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.  

3 thoughts on “The dark box”

  1. I knew a woman once who converted to Catholicism. The reason she gave was that it was a very beautiful religion. I think that’s what she said or I might be remembering the Woody Allen character from Hannah and her Sisters. Hard to be sure these days. Anyway even if I can’t remember her exact words I do remember the sentiment. She was attracted to the pomp which I get a little even if it does nothing for me. It puzzled me that my dad turned to religion in his late thirties. He’d hated his time in the navy so why join an organisation that had rules for everything? I had no choice. I was brought up that way. The first question I asked about everything, even if I didn’t use these exact words, was: In what ways might this be wrong? And if you look hard enough—or really not that hard at all—you can find something wrong in everything. Fun things stood a far greater chance of being wrong. Eating cabbages and Brussels sprouts were never going to be sinful but anything that might give the body more pleasure than was supposedly good for it was. So even when I wasn’t committing an official sin a lot of the time growing up I felt like I was still probably doing something I shouldn’t be and after a while you get tired of not sinning because it’s so damn draining.

    I didn’t have to confess my sins—Christ, that must be an awful thing to have to do—but not saying out loud doesn’t change anything; we all have our dark boxes. I knew that “The Lord is constantly watching everyone, and he gives strength to those who faithfully obey him.” (2 Chron. 16:9) So He knew. He knew when I sinned in my body. He knew when I sinned in my heart. What I didn’t realise was how much my fellow believers were going through the same agonies. I assumed I was the only sinner in the world. Then I grew up a bit and I saw people leave the faith—and get kicked out of the faith—and I started to realise we were all in the same leaky vessel. (I know the Bible’s talking about a pot there but a boat works just as well.) And I wondered why. When I was a kid things were wrong because God—that is my dad acting as God’s proxy (“I am God in this household!”)—said they were. Why was irrelevant. Why did God say not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk? (Deut. 14:21) What’s that got to do with anything? Why if the Bible says a man is not to shave (Lev. 19:27) did church elders object when I grew a beard? I knew certain things ought to be wrong and I didn’t mind that certain things were wrong but I did want to believe they were wrong and not simply accept they were. Too many things were wrong because someone decided they were and then someone decided they shouldn’t’ve been wrong and then they weren’t wrong.

    As far as priests not marrying where do I start? It’s so unscriptural I can’t believe it’s still going on. I know Paul said it was “better” that all Christians (not just priests) remain unmarried (1 Cor. 7:8) but in the very next verse he added: “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Paul may very well have remained celibate but Peter (the first pope) most certainly was married. My wife and I have started watching a medical drama called Monday Mornings. One of the characters is a brilliant—aren’t they always?—neurosurgeon who just happens to have a very poor grasp of English. When, following one of his procedures, a woman develops strong sexual urges she tries to sue him. He’s genuinely puzzled by this. His response:

          Dr Park: Sex good. Hmm? Good her, good you, help prostate.
          Patient: I don't believe you're hearing us.
          Dr Park: Sex good… help prostate, make pee better, reduce stress. Go.

    He genuinely can’t see why this might be a problem. And it shouldn’t be.

  2. Some people simply NEED to believe in a god. They are so scared of oblivion, nothingness, and thus cling to "the sure and certain hope" of life everlasting.

    The mere thought of there being no respite from life is much more terrifying.

    Live and let live in whatever fantasy world you believe in but keep clear of priests of whatever religion. They are not NORMAL.

  3. When I was 7 years old ("the age of reason") and walking up the aisle to receive my First Holy Communion, I was terrified, thinking I would be struck dead on the spot because … I didn't believe the little white round wafer was actually the real body of Christ. I later managed to convince myself somehow that it was. The turning point came when I was 16, and, full of religious fervor, had decided to become a secular monk. I wore a little thin rope tied around my waist underneath my clothing and every morning knelt down and recited specific prayers in the "Order of St. Francis", whom I admired. Until one day I suddenly became aware that it had become rote-like, the words having lost all meaning, the ritual no longer making sense. It felt false. I felt like an imposter, pretending. Unless you "believe", you're not really one of them. That meant all of it — the Adam and Eve story, virgin birth, a being who's both God and man but sacrificed by his Heavenly Father to atone for sins inherited by all mankind resulting from a curse by the same loving God for the first woman's disobedience of eating a forbidden fruit. It didn't make sense, and still doesn't. The lasting legacy I took from this experience was that no one, not even your parents, should tell you how to think or what to "believe", or shun/reject/punish you if your beliefs happen to differ. I really tried. Perhaps if the story had been more convincing, or something I could personally relate to …. Confessions of an Ex-Communicated ….

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