Wednesday, January 04, 2012


One last reference to Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve.

Greenblatt quotes a description of the Dominican nuns of Colman, penned at the turn of the 14th century by a sister named Catherine von Gebersweiler who had lived at the convent since childhood:
At Advent and during the whole of Lent, the sisters would make their way after matins into the main hall or some other place devoted to their purpose. Here they abused their bodies in the most acute fashion with all manner of scourging instruments until their blood flowed, so that the sound of he blows of the whip rang through the entire convent and rose more sweetly than any other melody to the ears of the Lord.
This was the world into which Lucretius fell with his subversive message: Seek pleasure and avoid pain

Which is not to say that here weren't lots of folks seeking pleasure. But even the most hedonistic had to sit in church on Sunday and listen to threats of fire and brimstone. And, after all, there was always he possibility of a last minute absolution of sins.

By the time I came along in the 1940s and 50s, heretics were no longer being burned in the town square, and the nuns in the convent of my parochial school surely didn't collectively lash themselves. But heresy was still a matter of interest to Rome, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the nuns didn't practice their own private bodily mortifications. Acts of contrition and plenary indulgences were always on our minds -- a clean wipe of the slate.

Now, I know this series of posts may come across as Raymo working out his Catholic hang-ups, but I think it is rather more a matter of nostalgia. I don't resent the religion of my youth; we all come from somewhere and my childhood was as happy as anyone has a right to expect. And there was much I took from my childhood faith that I treasure today.

An awareness of the deep and abiding mystery of the world.

A sacramental sense that even the most seemingly insignificant part of the material world -- a hummingbird, a beach pebble, a young Moon gleaming in the western sky-- can evidence the unity of all.

An idea of grace -- that there is something flowing through the fabric of nature that can touch and resonate with the fabric of our conscious selves.

An affection for the material universe -- the universe of water, fire, bread, wine, wax, chrism, color, smoke, candlelight, shadow.

All very Catholic, this stuff, and I carry it with me yet, into a firmly agnostic Lucretian naturalism. Which I am not ashamed to call a religious naturalism.