“Give me a child for the first seven years and I’ll give you the man” a saying attributed to the Jesuit Francis Xavier, and supposedly a Jesuit maxim.
My dad used to say he was taught by Jesuits as a child, although I always knew him as a nominal Anglican who was very scornful of religion. I used to talk with him a lot as he was older, and his education by Jesuits was something I only learned later in his life. He also told me about how his own father was denounced from the pulpit by the parish priest for not giving enough of his wages to the church. At the time, he had three children all sick and eventually dying of TB at the time; this was before the second world war, and over a decade before the NHS, and the cost of treatment, convalescence and drugs drained him of all his savings and wages. Rather than coming to his father’s aid, the church rejected him publicly. This soured my dad’s views of religion and religious people, and when his favourite sister died with him sitting at her bedside, he took the Bible she had been holding and threw it across the room in a fit of rage. His father saw this, and gave him a thrashing for it. That was about the closest they came to physical contact in his family, I think.
As he described this to me, it seems that was the moment he rejected God, and although his father had transferred the family’s religious allegiance to the Church of England, that was the start of his dismissal of religion. How he ever came to get married to my mother, a practicing Baptist, descended from Norfolk non-conformists and socialists, I will never really understand. And yet, despite his hardness and disdain for religion, he was an incredibly wise man, and I never really understood where he got that wisdom from. Even though he never read the Bible once in all the time I knew him, he was familiar with all the wisdom it contained, and would occasionally cite something of that wisdom in relation to current affairs or historical events. He also used to say that his mother came from a non-practicing Jewish family. I’ll never know the truth of that, but the East End of London was always a melting-pot. It is consigned to one of those interesting possibilities, like his saying that we were descended from the Kings of Ireland.
Whatever the Jesuits did to him as a kid affected him the rest of his life, even though most of it was spent in repudiation of the religion they had tried to beat into him. When he was dying, I spent time with him in a way that I think we got as close as we ever had – it was only at the end that he was able to tell me he loved me. I learned that not only was he nominally Anglican, but he had been confirmed. When I was born, he had insisted I be Christened an Anglican rather than letting my mother bring me up a Baptist, because their first child had died un-Christened, and this worried him. I had been released from the community where I was a religious novice to help my mother look after him before he died. So, I was in a good position for him to sound off his last thoughts about religion, and to be with him as he became drawn back to a Jesus he had had no time for in life. I had learned it was never a good idea to try and push anything to do with religion on him, but when he had visited me in community, because it was a loving Franciscan community, I think he had begun to see that religion was not always as bad as he had experienced it. So, during the last weeks of his life, he was the one who wanted to talk about spirituality, and learn how to meditate. It was so strange to see this once strongly defiant man like a child, chiding me if I left him alone without lighting a candle before an card with Icon of Christ he had picked up outside the hospital chapel. I arranged with the hospital CofE chaplian for him to make confession, and then receive communion with my mother and myself, not long before he died. This was the first time either of us had received communion with him, and the only time the three of us had received communion as a family.
It was all from him, and it helped my mother deal with his death enormously I think; I also think that without unburdening himself at the end, he would never have been able to go in peace. It could never have happened if it had been a Catholic Priest, he was never able to forgive the church of his youth, although I think he just forgot all about them by the end.
It showed me the power that the Jesuits can exert on somebody’s life, even after nearly 60 years. After a lifetime of anti-religion, mostly because of his experiences, he still couldn’t fully escape their cruelty, indoctrination or his reaction to it. Whatever was laid to rest in him, and his father before him, still lives on in me in some small way. I still find it hard to feel anything but contempt for the sort of people who could treat my family that way, however long ago; after he died I began to appreciate the damage they had inflicted on his family, on generations of his ancestors before them, on him, and through him on me, and I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with Christianity generally, and Catholicism specifically. It makes no sense to me how some religious people and their leaders can be capable of the sort of cruelty and inhumanity that at times seems all too common – it goes against everything I grew up understanding religion to be about. Jesus said that you will know a tree is rotten by the fruit it bears, and while I know there are a lot of good people in the church, if there is a tendency in the church for some people to behave in despicable ways, then I have to question the basis of such a religion.
I don’t believe in anything myself nowadays, and maybe that will change one day, and although I don’t think of my father as existing in some way anymore, I think of him now and then, and still feel cheered that he found some peace at the end, because he never really had an opportunity to get over the death of the sister he was so close to before that. I am also cheered that people in Ireland, some of the finest people on earth, are becoming freed from the shackles that religion placed on them for centuries, although I am full of sadness for those poor people that church has damaged, the exposure of which has opened the eyes of so many to what a feckless organisation it is.
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