The great receptionist lady at Valley View Nursing Home told me quite a while back that I had better not just see Marie McIsaac (who died Nov. 21, 2019), but I had better see Marjorie Harris as well.
“Who’s Marjorie Harris?” I asked. Of course, I would have to find out for myself.
I went to her room and saw a terribly pitiable sight, that is, to all appearances. What a strong woman, what a fierce wit. How much she has suffered. The currents run deep in those who suffer. Marjorie was effectively without a family. They are far away. So far.
Marjorie had what’s called an essential tremor. The brain sends it own signals to the muscles on its own and there’s a Parkinson-esque tremor especially in the head which continuously shakes and especially in the hands especially when trying to hold flatware or pick up a cup to drink. Sitting in a wheel chair staring at a corner of her room she looked pitiful, as I saw, until I noted (it didn’t take long) a piercing ironic brilliant wit. Wow! I love to see this. I am rightly reprimanded for being tempted to judge appearances. Stupid, stupid, stupid me. She quickly became a close friend.
We spoke much about her family… We spoke a great deal about the faith, about the sacraments, about the ironies of life, about literature. Regarding the literature thing, take a hint about her from the comment she made to me the other day with some dismay at the state of affairs with education today:
- “Father George, you’re the only one who speaks to me with the subjunctive.”
Marjorie made me laugh. I was able to bring her to laugh, almost to tears. She thanked me for that. I learned that from the great Venerable Fulton J Sheen, who spoke of breaking the suffering of those in a hospital or institution. He said those who suffer do suffer in the present, but they are also tempted to drag all suffering of the past into the present and they project all that heap of suffering into the future and drag that back upon themselves into a suffocating, frustrating web of suffering so great that it seems it is impossible to extricate oneself. And then one is brought to laugh. It all breaks apart.
We spoke of Jesus and His great wit, how He turns tables with but a word. Yep.
Testing me, Marjorie told me about Dorothy Parker and asked me to find a quote from her aphorisms. Marjorie told me this was a test of my own wit or lack thereof. I brought Marjorie this quote:
- “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”
I laughed when I saw that. I printed it out and brought it to her. She struggled a bit trying to hold the paper still enough to read it, trying to see around dark spots in her eyes… Then she laughed and laughed and laughed a howling laugh making me laugh with her. Lovely, really.
Marjorie loved the likes of T.S. Elliot, Kipling, Frost, Wordsworth… Knowing this, I promised to bring her, in big print, my summary of Hilaire Belloc’s chapter on the greatness of irony:
To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have a quality of something evil, and so it has, for […] it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used – nay, can hardly exist – save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed. […] It suggests most powerfully the evil against which it is directed, and those innocent of evil shun so terrible an instrument. […] The mere truth is vivid with ironical power […] when the mere utterance of a plain truth labouriously concealed by hypocrisy, denied by contemporary falsehood, and forgotten in the moral lethargy of the populace, takes upon itself an ironical quality more powerful than any elaboration of special ironies could have taken in the past. […] No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing it and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul. [Hilaire Belloc, “On Irony” (pages 124-127; Penguin books 1325. Selected Essays (2/6), edited by J.B. Morton; Harmondsworth – Baltimore – Mitcham 1958).]
She loved it totally. So, full of thanksgiving. Then she brought up GK Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday. Testing me again, I’m sure, she said ever so non-nonchalantly: “I’m not sure what it means. I had to read it seven times.” I brought her commentary on that work of Gilbert Kieth and on where Chesterton was in his life, he writing that more than a decade before his conversion. Instantly I could see everything click, all her questions answered. So I promised to bring her THE CHAPTER.
“The Secret of Brown” in a volume of the Father Brown stories also sporting that title,” said I. It was that Secret which accompanied Marjorie to the next life. It is so filled the greatest suffering, with the greatest hope, going to the heart of Chesterton’s own friendship with Christ Jesus, the greatest expression of spiritual irony surpassing even that of Belloc’s take on irony.
Marjorie was the most incisive literary wit I have ever know, ever. And, believe me when I tell you, after hanging around the most brilliant people in the world for a lifetime, all at the top of their game, that that’s saying a lot.
I will miss you terribly Marjorie. Remember me from where you are, this donkey-priest. Tell Jesus this donkey priest needs His special help. Here’s what Marjorie had with her:
THE SECRET OF FATHER BROWN
FLAMBEAU, once the most famous criminal in France and later a very private detective in England, had long retired from both professions. Some say a career of crime had left him with too many scruples for a career of detection. Anyhow, after a life of romantic escapes and tricks of evasion, he had ended at what some might consider an appropriate address: in a castle in Spain. The castle, however, was Continue reading →