‘The day of my Confirmation arrived and I marked it by wearing a brand new pair of floral culottes and a cream gypsy blouse. I knew how to play the game and had dressed accordingly – as an adult virgin.’
It’s not easy been 12 years old at the best of times but for me in 1991 things were tough. I’d lost out on the school captaincy by one vote because my rival had strategically asked one of the more influential voters of my year out on a date prior to the election, and as such, defeated, I’d been relegated to Vice School Captain. They didn’t have a badge for vice school captain and it had been proving harder then I’d thought it would, wedging my title into day-to-day conversations.
For me though, being at a catholic primary school, aside from my lack of status there was also the religious aspect to contend with. I viewed religious studies as more of a history class to be debated and questioned, than to be understood as blind doctrine and unquestionable truth. Even at such a young age I was aware of the human nature to romanticise and fictionalise our past. The bible – particularly the New Testament, as far as I was concerned was written by Jesus’s frat brothers who weren’t afraid to don slightly smudged glasses when the need arose. Take Mary Magdalene. The first time I heard of her she was described as a fallen woman – a prostitute who supported Jesus through her own private means AKA private parts. I asked my religious studies teacher if the other male apostles also supported Jesus through their own private means? This was met with a frown and the reminder that the men were apostles and the women in Jesus’s circle were not, they were prostitutes.
‘How do we know that?’ I asked. She carefully explained she knew it because it was written in the bible.
‘By men’ I remarked.
‘I don’t know that has to do with it?’ she replied.
‘You have to consider that don’t you?’ I posed to my teacher. ‘There’s no stories in here written by women.’
‘It’s just they might have offered another perspective that’s all, like they might not have cast themselves as prostitutes in their story.’
Detention. Punishment: to read the New Testament and make peace with it’s absolute authority. When I asked for a highlighter and some paper to make notes they agreed sending me to the naughty corner would be a better use of everyone’s time.
I learnt a few months into Grade 6 that in order to graduate I would need to be Confirmed. Whilst most of most schoolmates got excited at the prospect of a spring garden party I asked the more pertinent question ‘what is Confirmation?’
‘It’s the adult ascension into the church, when you take responsibility for your own faith and destiny. Once Confirmed you will be seen as an adult in the eyes of God.’
12 years old!? An adult? Responsibility?
‘But what if you’re not even sure you believe in a god?’
‘Well you better get on it’ my teacher said ‘No belief. No graduation.’
‘This is bullshit’ I mumbled to a friend as we sat on the back fence throwing rotten eggs at the private boys school passing by. ‘I mean are you tell me that once I’m Confirmed I can be charged as an adult in say a court of law?’
‘I dunno’ my friend responded, trying to be supportive.
‘You don’t understand’ I spat at her ‘you’re a born-again-Christian. You chose to believe in god and all that crap. We Catholic’s are forced to.’
We sat in silence as we worked our way through the rest of our eggs.
Part of Confirmation is that you choose the name that you wish to represent you in your adult life. The only caveat, it has to be a saint’s name.
‘Any saints name?’ I asked.
My teacher paused, knowing that if she lied to me I would undoubtedly uncover the truth and then subject her a reckoning of repercussions.
‘Yes, any saints name Louise. Any.’
My mother was all to happy to drive me to the Australian Catholic University library, after finding my own school library lacking in the way of books on saints name. Of course there were the usual offenders, your Luke’s, Matthews, Mary’s and Anne’s, but I wanted something more. If I were going to have to carry this name around with me through life it would need to mean something. And so it was, in the stacks of a university library I found what, or should I say who I was looking for – St Dymphna.
Her story, putting the incest and murder aside, read like the fairytale Frozen. A young princess in Ireland, who’s father stricken with grief at the death of his wife decides to take the saying ‘to get over someone you need to get under someone else’ to mean his daughter, chases Dymphna and her priest (yes, it’s all sounding very Thornbirds) through the Irish landscape, only to finally capture and behead her because she wouldn’t marry him. Even over 1300 years later I could relate. To add to her allure she was also the patron saint of the mentally ill and victims of abuse. Perhaps I could funnel my disbelief in god into my belief in her? Just till graduation anyway…
Not to boast but I’m one of those kids who was baptised by rock star priest Father Bob Maguire and hold onto your hat, book ended it with now Cardinal George Pell when he was only starting out as a career catholic. For people like my opus dei loving uncle this was a big deal, like being Confirmed by the hand of god. For me it was an elaborate ruse to graduate Grade 6 by letting a man wearing a dress touch my head.
The day of my Confirmation arrived and I marked it by wearing a brand new pair of floral culottes and a cream gypsy blouse. I knew how to play the game and had dressed accordingly – as an adult virgin.
As I approached the alter I quickly turned around to check for the authorities – for surely given that any moment I would become an adult, it was fair to say I might be charged as an adult for my egg throwing shenanigans. They were yet to arrive…
George recited some prayer and asked me what my chosen name was.
‘Dymphna’ I said.
What was meant to happen next was that he was meant to give it the tick of approval and move me on my way towards a hall filled with cordial and fruitcake but he didn’t. Instead he took a step closer to me and told me that I couldn’t take the name Dymphna and that my name would be Angela. She was a nice saint. A wholesome saint, a less defiled by her father kinda of saint.
‘No’ I said ‘I’ve chosen Dymphna. I was told I could chose whatever saints name I wanted.’
He said nothing. The congregation had started paying attention by now as the line of their own children heading towards the alter came to a grinding halt.
‘Who told you that?’
Out of the corner of my eye I could see my teacher sweating through her own culottes.
‘Oh your teacher’ he smiled ‘but I’m a priest and I’m telling you that’s not true.’
‘I thought you might say that’ I replied ‘that’s why I went to the Australian Catholic University and did some research and no where is it written that I can’t chose my own saints name. I also rang the office of the Archbishop of Melbourne and they said the same thing.’
‘Excuse me a moment’ the priest went off leaving me kneeling at the alter, thinking about the reality that might be me repeating Grade 6.
‘Just go with Angela or Mary’ a mother of another classmate hissed at me.
‘She’s the Spaniards daughter’ another remarked under their breath.
The world was turning against me. I had to hold strong.
After about 20 minutes he returned.
‘We’ve discussed it and decided that we will allow you to proceed with the name Dymphna.’
I sighed. I’d have to make do with winning the battle this time and the war; well I’d win that another time. Perhaps after cake.
For the months after my Confirmation and leading up to my graduation I wrote my name in the top right hand of all homework, essays and tuck-shop orders as Louise Marguerite Dymphna Woodruff Sanz (lots of names yes, but as the woman at the Confirmation service pointed out, I am a Spaniards daughter). This resulted in my parents being called in to address this blatant acting out as my teachers saw it. My mother was confused and rightly so. Surely, this was my new name? Had they, the school not insisted upon it? Was it not a prerequisite for me graduating? Ok, yes it was, they admitted but I wasn’t meant to take it literally.
That was what hit the nail on the head for me. Whilst I was meant to take the bible and it’s archaic and at times prejudiced views of the world literally – like the women of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John being either Madonna’s or whores, when it came to things like becoming an autonomous adult, who was now according to the church equipped to navigate my own faith and destiny, that was to be taken with a grain of salt, be seen as a token act and nothing more. I could bend my idea of being confirmed. I couldn’t be expected to blindly follow a religion without question and conversation. Wouldn’t it be dangerous? Fanatical? To just behave?
And there you have it – it was all about behaving. To be a good at any religion, at the root of it, was to behave and to follow. Not to ask questions about supposed virgin births, frankincense and myrrh. Not to challenge issues of gender, sexuality, women’s rights, domestic violence, divorce, worship, faith, reform, fanaticism and terrorism.
There are good things in the bible too, just as there are some good things in Fifty Shades of Grey (if you just ignore a majority of the book) but as a way to live, as a way to practice a life without question I’m afraid it wasn’t for me.
Now look I could be wrong and when I die I find myself in a place called Heaven with a lot of people walking around wearing t-shirts that read ‘Told You So’ and ‘I’m With Stupid’ but either way I think I’ll be ok. I’ll have a whole new identity – Dymphna – patron saint of the mentally ill and victims of abuse – knowing the allegations about the church I doubt I’ll be short of friends up there.