most – people, though, take a less dim view of their lives. Where some feel failure and shame, they see the “courage to be.” to let it all hang out- spill the beans if not your seed. Yet no matter how great the courage “to be”, there always remain things many prefer to hide – not because they are coy, but because they know that it would shatter their image. Secretly they are proud of the dirty linen they would be ashamed to hang out in public. They can’t resist keeping it to themselves; so, they reveal it vicariously; they write novels in which they create a surrogate through whom they can not only exhibit themselves with impunity, but also get paid to do it.

In autobiography, there is a nobler reason for not revealing all – “all” invariably means “all the evil we do”. Often, the evil involves an accomplice. As long as the evil is not a “crime”, we have no right to make public the evil deeds of others. For example, if a couple decided to abort their child, and one of them wanted to write about this in an autobiography, it would be wrong to do so unless the other approved, for, not only will the other partner be adversely affected, his or her relatives and friends will also be affected. Some sins are between you and God alone; that is, if you believe in God or in sin more than being (in)famous at any cost. (See OneDaringJew: An AutobiogRaphy).

At the beginning of 1962, after the second year of my B.A., I decided to go to Europe, especially France. I would finish my B.A. on my return the following year. My father offered to pay for my ticket and gave me an allowance of 25 British pounds. After three months in London (See In search of French past (1)), I took the ferry to France. In search of French past (3): French philosophy, Paris and fleeing the OAS, I described my brief sojourn in Paris and hasty “escape” to Strasbourg.


france germany map use

My father sent me an allowance of 25 British pounds a month. It barely covered the basics. I loved the French banknotes, surely the most beautiful in the world. Cardinal Richelieu (10 New Francs) on the left; the playwright, Molière, on the right, worth 50 Richelieus. Talk about the “Purpose-driven life”: what can be more fulfilling than crumpling a Richelieu, not even to mention a Molière, in your pocket.


Ten New Francs 1960s500 New Francs

I rented a room in the Avenue de la Forêt Noire (Black Forest Avenue) close to the main campus of the University of Strasbourg where I registered as a full-time student. Tuition was free with a small fee for registration. My main subject was French for foreigners. I also attended a few philosophy lectures where students translated from Greek and Latin texts. How far did my £25 British stretch? Monthly rent was £10 and meal tickets £14. The shortfall I “borrowed” from students and took a job during the university vacation for three weeks in a furniture factory in Wissembourg on the Northern French-German border, and one day in a canning factory in Strasbourg, where I stamped the rubber seal onto can lids whizzing past on a conveyor belt – and didn’t get paid. Why only one day? I could’ve taken the boredom for a little longer. I was in the staff bathroom washing my hands, had just picked up a bar of soap when one of the ladies snatched it away. “Get your own.” Not something you should tell a lonely sensitive Jewish Catholic boy, so abruptly. I fled the factory.

On Sundays and several times a week, I attended Mass in the crypt of Strasbourg Cathedral, and sometimes at one of the small university residences close to the cathedral. Some of us would gather in a prefab student residence in the grounds of the Chateau de Pourtalès. Only rich students could afford to stay in the chateau itself.

You wish

You wish

How I envied the ruddy well-fed chap playing classical guitar surrounded by an adoring crowd. Westerners are losing their wonder at the staggering contrast between men and women. This guitar episode came to mind five years later, when I started to learn the classical guitar. I still play and practice regularly.

A Dutch student friend, more than twice my age, had been doing French for a few years. I asked him why he never said a single French word. He said that when he was ready to speak he would do so (it’ll all pour out, will it!). That is not how you learn a language; your mother tongue or an extra language.

A Catholic student friend lived on a farm in the Vosges mountains. He was lame (boiteux) in one leg. He invited me to his farm for a weekend. As we climbed up the hill to his farmhouse, a man, also lame in one leg, hobbled down to meet us – his father. Their farmhouse could be this very one I found on the internet.

vosges as i remembered he farm

Strasbourg is in Alsace and is part of France. Besides French, the indigenous language, “Alsatien,” a Germanic language, is spoken. I overheard my friend’s father ask him whether I was “katolische” (a catholic). Very much so, his son nodded. On Sunday we walked through the woods to a little chapel where we attended Mass.

For breakfast, the father brought down from the loft a slab of smoked fat interlaced with filigrees of bacon. Decades later travelling on a train from Moscow to Kiev, a portly occupant in my compartment offered me at daybreak a slab of pure lard. It went down, well, not so well with her, because, I turned down her offer. I’m not a “Messianic Jew” who balks at bacon, but rather like Jack Sprat, who could eat no fat. “Messianic Jews” are followers of Yeshua (they don’t like saying “Jesus”); many of them observe the Jewish dietary laws. But then what about Peter’s vision of the sheet descending from heaven?

“The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, [Simon] Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour [12 noon – lunch time] to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven” (Acts 10:9-16).

One of the landmarks of Strasbourg is the Goethe statue at the entrance to the main campus of the University. I passed many a quiet moment on a bench close reading French Catholic philosophers like Jean Guitton and Etienne Gilson in French. The previous year (1961) I had registered at the University of Cape Town for courses in philosophy where one of my philosophy professors, Martin Versfeld, had inspired my interest in modern Catholic philosophers, many of whom are French. Now, if only Goethe were French, that would make it all picture perfect. Alas, Goethé looks silly. Anyone for a cuppà thé.


Statue of Goethe

Statue of Goethe

Why did French grip me so. It all began the previous year (1961) at Cape Town University. I was lunching with some friends in the cafeteria. One of them was studying French Elementary. His French textbook (Brooks and Cook) was lying (French gisait) on the table in front of him like a dead thing. Something stirred within me. I picked up his book, opened it at random and began to declame. “Very good,” he said. I knew less French than Peter Sellars. And he only knew “minkey” and hotel phrases like “Have you got a rhume?” A room where the previous occupants had flu. Was some kind of anamnesis (remembrance of things past) going on? It was the Greek philosopher, Plato, who said you don’t learn anything new; you knew it all the time. So, not only, as the Preacher said, is there nothing new under the sun, neither is there anything new in your noggin.

During A short university vacation I was hitchhiking with a German student around France. We almost came to blows over who was the greater – Goethe or Shakespeare. I knew very little Shakespeare, and less about him.

There was Roberta, who was 10 years older than me. We went to a river bank café where I serenaded her with a Johnny Mathis version of “A Certain Smile.”  When the song ended, she told me off. I had to do hard rethink on the meaning of romance, if not of languages. One of my failings in later life is equating sentimentality   with romantic love – between husband and wife. There’s a saying, Les Français, toujours les sentiments “The French, always feelings.” Sentiments (feelings) in French is not equivalent to sentiments in English. I remember how much the girls at school in Wellington, South Africa used to swoon when I serenaded them. As the advert goes for some lotion or other, “It’s not just about feeling but about feeling.” How much I was appreciated the year before when I performed  “A certain smile” for the University of Cape Town Catholic students at our Kolbe House concerts. With Roberta, Romance was in the air, choked by the rancid smoke of the omnipresent Gauloise. (Gauloise is a popular cigarette in France). One weekend, Roberta and I cycled to Freibourg in Germany, 86 kilometres from Strasbourg.


Route from Strasbourg to Freibourg

On the way home in the cold drizzle, we stopped off an an inn where we mulled over wine. I couldn’t understand why Roberta was so shortshrift, why she paid me scant affection. She, ten years my senior, was wiser than I. After leaving the inn, I got so miffed with her that I rode on ahead and left her behind to ride home on her own. I bought a huge slab of cheap dark chocolate, went back to my lodgings, got into bed and wolfed down the whole slab. I got very sick. A few hours later she came to see me and asked me why I had left her behind. I didn’t know what to say; I did a bad thing.

I loved my navy blue duffel coat that was my second skin in England. It was getting warm in Strasbourg, so before class one day, I hung it on one of the dozens of hooks in the foyer. After class I returned to retrieve my coat. It was gone. So that’s why all the other students carried their coats.

The academic year at the end of June. I went to Wissembourg for three weeks where I got a job in a furniture factory.


Wissembourg (French-German border)

Wissembourg (French-German border)

On the outskirts of town, I rented a room in a modest double-storey house alongside the railway line. The landlady dressed in black every day. I never asked the reason why she did so. I assumed that this was her custom. At the time I was too dense to consider that she might be in mourning – over a deceased husband, perhaps, and that was why she was taking in a lodger.

When I arrived, she was very kind and asked me whether I was hungry. She offered me a bowl of rissoto (creamy rice). Afterward she said: That’ll be (so much) for the rent plus (so much) for the rice. I don’t remember the exact amount. Something snapped inside of me. After the previous few months of self-pity, Now this phony kindness, the greedy eyes set in the parchment face framed by spindly black hair.

To exit the house, I had to pass her room, the door was always open. There she is lying on her bed, staring at the doorway. Go. Do it. Into the room; hands round her neck. I had been going after work to the empty church to pray: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-44).

At the furniture factory, I spent my three-week vacation removing freshly varnished sheets of hardboard from conveyor belts, which others stapled onto the back of wardrobes. The alcohol in the varnish made me dizzy and my lungs burned.

In my lodgings on my last day in Wissembourg, I slipped off my precious embossed leather cover from my “The Imitation of Christ” – and went to her room. She was lying on the bed. The French gisait [giZe] (from Latin iacere “to throw, cast down”) captures the moment. Gisait (was lying) often refers to the dead or dying. I wanted her one or the other. The sound gisait also evokes ooZing lifeblood. Never before or since had I wanted to strangle someone to death. She leapt off her bed. I held out the leather book cover and thanked her for being so nice to me. I turned and walked out of the room and out of her life.

“I want to strangle you” is generally a harmless outburst; no more than a venting frustration. But it’s more serious when you don’t say it but think it, feed it, sleep it. Should such homicidal inclinations be accepted as part of the human story, part of life, of the evil inclination (Hebrew: yetser hara) of our human frame? No, for such thoughts, indeed hatred, which is their source, can send you to hell: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22a). Jesus says, following on: “… anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Who, then, can be saved; who is able to avoid damnation? Here is what Jesus says about the rich man. “And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26).

Few believe in hell anymore. And heaven? We all end up there; except Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Hmmm.

A few weeks later I celebrated my 21st birthday in the Black Forest. I rode my bicycle down the Avenue de la Forêt Noire (Avenue of the Black Forest) out of the city into the Black Forest along the narrow beaten tar road that borders the Maginot line. I rested at one of the crumbling bunkers along the way.


The Maginot Line

The Maginot Line

The Maginot Line was a gigantic fortification stretching the length of the French-German border. Maginot, Minister of War between 1922 and 1924, pushed for its construction. General de Gaulle  preferred military mobility to fortications, proaction to reaction, but others argued that Germany might feel less threatened by fortifications. When Germany made its move in 1940, it bypassed the Maginot line and attacked France through neural Belgium, and this vast, intricate Maginot defence just lay (gisait) there to be crumble and get ingested by the living wood.

In July, I left France and  went to Perugia, Italy, to visit a friend, Gerard, from my Cape Town University days with whom I stayed for three weeks. Gerard had a bursary from Italy to study, surprise, Italian. I had learned a little Italian, which is easier than French. Italian is a phontic language – spoken as it is written – like African languages, for example Tswana, a language of South Africa. Dumela is Tswana for “Hello.” The stress in Tswana and Italian falls on on the second-last syllable. Tswana – “duMEla.” The e is pronounced as in “egg” and lengthened “du-MEEE-la.” Tswana speakers can pronounce perfectly the Italian word doMAni (“tomorrow”). When, however, it comes to the French equivalent, demain, that’s different. What makes academic Italian relatively easy to understand is that its vocabulary has much in common with English. After all, half of the English vocabulary comes indirectly from Latin. Latin is a phonetic language, which developed into the Latin languages – also called Romance languages – like Italian, French and Spanish. These are also called “Romance” languages, not because knights went weak at the knees everytime their “Dulcineas” sighed, but because these languages originated from the Romans. Dulcinea is the lady of Don Quixote’s impossible dream. (Seventeen years later I was to be Don Quixote. See In search of French past (2): English Effluence).

I attended art history classes, Italian, at the Summer school of the University of Perugia. I understood quite a bit. It also helped to have some background in the history of art. Here is an Italian sentence. How much do you understand? Michelangelo era uno dei più talentuosi artisti in italia. No, “era” doesn’t mean “era,” “dei” doesn’t mean “deist,” and piu doesn’t mean “poo.” It means “Michelangelo was (era) one (uno) of the (dei) most (piu)…the rest – talentuosi artisti in italia – you should know.

During my stay, I visited Assisi several times. Many art historians believe the Basilica of Assisi to be the cradle of Italian art. Giotto’s frescoes adorn the Basilica. Thirty five years (1997) after my sojourn in Italy, many of Giotto’s paintings as well as those by Cimabue and others were destroyed in an earthquake. I left the Basilica, climbed down the valley, sat down on the grass, opened my knapsack and spread out the cheddar, rye bread, black olives and bottle of red. My déjeuner sur l’herbe (luncheon on the grass). Why – this is for those who want more juicy bits to my story – did I get the feeling I hadn’t really had lunch?

Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe

Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

After three weeks with Gerard in Perugia, I made for Holland where my father had posted my monthly allowance. Gerard lent me a few pounds. He never got it back.

In search of French past (3): French philosophy, Paris and fleeing the OAS

In “In search of French past (2), I described the English “effluent” in my life. I never took to things English but was drawn more to the continent. Why antipathy to English culture when my first language (the language I knew best) was English. I say English was my first language, which is not the same as mother tongue. Children of immigrants, – my parents were Yiddish-speakers – often do not speak their mother’s tongue, which is what we mean by a “mother tongue.” I can think of two reasons for my dislike of English culture.

The first reason originated during my school years at Wellington High School (Grades 10-12).  I was doing poorly at school but began to improve in the middle of Grade 10. I remained poor at English literature. I had spent my early childhood in an orphanage (ages 4 to 9) where there was no story time, and no books that I was aware of. I don’t remember ever being read a story, or reading one. The Orphanage started out as a home for orphans, but ended up as a refuge for children from broken homes. Here is an excerpt from Professor Abrahams message in Eric Rosenthal’s out-of print ”The Story of the Cape Jewish Orphanage: Golden Jubilee 1910 – 1961”. The Orphanage was demolished two or three decades ago:

“Jewish standards of philanthropic endeavour generally and the loving care lavished on orphans in particular are proverbially praiseworthy. Of Oranjia it can be said that it has maintained that tradition at the highest level.  The very name is characteristic: we do not speak of the “Orphanage,” with all the unhappy Dickensian nuances attaching to such a name. We call it “Our Children’s Home” or simply Oranjia (the name of the original house); because the little inmates are our children and their dwelling-place a home in the noblest sense of the term….it is eloquence of the Jewish spirit and influence of Oranjia that throughout the fifty years, very few of our children have gone astray.”

If only Professor Abrahams  had remembered his Bible: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6a). That is why we need a mediator, as we read in the rest of the verse: and the Lord has laid on him (the Messiah, the suffering Servant)  the iniquity of us all. (See The Cape Jewish Orphanage (5) – Chief Rabbi Abrahams and Dr Verwoerd: the not-so-odd couple).

When I was at home (ages 9 to 12), it was the same story; no stories, no books. In my senior school years (15-17), I preferred pubescent adventure stories like Biggles, eventually graduating to Jeffery Farnol’s “The amateur gentleman” and Rafael Sabatini’s “Shame of motley.” Swinging down from masts, swinging a cutlass; action, acting a part, to escape being; being cut off. The story of the Suffering Servant, the Lamb who was cut off (Isaiah 53 above), that’s the story of all stories, in whose radiance all other stories pale. God has redeemed and transformed my lost stories into the image of the Son he loves – and written me into the Lamb’s book of life. His story has become my story.



The second reason for my growing aversion to English culture was my early Catholicism. I entered the Catholic Church in 1960 at the age of 19, during my second year at university (see here). Most Catholics – in the 1960s at least – considered Anglicans to be heretics. Therefore, I reasoned, Englishmen are heretics. Today, of course, most Englishmen are either agnostics or “ignostics.”  [1]

The continent, especially France, was very Catholic. But wasn’t Italy (in the 1960s) just as Catholic as France, even more so? What did France have that Italy didn’t?  France was more appealing because during my First Year Philosophy, my Catholic professor of philosophy Martin Versfeld introduced me to French Catholic philosophers such as Jean Guitton, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. Gilson’s philosophy was in the Thomas Aquinas tradition. In my first few years of Catholic fervour,
Etienne Gilson

Etienne Gilson

I, like any sensitive Jewish intellectual convert to Rome, spent many hours reading Thomas Aquinas. In Catholic seminaries, three of the first four years of study are devoted to Greek philosophy, mainly Aristotle. Aristotle is central to Catholic theology because Thomas Aquinas ((1225 – 1274) built much of his theology on Aristotle.  The bulk of Catholic theology derives from the dazzling intellect  of Aquinas whose Summa Theologiae/Theologica covers almost the whole of Catholic theology. He stopped working on it the year before he died in 1274. (Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy and Education in the Middle ages).
The fifth of Thomas Aquinas' proofs of God's e...

Thomas Aquinas

I so wished I could read these French writers in the original, a wish that came true when I renounced the intense desire for friends, but never for neighbours, when I caught the French fever. “Grammaire” gave me goose bumps. With French and neighbours, I was the richest man in town. There’s a  hit song of the  1950s called “Friends and neighbours.” Mine was “French and neighbours.” Here are my lyrics adapted from “Friends and neighbours.”

When you’ve got French and neighbours

All the world is a happier place

French and neighbours

Put a smile on the gloomiest face

Here is Billy Cotton’s version.

Besides philosophy, Professor Versfeld also knew what was cooking. One of his memorable stories was how to make a seafood chowder. In his Food for thought – a philosopher’s Cookbook, we learn all about “the art of slow cooking, thinking about what you are cooking, and—most importantly—thinking while you are cooking:

“The art of preparing and eating food is inextricably intertwined with the meaning of life. There is nothing better than preparing, talking about, philosophizing over, and finally partaking in a slow and languorous meal, especially once the the mind set is adopted that making time for something is an expression of love. The Philosopher’s Cookbook is the manifesto of one of the great minds of today: a cookbook, a philosophical enquiry, and an essay on the human predicament.” (The blurb of the book).


Another cookbook that had a big influence on my life was a French one: Brooks and Cook’s “French Elementary,”  my first French grammar. There were two of these books: the green, volume 1, and the red, volume 2. The green was for “go; you can do it,” the red for “hmmm, are you sure French is for you? Both books had to be completed in a single year. At the beginning of 1962, after the second year of my B.A., I decided to go to Europe, especially France. I would finish my B.A. when I returned. My father offered to pay for my ticket and give me an allowance of 25 pounds. After three months in London I took the ferry to France (See In search of French past (1).

I arrived in Paris in February, 1962.  and booked in at a youth hostel. Paris was in turmoil because of the mayhem caused by the “OAS”  Organisation de l’armée secrète –Secret Army Organisation,” who were planting bombs all over Paris.

The bombing campaign was a reaction to President Charles de Gaulle’s declaration that Algerians had a right to decide their own destiny. As a result, he proposed a referendum for the Algerians. Algeria had been a French colony since 1830 and became independent in 1962.

A few days after my arrival at the Youth Hostel, several cafes were bombed and people were killed.  After watching the TV of one of these incidents, I pulled out my map of France looking for a safe haven far from Paris. I chose Strasbourg, in Alsace, on the Eastern border with Germany. I don’t know why I chose to go East; it may have had something to do with the name “Alsace,” which I associated with the Alsatian dog of my childhood. My brother, Sammy called him Mannetjies (little man) after the Springbok rugby player of the 1950s, Mannetjies Roux. I was fleeing the centre of French language and culture, Paris-Isle-of-France, for a region where the locals’ cultural language was, it seemed to me, a  Yiddish patois, but was in fact a low Alemannic German called Alsatian German – Elsässerditsch ; French – Alsacien. Alsace has switched between French and German control several times.

I enrolled at the University of Strasbourg in a French course for foreigners.

[1]   Here is a comment from a Jewish admirer of her rabbi. “Why is what is definitely not a new story “a big deal”? Not only has Humanistic Judaism been around for quite some time, but I remember decades ago a hooraw [a commotion] about a self-proclaimed “ignostic” rabbi .. He refuses to call himself “agnostic” because he thinks it is IN PRINCPLE possible to know whether or not God exists, just that we do not know. (A distinction constantly elided in the sacrosanct Popular Usage of “agnostic”).” I thought that the “agnostic” simply believes that he doesn’t know; not that he claims that it is not possible to know. Most atheists claim there is no God because they claim to know that they can never know. If they go up in a space ship, will they find God! NOOOO. Zilch. That settles it.

In search of French past (2): English Effluence

Elizabeth Browning
Elizabeth Browning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the second chapter in which I relate the French influences in my life. In the first chapter, I described my “amniotic” gift for French revealed to me in a student’s mess. I also described my journey from Cape Town via Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique, Chad and London on my way to my intended destination, France. In this chapter, I describe my three-month interlude in London: the English effluences in my life. I must say, though, that these effluences in my early life were far less effluential than my experiences in England four decades later  as a supply teacher in their horrrendous schools.

The peccable priest

I went from the airport straight to the Overseas Visitors Club, which catered for visitors from the British Commonwealth; mostly South Africans, New Zealanders and Australians. In the foyer, a large billboard dominated one of the walls. I scanned the “accommodation offered” and found a room to let. After a few nights at the Overseas Visitors Club, I moved in to the Hostel. Being a recent and devout convert to Roman Catholicism, my new accommodation was a Catholic student hostel for foreigners. Most of the lodgers were English-speaking West Africans. My room was only big enough for a narrow built-in cupboard, a bed, a compact table, a chair, and a little perverse coin-operated gas heater that was not partial to coins. Enter clammy room, pull up chair to heater, slip off soggy coat, shoes and socks, insert coin in the slot, splay toes, and Bob’s your carbuncle.

The chaplain of the hostel was a middle-aged Irishman, slightly built with black hair, black eyes and black cassock. When people, especially students, congregate indoors during cold, snowy winters, the air can become rather ripe. It was February, so taking a bath is not for faint-hearted Africans – black or white ones (moi). On one of those bleak wintry days, I visited the priest in his office. Screwing up his swarthy countenance, he said that black students were rather redolent. Now you might asked why would the priest say such an olfactory thing to me; surely, few (in Britain, at least) would countenance such a thing. Ah, he thought that as I was a South African, I would have a sympathetic ear, if not nose, for his olfactory malaise. Catholics are taught that just because the Catholic Church is infallible, this doesn’t mean that its leaders are impeccable. The priest was not infallible.


Laugh the beloved country

One cold rainy evening, I went to watch a “classic” movie in the hostel’s auditorium. It was jam-packed with residents ripe for some good entertainment. “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” was showing; the 1934 black and white version with Norma Shearer, Frederic March and Charles Laughton. The film is about the real life romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Elizabeth’s father is very opposed to their relationship. Elizabeth has a mysterious illness that makes her too weak to stand or walk properly. The father continually reminds Elizabeth that she will die if she exerts herself. Robert Browning arrives at the house and they share their passion for literature. They fall in love. Elizabeth gets stronger, but her father tries to persuade her that this is merely a short remission, and therefore needs to remain confined to her wheelchair. Her father behaves very cruelly to his other children.

The reaction of the African audience to this film is my most vivid memory of my stay at the hostel. They laughed at all the “wrong” moments; for example, when the father (Edward Barrett) brutally grabs Elizabeth’s sister’s wrists and compels her to confess that she had been seeing a man (Surtees) without his permission, the hall erupted in titters, chuckles and chortles. There were several other tender exchanges between Elizabeth and Robert that generated peals of unbridled mirth.

Don Quixote

Sixteen years later, I had a similar experience, but much closer to home. I was teaching French at Westerford High School in South Africa. The school put on the musical “Man of La Mancha.” I was Don Quixote (“x” pronounced as the guttural “ch” in Scottish or Yiddish, or Scottish Yiddish). We had a special performance for black pensioners.

In the last scene, an old man lies dying. He once believed that he was the great knight, Don Quixote of La Mancha. Sancho, his devoted manservant, tries to cheer him up. Aldonza (the servant girl, whom Quixote transformed in his imagination into Dulcinea, a princess) pleads with him to remember just once more his former glory. I begin to stir as she helps me remember. I try to rise, the old fire returning. But in that moment, I crumple and breathe my last. Aldonza will not accept my death. When Sancho addresses her as Aldonza, she flashes back, “My name is Dulcinea”.

Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso

Throughout the whole death scene, Sancho was drenching my shoulders with his tears soaking my violet silk shirt that I had bought in Old Jerusalem six years earlier (1973). It was indeed the end for my dear talented supporting actor, for whom the tragedy was too much to bear. And the audience? My dying moments were swallowed up in a rhapsodic hilarity reverberating through the hall.

The Albert Hall: fluent interlude

I bought a “portable” tape recorder, which required a mini-trolley to lug around. One evening, I put it into a canvas carry bag with a long strap and slung it over my shoulder and took the tube to the Albert Hall. Benno Moisevitch was playing Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Emperor.” I bought a cheap ticket in the “gods” (the upper balcony). It was illegal to record performances but I did anyway. I held the bag on my lap, with one flap open on the microphone side.

Although I was, like most teenagers of the late 1950s, a great fan of Elvis Presley, I also loved Mario Lanza, whose songs I used to sing outside the window of the girls’ boarding school in Wellington, South Africa where I went to school. Being from a Jewish home, where most of us either sang opera or played the piano or violin, nothing, not even Elvis could erase my “classical” roots. Music in my home – making music – was our main recourse and source of joy. Izzy (my father) played the violin, Minnie, Sonia and Rachel (my sisters) played the piano, and Fanny (my mother) and Sonia sang. Most of the songs, whether opera, “Your tiny hand is frozen” (La Boheme, Puccini) or “Mein Yiddishe Mama,” were in a minor key. When the music was playing, everything was warm; when it stopped, it was mostly sad.

And now Beethoven in the Albert Hall. I felt the effluent of my lonely London life pouring out the sluice gates of my wretched soul. As I was so far away from the orchestra and soloist I wondered how the recording would turn out. I returned to my rhuemy room at the Catholic Hostel, removed my clammy duffle coat, placed a coin into the heater box, sat on the bed, rewound the tape recorder. The recording was excellent.

Of coffins and trolleys

In London I found a job in a clothing distribution firm delivering parcels of clothing to the shops in the London city centre – the same brands to different shops. Some of the shops were in posh areas such as Regent and Oxford Streets and Piccadilly Circus; others were in the back streets of Soho square. On my return visits to these shops, I noticed that the price of the same pair of socks cost double in Oxford Street compared to Soho Square.

Sometimes the consignments were too big to be delivered by hand and when this occurred I used a porter’s trolley. In the 1960s, British Rail sold off many of its old trolleys. They came in useful for the hand-delivery of coffins. I couldn’t find a picture of the trolley I used, but I found a similar one. my one, however, was one long oblong without a front rest, and long enough to transport a whole coffinful of parcels.

 Place a long oblong box on the trolley. Pack it full with parcels. It’s cold outside. I pull the cape of my duffle coat down over my eyes, hunch up against the icy wind and push the trolley down the very busy pavements of Oxford and Regent Streets, carving a path through crowds of death-hating shoppers.

Often there was no need to manoeuvre through the crowd; at the sight of the coffin wheeling towards them, bodies stepped aside in courteous obeisance. A policeman is staring at me. I pass him, I push back my cape to uncover my innocence, and smile.

During my three months stay at the “firm” I had delivered a small graveyard of coffins. I deserved a raise. The boss explained he was already paying me almost as much as his permanent staff.

English Prime beef

After few weeks at the Catholic student hostel in Manor House, I moved into a room in Parsons Green. The Landlord was a young Puerto Rican, who rented out some of the rooms in his house. I once overheard him shouting at his little skinny wife that if it wasn’t for him, she would still be grovelling in the slums of Puerto Rico. She was crying because her husband had moved his wedding furniture into the room of his nimble nubile tenant. The puny pock-marked wife pitted against a juicy piece of prime British beef.

Sunken in the Cathedral

I often sought refuge from the city in the Catholic “Westminster Cathedral” near Victoria station, where I also frequently attended mass. I came upon the Cathedral by accident. I was wandering around the environs of Victoria station when I came across what I took to be a Greek or Russian Orthodox cathedral because of its Byzantine architecture; a strange sight next to the other typical grey London office blocks. The interior of the Cathedral is decorated in mosaics.

The Catholic church conducts its services according to the Roman rite (which is the majority rite) and the Eastern rite. Eastern Orthodox churches such as the Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches practice the Eastern rite but they are not in union with Rome. Westminster Cathedral uses the Roman rite.

In London there is also the Westminster Chapel (a misnomer, because it is very big), a Protestant church where Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones (formerly a Harley Street specialist), arguably the greatest preacher and Bible commentator of the 20th century was pastor (1939 to 1968), who had and continues to have such a great influence on so many, including myself. Many decades ago, Westminster Cathedral (1962; Martin Lloyd Jones at Westminster Chapel was close by) was my refuge; today, it would be – if I lived in London – Westminster Chapel. From Jew to Catholic to Protestant; from a Catholic Jew to a a a Calvinist Jew! What is the world coming to? No, a better question is, where is the world going to?

After three months in London and the coffin business, I crossed the channel (with help from train and ferry) and arrived in Paris in February (1962).

In search of French past (1)

Marcel Proust in 1900

Marcel Proust

In this part of my story, I focus on the French influences in my life.   In “Of Hebrew Remnants and Greek Republics,” I mentioned that after failing my medical supplementary exams in February 1960, I registered for a B.A. I wanted to start “pure” philosophy courses straight away, but these could only be taken in the second year of the B.A. My first year subjects were Psychology I, Sociology I, Hebrew Special, Greek, and Roman Literature-and-Philosophy.   I was having lunch with some friends in the cafeteria. The cafeteria was on the ground floor of the distant building in the picture. Its windows faced the side with the white pillars. Jameson hall is the large building on the left.


Jammie steps (Jameson Hall)

Jammie steps (Jameson Hall)


English: A la recherche du temps perdu In Sear...

English: A la recherche du temps perdu In Search of Lost Time. My thoughts went to that great work by Marcel Proust when I came across this scene. One wonders what hopes and ambitions went into this place, now gone for ever, lost on the edge of a modern housing estate. People have to live somewhere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the students at the table was studying French Elementary. His French textbook (Brooks and Cook) was lying (French gisait) on the table in front of him like a dead thing. Something stirred within the bowels of my being. I picked it up, opened it at random and began to declame in francais (?). I was amazed when someone said, “very good.” Comment est-ce possible! (“How was that possible!” Comment if you think that is possible).I knew less French than Peter Sellars. And he only knew “minkey” and hotel phrases like “Have you got a rhume?” Flu?). Was some kind of anamnesis (remembrance of things past) going on. It was the Greek philosopher, Plato, who said you don’t learn anything new; you knew it all the time. It’s all recall.  I am reminded of living Jews who believe that in some mysterious way they were also present with Moses at Sinai. If they were not brought up in this tradition, this does not mean, according to this view, that they were not “at” Sinai but merely that they have no recollection of being there; they have merely forgotten and need to recollect. Is some kind of reincarnation involved? (Reincarnation and Anamnesis (recollection) in Judaism).

The following year (1961) – my second year BA – I registered for courses in pure philosophy: ethics I, logic and metaphysics I (which went together) and political philosophy I. The second-year courses in these subjects were regarded as Majors (where the usual Major consisted of three courses). I added Hebrew “Special” (see here) and French Elementary to the academic year.

In the 1960s, foreign language courses were grammar based as they had been in the past. In the grammar approach you learn the elements of the language to build up sentences and progressively bigger chunks of language. Nowadays, foreign language courses are much more communicative where you start with using the language and then home in on the grammatical elements. The grammar approach is a much quicker way to learn a language but it has a major drawback: you have to learn lots of rules, which – without a well-oiled noggin – can be taxing. If, however, you’ve got a high EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) you can still learn a foreign language – if not as well with a high IQ; it may just take a little longer, which is fine, because if you have a high EQ, you won’t mind waiting a little longer for your sweeties. 

I threw myself into Brooks and Cook’s  two French books for beginners; the green, volume 1, and the red, volume 2. The green was for “go; you can do it,” the red for “hmmm, are you sure French is your thing? Both books had to be completed in a single year.

Because my focus is on the French influences in my life, I shall omit unrelated events.  At the end of 1961, having passed all my courses and the second year of the B.A. (I write about my first-year medicine here), I decided to go to Europe for a year. I would finish my B.A. when I returned in 1963. My parents, Issy and Fanny, were baffled about what I was doing the previous two years. But Issy kindly continued to pay my fees. They knew I was doing “Feeloshofie”. So, they possibly reasoned, maybe it’s possible to get a qualification in the philosophy of life at university, and work myself up, and maybe own the university one day. But isn’t it a bit meshugah (crazy) to have to pay for such a qualification? Issy put up with my meshugas. At least his son was at university. Issy did many kind things for me that I never appreciated enough. For one thing, he let me change my university course from Medicine to Philosophy, he not having much idea what Philosophy was except that it didn’t sound like you could make a good living from it. And now, he was paying – asking no questions – for me to go to Europe. I planned to spend six months in England and nine months in France. Issy would pay for the fare and give me a small monthly allowance of 25 British pounds, which I would need to supplement with jobs in Europe. I departed in December.

The South African Airways fare from Johannesburg to London was expensive. The Overseas Visitors Club was offering a much cheaper fare. There was also the option of returning home by ship on the Union Castle Line. There was a snag though. In the Overseas Visitors Club option, you couldn’t fly Cape Town-Johannesburg-London but had to take a much more round-about route from Lourenço Marques (now called Maputo) in Mozambique to London. Included in the fare was a two-day train trip from Cape Town via Johannesburg to Lourenço Marques (Maputo) a distance of about 1800 kms The plane to London was medium-size grey propeller plane. The cabin was much narrower than modern planes with two seats on either side of the passageway. We made a stopover in Chad.

In the Chad airport terminal, I saw a Chadian in flowing robes with two women in tow, who could have been his wives or daughters. I’d never been to a Muslim country before, or been out of South Africa. I was warned that one thing you never do is stare at the women. The two “wives” were covered from head to foot in flowing peacock blue. Only their eyes were showing. One of them had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was also staring at me; pleading for me to whisk her on to my white horse to escape her cruel husband – who was too busy to notice. It must have been a fleeting moment but seemed forever. Suddenly I swept her into my arms and onto my Arab stallion and made a dash for the exit, her father/husband in pursuit, slicing the air with his pearl-handle scimitar. We wrenched our eyes away from each other. 

After a few hours wandering like a Jew round the markets outside the airport feeling blue, peacock blue, I boarded the plane for the next stage from Chad to London. The flight over the Sahara took half a day. I arrived in London in the middle of a very cold winter. The first thing I did was buy a dark blue duffle coat. 


Related:  In search of French past (2): English Effluence



A Jewish view of a French Bottom

In When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?, I mentioned that one of the perils of translation is “false friends” (faux amis), which is the idea that a word in the target language ( the language you are translating into) may look like the word of the source language (the language you are translating from) but does not share a common meaning. For example, the Yiddish naar/nar originates from Hebrew na-ar, but Yiddish naar and Hebrew na-ar have different meanings. The Hebrew na-armeans“lad, young boy,” whereas the Yiddish naar, means “fool.”

Translation between languages, though not as demanding as translating translators from one place to another, bristles with problems. In the 1980s, I was teaching French at Mmabatho High School, South Africa. I went to visit Professor Haeffner, the Head of Modern Languages at the distance university, the University of South Africa. The occasion was my desire to do a B.A. Honours in French (which is done after the B.A., which I had obtained from the University of Cape Town).

I met Professor Haeffner in the corridor outside his office. He was very bristly and discouraging; but not as much as a rabbi accosted by a gentile who wanted to become, not merely one of the “sons of Noah” (bnei Noach), but wanted to go the whole hog – be a Jew. The Prof was not taken in by bits of paper (B.A. ShmeeA). He wanted to test me then and there – in the corridor – whether I was Honours matériel. Now what can you ask someone in a corridor that will convince you that he will be able to do “French Honours.”

Prof – What is a “military parade” in French (Aside – “I’ve got the Yiddishe fool; watch him say “parade militaire”).

BogRaphy (moi) – un défilé militaire. (Aside –Who’s laughing inside now!).

Before Prof could ask me another, I shot back:

BogRaphy: “What does de fond en comble mean?” (BogRaphy’s ghost voice: de fond en comble means “from top to bottom” OR “from top to toe”).

Prof: (bristling – this time with confidence): “From top to bottom.”

Bography: Wrong. That’s only half-way (I twist my arm behind me and, like a onederringjew, index myderrière – for those who don’t know French – toches).It means top to toe.

A mutual hee hee hee. And that’s how I laughed my way into B.A. Honours (French). I returned to our little house in Mmabatho, built a make-shift wood and green fibre-glass lean-to on the side of the house, and spent many gutsy gusty night hours agonising over J.-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet’s contrastive analysis of French and English. If a Frenchman had to stagger into this conversation and groan – that in his English Honours translation class – he was (also?) “agonisant” over Vinay and Darbelnet, it would mean something completely different: he didn’t survive the course. Another “false friend” faux ami.

Agonie (French) refers to death pangs or mortal agony.
Agony (English) means severe physical pain or mental anguish.

In When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?, I mentioned that one of the perils of translation is “false friends” (faux amis), which is the idea that a word in the target language ( the language you are translating into) may look like the word of the source language (the language you are translating from) but does not share a common meaning. For example, the Yiddish naar/nar originates from Hebrew na-ar, but Yiddish naar and Hebrew na-ar have different meanings. The Hebrew na-armeans“lad, young boy,” whereas the Yiddish naar, means “fool.”

Translation between languages, though not as demanding as translating translators from one place to another, bristles with problems. In the 1980s, I was teaching French at Mmabatho High School, South Africa. I went to visit Professor Haeffner, the Head of Modern Languages at the distance university, the University of South Africa. The occasion was my desire to do a B.A. Honours in French (which is done after the B.A., which I had obtained from the University of Cape Town).

I met Professor Haeffner in the corridor outside his office. He was very bristly and discouraging; but not as much as a rabbi accosted by a gentile who wanted to become, not merely one of the “sons of Noah” (bnei Noach), but wanted to go the whole hog – be a Jew. The Prof was not taken in by bits of paper (B.A. ShmeeA). He wanted to test me then and there – in the corridor – whether I was Honours matériel. Now what can you ask someone in a corridor that will convince you that he will be able to do “French Honours.”

Prof – What is a “military parade” in French (Aside – “I’ve got the Yiddishe fool; watch him say “parade militaire”).

BogRaphy (moi) – un défilé militaire. (Aside –Who’s laughing inside now!).

Before Prof could ask me another, I shot back:

BogRaphy: “What does de fond en comble mean?” (BogRaphy’s ghost voice: de fond en comble means “from top to bottom/from top to toe”).

Prof: (bristling – this time with confidence): “From top to bottom.”

Bography: Wrong. That’s only half-way (I twist my arm behind me and, like a onederringjew, index my derrière – for those who don’t know French – toches).It means top to toe.

A mutual hee hee hee. And that’s how I laughed my way into B.A. Honours (French). I returned to our little house in Mmabatho, built a make-shift wood and green fibre-glass lean-to on the side of the house, and spend many gutsy gusty night hours agonising over J.-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet’s contrastive analysis of French and English. If a Frenchman had to stagger into this conversation and groan – that in his English Honours translation class – he was (also?) “agonisant” over Vinay and Darbelnet, it would mean something completely different: he didn’t survive the course. Another “false friend” faux ami.

Agonie (French) refers to death pangs or mortal agony.
Agony (English) means severe physical pain or mental anguish.