By Gerry Moran
The weather is up and that can only mean one thing – it’s exam time (oh, and summer may also be upon us.) I don’t know why, but the sun always seems to shine come examination time. In fact the first question on every exam paper should read: “Why is it always sunny when the exams commence?”
From Primary Cert to Third Level, my memory of exams is always of a hot sun beating down on my tense, anxious body wrestling with Macbeth, the Lady of Shalott or Pythagoras’ Theorem. However, even more so than the weather, I always associate exams with religion. I couldn’t count the number of exams I have sat in my lifetime, yet I never sat one of those exams alone as one should. 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, my mother’s favourite 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. We each of us, my three sisters, my brother and myself had assistance. Divine Assistance that was brokered for us by my mother’s prayers and devotion.
My mother’s preparations for her children’s exams started weeks in advance; rosaries were said, novenas were made and masses were offered up. Shrines were visited, candles were lit and in the dim light of hushed churches all around Kilkenny, a host of saints was petitioned for their intercession in the academic trials that lay ahead of her children. Indeed I did a fair bit of petitioning myself. Many’s the prayer I whispered in the side aisle of the Capuchin Friary to Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the patron Saint of Examinations. Joseph wasn’t exactly bursting with brains but he was lucky enough (and prayerful enough) to be asked the only questions he knew come the day of reckoning. Every student’s saint for sure.
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. Although he was only Blessed at the time we regarded him as a saint and petitioned him on that basis for favours. And in fairness I don’t believe he ever let us down.
The most important religious 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 would take down her precious cache of relics from a discreet corner of the kitchen press and commence the ceremony.
Carefully unwrapping the soft tissue covering, she would make the sign of the cross on my eyes, my hands and finally my temple (as near as she could get to the brain) 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 let her down) and the aforementioned Blessed Martin De Porres whose relic was given to her by a saintly Dominican, a friend of the family. When my mother’s ritual concluded I was handed the relics, blessed myself with them then carefully placed them in a shallow, tin box next to my pens, pencils and mathematical instruments. I dutifully repeated the ritual in the examination hall before the start of each test. What the supervisor or my fellow students thought of my antics I have no idea. However, so fervent was my belief, so strong was my faith that I never gave a thought as to what they might be thinking; to paraphrase a recurring theme in Dale Carnegie’s book: “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, if the saints are for me, who could possibly be against me!
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 had dared produce those same relics and re-enacted my mother’s ritual the mornings of my children’s exams, they would have looked at me in bewilderment and wondered what class of witchcraft I was practising!