Begotten Not Made
by Cónal Creedon
It’s the darkest before dawn this Christmas Eve morn, and all the world is at peace. Not a soul scurrying through the streets, no movement along the quays, nothing stirring, the only sign of life is the odd flicker of light from the houses away up on the Northside.
In a monastery towering above the town an elderly Brother leans forward in his chair and laughs. With a stretch of his arms he straightens the arthritic curve of his twisted spine, then clears the condensation from his bedroom window with the back of his gnarled and knuckled hand. He polishes his spectacles, then looks out over the rooftops across the city. His eyes trawl from east to west past darkened silhouettes of slate-clad buckled beams, half-cocked chimney pots, spires and towers, before finally fixing on the belfry of St Joseph’s Convent. Then scrolling down to a twelve-pane window, he sets his gaze on Sister Claire’s bedroom. It is a private and secret ritual he has observed every single morning for almost fifty years, and this Christmas Eve morn is no different.
– Begotten not made, begottennotmade, begottennot madebegotten…
He says it faster and faster until it becomes a mantra of garbled sound. Every now and then his eyes dart away from Sister Claire’s window and towards Mecca, all the way across brewery valley to Audley Place and the grand houses perched on the crest of Patrick’s Hill. He sits there waiting for the first light of dawn, watching for that moment when the first shaft of light of the rising sun will crack the horizon line along the rooftops. The Changing Of The Guard, he calls it.
He can never quite pinpoint the defining moment when his fascination for this daily ritual of observing the rising sun began. But he remembers that first morning when he awoke as a fully-fledged Brother in this cell-like room. It dawned on him that his life had changed and nothing would ever be the same again.
Space had always been scarce in the house where he was reared. But, that morning, for the first time in his life, he awoke to find he had a room to call his own. Everything within the four walls belonged to him. His bed. His chair. His lamp. His sink. The shoes by his locker were his shoes, not hand-me-downs, and hanging in his wardrobe was his crisp new black soutane. All that he surveyed belonged to him. He smiled when it occurred to him that a vow of poverty had made him a man of means overnight.
The faint light of the silvery moon drew him to his window like a moth to a flame. Looking out across the city, his eyes traced schoolboys’ footsteps from street lamp to street lamp, down Peacock Lane, across Gerald Griffin Street, past Denny’s slaughter house and all the way to the brewery. Then the steep climb, lamp post by lonely lamp post, up Fever Hospital Steps, past the stacked red-bricked terraces of Goldsmith’s, Roche’s and Sutton’s Buildings all the way to the top of St Patrick’s Hill, until his view was blocked by the grand houses of Audley Place. His mind carried him over the slates and chimneystacks, past the Barracks and Glancatan all the way to the little house in Dillon’s Square where he was born.
His thoughts were of childhood. His family in the kitchen each morning; the scramble for school bags, sister yelping as mother frantically tugged and plaited her hair,
– Ah mammy, ah mammy, ah mammy, ah mam…
– Hold steady, will ya!
Father cursing and grappling his bicycle, hopping it off every door, chair and table from the back yard all the way through the house and out the front door making ready for the freewheel down to Fords.
Then right at the height of all this chaos mother would shift the drying clothes from the rail above the stove, then opening the oven door, a warm wave of freshly baked brown soda would embrace the house like the love of God. Then cutting the crisp crackling crust, she would smother each slice in melting salty creamery butter, and all would be calm in the world again…
…and when young Brother Scully looked out from his bedroom window up the Monastery that first morning all those decades ago he swore he could smell his mother’s freshly baked bread. It was a scent from childhood that had been buried deep in the memory of his senses. It triggered his emotions. He clenched his eyes tightly shut and struggled to hold onto the lingering aroma, but it was gone.
A strange thing happened that morning. Just at the very moment he opened his eyes the first light of dawn clipped the rooftops along Audley Place. It was as if that golden stream of light was beaming out directly to him from the oven in his mother’s kitchen. He sat there at his bedroom window watching the sun climb into the heavens, and like the power of the Holy Spirit it drove the darkness from the city and the world. Something about the power of the dawn touched the young Brother’s soul. He placed his hands to his face and sighed. Brother Scully wept.
What began that morning as an expression of loneliness in the young Brother has developed over the decades from fascination to obsession, and every dawn since that very first morn he has been at his post observing The Changing Of The Guard.
It’s the stillness before dawn this Christmas Eve morn and Brother Scully is sitting at his window in darkness, in silence, waiting in anticipation of the inevitable morning glory of a new dawn. Over the years those first shards of light have come to mean many different things. Sometimes at dusk, as if inspired by Isaiah, he sees Michael the Archangel showering spears of gold into the overpowering blackness of Lucifer. Then again at dawn, just when the fallen angels of hell relax in the confidence of their supremacy of the heavens, Michael the Archangel creeps up behind Lucifer’s Venus, lofting golden darts from behind the chimneystacks of Audley Place quenching the Morning Star. Other times it’s the never-ending struggle between Yin and Yang, like the white and brown bulls of the Táin, with their horns locked in eternal equilibrium, and with each new dawn the battle between good and evil begins all over again.
Every single morning for almost five decades Brother Scully has looked out on the heavens, mesmerised by the pure power and mystery of the planets. His wonderment is a type of worship, more Pagan than Christian, yet his confidence in his vocation to Jesus Christ has always remained steadfast. But, as if attempting to reassure himself of his core belief in the divinity and deity of Jesus Christ, he sometimes mutters the parting words uttered by a young novice many decades ago before he stormed out of the monastery never to return. For some reason the words of young Brother Crowley have remained locked in his brain.
– Call It the sun. Call It the stars. Call It the moon.
Call It Vishnu. Call It Allah. Call It Jehovah.
Call It nature. Call It everlasting life.
Call It whatever you like. After all what is in a name?
There is only one true God, with a humility that knows no bounds.
Call It what you like, It will always answer as long as you call It with respect…
Then he sits back and enjoys nature’s light show while meditating on the day that has been and the new day that is about to begin.
The Changing Of The Guard always brings its own unique spectacular display, yet there is one constant to this daily ritual, one very special moment that is both personal and precious to Brother Scully. Every morning just before the break of dawn, his eyes travel from east to west back across the city all the way to St Joseph’s Convent. Then scrolling down to a twelve-pane window, third from the left on the second floor, he fixes his gaze on Sister Claire’s bedroom.
Brother Scully met Sister Claire only once in his life, and that was a long time ago. It was back in 1970 on the night Dana won the Eurovision Song Contest, and every single morning since their first and only encounter, with a flick of her light switch and the flash of a bulb, Sister Claire has beamed out a coded message from her bedroom window over in St Joseph’s Convent to Brother Scully in the monastery.
– Flash-flash, Flash Flash. – Good morning, Brother Scully.
And then with a click of his light switch Brother Scully has always replied,
– Flash-flash, Flash Flash. – Good morning, Sister Claire.
It is as simple as that. For almost fifty years they have not communicated in any other way except for their daily exchange of flashing bulbs. This coded greeting of flickering lights, beaming out from convent to monastery and back again, with its simple and secret message has forged an unbreakable bond between the two. It is a bond that has endured through the decades, and for a man who has lived his life behind the walls of a monastery, Brother Scully treasures this moment of shared intimacy.
This Christmas eve morn, Brother Scully is uneasy. He sits by his window waiting in anticipation. Sister Claire is late. It is almost seven-thirty, and still no light has shone out from her bedroom over in St Joseph’s Convent. He has been flickering his lamp on and off for the past half hour, but still no reply. Maybe something is wrong? Maybe something has happened to Sister Claire? A growing concern takes root in his mind. He begins to laugh.
He is distracted just for a moment as the first faint pink glow of dawn begins to warm the slates beyond the eastern horizon. Brother Scully settles in for The Changing Of The Guard. Then something most extraordinary happens. It begins like a diamond dazzling bright, then one single crisp ray of sunlight pierces the ridge tiles at Audley Place. Like a silver spear it cuts straight through the ink-black sky and travels right across the city in a direct line towards Shandon steeple. Brother Scully watches spellbound as this shaft of light connects with the gilded fish weather vane on top of Shandon, causing it to shine out a full spectrum of dazzling gold. As if by the hand of God, the fish swivels on its pivot and relays the beam in a direct course all the way to St Joseph’s Convent. It illuminates Sister Claire’s bedroom window to a mirror of blinding gold.
– Well, Holy Mary Mother of God...
In all his years observing The Changing Of The Guard he has never seen anything like it, and because no greeting has yet shone out from Sister Claire, he assumes that this extraordinary first ray of dawn just so happened to connect with her bedroom window at the very moment she flickered her light bulb. So reaching for his switch, Brother Scully sends his reply,
– Flash-flash, Flash Flash. – Good morning, Sister Claire.
But a seed of doubt is planted in his brain. He has never known the first ray of dawn’s light to connect with Sister Claire’s window, and for it to happen at the precise moment that she flashed her light bulb defies belief. Although the phenomenon he has just witnessed is technically possible, as no laws of physics or nature had been broken, the niggling thought crosses his mind that such a random act of nature stretched the principles of probability.
– Hmm? Most extraordinary and highly improbable, he mutters.
Doubt takes hold and begins to fester in Brother Scully’s mind. Was it just a coincidence? Maybe Sister Claire did not flash her light? Was it just the reflection of the first stark ray of dawn on her window? Could it be one of those rare mysteries of the heavens? An overpowering fear grips Brother Scully as his spiraling doubt breeds concern. Maybe Sister Claire was unable to send her greeting this morning. Something may have happened to Sister Claire. Could there be something wrong? And what if something has happened to Sister Claire, what then? How would he ever know? How would he ever find out? Panic sets in when he realises he has no one to turn to, no one to share his concerns. He knows better than to confide in any of the other Brothers in the monastery, it would only confirm their long-held belief that his grip on reality had surrendered to insanity.
– And maybe I am mad, he mutters and suppresses an urge to giggle.
It crosses his mind that maybe his old friend Brother O’Connell would understand, but then he dismisses that idea. Brother O’Connell is just too excitable to trust with such a delicate and confidential matter. Despair takes hold of Brother Scully. He questions how, in the name of God, could he even begin to explain that he has forged a relationship with a nun over in St Joseph’s Convent spanning almost fifty years, a relationship that exists and thrives solely on the daily flick of a light switch.
The first flush of dawn sweeps over the rooftops, sending trickles of light down over slates, along gutters and seeping into the dark cracks and crevices of lanes and alleyways. Brother Scully fixes his eyes on Sister Claire’s bedroom window hoping for a glimmer of light or some sign of life. He flicks his light switch on and off, faster and faster, over and over again, but no reply. As the brightness of dawn drives out the darkness of night, an overpowering feeling of desperation brings a smile to his face. He now knows he must wait until dusk casts a blanket of darkness over the city before he can attempt to make contact with Sister Claire again.
His mind is lost in a maze of memories twisting and turning around in his tormented brain. So he sits there waiting in anticipation, mumbling his mantra, eyes strained and set on Sister Claire’s bedroom window.
– …egottennotmadebegottennotmadebegottennotmade bego…