A beauty pageant

My search for purity became a way of countering boredom.

I sat in church sandwiched between sisters and brothers on the hard wooden benches of Our Lady of Good Counsel and listened as the priest droned his way through ideas on how to be a better person. His sermon considered how to live a good life, how to honour God’s teachings, but not how to stay awake or take the priest’s words seriously.

So I tuned out and watched the people around me instead.

When I was in grade three over the course of many weeks I began to notice that my teacher Miss Anderson sat several rows in front of me on the other side of the church. I could see her side on, eyes to the front, as if she were concentrating hard on every word the priest said and needed to get a good look at him in order to take it all in.

Her faced raised to the pulpit took on an angelic look, saintly and devout. Her skin was pale against her raven black hair, which she wore in one of those French buns my mother raved about but could not manage in her own hair because hers was too curly.

Miss Anderson gave off a radiance that left me in love with her. And as the priest rambled on I fell under her trance but pulled myself up short with a series of rules I set for myself on the nature of female beauty.

To begin, and based on what I had learned in church and at school, I decided that the Blessed Virgin Mary was without a doubt the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. And given she was an eternal saint, her beauty dominated all others.

Next in line, I included my mother. My mother was more beautiful to me than any other woman I had ever seen beyond the Blessed Virgin, and although my mother’s skin sagged around her neck these days and she complained about the wrinkles on her elbows, wrinkles that gave away a woman’s age, she told us, I had also seen my mother’s younger woman photos when she was a movie star, with her own head of dark, albeit curly hair, and although her skin was not the alabaster white of my school teacher’s – my mother’s complexion turned towards olive – she still radiated the beauty of the angels.


So I gave my mother second place.

After her, in third place came Miss Anderson and because I was allowed thereafter to make my own choices, the next in line came from the television screen, a movie star called Ava Gardner.

Every Sunday I looked around the church for other beauties to add to my list. Not only were they to exude a radiance that belonged to the saints, they needed to be pure, unsullied in their demeanour. These words came to me from the nuns and the prayer books, which told me all I needed to know about truth and beauty.

The priest one day talked about parishioners who had complained about the church. He took these people to task. They were complaining about their own church, he said. Their own church, one to which they belonged as though they were finding fault with someone else’s church.

How could this be?

These people set a bad example for the rest of us. We were in this together and given that our religion was the one and only religion, the pure religion, the one true faith, then it was important for all of us to honour that position and be loyal to our calling as God’s children.

That attitude of purity overruled all superficial aspects of beauty. A pure mind was best of all and a pure mind was almost impossible to achieve, unless I stopped paying attention to what was on the outside and cared only about the whiteness of my soul.


9 thoughts on “A beauty pageant”

  1. I’ve never tried to visualise Mary, nor even Jesus if it comes to that. Carrie and I were talking about this only a couple of days ago, not Mary or Jesus but the fact when I read I rarely, even if they’re described in some detail, think or care about what any character looks like. Jesus was a Jew and so was his mum. I expect he looked more like Fagin or Shylock than the way he usually gets painted and I really doubt his mother was much of a beauty (outwardly anyway) too. In my new book I actually address this when talking about religious art:

    “Once you’ve seen one overweight butcher and his wife posing as Joseph and Mary you’ve pretty much seen them all. To be candid Mary wasn’t exactly what you’d call a vision of loveliness. Devout and pure and all but nothing to get excited about first thing in the morning. Mind you Joseph was no oil painting himself.”

    I never thought of my mother as beautiful. It puzzled me what caught my dad’s eye in the first place. A winning personality goes a long way but I’m only guessing there. By the time I could assess such things the damage had been done and there were only shreds left.

    To be honest I’m not particularly attracted to conventionally beautiful women. I like pretty women well enough—and I’ve not met many women who can’t be made to feel pretty and that’s all it really takes for them to start being pretty—but I’ve always been more interested in character than beauty. The first film star I was drawn to was Debbie Reynolds. I would’ve been about ten at the time she caught my eye though it was really her personality.

    I find the priest’s comments interesting. There’s too much tolerance these days. I was brought up to have no truck with any so-called interfaith movements. There can only be one true religion and if you don’t believe you’re in it then you should seek out the true faith and cleave to it. I’ve never found a religion truer than the one I was brought up in. I simply wasn’t pure enough to stick with it. I’m not talking about being perfect—no religion can expect perfection—but my moral compass just didn’t point their way.

    1. Well that’s a pretty grim view on things, Jim. Not much beauty here. I think in some ways I was writing from what I imagine to be the experience of a baby, although I felt these things as a small girl – the stuff about our mothers being the most beautiful people of all when we are tiny. And as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As for religion, I’m not sure whether you’re serious here.
      If it was the case there was in fact only one true religion there’d be a very black and white world with a small group of insiders and the rest of us doomed. No, I reckon, if anything, we need more tolerance, more room for diversity, even if it leads to competition about whose is the best. Thanks, Jim.

      1. I’m half-serious, half-joking, Lis. In the past there was only ever one way to God. For a while it was Judaism and then it became Christianity. And that was it. One kind of Jew. One kind of Christian. Now there are dozens of Jewish sects and hundreds of takes on Christianity. It’s one of the problems I have with religion in general. In that respect, love them or loathe then (okay, loathe them or really loathe them), ISIS believe they’re right and they have no intention of playing nice with anyone who doesn’t agree with them. There can only be one truth and one way—you can see why I have little time for the truth—and what puzzles the hell out of me is why it’s so hard to identify. The Bible says you will “know the truth” and I’ve always read ”know” as “recognise”, like a long lost brother and that was the problem I had with the “truth” I grew up in. Yes, it had two arms and one head but it could’ve been anyone’s brother. It certainly wasn’t mine. We did our best to get on—you do, don’t you?—but it wasn’t happening. Religion’s like politics these days: it’s whatever they can do to make themselves look most attractive. And letting people decide for themselves what’s right and wrong is a good start. Wait a minute, isn’t that how this whole mess started in the first place? In Noah’s day only a handful of people got saved. Maybe when the rapture comes—or whatever form it takes—the ratio will be much the same: “Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.” (Isa. 26:20). I don’t care. I really don’t care. I try not to let the religious wind me up but they do. Idolatry doesn’t get talked about much these days but it’s a bigger problem than ever if you think about it; people makes gods in THEIR image, tolerant gods, understanding gods, forgiving gods. I wanted to fornicate and I wanted to lie—I wanted to do lots of things but let’s draw the line there—and so I did. I didn’t look for a religion where God would understand because I know damn well he doesn’t understand; he expects me to keep it in my pants and tell the truth no matter what and that’s just for starters.

  2. You were a much better child in church than I was. When it was Testimony meeting, my sister and I would place ourselves exactly in the middle of the congregation and if someone rose to testify of their knowledge of the truthfulness of the gospel, the sister on that side would get her arm tickled for as long as they spoke. I don’t remember noticing if anyone looked angelic.

    This is a beautifully written piece.

    1. Wasn’t that a risky thing to do, Kass? To try to get your sister to laugh during these Testimonies. Goodness, our services were far too serious for that. I remember once being in church with my Opa who was visiting from Holland. A couple of little boys in front of us were chattering together during the sermon and my grandfather knocked his missal lightly on their heads. They turned around in horror and were silent for the rest of the Mass. One glare from my grandfather would be enough to silence you for life. Thanks, Kass.

  3. I never paid attention to a sermon during Mass—I blame it for ruining my ability to listen! It has to be the one of the cruelest tortures for children. One of the priests from my childhood, Fr Ryan, was into preaching fire and brimstone. My mind would wander, then he’d suddenly raise his voice, and I’d jump thinking he’d spotted me drifting off. The Archbishop, Guilford Young, considered himself a high-brow intellectual Catholic and loved the sound of his own voice—to give him his due, he was very eloquent—but he could go on for an hour or more. I remember at one of my school masses, he preached for ninety minutes about the virtues of the Virgin Mary and our virginity, obviously giving us Catholic girls a lesson on how to behave. The kindy and prep kids at the front were all restless and moving about, and the teachers taking them outside because they were chatting, etc., yet he went on, and on …
    By the way, your mother was beautiful—but, yes, no one can beat the Virgin and her porcelain beauty!

    1. Those hell fire and brimstone sermons took the cake, Louise. In our parish the Redemptorists, who were especially trained in preaching in this way, came to visit periodically and it was terrifying to a small child. To older children, those more skeptical, it became something else again. Now I see it all in parody, but in those days…
      Thanks, Louise.

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