I was in the city on business and the day was a stinker – nudging 38°. My next meeting was over two hours away, and as I walked down the eastern end of Collins Street, I was mulling over where to go to escape the heat.
The answer stood vast before me as I crossed over Russell Street and saw the Neo-Gothic coolness of the Scots Church. Walking through the arched entrance, I was immediately enthralled by it’s beautiful nineteenth century architecture; the afternoon sunlight made brilliant the myriad of stained glass windows, and the beautifully timbered altar that stood within the sanctuary, illuminated by the light that fell from the glassed dome high above.
The ancient stonework cooled me as the ambience of the place soothed me. I sat down in a back row pew to take it all in; it had been many years since I had passed time inside a church. In the serenity of my surrounds my mind began to flicker, as the film projector of my 1950’s childhood began to roll before me.
I was born into a Catholic family belonging to the Sacred Heart Parish in Sandringham, and attended Sacred Heart Primary School. The teaching staff mainly consisted of nuns of the Presentation Sisters Order. I found them a bit frightening as a five-year old boy, dressed as they were in a white starched headpiece, topped with a black veil, and a full length black habit that fell to the ground. As I couldn’t see their feet, I thought that they glided about the school ghostlike, hovercrafting themselves about the corridors with an uncanny ability to appear silently before you when misbehaving.
In Grade 2, at seven years of age, Sister Vincent taught us about sin. There were two types of sin, venial and mortal sin. Venial sin, such as pulling your sister’s hair and then lying about it, was regarded as entailing only a partial loss of grace, and was pardonable.
Mortal sin, such as stealing or swearing, was serious stuff, unpardonable, entailing a total loss of grace, which meant not getting into Heaven if you died suddenly. The good news here was that this black mark upon your soul could be wiped clean by attending the dark confines of the confessional box to confess your evil deeds to the parish priest.
He would hear your confession, forgive your sinning, and then hand down a punishment of prayers, such as having to say three or more Hail Marys, plus maybe a few Our Fathers, depending on the seriousness of your sinning; or perhaps, depending on his mood – bored stiff as he may have been in having to hear children’s sins such as I was rude to my mother, or I took three Teddy Bear biscuits from the forbidden cupboard.
Sister Vincent told us one day, in a low stern voice, giving the entire class the cold eye at the same time, “Now, let me tell you all, that if you die in the state of mortal sin, you will go straight to the burning fires of Hell, and there you shall burn and burn on the red hot coals for eternity, for ever, and ever, and ever…”
I equated the burning fires of Hell with arriving at the beach on a hot day, ignoring your mother’s advice to keep your thongs on. The hot sand quickly burnt your feet, and I would begin a dance of hippity-hop, quickly raising one foot up and then the other, and so on, until I made it to the safety of the family towel.
Unlike the rest of my siblings, for family financial reasons, I was unable to attend the Catholic secondary college of St.Bedes, and was sent instead to join the heathens at the local technical school. Concerned about our souls being tainted by the proddos, Father O’Keefe had us return to Sacred Heart once a month for ongoing religious instruction, which one day deviated to the very awkward subject of women’s menstruation.
“Now boys”, he began, nervously addressing the three of us, none of us ever having heard of the word puberty, “We need to have a serious talk today, and that is, um, well, there may come a day, a hot day for instance, where you might find yourself down at the beach having a swim with your friends, and there might be a girl in your group who is sitting on the sand, not wanting to go into the water.”
Here he paused, freeze-framing his serious talk expression, before he added in slow motion, “Don’t ask her why.”
I immediately imagined myself saying to a female friend or a cousin, “Come in for a swim you idiot, the water’s really good, what are sitting on the sand for, come in before we drag you in!”
“Or”, he went on, thickening the gravy of confusion, “You might call in to a girl’s house and ask her if she’d like to go down to the milk bar for a malted milk, and she tells you that she would like to go, but she cannot go.”
A longer pause this time, followed by another, “Don’t ask her why.”
He shuffled a few papers saying, “OK then boys?” And there Father’s serious talk came to an end.
“What was that all about?” I said to Geoff afterwards. “Dunno”, he said, “Who’re you going for Saturday arvo? Bombers or Magpies?”
Passing through my years at Sandringham Tech, I slowly drifted away from my Catholic heritage. This drift was completed in 1968 when Pope Paul VI decreed that Catholic women were not allowed to use the recently available contraceptive pill. In my teenage mind, I felt that this was wrong, that the all-male church was out of touch with women of the modern world, and I put my Catholic years behind me, deciding to live my life to my own set of values.
My quiet Scots Church contemplation was interrupted by the arrival of a small group of chatty tourists, so I decided to move on to the reading room of the State Library. Leaving the church, I looked up at the very tall steeple, perhaps once serving as a celestial compass for those early Presbyterians seeking guidance as they passed through their worldly journey to their afterlife in Heaven.
For me, ‘everything in moderation’ and ‘do unto others’ was still working just fine.