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Best of 2011: Germaine Greer's Catholic education


For the last three years my 15-year-old goddaughter Louella and I have been sharing novels, music, and having long coast to city phone conversations in which we debate the merits of the post-religious zeitgeist to which she subscribes.

I remember her as a young kid of six or seven: a sepia-eyed cherub with Quattracento ringlets who loved nothing better than spending an hour in a church amidst the ceremonial hush and slightly breathcatching air of spent frankincense. She also liked to pray in earnest back then, and seemed to pull a sanctuary about her like an extra blankey at the mere mention of a thing called a god.

These days when I remind her of this she sounds fond of her younger self, like a poet who knows her juvenilia is both embarrassing and the first evidence of herself as a creature of talent. For her that religious infancy perhaps represents the credulous first steps on her journey to the higher truth of political responsibility and existential freedom.

If only the church could grow up like I have, I hear her say. We could solve half the problems of the world with that one long overdue coming of age.

Implied in all this — and remember that Lelly finds science as genuinely awesome as drums and bass — is that her own intellectual growth has been merely a Darwinian thing, that her tendency towards the beauty of passionate enquiry has evolved to its only plausible conclusion: atheism.

The big problem with this, however, and she'd be the very first to admit it, is that five days a week, and sometimes in her dreams and nightmares, she attends a 137 year old Catholic girls school, in which the razor-tongue of Jesus, and the ardent reportage of his four most widely read offsiders, gets every bit as much of a look-in as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Voltaire, or Don Draper.

She has been angling, or should I say, sardonically demanding, to be freed from what she perceives as the fossilised superstition and ritualised sexism of this salubrious Irish Catholic institution pretty much since the first day she arrived there.

But as her third year at the school wound to a close last year, and just as she'd pressed her point home persistently enough to warrant emergency meetings between her parents and the staff, she agreed to go around again for one last time, mainly because the prospect of waiting a year before moving to the school of her choice — north of the city, green leaning, with Whitlamish roots — for the stressy apotheosis of years 11 and 12, made more evolutionary sense than changing streams for the sake of the rather less important travails of year 10.

After devouring Kate Holden's In My Skin on the couch at her mother's house, or texting delighted imprecations to friends from her father's flat about how she is Paloma, the 13-year-old Parisian narrator from The Elegance Of The Hedgehog, the theological assumptions upon which her school is based can easily seem just that: assumptions.

Not having been raised to respect demure conversational acquiescence or to see the curtsy as in any way fashionably retro, sparks flew from her on day one in the rather all-pervasive college uniform.

With hand perpetually raised, mainly to extol the follies of monotheism, which, as any Twilight-loving 12-year-old of 2008 could have told you are embarrassing, she moved quickly through The Creed, which was not to be found on Rage but rather in real life as a neurotic liturgical hangover from the admittedly cinematic days of the crusades and which she still had to chant in bad faith beside her Muslim best friend every time she was required to attend mass.

A loquacious bullet-list of religious hypocrisies followed until ultimately she felt the need, no, the obligation, to declare in class, with all the pluck of Mary MacKillop, that she was, despite the anachronistic cloud of purity hanging over their heads as students of the Catholic college, a very proud atheist.

She rang me that week to debrief, knowing that I would both sympathise and loathe what she had done, and it was then that I chanced upon what I thought was a master stroke.

After months of telling her that her so-called 'loony nunnery' was giving her a solid point of difference among the future mandarins of her generation, as well as an invaluable immersion in the admittedly stagnating traditions which nevertheless still formed the core of the European model of society in which we lived; and that she may decide one day that cavorting with the urbane herd on the headlong tram of abandon had not set her up after all for anything other than anti-depressants; also that she got all the well meaning atheism and unaffected altruism she needed in her two loving post-slacker homes of a morning, night, and weekend; in short, after almost convincing even myself to find faith in the vaguely Buddhist values of balance, I finally struck on the less soporific inspiration, which I like to think has helped her view her decision to stay on for another year as, in fact, very cool.

Over the course of our many droll phone conversations I'd tried various role models on her: Joan of Arc, MacKillop, and also the apocryphally ordained Celtic Priestess, Sinead O'Connor, who didn't help the cause simply because my goddaughter didn't rate the music (such rigour!).

But recently, and for a completely unrelated purpose, I had been surveying some of the more bombastic performances of our own convent-educated Germaine Greer on YouTube and the lightbulb went on. Here was the trump card par excellence for the struggling godfather of our times, a woman with all the qualities my young spiritual charge admired: intellectual brilliance, an insatiable appetite for social justice, reckless courage, a natural gift for the spotlight, an incurable case of martyr allergy, a sassy style, and, importantly, a reliably contradictory streak of anti-totalitarian self righteousness.

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Greer was the weapon I'd been looking for all along and I hadn't realised it, only because I'd never thought of her as a chip off the old block of a convent education. But now, as I watched her explosive interviewee style time and again on the screen, I realised, with delicious feelings of post-religious irony, that that's exactly what she was.

And, dovetailing a bit further, I found she was also self proclaimed as a 'Catholic Atheist', which of course made perfect sense. For where else did she get that contrarian confidence, that relish for a fight, and that belief in the importance of challenging dodgy and repressive paradigms?

I decided to look no further in fulfilling my traditional duties, i.e. to help equip my goddaughter's boat for the piranha infested seas of spiritual life. Here, I realised, was the example that would keep her away from the clutches of generic liberalism, and I resolved to explain to her the conundrum.

So in the last week of the holidays I got on the phone. Yes, I said, you are destined for the cuttingest of edges, for the feistiest of causes and the most volcanic of love affairs and it is for that very reason that you have made the right decision to stay in the harness of the school you hate.

And no, not as a Dan Brown-ish penitential rite or sacrificial bride-of-christ type of thing but because you can rest assured, as the famous Catholic Atheist taught by your very same Presentation Sisters has proven, that an early induction into the sympathies and miracle-allowing symbolism on which the western world's wisdoms and prejudices are based, will better allow you to scoff with substance and to soar therefore into the stratosphere of your ambitious plans for a socially just future.

She listened as I wound up excitedly on my own case for the defence. Of course it occured to me that perhaps Germaine herself wouldn't appreciate being enlisted so enthusiastically by a male on behalf of an institution that has oppressed women for centuries, but I'm on a roll.

As the silence on the other end of the line begins to feel like traction, I hear myself saying: 'Who knows, one day you may even find yourself on the New York subway, in a spare moment from looking after your kids, thumb-dancing for the right app to give you the grounding you feel you now need in Latin.'

A familiar snort comes back down the line. 'Sure,' she drawls back, 'and when Germaine Greer becomes Pope, I'll buy you a free ticket to Rome.'

Apart from the fact that I'd love one day to spend some time in Rome with Lelly I have to admit that okay, touche, she wins again. We say goodbye laughing, and I promise to email her a pic of her godbrother, my seven-year-old son, with the tadpoles he'd just scooped from the sheeny surfeit of loose water near our house.

As I'm cutting and pasting the pic of my gappy-toothed naturalist later that night I remember the old Jesuit adage that the age of seven is the age of divine reason. But now, inspired by my goddaughter, and by her potential mentor Greer, I find myself manipulating this traditional wisdom to better suit my taste.

By simply watching creatures grow, helping them shimmy into the world, find their legs, and then make the tortuous transitions into the skins they can live comfortably within, we experience every day the divinest reason of all. To be alive that is.

So I write this by way of saying good luck this year Lelly, you know my number and you know you can call anytime, to continue the godfather-goddaughter debates, 2011-style.

Gregory DayGregory Day's novel The Patron Saint Of Eels won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2006. He has published two novels since, Ron McCoy's Sea of Diamonds, and The Grand Hotel . His epic CD of musical settings of W. B.Yeats, The Black Tower, was hailed by the Yeats Society of Ireland as the finest musical interpretations of Yeats ever made.

Topic tags: Gregory Day, germaine greer, goddaughter, catholic education, The Patron Saint Of Eels



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Existing comments

Gregory Lelly will arrive at her own destination based on the life experiences which confirm or deny her choice of atheism over belief in God..whatever that means in this era. What an exciting human being Go Lelly!!!

GAJ | 06 January 2012  

Thank you, Gregory Day, for this writing from the heart. How blessed a young girl to have such a god-father. Your understanding will help her metamorphise into a more empathetic, less abrasive woman than Greer is. She will welcome all persons, even Catholic nuns, into her coming life.

Caroline Storm | 06 January 2012  

'intellectual brilliance, an insatiable appetite for social justice, reckless courage, a natural gift for the spotlight, an incurable case of martyr allergy, a sassy style, and, importantly, a reliably contradictory streak of anti-totalitarian self righteousness' Great writing and a perfect description of the late Patricia Brennan, founder of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in the Anglican Church and one who did not enjoy a convent education.

Stuart | 06 January 2012