Memories of a Catholic girlhood

There are plenty of books around that speak to those of us who sometimes describe ourselves as “recovering Catholics” — as distinct from “lapsed Catholics,” which is the term used by those inside looking out.

FirstCommunionIt’s reassuring to come across those echoes of other lives. The journey from sixties’ Catholic girlhood (the white dress and veil of First Holy Communion and religious processions,  instruction by nuns, pamphlets on modesty and chastity, collecting money for the missions, the excitement of the Second Ecumenical Council, the difficult moral decisions that balanced being obedient and “a good girl” with being an adolescent developing her own ideas) to the freewheeling values of the seventies  was rapid, dizzying and terrifying. We had to overcome some solidly-rooted indoctrination. So it’s validating, to use a seventies’ word, to know that others went through it and to hear of their experiences — different in the details, but sharing a common core.

But sometimes I find those books about a Catholic upbringing are inclined to take cheap shots. I’ve heard all the anecdotes and insinuations about the sexual frustrations of priests and nuns and their methods of coping, and for sure I came across the odd nun with a sadistic streak and one priest who was a little too inclined to hug nubile young parishioners. I know there have been religious authority figures who have done much worse things to children in their charge, but these are the exceptions. In general, I found the convent and the clergy to be filled with decent people who believed in their calling, who had normal personalities, an enjoyment of life and a sense of humour: people who tried to follow a code and to choose the good path. And there were intellectuals among them who had come to their beliefs through philosophy as well as through training and instinct.

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CompanyThe intellectual Catholic is at the heart of The Company of Women, Mary Gordon’s 1980 novel. I have been vaguely aware of it for a long time and finally got around to reading it. The novel is about the difficult, conservative priest, Damian, and his relationship with the young Felicitas, and the relationships between Damian and the five older women, including Felicitas’ mother, Charlotte, for whom he is a spiritual guide.

Naturally, I feared that there would be at least a hint of inappropriate sexuality in Damian’s  friendship with Felicitas, but that’s a cliché that Gordon isn’t drawn to. Damian loves Felicitas as a father loves his brilliant and promising daughter, though he hides this well, fearing that it is sinful because the Church demands her priests give up all earthly loves.

Damian is a reactionary: he hates the changes that take place in the Church. He abhors those priests who wear chinos and play golf; he refuses to stop saying the Latin Mass. He is asked to leave the Paracletist order and he becomes a secular priest who has to find his own flock.

He finds them by giving retreats for working women. Charlotte, Clare, Mary Rose, Elizabeth, and Muriel are all women alone, “virgins or widows.” They admire his spiritual strength and his fine mind. He sees that Felicitas has the kind of cold, clean intellect that he values, so  he reinforces that state and does his best to eradicate any hint of the sentimentality that attaches to religion, especially in the conflation of Nature with God. When Felicitas rejoices in the fragrance of new grass and imagines that Heaven will be filled with such smells, Damian forces her to inhale the smells of the various manures of the farm to the point that she vomits. “I will not have you poisoned by the sentimental claptrap that passes for religion in this age … It is the spirit, Felicitas, the spirit that is life eternal, not the smell of grasses.”

As Felicitas grows older, she challenges Cyprian more. The gulf widens with their diametrically opposed attitudes to the Vietnam War. When Felicitas leaves school and goes to university, the black-and-white moral certainties of her early life are further tested. She develops an instant passion for Robert Cavendish, a professor of Modern Political Theory and has a relationship with him. It’s pretty obvious to the reader that he is unkind, pretentious and shallow, but this doesn’t matter to Felicitas: her feelings for him are primitive and fundamental. For a time, nothing else matters. She betrays her family and her friendships. Yet, she doesn’t completely lose her sense of self as she tries to conceal what her upbringing has been like and balance on the knife edge of being acceptable in this new world without losing everything from the old one:

“Where did you learn to think?” he asked, breaking his bread before she had opened her napkin.

Terror shot into her face. She would not tell him what her life was like, for to let him know would be to lose him. He did not have to know the oddness of her history. She could, if she were careful, make him think her usual, make him think her worthy of regard, not as a curiosity but as herself, an object neither feared nor foreign but familiar, worthy of plain love.

“I’ve always read a good deal,” she said. She took the memory of Father Cyprian and laid it out, crushed it, pressed it into a hard ball and hurled it into the back of her dark mind. Like a dog, she kicked sand over it, covered it with earth and made it silent. Then she turned to this man. She would give up everything she was or had been if he would only talk to her, if he would only find her worthy of attention and regard.

“You must have been unhappy to have done all that reading instead of living.”

So that was how he thought of her, timid, frightened, shivering before her books.

“Reading is living,” she said. “The dead don’t read.”

“A wise virgin. You’d never be caught without oil in your lamp.”

“I’d never spend the night waiting for someone else’s bridegroom.”

But although Felicitas gets Robert’s attention for a while, she cares too much and too obviously. The relationship doesn’t last and it ends with what so often happened in the sixties to good girls who went astray:  she gets pregnant. How she copes with this, and how her relationships with Cyprian and her mother and the other women are affected, forms the end of the book.

Felicitas’ relationship with Cyprian is restored, but with a difference. As an adult, she sees him clearly:

I needed his life; I suppose I will always need it, or the idea of it, at the center of my own. I like to think that I am undeceived about him; I am over my childish adoration and my adolescent rage. I know his mind is not first-rate. He has three ideas: the authority of the Church, the corruption induced by Original Sin and the wickedness of large-scale government. All the rest is instinct and effusion. Yet there is no one I revere more. I revere him for his labor, for his passionate, excluding love, for the dignity of his priestly calling he wears with him everywhere: the habit of his grand, impossible life.

But my mind is not safe with him. His mind is taut and quick, but it is not open, it is not trustworthy. How could it be? He was trained by medievalists; he believes in the final word of authority.  I want to consider the most difficult questions, but I must be free to make mistakes along the way.

Cyprian stands for Catholicism: Felicitas has rejected those parts of the Church’s doctrine that she no longer finds meaningful while retaining some of its essential wisdom.

The topic alone kept me fascinated, but the writing is splendid. Gordon’s two central characters are complex and realistic. The others are less fleshed out.  The five older women are given differing personalities, but they are never more than a supporting cast. Robert Cavendish comes close to caricature, perhaps by virtue of being so much a creature of his time and having such recognizable flaws.

You don’t have to have had a Catholic childhood to consider The Company of Women to be a masterpiece, but that background added depth and richness to my experience of it.

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See an interview with Mary Gordon at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is a 2009 Kelly Writers’ House Fellow.

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3 thoughts on “Memories of a Catholic girlhood

  1. I can’t claim a Catholic girlhood (though my father had a fairly conflicted Catholic childhood and brought some of his angst to our household) but I do love Mary Gordon’s books. You’ve caught her essence here, that’s for certain. The intelligence, the insightful prose, a coherence missing in lots of contemporary fiction. I think my favourite of her novels is Men and Angels. And her memoir — title escapes me this morning… — is wonderful. Thanks so much for such a congenial post.

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