The Other I

June 20, 2008

Learning to say yes meaning being able to say no

After the whiff during my grade school days of an introduction into the unauthorized sex life of the Catholic clergy, my next wave of revelations came after I left the convent.  Chronologically I was twenty-six, but in terms of sexual awareness, I was still an eighteen-year old raised in a totally Catholic family in the 1940’s and 50’s in midwest America.  I’d even gone to an all-girl boarding high school taught by nuns.  I was released into the New York City of the late 1960’s and 70’s, into the world of civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests, of hippies and flower children and free love.  Academically I flourished, but in terms of understanding the sexual signals I was both sending and receiving, I was completely out of my depth.

I’d revolted against the concept of sex that seemed to permeate any discussion of the topic in my family, which managed at the same to to present it as something shameful and embarrassing while remaining somehow “sacred,” a fiendish turn-off for sexual enjoyment.  But though I’d given up my adherence to the Catholic teaching that sex belonged exclusively within marriage, I was without any anchoring principles to take its place.  I didn’t sit down and think about it, but vaguely assumed that it was fine to sleep with anyone at anytime if the spirit so took me.  There were several problems with this modus vivendi.  The first was that, even when the spirit did not so take me and in the absence of any sexual attraction on my part, I had no skill or confidence about saying no.  I’d been socialized as a good Catholic girl to please, especially to please my father, and by extension to please men.  So I found myself in compromising situations more often than I wanted.

The second thing I did not appreciate at the time was that I was not the only one who was at sea.  I thought everyone else was so terribly sophisticated and experienced about sex, that they knew how the game was played, and were enjoying it all immensely.  I missed the anxiety and pain and rejections that were not solely restricted to me.

After I left the convent, several priests stayed in contact with me.  One evening, Father D invited himself for dinner to the studio apartment where I lived alone.  We shared a bottle of wine and the chicken casserole I’d prepared, and he told me he’d fallen in love with his best friend’s wife and that the night before they’d had sex.  He was still an active priest, and was struggling with his realization that the one reason he would leave the priesthood – to marry this woman – was not on offer.  At what I thought was the end of the evening, I went into the back hall to retrieve his coat.

When I returned, Father D was standing there totally undressed.  “I want to have sex with you,” he said.  “I can’t have Arleen tonight.  Will you be there for me instead?”

I had never given him any signals that I was interested in him – in fact, I found him rather boring and dull.  and I am not the type to relish being a stand-in lover for the unknown unattainable Arleen.  And so I would like to say, dear reader, that I said an emphatic No.  But I didn’t know how to manage saying no without making him angry.  Consequently, I used a much more cowardly technique.  I submitted to his request without pleasure, showing absolutely no emotion and remaining cold and rigid.  When he finished, he put on his clothes and left, and I never saw him again.  Not, I will say, to my regret.

Mostly I’ve tended to blame Father D for taking advantage of me and betraying his commitment as a priest.  But there was another protagonist in this story, and that was me.  I wasn’t raped.  I was simply too lacking in a sense of self to stand up for my own wishes.  But if I found that, having discarded the unyielding Catholic strictures concerning sexual behavior, I was at a loss, there is every reason to think that so were many priests.  They were as naive and ungrounded as I was, and wandered into unsatisfying, unfulfilling relationships the same way I did.

With time, I did find my own set of principles.  With time, I decided that it was my responsibility to say yes and to say no in response of sexual advances.  It was up to me to decide what I wanted and with whom and when.  Father D was not the last priest to make advances to me.  But he was the last time I didn’t say no.

So I did learn something from our unsatisfactory encounter.  I hope that he somehow did too.

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June 19, 2008

A glimpse of the less than the best

If Father Basil was an example to us of the best that a priest could be, we also had a glimpse of the less than best.  When I was about ten, our pastor at Holy Family parish died quite suddenly of a heart attack.  He’d had attacks before – several when he was saying Mass, but nobody knew at the time what was happening.  He had been a colourful pastor, and generally appreciated as dedicated and hard-working.  Once he actually went into the church and removed the life-size stone statue of the Blessed Mother holding the baby Jesus because he said we didn’t love her enough.  But when he died, the nuns all said Father Sammon had been a saint, and we all duly understood his various extreme behaviors in that light. 

That made him a tough act to follow, and there was some coolness toward Father P. who was subsequently appointed by the bishop to be our new pastor.  Within weeks, one of the nuns told her sixth-grade class that Father P. had stormed drunk into the church one evening.  When I reported this at the dinner table that night, my father looked at me and said that I was never, never to repeat that ever again.  I knew there was something wrong.  My father had never before, and never again looked at me like that and told me not to repeat what I’d heard.  My only point of reference was of stories in war-torn Europe when children were asked to keep deadly secrets to themselves.

But there was worse to come.  Within six weeks, Father P. mysteriously disappeared, and Father Archibald was assigned as our second new pastor.  I learned some years later that Father P. not only had a drinking problem, but that altar boys held a special attraction for him which, unfortunately, he did not resist.  My father and Father Basil learned about it, and agreed with the bishop that Father P. should quietly be removed without further scandal.

Looking back at this incident from my perspective today, I wonder about several things.  Would Dad agree to such secrecy again today?  How did he, even then, become convinced that quietly moving this priest on to another unsuspecting parish would do less damage than openly exposing the problem?  Perhaps the bishop gave an assurance that Father P would be helped.  Or at least kept away from working closely with children.  In this case, I don’t know what happened, but I do know that in diocese after diocese paedophile priests were simply moved from parish to parish to continue unaided in what were often failed attempts to fight their devils.

More latterly, I wonder about Father P. himself and hundreds of priests like him.  Were his paedophilic pursuits within his control?  I don’t know.  I think of the number of times I have sworn I will stay on a diet and the almost equal number of times I have succumbed to the temptations of chocolate and sugar, making excuses and promises that justify my behavior “just this once.”  Eating forbidden chocolate, of course, is not on the same level as sexual abuse of children, but it illustrates the narrowing of consciousness that destroys so many of one’s best intentions.  Perhaps Father P. hated himself, swore repeatedly that he would stop.  Was there any equivalent of Alcoholic Anonymous where he could call for help?  Was there anywhere he could turn?  Could he even lock himself in his own rectory until the impulse past?  No, of course not.  He had to walk over to the church and say Mass, joking with the same young boys who were the source of his tortuous temptations.

At the time, I thought that Father P. was unusual.  Perhaps Dad did too, and perhaps he was.  By the time I’d left the convent some fifteen years later, though, I discovered that if most priests were not paedophiles, an awful lot of them were womanizers.  They taught me a lot about my own limitations.  About which more in another post.

June 18, 2008

Father Basil

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 8:02 pm
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Most Catholic families and the majority of children who attended our local Catholic school in the parish where I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s knew our pastor, Father Sammon, and he knew us – our names, our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers.  But the family in which I grew up had a special relationship with a priest.  We called him Father Basil.  He had been Dad’s best friend in high school, and Dad suggested to him that they both join the Jesuit order together.  When Basil said he was going to become a diocesan priest instead, Dad went on to law school, and Basil was eventually ordained.

Father Basil was unusual in that he was not assigned to parish duties but sent to Europe for a master’s degree in history, and became a professor of history at the university in Cleveland, where he was made a monsignor.  We knew this, but were fairly unimpressed.  We did learn rather quickly that if we began some statement at school with “Father Basil says,” we inevitably won the argument and the nuns never tried to disagree with us.  (Although we knew that Father Basil was a trump card, to our credit, we rarely, if ever, tried appropriating statements to Father Basil which he had not actually made. )

But the Father Basil we really knew came to our house on most Saturday afternoons and took us for hikes or swimming or ice skating or occasionally to plays put on by a visiting theatre troupe.  On rainy days he sometimes joined my brothers in an innovative game which seems to have been a blend of “Cowboys and Indians” and “Hide and Seek.”  I never learned the advanced rules, but it involved air guns that shot off ping pong balls, and his hiding his huge frame behind the basement door from where he aimed to get a better shot at “the other side.”  The footsteps that ran across the length of our living room ceiling were also put there on another rainy afternoon while Mom was busy in the kitchen.  I remember the strategy meeting among Father Basil and my brothers which proceeded as follows:  one of the younger (and therefore smaller) brothers took off his shoes, put his feet into water, and then walked around until his feet were sufficiently dirty to accomplish the task.  Father Basil then hoisted him upsidedown and “walked” him across the ceiling.  The footsteps were still there when Mom died.

Father Basil always joined us for Saturday dinners around the large kitchen table and inevitably he and Dad would discuss some issue of the day – the treatment of the Jews during World War II, or of the Blacks (or Negroes as they were still called when I was very young) in our own country, the legitimacy or not of using the atomic bomb to bring Japan to the peace table on unconditional grounds, the pros and cons of Communism, what “natural law” really involved, birth control, divorce or occasionally the convolutions of some local case of crime or scandal.  It was, for me, like listening to a weekly seminar, and it was where I learned to be fascinated by the process of thinking. 

I have appreciated for many years the importance of these dinner table discussions for my own intellectual development and confidence.  But I have only lately appreciated the sheer authenticity of the priest Father Basil was.  I took it for granted that he told the truth, that he was not a womanizer, that he loved my mother and father and each of us.  He did not boast, though he was confident and generous and clearly a leader, and we could trust absolutely that if he gave us his word he would keep it.

After Mom died, Dad’s second wife made him unwelcome in the house.  I don’t know exactly what happened – I remember her saying something about a ring she’d given him as a donation to charity which was insufficiently appreciated.  In any case, she never forgave him for something or other, and resolutely nursed for a lifetime what she believed to be justified and presumably unforgivable insult.  It destroyed the deepest and longest friendship my Dad ever had, and by the time my father died, they had not spoken in years. 

After Mom died, instead of stopping by on Saturday afternoons as he had done for years, Father Basil drove past and went on to “Tillie’s house” down the road.  My brother Larry was now living there with our aunt in the house on our land where my grandparents had moved when my parents first bought the farm.  I was in the convent by then, but Tillie’s house became the place where my younger brothers and sisters living at home went.  It was safe for them there, where they did not feel rejected for being too much like the boisterous children who had lost their mother.  Father Basil was a refuge.  He was in a tricky position, not wanting to undermine my father’s second marriage, perhaps appreciating more than we did how much my father needed a wife.  But he knew that the children needed some adult who would stand by them without melting into debilitating pity, who believed that they were strong enough to come through the conflicted family into which they had so unexpectedly been plummeted.   I believe he saved several of my sibs from out and out nervous breakdowns.

We loved him all his life.  He was our special friend who happened to be a priest.  In retrospect, I think we perhaps enriched his life as much as he did ours.  But as children we didn’t know that, which is as it should be.  I thought, as a priest, he was the norm.  But he wasn’t. 

He was much closer to the ideal.

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