An extract from my memoirs at convent school, 1950 - 1952:
I was a Catholic, which is to say that my parents were Catholics; my mother from birth, my father having converted at some point from the Congregational Church. Consequently I spent my early years languishing in that particular combination of sickly, glutinous, sin-obsessed, guilt-ridden, death-worship that was the Catholic Church. I was ignorant of the fact that Henry VIII had burned Catholics while his daughter, Mary, burned Protestants. I didn’t know that the Sovereign of Great Britain cannot marry a Catholic. I didn’t know that Guy Fawkes, effigies of whom we cheerfully burned every 5 November, had been a Catholic. I was unaware that my birthday, 12 July, was a legendary date in the Protestant calendar, the day that celebrated the annihilation of the Catholic army of James II by the Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne. William’s victory ensured that Protestantism rather than Catholicism ruled in Britain thereafter.
Catholics generally name their children after the saints, virtually all of whom were martyrs, men and women who died—nearly always in agony—for their faith. Once in my early teens I recall walking through a Catholic seminary with time on my hands to peruse the many oil paintings that adorned the walls. These were exclusively representations of martyrs being executed in a variety of gruesome ways, illustrative of the boundless ingenuity of the torturers—and the artists. Catholics are, of course, used to seeing large and realistic crucifixes in their churches, showing the corpse of a man who has died in agony on a gibbet.
This obsession with death can go to sickening extremes. Catholics revere Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She received special permission to join a Carmelite monastery at the age of fifteen, and died there of consumption nine years later. This ‘Little Flower’ had written of her developing illness:
… in the early hours of Good Friday, Jesus gave me to hope that I should soon join Him in His beautiful Home. How sweet is this memory … I felt a hot stream rise to my lips. I thought I was going to die, and my heart nearly broke with joy … when it was time to get up, I remembered at once that I had some good news to learn, and going to the window I found, as I had expected, that (my) handkerchief was soaked with blood. Dearest Mother, what hope was mine! I was firmly convinced that on this anniversary of His Death, my Beloved had allowed me to hear His first call, like a sweet, distant murmur, heralding His joyful approach …
Such stomach-churning bliss at the prospect of imminent death surely borders on the pathological, not to mention sinful. Why is it that the Catholic Church is so mesmerized by death rather than celebrating the joys of life? Some relics of St Thérèse were recently brought to Britain. Her body, apparently, had been divided into at least three parts, and bones from her leg and foot were sent on tour around the UK like some medieval peep-show. I thought that in Western so-called Civilized Society (in which I include France), the sanctity of the dead and their right to rest in peace was a fundamental, if unwritten, human right. Who performed that division into three of St Thérèse? Did just her disarticulated bones remain when she was dug up or was a surgeon needed, and who authorized that grizzly affair?
This obsession with death does not stop there. Martyrs were in a ’state of grace’, without sin, and went straight to Heaven. But, we were told by the nuns, anyone who died in a state of ‘mortal’ sin would go directly to Hell and burn there in non-consuming fire for ever and ever and ever. This was not the wicked torture inflicted on a person being burned to death; that may have lasted for a few agonizing minutes, the victim usually suffocating from the smoke and fumes. This Catholic Hell was the precision application of the most acute pain imaginable not for minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years, but for ever, and ever, and ever. The nuns at school reminded us five-year-olds of this time out of number, and reference to the Catechism of the Church on the Vatican website confirms that it remains the belief to this day. In order to make sure that we understood the risks, we were taught the prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This verse absolutely terrified me. The prospect of dying in my sleep, with the possibility that I might go to Hell made me sick with fear.
The age of criminal responsibility in England at the time was eight; we were five-year-olds, and the nuns threatened us with the worst possible eternal torture for our transgressions.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs