On confession, impure thoughts and the priests

Over the past two weeks I watched the documentary, Revelations. A three-part series only two of which are available to watch on ABC iView.

The third was taken down after the verdict came in on George Pell and he was set free.

We can only wonder why. 

The documentary essentially deals with the stories of several paedophile priests, two of whom are showcased to demonstrate the degree to which the Catholic hierarchy as a whole was complicit in perpetuating their crimes by keeping them secret.

Tears welled behind my eyes the whole time I watched, and a familiar feeling slid through my veins. A feeling I have written about before. The confusion people have, priests and laity, about the nature of the priesthood. 

Priests were holy men chosen by God to represent him and the Pope. The Pope at the top, infallible. Their teachings were sacrosanct and what they said and did inviolable.

So, we worshipped them or avoided them in equal quantities. At least I did. 

My mother most of all loved her priests. She talked about what lonely lives they led every night alone in their presbyteries with only a housekeeper to cook and clean, but no other companionship. 

No wonder some turned to drink, she said, as if their loneliness became an excuse. But she preferred her priests unmarried. If they married then they might be tempted to tell their wives about the activities of the parish, they might even reveal secrets from confession. 

How could she ever trust her priest in the confessional, if at night he should go home to his wife full of the day’s sins and not want to offload some of the burdens on her? 

My mother preferred her priests chaste. And the nuns she knew had also taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Chastity was an admirable quality, one we were taught from the onset even before we knew what it meant.

When I was seven and first entered the holy sacrament of confession, I sat in Our Lady of Good Counsel church in Deepdene underneath the row of stations of the cross. The images that tell the story from the rosary of the sorrowful mysteries. 

I could rattle off these words by heart, as we sang them out loud in unison during religion.

The agony in the garden, the crowning with thorns, the scourging at the pillar, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion. 

Pure poetry. I knew it as well as I knew Wordsworth’s poetry, in those days when I rote-learned everything in order to get by. It did not matter that I did not understand. It only mattered that I could repeat the words to the satisfaction of the nun in charge. 

Question: Why do we call that day good on which Jesus Christ died? 

Answer: We call that day good on which Jesus Christ died because his death has given us so many blessings and showed us how much he loved us.

A strange love. To suffer and then die. 

The message was clear. Suffering was good. Suffering was holy. Suffering was a useful element in your life. While pleasure, especially pleasure associated with impure thoughts was not. 

Impure thoughts. I did not know what they meant, only that they snuck in unbidden and had something to do with bodily sensations that were also forbidden. 

They could sneak into your mind while you were watching the television and saw a man take a woman into his arms and the two kissed. 

They could sneak into your mind when you went into the toilet and took off your underpants to take a pee. 

They could sneak into your mind when you opened the pages of your father’s art book and saw there the naked bodies of people, mainly women with breasts, white and bulbous, hanging out of their gowns or hidden under veils. 

They snuck into your mind when you saw statues of naked men in the museum, a fig leaf strategically placed between their legs, along with a bunch of grapes or some other hint at things unmentionable. 

They snuck into your mind when your mother told you to wear a t-shirt and not run around on hot days like your brothers because you were a girl, even though your body looked then exactly like your brothers’ bodies. At least on top. 

Still, the time would come when unmentionable things might happen to your body and impure thoughts were part of it. 

I never understood the impure thoughts. I only knew they slipped into my mind, and that it was my moral duty to report them to the priest in confession for fear of eternal damnation.

A mortal sin sent you to hell, as against a venial one which might land you in purgatory where you at least had a chance of moving back to heaven after you’d done your penance. 

Everything geared towards penance, sin and reparation. Doing the deed in secret but not letting anyone know, even maybe including yourself, but when awareness slipped into your consciousness and guilt took over, then you needed to visit the priest and tell him about it such that he could forgive you your sins and you went away lighter. 

These were the feelings I saw in these priests, only their sins were of a magnitude higher than mine. Mine only involved my own body, not that of others, not until I was older, did I sin with others apart from my explorations with my sister, but we were more or less the same age. Though I sometimes felt I led her astray as the older one. 

The paedophile priests on the other hand were confused about their own seniority. They lacked any sense of being the adults in charge when it came to the sexual abuse of children. They might as well have been children themselves, only they were not. 

They were grown men and the things they did to the children in their care, the grooming, the raping, the masturbation left those children confused and distressed, many to the point of suicide and if not suicide then drug addition or alcohol abuse or abuse of others, anything to rid themselves of the unspeakable pain, the not knowing what they did wrong to make this happen, while in the meantime, the priest and the holy men of the church went about their business in their gold vestments to say Mass and lead the congregation in prayer.

All this was revealed in the documentary but nothing can let us see the full impact of such atrocities unless we enter more fully into the minds of those small children whose minds were taken from them. 

The demons lie behind my tonsils

I do not enjoy my visits to the doctor, not simply because I fear there may be something so seriously wrong with my body that I will soon die, not because my body is a mystery to me and houses secrets I do not understand, but because I expect to be found guilty of criminal neglect.

The doctor will tell me that I eat too much of the wrong foods, that I drink too much wine, that I do not exercise enough. The doctor will tell me that although it is now over twenty-eight years since I last smoked a cigarette, it makes little difference. The damage is done.

The doctor will tell me when she pulls the Velcro tab off the blood pressure monitor that my blood pressure is up. She will frown knowingly and tut a while.
‘We’ll try taking it again later,’ she will say and my heart will race in unison with my thoughts. I have inside of me a heart that is out of order, a heart that will not behave, a heart I cannot trust.

The doctor will look into my eyes with her bright pencil light. The doctor will look into my ears. She will probe my tongue with a spatula half way down my throat and I will gag.

The demons lie behind my tonsils in my voice box and if I am not careful the doctor will hear things I do not want her to hear.

Tell me doctor, what I must do to enter into a state of goodness, to enter into a state of bodily perfection?

The priest wears black. The doctor wears white. I dress in red.

The passion of my faulty heart crisp under the stethoscope as the doctor listens for the rattle in my chest.
‘Are you sure you don’t smoke?’

Does she know? Does the stethoscope know?

I smoke cigarettes in my dreams. I drag onto one cigarette after another and draw in the taste and smell, the flavour, my grandfather’s Amphora tobacco, my father’s Craven A filter tipped, full strength – the poisons of the past course through my lungs and the doctor sees it all.

‘What have you been doing to yourself?’ she will ask, as if she does not already know.

Your body is a temple. Treat it with respect. Do not ask of your body that which it cannot give. Stay pure in thought and deed.

One and a half litres of water a day, three twenty minute walks a week. Jog. Do not walk. Get your heart rate going. Get your pulse up. But here in the doctor’s surgery you must slow it down.

How can I hide. The doctor must not know.

This body, this temple, this soul polluted in thought, word and deed. My body, my sanctuary for the devil.