My grandsons stayed overnight during the past couple of days. At bath time – a bath time of sorts, a puddle of water in the base of the bath on which the two paddled mechanized ducks – I noticed how reluctant the older boy was to take off his clothes. This compared to his younger brother of two years, who has no shame or modesty.
I put those words together effortlessly, shame and modesty.
Why be ashamed of your body? What drives my grandson as a six-year-old, and not even into the hormonal stirrings of pre-adolescence, to want to hide his penis from others?
I remember the sensation as a thirteen-year-old; my mortification when my older sister insisted I should not try to change my clothes in private. My desperation when all the cubicles at the swimming pool change rooms were occupied and I was forced to change out of my bathers in public.
Others did not mind. Others were okay with standing there naked to towel themselves dry. Others bent over to pick up clothes, unabashed by their nakedness, but I had decided early on that it was shameful, my body was shameful and needed to be kept hidden.
There are those who might suggest my shame comes out of some sort of desire frustrated, to use a technical term, out of ‘repressed libido’. The excitement of looking at naked bodies, as I did so often in those days when I was a child .
I scanned the pages of my father’s art books under cover, hidden beneath layers of blankets so that no one else, none of my siblings, might see what I was up to.
What was I up to? Looking at naked men and women in old fashioned settings with bits of material draped over strategic bits, the occasional fig leaf, but enough nakedness revealed to send shivers of excitement through me.
I did not understand my excited pleasure but I recognised it as wrong.
By the time I was my older grandson’s age I had begun preparations for my first confession and first communion. The nuns took us to the priest who taught us about the nature of sin. Sins like stealing and telling lies.
Such tame and obvious sins did not trouble me, but the priest gave a name to my excitement under the blankets with my father’s borrowed art books.
He called mine the sin of impure thoughts. And impure thoughts were worse even than stealing ten pounds. They were worse even than even the biggest of lies.
Whether it is true or not, in terms of Catholic doctrine, in my mind it became true: impure thoughts constituted mortal sins, and mortal sins were dangerous indeed.
Die with a mortal sin on your soul and you will be banished to hell forever. Die with a mortal sin and you can never enter the kingdom of heaven.
By the time I was eight years old I agonized over these incessant sins to the point where I imagined God’s pointed finger burning red at the tip in my direction, but I could not bring myself to tell the priest about my impure thoughts in the confessional.
I could not bear to tell the priest things that I feared might not only cause him to despise me, but might also stir him up.
Somehow, I knew about that strange contagion of desire; the way looking and being seen, listening and telling could evoke powerful responses in the others.
What could I do? My sins of impure thought weighed me down as if I were carrying lead, like the silver grey lump that rested on a bench in my father’s workshop; a lump of lead, poisonous my brothers told me, and too heavy for us to carry.
How could I be rid of this sin?
Then I heard about novenas, and relief from sin, of all kinds and degrees of severity, when a person goes to mass on the first Friday of every month for nine months.
How I managed to get to the first Friday of every month Mass as a ten year old, I cannot fathom, but in my memory I managed it. I most likely went along with my sister. She was busy getting up early most mornings by then to avoid our father’s visits in the night.
She and I went to early Mass together. In those days daily seven o’clock Mass was commonplace. She and I walked together to mass to cleanse our souls; she for what was done to her, and me, for what I might do to others.