Tuesday, January 29, 2013

In 1967, my then-girlfriend's uncle died. He lived with her large Catholic, Irish-American family.  The uncle, though a nice man, was the embodiment of what I later learned was "Jansenism." Jansenism was  (according to Wikipedia) "a Christian theological movement, primarily in France, that emphasized original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. The movement originated from the posthumously published work of the Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen, who died in 1638."  "Catholic theological movement" is more accurate. It was influenced by Calvinism, a strict, tough, rather depressing form of Protestantism easily discerned in our  American right wing.  Jansenism was a French movement, but by the time  the Catholic Church suppressed it, it had infected the Irish Church through priests educated in France, & was carried to America, where the Irish controlled the Church institutions.

The atmosphere in my girlfriend's home lightened considerably, although the family remained strictly Catholic.  A bedroom had become vacant in  the house. As a result, my girlfriend, the oldest of six  got her own room. She insisted upon it, & she was very insistent young woman.   I don't think I ever saw that room. It was still highly improper in nearly every home, including my own, to  have a non-family person of the opposite sex in your bedroom. What you did in a parked car or the basement was another matter.

Then my girlfriend's aunt came for  a visit. She was an educated nun, principal of a grammar school. Vatican II reforms were seeping into the religious orders & hers had adopted a simple brown dress with the order's pin on it, The headdress (formerly called "veil") was a  small thing she promptly removed for the duration of her stay. I had never talked to a nun before (shortly thereafter, I had lunch  at college with a famous - or infamous, depending on your view - anti-war activist nun,  Elizabeth McAllister. ) The difference the change in  nun habit made for me was remarkable.  It was like a wall had been removed.   She was no longer a "symbol" of what I disliked about Catholicism, & still do: The "religious" as a distinctly separate class, the perception & reality enforced by a mode of costume carried over from Medievalism. I thought Catholicism treated nuns in an especially egregious way. The old habits were hardly better than full burkas; even worse in some ways. A kind of clothing originally intended to be like that of ordinary people had come to define & place them apart.

I had several long conversations with my girlfriend's aunt, most of them at the small table in the undersized kitchen. We talked about literature & religion. She was amused by my personal story; being baptized Catholic while my oldest brother was already in Methodist Sunday School; the Catholic grandmother in my home until I was ten or eleven, then retired to Atlantic City. She may have told me that  I was no longer Catholic unless I wanted to be, having reached my 18th birthday & freely chosen my own path. That wasn't an important matter to me, just a point of curiosity. I may have even confessed that a part of me has always felt a little bit Catholic,    not a bad thing at all if you think about it.

Blog post inspired by When Style Trumps Spirit: Ministry and Clothing, with thanks to Fran Rossi Szpylczyn.

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