Magazine article The Spectator

Sins of the Fathers

Magazine article The Spectator

Sins of the Fathers

Article excerpt

The Dark Box:

A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell

Profile Books, [pounds]16.99, pp. 288,

ISBN 9781781251089

Spectator Bookshop, [pounds]13.99

I have a confession to make. I really enjoyed this book. It's been a while since I admitted something of the sort, and I feel ashamed, because, although it's smartly, smoothly written, my pleasure was partly based on titillation. I smirked - I occasionally snickered - at the madder facts of self-mortification, whereby in the Middle Ages the (frequently female) faithful might flaunt their holiness in acts of rank humility. Elizabeth of Hungary kissed the feet of lepers; Margaret Marie Alacoque ate vomit; Catherine of Genoa, it's said, sucked the pus of a plague victim.

More than this, though, John Cornwell's history of confession is preoccupied with sex, which always helps the pages riffle past. It wouldn't be edifying, here, to recount its highlights, but let's just say that, for anyone into clerical action, there's a lot on offer. The emphasis is on couplings occurring during, or soon after, the sacrament. It isn't astonishing that this has been a problem, since the confessional exchange is by its nature erotic, involving intimacy and a power imbalance. One missed trick, I'd say, is that the author doesn't consider how the design of the confessional box also contributes, with its (for the penitent) dark, enclosed space, its grille and sliding screen, and of course the partition itself. Nothing gets the blood flowing like a barrier, especially if there's a chink or crack (think Pyramus and Thisbe), through which words may grow aphrodisiac, stirring the imagination into brilliant overdrive.

I'm getting carried away, but so does Cornwell. And he would make a similar defence, pointing out that the reason why The Dark Box (his sizzling title) dwells on such matters is because they've always been an obsession in the Church. The tone, often, has been one of swivel-eyed craziness.

When the first-century lawyer and Christian thinker Tertullian asked if we didn't sense, in orgasm, the loss of our souls, someone should have replied: speak for yourself, Tertullian. A large clitoris is not now generally thought to be a proof of lesbianism. And if it were really true, as priests once taught, that masturbation was a kind of multiple murder - because each sperm contains a human life - all I can say is there were a few guys I knew at school who should be on trial at the Hague.

It's easy to make jokes, and Cornwell resists the temptation admirably. …

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