INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
It was on a cold damp foggy evening, a pea-souper as we used to call them, when I was ten years old, that my mother escorted me and my sister to church. It was time for our regular ‘Confession’, the ritual bearing of souls to the embodiment of God on Earth – the priest. As always, we were hoping for forgiveness and expecting some kind of penance in return. The Father and The Confessor anonymously opposite one another in divinely blessed rabbit hutches. Anonymous? My mother always ended up discussing my father’s agnosticism about which the local priesthood showed immense concern.
Being a dreadful goody-goody, I usually had very little to tell in the way of sins. So I did what anyone would do in my position. I made them up. I always ensured I had a nice long list for the priest to savour, tut about, and absolve me of – thereby adding a real sin in the process – lying.
I entered the tiny wood-panelled, polish-smelling inner sanctum of The Confessional with a suitable sinner’s expression on my face. Kneeling down on the hard thin piece of wood which was never wide enough to be comfy, I joined my hands in supplication and began:
“Bless me, Father, I have sinned. It is one month since my last Confession…”
Pausing for encouragement but receiving instead a gruff heavy cough and the whiff of peppermint, I ploughed on. As carefully and solemnly as I could, I trotted out my usual list of misdemeanours, which I would have loved to have actually committed. They had been learnt by rote, pulled out of my Sin Hat each month like a naughty rabbit:
“I’ve felt jealousy, four times; I’ve been cheeky to my mother, er…three times; I’ve been disobedient to my father at least five times.”
Silence from the room next door. I tried a new one:
“I’ve been greedy…well, only with midget gems, and then just the red ones.”
Another whiff of peppermint floated through the metal gauze on a stifled yawn.
I took a deep breath. It was now or never. This time, I had The Big Finish:
“And…I have had Immoral Thoughts!”
Up until a couple of days earlier I hadn’t even heard of Immoral Thoughts, let alone had them. I’d sort of stumbled on them during our Religious Instruction class with Miss Maplin, a severe God-fearing spinster with a well discussed crush on The Headmaster, William ‘Puffing Billy’ Banks. Her hair was scraped back into a tight bun, so tight I used to wonder what would happen if it fell down, would her face collapse with it?
On this particular occasion she’d asked the class what special quality God possessed which none of us enjoyed whilst on Earth.
An annoyingly enthusiastic classmate shot his hand eagerly into the air:
“Miss! Miss!” he cried. “Me Miss! Me!”
With a sigh, Miss Maplin dropped her glasses to the end of her nose and stared over them:
“Well, Miss,” said the thrilled Stephen. “God is Immoral!”
Miss Maplin’s thin smile fixed onto her face:
“Er…I think you mean Immortal, Stephen, actually.”
Stephen went a lovely shade of puce while Miss Maplin screwed up her nose as if detecting a particularly evil smell.
“To be immoral is quite a different thing,” she went on sternly. “It’s a nasty, dirty, disgusting sin. To even have immoral thoughts is considered evil in Heaven.”
She raised her eyes to the ceiling and blessed herself, relishing her revelation of the Devil’s work to her flock. Pulling her knitted cardigan more tightly around her, she visibly began to enjoy herself:
“Many of the older boys in this school probably indulge in immoral deeds every night, alone, in their beds. Oh yes! You can be just as immoral alone as with another dirty person.”
She glowered at the unfortunate Stephen whose arm was no longer raised above his head, it now hung rather limply behind it as though hiding from the wrath of Miss Maplin. But there was no hiding place:
“I am quite positive, Stephen, that your extremely wicked elder brother is probably doing something immoral right now, killing thousands of innocent babies in the process.”
This was an astonishing discovery, not only that Stephen Mason’s brother was a suspected mass murderer, but that, deliciously, you could commit a really big sin without actually doing anything. I liked the sound of these Immoral Thoughts. I had found my piéce de resistance for Saturday night’s Confession.
And so, there I knelt, awaiting the priest’s reaction with bated breath. There was a long pause. A deep sorrowful sigh. I saw his large shadowy shape slowly gather itself up. With a grunt, he moved his face closer to the gauze. I leaned forward too. This was going to be good:
“You are forgiven, my child. But for your penance you must say three Hail Marys, two Our Fathers and one complete Rosary.”
How disappointing! Was that it? I waited, but I saw him sit back. It was over. My cue to leave. Silence reigned once more.
“Thank you, Father,” I said dejectedly.
I got up to go, almost mumbled “‘s’not fair” as I trudged out. Then…
“Before you go…”
I stopped and spun round. My heart raced.
“I think I’d better have a few words with you about these…Immoral Thoughts.”
I threw myself back down onto the kneeler, pressed my clammy hands together and waited. This could change my life, I thought. I’ll no longer be the bullied skinny goody-goody dumped into a bin at playtime. I’ll be the naughtiest boy in the class with a really Big Sin to my name!
The priest heaved himself forward and pressed his face against the gauze as if to prevent even God hearing what he had to say:
“You see, my child, you must try to stop having them.”
“Yes, Father. Of course I must.”
“Because just one Immoral Thought could do you irreparable harm.”
That made me feel slightly uneasy. Recollections of the older boys saying ‘it’ could make you go blind sprang to mind.
“Because you see, when you grow up and get married…your husband will not like it.”
I swallowed hard, staring at the gauze in stunned silence. I opened my mouth to explain but he was suddenly in full flow, his voice beginning to tremble as he went on:
“For to be a good wife and a good mother, you must have a clean mind as well as a clean body.”
“B-b-b-but, Father, I…”
“No buts, my child! This is the Word of God! Heed it!” I saw his finger rise towards Heaven. “You will soon be a young woman. What decent Catholic man wants a wife with a dirty mind?”
He thundered on. I felt dizzy. I needed air.
“And remember! God is forever watching you! Now, go in peace, my child. Blessed are they who are pure of mind and heart. Be a good girl. God will know if you are not!”
I emerged from The Confessional my face on fire. My sister gawped at me and yelled,
“What’s up wi’ you? Yer all red! Look mum, he’s all red!”
Her shrill laughter echoed round the vast church, heads turned, faces stared at the little boy with the red face.
“You alright, love?” Mum asked me.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it!” Susan bellowed.
“The Confessional was too stuffy, that’s all.”
Susan prodded my cheek and sang,
“Who’s embarrassed, you’s embarrassed, that’s who’s!”
“Oh get lost!” I hissed back.
“Mu-um, he shouted at me!”
“I’ll shout at both of you if you don’t be quiet. Now, Howard, do your penance. Susan, get into that Confessional before I take you both home and put you to bed without any supper.”
As I mumbled my penance, the rosary beads slipping oddly comfortingly through my fingers, I thought things over. But the more I mulled, the more confused I felt. The priest was supposed to be all-knowing. That had been one of the attractions when I’d decided I wanted to join the priesthood. That and “all those flowing robes,” as my mum had observed when trying, successfully, to talk me out of it. Now my whole Faith was in turmoil. Why didn’t he know he was talking to a boy? Why didn’t he…? Then it hit me. The revelation. He wasn’t Jesus incarnate after all. He was just a silly old man. A silly stupid old man. I was shattered.
That night, for the first time in years, I didn’t bother to kneel by my bed, look up to my Sacred Heart statue and pray thanks to God for my day. Instead I lay in the dark, feeling quite alone. The seeds of atheism had been sown.
Many years later, I was having a few friends round for dinner. We’d got onto religion and jokes about cardinals with burning handbags and I recounted this story. When the laughter had subsided, a particularly dry old queen observed:
“Well, my dear,” she drawled, taking a long drag from her cigarette. “It just goes to show that the little boy was right after all. The priest was all-knowing. Hallelujah!”
copyright John Howard 2016