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Miracles don’t happen or do they?
Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash
Madame Fleurie was the Grade Two teacher at my French Catholic School in Ottawa. I always imagined her flowering, but she was quite the opposite of that. At what I now estimate as under five feet tall, she was just marginally taller than we were, but she was nevertheless a bit of a martinet, which was also the name of the strap she threatened us with.
To my memory she never used it, though the principal, Soeur Cécile Rachel, certainly did, conducting public strappings on the school steps as grades one through eight assembled after recess. This ensured we were cowed not only by the prospect of pain with a few good ones on the palm or, in capital cases, across the back of the wrists but also by the humiliation in front of an assembled unsympathetic crowd who found themselves lucky not to be you. I don’t remember a girl ever getting strapped, but there must have been a few bad girls or ones that thankfully grew up to be.
Religion pervaded every aspect of our school day. If arithmetic were the subject, we might be asked to add 6 chalices and 7 chalices for the unlucky number of 13 chalices, the number of guests at the Last Supper. We might be asked to multiply fishes and loaves. Our dictées would have sentences like, « Une vie sans Dieu aboutit à rien » (A godless life leads nowhere.) Stories were inevitably religious: Cain and Abel, Noah and his Ark, The Prodigal Son and, of course, Adam and Eve and their incident with the snake.
We especially liked the stories of the missionaries and how they were tortured, illustrated somewhat in the manner of St. Sebastian but worse, having their beating hearts cut out and eaten before them so the Iroquois could consume their courage. That this mirrored the eucharistic ritual seems to have been lost on everyone. An ominous-looking priest in a black soutane made a regular appearance and tested our memorization of the catechism. I don’t remember if we ever knew his name, simply addressing him as Mon Père if we ever had to engage with him, which of course we avoided.
We talked a lot about Jesus in class; at least, the teacher did. We were told he was a great guy, very patient, with an especial love of children. We were told he suffered little children to come to him. Even then, I found the choice of words somewhat unusual. If he was predisposed to kids, why did he suffer? I guess, Jesus did suffer in the end, and maybe he was practicing in the beginning.
I was not a religious boy, but I became somewhat indoctrinated despite the fact my father, not born Catholic or French Canadian for that matter, was an avowed atheist who, when asked a question with even a hint of religion, would roll his eyes and say, “You better ask your mother.” One of the conditions imposed on him as an atheist-Presbyterian to marry my mother was the need to guarantee his children would be brought up Catholic. My mother, on the other hand, was observant from a cultural and social standpoint but didn’t necessarily buy-in devoutly to any of the rest. Mostly, she wanted me and my brother at the school so we would learn French, her native tongue.
Some months into the fall term of Grade Two we got new French readers, with the usual religious subtext. The never-blooming Madame Fleurie passed them out reverently, along with craft paper we were meant to apply as dustcovers to safeguard the unspoiled, dare I say virginal cardboard covers beneath. We did so earnestly, if not very dextrously, given our young hands.
Madame Fleurie then issued a stern warning: “In June, I will be taking these books back and checking every page to make sure they are returned in the same condition. Do you understand?”
“Oui, Madame Fleurie,” we sang out in unison, except for Lucien Cousineau, in Grade Two for the third time and immune to even veiled threats. Lucien would be the first and perhaps only one in our class to go to jail, the first time for breaking and entering.
Several days later, Madame Fleurie asked us to open our books on page 23 and 24. Just then, my nose began to bleed, spontaneously and profusely for no reason—not from picking, not from rubbing even I swear—it just started to flow, to gush even, and proceeded to pretty much obliterate the two-page spread. I was bleeding like a bleeding Jesus all over a meta version of original sin, a before-picture before the snake made its dastardly appearance and ruined it for everybody, forever.
I was a goner. A florid Madame Fleurie was surely going to give me the strap, the martinet—in front of everyone, maybe even in the face. I was done for, and I fell into the despair of Job.
I had to find a solution. I took the reader home, which was forbidden, and with an eraser tried to obliterate the stain of my own blood. But it would not come out. I tried with a wet washcloth but that only wet the pages and made them curl.
I was cooked.
A miracle was my only hope. Jesus was going to have to perform a miracle and save me.
So, I prayed. At recess, I would find a tree and pray vehemently for this miracle to occur, and then hurry back to the classroom and check my book. The blood remained. I knew Jesus was busy and the miracle might take time, so I kept this up for a week or more, adding prayers at home to supplement those at recess. But the blood remained.
I thought at one point it was fading, but that was simply my imagination, wishing it to be true. The blood remained.
“This Jesus is supposed to suffer children gladly,” I thought. “And they say he can perform miracles, but so far nothing.”
This disappointment in Jesus begat my complete loss of faith. I threw away my rosary at home, wrapped in some papers so my mother wouldn’t see it and retrieve it. I tore the page out of my catechism, the one that advised not to hang out with bad companions. I pretended to make the sign of the cross at church, but my hand never touched the holy water. Jesus was a fraud if he even existed. If he couldn’t do one little miracle for a kid, what good was he?
In June, the dreaded day came. We each lined up before a stern-looking Madame Fleurie as she made her inspection. When my turn came, the world stood still as she picked up the book, first holding it by its spine and shaking it slightly. Then she opened the book at several random spreads, but not the blood-stained one.
“Bon,” she said. And I moved on to let the next child take my place.
I’ve been questioning my loss of faith ever since.