Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I was the first of my family to apostatize, and—since the family ends in me—I must be the last. It is, I suppose, an inglorious end for a Lancashire Catholic line that always prided itself on holding to the faith, even in the darkest of the penal days. I have a portrait of an ancestor who lost his land to the Crown because he was a Catholic; there is a tradition of an earlier ancestor who lost his life. The family suffered, apparently, so that I could achieve apostasy: an ironical end to the fight for freedom of worship. I am far from happy about this situation, but nobody can actively will loss of faith.

Or can they? Depth psychology bewilders us with its layers of will under will under will, the limited monarchy of surface volition, the real government of the unconscious. When, at sixteen, I ceased to go to Mass, the family chid me with laziness, an unwillingness to get out of bed. A more subtle member of the family suggested that a desire for sleep in a bigger sense was my true motivation for ceasing to conform: I wanted death to usher in Winston Churchill’s “black velvet.” The old woman in The Way of All Flesh was quoted at me. She said to the Rev. Theobald Pontifex: “I can do without heaven, sir, but I can’t do with hell.” Or purgatory either, she might have added had her Anglicanism been higher.

I confess that I want pagan night—una nox dormienda—not solely, however, because nothingness is better than the prospect of pain, even terminable pain. It is more because I want Anthony Burgess blotted out as a flaw in the universe: a terrible sin of presumption, orthodoxy might counter, for who am I to question my worth to God? That I do question it is a fact, and no amount of earnest expostulation seems able to change the position. Nor can my own intransigence change that other position, the eternal one, if it is valid: God, if He wants me, will have me despite my protests. But am I not rather asking God to cast me into the bottomless pit, having briefly—after death—vouchsafed a wink of the ultimate revelation? I cannot think that He would do this solely on my failure to believe, the breaking down of the faith engine. If He would, I don’t want Him anyway: We would be well rid of each other. Like most apostates, I don’t find that my behavior has been any worse since it lost its eschatological sanctions. The desire to be good, charitable, temperate, and so on has attained a sharp relish through being more an end in itself. I have sinned against the Commandments of the Church, but so has the greater part of mankind.

I find that I have no quarrel with any aspect of the whole corpus of Catholic doctrine: Granted the ignition spark of faith, all the tenets of the Church would hold for me. Indeed, I tend to be puristic about these, even uneasy about what I consider to be dangerous tendencies to slackness, cheapness, ecumenical dilutions. My cousin is an archbishop; when I went to his enthronement I was appalled at the pedestrian nature of the English liturgy, the demotic sickliness of “Soul of My Savior,” which I had thought the Church to have long discarded as a shameful bit of cheap sugar, and the general weakening of the nobility of the Mass—once either gorgeously baroque or monastically austere. Similarly, I am unhappy about Papal ditherings over clerical celibacy and the use of contraceptives. It is the ancestral voices inside me, prophesying war.

Strictly speaking, I have no right to feel anything at all about the way the Church is going, and no right either to remember as much ecclesiastical history as I do or to buy and read paperbacks on theology. I am an unbeliever. But if I were to become a believer again, it would not be the Church alone that would flame back to life for me; it would be Islam, Buddhism, even our own little schismatic English Church. It would be the numinous principle, the duality of good and evil. I cannot see Catholicism as more than the right Western manifestation of ultimate truth. If I were to be committed to it again, it would be because it orchestrated (or, more properly, provided the harmonic basis for) the civilization in which I grew up and which I try to serve. On the other hand, I have lived in the East and heard the muezzin call the faithful to prayer. And I have known pious Buddhists and been awed by most saintly Hindus. I have seen workmen in Malaya weeping over the accidental killing of an insect. And I have heard British Catholic bishops affirming the purely mechanical nature of animal life. If I accept once again that Catholicism has all the answers, then it is likely that I will have to do violence to certain elements in my nature—the conviction, for instance, that all life is one, or that it is better to have polygamy than the starving widows of soldiers begging in the streets.

Envy of another’s spiritual good is one of the sins against the Holy Ghost. I avoid envying the believer, but it is with no indifferent eye that I view the flood of worshippers pouring into the Catholic church at the corner of my street. I want to be one of them, but wanting is not enough. The position of standing on the periphery is one that I share with many men of good will; the state of being a lapsed Catholic is so painful that it sometimes seems to generate a positive charge, as though it had in itself a certain religious validity. Perhaps some of the prayers that go for the souls in purgatory might occasionally be used for us. Those souls at least know where they are. We don’t. I don’t.

Anthony Burgess (1917–1993) was a novelist, poet, playwright, composer, and critic. He is best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange. This essay, which first appeared in the February 1967 issue of Triumph, is reprinted with permission of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles