cheerful in penance and in precept winning,
patiently healing of their pride and blindness,
souls that are sinning.
I know many of these stories as I am a brother of the Little Oratory. Every Tuesday evening at the brother's meetings we read out a passage from the life of St. Philip, which is a rather turgid Victorian translation from Italian. I have to say that most of the jokes he played were not very funny. Nevertheless, his jokes and buffoonery did not end with his death, but continue on in every Oratory, particularly Birmingham.
Yesterday evening was a typical Ash Wednesday mass and the same as last year. We did the Byrd mass for 4 voices, Emendemus in Melius by Byrd at the ashing, In Jenunio et Fletu by Tallis at the offertory, and we finished up with Allegri's Miserere Mei at the end. All very fine music which was much appreciated by everyone. 'How wonderful it must be to be in the choir!' some people think.
But we in the choir don‘t think like that, and in fact much of the time we think 'When is this going to be over?' We have to concentrate on getting the music right and singing in time and in tune, and everyone complains if we don‘t. The notion that we sing with feeling and for God's glory to us is a very romantic one that bears no relation to reality. As for homilies, we sometimes think 'Get on with it!' The fact is we do not have time for much devotion, and most of the time we have to give it up.
As we were singing during the ashing, I couldn’t go down to be sprinkled. At the end of mass, I was itching to get home after clearing away the music, and I forgot to ask for ashing afterwards, until I was some distance away from the Oratory. I dashed back to the sacristy to find that the ashes had all been cleared away. I was very disappointed: it would have been the first time in nearly 30 years that I hadn’t received them.
But not to worry: the spirit of St. Philip is still alive and well in the Oratory. Fr. Guy found some ashes spilt on the side just like plain dirt. So he gathered them up, blessed them, putting a truly authentic smudge on my forehead. The admonition could not have been more relevant: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverum reverteris…