Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 3, 2011

Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit, by Gerard Windsor #BookReview

 It took no time at all to read this book of a scant 200 pages but it certainly provides food for thought. Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit is a collage of autobiographical writings from Gerard Windsor who was a Jesuit novice in 1963 but never took final vows.  His depiction of a very muscular Christianity exposes a mindset as foreign to me as any from exotic cultures, and the past he writes of seems more of a ‘foreign country’ [1] where things are done differently than the period would suggest.  He’s certainly not the first Catholic author I have read, but his view of the world seems quite strange.

The book begins with an anecdote from his earliest days at school.  A  little fellow of five, he’s forgotten his lunch.

When I got to school, I opened my satchel to take out my pencils and exercise book, and I saw there was no lunch.  Nowhere.  The satchel had no hidden compartments.  There was no lunch.  The absence horrified me.  I was five, and I gaped, stock-still, on the edge of this blank.  I had never not had a lunch before.  The lunch was there, like the tram to school, like the bells sending the same orders to us all.  But where the lunch should be, there was just an empty, stale space. All through the morning I could feel the emptiness. (p10)

Resourceful and independent – and with no adults about to supervise –  at lunchtime this child makes his way alone to the ‘silent, out-of-bounds assembly hall’ to the headmaster’s study, to make what was ‘a confession as much as a request for help’.  Father Scott escorts him to the Italian housekeeper who makes a jam sandwich with rough crusts.  Can we imagine a child today negotiating this disaster with such calm self-possession?

The same detachment accompanies the anecdote about a novices’ excursion to a swimming-hole on the Yarra.  Each novice,  called an animae (soul), was mentored by a second-year novice called an angelus (angel).  They spent the afternoon chatting and getting to know each other, but there was little swimming because the water was flowing fast and deep, and eddying.

And about half past two an angelus, not mine, realised he had not seen one of his animae for at least an hour.  Several of the angeli, sportsmen and stronger swimmers, dived but the river was muddy as well as turbulent.  The main party of us, all the animae, left before the police divers came and found him in a hole, thirty feet down. (p7)

At the funeral where the young man was buried with full Jesuit honours Windsor sees the young man’s mother.  He writes that at the time he told himself that she was ‘unrecriminating, that she had been willing to give up her son, that he had only wanted God’s service, and that God knew what served him best’. (p7) Was this detachment a way of coping with a traumatic incident? A self-or-externally-imposed suppression of empathy?  

Just as the army initiates its recruits with an arcane language of acronyms and salutations that reinforce rank, so too did the Jesuits.  The young men speak to each other in Latin – not the Cicero and Virgil learned at school – but a colloquial version for which they are issued with a ‘cyclostyled booklet’ of handy vocabulary such as ‘broom, duster, toilet, shower, jam, coffee, verandah, collar, soccer ball’. (p18) There are distinctions between comradely salutations and the more formal; there are titles denoting hierarchies of power and control.  There are also terms to differentiate the chosen from the ‘externs’ beyond the monastery walls such as ‘in mundo’  –  meaning more than simply ‘of the world’ it had connotations of disowning and elevating oneself above it.

This sense of a sanctified exclusivity is, today, more than unnerving.  Windsor is writing about  bonding and brotherhood in a culture of elite Irish Catholicism just as it was dying out.  Reforms from the Second Vatican Council meant that the Mass and other religious rites were soon to be  celebrated in the vernacular not in Latin, but it was more than that.  The old certainties were challenged in the Swinging Sixties and the Church had to move with the times and be more inclusive.  Windsor documents not only his own departure from his long-held vocation, but places it in the context of a sharp decline in numbers entering the priesthood because of its inherent obstacles to a full life:

Away from the desert where the deprived senses let in nothing and concentrated the mind on rigour and endurance, and the last end of it all. (p160)

Still, he feels some sense of dismay at the departure of Father Michael Scott, (he of the forgotten lunch rescue) after serving in the priesthood for half a lifetime.   There is an elegiac quality to this collection of pieces, illuminating a sense of  trespass when seminaries and convents are auctioned off, not needed by the remnants of a church in steep decline.   There is also a sense of lost brotherhood not ameliorated by reunions or chance meetings or fatherhood.

However, that bonding, in the context of recent revelations about child abuse, may have had more sinister effects. This book was written fifteen years ago in 1996 and understandably Windsor does not address the issue, not even in his chapter about the constraints of the vow of chastity.  But whether he intended it or not, this book goes some way to illuminating a culture of misplaced loyalty, of unquestioning obedience to church hierarchy, of being above the secular law, of suppressed emotion and of prohibitions on discussing certain topics.

Gerard Windsor today is an author and critic, famously for his views about the responsibility of the reviewer:

The primary responsibility of the review is to entertain the reader,” he said. “The primary responsibility is not to the book or the movie or the play or whatever, which is not to be utterly amoral about it. But nevertheless, it should be a work whole in itself, and give pleasure.” (SMH, 30/11/2005)

His novel I Have Kissed Your Lips was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2005 (see Peter Craven’s review and Perry Middlemiss’s thoughts).  The interview with Ramona Koval is illuminating about this enigmatic man.   I Asked Cathleen to Dance is on my TBR, and I have just ordered a copy of his latest book All Day Long the Noise of Battle which is about a forgotten Australian infantry assault during the Tet Offensive.

So you can tell that I am pleased to have ‘discovered’ Gerard Windsor!

Author: Gerard Windsor
Title: Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit
Publisher: University of Queensland Press (UQP) 1996 (out-of-print and hard-to-find)
ISBN: 0702229105 (hbk, signed and numbered first edition)
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Louella Kerr Old Fine and Rare Books, Glebe, $45.00

[1] ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley


Responses

  1. Its another world out there isn’t it. You have written a very insightful but having read quite a few Irish books on similar themes I don’t feel I want to immerse myself in the dysfunctional world of old-style Catholicism again at the moment!


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