Tuesday, 26 July 2011

On catechesis and catastrophe

The day my mother turned seventeen, she went to the local Canberra police station to apply for her driver’s license. When she walked through the door in a short summer dress with a ribbon in her hair, the driving instructor looked up with interest. When she flashed him a smile and said she would like to take the driving test, he thought she was very pretty. When she batted her long black eyelashes and said it was her birthday, he beamed at her and fumbled madly for his camera, then took her photo and, without further ado, issued her with an Australian driver’s license. It was, he told her with a confidential wink, a birthday present.

And so, without so much as turning a key or operating a windscreen wiper, my mother was authorised to pilot one of the most dangerous high-speed weapons ever devised by the dark mind of man: the automobile.

My mother’s older sister had saved up and bought a brand new gleaming white Mini Minor, the kind all the groovy kids were driving in those days. Soon after my mother’s seventeenth birthday, they went on a road trip together to Melbourne. Now the highway from Canberra to Melbourne, if you have never made that noble journey, is an easy eight-hour drive that takes you through the sprawling languid dairy country, down along the great Murray River, and up through the hills of the Great Dividing Range. My mother being a licensed driver, her sister gave her a turn at the wheel. On a long, perfectly straight road, without another vehicle in sight, my gleeful mother held the wheel and plunged down her accelerator foot. In the passenger seat beside her, her sister closed her eyes and began to dream. The little Mini Minor gathered speed. It began, ever so slightly, to wobble. My mother pushed harder on the accelerator, smiling at the charming dairy fields. When the poor little car began to shake violently, my mother did as any person driving for the first time might do: she accelerated a little more, and then, to compensate for all that wobbling, began to nudge the wheel from side to side – gently at first, then harder, with a playful jubilant vigour. Side to side, side to side: no doubt about it, it had been a splendid birthday. Dreamily she watched a flock of birds go by. The car was wobbling wildly now, so she swerved the wheel a little harder and felt the accelerator – at last! – go flat to the floor.

That was how it happened that, on a long stretch of straight flat road, with no vehicles or obstacles of any kind for miles around, the brilliant new hundred-mile-an-hour Mini Minor found itself toppling and rolling like a rugby ball, over and over, until at last it came to rest in a wide dusty ditch, bent and crumpled and crushed, while my mother, breathless with birthday exhilaration beneath a shower of glass confetti, still clasped the wheel with both hands – in fact, still rocked it back and forth with dazed but undiminished glee.

Though they now had no car and little money, the two sisters somehow made their way to Melbourne. A few nights later, at a party a friend’s place, my mother drank for a while, drank some more, talked loudly and laughingly about her marvellous birthday, and then, wandering alone through the house, noticed some keys on a table and idly picked them up. She twirled the keyring round her finger. She went out the front door and twirled the keys beneath the encouraging smiling winks of the stars. She found the car that fit the key, a lovely red sedan, and climbed into the driver’s seat.

It was such a cool clear evening, such a perfect night for driving my mother thought as she turned the next corner, windows down and engine blazing. By the time she made it back to the party twenty minutes later, she had reduced her second automobile to a twisted steaming wreck on the corner of a quiet backstreet three blocks away.

I often think about that good, sweet-natured Canberra policeman who had given my mother her license as a birthday present. On the night of her birthday, I imagine the policeman lounging happily in his favourite chair at home, thinking of the girl with the beautiful brown eyes, the long eyelashes and dimply smile, congratulating himself on his chivalry, never dreaming that he was, that night, the most dangerous man in the commonwealth of Australia. For it was he who had made my mother a Driver. It was he who had single-handedly turned every other person and every vehicle for hundreds of miles around into a prospective victim of my mother’s birthday joy.

Many of our church leaders today are very much like that innocent-hearted policeman. We would like to make it as easy as possible for people to become Christians. Catechesis is too demanding; education is a chore; deliberate instruction in the Christian faith will put people off. And so with a knowing wink, we waive all the requirements and hand out the baptism certificate. We are charming, gallant, spiritually magnanimous – and ruinously dangerous. In our eagerness to make sure everybody is included, to reassure inquirers that the Christian faith is indeed an easygoing undemanding thing, we are looking only at the dimples and batted eyelashes. We are forgetting the longer view, the screech of tyres and the shriek of twisted steel and the long split-second when a windscreen becomes a million tiny diamonds in the sky. We blame the new converts if after some time they make a wreck of their faith.

But after considering the matter carefully and objectively, I find I cannot blame my mother for the magnificent trail of automobiles left smoking in her wake: I blame the generous heart of a magnanimous policeman.


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