Tuesday 16 February 2021

Prayer, Penance and Catholic guilt

 I started writing blogs nearly thirteen years ago. This is one of the very first blogs I planned to write, but try as I may, I couldn't find the words to convey what I meant. I have probably had another 50 attempts, my draft blog folder is littered with discarded efforts, all of which completely failed to convey what I had to say. I could have taken the cop out route and published any of them. I suppose they are all quite interesting in their own way, but I just felt none were honest enough or said what I really wanted to say properly. Let me start by saying that if you are reading this and now expect stark tales of dastardly deeds, then there are none here. But in some ways, I think what I am going to say is far more devastating about the way the Roman Catholic church functions. I am saying this in the probably vain hope that someone, somewhere in a position of authority in the organisation will read it, stop and think about what I have to say, and take some of what I have to say on board. You may ask what is different this time? Well firstly, I have had some inspiration and pause for thought. This is thanks to Pat Mills. Mills is a writer, perhaps IMHO the finest of our generation if you like graphic fantasy novels. Mills also tweets about the issues with the Catholic Church. We share a view that the Church needs to properly address the scandals that are destroying it at the moment. We also share the view that it needs to properly address the victims of abuse, treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve and deliver justice and closure for the horrors that have been heaped upon them. 

But that is not where I want to start, I just wanted to put the context there. I wanted to start by talking about Prayer. I believe Prayer to be the most powerful thing in the Universe. I despise the snake oil salesmen preachers who sell Prayer as some sort of shopping cart that delivers miracles and riches. It does none of those things. They sow false hope, they inspire cynicism and they completely alienate people to something which may save their lives and sanity. Let me explain. I believe I was blessed. I was taught to pray by my father. He was a gruff Australian, raised in the outback. He flew bombers for the RAF in the second world war. He was a hardnut who lead a successful escape. There were tales of him throwing a gangsters enforcer in an incinerator in the 1950's after an attempt to extort money from his business. But there was another side to him. When I was a small child, my biggest treat was to see Daddy in the mornings. My father hated getting up and loved nothing more than lying in bed. Mum would bring him cups of tea and toast, to keep him out of the way. She couldn't stand his cheerful demeanour. I would jump into bed with him and he'd grab his Rosary beads off the bedpost and we'd lie there saying the rosary. One day I remember asking him why he did that. He said "Just to say thank you to God for being alive". At that moment, two London Sparrows appeared on the gutter of the adjouning house. He looked and said "There's St Peter and St Paul, come down from heaven to make sure we are alright". By an amazing coincidence, as he said that a ray of sunshine broke through, illuminating us. He said "All is good with the world". Of course, sadly it wasn't but all was good with our world. My father always said that Prayer was a primarily a thank you for our blessings. He said that you should never pray for worldly riches, your football team to win or luck in love. He said that you should pray for strength to persevere and solace in despair. He said if you had a problem you should pray for the wisdom to see it through and if you were in turmoil, you should empty your mind and say the Rosary and just hope for peace and calm. 

As a teenager, I forget these lessons. When I was 24, I'd left home and my Father had been very ill. I was going through an Atheist phase. I was shocked to see him and was convinced he was going to die. I thought of his words and prayed that he'd make a recovery, asking the Lord for the opportunity to have one last curry with him at The Mill Hill Tandoori. Be careful just what you pray for. To everyones amazement, he recovered. My mother, who had got sick of him moping around (he was a lousy patient), went to see her sister when he was better. I vowed to make good on my words. Dad was 69 and it was November 1986. We had a great night. He told me a story, something had been troubling him in hospital. He said that when he'd been shot down over Rumania in 1944, as he was struggling to get out of his Wellington Bomber before it crashed, he prayed to the Virgin Mary. He said that the bible said a man had three score and ten years. He said that if he somehow survived, he'd lead a good life and do what he could to thank the Lord for his survival. He managed to bale out with about five seconds to spare. He felt his parachute open, he heard the plane hit the ground, then he hit the ground, in the pitch black spraining both ankles. 

When he was taken POW and placed in a POW camp in Bucharest, he'd had no sleep for three days. He was tired and dispirited. He took out his Rosary beads, started to pray and fell asleep. A camp guard came in, saw his boots on the bed and hit them with the butt of his rifle. My father, woken and in a foul mood, leaped out of bed and started to beat the hell out of the guard. An officer came in, pointed his Mauser pistol at my father and said asked what the hell was going. My Father still had the Rosary in his hand. He said "I was praying when this goon attacked me" (or words to that effect). The officer, seeing the Rosary realised he was telling the truth. He told my father to go back to his prayers and disciplined the guard. My Grandmother was raised in a German orphanage and had raised my Father by speaking German to him, so he understood every word. He strongly believed that if you were right with the Lord, such things happened. 

What troubled him was that he was now in his 70th year. The good Lord had fulfilled his part of the bargain. He said that when he'd been lying in hospital, he'd realised that he'd run out of road. I pointed out that he was fine. I suggested that he go to Florida to see my sister, who lived in Fort Lauderdale to recuperate. Her husband was a doctor, so he'd be in good hands. Dad said he'd been thinking of doing that. My parents decided to see out the winter there. We spoke about many things, drinking scotch until 3am. It was probably the only proper adult conversation I ever had with my father. In January, my mothers sister Died. My parents returned on the 30th January 1987. I didn't know they'd come back, no mobile phones then. The day after my father had a heart attack and died. Be careful what you pay for. He had his three score and ten, I had my curry. Make of it what you will.

In 2011, when I learned I had Prostate cancer, a friend gave me an amazing book, called Anti Cancer - A new way of living. It has many good lifestyle tips, to help deal with a bad situation. It is written by a qualified doctor. There is a chapter on meditation. I learned a very interesting thing. A study was done to assess the calming effect of meditation on the brain. A group of Buddhist monks were wired up and their brains monitored whilst meditating. As expected, the brain waves became very calm. A similar experiment was done by the same team on a group of Italian nuns saying the rosary. To the surprise of the team, they had exactly the same calm brain patterns. The conclusion was that quiet meditation, whatever the form is very good for you. Coming from an Irish Catholic background, with some Aussie thrown in, I thought back to those days saying the rosary with my father. Since then, if I can't sleep, feel distressed, need inspiration, I say the Rosary. It works for me. My reasons for mentioning this is to ensure you understand how important prayer is to me. It helps, it works. I make no claims that it has made me lucky in love or successful in business, I'd like to say I've prayed for neither but it is not entirely true, but the success I prayed for in love did not emerge in the way I had hoped, although I am blessed beyond my prayers as a teenager (lets leave that there).

I hope I've set out just how important prayer is for me personally, now we move on to the trickier part of the matter. When I started attending St Vincents RC Primary school, my relationship with Prayer started to change. It no longer was a joyous experience, where Sparrows would appear and rays of sunshine would shine. My memories of that time was of being told how every sin was a stain on your soul. It seemed the sun never shined. A whole new vocabulary appeared. We learned that babies that died without Baptism went to Limbo (this place always confused me, I believe it has been abolished). When you  died, before you could go to heaven, you went to Purgatory to account for your sins. We were urged to pray for the Holy Souls, although I could never quite figure out why. We learned that our faith was the one true one and all the rest of them were wrong. We never prayed for the Queen, as she was the Head of The Church of England. We were taught that if we were really lucky, we'd be tortured and put to death as Martyr's then we might jump the queue, dodge purgatory and go straight to heaven.

When we were about seven we started to 'learn our sacrements'. Confession was the first. For those who are not familiar. You tell the priest all of your sins and in return he gives you absolution and penance. What is penance? It is those same prayers I'd joyously say with my Dad as a Toddler, but you'd have to sit in a cold church, with everyones eyes on you. They could tell how naughty you'd been by how long you'd say your penance for. We were told that if you didn't confess and you died, then you'd be in deep trouble. As kids, we'd all make up sins, trawl our brains for minor infractions. Dear Father "I've lied, I told tales on my sister, I didn't say my prayers". What sins could a seven year old realistically commit that would confine them to purgatory. 

St Vincents was run by the Daughters of Charity. Being dyslexic and more or less incapable of reading and writing, I struggled. I didn't receive too much charity. The most feared of all teachers was Miss O'Donovan. I quite liked her. Whilst she would hit me over the knuckles for not tidying my desk, she'd also take great delight in finding fault with the clever kids who weren't naughty. No one got out of there alive, metaphorically. She left me alone most of the time, as she realised I was beyond redemption. I was also lucky in that I had measles, chicken pox and just about every other disease in the year she took us. My sisters had so terrified me of her, that I'd pray to be ill and give the lord thanks as I was struck down. Then there was sister Gabriel. What was a sin? I well recall the worst sin of any. A boy in the year above me had been caught playing kiss chase in the playground. His punishment. Sister Gabriel called a special assembly. He was made to kiss her in front of the whole school. I'm not sure if he was given 'The Bat' as well, but to be honest I'd have rather been given the cane for a year than face that humiliation. No one ever played kiss chase again. The Daughters also ran an orphanage on the site.  IN the first year of juniors, the orphans were allowed to join us in lessons. This seemed like a massive deal. We kept our distance, we were worried that being an orphan might be contagious. When I was about eight, my mother contracted cancer. I was told by a cousin that she would die and I'd be put in the orphanage. I was horrified. My friends would no longer talk to me. 

I was so upset that as my Dad drove me up to visit her, I asked him. He nearly crashed, burst into tears, sobbed uncontrollably for five minutes and then gathered himself. "No son, nothing and no one will ever take you away from me". I asked him if Mum was going to die. I will credit my father with never lying to me. He said "The doctors say that she has almost no chance of survival, but I believe that if we pray for her every day, she may pull through". She survived. Something she attributed to drinking eight pints of Guinness a night, rather than our prayers. What that should have taught me was compassion for the orphans, but in truth, all it really did was terrify me that I may suffer the same fate. The thought of being stuck there for 24 hours a day was beyond awful. 

Catholic guilt. When mum came out of hospital, there was general rejoicing. This had not been expected. Everyone said to me that I must be over the moon that my Mum was getting better. Yes I was happy, but in truth I was happier that the threat of going into the orphanage had gone. I don't recall how or why, but one day I woke up and realised that I was a very selfish person. I wasn't pleased that my mum was getting better for her. I was only pleased because it meant I wasn't going into the orphange. It is interesting. If you see any pictures of me before Mum had cancer, I almost always have a cheeky smile. After, I always have a furtive and guilty look. The whole experience scarred me. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt. I could never share this. 

So what am I trying to say?  I will return to this topic again, but there are many things that disturbs me about this period of my life. I owe a great debt to my Father for showing me 'the right way', but my memories of school and the whole edifice that was the Church in the 1960's casts a shadow. That an institution run by a religious community can inspire such terror in an eight year old child is surely something to be concerned about. There are many things emerging about the orphanage that are beyond just 'a little concerning'. The view of us as kids was that it was a bad place, but it goes far beyond that, as Mrs Angry has documented. But it goes way beyond that. The whole dysfunctional mindset that Prayer is punisment, that we have to confess to sins we haven't even committed and that we should feel guilty for merely wanting to survive is something I think all Catholics of my vintage need to address. I have not had the awful experience of abuse that some have had. But how can we move on when a Church that makes kids confess for 'lying to their sister' refuses to confess it's own sins and do the appropriate penance of making reparations. The victims of the abuse that has happened to not need 'penitent' abusive priests saying an Our Father for them. They need the Church to do what it should have done from the day it came into existence. To support the weak and to be honest. Only then can we truly move forward. 

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