THE JUMPING CARDINAL, GOD, CLINT AND THE NUMBER THREE
Never having seen a sheep in Venice, junior priest Antonio
Vivaldi began counting cardinals instead, cardinals jumping off the Papal balcony.
Cardinal number one, then cardinal number two went leaping over the stone balustrade in a
swirl of burgundy-and-scarlet cape.
It was one of those nights. Try as hard as he
could, he just could not get to sleep. Lying on his left side, lying on his right side,
ten minutes flat on his back. Punch the pillow, then onto his left side again. . . The
electronic red numbers on his bedside clock flickered at 0315. He willed them to move on
to 0316. They refused to.
He sighed, took a sip of water and lay down again.
Too much wine with dinner? Not enough wine? The next cardinal paused before jumping, and
spoke to him:
The Holy Trinity is Gods number and
soon it will be yours, young Antonio. He made the sign of the cross: God is
giving you the number 3.
The number 3?
Yes, my son. The voice faded as the
burgundy-and-scarlet cape filled out and rose into the air. The number 3 will be
Wait . . . ! Wait . . ! Vivaldi made a
grab for the vanishing prelate. But Gods emissary was already mere strands of
coloured mist slipping between his fingers. Soon only a smell of incense remained, and he
was alone once more.
Shit! Id actually been asleep! He
gave the pillow an extra-hard thump, turned it over for coolness and lay back down again.
But wearily, so very wearily. The number 3? In his imagination he could see the next batch
of cardinals jostling to get in line at the rear of the balcony, like so many charter
flights waiting for takeoff. But he seemed unable to give them the all clear. The number
3? What was it with the number 3? Just then the church bell of San Giovanni chimed quarter
past. Half past would be next. Then quarter to. Strike the hour, and theyd be back
to quarter past again. Sleep, it seemed, was now further than ever.
Over the caffé latte and panetto
next morning he remembered his strange dream, and had a good laugh. After a night like
that he deserved a leisurely breakfast. He was late already - but so what? Becoming
a junior priest had never been his first choice - all that kneeling and standing,
elevating the host and benedicting. His was a delicate constitution, a full-length mass
often had him feeling pretty wrung out by the end, as well as a few kilos lighter from
sweating under the holy vestments. But, as the eldest son of a poor family, what were his
options? He kept reminding himself it was better than working in McDonalds; and, at least,
he wasnt expected to smile as he dished out the host and holy wine, or tell them to
have a nice day.
Breakfast over, he stood up, brushed off the
crumbs, donned the holy overalls, called goodbye to his mum and set off for San
By the time he arrived, his twenty fellow
apprentices were standing in front of the altar, a chorus line of swaying robes and
bobbing hats, practising the days routine. A priest was calling out, Father,
Son and Holy Ghost. . . Father, Son and Holy Ghost . . . Vivaldi slipped to the end
of the line and, having caught the beat, began joining in at making the sign of the cross.
Finally the priest clapped his hands for them to
Take five everybody. Our colleague, the
recently arrived Signor Vivaldi, is going to give us a demonstration of how it should be
done. He knows the moves so well he doesnt even need to be shown them. So he
can show us - the moves and the words together. With a smile that was equal
parts smugness and sneer he beckoned Vivaldi to the centre of the altar. If you
please? Ill cue the In the name of the . . . - youll take it from
there. Lets say, twenty times, just so we get the full benefit.
Vivaldi took up position, facing the apprentices
who were arranged in a semicircle behind the priest - some were making faces, others
sticking out their tongues. The priest glanced round to look at the boys and, immediately,
as if some invisible force had preceded his gaze, their faces were smoothed back into
looks of studious anticipation. When he turned to Vivaldi once more, the protruding
tongues and rolling, bloodshot eyes were restored.
Vivaldi ignored them and began psyching himself up
for performance. He stared into the middle distance, contemplating the emptiness of the
pews beyond, the shafts of sunlight slanting down between the stone pillars, the
shadows in the side altars. Then something very unexpected happened.
He was well into his routine and gazing up at the
decorated ceiling when, all at once, everything around him seemed to fade into the
distance. He was still aware of the priests voice calling, In the name of the
. . ., and his own dutiful Father, Son and Holy Ghost, with his hands
waving in perfect time, when suddenly the church seemed to fill with an unearthly light. A
light that was streaming directly at him!
Next came a flash of burgundy-and-scarlet, and there
- hovering impossibly in mid-air, almost touching the ceiling with his holy hat - was his
friend from the night before, the jumping cardinal.
Greetings, Antonio! Though the cardinal
was manifesting himself a good thirty metres above him, Vivaldi was aware of his voice as
a whisper in his ear.
God is speaking to you directly through me,
but even He has His communication problems sometimes. If you can hear me, please
Good man! The cardinal gave him the
thumbs up. Now, you and I both know that all this dressing-up, hand-waving and
chanting is strictly for the birds - nothing but audio-visual aids, consumer-friendly
signifiers of the Divine Presence. Agreed?
Another nod from Vivaldi.
Exactly. So, if you are ready, Antonio, God
is about to give you the number 3 -
But I dont understand, I -
The cardinals hand was raised for silence.
How you choose to use Gods gift is up to you. Most people are just given a
life and left to get on with it - their loyalty points can be redeemed in heaven or hell.
But you are different.
Lets be frank, Antonio. Priest-wise,
youre never likely to amount to much, are you?
Vivaldi shook his head.
In fact, its probably fair to say that
the number 3 is all that stands between you and a career in hamburgers.
Another nod from Vivaldi.
So, how about telling the good Father here
that you suffer from asthma? The nodding and shaking youve been doing will look as
if youve been gasping for breath. Tell him its all too much for you - and
youre out of here. Simple as that! With me?
Now, if you have ears to hear and eyes to see
- God has something to show you.
Already, the burgundy-and-scarlet cape was
billowing to transparency, fading fold upon fold. A moment later, it, and the jumping
cardinal himself, were gone. Meanwhile, the stone arches that curved weightlessly, soaring
upwards above the altar and pews to meet at the highest cross-point, seemed themselves to
have shimmered into invisibility . . . into a series of chord progressions rising on all
sides simultaneously to merge, layer upon layer, into a perfect harmony that held the
unseen structure together.
Vivaldi fell to his knees. There was no stonework
anymore, no pews, no altar, no pillars, no walls, no windows, no church. Neither light nor
darkness nor shadow. Only this perfect moment: utter concord, spreading out from one still
point . . .
Vivaldi closed his eyes, and God entered him as
He was carried home on a stretcher, and put to bed
covered in poultices, leeches and an ice-pack. As a special treat, his father brought
through the new 24 and put the remote in his right hand, whispering words that would
normally have thrilled:
Todays an all-day Sergio Leone Special,
back-to-back spaghetti westerns!
Vivaldi managed to give his parents a smile as they
left him, but less than five minutes into A Fistful of Dollars he had zapped it
off. He wanted to relive that glorious epiphany in the church. He wanted to hear once more
Gods music within him.
He focused himself, he concentrated - and nothing
happened. He forced himself to concentrate even harder. Still nothing happened. Silence -
and the harder he tried, the emptier and hollower the silence became. Eventually he
slumped back exhausted - exhausted and bitterly disappointed. Heartbroken. Having heard
God once, was he doomed never to hear Him again? Awash with suppurating poultices, leeches
and melting ice, he lay on his bed and wept.
It was then that God received him. Vivaldi sensed
Him as a strength and a tenderness beyond anything he had ever known. The Divine Presence
began as rhythm. Not just as a rephrasing of the flow of time, mere skilful punctuation -
but as a glimpse of eternity itself, patterned into purest form. An allegro of
Divine Affirmation, expressed as a bass-line that thrummed to the very pulse of life.
Then, arching across it, the beginnings of a melody . . .
Vivaldi picked off a few leeches and reached for
His mother looked in to see how he was. Fast
asleep, the wee soul. Quietly she gathered up the mess of papers that had spilled off his
bed onto the floor and put them tidily on his bedside table. Then she tiptoed out of the
room, closing the door behind her.
His mother gone, Vivaldi peeked out from under his
duvet. He glanced proudly over at the neat stack of music paper. His first concerto, for
violin and strings. A symmetrical arch in 3 perfect movements, rising above and spanning
the bustling abyss of everyday human clamour and chaos: Allegro, Largo, Allegro.
Time for a well-earned rest. Time for what remained
of the Sergio Leone Special. If he was lucky he might still catch the closing scenes of The
Good, The Bad and The Ugly. He reached for the remote, zapped straight to the film
channel and lay back down with a sigh of contentment.
Seconds later, he was sitting up rubbing his eyes
in disbelief: A Fistful of Dollars? It couldnt be . . . and the action
wasnt much further on than before: near the beginning when the man with no name
slouches his way up the main street towards the hired guns!
Get three coffins ready, he calls over
to the old undertaker.
Vivaldi stared at the screen: hed been
working nearly all day at the concerto, hadnt he? Well, hadnt he? As though he
was standing at the very threshold of the unknown, he paused. He felt himself in the
presence of God and His mysterious ways. Was it possible that writing Gods music had
taken - no time at all?
Just then Vivaldi heard the church bell of San
Giovanni chime quarter to the hour, three strokes followed by silence. God could
not have spoken to him more clearly. He heard and understood: no time to waste on robes
and funny hats, no time for practising the holy hand jive. From now on, it would be
concertos. Always concertos, and always in three movements. God had given him the number 3
. . . and if youre offered the real thing - why settle for anything less?