First published in “Talkabout” magazine October/November 2007. I make no secret of my intense dislike – an understatement – of organised religion! No singular institution in the history of nankind has had such a stultifying influence on mankind’s collective mind! It has caused more deaths and suffering than all our wars combined, has held back the advancement of civilisation, and is singularly responsible for the hi-jacking of common sense, logic, and free thought! It’s sheer hypocrisy on being incapable of practising what it preaches, and being unable to judge itself so, is staggering in its breadth! Right at this very instant, somewhere in this world, people are being massacred or tortured in the name of religion! This is my perspective!
“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”
John Donne Holy Sonnet XIV
I started watching “The Abbey” on ABC TV on Sunday night. What a time-trip back to when I was 23 and living in an enclosed monastery, following the Rule of St. Benedict, at Leura in the Blue Mountains. How I ended up in a monastery – and eventually left – was quite a journey. One might even say a quest, a search for identity, spirituality and this unfathomable thing called faith. I found the first, still hold onto the second and lost the third along the way.
The quest started when, as a 12-year-old Protestant boy from very Congregational Sylvania, I managed to get into one of the states leading Catholic boarding schools – St Gregory’s Agricultural College in Campbelltown. They had filled their Catholic places at the school, and were willing to take Protestants. I lucked in. I have to admit that I loved going to school there, though with most of the boys being from country regions I didn’t make any life-long friends. I learnt to really loathe sport – Marist Brothers and their bloody sports – which I had just disliked up until that time. Also had a fleeting homosexual encounter with another boy…in speedos…in the pool.
However, it was the Catholic religion that overwhelmed me. It wasn’t just one aspect of Catholicism, it was the whole shebang! The beauty of its rituals; the whole mystery of the mass; the adoration of Mary and the saints; the dogma and theology; and the people who devoted themselves to enacting and teaching these beliefs. As someone who had come from the sparse simplicity of protestant services, it took my breath away. So much so that at the end of my first year there I converted, being baptized in the school chapel with my history teacher, Mr Higgins – who, being a chain-smoker , stank of nicotine – and one of the Year 12 boys, Tim Sheen, as my sponsors. Little did I know that the priest who baptized me was, several years later, to be arrested for molesting his altar boys. My appetite for religion, especially the theological aspects of it, was voracious. In 1969 when I finished my final year one of the brothers asked me if I would like to join the Marist Brothers. Despite the faint inklings of a vocation, the Marist order really wasn’t my cup of tea. While at St Greg’s, I had a personal confessor from a Discalced Carmelite monastery at Minto. Through him I had quite a lot of contact with the monastery, including attending vocational seminars.
I found the contemplative lifestyle much more to my taste, though decided to wait a few years before making any decisions.
In 1976 I contacted a small enclosed monastic community in Leura called the Community of St Thomas Moore, who followed the Benedictine Rule.
The community lived in this rambling old convent originally owned by the Sisters of Charity. It had the monk’s enclosure at one end of this huge ‘H’ design, the chapel, visitors parlors and Prior’s office at the other end, and a huge retreat section in between. The community supported itself by running retreats. As the youngest novice it was my duty to rise at 5am to set up the chapel for morning Office and Mass. I would then go to the common room in the enclosure to start breakfast and set the tables, as well as turning on the heaters to warm the enclosure. At 5.30 I would circle the enclosure with a bell to raise the rest of the community to prayer. Between prayer and work the day went very fast, with grand silence starting at 9pm and going through until after breakfast the next morning. Despite it being a tough life – and don’t for one minute think that these men are uneducated or unaware of what is going on in the world – I loved it. I loved the strong sense of community, the calmness of quiet contemplation in long silences, and the daily rituals of work and the Divine Office that bind communities like these together. The church regards these communities of enclosed religious as ‘powerhouses of prayer’, and there is little doubting that if you are on the inside.
A very strong visual image of my time there, and one that has always stayed with me, is of being in the kitchen at 5.30 one morning and looking out the window. The monastery was set on the edge of a valley, and it was an icy cold clear morning. Outside the window was a leafless tree covered in frozen water drops glistening in the sun. Beyond it, a mist was rolling up the sides of the valley. It was one of the most profoundly contemplative moments I have ever had in my life. It was as if I was the only one observing this beautiful scene, as if it had been reserved especially for me for some purpose that was yet to be revealed. I can still see it in my minds eye as I write this. Now that’s impact!
However, one of the ‘problems’ with the large periods of introspection and contemplation that is part of the monastic ideal is that you tend to look deeply into yourself. Fears and hidden truths are often revealed. This can either lead one deeper into the religious nature of their community, or alienate you personally from the community. The realisation I came to, the fear I had, the thing that I was running from was that I was gay. Hiding in a monastery is not a healthy thing to do if you are gay – though heaven knows there are enough caught in this situation. Many stay on through fear of who they are. They think that if they work themselves to the bone, and pray hard it will just go away. It doesn’t! It ends in a life of bitterness, recrimination and self-loathing. Many, like me, decided that to really live life without hypocrisy they had to leave the safety of the enclosure and go back into the world. The decision to enter a religious community is difficult enough on its own.
The decision to leave is even harder. Driving through the gates to go home was quite devastating for me, knowing that I was leaving all peace and tranquility behind me. I hoped to carry it inside myself, but the hectic, tumultuous real world makes it difficult, if not impossible. Another world awaited me.
I still didn’t come out immediately. My family was quite formidable and I knew I would have to choose my time well. In the meantime, I worked for and eventually became manager of Pellegrini & Co Pty Ltd – not familiar with the name? It was a huge Catholic emporium, supplying not just devotional goods such as statues and rosary beads, but furniture, church plate and vestments to all the local churches – firstly in Sydney, then to Melbourne where I came out. By this time my father was dead, my family alienated. Melbourne was a safe space for me. In the way of enforcing contrasts in my life, after I left Pellegrini in the early 80’s. I became manager of a sex shop in Oxford St called ‘Numbers’. It is often joked about that I gave up ‘praying’ for ‘preying’.
I must say that at this stage my faith was going through a shaky period. The fight for gay recognition, rights and anti-discrimination was in full swing, and the Catholic Church was one of the biggest bugbears to these rights. I joined “Acceptance” Gay Catholics in Melbourne, though not initially to fight the good fight, so much as a way to meet people through the shared common ground of religion. It was through “Acceptance” – I eventually became committee secretary, as well as working on several working groups – that I realised just how discrimination could alienate a group of people. We could only go to Mass in one church in Fitzroy, and then only at a certain time of the evening. The Servite Fathers, who were an independent order and not under the auspices of the local Bishop or Archbishop were the only order who could conduct our First Friday Home Masses. At one mass at my unit in West Brunswich confessions were going to be held in my bedroom. I had all this porn attached to the back of the bedroom door – as you do when young and single – and went to considerable trouble to ensure paper was taped over it to hide it. Evidently during one of the confessions the paper suddenly gave way, and priest and confessor were confronted with all these pictures of naked men. I believe the priest didn’t bat an eye, but I have to wonder if there weren’t additional sins for the guy with him to confess. Over this time I just got angrier and angrier at the hypocrisy of it all. Coming from Protestant roots, I still carried a lot of the simpler theology with me, and often found myself arguing against the stupidity and naivety that had crept into the Catholic religion through the centuries, which we were (are?) still living with, and decrying its inability to move forward and fit into a more contemporary era. It gained me quite a few friends, and earned me a few enemies. I got so frustrated that I dropped religion altogether, and have never really found my way back.
I returned to Sydney on the tide of HIV hysteria, and religion for me became even less relevant. Hearing our dear religious brethren, especially those in politics advocating hunting us down and locking us away in quarantine; the way they flaunted the view that this was God’s retribution against the gay community fuelled my increasing hatred for religion. Despite HIV being something that should have initiated reconciliation between my lost faith, and me it just drove a wedge in.. The soul-destroying slaughter of all my friends, lovers and acquaintances over this time didn’t bring me back to faith. However, it did cause me a revaluation of my need for spirituality of some description. The free-form style of the funerals that were going on over this period made me realise that we all practiced ‘faith’ in many different ways, and that having faith wasn’t the same as being spiritual. You could have one without the other. Religion, to just about everyone I knew, was an alien concept with little tie-in to their lives. However, many were searching for spirituality. One friend in particular surprised me by returning to the rudimentaries of faith just before he died.
He did make me wonder what I would do if faced with the same situation – would I call on a priest and fall back to my Catholic faith; would I contact someone more in tune with the simplicity of my original faith, such as MCC; or would I just continue to refute it all up to the time I died. It is something I still ponder occasionally.
In my search for spirituality I tried a return to a more primitive religion in Wicca, but found it unsatisfying. I studied the writings of Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn but found it too weird – and scary; the Jewish Kabbalah – real Kabbalah, not Madonna’s version – but found it too deep and complex, and I didn’t feel I had a lifetime to study it in.
So, I guess that in some ways I am still searching. It is not an easy world to find faith or spirituality in. Certain groups in our world have distorted the concepts to such a degree that you wonder what they find in the dry, humourless, destructive force they call religion. Others go on preaching what they don’t practice – and astoundingly never realise the contradiction; intolerance and hatred is rife. The Zen ideal is possibly the closest to pure spirituality that I have found, Buddhism being the one religion that seems to be the reverse of all else that is surrounding us. Like the monastic ideal, you can find peace in contemplation and meditation, something that cuts off the noisy world around us, and causes us to withdraw into ourselves.
Over the years, and before meeting my current partner, I have asked myself what I would do…where I would go…if I found myself old and alone in this world. I thought I would eventually return to a monastery, try to find all that I had lost. There are many who would tell me that faith is easy to find – it is just a pure act of selfless belief, a mere blinkered view to all the external forces that fight against faith; submission to dogma and ritual. I can no longer do that. I question too readily, and demand answers that aren’t esoteric.
So back to “The Abbey”. The five women who have gone into the Abbey to see if they can withstand the rigours of the monastic life are all in need of some form of self-redemption. Despite renunciations and doubts they are all seeking ‘something’. It is easy to see why Sister Hilda is the superior of this monastic community. Full of faith, a sense of humour, immense amounts of understanding and compassion, she is indeed the monastic mother. Just by listening to what these 5 women say, she is, possibly unknown to her, being a counsellor. In five weeks time when these women leave the monastery to go back to their normal lives, they are going to be intrinsically changed – you can see it already. They are going to confront things that they don’t want to confront, and if they allow themselves to just sink into the life of the monastery, to let it surround them and not fight it they are going to come to an understanding of themselves that they never thought possible – and their lives will be forever changed. I know. I’ve been there. Perhaps you can take the boy out of the monastery, but you can’t take the monastery out of the boy!
And as for me…well maybe John Donne and I fight the same demons;
“…I, like an usurpt towne, to’another
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue,
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee;’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”