Excerpt from Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood

As we begin, McCarthy has decided to pretend to lose her faith to get the popular students at school to notice her. The ruse will soon take an unexpected turn …

 


People are always asking me how I came to lose my faith, imagining a period of deep inward struggle. The truth is the whole momentous project simply jumped at me, ready-made, out of one of Madame MacIllvra’s discourses. I had decided to do it before I knew what it was, when it was merely an interweaving of words, lose-your-faith, like the ladder made of sheets on which the daring girl had descended into the arms of her Romeo. “Say you’ve lost your faith,” the devil prompted, assuring me that there was no risk if I chose my moment carefully. Starting Monday morning, we were going to have a retreat, to be preached by a stirring Jesuit. If I lost my faith on, say, Sunday, I could regain it during the three days of retreat, in time for Wednesday confessions. Thus there would be only four days in which my soul would be in danger if I should happen to die suddenly. The only real sacrifice would be forgoing Communion on Sunday. He who hesitates is lost; qui ne risque rien n’a rien, observed the devil, lapsing into French, as is his wont. If I did not do it, someone else might—that awful Beryl, for instance. It was a miracle that someone had not thought of it already, the idea seemed so obvious, like a store waiting to be robbed.

Surprised looks were bent on me Sunday morning in the chapel when the line formed for Communion and I knelt unmoving in my pew. I was always an ostentatious communicant. Now girls clambered over me, somebody gave me a poke, but I shook my head sorrowfully, signifying by my expression that I was in a state of mortal sin and dared not approach the table. At lunch, eating little, I was already a center of attention at my table; I maintained a mournful silence, rehearsing what I would say to Madame MacIllvra in her office as soon as the meal was over. Having put in my request for an appointment, I was beginning to be slightly frightened. After lunch, as I stood waiting outside her door, I kept licking my lips. Yet this fear, I argued, was a token of sincerity, naturally you would be frightened if you had just lost your faith.

Ma Mere, I have lost my faith.” At her roll-top desk, Madame MacIllvra started; one plump white hand fluttered to her heart. She gave me a single searching look. Evidently, my high standing in my studies had prepared her for this catastrophe, for she did not ransack me further as I stood there quaking and bowing and trying to repress a foolish giveaway grin. I had been expecting a long questioning, but she reached, sighing, for the telephone, as though I had appendicitis or the measles.

“Pray, my child,” she murmured as she summoned Father Dennis, our chaplain, from the neighboring Jesuit college. “I can’t pray,” I promptly responded. A classical symptom of unbelief was the inability to pray, as I knew from her own lectures. Madame MacIllvra nodded, turning a shade paler; she glanced at the watch in her bosom. “Go to your room,” she said perturbedly. “You are not to speak to anyone. You will be sent for when Father Dennis comes. I will pray for you myself.”

Some of her alarm had communicated itself to me. I had not realized that what I had said was so serious. I felt quite frightened now by what I had done and by the prospect of a talk with Father Dennis, who was an old, dry, forbidding man, very different from the handsome missionary father who was going to preach our retreat. The idea of backing down presented itself with more and more attraction, but I did not see how I could do this without being convicted of shallowness … .

By the time I reached my cubicle I was thoroughly scared. I saw that I was going to have to go through with this or be exposed before them all as a liar, and for the first time it occurred to me that I would have to have arguments to make my doubts sound real. At the same shaken moment I realized that I knew nothing whatever of atheism. If I were out in the world, I could consult the books that had been written on the subject, but here in the convent, obviously there could be no access to atheistic literature. From the playground outside floated the voices of the girls, laughing. I went to the window and looked down at them, feeling utterly cut off and imprisoned within my own emptiness. There was no one to turn to but God, yet this was one occasion where prayer would be unavailing. A prayer for atheistic arguments (surely?) would only bring out the stern side of God. What was I going to do? …

I sat up suddenly. Miracles were not invisible. They were supposed to happen right here on earth, today. They were attested in the photographs of Lourdes by all the crutches hanging up in token of thankfulness for cures. Nevertheless, I said to myself delightedly, I had never seen a miracle, and perhaps all these people were lying or deluded. Christian Science claimed cures, too, and we knew that was just imagination. Voltaire was an intelligent man and he laughed at miracles. Why not I?

As I sat there searching my memory, doubts that I had hurriedly stowed away, like contraband in a bureau drawer, came back to me, reassuringly. I found that I had always been a little suspicious of the life after death. Perhaps it was really true that the dead just rotted and I would never rejoin my parents in Heaven? I scratched a spot on my uniform, watching it turn white under my thumbnail. Another memory was tapping at my consciousness: the question of the Resurrection of the Body. At the last trump, all the bodies of men, from Adam onward, were supposed to leap from their graves and rejoin the souls that had left them; this was why the Church forbade cremation. But somewhere, not so long ago, I had heard a priest quote scornfully a materialistic argument against this. The materialist said (yes, that was it!) that people rotted and turned into fertilizer, which went into vegetables, and then other people ate the vegetables, so that when the Resurrection came there would not be enough bodies to go around. The priest answered that for God, anything was possible; if God made man from clay, He could certainly produce some extra bodies. But in that case, I thought, pouncing, why did He object to cremation? And in any case they would not be the same bodies, which was the whole point. And I could think of an even stronger instance: What about cannibals? If God divided the cannibal into the component bodies he had digested, what would become of the cannibal? God could start with whatever flesh the cannibal had had when he was a baby, before he began eating missionaries, but if his father and mother had been cannibals too, what flesh would he really have that he could call his own?

… I could hardly wait now to meet Father Dennis and front him with these doubts, so remarkable in one of my years. Parallels with the young Jesus, discoursing with the scribes and doctors, bounded through my head: “And all that heard Him were astonished at His Wisdom and His answers.” No one now, I felt certain, would dare accuse me of faking … .

In the dark parlor, the priest was waiting, still in his cassock—a wrinkled, elderly man with a hairless face and brown, dead curly hair that looked like a wig … .

“You have doubts, Mother says,” he began in a low, listless voice, pointing me to a straight chair opposite him and then seating himself in an armchair, with half-averted face, as priests do in the confessional. I nodded self-importantly. “Yes, Father,” I recited. “I doubt the divinity of Christ and the Resurrection of the Body and the real existence of Heaven and Hell.” The priest raised his scanty eyebrows, like two little wigs, and sighed. “You have been reading atheistic literature?” I shook my head. “No Father. The doubts came all by themselves.” The priest cupped his chin in his hand. “So,” he murmured. “Let us have them then.”

I was hurt when he interrupted me right in the middle of the cannibals. “These are scholastic questions,” he said curtly. “Beyond the reach of your years. Believe me, the Church has an answer for them.” A feeling of disappointment came over me; it seemed to me that I had a right to know the answer to the cannibal question, since I had thought it up all by myself, but my “Why can’t I know nows” were brushed aside, just as though I had been asking about how babies were born. “No,” said Father Dennis, with finality. My first excitement was punctured and I began to be suspicious of him, in the manner of adolescents. What, I asked myself shrewdly, was the Church trying to hide from me?

“Let us come to more important matters.” He leaned forward in his chair, with the first sign of interest he had given. “You doubt the divinity of Our Lord?” I felt a peculiar avidity in his question that made me wish to hold back. A touch of fear returned to me. “I think so,” I said dubiously, half ready to abandon my ground. “Think! Don’t you know?” he demanded, raising his voice like a frail thunderbolt. Quailing, I produced my doubt—I was one of those cowards who are afraid not to be brave. Nevertheless, I spoke hurriedly, in gulps, as if swallowing medicine. “We are supposed to know that He was God because He rose from the dead—that was His sign to us that He was more than man. But you can’t prove that He rose from the dead. That’s only what the apostles said. How do we know they were telling the truth? They were very ignorant, superstitious men—just fishermen, weren’t they? People like that nowadays believe in fairies and spirits.” I looked appealingly up at him, half begging recognition for my doubt and half waiting for him to settle it.

The priest passed a hand across his forehead. “You consider Our Lord a liar, then?” he said in a sepulchral tone. “You think He deceived the poor, ignorant Apostles by pretending to be the Son of God. That is what you are saying, my child, though you do not know it yourself. You are calling Our Blessed Savior a liar and a cheat.” “He might have been mistaken,” I objected, feeling rather cross. “He might have thought He was God.” Father Dennis closed his eyes. “You must have faith, my child,” he said abruptly, rising from his chair and taking a few quick steps, his cassock bobbing.

I gazed at him in humble perplexity. For the first time, he seemed to me rather holy, as if the word “faith” had elicited something sweet and sanctified from his soul, but by the same token he seemed very remote from me, as if he were feeling something that I was unable to feel. Yet he was not answering my arguments; in fact, he was looking down at me with a grave, troubled expression, as if he, too, were suddenly conscious of a gulf between us, a gulf that could not be bridged by words. The awesome thought struck me that perhaps I had lost my faith.

 


Excerpt from Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy. Copyright 1957 and renewed 1985 by Mary McCarthy. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of A M Heath & Co. Ltd. Authors’ Agents.


As we begin, McCarthy has decided to pretend to lose her faith to get the popular students at school to notice her. The ruse will soon take an unexpected turn …   People are always asking me how I came to lose my faith, imagining a period of deep inward struggle. The truth is the …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.