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The New York Times Book Review
"[A] hilarious and devastating little book."
"[A] hilarious and devastating little book."
--The New York Times Book Review
"Eagleton cracks jokes as easily as one would crack peanut shells."
--Washington Post Book World
"Witty and entertaining...heady, brimming with blistering screeds against the sacred and the profane."
"This superb memoir, which is riotously funny, philosophically illuminating, and raucously satirical, is so filled with good writing that you want to turn immediately to a friend and read whole swatches out loud....Eagleton's style dazzles, illuminates, and connects."
"Ireland has always provided England with some of its greatest wits. Past ages have seen Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde illuminating English letters; for the last several decades, Oxford, at least, has had Terry Eagleton...A very funny book, with wet-your-pants-laughing passages."
--Booklist (starred and boxed review)
"In this entertaining memoir of his childhood and intellectual development, Eagleton lives up to both sides of his reputation, coming off as both an astute social critic and a sharp-tongued cad."
The convent was a squat, ramshackle building, its roof more corrugated iron than Gothic pinnacle. It was set among high walls spiked with shards of glass, forbidding enough to repel voyeurs, religious obsessives, nun-stalkers, sex offenders, militant Protestants, enraged atheists. But the walls were also there to keep the occupants in. For this was a convent of enclosed Carmelite nuns, who once the gate had slammed behind them would see nobody but their fellow nuns and a few priests and altar boys for the rest of their lives.
I was the gatekeeper. As a ten-year-old altar server in the convent chapel, I had to be on hand when a novice, perhaps nineteen or twenty-one years old, took the veil and disappeared into the place for good. She would first be dressed as a bride to symbolize her marriage to Christ, her hair cropped almost to a crew-cut beneath the white lacy veil. In some cases, no doubt, the honeymoon would prove something of a disappointment. Then she would be ushered away by her fellow nuns to return decked in the black veil and rough brown habit of the Carmelite order. I heard later of a young woman who had turned down the Carmelites and opted instead for a religious order which allowed you to wear Marks & Spencer knickers. Though I myself had no personal acquaintance with the knickers of Carmelite nuns, I feelsure that they were forbidding, skin-chafing affairs, slid into place with steel bolts, as the order never missed even the mildest chance for mortification.
The bishop, an old codger from Kildare with the walk of a navvy and the face of a wino, would arrive to officiate at the ceremony. One of us altar boys would be appointed to carry his mitre, the high plush hat he wore on such occasions, while another boy would bear his crosier of symbolic golden staff. We would hold these props through white silken bands draped around our shoulders, the grubby fingers of boyhood being judged too profane. The bishop would require this stuff at various particularly sacred moments in the proceedings, and since these moments were hard to predict we would be on watch for our cue from the master of ceremonies, who had to be deft enough to help the bishop on with his hat without knocking off his skullcap.
We had to look sharp, since at one such clothing a minuscule altar boy, bewildered by the MC's impatient gestures to his temples, threw the last vestiges of secular rationality to the winds and ended up solemnly placing the richly embroidered mitre on his own head, in a surreal parody of the proceedings. The boy with the crosier had the ticklish task of handing the bishop this ornate, outsize version of a shepherd's crook while simultaneously going down on one knee and kissing the Episcopal ring. Later in life, describing this piece of acrobatics to some agnostic friends, I realized from their ribald laughter that the phrase `going down to kiss the bishop's ring' had a rather more salacious meaning than had occurred to me at the age of ten.
Once the Te Deum had been sung and the ceremony was ended, the newly clothed sister would be on hand in the convent parlour to say a last goodbye to her family. The parlour, a kind of no man's land of air-lock between the nuns' enclosure and the outside world, was a completely bare room bisected from floor to ceiling by a black iron grille. There were closed doors behind the grille on the nuns' side, and symbolic spikes jutted ominously from it at the visitor. The nuns' side of the parlour connected with the intricate bowels of the convent, while the other side opened through a double door on to the outside world. Both these external doors had to be closed before the door behind the grille could be opened, one of the many arcane roles of the house.
It was my job on these occasions to conduct the young woman's parents into the parlour to see their daughter for the last time. They would kneel shyly on the profane side of the grille, partly out of piety and partly because there was nowhere to sit, while their newly-wed daughter knelt smiling on the holy side, her veil thrown back, chaperoned by a kneeling reverend mother whose veil would be lowered. Catholicism seemed to be mainly a matter of kneeling. There was a touch of the zoo about the scene, as though the young creature behind the bars was some exotic, well-nigh extinct species, the reverend mother was her proud keeper and her parents a couple of venerating animal enthusiasts. Then, after a few shambling, perfunctory words had passed between parents and child, the reverend mother would nod discreetly to me, like an officer giving the go-ahead to an execution squad, and I would hold the door of the parlour open for the mother and father to leave, shutting their daughter from their sight for ever as they groped their way sniffling from the room like a couple of blind beggars. Somebody had to do the shit jobs.
For all its drab outer appearance, the convent was Gothic enough in its own way. It was really two separate spaces hinged cunningly together: the sealed interior of the nuns' quarters, and then, outside the enclosure, a few public rooms, a small chapel open to local people, and the lay sisters' dingy apartments. These two spaces met in a kind of faultline of turntables, concealed doors, secret compartments, small cupboards accessible from both sides, so that the whole building was a sort of trompe l'œil, like a crazy house at a fairground or an Escher drawing. It was as though the familiar world could open at any moment on to an alternative universe, only inches away from it yet incomparably remote. It seemed a reasonable image of the religious life.
It was also an image of my fissured life as a child. One moment I would be playing tag outside the corner shop, and the next moment I would slip through a black hole into a realm unimaginably remote, where my Protestant friends could not follow and where secular reason slithered to an abrupt halt. The convent was both drab and outlandish, mundane and full of mystery, as the odour of incense mixed with the smell of cabbage water and young women with flat Mancunian accents, whose real names were perhaps Mary O'Connor and Agnes Byrne but who were now Sister Teresa Maria of the Holy Cross or Sister Francis Josepha of the Little Flower, slept on wooden planks, rose before dawn to pray and were constantly hungry.
That the place was set on the fringes of Manchester made it seem even more bizarre, as though one were to stumble on a genuine moated castle in the middle of Memphis. There were drawers which slid noiselessly inwards when pulled from behind a wall, turntables which spun spookily without apparent human agency, and the eyes of immured virgins observing you through one-way screens. The drawers and turntables were to be found mostly in the sacristy, another place of passage between inner and outer worlds. Here the priest and altar servers donned their robes for Mass, while the sister sacristan, spectrally concealed on her side of the wall, placed vessels for the Mass in a drawer which would slide suddenly open like something in an inept horror movie. One or two of the more roguish priests would amuse the altar boys by feigning terror when the drawer shot out, pulling imaginary pistols or staging grotesque coronaries.
There was also a turntable in the wall for larger items to be passed in and out of the enclosure, and from time to time this would include the convent watchdog, Timothy. Watchdogs are as necessary to convents as wimples. Sometimes I had to lug Timothy on to the turntable so that he could be taken into the enclosure, as though required for some secret bestial rite. I would hear the sister sacristan murmur `Deo gratias, Terry' through the wall, which was really a holy way of saying `Hi', to which I would reply, `Deo gratias, sister, Timothy is coming in now.' Then I would heave the dog on to the splintered wooden turntable and crank him round from my side while she tugged away from hers. He would disappear from sight, lugubrious and rheumy-eyed, the only male creature ever to penetrate the enclosure. Perhaps they blindfolded him when he reached the other side. Once or twice I had to repress a mad urge to leap on to the turntable myself, hands lolling and tongue drooping, growling and slavering as I was hauled in.
One whole wall of the chapel sanctuary was another grille with more symbolic spikes, and from behind this the sisters heard Mass through a one-way screen of faded black cloth. This meant that they could see the altar servers as we pottered around the altar; in fact we were the only males, however mildly so, they ever saw. They did not regard the priest as a man. We, however, could not see them. Or at least I saw only their mouths, when they received communion. I would stand beside the priest at a small hatch in the grille, and as one mouth after another presented itself fleetingly in this dark space I would hold the heavy silver communion plate beneath it like a solid napkin, ready to catch any sacred host that fell. After a time I became as familiar with these thirty of so mouths, some puckered and sparse-toothed, others moist and well-furnished, as I was with the letters of the alphabet.
None of the mouths seemed adorned by a beard, which struck me as strange. For I was convinced that there was a ginger-bearded nun in the place, having caught an appalling glimpse of her on one of the rare occasions when I was allowed into the courtyard leading to the enclosure. An elderly nun was sick, and I accompanied the priest as he took the blessed sacrament to her, swinging a thurible or carrying a lighted candle, I can't remember which. There were two large garage-like doors which led into the depths of the convent, and as the priest and I approached them they glided mysteriously open from the inside, as gates sometimes did in the movies. As we passed inside them, I could not resist the Lot's-wife-like temptation to turn and look at whoever was behind one of the doors. I saw, or thought I saw, a plump, middle-aged nun with the standard-issue peaches-and-cream complexion, but with coarse, hog-like ginger bristles sprouting from her chin. Maybe this moment of hermaphroditic horror is a false memory, or maybe not: if a nun did have facial hair, it would have been a sinful act of vanity for her to pluck it out.
The only time I actually spoke to a nun was when Sister Angela taught me the Latin I needed to serve Mass. I would meet her for an hour a week in the parlour, she kneeling on her side of the grille and I kneeling on mine, and her veil would be lifted since I was only eight or nine years old. Had pubescence suddenly seized me like a fit of the shakes, cracking my treble and pimpling my cheeks, the veil would have clamped down like a safety curtain. Once I had hair on my own chin, I was no longer allowed to see the hair on theirs. Mother Angela had the regulation-issue flat Mancunian accent and peaches-and-cream complexion, like a cross between Coronation Street and The Sound of Music. She was shrewd, forthright, and I suspect, in some other life altogether, a good laugh. Years later, when I had some reputation as a leftist theologian, I came back to see her, and despite my undeniable post-pubescence she lifted her veil. But this was because the Catholic Church was now awash with a tide of reform which was lapping up even against this outpost of ascetic traditionalism. She greeted me with her usual dry friendliness, but expressed the hope that I was not `too radical', though I am sure she knew that I was. The pale-faced urchin whose pronunciation of `laetificat' she had gently corrected was buried for ever beneath a truculent intellectual with a Julius Caesar haircut. At this turbulent time, all the religious orders were struggling to recruit and losing members hand over fist, as monks and nuns hopped one after another over the glass-spiked walls to find spouses, jobs in social work and Marks & Spencer knickers. It was like an ecclesiastical version of Escape from Colditz.
There were two lay sisters in the convent, one dumpy, deaf and sardonic and the other asthmatic, obsequious and permanently flustered, who did the shopping, ran the errands and acted generally as a link between inside and outside worlds. Otherwise, the nuns were linked to the outside world only by the sun and rain. The enclosed sisters would have had no idea who the prime minister was or what a television set looked like, since they read no newspapers except a papist rag modestly entitled The Universe. (It is said of the Catholic author Hilaire Belloc that he once obtained admission as a press correspondent to a high-level conference by loftily informing the doorman that he represented the Universe.) If a clutch of atomic bombs had laid waste Europe, the nuns would have known nothing of it until the fall-out began to drift their way. Indeed, some of them would never have heard of atomic bombs or Elvis Presley or washing-up liquid, used a telephone or been aware that India was no longer part of the British empire. What limited truck with the secular world they needed to survive was delegated to the lay sisters. My mother, who was a kind of convent groupie, was assured by one of these sisters that when she arrived in heaven, the two sons whom she had lost as infants would come to her as grown men. Even my pious mother saw fit to wonder how she had come by this remarkable piece of information.
My father sometimes did odd jobs around the convent, and once dashed into the sanctuary during Mass when a candle keeled over and set an altar cloth alight. For a few dramatic moments he was in full view of the sisters behind their screen, no doubt the first male animal apart from Timothy and we altar boys that some of them had clapped eyes on for thirty years. As I have mentioned, they did not regard priests as men. Some of the senior altar servers did not quite regard themselves as men either, at least in the stereotypical sense of the word. There was a lantern-jawed Irishman with a mild touch of religious mania who always seemed reluctant to take off his vestments when Mass was over, and spent a little time admiring himself in the window before doffing his cassock with a sigh. There were, of course, no mirrors in the convent. The nuns were Dracula-like in their distaste for them.
One elderly nun was said to be afflicted with the stigmata, though `afflicted' is perhaps too impious a word. Like most stigmatists, her anatomical knowledge seemed less than accurate, since she was said to bear the marks of Christ's wounds in her palms, whereas crucifixion must surely have been through the wrists. I have no doubt that a convent full of permanently immured celibates can breed the odd miracle, given the long-range psychical havoc that a single disturbed adolescent can wreak. The greatest miracle to its credit, however, was the reclaiming of Toro McCormack.
McCormack was an Irish navvy who lived close to the convent, and a notorious lapsed Catholic. Even in those pious days, being a lapsed Catholic was almost acceptable; it was rather like being a country rather than a city member of a club, still on the books but less in evidence around the joint. `Lapsed Catholic' was a convenient label for ensuring that you never actually left the Church; it simply shifted you from one ontological category to another, rather like resigning your peerage but staying on in politics. In any case, it put you in some remarkably distinguished company. Better to burn with Graham Greene than share paradise with Bing Crosby.
McCormack had not been to Mass for years, and was a boozer to boot. One Christmas Eve, however, as midnight approached, he and his wife heard the convent bells tolling as they lay in bed. They were actually ringing for midnight Mass, a practice which had recently been reintroduced. But McCormack's wife concluded that the convent was on fire, and got her husband to dress and run down to help. He stumped down on his stiff leg to find the congregation filing dutifully into the chapel, and was greeted like the prodigal son by the enraptured lay sisters. Unable to back out, he stayed for Mass, and from then on ritually returned every Christmas. He did not, however, go to Mass on Sundays, no doubt judging this to be a little immoderate, as well as detrimental to his mildly louche status as a lapsed Catholic. His wife had had her own miracle some years before, when her son's ship had gone down in the Atlantic during the war, and she heard him calling to her. It seems a lot more credible than the Immaculate Conception.
Excerpted from The Gatekeeper by TERRY EAGLETON. Copyright © 2001 by Terry Eagleton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.