The school retreat used to be an important annual event in many a Catholic teenager’s education. Ours was normally held towards the end of Lent and, though it promised two days of wallowing in my own sinfulness and mortality, it was definitely enjoyable. All lessons were suspended and I welcomed the respite – or blessed relief – from the incessant babble and din of school life, since the retreat was observed in strict silence.
Between the silent meals, stints in church and hard-talking ‘discourses’ given by a visiting cleric (see Chapter 3 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for these at their most alarming), we spent our time in spiritual reading: simple theology, pious fables, lives of the saints, church history and even fiction, as long as it was on a Catholic theme. Progressing through the school, and growing more (as we thought) sophisticated, we saw it as our duty to try the boundaries of what was acceptable to the Benedictine monks who ruled our lives, and all sorts of arguably Catholic texts were presented for our housemaster Father Brendan’s approval. One of my friends was sent packing when he came up with Brideshead Revisited, but another was allowed The Power and the Glory. Short stories featuring Father Brown and Don Camillo were seen as a lightweight but acceptable choice for a boy on retreat; the Catholic content of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction would be dangerously ambiguous and troubling.
Historical novels were well favoured if they told of the persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s exemplary Come Rack! Come Rope! being a particular favourite. I don’t remember anyone proposing The Fifth Queen, Ford Madox Ford’s fitfully magnificent trilogy of novels about the rise and fall of Katherine Howard, of which the last volume appeared in 1908. Set against the background of the dismantling of Catholicism in England, it is all c
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