The past I never lived but prefer to forget

5 04 2020

As an introverted teenager, I watched a lot of TV. Watching TV in the 1990’s without cable (too poor for that), you didn’t just watch snippets of things here and there. If something was on and you wanted to watch it, you ended up watching the entire series, some episodes multiple times. One of the basic cable channels we got was A&E, which became my second favorite channel after PBS. It was on this channel that I binge-watched the 1981 Australian series, The Brides of Christ. The story of the mini-series follows two young women who enter the novitiate of a religious order during the Second Vatican Council. They get to experience the changes in Catholic life happen over a very brief period. Both women are faced with the choice of staying in the order (and perhaps the Church itself) or leaving altogether. Overall, it’s bad melodrama in the same league as a Hallmark Channel movie or Mexican soap opera. Having grown up with the latter, I can stomach such maudlin story lines, but I would still counsel conservative and traditional Catholics to look into watching this mini-series.

One interesting twist to my memories of this series is meeting later in life a man who lived through the events told in this T.V. drama in the same part of the world. Let’s call him PX. PX and I were novices together in a monastery which shall remain nameless (also, I am not going to explain why a man just shy of 50 was a novice.) PX was born and grew up outside of Melbourne, Australia, in a large and very Catholic Irish family (a few of his sisters ended up becoming nuns). His parish church was literally built from the ground up a couple of generations before his birth. The old monsignor had been sent there from Ireland after his ordination only to find a plot of dirt and nothing else. He had to bring his community together to build the church, the school, and staff the school with an order of strict but competent French nuns. PX benefited from these efforts: he was an extremely cultured man who spoke five languages fluently and read a few others to boot. He had a doctorate in theology from Rome and I would see him listening to records of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier while looking at the score for recreation. In spite of that, he was devilishly funny and actually pretty humble. Most of my interactions with him were in the form of long conversations on Sunday usually, when monastery life was a bit looser and we could spend hours just talking.

As a frame of reference, when I met him I was 24 years old and had a complex to re-create the life of St. Therese of Lisieux but with an Eastern Orthodox flavor. I have to thank PX for bursting that bubble very gradually. To provide some more context, I had only left the Society of St. Pius X seminary less than two years before. So I was armed to the teeth with reasons why the old Latin Mass was superior and modern theology was bogus. Honestly, I have never really refuted these to myself, but I did come to realize what that Australian television series, that Australian man who had lived through those events, and my elders had been telling me all along: they really didn’t like the old Church. Or at least they were indifferent enough to let things change without a fight. Of course, I knew many of the exceptions because I sought them out (I already wrote about that). But all the normal devout Catholics became extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and charismatics. Only the real weirdos went down the rabbit hole of independent Latin Mass chapels and barely-approved apparitions.

Let’s also take the example of the old Irish monsignor mentioned above. I am going to assume he was devout at least to the extent that he did what was expected of him. He probably rushed through Mass, rushed through the Breviary, put on elaborate May Crownings, balanced factions of ornery parishioners who hated each other, and so on. There was probably little room for affectation in his life. He was a company man. He may have been a holy company man, no harm in that. But he wasn’t going to lose sleep at night because the Pope changed the order of Holy Week or this or that rubric in his breviary. He probably didn’t have that luxury.

I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that PX himself was traumatized by his upbringing. It wasn’t just because he was paddled by nuns or because the Church otherwise defined his early life. Many who grew up in that sort of stuffy Irish Catholic environment ended up as agnostics or atheists. PX kept his faith in God and went East, becoming heavily involved in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Australia and Ukraine (He spoke fluent Ukranian). He had no love for Western devotions or theology, he had completely extricated himself from them. Once I asked him why he decided to go East. He told me that there was a woman he met in Ukraine who had been in a gulag for the practice of her faith. He said that she couldn’t believe that atheists existed in the West because there was no persecution there. For her, the only reason someone would deny belief in God is if someone threatened to kill them. For PX, God only made sense through the Byzantine lens.

As readers can tell, though my personal and institutional ties with the Catholic Church remain quite strong, my intellectual and emotional engagement with it is practically non-existent. Due to my unique experience with people like PX, I feel like I undertook a journey that a man twenty years my senior experienced and came out the other end a theological liberal. Even if it was a cultish live-action role play situation, I went through all of the stodgy and stiff religious formation portrayed at the beginning of the Brides of Christ series. I was admonished not to cross my legs in the cloister and not to walk too loud while entering the church. I prayed in the same rhythm and cadences that a seminarian two generations before would have experienced. And at the end of it all, I can appreciate why few people like that stuff. We lost that language and replaced it with another, and a lot of the burdens of that ancient code are rather repulsive to us now. I can sympathize both with the reactionaries and the reformers. I don’t feel either is on the right side of history. History will just keep going and people will have to adapt according to their allegiances.






One response

9 05 2020
James Kabala

I have no doubt that PX and his Ukrainian friend were people of great faith. I nonetheless wonder – if Eastern Orthodox societies do not produce atheists, where did the Communists come from in the first place? But I guess the underlying idea is probably that true persecutors are sent mysteriously by God and don’t reflect anything on the society that produced them, whereas indifferent bourgeois atheists do reflect on the society that produces them.

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