Friday, June 26, 2009

How not to love the world

I've been reading John Cornwell's fine memoir of his life as a young seminarian in England in the mid-1950s -- roughly the same time as my own religious education.

Cornwell is a prolific journalist who has written a number of books on matters Roman Catholic. Perhaps the best known (to me at least) is Hitler's Pope, about Pius XII's silence in the face of German atrocities. I also know his work from the London Sunday Times.

In Seminary Boy, he give us an account of his escape, in 1953, at age 13 from a dysfunctional and impoverished East London family to the diocesan minor seminary of Cotton in the rural countryside. What ensues is a struggle between piety and hormones that will be familiar to anyone who came of age as a Roman Catholic at mid-century.

I have read a similar account of seminary life in my friend Frank Phelan's novelistic memoir, Four Ways of Computing Midnight. Those of us raised in Catholic schools got the same stuff as the seminarians, secondhand, so to speak -- the same mix of Jansenistic piety, although without the isolation and imposed harsh discipline.

There was something, for example, called "custody of the eyes," to which we were encouraged by our teachers and confessors, which meant that we should avoid looking at anything that might be an "occasion of sin." A glimpse of angelic Angela's budding breasts beneath her tight cashmere sweater might be enough to cause an "irregular motion of the flesh" -- and, possibly, barring a quick confession or Act of Contrition, an eternity in hell.

The seminarians of the time -- and presumably also novice nuns? -- were enjoined to avoid "particular friendships," which meant any attachment to another human being that might divert one's attention from Almighty God and his mother Mary. Cornwell tells the story of attraction and scruple with tenderness and poignancy. Deprived of anything like normal crushes and friendships, is it any wonder that the products of such a system sometimes went off the rails into perversity?

Today's boys and girls seem to have no interest in custody of the eyes, or of avoiding occasions of sin. The "houses of formation" for priests, brothers and nuns are effectively empty (Cotton is a closed ruin). Perhaps the whole system of celibate vocations only could sustain itself by tapping into the driving force of adolescent sexuality and sublimating it into a devotional rubric of sin and salvation. At one point about halfway through his memoir, young John Cornwell has a glimmer of doubt about the exhortations of his spiritual advisors to repress his inclinations toward "impurity" -- including spontaneous erections and wet dreams -- in an ever greater devotion to Our Lady. "[I]t began to dawn on me," he writes, "in a niggling, insistent scruple, that our spiritual lives involved not real feelings for real persons, but invented feelings for imaginary persons. The reflection disturbed me so much that I wondered whether it was not a whispered suggestion of the Devil himself, the Father of Lies. For if we were inventing our relationships with Jesus and Mary, were we not therefore dwelling in a world of make-believe?"

He put his scruple aside -- for the moment. More on his subsequent evolution tomorrow.