The dark box

On my way home from visiting my mother the other night, I
listened to Phillip Adam’s Late Night Live on the radio.  
Adams was interviewing a man who had once been a Catholic, a priest even, but who then became an atheist and more recently
reconverted back to Catholicism.
This seems to me a difficult thing to do.  To shift from Catholicism to atheism is
easy enough – my path and many others I know – but to shift back. 
What happens to your doubts?
This man, John Cornwell, still harbours doubts
and he is critical of Catholicism in the institutional sense.  He’s written a book, The Dark Box: a
secret history of confession
.  In it he talks about the fact that the
confession he and I grew up with was not an issue until 1903 when the then
pope – one of the Pious  ones – decided one way of stopping the falling numbers of
Catholics was to reinforce the church from within.
To this effect he ordered that children as young as five
or six start to prepare for First Holy Communion and confession.  
Pious the whatever had no idea of the trauma these
sorts of teachings would have on the minds of children – the horrors of hell and
the relentlessness of a need to stay free from sin.
Before the nineteen hundreds the only ones to undertake
confession and communion were at least in their teens, a stage which I suggest
was also fraught, but  it was preferable to early childhood.
John Cornwell also described the confessional as a place
for childhood abuse because the priests who came into the priesthood grew up immature, stunted by their training, as
if still school boys after the boot camp quality of their life in the seminary. 
Cornwell described something of his own experience in the
seminary training to be a priest.  
There was a popular priest in the seminary who had been instructing young men in the ways of the priesthood. 
This priest was popular because he offered seminarians cigarettes or even the
occasional sip of alcohol.  He was
popular because he seemed to be one of them.  
In those days the popular priest held confession in his
room.  One day John Cornwell went along to have his confession heard.  
The popular priest locked the door
behind Cornwell who sat nearby in order to begin his confession. 
The popular priest then asked John to take out his
penis.  He needed to look at it,
the popular priest said in order to examine its size and constitution. He
needed to establish whether such a penis might more readily cause Cornwell to
Cornwell had the presence of mind to get up from his chair,
unlock the door and leave the room, never to return.
I tried later to retell this story to my husband and daughter over
dinner on Friday night.  My daughter recoiled.
‘Who wants to hear about sexual abuse over
So I stopped telling the
story mid track, but it has stayed with me.  This take on abuse and the strange history of the dark box
in which so many secret atrocities have occurred.  

Through my most grievous fault

My impulse to ‘help’ others is deeply ingrained. It is an impulse so strong that I find myself holding the lift open for the next person who might still be metres away to the consternation of other people already in the lift who are keen to get off. My do-gooding can hold some people up as much as it might be helpful for others.

My husband hates it.
‘Stop social working,’ he says. ‘Stop being such a do-gooder.’

When I first met my husband and told him of my qualification then as a social worker he said with a twinkle in his eye: ‘Social workers are mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others’.

The saying has stuck, but please all you social workers, do not take offense. He meant it only as a joke, but we all know that jokes carry kernels of truthfulness.

Do-gooders are boring people. If I meet such a person in life I tend to dislike them. I see myself reflected there. It is an appalling trait masquerading as helpful.

My mother’s mother whom I met only once when she came to Australia to spend several months with her oldest daughter’s family now settled here, suffered from scruples, or so my mother has told me.

Scruples are the knotty bits at the end of ropes, thick stubby short ropes attached to a handle that the monks used in days gone by as a means of whipping themselves. They walked along the streets their backs bloodied and striped in raised welts from their self-flagellation.
‘Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.’ Through my fault. My own fault. Through my most grievous fault.

They had sinned. Sins of impurity, sins of selfishness, sins of lust and of greed and they must atone for these sins to a God whom in their minds derived some satisfaction from their bloody mortification.

My grandmother took herself to the priest for confession and although she did not use a scruple stick, she used her words.
‘Father I have sinned. You can never know how badly.’
‘In what way have you sinned my child?’
‘I cannot say, Father. I cannot find words to tell you how bad I have been, but God knows and how can he ever forgive me?’

The priest by now familiar with my grandmother’s litany of remorse tried to cut her short.
‘Say three Hail Marys. I absolve you now, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost’.

My grandmother shuffled from the church after saying her prayers, went back to her home and her kitchen, her husband, her children and her sinfulness only to return later that day with the same complaint.
‘Father, you do not realise how bad I have been.’
The priest tried again, day after day, week after week, month after month, but to no avail.

On her trip to Australia my grandmother worried. She wore a summer dress with pencil thin straps over her shoulders. Too much flesh visible. But in the heat of Australia, my mother reasoned, many women dressed this way. For my grandmother, another sin for the priest back home.

When she returned to Holland, my grandmother took to her bed. She was 67 years old. The scruples had turned into cancerous knots in her belly and she died.

I think of her often when I consider this pressure in me to relieve myself of the burden of my existence. I have long ago relinquished any belief in such a cruel and heartless god as one who might demand relentless recompense, and yet the need to help goes on.

The monks who flagellated themselves in the eyes of the people and of their God were motivated by a desire to punish themselves. Helping others compulsively has similar overtones. For which reason we must set limits on such impulses and allow others to help us in turn. Turn the selfishness of selflessness into a shared exchange, a give and take.

Lesson learned?