Home # Journal Entry Vol.98.2: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, Part 2


by James A. Clapp

three nuns

The crucified Yeshua bar Yusef had no idea (unless, of course, he really was the resurrected son of God, in which case he would have known) that he would be “Hellenized” into Jesus Christ, and, thanks to Paul, the apostles, and the authors of the New Testament, become the foundation of one of the worlds most successful religions. Until the renegade Augustinian friar Martin Luther was excommunicated in 1520, that faith would be exclusively Roman Catholicism. But Protestantism was a like Pepsi coming along after Coke had created the taste for cola. Catholicism needed to advance, as it would be expressed in 21st century terms, “the brand.” There were the traditional methods, like wars and inquisitions, but on the softer side there was entertainment. Holy Mother Church was just better at entertainment than the dour, gloomy Protestant version of Christianity than came from the scatalogue mouth of a German monk. The Church already had the best writers, painters, sculptors, and architects already in its fold, the likes of Dante, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi, and pretty much everybody else. It also had the best music. It had the most interesting dramatis personae for its stories in its cast of saints. It had stunning cathedrals in which to stage high masses with beautiful stained glass and the soaring reverberations of Gregorian chants and moving hymns.   Even structurally the Catholic Church had an advantage; with its hierarchy culminating with the papacy at its pinnacle, it was a natural armature upon which to hang narratives that the leaderless, fractious, Protestant denominations could not match. All together it was a tough act to follow, and Protestantism never could compete in the religious entertainment business. When movies came along it was the same.

One scholar of the subject has written: “filmmakers have represented many different religions in many different ways. The most sustained cinematic attention, however, has been directed toward Roman Catholicism. . . . Catholic characters, spaces, and rituals have been stock features in popular films since the silent picture era. An intensely visual religion with a well-defined ritual and authority system, Catholicism lends itself to the drama and pageantry— the iconography—of film. . . . Catholicism is central to the world of movies for a variety of reasons. During the golden era of the 1930s and 1940s, Catholic characters represented the immigrant other—a character distinguished from the native-born Protestant American.”[1]

Those Roman Catholic immigrant groups, principally the Irish and the Italians, were also urban in character, another contrast with the rural Protestant. We see this in movies such as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). This morality play is like something right out of the Bible. Two pals who grew up in New York City’s tough Hells Kitchen end up as adults on different sides of the good and evil equation; They are two Irish guys played by two Irish actors, Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Sullivan (Pat O’Brien), and Rocky has become a thug and his pal, Jerry, a Roman Catholic priest. The story postures them as contenders for the “souls” of a gang of young boys[2] that, in the criminogenic culture of Hell’s Kitchen glorifies macho and unlawful behavior. In the end, with Rocky about go to the electric chair for is crimes Jerry persuades his childhood pal to “do the right thing” and put on a cowardly display as he is about to be executed, so that the boys will no longer idolize him.

The theme of redemption through the adoption of moral behavior is also at the center of another 1938 film featuring two Catholic Irish-American actors. In Boy’s Town[3] Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), after nearly succumbing to a life of crime, is rescued by Fr. Flanagan (Spencer Tracey). These themes of redemption through faith, coincided well with prevailing urban sociology of the 1930s and 1940s that saw cities as places that fostered juvenile delinquency and gang behavior among young boys. This was, of course, many years before the exposure of the fact that more serious crimes were being committed by many priests in their sexual predation on young boys and girls entrusted to their educational and religious care.

In contrast Protestants did not seem to fare as well in Hollywood. Elmer Gantry (1960) perhaps best illustrates the theme that some Protestant sects were little more that scams and cons perpetrated in revival tents and strorefront “churches” on the credulous, gullible and ignorant that appeared again in a bio-pic like Marjoe ((1972), and maintaining the “country” connection of protestant sects in films like Tender Mercies (1982), a theme that is re-confirmed on countless radio and television religious programs since the revival of fundamentalist Christianity over the past few decades.


The Good Sisters

Is it just that I was whacked with their rulers and terrified by their piety and accusing scowls that I think that Protestants have nothing that can compete dramatically with those “brides of Christ,” the nuns? The Prods have nothing as mysteriously weird as the good sisters. Convents functioned for a long time as dumping grounds for unwanted daughters, escapes for tired wives, brothels for clergy, probably a haven for a fair share of lesbians and Holy Mothers Church’s slave labor. These days there are many of them left, at least in America; but they will always remain, especially if you were turned over to their influence as an impressionable elementary school child, a source of fascination, fear and wonder.

Not long ago, on TCM, I found myself watching––again––The Song of Bernadette, the 1943 movie about the little peasant girl of Lourdes who started seeing “a lady in white” in a grotto by the town dump. Why? I say again because I don’t know whether I used to have this sexual fascination with Jennifer Jones, who reminded me of my fifth grade nun, Sr. Mary Sharon, about whom I had the same fascination; or, whether I have some latent, unresolved thing about nuns in general (I understand it’s a porn thing with some guys). But if I get into that it will be one too many layers for this narrative to handle. I’ll just promise to get some counseling for all this, later.

However, I do want to divert for a few paragraphs on the matter of nuns in the movies, a subset of cinematic curiosity that is shared by a couple dozen guys on the planet (who also probably need counseling). I think you have to expect this sort of thing when impressionable young boys are turned over to the first non-mommy authoritative women in their lives, to the plenary authority of female penguins wielding two-pound crucifixes with mace-like lethality. Well, anyway . . .

So, back to the movies, and a question that yet haunts the minds of those young boys since grown up: who is “the best nun?” [Yes, I do mind if you go off and check your email or text messages now . . . it’s your loss.]

First we have The Song of Bernadette (1943) with Jones, at age twenty-four, playing a teenager (but she had those permanent ingenu-ish looks; see Portrait of Jennie). We don’t get to see her in habit until late in the film, but she prepares the rest of the time wearing a peasant veil and comporting herself with such unassailable piety that she disarms a doubting priest, the town doctor and eventually everybody else, even if none of them can only “see” the beautiful lady in white” by way of some alleged “miracles.” If you want to find some sensuality in Jones’s Bernadette you have to impute it from one of her other roles (maybe Madame Bovary, or Duel in the Sun). She is one of Christ’s “brides”,” but he has quite a seraglio to deal with and appears not to have an opinion on the matter. But in my book she remains in the running for “best nun.”

Then there is Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) playing this sort of sublimated sinful thought script with Bing Crosby as Fr. O’Malley. (Come to think of it, Bergman probably looked more like Sr. Mary Sharon than the others.) Bergman was aged thirty at the time and looking very “prima,” although this time she is rather self-assured as Sr. Mary Benedict, not the conflicted lover in Casablanca or the dominated wife in Gaslight. Clearly, the best part of the movie is her teaching a bullied student how to box. As a kid, when I first saw it, you wonder about what a nice couple father O’Malley and sister Benedict seem to make, but you know almost instinctively that there is no possibility, at least from the point of view of Hollywood, that the double doors of vows of celibacy will be breached.

By 1959 Hollywood was more willing to address that there was complexity to Jesus’ bigamous relationships with pretty, young nuns in The Nun’s Story.[4] That’s how it is for Sr. Luke (Audrey Hepburn), the last of my three candidates for the Sr. Mary Sharon of my blasphemous fantasies. I end up voting Audrey the “best nun” probably because she decides to leave after the order refuses to send her back to work on tropical diseases in the Congo and refuses to renounce the Nazis I (who killed her father in the Resistance).

Although it might someday make an interesting nun movie Ron Hansen’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, the cover of which features the ecstatic face of Bernini’s St. Theresa, deserves inclusion here. The story is about Mariette Baptiste, the subject of about a rather anachronistic convent of an order of Belgian nuns in Upstate New York in 1906. Unlike the nuns of our movies, this is one of those cloistered orders that entirely renounces “the world” for a life of simple labors, orderly days, prayer, gossip, boredom, and the various forms of insanity that come with institutions that are founded on a bedrock of fantasy.

Marie’s father, like Sr. Luke’s, is a physician and her sister is already the Prioress of the convent. (As myself a father of two daughters I cannot help but wonder at what it would be to bring them into this world to waste their lives in self-indulgent preparation for a delusional afterlife.[5] But, hey, that’s just moi.) So lovely little Mariette joins up and Hansen creatively leads us through a process in which the cumulative circadian rote of convent life can sap members of this ersatz sorority of all womanhood, or drive it inexorably to forms of sexual fantasy masquerading as holiness. I particularly appreciated the manner in which he renders the sort of twisted reasoning that comes from this sort of context. In a “scene” in which Mariette is with her confessor, Fr. Marriott, she has already confessed being disobedient by innocently imitating one of the other nuns. After Marriott tells her, . . . “just imagine how it hurts Jesus to see you making fun of these holy women that he loves so dearly.” He then asks her about her other sins. Picking up from Hansen:

She hesitates for a moment and tells him, “I have not been getting consolations from the mass. I have too little faith or fervor. I feel almost forsaken by God. Spiritually dry.”

Pére Marriott says. “We hear this from the holiest people. Even as far back as Isaiah we read, ‘truly, you are a hidden God.’ Even Jesus at his death cried out, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We have to be patient at times we must permit God to rest in our presence. We have to believe that our good God not only loves us but is that which is most intimate to us. And if we truly need Him, there He’ll be. We can always rely on that.”

“Merci Bien, Pere Marriott.”

Later on, Mariette gradually is taken by her desire to be more pious and more intimate with her “husband,” to acquire or affect, with physiological evidence that appears and disappears and, with the shock of the premature death from cancer of her sister, the prioress, the stigmata of bleeding, wounded hands, feet, and side. That this throws the convent into a quandary—as though the reality of a physical manifestation of piety (or psychosomatic inducement) is too much to handle—that can only be resolved by denial and banishment.

There is another question to be broached here with regard to the way in which Christian, particularly in this case Roman Catholic, lore and dogma, pervert the sexuality of its adherents both clerical and lay. Probably the best way to express it is in that quirky way in which nuns become “brides of Christ.” When you’re a young boy who has a thing for his fifth grade teacher, but at the same time are told that she is a “bride” of a “resurrected” first century Jewish Rabbi, it kind of plays with your head. Consider how Hansen puts the following thought-voice in Mariette’s head when she is punished for presumably affecting the stigmata: “Mother Sainte-Raphael has forbidden me Communion for six days now. Oh, how I ache for him, and how tortured and sick and desolate I have felt without him! I grieve to imagine how dull and haggard and ugly his Mariette must seem to him now! And yet I should think myself hateful if being deprived of him for these six days had not grossly disfigured me. [Then, directly to her “lover/husband”] What a cruel mistress I am to complain so much about your absence when I should be wooing you and praising you for your kindness and sweet presence.”

I know that this is a work of fiction, but when you start out with a religious tradition that marries women to their God and cloisters them in celibacy, what should you expect.

©2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.12.2015)

[1] McDannell, Catholics in the Movies, P. 14
[2] These were known as “The Bowery Boys,” a group of young actors that made several movies that this author saw as a youth, that began with the 1937 film, also set in New York, Dead End. See James A. Clapp, The American City in the Cinema (Transaction Press, 2013)
[3] Based on the actual home for wayward boys founded by Fr. Flanagan outside of Omaha, Nebraska.
[4] It is worth noting that there are more examples of the prettified portrayals of convent life, for example, among my favorites are: Lillies of the Field (1963) in which an itinerant black handyman, Sidney Poitier, forms an affecting relationship with a bunch of East European nuns resettled to the American southwest; and Green Dolphin Street (1947) in which a guy loses the girl he loves to booze and Jesus (but that’s the way, Jesus probably had it all planned out). More recently there is The Doubt (2008), although there is no doubt that Meryl Streep does such a masterful job at playing a desexualized Sr. Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of the Catholic school she oversees, that she is definitely not a candidate for “best nun” for my sister Mary Sharon fantasy.
[5] To be fair there are, and have been, many nuns who have given selflessly of themselves in the service of others as nurses and teachers, often paying further suffering rape, torture, or assassination but, at a minimum, their exploitation by the Roman Catholic Church.

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