(The original cathedral bells, destroyed by allied bombing in World War II, Lubeck, Germany, July 2004)
Today’s young people, I find, simply cannot relate to the degree of sexual repression we endured in the Catholic schools of my youth. When I teach James Joyce’s story “Araby,” for instance, I find that most students are thrown by the mention of Mangan’s sister going to a convent school. They assume she is going to become a nun. They don’t realize that single-sex education was the norm in Joyce’s Ireland, much less do they appreciate the cult of chastity or the ascetic impulses behind such norms. In an effort to put the story in cultural perspective, I tell my students how co-education was only grudgingly accepted in my own Catholic school, some sixty years after the period Joyce was describing and presumably set in a less inhibited and more progressive country.
For instance, I tell them how our playground had a white line painted straight down the middle of it. Girls were to stay on one side, boys on the other, and the nun who had playground duty on any given day walked the line like a sentry. It was her solemn duty to make sure that never the twain should meet. Similarly, our classrooms were divided, boys on one side, girls on the other. And, while I don’t remember the girls ever being cautioned about the dangers of patent leather shoes, I do remember Sister worrying out loud about the prospect of our being invited to mixed parties where there might not be enough seats. She told us that, in such a case, it might be all right for a girl to sit on a boy’s lap, so long as they put a phonebook between them. Somehow, I think that worry said more about Sister than it did about us.
But the important thing was that, by the time that I got to the Marine Corps, I was already fairly comfortable with places and things, and even categories of people, being placed “Off Limits.” I say that because an additional source of religious anxiety for us turned out to be one of the universal rituals of Catholic school life in those days, the daily reading from The Lives of the Saints.
That book, as I remember it, was a marvel. Submitted for our edification and emulation—assuming we all grooved on gruesome accounts of martyrdom and that we were all into the mortification of the flesh—were brief biographies of 365 saints. There was one for each day of the year. After all these years, I must confess, our daily accounts of welcome pain and persecution, cheerfully endured in His Name’s sake, have pretty much run together in my mind, leaving me with a welter of images not unlike the vision of hell painted by Hieronymous Bosch. One day and that day’s featured saint, however, do still stand out in my mind.
The day had to have been February 5, the feast day of Saint Agatha of Sicily, the Martyr. Each day, Sister would choose one of us to read that day’s saintly life aloud. Maybe Sister did have, if not a sense of humor, a sense of irony or of poetic justice. Maybe not. But, for whatever reason, on this day she chose a girl I’ll call Gracie Moriarity.
Gracie, at all of 13 years of age, already saw herself, to borrow a phrase from Shakepeare, as a “thing enskied and sainted.” She was one of only two girls in our class who had professed to hear the calling to enter the convent after the eighth grade. (To her credit, the other aspirant didn’t seem to take herself or her vocation nearly as seriously.) None of the boys were aiming toward the priesthood, and with only two girls hoping to become nuns, our class had fallen woefully short of God’s quota, or so Sister thought. At least once a week she would have us put our heads down on our desks and command us to meditate on the question of “whether I have a vocation.” “In a class this size, there should be at least five vocations,” she would warn. “Some of you are hearing but not heeding the call. And if that’s the case, you’ll never be happy!” she would predict. From what I could see, Sister certainly didn’t seem to be ecstatically happy in her vocation. I decided I’d pass. Still, I was tempted to tell her that I was hearing the “call,” just to shock and confuse her, but I never quite got up the nerve.
Gracie, as I remember her, was priggishly self-righteous and even pharisaical in her displays of religious devotion. While the rest of us mumbled and murmured our way through the Lord’s Prayer and other mandatory displays of devotion, Gracie’s voice always rang out, loud and clear as a bell. She wanted Sister and the rest of us to know that she believed.
The devil of it was that she was also good looking. And she was good at everything. If only she hadn’t been such an arrogant, precocious little prig! I only saw her lose her composure twice. That first instance can wait. This is the story of the day Gracie got to read the account of St. Agatha’s life to us.
In the version we heard that day, St. Agatha was a fetching but saintly lass of 15 whose misfortune it was to excite the lust of an evil Roman governor. When she spurned his advances, he had her stripped naked and whipped, after which he ordered her breasts cruelly crushed and then cut off. Later that night, however, the Apostle Peter was said to have appeared to her in a vision and to have restored her breasts to her. Discovering that miraculous restoration, the governor, who at this point was no longer fooling around, had her rolled naked across hot coals and broken bits of pottery. Somehow, she emerged from that ordeal uncut and unburned. Stumped about what to try next, I suppose, the governor put her in prison, where she did soon oblige him by dying.
Again, you have to remember that we boys were thirteen and in the throes of puberty. Women may not be able to relate, but those were the days when an errant daydream--an "impure thought,' to borrow from Sister's lexicon--could make it incredibly embarrassing to be called to the front of the class to recite or to work a problem on the board—although, in the latter instance, you could at least try to keep your back turned to the class for as long as possible. My own strategy was to try thinking of Sister. Usually, that would relieve the pressure in fairly short order. But that would work for only a little while. I mean, visions of naked nymphets naturally dance in a boy’s head at that age. (Oh, would that those days would come again!)
You have to understand as well that the tone of the accounts of these saintly lives was always weirdly at odds with the imagery. The reputed intent was inspirational. We were supposed to admire these heroic martyrs and, like them, to view suffering for one’s faith as the highest privilege and reward that God can bestow in recognition of a righteous life. Maybe we had already given ourselves over to the world, the flesh, and the devil, but these “rewards” just didn’t seem all that rewarding to us. The main thing, however, is that the victims always seemed too eager to embrace their fates and even to ask for more.
The horrors were likewise painted in too much detail and dwelled on too lovingly, suggesting that the writer at least took a sadomasochistic pleasure in the account. Even the euphemistic accounts tended toward the psycho-sexual and were suggestive of sublimation—as in the “passion” of Saint So and So. As a friend of mine has since observed, human sexuality ultimately brooks no repression; it comes bubbling up somewhere, somehow. People committed to the vow of chastity are not immune, much less thirteen-year-old boys. Try to remember what it was like to be that age. Then picture a lovely young girl cheerfully rolling naked across hot coals and emerging unscathed, not to mention enthusiastically offering up her breasts for magic tricks, and perhaps you can understand why the scene struck us as downright kinky.
In all fairness, much of the erotic effect depended on the incongruity between the teller and the tale. Here was Gracie—a virginal young thing and a stiff-necked prude who, now that I think about it, looked and carried herself a lot like Dr. Lilith Crane, the character Bebe Neuwirth used to play on “Cheers”—talking dirty to us. Gracie, of all people, was reading aloud, uttering words we had never expected to hear from her lips—words like “breasts” and “naked.” It was too much really, especially since Gracie, who was slow to recognize anything erotic or humorous in St. Agatha’s ordeal, was doing her level best to read fluently and to enunciate clearly. To our credit, there were only occasional, repressed sniggers until Gracie got to the part about St. Peter’s kindness in restoring Agatha’s breasts to her. A student I’ll call Billy Decker, always a wonderful mimic, reached up with both hands, making ratcheting motions and noises, as if he were Peter engaged in screwing the poor girl’s breasts back on. I suppose that in Billy’s imagination the right breast was reverse threaded, as he was screwing counter-clockwise with his left hand and clockwise with his right. Four or five other guys joined in.
We lost it, most of the girls included. Gracie bravely tried to soldier on, through a chorus of raucous laughter. In mid-sentence, the images must have gotten to her, as she reddened and was clearly fighting to hold back either laughter or tears. It took a screaming fit on Sister’s part to get us calmed down to the point at which Gracie could resume. Our forced composure, however, didn’t last long. Gracie got to the part about rolling Agatha naked over hot coals and pottery shards, and we were off again. Sister finally had to break it off, lecturing us once more on the theme of how Polish children would never dare to treat her in such a manner, much less make light of the horrible ordeal and blissful death of a heroic martyr.
I wonder if Gracie indeed went on to become a nun.
There are a million stories associated with the Rod and God Club of my day. This has been one of them. --EFP