From the moment of his birth in 1937, author Peter Walther was absorbed into the culture of the Catholic Church. Later, as an elevenyear-old boy, he believed he was called by God to be a missionary priest. Seventeen years later, he found himself-an ordained Catholic priest-journeying to a mission station in Sabah, North Borneo. A Calling in Question tells Walther's story of his struggle to free himself from the tangled web of a Catholic upbringing.
This memoir presents a collage of several stories, weaving in and out like patterns in a fabric. It is the story of a small boy, growing up in the midst of a world war. It is the story of a family caught in the disintegration of the British class system. It is the story of a Catholic Church, toying with the challenge of change and failing to accept that challenge. It is the story of his experiences deep in the Borneo rain forest, where he initiates a project to teach desperately needed vocational skills. It is a story of his burgeoning relationship with a local health worker that forces Walther to finally confront his ambivalence about being a priest.
Most of all, however, A Calling in Question narrates the story of a young man struggling to be authentic while breaking from the embrace of a Catholic culture that had become a substitute for family.
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A Calling in QuestionA Memoir
By Peter Walther
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Peter Walther
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI was born in London, England, in 1937.
With my very first breath, I sucked in the culture of the Catholic Church. My mother had entered a convent as a teenager, but the nuns turfed her out when they discovered holy obedience was not her strong point. Her first boyfriend became a Dominican priest when she rejected his offer of marriage. I was baptized in the hospital by Father Bruno Scott-James, a charismatic cleric whom my mother much admired. My second name, Bruno, was a tribute to him.
My mother, Betty Rita Connell-McDowell, was Irish Catholic. She had been raised from the age of six by the Sisters of Christian Instruction, an order of Catholic nuns who ran a boarding school for girls in Sherborne, Dorset. She hardly knew her parents. Her father had fought with the British army in South Africa during the Boer War and spent the rest of his life working for the British government in India. He rose to become an Inspector General of Police and was awarded the title Companion of the British Empire. He died in 1944, of cirrhosis of the liver, while traveling in his own private train. My mother was unaccountably proud of her absent father.
My own father, Malcolm Walther, met my mother in 1934, when he was a young law student in London. He was playing trumpet in a dance band at the time, to help pay for his tuition. It was the beginning of the swing era when young people flocked to the Astoria Ballroom in Charing Cross Road. He was immediately attracted to the bright-eyed Irish girl who became a fan. "He was so handsome," my mother told me, "but he wasn't a Catholic." She wouldn't agree to marry him unless he converted. When he did so, his father, a bigoted Protestant, was furious. He was immediately disinherited and the rest of his family ordered to ostracize him.
My father, of course, later resented being pressured to become a Catholic. It had cost him a substantial inheritance. His father, Dr. David Walther, was a wealthy veterinarian who owned a large estate in Norfolk. He had added to his wealth by marrying the sister of Lord Blackford, a lady by the name of Miriam Holt-Mason. She was the only member of my father's family to attend my parents' wedding. When she too became a Catholic, her husband promptly threw her out of his house and divorced her. I grew up convinced that self-sacrifice was intrinsic to Catholicism.
At first, things seemed to go well for the newlyweds. In 1934, my father was offered a partnership in a London law firm. My elder brother, Michael, was born a year later and my sister, Elizabeth, in 1938. We occupied a large rented house in a suburb of South London called Redhill.
My earliest memories are of that house. It was the summer of 1940. World War II had just broken out across the Channel, but the fields and towns of England still basked in peaceful sunshine. I was barely three years old. We children had the run of the big, three-story stone building. Sunlight streamed through tall windows as we chased each other from room to room.
The garden seemed huge. It was a magical place. The old man who was our gardener loved us. He shared slices of cheese from his lunch as he sat in the shade of the potting shed. On long summer days we played hide-and-seek among the bushes until the cool evening mist came creeping across the lawn. Then, out of breath, we leaned our backs against the stone walls of the house, still warm from the afternoon sun.
In the evenings after supper, while waiting for bath time, we played in the sand-box by the kitchen door. We built roads and tunnels and bridges until we were called indoors. Then, the three of us sat happily in the tub together, shrieking with delight when my mother's face and hair were soaked with our splashing. I always wanted to be the last one out of the bath. I loved standing up to be toweled dry, watching the water drain away from between my toes, leaving little trails of dark, wet sand in the bottom of the tub.
But the peacefulness of that summer did not last. In September, my father disappeared.
"Your daddy has volunteered to fight Hitler," my mother told us. "He has gone to India to train with a regiment of Gurkhas."
I did not know about Gurkhas or India. But I did know what war meant. Hitler had begun his blitz to bomb England into submission. The house that had been so bright and cheerful was now dark and gloomy. Heavy blackout curtains hung over the windows. Every night, German planes droned above our heads. Every night, the crash of bombs shook the walls and rattled the windows.
Startled awake by the long wailing sound of air-raid sirens, Michael and I would poke our heads under the blackout drapes covering the nursery windows. We watched, fascinated, as pencil-thin searchlight beams groped around the dark sky looking for enemy planes.
One morning Michael ran back from school early.
"It's all gone!" he shouted gleefully. "The Germans bombed the school! It's all gone!"
Now the house was no longer our own. The garden and ground floor were crowded with strangers. Soldiers, snatched from the beaches of Dunkirk, were temporarily billeted with us. Later, the Home Guard requisitioned the top floor to use as an observation post, as our house was perched high on a hill. My mother was away all day working in a munitions factory. She was up before we awoke and did not get home until long after our bedtime. It seemed to us that we scarcely ever saw her. My grandmother, Miriam, came to take care of us for a while.
We must have been quite a handful. I clearly remember the weekend when, with my baby sister, I invaded my mother's bedroom. She was out shopping. We pulled open the draws of her bureau and threw all her clothes out the window. Peering impishly over the sill, we watched as she walked up the hill to the house, her underwear festooned over the shrubs below. We did not understand why she dissolved into tears.
My mother's world was falling apart. The romance of an idyllic marriage, full of promise, was shattered by the war. With her new husband gone and her home overrun with strangers, her only refuge was the factory. There, surrounded by all the other women workers, she could almost feel young and single again. That winter she gave up the house. She sent Michael to a boarding school for boys run by Dominican nuns in Sussex. She took Elizabeth and me to be cared for by the nuns at her old boarding school in Dorset. Then, she drove back to London, convinced that she had done the best thing for us.
I was terrified of the nuns. Their long black robes and white, wimpled faces made them look really scary. Apparently, my enraged screams at being abandoned carried on so long that I fell ill. In desperation, the nuns summoned a doctor.
"There's nothing wrong with the boy," the doctor told them. "Call his mother. Tell her to come and take him back."
Fortunately, my father had only just then landed in Scotland with a regiment of Gurkhas. He was stationed at an army training camp in Cultybraggan. My mother went back down to the convent to pick up Elizabeth and me. She took us by train to the little village of Comrie which was close to the camp. There, she rented a house where my father was able to stay over occasionally. My only memory of this time is running beside him as he strode through the highland heather to shoot rabbits; then afterwards, being surrounded by cheerful Gurkhas at the camp and treated to sweet semolina pudding.
The following year, I turned five and was banished to the boarding school to which my brother Michael had already been sent.
Chapter Two"You boys, be good now," my mother said as she handed us over to two black-draped Sisters of St. Dominic.
Paddington station was crowded with disheveled, anxious mothers giving their little boys a final hug. Khaki-clad soldiers, lugging huge canvas kit-bags, pushed past us. Porters, wheeling carts piled high with luggage, yelled out, "Watch yer back."
"I'll see you at Christmas time," my mother shouted frantically, while Michael dragged me onto the train.
In the compartment, Michael pushed my forlorn little suitcase up onto the webbed luggage rack. I sat down next to the window and looked out at my mother standing amid the chaos on the platform. She was pressing her open hand against the glass, her fingers spread wide, and her mouth forming words I couldn't hear. The train slowly started to pull away. She ran alongside at first. Then it picked up speed. She stopped, turning away quickly to hide her face. I watched until her head disappeared in the crowd. I was miserable. But I refused to cry. Not in front of all those other boys.
St. Dominic's Preparatory School was run by Dominican nuns. It was originally located on the south coast of England, close to the site of the battle of Hastings where the British had been defeated by invading Normans in AD 1066. With the Germans threatening their own invasion, the nuns decided to retreat inland to another of their boarding schools. It was near the town of Stroud, in Gloucestershire, and had been, until then, an all-girls school.
Sister Benedict was the nun appointed to be in charge of us boys. She was tall and thin, with a bleached-white face. To me, it seemed that she seldom smiled. Her eyes, a steely grey-blue, glinted behind gold wire-framed spectacles. She carried a bamboo cane to deal with any evil we might get up to. At one time or another, every one of us felt the sting of that cane across our hands.
The girls had their own boarding house, but we boys were put up in the nuns' convent, a long, lovely, two-storey Georgian manor house. We only saw the girls on rare occasions when they came out to play field hockey. Their playing field was separated from ours by an iron rail fence. Whenever we saw them, we would hoist ourselves up to the top rail and watch as they chased around in their short, blue, hockey skirts. Then, Sister Benedict would come running, her long robes flying. "Get down from there," she would shriek, and we climbed down sheepishly, not knowing why we five-year-old boys were not allowed to watch the girls play.
Fortunately the other nuns did their best to keep us happy with games and play. We ducked for apples on Guy Fawkes Day and searched for conkers with which to fight in the fall. Conkers, the nuts of a horse chestnut tree, were threaded on a short string and used in a game where the objective was to smash an opponent's conker with your own.
I don't remember my brother Michael being at the school. He was all of seven years old. He must have played with the older boys and slept in a different dormitory. I was not aware that he was even there.
One pretty young nun, Sister Mary Vincent, would read adventure stories to us while we sat on the floor at her feet. She had bright, laughing eyes and a mesmerizing reading voice. I liked her. I would sit as close to her as I could. I played with the big, wooden beads of the long rosary that hung from her leather belt. Sometimes she would read us letters from her brother who was a missionary in Borneo. He belonged to an order of priests called the Mill Hill Missionaries. The name came from the location of their seminary in Mill Hill, a suburb of North London. His letters were full of stories about headhunters and orangutans and adventures in the jungle.
Then one day Sister Mary Vincent told us there would be no more letters. She looked as if she had been crying.
"You must all help me pray for my brother. Borneo has been invaded by the Japanese. All the missionaries have been put in a prison camp."
I was upset for her. I didn't know what she meant by the Japanese invasion. But it was obvious that something bad had happened to her brother. I missed his stories.
The war was never very far away from our lives. Most of us were at the boarding school because our fathers were fighting in the army and our mothers were working in factories or in the land army. I made friends with a red-haired boy called Rory whose father was with General Montgomery in North Africa. He was a cheerful little lad who always had a mischievous gleam in his eye, always ready for a dare.
One day the Mother Superior of the nuns came to our classroom door. "Rory, come here," she said. She was a large woman whom we only saw occasionally as she swept along a hallway or down the stairs. She looked strange because she always kept her hands hidden under her long black robe.
Rory got up and walked over to her, hesitating, apprehensive. She withdrew one hand and placed it on Rory's shoulder as she led him out of the room.
He's in trouble, I thought.
When Rory came back into the classroom he was looking pale.
"What's up? What did she want?" I whispered as he sat down.
Rory just looked straight ahead and said nothing.
"Go on. Tell us! Tell us!" whispered some of the other boys, grinning.
But Rory just sat there, a glazed look on his face.
After class, Rory and I managed to escape from the other boys. We made for a huge beech tree in the playground where we often spent time together. We would sit with our backs pressed against the firm, smooth, grey trunk, enjoying the feel of its solid strength. Rory sat silently for a while, looking down at his crossed feet, picking at a loose strand of wool at the top of his knee socks.
"It's my dad," he said finally. "He's dead. He got blown up by a mine."
He didn't cry. There were no tears. He just sat there with his head down.
It didn't feel strange to me that he wouldn't cry. The only time we ever cried was on the first night back at school after holidays. Then it was hard not to, listening to all the other boys sobbing into their pillows. I would cry too. But I made sure the other boys didn't hear me.
A few weeks later we were all eating lunch at the long tables in the room the nuns called the refectory. Unexpectedly, the Mother Superior came into the room. She beckoned to Michael and me to come outside. She was holding a telegram in her hand. "It's from your mother," she said. "Your granddad just died in India." She looked at us sympathetically. It felt odd because I had never even met him.
Although we were safe from bombs at Stroud, we were very aware of the war. Our games were always about killing Germans. We would run around with arms outstretched, pretending to be fighter planes attacking German bombers. Sometimes, high in the sky, we saw the tangled contrails of planes weaving in and out. One day a burning Spitfire came low over our playground. I saw the pilot's white face looking down at us as he tried to avoid the school. His plane crashed just beyond the trees at the edge of the hockey field. A huge column of black smoke rose into the air. The nuns hustled us back into the school as fire trucks raced across the field. I knew that the pilot probably died, but we were never told.
It was a long time before I stopped seeing his white face in my dreams.
Chapter ThreeIn spite of the war, we still went home for school holidays. It was always an adventure. We were put on a train at the station in Stroud, with our names and addresses printed on pieces of paper pinned to our coats. We imagined the tags were to identify us if the train were to be blown up by a bomb. Two of the nuns accompanied us to London where we were met by one of our parents.
The first time Michael and I travelled home for Christmas was very strange. It was December, 1942. The train was constantly stopping and starting as we got closer to London. Sometimes it would stand for ten or fifteen minutes until another train, crammed with soldiers, went thundering by.
While waiting, we stared out of the windows at a devastated city. Whole streets were blocked with rubble that had once been houses. Sandbags were piled high in front of doors and shop windows. Huge silver-grey barrage balloons swung above rooftops like great floating whales.
When the train finally reached Paddington station, we were herded out onto the platform. Parents gathered around, picking out the boys who belonged to them. A pretty lady in a green winter coat came up to Michael and me.
"Hello, Peter dear," she said, giving me a hug.
"Hello," I said tentatively. She looked like my mother, but I wasn't quite sure. She took my hand and we started to walk down the platform to the exit.
"Where are we going, Mummy?" I finally asked her.
She stopped and turned to me, shaking with laughter.
"I'm not your Mummy," she said. "I'm your Aunt Doreen!"
I was mortified. I felt she was laughing at me for being so stupid.
"Your mother has rented a house on the Isle of Wight," she explained. "There's a thick fog over the Channel, so the ferries aren't running. She phoned and asked me to pick you up. You, Michael, and Elizabeth are going to stay with me in London until the fog lifts."
I don't remember very much of that Christmas holiday. But the following summer of 1943 was unforgettable. The house that my mother had rented was just a few hundred yards from a sandy beach in the little town of Bembridge, on the east coast of the Isle of Wight.
One morning in mid-July we woke to a particularly gorgeous, sunny day. It was the kind of day when time seems to stand still. No breath of wind stirred the leaves on the trees that lined the road outside our house. The sky was an infinity of blue. Summer holidays stretched endlessly before us, memories of school obliterated. I had just turned six years old.
Excerpted from A Calling in Question by Peter Walther Copyright © 2012 by Peter Walther. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPart One A Wartime Childhood 1937-1949....................1
Part Two Teen Troubles and a Trip to Africa 1949-1953....................53
Part Three Farming and DH Lawrence 1953-1955....................125
Part Four Philosophy in Holland 1955-1957....................141
Part Five Calling the Question 1957-1961....................163
Part Six Durham University and the USA 1961-1964....................211
Part Seven Borneo, Misereor and Romance 1964-1970....................251