A Tale of Two Nightmares: One Asleep, One Wide Awake

Nightmare Number one, wide awake: In the summer of 1959, my father, an Air Force bomber pilot, was transferred to a base near Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“Peace Is Our Profession” said the billboard by the base gate.

There my mother sent me and several of my siblings to St. Mary’s, the Catholic school downtown. It was across the street from the state Capitol. St. Mary’s was run by Dominican nuns, whose convent was next door.

I could have objected, but thought better of it.  Although I had become more or less an atheist, I was also a senior: one year left. I figured to keep my head down, get through it, then escape to college somewhere.

Far away in Rome, a new pope was settling in, replacing the late Pius XII. Pius had taken over in 1939, three years before I was born. When I thought about Pius, which was rarely, he had seemed like a permanent fixture, as solid as the thick stone walls of the old church in Kansas  where I was baptized, as unmoving as the statues there yearning toward their timeless crucified Christ.

But no, Pius was a mere mortal, and his successor, John XXIII, was quietly preparing to shake up the church’s seemingly impregnable  status quo. I mention these items, not because anything about them had penetrated my teenage male brain, but rather because I realize now that our nuns, an educated and alert group, were no doubt keenly aware of them. In fact, this must have been a very exciting year for them: not only was there a new pope, but Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy was making a serious run at becoming the first Catholic U. S. President in 1960.

Not that the nuns shared their anticipation with the likes of us. Only looking back can I perceive a few tiny slips. For instance, in Civics class, I noticed that whenever Sister Mary Catherine spoke about the ongoing presidential race, and Kennedy’s evident progress, she tended to look down, at her desk or even the floor, as if distracted.

This was puzzling at the time, but now I think I know why: she could not stop smiling, even grinning with anticipation– but in those distant days such levity, not to say obvious partisanship, was unseemly for a consecrated woman, at least outside her cloister.

These nuns  were  pledged  to  Marian  decorum and a drastic modesty: all had taken new names, beginning with Mary: Sister Mary Brigida, Sister Mary Amator, etc. They wore identical floorlength cream-colored habits, with high collars, stiffly-framed, black- trimmed veils and wimples that billowed loose behind them like capes, and covered all their hair.

Our nuns, the Sinsinawa Dominicans, in their pre-Vatican Two habits.

(One day in English class, Sister Mary Amator’s wimple shifted an inch or two, and a wisp of hair escaped from under its protective hem. Absorbed in whatever she was writing on the big blackboard, she noticed nothing, except how unusually attentive the class was. But of course–we were all leering at the loose lock, no less naked because it was grey; afterward the whispered debate was intense, but the consensus view was that Sister Amator had formerly been a blonde.)

Forget our snickers: these women were serious about their mission. It was not only to aid the salvation of our immortal souls, but also to see us properly prepared to take part in this new Catholic era. Thus they repeatedly urged us to enroll in Catholic colleges once we graduated.

(Such attendance, they also knew, greatly increased the odds we would marry other Catholics, and produce that most valuable church asset: new Catholic families.)

To this end, it was announced one day that we would soon be treated to a field trip, all the way to Denver, to visit the nearest Catholic colleges: Regis, for men, run by the Jesuits; and nearby Loretto Heights, for women, operated by the Sisters of Loretto.

I enjoyed the trip, though I was already clear that, as a budding atheist, wherever I went to college, it would be at a secular school. This resolve was greatly strengthened when we visited, of all places, the Regis library.

I had long had fond feelings for libraries,  and at first glance, the one at Regis seemed a fine specimen: well-lighted, relatively new, with many long open shelves. Open shelves of books to me embodied freedom of thought and learning, and its liberating possibilities.

But something didn’t jibe with this appealing tableau. Behind the reference desk, my eye was caught by a large area enclosed by heavy mesh metal partitions, like chain link fencing but thicker, with a locked gate. Inside were more books; I could see the shelves through the mesh. Were they antiquities? Precious manuscripts of historic value? They didn’t look like that.

No. My question to a cheerful librarian got a straightforward answer: the enclosure was for books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum: the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books.

I stared at it in fascinated horror: of course I had heard of the Index. It was hundreds of years old. Where the Church was part of or protected by governments, it went hand in hand with censorship.

The Index, in a 1758 edition. I had never seen it, but it still loomed large over my youth. It is reported that this edition removed works affirming heliocentric from the forbidden list, after 200 years om it.
A statue marks the place in Rome where Giordano Bruno was burned in 1600. He was held prisoner for six years before execution, but refused to recant his “heretical” views.

My first, adolescent thought was that it must include the books about sex. True enough, authors such as Gide and Balzac, thought to be peddlers of lasciviousness, were on it. But the Index was much more concerned about the mind than the loins, with stamping out heresy more than suppressing lust. One of the main goals for its first few centuries was to stop the spread of that damnable, intolerable heresy of (wait for it) heliocentrism: the belief that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun rather than vice versa, the latter being the Church’s official view. One of this view’s early advocates, Giordano Bruno, had his books added to the Index, and was burned at the stake in 1600 by the Inquisition. But in 1959, there were more philosophers (Kant, Spinoza, and Sartre) on it than racy novelists, or for that matter, astronomers.

Prohibited, yes; but many of the books were there at Regis, partly visible on those shelves. That was because, like numerous drugs, they were dangerous at large, but could be useful in special situations, and if doled out in carefully limited doses. Thus to read them, one needed a “prescription,” in the form of official permission. This was granted (or not) by the local bishop or Cardinal, based on an adequate showing of why the reading was needed (say, studying the history of astronomy), and how the project would be subject to properly orthodox supervision.

The Frontispiece to the 1758 edition of The Index. The motto at the bottom is Latin for a verse from the New Testament Book of Acts (19:19): “Many [recent Christian converts] who had practiced witchcraft gathered their books together and burned them in front of everyone.” (Actually, in those days it would have been scrolls.)
In fact, in 1959 the Index, after its nearly 600-year run, was on its last legs. The new pope I was oblivious to would push it halfway over the brink before his premature death, and his successor, Paul VI (just  made a saint by Francis) finished the job, formally abolishing it in 1966.

But I had no inkling of that. On that day in Denver, in that brightly lit library, I felt I was looking into something close to the very Heart of Darkness. Here was one of the key tools by which the Church intended to capture, control and stifle my mind, as it had those of millions down the centuries.

A Headline from The Guardian, marking the official end of the Index.

Further, that locked gate at Regis did not open on a museum, filled with old relics, but on something intended to be a key part of my personal present, and future.

That enclosure, unremarkable visually, has stayed with me ever since. I have also seen that while the wire mesh is down, the Index abandoned, the spirit behind both has not been finally banished, either from the church or from many power centers outside it. Digital technology, as we are beginning to learn, has spawned many new tools for new censors, official or self-appointed.

Many in our class of about sixty heeded the call behind the Regis field trip: one became a priest; two of my close buddies headed east to the Catholic University of America, and so forth. To these two, once they were safely away on the east coast, I sent a long “coming out” letter, disclosing the lack of faith I had carefully concealed from them in our year at St. Mary’s.

Suitably shocked, they soon wrote back, pleading for me to take my concerns to a priest, before it was too late. But it was already “too late” for me, so of course I didn’t; and eventually both of them, by different circuitous paths, joined me in this “outer darkness.” We’re still in touch, intermittently, scattered across the continent from the far Northwest to the southeast.

Nightmare Number Two, Fast Asleep: Last night, a strange one. No monsters, no open violence, but cumulatively unnerving:

I was at a university, whether as a student, faculty, or something else wasn’t clear. The school was unnamed, but large, and prestigious. It was also being culled.

First, students were disappearing. Not being snatched by goblins, or screaming and resisting, but suddenly gone, quietly but unmistakably. Those who vanished were not all of one color, or LGBTs, or any other such familiar marker. But it somehow became evident that all had been identified as wrong or undesirable. By whom and how, there was no clue; maybe — I thought this later, but it fit the dream — it was Inquisition-by-some-invisible-algorithm: automated analysis of our ever-growing collections of individual likes and clicks had yielded suspect “profiles” which were marked for removal.

And shortly it was not only students. I saw books sliding off shelves and being slipped into a transparent wrapping, something that could be folded like saran wrap, but then became solid as plexiglass. The titles slid past too quickly to track; some looked old, others not. The books didn’t disappear, but were still being put entirely out of our reach. Again, by whom or for what, was not evident.

Through all this, no one touched or spoke to me; yet the sense of threat became steadily more pervasive and surrounding.

This culling was being done deliberately, and the dream unfolded slowly but relentlessly. The growing claustrophobic sense that my turn was coming finally forced me awake, into the familiar darkness of my predawn bedroom.

This was some relief; but the sense of indefinite menace continued, and sleep was gone. My usual morning routine of reading the daily papers didn’t help at all. It was better later at Meeting, though to get there I had to take a detour past numerous hurricane-downed trees, and sit in a chilly, unlit meetinghouse. . . .

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Nightmares: One Asleep, One Wide Awake”

  1. Wow! Your experience in Christianity as a teen (R.C.) is so utterly different from my own (free-will Baptist), it shows, again as so often, that there isn’t and never was just one Christianity, but many contradictory ones.
    It’s beyond my understanding that a Catholic university in 1959 would still have a jailed section of its library for some philosophy books! Whew…
    Of course, we Baptists had our own no-no’s–no movies, no dances, no cards, no wine, no rock n’ roll, etc. BUT I could read anything that I wanted, spent many an hour at the town library, school library, etc. During my senior year, I was into reading zen (Alan Watts), Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, etc.

    What’s intriguing is that we, like other spiritual seekers, finally found our harbor in the Friends.

    1. I didn’t go into this in the post, but when Quakerism came along, it seemed to me that under all the colorful vestments, jingling paraphernalia and the smell of incense, it felt like there was much inner resonance/parallels. Above all, in the Mass, God is right there (at the moment of consecration of the host), close enough that one could go up and take a bite out of Him (cannibalism, maybe?? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.. . .” John 6:53ff) Anyway, outwardly that might seem to be worlds away from the Quaker “Christ/Light Within,” but to my inward sensibility, it was very familiar. Then the corollary idea that this living Spirit could direct the worship & messages, right now — it was new, but not outlandish. After that I welcomed the unprogrammed proposition that rote repetition of prayers from a book was empty (it had long felt so), and if one did not have something directly prompted to say in worship, then the correct response was to SIT DOWN and SHUT UP.(Wow, what a relief!)

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