Desire is the culprit

The thing about the Catholic priests, the thing that caught my attention as a child, was the extent to which they were off limits, and therefore safe to desire. At least the good looking and kindly ones were.

The creepy ones, the priests like Father Flynn who took the year nines for religious instruction, were always best avoided.  Not that Father Flynn had a reputation for doing things to girls – I knew little about what happened to boys, in my single sex school, except from my brothers who talked only of ‘getting the cuts’ on a regular basis – but we all knew enough to avoid sitting alone with Father Flynn because of our discomfort at his difficult and blush inducing questions.

‘Do you have your periods yet?  None of his business.

‘Do you know how babies are born?’ Why ask, unless he wanted to teach us?

‘Do you know what parts of the body are active during the procreative act?’

Father Flynn loved the word procreation and although it seemed innocent enough in the bible, at least in places, rolling out on Father Flynn’s tongue, it held a measure of salaciousness we could not escape.

And so we learned to avoid him.

My mother worried for the parish priests wherever we lived. She worried that the priest’s job was too harsh, that the loneliness must have been crippling and that the priest might resort to alcohol late at night for comfort, or some such thing.

She never talked about the priests’ sexual relations with women other than to tell me about her opposition to non- celibacy in the priesthood.

My mother needed her priests to be celibate.

‘How could I talk to a priest who might then go home to his wife burdened with my story?

I wondered then what story my mother wanted hidden from the rest of the world.  What thing could she have done that was so outrageous only the priest could know.

It must have something to do with her own sinfulness.

My mother took sin seriously, or at least so she told me. She was after all raised by a woman, my grandmother, my oma, who suffered from scruples.

My oma went to Mass every day of the week, even through the freezing cold of Dutch winters, to the cathedral-like church of St Bavo, and once a week she confessed her sins to the priest.

After she had told him about the dreadful things she considered she had done to besmirch her own and God’s name, my grandmother went back home to complete her penance, a few prayers and a promise not to sin again.

Hours later she returned to the priest in his confessional.

‘You have absolved my sins father,’ she said. ‘But you got it wrong. Those sins are far worse than you realise,’ and she repeated the detail of her sins again, those anonymous sins that none of us know about to this day – we can only imagine – and again the priest remained unimpressed.  But he increased his list of penance prayers so that my grandmother should go home cleansed, unburdened and ready to attend to her family and life as a good Dutch woman in Haarlem Holland between the wars.

Still not satisfied my grandmother returned yet again for the late shift at the confessional – in those days the queues for confession could be so long the priests needed to hold multiple sessions – and this time she urged the priest to take her even more seriously.

She had sinned grievously. Did he not realise the severity of her sin?  Once again the priest tried to humour my grandmother by requesting not just one decade of the rosary but ten.

And still my grand mother was not appeased.

She could not be forgiven her sins; no matter how hard the priest tried.

My mother then lived under the weight of such a conscience stricken woman and tried to escape the burden by hiding herself away in books.

In medieval times, monks used scruples, the knots tied to the end of ropes and attached to sticks with which to flog themselves.

‘Mea culpa, mea culpa mea maxima culpa.’


These days we ascribe such impulses to an over active superego or to something maybe even more sinister, to some masochistic impulse to wash away our pain/sin under the weight of some bullying impulse within that gets satisfaction out of hurting ourselves.

For the monks and priests of the past – though I would not be one bit surprised if it still goes on today – it was a way of honouring God, making oneself pure and desire free in his eyes.

Desire was the culprit, desire for all things considered sinful: money, food and drink but mostly sex, lust, desire for another’s body, desire for the satisfaction of one’s own body.

My grandmother’s visits to the priest in confession might have been her way of flagellating herself.  Certainly, from what my mother said, the priests who attended my grandmother felt flagellated.

The priests in my mother’s home town and at the cathedral of Saint Bavo wanted to offer relief, not more pain, but my grandmother would have none of it and the pain must have extended to her diet.

In one of his journal entries, one of my uncles, a Franciscan priest, wrote:

‘The unusual habits of mother during her pregnancy, especially in her choice of food, made her vitamin deficit and could have given her children a form of rickets as our dentist pointed out.’

For my oma, all desire was bad.  Desire was to be squashed.

And yet without desire there can be no pleasurable expectation, no sense of the value of anything.

And worse still when our desires but must not even be considered.

Therein lies a problem for the priests. The need to be celibate in thought and deed.

How do you straitjacket your mind, when your mind will have its own way?

Unless you split off your desires into denial or slip into situations where your right hand does not know or recognise what your left hand is doing.



I want it now

My Dutch grandmother, a woman of scruples, a woman who held
fast to her religious beliefs even under pressure, kept camphor balls in her apron pockets during
her pregnancies. 

An uncle told me this recently, when I visited him in his
retirement home, this uncle, my mother’s younger brother, and one of the only two
left now of my mother’s large sib ship of seven. 
I had read a short memoir of his childhood, and somewhere the
‘The unusual habits of mother during her pregnancy,
especially in her choice of food, made her vitamin deficient and could have
given her children a form of rickets as our dentist pointed out.’ 
I was curious, and asked my uncle about his mother’s strange
eating habits and he talked about the lack of vitamin D from the harsh long
winters in Holland and how his mother fed her family cod liver oil.  

He did not mention her eating habits, only
this peculiarity. 

My uncle described how from time to time, as his mother went
about her housework duties, she dipped her hand into her pockets and pulled out a
camphor ball.  Then she put it to her
nose and breathed in deeply, as if from a snuff box, but only when she was pregnant,
my uncle told me, and only when she had those strange cravings that pregnant women can
have, not otherwise. 
It seemed an odd habit for a woman of scruples, a woman whose
religious observances bordered on the extreme. 
Mass every day even in the snow and cold and the rosary every
She was an expert at self-denial.
Self-denial takes practice.  
I remember when I first decided to get a grip on my television watching
as a thirteen year old.  I sat in the
classroom and the Latin teacher, Mother Eleanor, was going on about the
importance of learning our verbs.  About
the importance of putting aside time every night to practise them. 
I pitched myself in my mind to the end of the day.  I saw myself come home.  I saw myself go into the kitchen and spread at
least four slices of bread with margarine and jam, then I went to the lounge
room where my brothers were already stuck in front of the television and I
joined them. 
I put my sandwiches on the arm of my chair and eat sandwich
after sandwich as first Bugs Bunny, followed by the likes of Daniel Boone or
Robin Hood flashed across the screen.  Then
my father came home and I bolted, along with everyone else, no longer hungry
for dinner, no longer keen on sitting together as a family, but having to go
through the dinner ritual regardless. 

During the Latin lesson that day I decided I would stop
watching television.  I would give myself
time from the moment I came home to do my homework and then I would get good at
I would deny myself for a greater good.
They’ve done experiments with small children where they sit each
child in front of a lolly and tell them that if they can resist taking that
lolly for five minutes – not sure exactly how long, but about five minutes –
then they can have two. 
The researchers do this test to demonstrate the development of
impulse control and of will power.    
Some kids can do it.  They can hold out for the greater reward but others
cannot.  They want it now. 
When I shop with my husband for some item that is of
significant value, a new chest of drawers for instance, or a computer upgrade
or some such thing, he likes to look, to compare, to consider and then to go home empty
handed, with the intention of returning the next day or the day after that once
he’s satisfied this is the best thing to buy. 
Me.  I see it.  I examine it and think about it.  I reckon it’s okay.  Enough value for money, a good quality
product, it will do the job.  I want it
now.  Why wait till tomorrow or the next
day to buy it when we agree we need it and can have it now?
In this way we are different. 
But over the years I have noticed some of my husband’s caution has crept
into me and some of my impulsiveness erupts from him.  Just some. 
My husband is still a great one for window-shopping.  It’s nothing for him to go off to a farmer’s
market and come home with some small token, a bunch of radishes for instance,
whereas if I were to go to said farmer’s market I’d feel almost compelled to
buy stuff we might not need, stuff that interests me perhaps, expensive butter
from nearby farms, venison from a local supplier.  We might eat it eventually but we do not need
I will want to buy something for our children, too, but my husband is happy to feast his eyes on
the displays and come home empty handed. 
And then I get to another part of my uncle’s memoir where he
talks about his mother’s response to the fact that five of her seven children
left home as young adults to live far away in Australia, in New Guinea and in Brazil.

‘Every time somebody leaves, it takes away a piece of my
heart,’ my Dutch grandmother said.  And no amount of
scruples, impulse control or camphor ball sniffing can stop her heart from