Free-thinkers not welcome

Barnstaple High Street

Barnstaple is where I sometimes went if I was allowed to leave at a weekend. I once took my friend Mary and introduced her to hard cider. She was still tipsy when we got back to Bideford, but I don’ t think the nuns noticed!

Two of the most mean-spirited people I ever met were Catholic nuns, so of course they are the ones I mostly remember, which I know isn’t fair. Most of the nuns I encountered were decent women. One or two were exceptional.

I just found it hard to comprehend how a woman supposedly dedicated to her God and to the teachings of Christianity could reconcile her own spiteful demeanor.

Perhaps the woman I am thinking of in particular should have spent her life in prayer as opposed to teaching, considering the way she appeared to dislike children. I will never forget what she said to us one day when she was annoyed that we couldn’t answer her questions. She took herself off in high dudgeon, retorting “you can wallow in the slime of your ignorance”, and banged the door. Needless to say, we fell about laughing.

I was especially in disfavor, as she had somehow learned that my father was an atheist.

If her intention was to rescue me from a similar fate, she went about it the wrong way. In fact I always kept an open mind in religious matters.

As a small child, I wanted to be baptized so I could be like my friends. This was soon discouraged by the black look I received from my father. But my beliefs were my own and I knew, as long as I didn’t talk about it, I could believe whatever I wanted.

In principal, I was attracted to the teachings of Christianity. I liked the idea of helping the poor and the sick. I believed in forgiveness. I loved Francis of Assisi with his animals, of course. I still love his prayer which I believe in completely. *

But I didn’t care at all for preaching, or for the obsession with “converting” the world. In my mind, most religions share the same basic lessons and while their Gods may have different names, I didn’t see why it mattered. The important thing was for people to be decent. Religion isn’t even something everyone needs.

My big issue with Catholicism was the concept of confession and pardon. It seemed to me that this gave everyone freedom to commit all kinds of “sin” that could so easily be be erased. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but I know many of the kids I was at school with regarded it that way.

Consequently, by the time I went to Stella Maris, I had become not an atheist but more of an agnostic. I thought I would have time to explore these things as I went through life. But I was obliged to attend religion classes, taught by, you guessed it, – HER.

When, at age 16, I was to take my GCE exams (now GCSE, I think), I decided that I would rather spend my time studying for exams in subjects that I cared about, and I stayed after class one day to make this announcement to my favourite teacher.

Oh, the lecture she laid on me. “No-one with any intelligence does not believe in God!” she declared, looking down her long nose at me. Whatever else I may have thought about my dad, I didn’t really think he was stupid, but everyone is entitled to their opinion.

She was obviously annoyed that I had beaten her to the punch, so to speak, and retorted “what makes you think I was going to allow you to sit the exam?” and then she carried on railing at me “I see you every day, sitting there in my class with that look of disbelief on your face!” I wasn’t consciously thinking one way or the other, actually. I was just bored.

I wanted to be free to decide for myself what I believed in without having it drilled into me. I certainly wasn’t going to say I believed in Christ to please some bitchy nun who disapproved of my upbringing. When the time came for me to leave Stella Maris, this woman looked at me with disdain as if I was the worst kind of sinner and she said “YOU won’t be sorry to leave!” Not, “good luck” or “we’ve had our differences, but I wish you the best”, which surely would have been the Christian thing to say to a child starting out in life. She was a rotten cow to the end. It wasn’t that I cared what she thought. It was that I really didn’t deserve such a bad opinion. The head mistress, also a nun, had described me, in a letter to a future head master, as “mature beyond her years”.

I needed to be.

On Sunday afternoons, unless it was tanking with rain, we were taken on a route-march. Sometimes along the cliffs and often to the Burrows. Sometimes we had a “picnic” on the pebbles at Westward Ho. I can remember my friends Mary and Eleanora sitting among the stones, bundled up in scarves and coats, trying so hard to have a good time! The weather never seemed too nice in those days! That beach would be a great place to run with a dog. I would have loved it all at a different time.

Prayer of St Francis

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life

2 thoughts on “Free-thinkers not welcome

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I so needed to read the St Francis prayer, one I had totally forgotten. My son’s partner, who is pregnant with my grandson, has recently spewed vitriol at me like a viper. This prayer is just what I needed.

    I am wondering if the vicious nun was French. David Sedaris had a French teacher when he lived in Paris who told him, “Teaching you is like having a Cesarean section every day of the week.” My core yoga instructor, from Northern France, said in front of a class of yoga teachers, my peers, “Headstand resolves itself for everyone, even Janet.”

  2. I have heard of, but not read, the prayer of St. Francis until now and I love it. The world would be so much more pleasant to live in if we all prayed this prayer (and lived it) every day.

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