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Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By John Cornwell
Doubleday, 321 pages, $24.95
By the light of the sanctuary lamp


The conventions of the memoir are so ingrained in our literary culture -- personal conflict, family and societal drama, the search for meaning, sexual awakening -- that it sometimes takes a work of genuine originality to remind us of the dynamic nature of the form. Such is the case with Seminary Boy, John Cornwell’s account of his years at Cotton College, a minor seminary in an idyllic rural setting in the West Midlands in west central England. The best-selling author of Hitler’s Pope and The Pontiff in Winter, Mr. Cornwell now turns to his childhood to describe, in graceful, vivid prose, the textures of a lost world. Cotton College closed its doors in 1987. His is a search for origins, the meaning of which emerges in a leisurely fashion, as befits the complex subject of seeking -- in vain -- a vocation for the priesthood.

What he discovers, long after the fact, is “that the desert places of spirituality are not to be found alone in religious houses where men and women shut themselves away to find God in self-denial and abstinence. The desert,” he concludes, “can be at the very heart of a person’s life, amid the turmoil of everyday distraction.” His journey to this realization is at once fascinating, heartbreaking and revelatory.

A child of the London Blitz, John Cornwell was raised in difficult circumstances by an angry, occasionally violent mother and a wayward father, a groundskeeper who would eventually leave his family. There was never enough money, and when the author’s mother turned to the local parish for assistance, an elderly Irish priest took an interest in her precocious third child, who from an early age dreamed of entering the priesthood. Mr. Cornwell evokes his altar service -- lighting candles to the Virgin, making the sign of the cross with more than ordinary reverence, conspicuously genuflecting -- with a bemused eye, recognizing not only his narcissism and taste for drama but also the ways in which these rites and rituals shaped his understanding of the world.

He was much impressed with Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and by the time he arrived at Cotton College, the oldest Catholic college in England, he was bent on pursuing the example of Jesus -- a course of action that found general acceptance among his teachers and classmates. Everything at Cotton was designed to teach him to resist his feelings -- a hard lesson for a boy given to strong emotions for the church, for certain classmates, for the charismatic priest who introduced him to the glories of English literature. And the widening gulf between the religious ideal and his rebelliousness, which would eventually drive him out of the church, is delineated in these pages with considerable wit:

One evening as I stayed behind after rosary to confess the usual sins, I saw that the sanctuary lamp was unlit; it was swinging dead with a slight motion in a freezing draft. Then it occurred to me that God had sent me a personal message. The cold, dead lamp revealed the state of my soul, which was dead to God’s grace. As I came out of the sacristy, shriven and in a state of grace, going down on my knees to pray my penance, I saw to my troubled joy that the sanctuary lamp was once again shining brightly and steadily. I might have assumed that the sacristan had relit the lamp; instead I saw it as an infallible sign from God.

There is a dark side to this, for Cornwell becomes obsessed with “the state of the sanctuary lamp.” No doubt his feelings were complicated by the memory of his rape in a toilet in the London Underground: an emblem, if you will, of the larger, fallen world that he was not destined to escape. Special friendships in the seminary were the bane of vocations, and Cornwell fell for some classmates. The more serious problem, however, was the angry behavior he learned from his mother, which brought an end to his priestly ambitions and set him on a secular path. Decades would pass before he found his way back to the church. If his wife and children kept the spark of faith alive in him “by proxy,” it was Cotton that drew him to this final reckoning.

Seminary Boy will inevitably draw comparisons with Karen Armstrong’s memoir of her convent years, The Winding Stair. Indeed each writer traded a religious vocation for literature at a decisive, historical moment when the church and England were in the midst of profound change. But there is something altogether more winning, less brittle, in Mr. Cornwell’s excursion into his past: His lighter touch and tactile sensibility bring to life an almost unimaginable world. He writes with what can only be described as love.

Christopher Merrill’s most recent book is Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. He directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

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