Monday, 11 May 2009

'Scandal' and perfection - kindergarten version

This totally disjointed and idiotic post is presented as a public service for those who think they are alone in finding that what they believe is a far cry from what childhood goblins make them fear! :) I also took liberties in the title, since I'm sure I was at the advanced ages of 7, 8, or even 10 at the time of our story.

I awakened this morning with a vivid recollection (so much so that I remembered the exact pictures and questions) of some religion class elements from when I was a child. (I never remember dreams, but assume I had one - probably from having a late night supper of sardines.) I'll give two examples. In my day, much of religion class consisted of memorising questions and answers from a catechism, though there then might be activities (perhaps a mimeographed list of questions, or 'discussion,' which doesn't deserve the term because there was only one 'right' answer). One set of questions (heavens, I can picture the book, though I haven't thought of it in decades) referred to actions on the part of individuals, and we were supposed to say who did what was wrong (the sins were all based on obedience, of course), who did what was good (everything there based on self-denial), and who did what wasn't a sin but was still below par. An example of the last was "Michael says his night prayers after he is in bed." Michael, of course, fell short of what is perfect because anyone worth his salt would have said his prayers kneeling. I think that, on that occasion, I had the rare good sense not to question why prayer wasn't good wherever and whenever it was offered. (See other posts for 'sign and symbol' - of which I had no clue then, but no one else did either. Rubrics were sacred, but even the clergy weren't taught liturgy. And those of you who think Catholics always worry about sex - of which we knew nothing at the age when we reviewed these silly questions - may be comforted to know that I had no qualms whatever that I sneaked kisses with Gregory Murphy behind the trash bins by age 6 - the 'age of reason'!)

Another 'activity' involved a drawing (something like what might be an illustration in a cheap children's book where the little ones could colour in the figures) of a classroom full of children reading. We were supposed to pick out who was doing 'wrong.' Of course, some kids were passing notes, whispering, playing, whatever (no immorality - unless, as was typical, the greatest sin was to disobey - and kids of 8 aren't taught or capable of knowing the distinction between breaking a rule and what is immoral.) But, though we pupils managed to identify the 'glaring errors', our teacher had to point out some that we missed. One boy in the picture seems to be obediently studying, not at all distracted from the book, yet, horrors, not a one of us noticed that he had his ankles crossed! I didn't know, then or now, why that was so dreadful - but obedience demanded all sorts of standards of posture (noun.) I'm inclined to view such attitudes today using the same word as a verb... especially in the gerund form.

Certainly, children would not be understanding the difference between 'counsel' and 'commandment,' but the idea of what is 'most perfect' and 'example' endured. Two friends of mine in adulthood - fun loving wives and mothers who were delightful, not morbid or obsessive - would never have prayed, in church or at home, except on their knees. It wasn't based on any theory about posture enriching prayer - but they weren't going to be like Michael or his equivalent and not do what was most perfect. Deep down, we all absorbed an idea that God wants whatever is most difficult, and that He especially loves deprivation. Our "Sabbath" wasn't as strict as that of some other sister churches. Kids could play on Sunday without heading for hell, and entertainment was allowed, but those who were seeking to be 'perfect' would, for example, have heard another Mass or gone to Vespers - in order to 'sacrifice' the unnecessary pleasure. It just occurred to me that my shaking my head at this must seem strange, since I'm exactly the one who is likely to attend another Eucharist or Vespers... but I'm not doing it because it's a 'sacrifice' other than one of praise and thanksgiving. A few of my friends would have thought that going to another service would have been less than perfect if one enjoyed doing so, so I suppose it has no value in my case.

A part of me is totally Mediterranean - I'm going to take pleasure in whatever I can, and I think that is not wonderful (unless one is pursuing a pleasure that is sinful, or going to such extremes as to neglect serious responsibilities to pursue the pleasure at any price - I add this in case a reader less innocent than myself pictures all sorts of depravity when hearing 'pleasure.' I survived all of Augustine, but Calvin and I never were friendly.) Yet how those old ideas get under one's skin! Perhaps most kids sitting in class with me wouldn't have given the ideas a thought, but those of us who were very devout 'internalised' them. As well, I'm an artist - very deep, very sensitive - and had the exaggerated ideas of perfection that are common in creative sorts. Artistic types know that pleasing the public depends on tastes, and these can be hard to gauge. Unfortunately, a mind-set fostered on obedience and 'what is most perfect' can give one the mistaken notion that one has to go to lengths to please God - who never had anything less than Perfect Love for us in the first place.

My mother used to like to go to the earliest Mass on Sunday - just, as she freely admitted, to 'get it over with.' Others are natural 'early birds,' or want to go golfing, or (in the days before modern kitchen equipment) needed hours to cook Sunday lunch, or, way back before Pius X's decree on frequent communion (when there was 'non communicating high Mass') went to early Mass in order to receive. Even though, back before vigil Masses, aside from cops and nurses who had to go to work, and a few elderly people who tended to be awake very early, most of those at the dawn Mass had been out all night (possibly breaking many a commandment in the process) and were there so they could return home and sleep all day, attendance at the first Mass was the goal - because 'it's a bigger sacrifice.'

I'm smiling, remembering another 'religion class' exercise (this when I was slightly older.) There were groups of descriptions of different 'hypothetical' people, and we were supposed to pick out the one in each group who had the most grace. (Huh?) So - perhaps the 'winner' in one group (though, if I recall correctly, no one described was doing anything wrong) would be the missionary in Africa. I was puzzled, even then, because I wondered if someone in such a life might still be guilty of stealing, or slander - whatever. But the missionary was in the hardest and most dangerous situation, and had sacrificed the most, so he won.

It's hard to explain this, but, even as a child, I had a strong attraction to prayer. I wasn't a 'group type' - you wouldn't have found me joining a sodality. I spent time, at home or church, reciting from the prayer books or just placing myself in the divine presence - and I began, totally on my own initiative, to attend Mass daily by age 12. I was very private about this. None of it was focussed on self-denial, to be sure. I loved films, music (including rock!), any kind of interesting talk - it wasn't that I was turning off the television just because my favourite programme was on. (Don't laugh - I knew people who actually did that!) I never gave anything up for Lent, and I still don't - I wasn't one to take the guilt trip that I had to 'give up' a soda to put the money in the mission box. (In fact, considering that I wasn't likely to have pocket money, I would have definitely not given up the rare chance for a soda. My heavenly Father hardly minded - my earthly one would have thought it a flaw because water was free.)

I hardly would meet any standards of a great ascetic! Yet, deep down, I can see that things I enjoy, have no intention of abandoning, and value, even though they are not sins, would not have been 'perfect.' I'm not going to lose sleep over praying already in bed, or crossing my ankles, or attending an outdoor concert when I could be hearing three Masses on Sunday. I say the Office at home in a comfortable chair, with the teapot nearby. I enjoy my tobacco, wine, decent food - even though these are 'sins' in society today, though not theologically. But it is possible that, deep down, since I must have recognised a deep attention to prayer back in the days when I read about Michael's praying other than on his knees (incidentally, I kneel only when it is a liturgical rubric - not at private prayer in church or at home), I fear God expects a standard of 'perfection' from me, instilled at a very early age.

In total honesty, I wish I had people who also would smoke, have a wine, not be obsessed with the gym or what they read on the Internet was 'unhealthy.'

Of course, we arty types tend to have an intense desire to be loved. In the stories of saints (not that I thought I was one, and I certainly have no illusions of holiness now - but I was striving for holiness), we received the distorted idea that they not only led people to Christ by example but that they were loved by all. (That Jesus ended up on a cross didn't cancel that - we were given the impression that everyone indeed loved and admired him, but God's pointing a finger or Satan's tricks led to the crucifixion. Everyone else was gathering in thousands and watching with awe as he preached on the Mount, heard a mile away even without microphones.) I doubt I ever thought I'd directly lead someone to Christ - the eleventh commandment for me was always thou shalt mind thine own business. But my schooling also included points off for penmanship or a blot of ink - just to mention one example - so a degree of perfection one could not attain was expected if one could please those in authority. I wasn't tender to the Establishment then, either - but I recognised that God was the authority!

There are many jokes about Catholic guilt, most very much exaggerated. In fact, the Calvinist element had guilt few Catholics could begin to manufacture. I think the 'Catholic guilt' myth stemmed from that RCs had to make sacramental confession. But one huge flaw indeed was doing what is 'most perfect.' Had it meant being loving (and, considering only God is Perfect, I think that is a good wager), it could be lovely. Yet we never seemed to remember that the Incarnation did not consist only in going to the cross - so perfection meant suffering.

I was too young and innocent then, of course, to know that many people looked down on Catholics, especially we working class ones - and I'm sure some of the prissy ways were were taught had some connection with morality were just intended to make us seem well mannered. As well, when I was a child many genuine Victorians were still alive - and the children of Victorians had kids in my age group. Convent etiquette, which would have been impressed on our teachers, was ancient by the time of Victoria. I just must write a post on the silliness propagated in the name of being lady-like - or 'dainty.' (I had a chance at the first - the second was about as probable or desirable as flying to the moon.)

Still, I'm sorry to this day that I was given the impression of a God who was demanding on such petty matters - loving God and neighbour is quite difficult enough... Had I only stopped to think that Jesus of Nazareth was a Mediterranean peasant who must have enjoyed socialising just as much as I did for the Pharisees to comment about it (Jesus fortunately never heard the untrue cliché "show me your company and I'll show you what you are"), and that he won't be noted for meeting the Establishment's arbitrary rules either, I might have been less tense. For now, get me another gin!


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