They had been named after the four archangels – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel – and they were considered to be the best altar boys, always well turned out and dutiful to boot. The Abbott had chosen them for the Archbishop’s visit and the Te Deum mass to celebrate the final completion of the Abbey and the hundredth anniversary of the school. There was another reason, a rather impish one on the Abbott’s part as he felt he could spot false piety when he saw it. He knew the Archbishop considered himself to be one of the holiest and closest to God in the church and he felt he would appreciate being served by boys named after the four archangels. The Archbishop could not feel closer to God!
At the end of the service, the Archbishop blessed the boys in the sacristy.
“Oh to be served by the archangels,” he said with satisfaction. “Your parents picked the best names possible. Now, Michael, what do you want to be?”
“I want to be Prime Minister,” came the reply. “My father is an MP.”
“And you Gabriel?”
“I want to leave the church.”
“Gabriel was forever visiting folk who broke away from the Jews and we’ve had nothing but trouble ever since.”
“An interesting notion,” said the Archbishop with sadness. “And you Raphael?”
“I want to play cricket for England and score a century at Lords.”
“And you Uriel?”
“I prefer to be called Lionel, your grace,” he replied. “My mother was the Catholic. I’m from a mixed marriage. My father thought a son should have his name and l am with him on the name.”
“And which of you will come into the service of the Church?” the Archbishop asked.
There was silence among the boys. They were nearing eighteen and preparing for their A levels and had other ideas for their future.
“Well,” said the Archbishop. “Holy retreat starts next week and the Jesuit fathers will be visiting. I am sure one of you will be persuaded.”
“Why the Jesuits?” asked Gabriel. “Why must we fear God and not love him?”
“Ah, of course we should all love God but we should also fear him too.” The Archbishop equivocated.
“And the Jesuits are good at that?” continued Gabriel in a petulant voice.
“Gabriel, let God’s grace come to you next week,” said the Archbishop wrapping up the audience. “All of you.”
The boys were a close group on account of their names and the years serving at altars. They had served all the monks in their time and they had seen the human as well as the religious side of them. They all hated retreat and now as the sixties were in full swing they had been fighting authority and tradition. They each had a way of coping with retreat. Michael retreated to his room whenever he could and lay on his bed. He wondered if God would come to him as he dozed but usually it was a series of Hollywood actresses in states of undress and that seemed to him that the Holy Spirit wanted him to go out and procreate. Gabriel had doctored the exterior of a hardback Bible and placed within it completely different reading matter and this year he was looking forward to reading something vaguely pornographic, possibly Henry Miller. Raphael was the least scholastic of the four and he was worrying about the impending A levels and used the time to revise extensively. Lionel just went to his special place and snoozed and dozed awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit who never seemed to come.
On the first morning of the retreat the boys were hanging about the radiators as there was a chill in the air. Gabriel was the first to speak; the others joked that God was always sending him out with messages, and they would listen to what he had to say.
“Are we still of one mind about Hellfire Blake?” he said. The others nodded and he continued, “so we take him down?”
“Yep,” said Lionel. ”Lets see if God is really on his side.”
Father Blake was an imposing man. Very tall, quite stocky, very bald with a booming baritone voice which really should have remained in the Opera House and not the House of God. His age would be around the sixty mark and he was a bully. He had been terrifying the boys at the school with his sermons of hell fire and damnation for over thirty years. His strong Ulster accent made the end of the world seem very close at hand.
“Looking forward to it,” said Raphael now indulging his passion for cricket analogies. “I’ve faced some demon bowling in my time and l never flinch. I want to hit the old tyrant for six and move him on his way.”
There was always a school assembly before the retreat began in earnest where the Abbott would explain the rules of the retreat and outline all the events.
“A religious retreat is a time for contemplation,” he began, pausing a moment before continuing, “A time to reflect on life and our place in God’s love. As you will recall, talking is forbidden during most of the day. We may talk and relax only at meal times and between lunch and tea in the afternoon. We trust you to use the time well. The abbey will be open at all times and you may go to your rooms if you have them to contemplate, but no distractions, no playing music and talking. The Jesuit fathers will address you twice a day, once in the morning after breakfast and then after tea. You may talk to the Jesuit fathers if they ask for questions. I would ask you to be respectful of the Jesuit fathers. They have much to offer you all and our souls will be nourished by their words and actions.”
The oldest boys were instructed to go into the large hall which was the main area for mass assemblies and which also served as an examinations room. The desks had been rearranged to resemble the House of Commons with a podium in what would be the Speakers chair from where the Jesuit father would start the assembly and talk. He would be able to roam down the middle of the room and address each side of desks.
The archangels divided themselves in two and sat opposite each other across the aisle. They had a plan and it was them versus the Jesuits now. They would soon find out if God would vanquish them or as they suspected He would be indifferent to the spectacle about to commence.
At nine o’clock, Father Blake entered and walked up to the podium. He looked at the boys almost individually in total silence. The room fell silent. Father Blake now walked down the aisle and glared at those on his left. He turned smartly at the end and marched back glaring at the other boys. He stopped at the podium and looked left and then right. The boys held their breath. A lot of time had lapsed since he entered. And then that booming Operatic voice uttered loudly.
“All those on my left, boys, will be damned.”
On previous occasions this utterance had led to a sudden intake of breath but no, the two archangels on that side booed and egged on the other boys. And then suddenly there was silence. Father Blake looked confused as this had never happened before. For thirty years this opening remark had worked its magic. It quelled one side and then his next line would quell the other side and then he had the boys in his grasp. He decided to carry on sure that order would be restored and he could deal with the unruly side in his own time and way.
“And all the boys on my right, they will be saved and live in God’s grace.” The other two archangels cheered and egged on those on their side. Father Blake had to nip this outrage in the bud and bellowed, “And on which side will each of you be?” Now this seemed guaranteed to upset all the boys and the four archangels jeered and cheered together and the hall descended into chaos and Father Blake stood there his mouth open unable to say or do anything. He was saved by the door opening as the Abbot entered to see what an earth was going on.
The retreat had never started this way in his time here. Father Blake fled the room almost knocking the Abbot off his feet in his haste to leave. The Abbot looked at the four archangels and permitted himself a silent smile. He preferred God’s love to the fear of God. He called the boys to order and told them all to go to the Abbey and pray for Father Blake who was never seen again.