On Holy Disorders

When I was young, I conflated the story of Saint Maria Goretti with that of Saint Gemma of Galgani. The former, a woman who at 18 years of age while her parents were away at Mass refused the sexual advances of a young man who lived nearby.

So, he stabbed her multiple times. Her saintliness installed as a mark of her womanly virtue in resisting his overtures and because she was already saintly in word and deed. 

Not unlike Gemma, who did not suffer such a hideous fate, at least not in the first instance, but Hilary Mantel in her Memoir of my Former Self uses Gemma’s story, among others, to illustrate what she calls, ‘Holy Disorders’, namely holy anorexia.

The way these women, as part of their subjectivation to Jesus, not only purged their bodies of food, and suffered the stigmata on their wrists and feet – wounds that bled where nails were driven into Christ’s body – but also purged themselves of all desire. To get closer to his heavenliness and stay a step ahead of all things earthly. 

It was playtime during my fourth year at primary school when I visited the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The church still stands today alongside the primary school where I spent at least six years of my early education from grade one till I shifted to the convent in year seven. 

The school sat in its concrete playground alongside the green manicured gardens beds that snaked around the church. No fence between, but a winding pathway alongside the rows of standard roses stripped of flowers post midyear prune, with the ground below freshly turned to fallow during the cold of winter. 

I can’t say why I decided to visit the church this day, most likely to escape the tumult of the playground and my abiding sense I had no friends.

Perhaps I was lonely and went in search of the company of saints whose ghosts inhabited the church and might well rustle about the aisles in the quiet of the morning when early Mass was over and no one else around. 

I entered through a side door, genuflecting. Then made a sign of the cross. My arms automatically took up this position at the holy water font in the doorway, as if checking my entire body for goodness.

Right hand to forehead. Then to stomach, across to left shoulder, then diagonally to right to complete the cross that is necessary in front of the altar where the Holy Eucharist rests snug in its gold tabernacle, pushed back against the altar stone.

The Church of Our lady of Good Counsel, like so many suburban churches of my childhood, was rectangular in shape with sections on one side that formed miniature replicas of altars where statues of saints, like Joseph or Mary, prevailed. 

Behind the main altar at the head of the church with stain glass windows overhead and flooded in the light of the morning sun, shadows danced against the wall.

The altar, separated on a dais, created a hidden corridor against this back wall. From there I imagined Christ would soon materialise to visit me. I’d recognise him from his long white robes and dark flowing hair, his beard and pale skin.

I prayed, knees against the hard wood of the kneeler, hands joined in prayer and my face towards the altar’s light. Then waited and waited. 

I had read the story of the three children of Fatima, the story of Bernadette, those children to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary once appeared with a series of promises and requests.

These young people, girls mostly, were famed throughout the church for their goodness and the fact they were chosen for visitation. I wanted my share, but to improve matters I was convinced mine would include a visit from Jesus. 

I waited until I heard the bell in the distance and sensed the call of the classroom with Mrs Alexander’s wrath if I was late. This greater than any disappointment in Jesus who failed to visit me.

Like so many childhood memories the rest fades from view. Until I read Hilary Mantel’s take on certain female saints who suffered immeasurable horrors in the name of abstinence.

Saint Bartolomea, took abjection to the extreme by licking floors and eating the spiders and other bugs she found there. She licked the floor till her tongue bled. Her blood a sign of her love of His sacred heart. 

In the fourteenth century, Lidwina, a Dutch mystic, the patron saint of chronic pain and ice-skating, kept her rotting flesh in jars during her bedridden state.

The Italian Saint Angela of Foligno ate scabs from a leper’s sores.

Catherine of Siena drank pus, while the Sacred Heart of Jesus glowed bright from many a church wall. A sword pieced its side. The heart exposed in Jesus’s hands was ringed by a crown of thorns to signify his suffering pre-crucifixion.

Along with the impulse to capitalise His masculine preposition. Not to do so, blasphemy. 

The old lessons sit hard in my psyche. When Hilary Mantel talks of the ‘medicalisation of unhappiness’, as when she was 19 years old and took herself to a doctor in search of help for the unbearable pain she had been experiencing since she first copped her period at eleven. He sent her to a psychiatrist.

Endometriosis did not exist then or was considered a psychological malady however much it took physical form. I remember my own experience of those who suffered such womanly ailments.

Just as the doctors dismissed Mantel’s pain as emotional, given the stress of life, put first on antidepressants then off to the psychiatrist, not diagnosed with endometriosis till it was too late when surgery and the removal of her ovaries left her in premature menopause and infertile. 

At Prince Henry’s Hospital in the social work department, we shared the prevailing medical view that endometriosis was essentially a psychological complaint. As if we too, women in the main, believed the clap trap of the medicos of the day, men mostly, who did not understand the fact that the female body with its tendency to menstruate and common ailment of such bodies, including those renegade cells in endometriosis that take themselves beyond the womb and could cause excruciating pain in the pelvic region. 

The doctors of my day considered endometriosis, like chronic thrush, to be an ailment of a person’s mind.

Similarly, a young woman whose life was dogged by chronic epilepsy and seizures -I’ll call her Gloria – was given the sad label of a woman who could not handle her emotions. Could not keep them in check. 

Gloria was demanding, excessive, a typical epileptic, or so we were told. She needed to be constrained with medication. No one used the throwback word ‘hysteric’ then, but they might as well have done so, both for epileptic seizures of the brain and for endometriosis those wandering cells away from the womb. 

Perhaps, because I was born into a female body and identified with the gender assigned to me at birth, I was prone to identifying with my female counterparts in these young female saints who worked hard to curb their desires and thereby get closer to Jesus.

They weren’t the only ones. Boys too were urged to emulate the lives of saints. And go through ritual punishments but they at least had a chance to become God’s representatives on earth, as priests, while we girls could only take the place of His handmaidens. 

How I despise the term ‘handmaiden’.

Spilt the word. Maiden: a young female, and hand. Whose hand? And where might we apply it? Other than to serve. The patriarchal nature of all religions goes without saying, but in the Catholic Church of my childhood it was pronounced from on high. My fantasy of a visit from Jesus an aberration. 

I should have better expected a visit from Jesus’s mother.

Mary visited small children. Jesus remained the province of men, however much the saints Mantel describes were desperately trying not so much to serve him, as to emulate Him, to become more Christlike in his suffering than Christ. 

What a way to go?

Swords, sorrow, and stone fruit

Sunday morning breakfast. You’re in the kitchen peeling skin off peaches. You despise the hairy coats, but the ripe fruit is perfection. You scrape the flesh off the last of a mango pip, yellow, sticky and delicious, then quarter a few strawberries. Not so great today, despite the season. Their centres are hard under a glorious red outer coating. You suspect they’ve been raised in hot houses then stored underripe in cool houses. Left out later to ripen. Artificially matured. 

Still you’re enjoying this breakfast preparation – summer fruits and yoghurt – when your daughter tells you the sad story of three Bedouin, Jewish hostages somewhere in Gaza who managed to escape only to be mistaken for enemy. Despite waving a white flag, they were shot down by Israeli soldiers. 

Your morning’s joy is eroded and you’re back inside a world of paranoia and hatred. 

‘It’s so sad,’ your daughter says, even as she adds, ‘There’s one hell of sadness everywhere at the moment.’ The sadness punctuated by what was otherwise a bright and cheerful morning.

It plunged you back into thoughts that grip you much of the time. The horrors of war. 

Your twelve-year-old grandson asked for a katana, a Japanese sword, for Christmas. Even as you explain to him, these things are weapons and illegal in this country, without a licence, he keeps the request up for days. 

Something to do with Samurai and ninja, the anime games he plays on his computer. Something for show. 

Japanese dress swords remind you of your father’s military serve sword which he kept in a wardrobe high up in his bedroom. You liked to take it down when he was away at work. Sneak into the forbidden room, lift the heavy sword in its decorative sheaf from behind the winter blankets and feel its weight in your hands. 

The sword is blunt, deliberately so, for dress purposes only, but still as a long metal stick it could do damage. And you tell your grandson, even as he tells you yet again, he’d settle for a blunt blade. He wants to display it on his mantel piece along with all the rock samples and Lego figurines he has collected over the years. 

Even blunt katanas are useful, he says. For cutting up watermelon. ‘You can hack into a melon from above and the force even from a blunt katana will split it in two.’ 

He tells you then how he missed an experiment in science at school where the teacher pulled an elastic band over the belly of a melon and the class waited over time to see what would happen. He missed seeing the melon explode but can do it himself with a katana in his possession.

As much as he knows his grandparents aim to give him his heart’s desire, you are now more circumspect. You will not buy things willy nilly. Especially not for this grandson who is a joyous companion, especially hiking through hideous shops like K-Mart, full of cheap, throwaway, and potential landfill. 

Every second item on every second shelf he sees, he’d love to own. 

‘It’s so cheap, Grandma,’ he tells you as he holds up an oversized travel bag, or a large squishy pink thing of indeterminate shape. He’d enjoy sharing his bed with it. 

You relent at the gigantic Toblerone stick, one for him and one for his older brother, but only for Christmas. 

It’s not a katana. That he cannot have. It’s against the law to bring them into the country, you remind him. And your husband nearby, adds ‘People use them to chop off other people’s arms.’

‘Why would I want to chop off someone’s arm?’ your grandson asks rhetorically, and you believe him. But still no katana.

Another daughter tells you in state of bemusement, her four-year-old son asked for a gun. He’s her first born and they never talk guns in her household. Another rhetorical question: Where did he hear about guns?

And you remember another young boy, your nephew from thirty years ago, when he was around the same age. His parents had a strict no-gun policy in their house, so he improvised. He collected coloured pegs fallen from the washing line and pinched two together to form makeshift guns he could hold shoulder high to shoot the baddies. 

You finished reading Alison Flett’s essay on death, and in it you read about the superstitious significance of magpies.

One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told. Magpie, magpie, why do you sigh? I sit so alone as the world goes by. Eight for a wish, Nine for a kiss, Ten for a bird, You must not miss.

And you think about the number of times you’ve encountered a lone magpie and did not realise the superstition surrounding its solitary arrival. 

You’ve always been careful around magpies, careful not to disturb or trouble them.

In the Magpie Park of your childhood, the one you crossed each morning and afternoon on your way to and from school in the 1960s, the magpies sat high above in the gum trees and if you were unlucky, one swept down to warn you away.

I have read in recent years, magpies are not merely sources of superstition, they are intelligent creatures. They hold grudges and can recognise a person who has upset them or threatened their nests for years. They go for the enemy. 

You can’t remember a magpie going for you. Though one swooped once, when you were hanging out clothes on your washing line in your back yard, soon after wreckers had been working in a nearby plot to demolish a few abandoned houses to make way for a grand styled retirement village. The wreckers chopped down trees and most likely disturbed the magpies’ habitat. 

Perhaps they mistook you hanging out washing for a wrecker. You heard the swoosh of wings above your head and feared for your scalp, but it was only once. 

Not a magpie. A crow that appeared on the beach where relatives threw the ashes of a beloved niece who died when she was far too young. The bird was he’d from on high and companioned you through this sad event. A lone bird, as harbinger of death.

Your imagination has long been a companion whose creations you value but cannot trust, rather as the forces that killed the escaped hostages could not trust the people coming towards them were innocent escapees. 

Innocent people do not deserve to be treated in this way. 

There’s something hideous in a story of escape success that ends soon after in tragedy. We want to hear stories of people who make it in life, not stories of people who lose their lives heedlessly.

And so, your morning has begun in sorrow despite the season and glorious stone fruit and mangos. How you wish life could be different. But it’s not.