imageThe Power of Preaching

A Tale

As well as being a Catenian in good standing with my local circle, I am also privileged to be the founder and Life Grand Master of a smaller Catholic association: the Guild of St Theodosius the Cenobiarch. As you all know, St Theodosius is world-famous as a leading light of fifth-century monasticism in the Holy Land. I founded the Guild on 1972 but, sadly, membership is still small. There is, of course, myself, with one other potential member and two potential handmaidens. It would be the function of the handmaidens to strew rose-petals in front of the statue or banner of St Theodosius during our annual procession. Sad to say, this procession has not yet taken place, partly because we possess neither statue nor banner, neither icon nor holy picture of the saint and partly because his feast day in on January 11, when rose-petals are in short supply.

 

What I do manage to do is to attend Mass on the Sunday nearest to the feast in the only church in Britain actually dedicated to St Theodosius the Cenobiarch. This is the village of Little Sleepfold, high in the Pennines. Little Sleepfold is very out of the way, right on the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Indeed, successive governments have been unable to decide with any show of conviction which county can claim the loyalty of the village and its people. Nor is the Church any more decisive. It is not clear to me or anyone else whether the parish lies in the diocese of Leeds of the diocese of Lancaster.  The parish priest is, in fact, appointed by the Abbot of Le Mont-St-Michel, no less.

 

The High Council of the Guild had taken a unanimous decision in 1973 to make a pilgrimage to Little Sleepfold every January. Since I am the only member of the High Council, all decisions are unanimous. This includes the recent decision to change the Guild insignia to be worn for this pilgrimage. The new red tie may, at first sight, seem to resemble quite closely the tie sold for 1p at the recent Marks and Spencer Penny Bazaar but such a coincidence is purely coincidental. Anyway, there I was, wearing Guild insignia, making my way with Meg to Little Sleepfold last January. The roads were quite treacherous in the winter weather but Meg is an excellent driver who honed her car handling skills in the narrow lanes of North Wales and so we duly arrived safely in good time for Mass.

 

The church is very old, built in the thirteenth century. Little Sleepfold is so remote that the parish missed the Reformation entirely. This little building is the only church in Britain to function continuously as a Catholic church since its foundation in the Middle Ages. The parish was founded in Saxon times by the renowned missioner, Blessed Englewulf of Grassington. It was then dedicated to the legendary Roman martyrs, Saints Primus and Secundus. It was rededicated by a local nobleman, Sir Thomas de Carey, when he returned from the Crusades. Sir Thomas brought three things back with him from the Middle East: a small fortune in Persian gold, chronic malaria and an undying devotion to St Theodosius. No-one ever knew quite how he acquired any of these items. The Sleepfoldians have gone to Mass in this church ever since. In fact, everyone in the village is Catholic, except for the couple who keep the Post Office and their name is Pope. They usually go to Mass anyway, just to be sociable.

 

To be honest, it seems most of those who go to Mass go to be sociable. The parish priest Fr Michael is a lovely man, as good as a piece of bread, as the French say, and as true as gold.  He has been parish priest for as long as I’ve been visiting Little Sleepfold. He is a big, shambling, slightly untidy man of uncertain age and he is obviously devoted to his people. Nonetheless, despite all his efforts, the parish seems to lack fervour and zeal. People come to Mass regularly and that is something. But nothing much else seems to happen. The Sleepfoldians are comfortable in their faith and loyal to it but it’s all a bit flat and lifeless. Until this year, that is.

 

Fr Michael read the Gospel and then paused. The pause went on and the silence deepened. One or two people looked at their watches but still Fr Michael paused. Then, at last, he spoke.

“Last night,” he said, “I had a dream”

I had no idea what was happening and nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. I had heard nearly forty sermons in this church and I had seen them float over the heads of the people of Little Sleepfold. But not this time, not this time. I will try to report this sermon in Fr Michael’s own words as closely as I possibly can. Just imagine him speaking softly and all of us in the congregation listening to him in total silence.

–          I had a dream. I was at the very Gates of Heaven. I knocked and St Peter himself opened up.


–      “Well, well, well” exclaimed the keeper of the keys, “if it isn’t the excellent Fr Michael! Welcome, welcome, come on in! How are you, my friend and colleague? How can I help you?”

 

–          “I’m very well, indeed, your Holiness”, I replied nervously. “I’m not really sure how I came to be here but, while I am here, is there any way at all that I could possibly have a few words with the people of Little Sleepfold who are here in Paradise? If it’s not too much trouble?”

 

–          “Not a bit of trouble” said the great apostle. “Where was that again?”

–          “Little Sleepfold” I repeated.

–          “Of course. I’ll just look it up”


And to my surprise the big fisherman sat down at a shiny new computer keyboard.

 

–          “I always thought there was a great golden book here in heaven,” I began.

–          “Yes, yes, indeed, there was”, interrupted the heavenly gatekeeper “but recently we’ve gone digital.”

 

He tapped away at the keyboard and a screen came quickly up, headed “Little Sleepfold Home Page”. There wasn’t a single name on the screen.

 

–          “Where are they all?” I gasped. “There must be thousands of them here by now”

–          “Well, it’s obvious,” replied the prince of apostles. “They must still be in purgatory”

 

Purgatory! Of course! I asked St Peter the way and he gave me simple and very clear directions. I thanked him for his help and got ready to leave.

 

–          “Just a minute!” announced the first Pontiff. “It’s a rough road down there and I can see that you’re in your bare feet for some unknown reason. You might find these sandals useful”

 

So off I went in my borrowed sandals down a steep rocky path until I reached a great silver portal marked with a black cross. According to St Peter, this was the Door of Purgatory.  I knocked and the door was opened by a tall angel, clothed in shining silver and with wings the colour of midnight.

 

–          “Greetings” he proclaimed, “but tell me! Who exactly are you and what brings you here?”

–          “My lord angel”, I stammered. “St Peter sent me”

–          “Yes, I can see you are wearing his sandals. How may I serve you?”

–          “My name is Fr Michael and I am the parish priest of Little Sleepfold. I’m looking for any of my parishioners who may be here”

–          “Well, if St Peter sent you, I suppose it must be all right” said the angel “but this is highly irregular.”

 

He led me into a huge room lined from floor to ceiling with large ledgers.

 

–          “As you can see,” he commented drily, “we haven’t got broadband down here just yet. Perhaps if that nice Mr Gates drops in one of these days?”

 

The great bird of God took down the required volume and turned to the Little Sleepfold page. Not one name was to be seen there. Not one.

 

–          “Erm?” mumbled the angel apologetically. “We don’t actually seem to have anyone here.”

–          “Heaven help us!” I gasped. “Where are they all? There’s no-one in heaven either!”

–          “Well, there’s only one possible answer. They’re all in the Other Place!”

 

Fr Michael paused for a sip of water. The congregation, including myself, hardly dared to breathe. He took a drink and continued.

 

So on I went, on down and down the road. I was very glad of St Peter’s sandals. The cobbles and rocks gave way to glowing charcoal. The light was fading fast when I came to the vast expanse of Hell Mouth. The path was wide open but I knocked timidly on a post.

 

I was greeting at once by a red-faced demon with a black S tattooed on his forehead.

 

–              “Evening, mate!” he chirped. “Come on in!”

–          “No, thanks,” I managed to stutter out the words. “St Peter sent me. I’m the parish priest of Little Sleepfold and I’m looking for my parishioners”

–          “Well, well,” grinned the imp. “So you’ve come from Old Cock-a-doodle, have you?! How is he these days? I can see he’s lent you his sandals”

 

I stood there shaking in those very sandals.

 

–          “Little Sleepfold, eh?” chortled the demonic gatekeeper. “Look over there, pal! You can’t miss ‘em.”

 

I peered into the pit. It was, quite literally as hot as Hell. At first everything seemed black but gradually my eyes grew accustomed to the dim red glow from the rocks. And then I saw them. Then I saw them! All the people of Little Sleepfold. People I’d heard of, people I’d known, people I’d married, people I’d buried, all heaped up in a corner like withered leaves.

 

–          “Seen enough, mate?” queried my guide. “Sure you won’t come in?”

–          “No, no,” I whispered. “I’ll just be going now”

–          “OK then. See you soon!”

–          “Not if I can help it” I replied and then I woke up.

 

I can tell you, my brothers and sisters, I was relieved beyond words to find myself in my own bed. I know it was only a dream but I can’t get it out of my head.

 

Fr Michael turned to the altar and Mass continued. At the end, we all left without a word.

 

I have a copy of the Little Sleepfold parish newsletter before me as I write. It seems that, nowadays, there is Mass every evening at 7 30. On Mondays it’s Mass for the Cafod group, on Tuesdays for the young people of the parish and on Wednesdays it’s full choral Mass. On Thursdays, the new Catenian group meets  and on Fridays the Catholic Women’s league  has its weekly Mass. The prayer group and Bible study class are both thriving. Children’s Church is full to bursting every Sunday and the parish response to the Christmas  hospice appeal was simply astounding. The new choir is said to be almost as good as the choir at St Bartholomew’s Rainhill but I doubt that somehow.

 

I’m due to visit Little Sleepfold on Sunday. I’m speaking at Mass about the work of the Guild of St Theodosius. I’m hoping to set up a branch within the parish. I’m expecting great things from my talk. After all, haven’t I seen for myself the power of preaching?

This tale is inspired by a traditional French tale, the best known version of which is called “Le curé de Cucugnan” part of the 1869 collection “Lettres de mon moulin” by Alphonse Daudet. The story itself dates back at least to the sixteenth century. I’ve updated it and relocated it.

Bernard Fyles


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