Your columnist - Gerry Moran
I couldn’t count the number of exams I have sat in my lifetime. Well I could but for certain sure I’d get the count wrong, maths having been the bane of my school-life (and still is) Anyway, of all the exams I sat I never sat one of them alone as one should. Never sat in those scarred, timber desks with brass-topped, idle inkwells, on my own. To my fellow students I seemed to be alone. To the supervisor, I most certainly appeared to be on my own but the truth is I always had company. I was always surrounded by saints, saints of the Catholic Church, established saints, latter-day saints and favourite family saints. Or rather, my mother’s favoured saints.
It is a recognised fact in our household that not one of our family got through an examination on his or her own merit alone. Each of us - my three sisters, my brother and myself – had assistance. Divine assistance. Divine assistance that was brokered for us by my mother’s prayers and devotion. My mother’s preparations started weeks, sometimes months in advance of the exams – rosaries were said, masses were offered and novenas made. Shrines were visited, candles were lit and in the dim light of hushed churches all around Kilkenny, a host of saints was petitioned and implored for their intercession in the academic trials that lay ahead of us.
In fairness I did a fair bit of imploring and pleading myself. Many’s the prayer I whispered in the side aisle of the Friary to Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the patron Saint of Examinations. Indeed I can still recite much of that prayer which begins: “Oh great Saint Joseph of Cupertino who didst merit from God the grace to be asked at your examinations the only questions you knew”. I was very dedicated to Joseph of Cupertino, a man not exactly bursting with brains but lucky enough (or prayerful enough) to be asked the only questions he knew come the day of reckoning. My kind of saint for sure - every student’s kind of saint. And many’s the candle I lit below in the Black Abbey, in particular to Saint Martin de Porres to whom our family had a special devotion; and in fairness the man he never let us down.
The real ritual, however, commenced the morning of the exam itself and would be repeated daily until the last test paper was handed up. Calmly and reverently my mother took down her precious horde of relics from a discreet spot high in the kitchen press and commenced the ceremony. Carefully unwrapping the soft tissue covering, she made the sign of the cross on our eyes, our lips, our hands and finally our temples with each relic all the while whispering aspiration after aspiration to the particular saint in question. The relics most favoured by her were those of Saint Gerard Majella (after whom I was christened), Saint Anthony (who never filed her) and the aforementioned Saint Martin De Porres whose relic was given to her by a saintly Dominican, a good friend of the family. When my mother’s ritual concluded we were handed the relics, blessed ourselves with them, kissed them and carefully placed them in a shallow, tin box next to our pens and pencils and mathematical instruments.
We dutifully repeated the ritual in the examination hall before the start of each test. What the supervisor or our fellow students thought of our antics I have no idea. However, so intense was our belief and so strong was our faith that we never cared to ask or enquire. To paraphrase a recurring theme in Dale Carnegie’s: How to Win Friends and Influence People – if the saints are for us, who could possibly be against us. Not one of our family, I am glad to report, ever failed an exam. Whether this was due to the rub of the relic, natural intelligence, hard work or a combination of all three I’ll never know. This much, however, I do know – if I dared produce those same relics and re-enacted my mother’s ritual the morning of my children’s exams, they’d look at me in puzzlement and bewilderment and wonder what class of witchcraft I was practising!