“Whisper!” the priest commanded. In a second, the sound of my grade one classmate’s recitation plummeted from stentorian, to sotto voce, to smothered. He had just intoned the opening words of the Roman Catholic ritual of confession, “this is my first confession.” I was next in the confessional queue, but I couldn’t hear him mumble the following line, “These are my sins.” It was possible that he didn’t have any. Couldn’t be true. The nuns said we all did. I leaned forward as much as I could and strained to hear his statement of moral turpitude. Nothing. I didn’t care what satanic acts he had done. I just wanted to find out if his puerile peccadilloes were a match for mine. I never learned what evil lurked in the heart of Billy.
Then it was my turn. I entered the confessional booth. My chosen sin, the great ice cream heist at the ready, I initiated my inaugural formal contact with a Catholic priest. With that whispered first confession, my official journey as a Roman Catholic began.
On a forehead-dripping hot day in July 1948, I stole the frozen treat. Chrissy, the pretty, red-haired girl next door and the love of my young life, had just shouted at me across her veranda, “Fudgsicles!” These chocolate ice cream confections on sticks had been in short supply during the immediate years after World War II. I really missed them. “Tommy, Joanne’s mom said Mr. Cornell’s got some more Fudgsicles!”
“Wow! Thanks, Chrissy.”
I’d planned for this day. Despite my lavish spending habits, I’d saved four cents from my 20-cents-a-week allowance.
That afternoon I skipped up Toronto’s Delaware Ave. with a song in my heart, saliva on my lips. King George’s image on my four pennies pressed into my sweaty palm. The Fudgsicles lived in a pharmacy on Hallam St. I burst through the door and waved at the pharmacist at the back.
“Have you got any Fudgsicles yet Mr. Cornell?”
“Yep. They just came in yesterday. You know where they are, Tommy, in the icebox next to the cash register. Just leave the money on the counter.”
“Are they still four cents?”
“Sorry, son. They’re six cents now.”
What? They were four cents last summer. What to do? The seventh commandment screamed in my ear. “Thou shalt not steal.” I wish Sister Mary Francis were here. She was nice and would tell me to just ask Mr. Cornell if I could give him four cents now and the rest next week when I get my allowance again. He knew me and he knew my mom and that we’d pay what I owed. But what if he was in a bad mood and said no? I was boiling hot. I wanted that Fudgsicle and I wanted it now! Moral dilemma…Solved. I left my four cents on the counter and took it. I’m not really stealing it, at least not all of it. I’ve paid for most of it. Then, a not-too-swift thief, I moseyed outside, leaned against a pharmacy wall, and devoured my dairy delight.
I didn’t really enjoy the bottom third of the Fudgsicle. Too much guilt. Still, I knew I had committed a venial sin, as opposed to a mortal one, like murder. Then you’re playing with fire.
In subsequent years, my parents and the teachers at St. Anthony’s school made sure I would continue to be as religious as they were. Not a bad thing. Yes, early post-war Catholics grew up with a powerful sense of guilt. As a letter-writer stated in The New York Times: “The nuns … made us feel that every little transgression was leading us down the path to hell and eternal damnation. They controlled us through fear of God, not love of God.” Nevertheless, those Catholics also grew up with the optimistic belief that there is more to life than what we see. Carl Jung in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, put it this way: “… we must not forget that for most people it means a great deal to assume that their lives will have an indefinite continuity beyond their present existence. They live more sensibly, feel better, and are more at peace.”
Nothing much religion-related happened for the next seven years, until I reached grade eight. That year our school counsellor told us we needed to think about our future careers.
Fridays were no-meat days back then. What remained for a young Catholic carnivore to eat? Fish. On one of those Fridays, Jimmy and I picked up our 25-cent lunch, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, English style. The Toronto Star’s newsprint soaked up a lot of the grease, and despite the considerable amount of slime the Star didn’t absorb, I’m still here, 68 years later. It was good for the Star, too. Its ink became such an integral part of my DNA that after seven decades, I still have a subscription. As the fish and chips slid down our throats, we discussed the counselor’s advice. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be. I asked Jimmy, “What are you gonna be when you grow up?”
“A priest,” he said.
What a great idea! Everybody likes you. Lead a holy life yourself, help others do it, and you go to heaven, just like the nuns said. And future priests don’t get the strap.
“Me too, Jimmy,” I said, relieved that my career worries were over.
By grade twelve, I knew what kind of priest I wanted to be, a missionary who would give sermons that rivaled the oratorical power of Cicero and Churchill; sermons that would persuade non-Catholics to become Catholics and Catholics to repent. A sort of Catholic Moses leading others up the mountain to “the promised land.”
In 1960, my journey began. My parents dropped me off in front of an institution called the novitiate, from the Latin novitiatus, a school for novices. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be allowed to see them again until this preparatory period ended a year later. The thinking behind this and other deprivations was, if you’re going to lead others up the mountain you need to be in good spiritual shape, and that meant freeing yourself from all attachments. That’s what the novitiate and later, the seminary, were intended to do. I had no idea how difficult that spiritual fitness preparation would be.
All monks take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These promises help keep the outside world from distracting a monk from his true vocation: the service of God and the salvation of his immortal soul.
The vow of poverty inhibits the love of property and riches. Monks own nothing. One distraction gone.
The vow of chastity curbs “the pleasures of the flesh.” Monks are celibates. A second distraction gone.
The vow of obedience limits the exercise of one’s free will and compels monks to obey the will of God as expressed through the commands of their religious superiors. A third distraction gone.
The theory seems rational. The vows keep temptation at bay. Heaven, here we come. It’s not that simple though. While according to Catholic theology the soul may be superior to the body, the body often disagrees with this assessment.
Poverty? Everyone likes to own his or her personal stuff. Chastity? It’s not easy to give up marriage and parenthood. Obedience? It’s hard to be told what to do all the time.
What’s the result of all this self-denial? Tension, especially when that self-denial comes at you thick and fast in the boot camps of the novitiate and the seminary. On some occasions, humor relieved that tension.
One blue-skied spring morning, a colleague and I, designated by our superior to edge a benefactor’s huge garden, worked in prayerful silence. We never looked up. We never consulted. When the edgers met, the edges didn’t. We dropped the tools, ran like hell, howling in a most un-monk-like manner. Too bad for the benefactor, but seized with laughter, Jack and I felt fine.
The day’s work finished, supper, a rare treat in our ascetic world, was always eaten without conversation, while a monk read a pious text at a lectern. In one of those evening readings, its medieval author asked: “What does a man do before a well-charged table?” His answer? Enjoy the feast. My answer? Don’t eat the red jello.
Fans of 1950s horror movies will remember The Blob, a film described in Wikipedia.org as featuring a “small jelly-like globule” that emerges from a meteorite and proceeds to attack and consume every human being it encounters, “growing redder and larger with each victim.”
That’s how I felt about the blob of red Jell-O that fell off my spoon during one meal and rolled onto the floor beyond our table. I pursued it crouched over, my digital dexterity diminished by the titters of my colleagues and the searing gaze of the rector. Exasperated, I cast the spoon aside, grasped the red monster with my hand, and retreated, head bowed, but with a stifled giggle, to my seat. The titters stopped. Once again, the sound of silence and the odor of sanctity filled the room. A long-term side effect? I now eat red Jell-O, in fact, any kind of Jell-O, only when I’m sick.
The aforementioned medieval author didn’t intend to write a culinary review, however. A well-charged table, he went on, required more than just food for the body. A complete monastic menu also needed food for the spirit. Church music helped to fill that bill because it turned our thoughts toward God. Fortunately, we had a brilliant organist to serve us our “soul food.”
One day our musical star injured his hand while working in the kitchen and could no longer play for religious ceremonies. Though no virtuoso on the keyboard, since I could only play the melody line in the treble clef with my right hand, the assistant novice master dragooned me into service. The congregants would no longer be uplifted in visions of ecstasy by cantatas performed with exquisite skill, but would henceforth endure the simplest hymns executed with just one hand. With practice, I overcame my fear of the bass clef, and my shaky left hand welcomed my new friends, the notes of the bass clef lines and spaces, into my expanding repertoire. Soon I was whipping up and down the Wurlitzer with abandon.
Near the conclusion of one event, where I felt I had dazzled participants with my organistic prowess, an older priest, white hair askew, nostrils flared, voice shaking, careened into the organ loft and demanded, “Play it with tremolo!” I switched on the tremolo control right away. The beautiful sounds that emanated from the electronic organ now vibrated like the vocal cords of an over-the-hill singer.
The service ended. I finished my concertizing with what I thought was a great flourish, when the novice master, a former military chaplain, ramrod straight, eyes burning with righteous fire, stormed into the loft.
“Turn off that tremolo!” he shouted.
I complied at once.
“Why did you put that contraption on? It sounds terrible.”
“Just a whim. I’m sorry Father.”
I was tempted at evensong a few days later to ask the two gentlemen, will that be with or without tremolo? Of course, I said nothing. Just chuckled to myself. Personally, I didn’t like tremolo.
To play or not to play it with tremolo, would henceforth prove to be an awkward musical decision. However, to cope with the other challenges of monastic life, there was only one choice, play it with tremolo; that is, if not actually tremulous, be a bit on edge. Obey all the superiors, because when they spoke, so they told us, they spoke for God.
By the late 1960s, only two of my twenty novice colleagues remained in the monastery. Both had been ordained as priests. One died at 30, and the other left the priesthood at 69 and married the administrator of the church where he had been the pastor. He was a man of intense faith who had been with the order since he was 14. He died soon after his departure. Three years later, I asked his widow, “Why did he leave after all that time?”
“Because he was sick of obedience.”
The tension in monastic life, caused by the constant need to set aside his plans to implement those of a senior priest, drove him out. That’s the reason I, and several members left in 1964, and others later. For a few of us ex-monks, some of that tension remains. Most former monks and priests that I know, practice their faith. But as the church oscillates between conservative and liberal Popes and their divergent views, we are conflicted. As Catholics, we must believe in current doctrines and act in accordance with their stipulations. At the same time, though, we question some of those doctrines and would like to express our own opinions about matters of faith and how we should act. Perhaps it’s a bit like being, “sick of obedience.”
This conflict came to a head for me a year ago, during an Easter service in another city. In his sermon, the local bishop stated, in effect, that as far as religious doctrines were concerned, being “sick of obedience” had no place in Catholicism. Too bad about personal moral conflicts and doubts. If Roman Catholics wish to attain eternal happiness and avoid its opposite, eternal damnation, they must not engage in individual interpretations of infallible church dogma. They should suppress their doubts about these doctrines, believe the Church’s teaching without question, and obey the consequent dictates prescribed by the Church hierarchy. His remarks echoed what I’d heard all my life, but from a bishop? Ominous.
Yet, since my grade one year, the church hierarchy has also taught us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. What does that mean?
In The God Equation, physicist Michio Kaku states: “The universe is a remarkably beautiful, ordered, and simple place. I find it utterly staggering that all the known laws of the physical universe can be summarized on a single sheet of paper.”
A logical conclusion?
If God exists and created this “ordered universe”, I think that entity is quite smart and since we are made in its image, we’re rather bright too. So why do we need to push all reasonable doubts aside and just believe and obey?
As Carl Jung, a strong Christian believer said in a 1959 BBC interview, “…I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. If I know a thing, I don’t need to believe it. I don’t allow myself to believe a thing just for the sake of believing it.”
Even more telling, in The Globe and Mail, University of Toronto professor Randy Boyagoda, quoting the late Pope Benedict XVI, a man sometimes described as “God’s Rottweiler” because of his inflexible positions on church dogma, said this: “Doubt is something that ‘both the believer and unbeliever share.’ Doubt ‘saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds’ and ‘prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction.’ ”
Furthermore, the Church’s moral judgments and subsequent directives based on those judgments are sometimes wrong. On those occasions, expressions of doubt about the need to endorse and obey them are justified.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared that anyone who participated in demonically inspired magic rituals, practices which today would be considered harmless superstitious exercises, was a heretic and a witch. With that declaration, Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, Pope Innocent “initiated the systematic accusation, torture, and execution of countless witches all over Europe.”
In 1633, a trial instigated by Pope Urban VIII, found that Galileo was guilty of heresy for his assertion that the sun did not revolve around the earth. He was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life for his “error”. In 1992, Pope John Paul II said the astronomer’s scientific conclusion was correct and Galileo was not a heretic.
The local bishop would have rejected the foregoing arguments if confronted, given that he continued his fervent Easter rebuke of doctrinal skepticism. Referencing the apostolic skeptic, “doubting Thomas,” he said that he, the bishop, was embarrassed that his own name was Thomas.
Bishop, I’m proud of our shared first name. It was good enough for Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas; good enough for St. Thomas More, who died rather than submit to the command of King Henry VIII to support an act of heresy. And it was good enough for my grandfather, a devout, non-judgmental Anglican.
I also want to make it clear that I’m not condemning you personally, bishop, or the Church that has given me great comfort in times of great stress. The reason I wrote this article is to criticize several inflexible views you and some other clergy express, which through their use of fear, erode rather than strengthen, one’s faith. Perhaps all of you should have a look at the old film, Going My Way. In his book, Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star, Gary Giddins recounts film director Leo Carey’s view that the ideal Catholic cleric should be, “just a regular fellow, with a sense of humor. He achieves results, not with ponderous precepts, thunderous theology, or frightening threats of hellfire and damnation, but by making religion pleasant and attractive and joyful.” Ultra-conservative would-be successors to the liberal Pope Francis, who is not a proponent of fire and brimstone theology, please take note.
Despite the stresses inherent in monastic life, there are things that I miss. Mystical moments when the peace, the quiet, the splendor of the ancient Latinized ecclesiastical rituals, scented with incense and bathed in the centuries-old sound of Gregorian chant, overwhelmed me; the assurance that as a monk, I was obeying the will of God and that I would one day reap an eternal reward.
But these experiences pale, compared to one particular moment, on one particular winter evening, in an empty field, in 1961. It happened during the “great silence,” the period from dusk until dawn, when, it is said, that monks undistracted, can more easily perceive the presence of God.
Black-robed spirits, silent, single-filed, we crossed the barren snow-swept land, guided by the light of a billion lonely stars. The last humans on earth. As I walked, I sensed a presence, unseen, mysterious, but not one to fear. A delusion caused by monastic seclusion? Maybe…maybe even probably. But so what? As Frank Sinatra said: “Basically, I’m for anything that gets you through the night — be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniels.” We had no pills or alcohol, but we had plenty of prayers. Anyway, whatever it was, it did much more than just, “get me through the night.” Sixty-two years later, I still remember that silent night, that holy night. Hymnist C. Austin Miles described something like what I felt, this way: “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”
Now at 80, I am a newcomer in the country of the octogenarians, a friendly enough place, many of whose inhabitants, like me, are too arthritic to be hostile. Nonetheless, it’s a country inside the continent of what biologist David Suzuki calls, “the death zone.” Soon I’ll be 81. With T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I [am] afraid.”
As I journey through this new land and contemplate my probable last ten years on this planet, and what might come next, I think about “the joy we shared” so many years ago, and I want it back! And I want it back undiminished by the fear of a confrontation with a divine magistrate when I leave this earth, a fear drilled into my generation of Catholics for almost a century.
I have done little in my eight decades that is unethical, the Fudgsicle caper notwithstanding.
Original Sin, starring Adam and Eve? I didn’t do it. So, a request to certain clerics: please stop scaring us into heaven. We don’t need it.
When my life ends, I wish with poet Mary Oliver, “to step through the door full of curiosity wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
When my life ends, I wish with Tennyson’s Ulysses, “to seek a newer world…To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars.”
But I am a 1950s Catholic, whose well-charged spiritual table supports a diet seasoned with the spices of sin and punishment. Like Johnny Cash, “I walk the line,” in my case between adherence to religious orthodoxy, with its promised certainty of eternal bliss, and freedom of thought, with its promised certainty of…nothing.
I play it with tremolo.•