“I am Happé” begins the first sermon of the eponymous hero of Cecily Hallack’s little book of 1938 (reprinted 2012), and his rather staid hearers were consternated by what they considered his over-familiarity. I came across The Happiness of Fr Happé during the silent retreat before my ordination to the priesthood and was captivated. Fr Happé looks and sounds funny: “I am an old Savoyard. An old Franciscan, that’s me.” He is a seemingly unprepossessing scholar whose infelicities shock the proprieties of the little village below the monastery. That first sermon was loved by the children, but in the course of it he managed to tell the “pious and respectable congregation” that they were like donkeys which, while difficult to teach, will run from an oncoming storm in the hills:
“We know nothing and we are not easy to teach. We have what we call ‘our own ideas.’ We do not like if we are told we go the wrong way to work isn’t it? We are not simple, like the little donkeys who just stand by the Crib and who learn to bear Our Lord to Jerusalem. We are stupid, not simple. We only know one thing. We know what we need, and we fly from the darkness, and so we save ourselves from the death of the soul.… none of us is so bad that we are too bad to be a mule, or so ignorant that we do not know this need.”
In his meetings with the characters of the village, be it the communist or the little children, the two elderly sisters or the young hikers, Fr Happé expounds deep wisdom simply and movingly. This little book is above all enjoyable: happy, but like the old Savoyard himself it has the ability swiftly to go deeper, and without fuss, to touch on profundities. Though written more than 80 years ago, the wisdom of Fr Happé remains contemporary.
In one incident he is in the big house with the bright young things of the ’30s partying, having been to see a dying servant upstairs. A man of great contacts and wide interest, the youth are captivated by the fact that he knows a film star, and they say that Fr Happé himself has “screen value”. The way he is drawn, he does; but then he is summoned again to the final scene at the death bed, and returns to a subdued party. “They seemed to change into a bunch of children as he looked at them. Pagan children, who knew they would have to go out into the dark… He felt them afraid… he looked up at them, and read that they had nothing, save that which was of that celluloid currency.” But then he teaches them through music of his bliss that the dead woman has been taken into the arms of Jesus, and Hallack writes simply that after spending all night talking, in the morning they motored back with him “and heard his mass”.
The book is made attractive by an economy of language and a deftness which manages to avoid sentimentality while being full of sentiment, piousness while being full of piety, and comedy while being full of humour. It is a work full of wisdom ministered with a simplicity which is avoids being simplistic. It is not as full a treatment as, say Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, nor as theological as George Congreve’s Christian Progress, nor as sweeping an exploration of the soul as Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. But I read it at an important moment for me, and to me it spoke, and I dare to think it might speak to you too.
The episodes are linked, and each leads to a deepening understanding not only of the world, but also a growth in Fr Happé. Hallack is wise enough to know that we all grow, and the doubt, struggle and faith of the wise old friar is realistically drawn. His fear that he has not been a good priest is genuine, and grounded on evidence, clear to him despite all the external evidence is of heroic sanctity. Surely this is the real experience of all – lay and ordained – who try to live out their vocation. This is an easy book to read, but difficult in its gritty realism about souls.
Sign up for the Week in Review Email
Every Sunday: Read the week’s most read articles, watch Iain Martin’s Authors in Conversation series, listen to The Reaction podcast & receive new offers and invites.
As one puts it down, the last words of that first sermon come back to mind:
“‘And so,’ said Fr Happé ‘we will begin,’ with which he ended.”
Fr Luke Miller is Archdeacon of London.