I want to go back a year to an episode I described in my poetry collection Dante’s House (2013). In November 1975, my sister and I went on an “educational cruise” around the Mediterranean in the S.S. Uganda — its aged holds converted to dormitories for about 900 students. We would be woken each morning by the BBC News, which at that time was dominated by the slow death of General Franco — at dawn we learned from loudspeakers which bits of him had given out during the night.
I had my own acquaintance with Catholic Fascists, among them a certain Christian Brother who had devoted a whole year of religious instruction to the sin of impurity in its various forms, assuring us calmly that hell lay just beyond the act. He taught us about sacrilege too, that is, going to communion when not in a state of grace — a doubly damning business — think again about Scobie in The Heart of the Matter. When asked if one would still go to Hell if hit by a car on the way to Confession, Brother W– hesitated, then made what he thought a great concession, “God is merciful.” A few years later, I encountered him at Tim Horton’s, no longer a Brother and by now humbled. He apologized for everything he had said that year. But he had done more damage than could ever be set right by an apology in a doughnut shop. Those classes drove many of my classmates out of the church forever.
An adolescent has many reasons to feel bewildered and lost — and part of my own unhappiness arose from a sense of being far from God. And so in desolate mood, I boarded the ship in Naples. We were first taken by coach to Rome, where I was deeply moved by the sight of the Baldacchino at St. Peter’s, and to Florence and the Uffizi. The ship sailed to Mykonos where we bought cheap leather and a little illicit ouzo, then to Crete and its memories of the Minotaur. Towards the end of the cruise, our ship put in at the Turkish port of Izmir, and the 900 of us were brought to swarm the ruins of Ephesus. I don’t recall in any detail the famous Temple of Artemis or the House of the Virgin. What I do remember is the supposed grave of the Apostle John. It was covered by a square metal grate. I don’t recall saying any words. I simply wanted to find my way back to God. According to the custom of the place, I made my prayer and dropped a small stone through the grate.
I have always believed that something came of that prayer — that I had been prompted to make it as the first of series of things which would, in a sense, bring me home.
(To be continued.)