A Catholic Education
by Catherine Cusset
translated by Sandra Smith
When I was young, I went to catechism classes. I went once a week until my First Communion, at the age of twelve and a half. I remember almost nothing about it. I couldn’t even say who taught us the catechism: was it a woman or a priest? Was it at the rectory near our house or in a classroom on the ground floor of a building in our neighborhood, with bulletin boards decorated with children’s drawings illustrating the life of Jesus? I vaguely remember the entrance to the rectory. I can see the steps, a wooden door, a young chaplain with a broad face, chestnut brown hair and a friendly smile. I got embarrassed when I ran into him. I would quickly whisper “Hello, Father”, lowering my eyes, my cheeks red and feeling uncomfortable, as if I’d said the wrong thing. “Father.” The word, when linked to the long black robe he wore, had something intimate and obscene about it, like a male sex organ seen through a fly accidentally left half-open.
The rectory wasn’t far from us, five minutes at most. When I got to the end of my street, I could either turn right towards the avenue to go the bakery, the grocer’s or school, or I could cross the street and walk straight ahead, down the street that ran parallel to the avenue, to get to the rectory or to my friend Nathalie’s; she lived a hundred yards further up the road. I’d walk by the rectory when I went to her house. These places, along with the Bois de Boulogne, the church, my school and my friend Laurence’s house, near ours, were where I lived out my childhood in Paris.
I went to church every weekend, with my father and big sister; it was a modern church on a square near the main road that ran around the city. Saturday evening at six o’clock, or Sunday morning. I went willingly: it seemed normal to me, even if my mother didn’t go; I knew she was a non-believer. I definitely preferred the Saturday evening Mass to the one on Sunday morning. On Saturdays, the priest with the friendly smile played the guitar. We sang. I loved that. As I’m writing this, the music is echoing in my mind, and I can still hear the large congregation singing enthusiastically. I’m not a musician, but I remember the tune and can hum it. I’ve forgotten the words, except for the beginning, but the music was inspiring and lively. I had a wonderful time. It was about the Lord’s Second Coming. Voices suddenly rose on the word “walk” before lowering again, solemnly. “He will return and walk with us along the path, la-lalala-lalaa-la! Laalalala lalaa lalalala laalalalalaaalaaa laaa…”
In the evening, Papa would read us a chapter from an illustrated Bible for children. I can still see baby Moses in his wicker basket floating down the river between the reeds, rescued by the Egyptian princesses. My other favorite stories are Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, miraculously replaced by a lamb at the last minute, Joseph sold by his brothers, Moses crossing the Red Sea whose giant waves part magnificently so his people could escape, only to close again and drown the soldiers chasing them. After reading a page of the Bible, Papa, my sister and I would kneel down next to our bunk bed, hold hands and recite “Our Father”:
Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be they name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those we trespass against us,
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
Then we would remain kneeling for a few more minutes and silently say our own personal prayer. I did this passionately. The evening prayer: the only nice moment with my father every day. A few days before Christmas, he sets up the Nativity Scene on the sideboard in the living room. He buys some wrapping paper decorated with little stars that he crumples up so it looks like a starry canopy, then places the figures under it. For the rest of the year, they’re put away in a shoebox. On the morning of December 25, we find the baby Jesus in his cradle filled with ceramic straw. Mama, who doesn’t notice things, is unaware we even have a Nativity Scene, and doesn’t care.
Throughout my entire childhood, there are two things I did with Papa: get some fresh air and go to Mass. For Mama, these are the only two times in the week when she can get rid of us. I hate going for walks. I hate the obligatory visit to the Bois de Boulogne on Saturday mornings. Once I get there, I enjoyed collecting the autumn leaves and chestnuts and crossing the grotto with the waterfall; that always sends a chill down my spine. But every Saturday is the same: I try to convince my parents that I don’t need to go out, that I have lots of homework to do and books to read, that I wouldn’t be bored for a minute if they left me alone in the house. On the other hand, I didn’t hate Mass, especially the one on Saturday evenings with the singing priest. Forty years later, the desire to get some fresh air is engrained in my body as a vital necessity. But not going to Mass. I have difficulty staying in my seat through an entire Mass. I can’t listen to the priest. I get bored.
I used to be very religious. I believed in God much longer than I believed in Santa Claus. The message of the catechism touched me deeply. The necessity to be humble and generous, the idea that the poor will be rewarded in the kingdom of Heaven, that the last shall be the first, the unfortunate shall be the blessed. Mary Madeleine defended by Jesus: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Christ telling Peter, who promises he will not betray him: “Tonight, before the cock crows twice, you will have renounced me three times.” The idea that you might not be disgusted by filth, vermin, poverty, illness, even one as contagious and abominable as leprosy, but even welcome such things and accept them in society, that you might overcome violence and evil by opening your arms to them, choose poverty, renounce comfort and worldly goods, shun carnal pleasure and make sacrifices. Saint Francis. Saint Claire. The idea that you might become a martyr, be drawn and quartered, decapitated, thrown to the lions or into the flames and still proclaim your faith. Jesus took nine hours to die on the cross, Jesus who was dying of thirst and given a sponge dipped in vinegar by a soldier. The Host, to me, is not a round wafer you let melt on your tongue, but the true body of Christ that, ever since my First Communion, I absorb with solemnity as I feel holiness penetrate my body. On the evenings when my parents have terrible arguments, when I see my mother in tears, or hear someone say the word “divorce”, I dream of being the one who can bring them peace and joy, their Holy Dove, their little ray of sunshine. God’s message is to be self-effacing, I know that. It isn’t the right time to remind them of my existence, except through my smiles. I must be as kind as possible, tidy up the kitchen, help Mama.
I have only one desire: to be good. Through catechism classes, we’re sent to visit elderly ladies who no longer have anyone left. We have to chat with them so they feel a little less lonely. “My” elderly lady lives in an apartment full of knick-knacks, doilies, photos, all sorts of things, much more cluttered than my grandmother’s place. I don’t really know what to say to her but I force myself to be sweet, kind, tell her little things about my life, to forget my boredom and my wish that she’d at least bought some candy, to bring her a little joy.
In our family album, the picture of me I like the most is the one taken in front of the modern church on the square near the outskirts, the day of my First Communion. I’m smiling, dressed in my white robe, rented for the occasion. I’m holding a tall white candle. My blond hair, smoothed out with the blow dryer, flows over my shoulders. It’s one of the first photos when I have long hair. Until I was ten, Mama always had it cut short because it was more practical. I’m standing next to a boy my own age, the son of friends of my parents. But I only see myself. I think I look very, very pretty. Olga is right: I really look like an angel.
Olga is the Russian, divorced, Jewish, redheaded mother of my friend Nathalie. She terrifies me. She never stops screaming and scolding her daughter, not because Nathalie doesn’t do her homework or get good grades, but because she doesn’t practice the piano every night. To Olga, nothing is more important – which to me, seems like a strange sense of priorities. When our parents discover we’ve been stealing things – another little girl tells on us – Nathalie and I are forbidden to go to each other’s house. Forbidden to be friends. Forced to go home right after school. Sometimes I walk Nathalie to her house and run away really fast before her mother has a chance to see me through the window – they live on the ground floor. I haven’t seen her for months, the mother of my friend in whose house I used to spend the late afternoons. Just before my First Communion, on my way to church for a general rehearsal, I happen to run into Olga and immediately tell her that the event is about to happen. She speaks to me with such friendliness that I’m stunned: “Come and see us when you finish at church on Saturday, so I can see you in your white robe.” I do just that. I ring the bell, anxiously. What if the dragon has forgotten she invited me? What if she’s shouting at her daughter again and asks me how I dare come to her house against all the rules? But she gives me a big hug, for the first time, kisses me, as sweet as a lamb, a smile on her face:
“How pretty you are! You look like an angel!”
I’m no longer the depraved demon who, for months, encouraged her daughter – who was already unbalanced because of the divorce – to steal from supermarkets. You can judge a book by its cover.
Before Easter and First Communion, everyone has to go to confession. I wait my turn in the church with the girls from catechism class. I’m ten and a half. I am in agony. Cold sweats. How can I take Communion if I don’t confess my crime? It isn’t a matter of a simple sin, like pride or gluttony. I’ve been stealing for months, with Nathalie. Almost every day when we get out of school, we cross the avenue and go into the Euromarché. We hide everything in the pockets of our blouses or under our coats: erasers, pencils, all sorts of gadgets.
Sometimes, we also steal art postcards from a bookstore a little further away, so we can write our own books on our favorite painters. And every now and again, I steal ten francs from my father, without him realizing it, from his wallet that he leaves on a wooden table next to the bathroom every night. I’m a thief. I know it’s a crime. I understand the difference between good and evil. The day I saw my friend Laurence’s mother slip a package of embroidered hankies into her bag at Prisunic and leave the store without paying, happily whistling, with no one noticing, I remembered that before Laurence, she’d had two sons who died at birth, and I thought that her sadness must have left her with a kind of madness that led her to steal from stores as if she were my age. I couldn’t even imagine the possibility of revealing her crime to anyone, and especially not to my parents.
While waiting for my turn, I sit apart from the others and bite my nails, wondering how I’m going to find the courage to confess. I have to. Otherwise it’s not a real confession, and I wouldn’t be worthy of taking Communion and tasting the Body of Christ. It would be a sham, a sacrilege. He would know, He who sees all. But how could I tell the truth to the priest? How could I look him in the eye, call him “Father” afterwards? He’d despise me. Ban me from the church. Around me, the girls are chatting and not at all worried, joyful. When it’s my turn, I hope I’ll faint. I walk towards the priest more terrified than Abraham leading his son to the altar. It would take the kind of courage that matched my faith in God to speak those self-damning words.
I don’t manage it entirely. It’s impossible. I resign myself to a compromise. Just one admission: stealing something very small. After all, it’s not the size of the sin that matters. It’s confessing that counts, admitting the act. What difference did it make if I stole an egg or a cow? Eyes lowered, cheeks scarlet, I confess:
“Father, I stole a pencil from the supermarket.”
One pencil, when it was really enough to fill several pencil cases. The heavens don’t fall. The priest doesn’t look at me in horror, call for God to strike me down with lightning, tell the police. In his gentle voice, he asks me to say ten Our Fathers, and absolves me. I come out of the confessional, infinitely relieved and proud. Now I can honestly take Communion. Even if stealing breaks one of the ten commandments, my confession brings me closer to God because it required courage as great as Saint George’s when fighting the dragon, or Saint Anthony his demons.
Nathalie, my first close friend, the one I chose when I was ten, is not Catholic. She’s a non-practicing Jew. When she’s eleven, she speaks of her father with disdain because he changed his last name to sound less Jewish and more French. She retains the original name of her traitorous father. She is proud of her origins.
I have another friend, whom I didn’t choose: Laurence. She lives in a house with her parents and grandparents on the same street, two doors down. When we’re three years old, we’re in the same pre-school class. My mother meets hers: since we’re neighbors, the mothers come to an arrangement. Mine works full time whereas Laurence’s mother doesn’t work, and there’s also her grandmother who can take care of her. From then on, I go to Laurence’s house after school. Every day. No one asks if I want to. It is at Laurence’s house, in her grandmother’s kitchen, that I will learn to read, at the age of five.
Laurence also goes to catechism classes, but her parents aren’t believers. They openly say she will stop going to the classes, and to church, after her First Communion. I don’t understand how they can talk that way, as if it were a matter of learning a language or getting a degree. Laurence explains that her parents wish her to have a religious education, that’s all. Take advantage of religion to give a child a free education? This shocks me deeply. It doesn’t occur to me that my atheist mother is doing the same thing. She doesn’t believe in God but is not against her children getting a Catholic education: even better if they can be kept busy for an hour a week for free, and improve their morals as well.
As an indignant eleven year old, I consider Laurence’s Communion no more than a pagan farce. She has an enormous party and each guest brings her a gift. Colorful packages cover several tables in the living room, everything you could possibly buy and promises of a thousand wonders. Laurence is delighted. Take Communion to get presents? This means that nothing has been understood of God’s message. I feel she is not worthy to wear her white robe, which, to her and her parents, is nothing more than a costume, a simple party costume.
I believe in God. After my First Communion I continue going to catechism classes even though it is no longer required and I’m very busy now that I’m in middle school. I decide to do my Profession of Faith: not the year after my First Communion, like my classmates at the rectory. I’ll wait another year to be sure I’ve acquired the necessary maturity. This is not an unimportant matter. I can sense that this significant event will be the beginning of my transformation into a better person. To prepare for the ceremony, we go to a retreat in the county, an enormous estate where we each have our own room. There are grounds where we have to go for walks, alone, to look inside ourselves, speak with God, and reflect on the message we will publicly express the day of our Communion. During the evening gathering, I hear someone say that one of the girls had a vision while walking alone: she saw the Virgin Mary. The others are impressed. I remain skeptical. My religion has nothing to do with fantasy, magic or the surreal, but an innate sense of duty. I think the girl who had the vision is feeble-minded. My time at the retreat has been spent preparing myself exactly as God requires. I have looked deep within myself and understood what I must do, which, for me, was the thing I found the most difficult: to stop hating my sister. This seems almost impossible, for my detestable sister forces me to hate her. Not hating her goes against all my strongest instincts.