A chance discovery of a childhood religion workbook brought ROSITA BOLAND back to her schooldays, when angels could be good or bad, and sin was surrounded by lightning.
LAST WEEKEND, while doing a reorganisation of my bookshelves, I came across something I had totally forgotten about. Tucked among some books hoarded from childhood was a religion workbook, Christ’s Life In Us.
I’m not sure what age I was when I used this workbook, as there is no class year on the front, but judging by the wobbly, uneven handwriting and some back-to-front characters, perhaps seven or eight. It appears to be the year I made my First Confession, as the word “sin” goes through the book like a mantra.
To some extent, any textbook decades old is going to be a document of social history, but the fact that this one is a religion workbook makes the intervening societal changes in Ireland more stark and startling by contrast.
Take, for example, Lesson Five, “The Gift of God’s Life and Love”.
“God loves everything He made. But He loves some things more than others. He gives them more gifts. Draw a circle around the one God loves the most.”
The four options were “Plants. Animals. Baby – not baptized. Baptized baby.”
Christ’s Life In Us was published by CJ Fallon in Ireland, “by arrangement with WH Sadlier Incorporated New York” according to the back cover. There is no publication date, but I was using it in the mid-1970s, for what was colloquially referred to in class as “Catechism”.
There are 26 lessons in the book, with exercises that variously required me to fill in blanks, answer yes or no, make a drawing or write something. Lest there be any confusion about who God loved the most, under the drawings is a sentence asking me to complete the sentence: “I was baptised on ______.”
Lesson Seven poses the rhetorical question: “What offends my Heavenly Father?” The accompanying exercise instructed me to “Draw lightning around the word SIN.”
Lesson Nine is a statement, “Heavenly Father, I am sorry!” The instruction here is to “draw a cross”. I look at this now, and marvel at the apparent association between a child’s act of contrition and a crucifixion.
I was clearly confused as to what a sin was. One lesson required me to write “sin or no sin” under a series of drawings. Under a picture of a boy breaking a vase by accident, I have written “sin” in pink marker.
Since finding my old workbook, I have been trying to recall filling it out, and how I puzzled through these questions. I do not remember ever showing it to my parents: we did these exercises in class, and thus any guidance we received came from the Mercy order of nuns who taught us.
Fragments of memories have come back. Since as a child I was – and still am – poor at drawing, I clearly remember fretting about how to draw things such as angels and God when I had no idea what they looked like.
One exercise, My Picture Dictionary, asked me to draw six items: ciborium, paten, tabernacle, altar, chalice and host. This exercise has been left blank. As a child, it must have filled me with horror, because until last Saturday when I Googled it, I remained ignorant as to what a “ciborium” was.
Another lesson required me to draw “good angels” and “bad angels”. As a child, all I was sure of concerning angels is that they had wings and lived in the sky. Our Mercy nuns encouraged us to imagine that our own personal guardian angels were with us at all times, and we should pray to them every day.
Since I knew they were meant to have wings, each day when we rose to say the Angelus at noon in class, I imagined that my guardian angel was sitting perched on my shoulder; an image which, recalled as an adult, now puts me on mind of something akin to an invisible celestial parrot.
The good angels I drew are purple, have smiley faces, and wings. The bad angels are black and have downturned smiles, but otherwise they are identical. They were bad apparently because, as I have written underneath, “The bad angels were not sorry for their sin.”
Then there were questions that required a yes or no answer, some of which were these: “Can those who are not baptised receive Holy Communion? Does the grace of God grow in us each time we received Communion properly? Does prayer make the life of grace grow in us? Does sin make our love for God grow strong? Does sin offend God our Father?”
I have circled “No” to this last question, but reading my answers now, they appear to be entirely random, as if I had no idea what the questions were about, which I probably did not.
I have been agnostic all my adult life. I have not obeyed the final lesson in Christ’s Life In Us , Lesson 26 – “My Promises to Jesus”.
I wrote that I would go to Mass every “Sunday”, say my prayers every “day”, receive Holy Communion every “weke” and go to confession every “Monday”.
The correct answer to this question, by deducing from the number of spaces left blank, was meant to be every “month”.
It doesn’t matter now to me whether a textbook and ethos dictated that children attend confession every Monday or every month, because I have not been inside a confession box since childhood.
Looking through that workbook was a deeply strange experience. Enough has been written of the proven intervening disgraces of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
All I’ll say is that I’m relieved to now live in a society where unbaptised babies are not discriminated against in a childrens’ textbook by using them in some odious moral ranking against plants, animals and baptised babies.