Sunday, October 14, 2007

Me and Mother Church

There were many nudges along the way. Many ‘clicks’ – you know, that little ting, like a bicycle bell, a little alert that the world and more specifically Mother Church was not as sane and sanctified as all around me believed.

I think my first awakening, or more a little frisson, was at the Catholic Convent School I attended. We would go to mass in the convent chapel on a fairly regular basis. None of us were allowed near the sacred place, the altar. We couldn’t touch anything, the vestments, the altar cloths, the hardware, or go anywhere in front of the altar rail. The nuns, of course, were allowed to launder and steam-press the precious linens, and they did so in gratitude and humility, being the brides of Christ.

They couldn’t serve at Mass. But my ten-year-old brother could. He was an altar boy and had higher standing than any of the nuns and of course stood head and shoulders above us, the convent girls. In the eyes of Mother Church. My filthy, nasty, little brother was now on Godplanet while those of us sans penis were consigned to the trash heap outside the altar rails? Ting.

And then there was the matter of my mother’s last ‘confinement’ – a lovely old-fashioned word. She was forty-three. I was thirteen. On a blog entry a while ago, I wrote about an experience she had with a ‘young pup’ of a priest, whilst in this pregnancy:
A Bit of Mutton

My mother told me many things,
When breathing deeply of the morning air
As we walked together to First Friday Mass
So our souls would be saved at the last minute.
No matter what we did in between.

Our Lord had promised this, you see.
If we made nine of these First Fridays in a row.
And we did. I don’t remember the masses
I remember our walking and talking
And how we would breathe together.

She would swing her arms and look to the still
Early sky. Breathe, she said, breathe.
It’s good to get the early oxygen into the blood
And leave all the men in the house behind us.
It’s a change for us women to be alone together.

She believed and carried me on the wings
Of her belief in Our Lady first and Our Lord second.
Until the great man behind the red curtain
Told her it was a sin to eat meat on Friday
Even though she was expecting her last.

She was forty-three then, saying she was thirty-nine
And had an irresistible craving for the meat.
She was outraged she told me, that this
Young pup of a priest could tell an aging
Expecting woman her soul was damned.

Forever, she said to me, in spite of the
Nine First Fridays, for eating a piece of meat.
She would burn in hell for all eternity.
How could he know, this young pup,
Of varicose veins and a tired swollen body?

Life is a terrible mystery, girleen,
I don’t know what to make of it at all
I just can’t make sense of him telling me that,
Me old enough to be his mother, that I was
Now damned and going to hell for a bit of mutton?

I got up and walked out of that box so I did.
I did not want the penance or the forgiveness
For this great sin. I walked all the way out the door
And came straight home this past Saturday
And I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------But that wasn’t the end of it in this pregnancy for my mother. In those days, in Ireland, when women had difficulty in childbirth, when labour ceased or there was fetal distress or a myriad other challenges, and the woman happened to be Catholic, a Caesarian section was forbidden by the Catholic Church in collusion with the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Dublin. The procedure approved was the Symphysiotomy: See the section on Irish women.

My mother had horrific side effects after the birth of my sister. Her pelvis was shattered and she was unable to sit, walk or stand for six weeks. My sister had to be bottle-fed and my brothers and I took turns with this as my mother was unable to sit and hold her baby and my father was of the era where his masculinity would be suspect if he was ever caught holding an infant. After several months of agony my mother had another operation which involved breaking her pelvis yet again so that this time the bones would knit correctly. She never fully recovered and was not too long for the world afterwards.

When my sister was nine months old and my mother had the use of her legs again, she asked me to accompany her for a special service in the church. Women only and the holy priest officiating.

Childbirth was considered ‘unclean’ then so she had to be cleansed from her unholy act in a ritual called ‘Churching’ – now obsolete.

And I could go on, but as this is far too long as it is, I’ll stop and continue some other time.

So ask me again why I no longer believe in The Great Invisible Cloud Being?


  1. The whole thing is horrifying, www. The way even young boys were respected more than any women, the huge risks of symphysiotomy, which I'd never heard of before, the fact that childbirth was considered unclean (didn't know that either), and the fact that your mother didn't survive for long after the procedure. What miseries the Catholic Church inflicted and is still inflicting. Though thankfully we've moved on a bit since then.

  2. There is a survivor group for this procedure now, Nick, featured in the Irish Times a while back. I will comment on your blog later - which is relevant to this too - we carry a lot of tribal sadness, us women, for our foremothers who were so devalued and diminished by the patriarchy. The world suffers for this. That women are not more involved in the running of it. And the atrocities and femicides continue to this day - mutilatation being only one of them.

  3. Hi WWW

    Beautifully poignant piece. It must have been hard for you to write. I'm so sad for your mother. We think the world is cruel now but the first half of the twentieth century was brutal beyond our comprehension.



  4. Yes Pants, today is a bed of roses compared to what our foremothers went through, sans voice. At least we can yell, if only to each other.
    Out of all of this comes enlightenment too, two of my brothers are strong feminists.

  5. Your poor mother. The Church hates women. I say this frequently but it's terribly true.

  6. I'd say, Medbh that it hates sex more than women, let's face it, the only women they revere are virgins, they even made the babymother of Jesus a virgin. The old whore and madonna thing.

  7. Interesting how a lot of us "ex-Catholics" heard and experienced huge challenges to what we were taught to believe (or threatened with) as children and held onto our doubts while others capitulated and went along with things. I think of my own mother and myself as examples. Though she (nor the priests and nuns in my life) had no satisfactory answers to most of my probing questions, she continued to "believe" while I decided at age 7 that I would only pretend to believe until I was old enough to state outright what I thought of the Mother Church.

  8. A third trimester "forced" abortion in 1995 of a little girl. Delivered vaginally after 4 days of induced labour at the hospital on my ex-husband's consent alone. He slept through it and strictly forbid contact with any friends or family until the deed was done. He refused to look at her. Some day I will be able to talk about it. That day has not yet come. I was raised Catholic. If I could pray, it would be for your wisdom.

  9. If you're wondering how this could have possibly happened, there were birth defects involved.

  10. Pauline:
    It was certainly a fear based cult. Like all cults. The woo factor was high. Don't believe in our magical invisible cosmic housekeeper and you will fry in hell for all eternity. Promised to four year old children. Burning forever. Screaming in pain. For ever and ever.
    Unbelievable. And we believed.

  11. Anon:
    My heart breaks for you, how painful and haunting and horrible.
    Of all you said I found "ex-husband" to be the most hopeful. You exed him. Good.


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