Other Writing

Chapter 22 of The Novice

Chapter 22

And sex. Eighteen years old and at the height of sexual virility. People, especially after recent newspaper-reportedscandals about priests sexually abusing young males or females, show an interest in what happens in the training of priests that might predict or even prepare for such abuses. Not long ago a woman who had studied the sexual and other abuses inflicted on young native children in Residential schools in British Columbia, asked me what it was like being a novice. I tried to express briefly to her, as we stood on an old dock amidst magical scenery in Haida Gwaii, what I am trying to express here at greater length. It quickly became clear that she was impatient with my accounts of novitiate life, and her general question about what it was like became focused on how were we trained to be sex-maniacs and sadists.

Training for the priesthood is not uniform, and the kinds of people it attracts at different times and places varies. No doubt, as Father Dominic had said, something almost heroic is required to be able to live a celebate life, and perhaps especially so today when so much of the mediasÍ messages and advertising constantly associate personal fulfillment and all possible happiness with sexual gratification. But for me and my time and place as a novice, I have largely disappointing things to report to those looking for clues to sexual deviations. I suspect Freud was largely correct, at least for my experience. Libidinal energy was sublimated into work. I worked as never before or since. For most of the time I seemed to have had infinite energy, which was as well, as the days seemed infinitely long and infinite work was expected of us. No doubt those who planned the novitiate experience knew, long before Freud, all that he might have told them. In addition to all the activity required of us, I began to learn Greek, began reading whatever theological and philosophical books existed in the novitiateÍs small library, and worked at my studies with a concentration that astonishes me now to recall.

But I do remember one sexual incident. Here it is. (And I later remembered another which will appear in due course.)

It was Kathleen Turner. By the Trent, where we'd cycled the month before I had come to the Novitiate. She was the sister of a school friend, and I had asked her if sheÍd like to go for a ride after Benediction on that Sunday. Brother Louis had come up to us outside church as she had been expressing reluctance, and talked her into it on my behalf. I was impressed by the old lay brotherÍs technique, and surprised that he would be deploying it so persuasively on my bahalf. What was he doing arranging a bicycle ride for me with the best looking girl in the parish just a month before I was due to leave for the novitiate?

She lay back on one elbow, looking down at her hand slowly unbuttoning her blouse. I sat an armÍs distance away watching, breathless. Down to her waist, smiling. The bare side of her breast, the shadow and crease below it. The blouse moved in the wind. I gazed. Erection ready to explode, if she moved, if the wind blew, if she smiled up at me.

I woke at the edge of ejaculation. I held the image a moment, the white blouse moving open. No. Dear God. No! It would be a mortal sin if I went off while awake. Eyes open, let it recede, the pressure ease. Dear God, holy Mother of God, pray for me. The weight of the blanket; I was pushing my groin into it. Let it ease. I relaxed. It was still on the edge, ready to explode. Dear God, no. I would have to confess a mortal sin on Saturday. I would have to miss communion in morning masses. The shame would be terrible. I was afraid to move, lest the engorged penis be triggered. I lay rigid trying to pray: "Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Hail. Hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope. Ad te clamamus exules filos tuos, misericordes oculos ad nos converte. . .î

It seemed to be receding. I held the blanket away from it. The pyjamas were sticking to me all over with sweat. Salve Regina, mater misericordiae, vita dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve. Ad te clamamus exules filos tuos. . .

Why the image of Kathleen Turner like that? Our cycle ride had been as innocent as such things might be. I had tried not to look at her blossoming figure after 10.00 a.m. Sunday masses for the past few years, and, even more, tried not be seen looking. I could recall the dream so vividly even after IÍd woken; I could see the texture of the skin of her breast. Inside the blouse as she opened it. The full plumpness I could almost feel. Oh God. Stop, stop! Again. It was hardening again. It would certainly be a mortal sin now. It kept coming. No. God. No! Get out of bed. No. Any movement would explode it.

Pray! What prayer? Think of the statue of our Lady. The calm smile over the flickering votive candles. Ave Marie, gratia plena, dominus tecum, benedictus tuus mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Ora pro nobis pecatoribus. Terrible pecatoribus. I had sinned already. It had stopped coming. It was receding again. I held my breath, holding the blanket away from my penis. Silence all around. The window black.

It felt enormous, engorged almost too much for the skin to contain. It was torture letting it fade, so slowly, reluctant, against nature. I wanted to touch it. To lay my wrist on top of it. No. No. The devil's prompting. Don't touch it. Dear Lord, estote vigilante, guard over me, and save me from the devil, who goes about the world seeking the ruin of souls!

The blouse flapped away from the breast, she let it go, the nipple exposed as she smiled up at me, leaning back. Both of them free as the blouse came off her shoulders. Oh no. Away, get away! My teeth grinding, head pressed back into the pillow, shaking the image away, of the girl's smile and the soft whiteness. It's the devil is near. Dear God, estote vigilante, make haste to help me. St. Columba, pray for me. That it go down. I felt the pulse beat inside it, like a separate heart throbbing. Arms aching holding the blanket up. Pyjamas twisted and damp. The sheets damp on my legs. Relax the neck; the back of my head thrust down into the pillow, the chin straining into the air, teeth clenched.

ïA Friar Minor is bound to abstain from all venereal pleasures which come from thoughts, desires, and consent.Í Ave Maria, the statue above the candles, a rosary dangling from one hand, holding the infant Jesus in the other.

I was serving Father AdrianÍs mass tomorrow. Servers had to put a host in the chalice for themselves: Frater, you've forgotten a host for yourself, he'd say. No, Father, I'm in mortal sin so I can't go. IÍd have to pretend to be ill. But then theyÍd offer to bring it to my cell.

It was becoming less tight, the pulse less insistent. She was opening the blouse herself. Dear God; St. Michael drive away the devil and his black winged angels, St. Francis Xavier, pray for me.

It was blowing off her shoulders as she stood quietly looking at the river. Oh, she is beautiful. I pushed the blankets off. It rubbed against my stomach, the twisted cloth of my pyjamas tightened on it. It was coming again. I gripped the edges of the bed, the iron frame cold under my damp hands. Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Hail, Hail our Life, our sweetness and our hope. The cold was helping. I kicked the bottom of the blanket from my feet and lay still. Concentrating on the image of Our Lady holding the baby Jesus. Simply holding it in my mind. It was easing again. I relaxed my grip on the bed frame, moved my neck, and relaxed the rigid backbone. It was shrinking. Dear Lord, thank you for your kindness to me a sinner. I sat up carefully and began to straighten my pyjamas, shrugged them free from their grip around my shoulders, pulling the trouser legs down, jumping up and down to ease them from under my bottom, away from my groin.

Had I committed a mortal sin? When I woke I had held the image. The sin lies in the acceptance of pleasure. Had I accepted libidinous pleasure? Yes, I had. But not mortally? Venially only, surely? I feared it was mortal. How could I know for sure? It was adultery--adulteration, accepting improper pleasure. I had been surprised to learn that adultery in the Middle Ages was not unlawful intercourse, but the acceptance of inappropriate pleasure from intercourse even with one's wife. In fact the acceptance of any libidinous pleasure. What I had accepted in the way of pleasure was not so great, not much more than was outside my control. Yet even in ejaculation during sleep, if one should awake in the middle, it was sinful to accept pleasure from it. One must resist all venereal pleasure. I had certainly not accepted any pleasure from the ejaculation during sleep last week.

I brushed my hand over my penis. Yes, it was nearly down now. Thank God for that. I relaxed into the warmth of the bed. It was bitter cold outside the blanket. Perhaps that's what had saved me. God working in his mysterious ways. I should get to sleep. To deny the body's pleasures is only the beginning of virtue, not virtue itself. What was the distinction Father Adrian had given us? The moral virtues don't have God as their immediate object, they are simply a means towards union with him, whereas the theological virtues have God as their immediate object. To go and say a prayer at the prie-dieu above the back of the church would be a moral virtue then.

I threw off the covers and stood up. Curling my feet on the cold planks, the chill immediately penetrated the thin pyjamas. Both hands on the latch to raise it quietly; the scrape of it like a saw on metal. The door opened with howling creaks. My feet were even colder on the linoleum of the corridor. The barest dark-grey of the window was visible at the end of the street. Everything else black. I turned round quickly. A ghost now would kill me.

Even the unsticking of the skin of my feet from the linoleum sounded like a whip-lash. I passed Casimir's door. Would he wake and wonder who was walking where? Past Lawrence's cell. No sound from behind the doors. A sense of walking through space, along a cold floor on an infinite dark plain. I closed my eyes. It made little difference. Near the end wall, I slowed, both hands ahead of me. The cold face of a dead friar under my fingers. I shivered. My testicles were contracted and uncomfortable. There was a sense of strain around my whole groin.

My hands touched the wall. Feeling to the right for the doorway to the prie-dieu. Down the two steps, one hand back on the door frame, the other ahead of me. Heart sinking as I missed my footing and stumbled forward. There were three steps. A terrible noise echoing monstrously through the dark church below.

I caught my balance and moved to the right, feeling the second pew and passing it, hand out for the rail. There was a flicker of light ahead. The little sanctuary lamp shone like a red beacon above the altar, throwing ghostly light and deep shadows into the choir stalls.

Kneeling down, I was suddenly conscious that there was someone in the church! I listened, heart thumping, to creaking below me. I couldn't make out any movement among the shadows. It continued irregularly from around the church. It was just the creaking of pews, talking randomly to each other through the cooling night of their aches and pains.

"Dear Lord, forgive this theatrical gesture, and my foolish pride in it. I only came to beg you for the grace of faith, humility and the simple wisdom you give to many of those who are least proud. Thank you for all your goodness and mercy, and please bless my father and mother and sister Barbara, and all the novices, and Father Adrian and the community and all Franciscans, and everyone, dear Lord. Help us all to have faith in thee. Holy father St. Francis, pray for us. And keep my heart pure. Amen."

I had never before shivered quite like I did then. On the way back to my cell I was shaking, having even greater difficulty being quiet as I tip-toed down the street. My teeth were chattering, and I enjoyed the feel of them working away by themselves, though they sounded like horses galloping down the corridor. I dropped the latch quietly into place and slid back under the sheet and blanket. I lay shivering for a few minutes, ambivalently delighted and ashamed by what I couldnÍt call either virtue or stupidity.

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