A mountain to climb

People do ask me how one becomes a temple warden. It is at times like this that I put on my most learned expression and hint that it involves not merely moral excellence but also deep theological insights and the achievement of a higher spiritual level of existence. In all candour this is not entirely true. Whilst these qualifications do not disqualify you, frankly, merely not being present at the meeting when they were looking for volunteers suffices.

But it was not always so. Yes in these modern, decayed days, when anything goes and young people have turned their backs on the innocent amusements of our youth (wine, lascivious dancing and brawling in public) even the high standard expected of temple wardens has fallen. But it was not so in the days of my youth. Indeed when somebody like Maljie felt called to become a temple warden matters were far stricter.

The aspiring temple warden wasn’t merely somebody who lived up the highest moral standards, conducting themselves with absolute probity, they were a veritable pillar of society. That being said, it was realised by those in authority that having temple wardens who were such paragons of virtue that Aea herself might feel vague existential guilt in their presence, meant that they might not be people capable of dealing easily with persons far less spiritual than themselves. They could indeed struggle when coping with the moral inexactitude of the congregation.

Thus it was felt that there was an urgent need for temple wardens who were still persons of the highest calibre, but who were more at home in a corrupt and failing world. It is alleged that during one high level discussion on the matter the Autocephalous Patriarch exclaimed, “For Aea’s sake fetch me some who can find their backsides with both hands!”  So it was that a new training programme was established. It had advantages and disadvantages. The advantages stemmed from the fact that the people who set up the programme picked excellent people to be the tutors, and then selected applicants of the highest standard to put through it. The disadvantages largely came from the fact that the people designing the programme hated the very idea of it and wanted it to fail.

This means that when Maljie was sent for her training, she discovered that it was to be held in one of the monasteries in Uttermost Partann. Now given the populace of that area are in the grip of rampant kleptomania, the monasteries had been positioned with this in mind. They were set high up in inaccessible mountains. Not only that but they contained nothing worth stealing (save perhaps the monks and these tended to be elderly and with a low resale value).

So Maljie made her way south and came at last to where she would be trained. The first problem was access. On your first visit you had to make the climb without ropes or other aids. On subsequent visits, if the first was a success, you were known and a rope would be lowered for you.

When you had arrived at the monastery the second problem arose, there was limited accommodation. Yes it was easy enough to find space for those who came to study, they merely slept three or four to a cell. Given that the bed was a rock ledge, the floor was no less comfortable and only slightly less convenient. But it meant that to meet your tutors you had to leave the monastery and climb further to find the hermit who would be taking you further in your quest for enlightenment. By the end of the first month, your grasp of hermeneutics might be shaky but your rope-work was first class and your ability to push gravity to the limits was unquestioned.

The style of teaching was interesting. Some was done in small groups. Three students would be assigned to each tutor and the ‘lesson’ would consist of them sitting round in a circle as the tutor dropped a question into the conversation. These circles would normally be outside because most hermits didn’t have a rock cut cell large enough to accommodate more than one person. So perched on a ledge with vertiginous drops to the valley far below, Maljie and her fellow students would debate issues such as, “What do you do if somebody takes more from the collection plate than they put in?”
As they discussed this, the tutor would ask, “But what if the person taking the money is penniless?” Another favourite was, “But what if the person taking the money is the muscular enforcer working for a leading racketeer?”

But I wouldn’t like you to think everything was focused on money. There were the celebrated ‘Four Questions.’

  • If during preaching, a child cries, whose fault is it?
  • If during the service, the celebrant’s assistant spills the vessel of blessed wine, whose fault is it?
  • If during the service a brawl breaks out between mendicants, whose fault is it?
  • If an archimandrite picks today for a random inspection when the incumbent has just ordered that the shrine’s impressive collection of ancient, unread, and probably heretical books be placed in the porch so that the library can be properly cleaned, whose fault is it?

Apparently, when you realise that the answer to all four questions is, ‘The Temple Warden’ you are ready to leave and take up your duties.

What you must realise is that it can take people a long time to reach this stage, spontaneously and on their own. Such an epiphany does not come overnight and the students will be placed under various other tutors who will guide them in the correct direction. This tuition tends to be on a one to one basis, if only because the tutors, as elderly monks, are cantankerous, irascible and don’t like noise and fuss.

Now you may indeed ask, ‘how does the student survive.’ After all one cannot seek solace in a glass of wine. Given that moving from one meeting to the next can see you inching your way along a narrow ledge above a precipice, sobriety is vital. Instead they have coffee. Now each monk will have his own grove of bushes, tucked away on one of the few pieces of level ground. Indeed a bush might well be growing on a ledge where the overhanding rock forces the bush to grow out over the abyss, which makes picking the berries something of a delicate operation. Each monk will then roast the berries they’ve picked from their bush, and so each monk will serve a unique flavour of coffee. It is always strong, and in some cases the drinker is rumoured to catch glimpses of the future. To be fair, the future you see may merely indicate a complete inability to sleep for some time, but still, the value of the vision rests on the use the person seeing the vision makes of the wisdom gained.

Indeed it was the coffee that led, indirectly to Maljie’s revelation. She was shown her tutor’s coffee bushes and he pointed to the ashes that had been dumped on them. Now apparently in some parts of Partann the dead are cremated. It seems that local custom indicates that the ashes of the departed should be scattered on sacred ground. The more despicable the departed, the more sacred the ground needs to be. So there is a move amongst some of the darker desperados to leave money or other enticements to followers who will scatter their ashes somewhere suitable. Indeed, where could be more suitable than up in the high mountains where the monks live? There is, I assume, an assumption then when Aea comes to judge the departed, the fact that they come from the direction of the monastery might cause confusion the departed can take advantage of. I have been reliably informed that some are cremated wearing a monk’s robe in case this helps the deception.

Maljie’s tutor gestured to his coffee bushes and the ashes and said, “So what must happen?”

Maljie pondered and on six sheets of paper she produced a profound and closely argued exegesis of a number of appropriate texts which showed that the ashes of somebody so degraded could darken the aura of the coffee. Her tutor read the paper, handed it back and said, “Look more deeply.”
Maljie went away and pondered once more and came back with an even longer paper. Here she combined cutting edge hermeneutics with daring eisegesis to produce a truly profound exposition of the dangers of drinking such coffee.

Her tutor read the paper, handed it back and said, “Look more deeply.”
Maljie went to sit and meditate by the coffee bushes and there she achieved enlightenment.
She went back to her tutor and passed him a piece of paper bearing one sentence. “The ash is poisoning the coffee bushes.”

He read the piece of paper and asked, “What have you done?”
“In accordance with the canons of our order I have disposed of them properly.”

Her tutor nodded sagely. “And exactly how?”
“Well I couldn’t bury them, they would have poisoned whatever grew there, so I cast them into running water.”

Her tutor nodded again, “And which stream did you cast them into?”

“I did not cast them into the northern stream because that provides water for drinking. I did not cast them into the southern stream because it is difficult to get to, especially when carrying ashes and I did not want to spill any. So I cast them into the middle stream.”

Her tutor pondered, “So you cast the ashes into a stream which flushes clean the monastery reredorter, then plunges deep underground into a network of caves and nobody knows where it might reappear, if ever?”

Maljie replied gravely, “It seemed suitable.”

Her tutor held up the sheet of paper with the one line answer on it. “Why did you not say this in your submission?”

“Because some things should not be mentioned in writing.”

At that the tutor hugged her, kissed her forehead and exclaimed, “Maljie, now indeed you are a temple warden.”


If you want to know more about Maljie





As a reviewer commented, “Where to start with this review? First of all a health warning. Do not read this book when drinking coffee/beer/WHY. Neither is it a great notion to read somewhere sudden bursts of laughter could be seen as inappropriate.
I must confess upfront to being a fan of Jim Webster’s writing as he has a talent for making the most wildly inconsequential of observations seem matter of fact and perfectly believable. Any of the tales he weaves around the imaginary but utterly believable city of a port Nain are going to be chuckle worthy at the very least.
Therefore I approached the chronicles of Maljie’s varied and exotic life with great expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact there were places where I actually howled with laughter.
Our heroine veers from situation to situation – rarely finishing without a profit. And some of her jobs are so silly and improbable. But you still keep reading and chuckling.
The ease with which Jim, in the guise of Tallis Steelyard (poet, visionary and unreliable witness) pilots this rickety craft through the shoals of Maljie’s life is exemplary.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself. But don’t forget the health warning.”

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