Portrait of a Marxist as a Young Nun

Helena Sheehan       Helena Sheehan aka Sr Helen Eugenie teaching


What follows is a draft  of  parts of  a  work-in-progress called  NAVIGATING THE ZEITGEIST.   Parts of it have been published previously in  Marxism and Spirituality: An International Anthology  (Westport & London 1993)   and Socialism and the Spirit of the Age  (Belgrade 1989).   This text  was written in 1988.

Home page: Dr. Helena Sheehan        E-mail: helena.sheehan@dcu.ie


Sometimes I feel as if I have lived through eons in a matter of decades. The waves of historical change such as swept over centuries in the past seem to have swept through my world several times over already.  And who knows what I have yet to see ?  I am perhaps only halfway through the time I may expect my life to be.


In the beginning, there was little indication that it would be this way.   It was such a stable world .  Or so it seemed.

It seemed as if all historical change was in the past and that history had come to a kind of final resting point. All important issues were presented as basically settled. The answers only had to be looked up somewhere.  Here we were.  Dwight D Eisenhower was president of the greatest country in the world and Pius XII was pope of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, together personifying the stability and complacency of the world over which they jointly presided.

How little I knew, or could possibly have imagined,  what was to come.  There was little in the world of the 1950s to prepare us for the cataclysm of the 1960s.

Does cataclysm seem too strong a word ?  Perhaps.  Certainly, some came through the decade with barely a scratch on the armour that protected their insensitivity and incomprehension.  But for me, and not only for me, a whole world was swept under.  Only gradually did a new one come into view.  The shock of it, the acute sense of loss, the yawning abyss between what was lost and what was yet to be found, brought me to a crossroads and to the most severe test of my life.

What was lost ?  The whole world of my youth.  It is true that it was a world I later came to regard as well lost.  Nevertheless, no one will ever know how grievously I mourned its passing.

Its merits were not inconsiderable.  There was a strength to it that made it seem invulnerable.  There was a sweep to it that felt like totality.  There was such solace within its overarching grandeur.  It combined medieval synthesis and solemnity with modern science and technology.  Monastic discipline and space age savoir faire mingled in an alliance that could not hold, but would nonetheless leave its mark.

It seemed to be the best of all possible worlds.  Indeed, it seemed to be the only possible world.


More than anything else, my early life was dominated by the all-encompassing presence of the Roman Catholic Church.  My family was catholic.  My friends were catholic.  My schools were catholic.  My books were catholic.   Imprimatur  and  nihil obstat   were as natural and essential as title and author in opening pages of a book.

It was the rituals of the Catholic Church which above all else gave rhythm to the days and months and years of the first two decades of my life.  Its rites of passage marked most decisively the stages through which I moved onward through my life world.   . . . .

Each year revolved in the grooves of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, May procession, Pentecost.

Everything was codified with such precision: 10 commandments, 6 precepts of the church, 7 sacraments, 8 beatitudes, 7 capital sins, 12 apostles, 14 stations of the cross, 9 first Fridays, 40 hours devotion to the blessed sacrament, 5 joyful mysteries, 5 sorrowful mysteries, 5 glorious mysteries, 5 our fathers, 10 hail marys, 5 glory bes to the father.

In time, I discerned different streams within this overall flow.  Although a young female, I developed an increasing aversion to the traditions of female spirituality ... rosaries, scapulars, apparitions, sugary sentimental prayers.  In high school, I was taught by an order of nuns who seemed to believe the most central cause of the day was the beatification of their foundress.  I felt my impatience with it all would reach breaking point at assemblies where girls would get up and declare:
 

        "I couldn't get my car started and then I prayed to Cornelia Connolly and then the car started."


Cornelia Connolly cured them of their colds, helped them find lost money (although this was supposed to be the job of St Anthony) and took care of mysterious 'special intentions'.  The nuns prayed less to an adult Christ than to the holy child, which I thought was not only irrational but neurotic.

I read voluminously and soon felt that I had not only passed beyond my classmates but my teachers as well.  My only close friend of my own age went to a different school and was male and black (setting off an interminable series of lectures from my mother about Martin Luther King and communist agitators), but mostly I sought out the company of older men, particularly Jesuits.  I found it progressively difficult to have any respect for the female species in general and nuns in particular.

And yet I became a nun.

All my role models were men.  I gravitated towards traditions of male spirituality, Jesuit traditions, which I found stronger, more rationalist, more activist.  I prayed in the spirit of Ignatius of Loyola:

    "Teach me to be generous,to give without counting the cost, to fight without heeding the wounds..."

I wanted to give myself without reserve.  It was inevitable that I entered the convent, even though it meant enclosing myself within a world of women, leaving behind my notions of a career in politics, sublimating my sexuality, a vague and mysterious force to me, in ways I scarcely understood.

It was inevitable, because I was so oriented towards having a comprehensive world view and living in harmony with it.   I thought that people around me were so busy going somewhere that they forgot to find out where they were going.  This became axiomatic for me.  It defined what I saw most people around me doing and what I was most resolved not to do.  I was determined to see what I called 'the big picture' and to live in a way which kept it clearly in focus.

Catholicism addressed the big picture and demanded of its chosen the most complete commitment to contemplating it and communicating it.  I did have my moments of doubt about its explanations, but I poured over apologetics textbooks and managed to convince myself that my doubts had been cogently answered.  It did occur to me that I was only catholic because I was born into it and that others believed just as strongly in other religions, which I knew were out there, but I managed to channel my reading of books about other religions into an interpretation of them as pale approximations of the total truth that was catholicism and their adherents as half-hearted about religious practice, compared to catholics.

I felt 'called'.  I believed that this thrust toward totality, which was so strong in me and made me so preoccupied with questions of origin and destiny, was God's way of pulling me toward the religious life.  I was conditioned to interpret it this way by the constant emphasis on 'vocation', which led me to believe that this restless searching was a sign of having been chosen to play a special role in understanding and teaching.


The day of my entrance to the convent was one of the most drastic rituals of closing one chapter of a life and beginning another that I have ever known.  I closed the trunk full of the exact number of undershirts, black stockings, pencils, bars of soap, bottles of shampoo, etc. on the list, placed on the top an envelope with my 'dowry' I had worked all summer to earn and donned the black serge dress of a postulant.  I said goodbye to friends and neighbors and brothers and sisters and looked around the house for what I believed to be the last time and got into the car.

My parents and the nun who was my sponsor chattered away about what a beautiful autumn day it was, how it was better to be early than late, how long it would take to get to Chestnut Hill, how I would never have to worry about having a roof over my head (how wrong they were about that).   I let it all pass over me, impressing on myself the enormity of what I was doing and anticipating the contemplative silence that was ahead.   When we arrived, I was taken away, given my number in the order, shown to my cell in the dormitory and taken to a hall to say my goodbyes.   When the decisive bell (the bell, we were told, was the voice of God) rang, we formed in rank in the order of our numbers and filed into chapel.  One by one, we approached the altar and received the postulant's veil.

From that day on, it was the strictest regime: mass, meditation, meals, manual labour, spiritual reading.  There were precise instructions down to the smallest detail: how to walk (noiselessly, eyes down, hands inside sleeves, close to the wall, measured steps), how often to wash our hair (once a week), how often to change our underwear (every 3 days), how to undress without looking at our bodies (slip the nightdress over the head before taking underwear off), how to make our beds (square corners), how to eat a banana (with a fork).

We were assigned to fixed places in refectory, in chapel, at recreation.  Recreation was the one hour a day when we were allowed to speak.  There were rigid guidelines about topics which could and could not be discussed.   We were not to speak of our past life, we were not to criticise our present life (this meant not only not criticising our superiors but even not commenting on the food).   We were not to use the adjective 'my'.   It was 'our' book, 'our' veil, 'our' slip, etc.   If we were told to put our name in something, it was written 'For the use of Sister...'   There were no newspapers.   There were no letters except to and from our parents (but not during Lent or retreat) and these were censored.

During these months we received instruction in the holy rule and in the 3 vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.   The chapter of the holy rule on chastity was remarkable in that it dealt with virtually everything except sex.   It began:

"The sisters shall live in the congregation as the angels live in heaven, that is, their life is to be altogether interior and spiritual and detached from everything sensual."

It went on.   We were never to look at another person in the eyes.   We were never to touch another person.   We were never to converse with one person alone, ie, we were to be in company of three or more.   We were to have no 'particular friendships'.   We were to have no unnecessary conversations with males 'whether lay or ecclesiastical'.   For necessary conversations another sister was to be present and report to the superior.

There was something in me rebelling all the time against the monastic ethos, against the whole negative vocabulary of death and renunciation.   We were to be 'dead to the self', 'dead to the flesh', 'dead to the world'.   The habit we were sewing and would soon be wearing for the rest of our lives was to be our shroud.   Yet, I asked myself, wasn't it God who created the world, the flesh, ourselves, our feelings for others ?   But according to Thomas a Kempis:

I couldn't accept it.   The attitude of blind unquestioning obedience was alien to me.   I often thought of the line from the film The Nun's Story, spoken to Gabrielle by her father on the day of her entrance: I believed in discipline.   I wanted to purge myself of self-indulgence and to give myself to something larger than myself.   But I could not renounce my standards of intellectual and emotional integrity, which, however immature, were nevertheless very strong in me.

This, of course, was intellectual pride.   I was constantly reprimanded for this, even when I said nothing.  They knew the signs.   They could read it on my face, which had not yet gone dead in the way it was supposed to do.   We were supposed to do our best in the tasks we were given to do and yet we were caught in a trap when we did them well and were accused and accused ourselves of pride.   When others came to me for help with their studies or with their sewing, at both of which I excelled, I was caught in a contradiction:  I was confident in my abilities and wished to be gracious and generous toward others who were not so confident or able, but to help them was to be proud and arrogant.

I was told I had to conquer my pride and I tried to be humble, but no sooner did I make some advance than I took pride in my humility.   This spirituality built around constant self-scrutiny and striving for perfection was torment to me, as it took my already extreme self-scrutinising and perfectionist tendencies and turned them from constructive to destructive forces.   I wasn't so much the self-scrutinising and perfectionism that constituted the problem, as much as the fact that it was based on a dualism of body and spirit, of reason and faith, which went against the grain of my quest for wholeness.  The anti-physicalism, and even more the anti-intellectualism, came as a constant assault on my character.   Others simply let it roll off their backs without torturing themselves in the negative energy and the impossible contradictions that it engendered.

We were gradually introduced to a whole series of secret practices: things which were never to be discussed outside the order, in fact, things which were not to be discussed inside the order, except to our superiors: examen, penances, acts of humility, chapter of faults and what was called 'the discipline'.

We knew nothing of 'the discipline' until holy week.  We were in retreat in preparation for the ceremony of being formally received into the order on Easter Monday.  We had been immersed in the Good Friday liturgy, full of the vivid imagery of scourging at the pillar, bleeding from the wounds, carrying the cross, crucifixion, death for our sins.  We then had a conference with the mistress of novices.  She produced an instrument, a chain which branched out into a number of sub-chains, each with a hook at the end, and instructed us in the precise techniques of self-flagellation.  Every Saturday night from henceforth we were to go to the dormitory after night prayers and before recreation and remove our corsets (the stiff old-fashioned kind with stays and laces) and underpants and tie our stockings below our knees.  No one who has never experienced it can know the sheer oddity of wearing layers upon layers of white linen and black serge and a long flowing veil and a stiff guimpe with no underpants making edifying conversation in the common room.  At the end of recreation, the bell would ring, the lights would go out and the shades would go down.  We pulled our veils down over our faces, our sleeves down over our hands, our skirts up over our backs.  We would then take out our instrument and inflict it upon ourselves as hard as was possible without drawing blood, while reciting prayers in unison.

We were somewhat shocked by this, but we had come this far and accepted so many things leading up to it, that we accepted it and moved on to the excitement of Easter and Easter Monday.  In contrast, there was the most absurd fussing over our physical appearance as we set our hair, practiced walking in white high heeled shoes and saw the solemnity and self-abnegation of the novitiate broken by girlish giggles and the silliest of wedding day preparations.  There were 79 of us (out of 90 who had entered on the same day) all to be brides the next day.

On Easter Monday, we dressed in long white dresses and wedding veils and new hairdos and solemnly filed into the enormous chapel of the mother house to the strains of the novitiate choir singing Veni Sponsa Christi:

  Come, bride of Christ, receive the crown that has been prepared for you . . .
 At the appointed time, we prostrated ourselves in the aisles and gave the prescribed answers to the prescribed questions asked by the bishop: It went on in this vein.  We promised to live by the rules of the congregation.  We declared ourselves dead to the world, dead to the flesh, dead to our old selves.  One by one, we then approached the bishop who put into our hands the habit of the order.  Out we processed in white carrying the black habits solemnly in our hands.  Outside in a room set aside, we were undressed down to our slips by older nuns.  Then our hair was severely cut (the next day our heads were shaved).  We were then clothed in the habit: the long black serge dress, the cincture around the waist with heavy rosary attached, the white linen framing the face, the stiff white guimpe covering the chest and then crowning it all, the flowing black veil.  We then processed back into the chapel dressed in the habit.  The bishop then read out our names: These, we were told, were the names by which we would be known in heaven.  We had been asked to submit three names in order of preference, but the name given might not be any of these.  In my case, it was none of these.


Life in the novitiate, especially during what was called the canonical year, was even stricter than life in the postulate.  We went into deep cloister.  There was even less contact with the outside world.  There were no more university studies other than theology.  There was more meditation, more penance, more severe scrutiny, more merciless admonition.   The occasional letters which we were forced to write home were bland beyond belief.  Anything about what went on behind our cloistered walls was out, as was any reference to our personal feelings.   Most letters were lyrical descriptions of nature and the change of seasons on the grounds of the mother house with dutiful and cliched praise of the glory of God revealed in His creation.    Any real literary flare, even in doing this, would result in the letter being handed back for rewriting with a strong rebuke for vanity and another exhortation to empty the self.

Meals were full of tension.  Except on Sundays and first class feasts, they were taken in silence while an assigned sister read an assigned book of spiritual reading.  One such book expounded the exceedingly saccharine spirituality of Teresita Quevedo, a Spanish nun.  It was very popular with the other sisters, but generated such antipathy in me that the effect on my digestion was the least of my troubles.  The tension in the refectory was heightened by all sorts of other factors: the difficulty of keeping custody of the eyes when a senile older sister started acting up, the difficulty of not laughing when something stuck us funny.  Every morning the lives of the saints according to their feast days were read at breakfast.  One day it was the story of a saint who was so chaste even from infancy that he refused his mother's breast.  It set off a giddiness in me that I could not repress, no matter how hard I tried.  In fact, in circumstances of such solemnity and such tension, the harder one tries not to laugh the more difficult it become to stop.  Needless to say, penance had to be done.  Even for lesser offenses, such as allowing a knife to fall off a plate, it was necessary to get up from the table, pull the sleeves down over the hands and the veil down over the face, walk to the top of the huge refectory, kneel before the superior, kiss the floor and say:

We would the kiss the floor again, rise, go to our place, kneel down, kiss the floor, say the prayers, kiss the floor again, rise, pin up sleeves and veil, sit down and finish eating at the same time as everyone else.  Trying to do so often generated such nervousness as to make it almost certain to drop a fork or make some other unnecessary noise and start the whole cycle all over again.  The refectory was also the scene for acts of humility assigned by the superior.  A sister would have to rise, pull down sleeves and veil, kneel, kiss the floor, stretch out her arms and say: She would then kiss the floor, pin up sleeves and veil and go to her place.

Another regular ritual was chapter of faults.  Every Friday night after recreation, the lights would go out, the shades down, the veils down over the face, the sleeves down over the hands, and, one by one, we would approach the superior, kiss the floor, prostrate ourselves and confess our infractions of the holy rule.  If any sister knew of an infraction a sister had committed that she had not declared, she was obliged, in charity, to accuse her.  The superior would then admonish her and give her a penance to do.

I persevered through the novitiate, although it was a severe struggle.  I was totally alone in my struggle with its contradictions and with my irrepressible rebelliousness.  I couldn't control the rebellion, neither of my mind nor of my body.  The questions wouldn't go away, nor would the floods of tears at night or the crippling abdominal pains in the morning.  I could not reconcile myself to the constant negation of what I felt in the depths of myself should be affirmed.  I could not acquiesce to the persistent pressure to divide what I felt should be united and what could not in any case be divided, despite all the prescriptions and pretensions.  I could not separate my soul either from my mind or from my body.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not convince myself that it could or should be done.

On the other side of it, however, there were moments of such exhilaration.  I remember times singing the requiem mass in the novitiate choir when a nun in the order died and was brought to the mother house to be buried.  It seemed as if the world came together and everything was in its place.


During my third year, I was a full time teacher in a parish school in North Philadelphia.  Although it was a relief to be away from the cloister of the mother house and mixing with people in the outside world again, it actually accentuated the contradictions.  I was given a series of tests, which were not quite as drastic as the instruction given to Sister Luke in The Nun's Story to fail her examinations because another nun felt humiliated by her academic excellence, but they were along the same lines.  Because I was an enthusiastic and creative teacher, I brought down upon myself bitter (and exceedingly bitchy) resentment within the convent.

Another problem arose from the fact that the parish was wracked with racial tension.  It was not just that I opposed the racism of the white working class parishioners and the pastor and principal (who was also my religious superior), who wanted to bring in a legitimacy rule to keep black kids out of the school.   It was that I had very strong feelings towards these black kids that were not reducible to my anti-racism and that was against all the rules.  Sometimes they would come crying to me and everything in me wanted to pull their faces into my skirts and run my fingers through their bristly hair.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that virtually everything that was natural and human and healthy about me was against some rule and I came to a point of crisis in relation to the whole monastic ethos.  One night I stayed up all night crying, praying, pushing myself to the point of decision.  By dawn, I had achieved some sort of clarity and I decided to leave.  The next day was one of the most difficult days of my life.  I had a day's work to do as a teacher, but everything was different.  I was still wearing a nun's habit and still being addressed as Sister Helen Eugenie SSJ, only I didn't really feel it was me any more.  I still had things to do to arrange my departure and to finish the school year, but I no longer abided so strictly by the rules.  I made phone calls without permission.  I posted letters without giving them to my superior to read first.   I couldn't live this way for long.  I couldn't bear the feeling of not being at one with myself.

My superior, who had given me permission to acquire and read Kung, Suenens and Teilhard de Chardin (because she was too dim to know what she was doing), was bewildered by my reasons.  I was her first point of contact with the ferment that was about to sweep through the church like a tidal wave.  She told me not to mention it to any of the other sisters or parishioners and sent me up to the mother house to explain myself.

It was highly unlikely that I would even have known that these authors existed.  Although I was in the convent during Vatican II, we were remarkably untouched by it.  However, I was exceedingly (my mistress of novices would have said excessively) curious about it and I managed to find out something of what was being discussed among contemporary theologians from Jesuits, who came to see me.   I found in the new thinking emerging in the church at that time an affirmation of my most lonely thoughts, which contributed to a growing confidence that I was not wrong and I was not alone.  It was a more healthy, more positive attitude, not so preoccupied with crippling negation.  It affirmed the questioning mind and responsible commitment over unquestioning faith and blind obedience.

I felt that I was leaving for all the same reasons as I entered.   I still felt called.   I even considered joining another order more in tune with the whole spirit of aggiornamento.   I did not anticipate that the questioning, which had brought me this far, would take me so far that I would not only no longer belong in the convent but that I would no longer believe in the church.

It was arranged for me to leave on the last day of the school year.  The other sisters were to leave for school as usual without noticing that I wasn't coming.  Then my mother was to arrive with clothes.   When she arrived, the superior brought me these clothes and sent me into the nearest lavatory.  To be asked to take off this habit, which had been given to me in such splendour, in such a desultory fashion got to me.   I took it off, remembering what each part of it symbolised and how carefully I had always handled it, and left it in a heap on the floor.


I felt such a misfit in the world to which I returned.   It was not just the Rip van Winkle effect of discovering how things had moved on in the time I was gone.  I t was a feeling of being neither here nor there, of being thoroughly out of joint with the world around me, of there being no place for me.

Even on the most superficial level, it was hard to get used to wearing ordinary clothes.  I kept feeling the lack of the long flowing veil and the swish of the long heavy skirts.   I was a frightful sight.  On a school outing before I left, I had got sunburned, so there was a red triangle cutting up my face in the most unnatural manner, which was accentuated by an indentation left by the habit across my forehead.   I only had about half an inch of hair on my head from having my head shaved so recently.

On a deeper level, I plunged into a dark night of the soul.  The questioning process which had undermined the foundations of convent life for me was now unleashed in full force and went tearing into the very foundations of the whole catholic world view with relentless rigour.  I became obsessed with the question of the existence of God.  I went over and over all the answers in the apologetics textbooks.  I struggled with logic.  I prayed for faith.

I managed to continue to believe, but only through the new theology.  I responded most fully to the work of Teilhard de Chardin.  I loved his passionate affirmation of matter, of the earth.  I loved his respect for science, for reason.   I loved his world-historical, teleological grandeur.

On the practical side, I had to earn a living and to continue my education.  I got my university degree at night while doing a succession of 9 to 5 jobs during the day.  The first job after I left was in a direct line with what I had left behind.  At that time, it was unheard of for an ex-nun to continue to teach in the same school system.  I won that battle against the wishes of the order I had left and got a job teaching in a different school staffed by a different order.  Also, at that time, lay teachers were not allowed to teach religion.   I fought that and won as well, arguing that, if I had been qualified to teach it the year before,  I was still qualified the year after.

I threw myself into my teaching with little awareness of the controversy being stirred up by it and of the forces moving against me.  I was only a mild liberal (especially compared to what I was later to become).  I taught religion in the spirit of Vatican II theology.  I taught the kids to sing We Shall Overcome and talked about the civil rights movement down south.  That was all, but in 1965 it was considered too much.  I became an early casualty in the post-Vatican II struggle between the agents of aggiornamento and defenders of orthodoxy.

One day I was called out of my classroom and told by the principal-superior that I was to go immediately downtown to the office of the superintendent of education.   When I arrived, I was told that I was an excellent teacher and fired in the same breath.  I was right, he said, but I was too controversial.   Parents, priests and fellow teachers were complaining (to everyone except to me).  I had to go.  I was shocked.  I tried to pray.   I couldn't.  For the first time in my life, I felt that there was no one there to hear.  By the time I left his office, it was already dark.   It was late November.   It was thunder and lightening and pouring rain.   I felt as if the ground had come from under my feet.

In one day, all the questions of centuries came to a crescendo in my brain and I could no longer hold on to the beliefs which had sustained me in my life so far.  I felt the full force of all my accumulating doubts.  I turned a corner, in which I could no longer hold on to belief, sending me into free fall through a void, bereft of all my bearings, deprived of all my traditions.

I lost my faith, my job, my home, I lost the very meaning of my life, all within 24 hours, on a day that began in a most deceptive resemblance of normality.  I proclaimed the gospel that morning, albeit with the teilhardian gloss that was enabling me to hold onto it, teaching others what, by nightfall, I would no longer believe myself.  The shock jolted me into a break that was already inevitable.

When I arrived home, I was told that I had rocked the boat once too often and I stormed out in anger.   I walked the streets and lived out of bus terminals and railway stations.   I was as alone and as desperate as it was possible to be.


My whole world was in ruins.  In time, I would build anew, from new foundations upward.  But, in between the collapse of one world view and the reconstruction of another from the ruins, there was only the abyss.

I often wonder where I found the strength to cross the bridge from that emptiness to the first stirrings of hope in the possibility of a new fullness.  Perhaps it was sheer curiosity, a need to know:  if the world was not as I had thought it was, what way was it anyway ?  Or perhaps it was pure animal survival, the sort of natural evolutionary striving that brought our species up from the primal mud and the dark.

Whatever it was that got me to the turning point, past the make or break, the crucible, the boundary situation, I did begin to find my way through a long dark tunnel into a most intricate labyrinth.  Eventually, I discerned a shaft of light, which I followed to the point where I could stop stumbling in the darkness and see more and more of some kind of a road ahead of me.

People later told me that I had been ahead of my time, that I had come too soon, that if I had waited, everything would have been all right.  But, by then, I too had moved on.   I may have been moved by history, but I was tossed and torn at the crest of each wave and not dragged onward at the tail end of each unavoidable advance.


Philosophy, purged of theology, became the driving force of my life.

I was in many ways only emerging from the middle ages into the modern era, as I experienced within myself the breakdown of the medieval synthesis and lived through the history of modern philosophy in my own mind, coming in a rush to the conflicting voices of my own time.  Co-incident with my personal crisis of faith were the complex consequences of the relativisation effect of Vatican II upon the whole milieu in which I found myself.  In the Jesuit university, in which I was studying, the hegemony of scholastic philosophy was cracking.

As with many another ex-thomist, existentialist voices at first spoke most directly to my condition.  I studied philosophy with extraordinary intensity, which was a source of affectionate amusement to my teachers.  When one heard I was headed for the beach for the weekend, he speculated that my beach towel had on it:

                THE UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING (Socrates).

I laughed at such moments of light relief from the fierce existential angst, which nevertheless continued to weigh heavily upon me in those days.

Another lecturer at the time predicted a prolonged virginity for me, because:

He felt it was a safe bet to assume that nobody had yet been subjected to such a stark discomfort, given the fact that I had only recently left the convent and had only got as far as turning into a secular equivalent, a heideggerian variant of being-towards-death after taking off the veil.  I absolutely reeked of sturm und drang.   I brooded with neantisation.   I ached for authenticity.   Not exactly a barrel of laughs.   Not the way to unwind after a hard day's work.

This too would pass, but it had to run its course.  There were no short cuts between the dissolution of a complete world view and the emergence of a well-grounded alternative.   A long and winding road stretched between what was lost and what was yet to be found.

Prometheus defying the gods and seizing fire, Sisyphus negating the gods and raising rocks, Zarathustra proclaiming the death of God and the transcendence of man, Atlas, proud and unyielding, sustaining alone the world he had fashioned:  these were the most powerful images illuminating the darkness and pointing beyond it.   The rebellion, the higher fidelity, the transvaluation of values, the free man's worship:  these were some of the crucial concepts in adjusting to a universe henceforth without a master and affirming it as neither sterile nor futile and finding the strength to live and love and create in it. 4

But learning to say yes to life, looking for the meaning of life in life itself, finding the joy of the struggle in the struggle itself; this was only a beginning, an orientation.   It was not enough.

Existentialism took me through the transition to the point of taking up the materials of my own times once again, this time more rooted in concrete experience and aware of the open-ended and precarious character of human existence, but it had too many lacunae for me to build anything more solid on it.  Its emphasis on the isolated individual alone with his fate addressed my own isolation and alienation, but it did not do justice to the socio-historical context of human existence (even of the experience of isolation and alienation).  Its tendency to undervalue the rational and to reject systematising thought was a necessary counterbalance to past systems, but it could not form the basis of a new synthesis.

There were (and still are) many pressures against the very idea of a new synthesis.  The sheer complexity of contemporary experience has produced a plethora of philosophical movements eschewing in no uncertain terms the very idea of such a synthesis.  I have read and considered all such arguments and argued vigourously against their exponents, but not without assimilating whatever I believed to be of value in logical positivism, linguistic analysis, pragmatism, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism and all the variants thereof and not without refining my own concepts in the process.

I could not live my life, however, without a picture of the world in which I was living it, without being able to see my story within a larger story.  Any philosophy lacking the thrust toward totality ultimately became part of the problem rather than its solution.  Up to a point, such philosophies highlight the complexities and difficulties in coming to terms with the intricacies of contemporary experience, but beyond a certain point, they obstruct a deeper coming to terms and inhibit a more daring grasp of its meaning. They do not illuminate experience, but add to the darkness.  They do not organise experience, but add to the clutter.

I always struggled to see things whole.  I always sought to grasp the totality.  I could ultimately never settle for anything less.

Of course, I was born into a ready-made totality.  I was nurtured by the intellectual comprehensiveness and ritual grandeur of pre-Vatican II catholicism and, even when the bottom fell out of it and I could no longer believe in it, leaving me raw and rootless and roaming a world which felt like a wasteland, it nevertheless left a taste for totality, which I could not shake off, no matter how well I subsequently learned to live without God and Mass and Heaven and Christmas.

Indeed, I came to believe that I should not shake it off.  It was something too basic to depend on the validity of one particular way of seeing the totality.  A few years later, when I had resurfaced in full flight expounding on the need to have a revolutionary vision as well as a revolutionary movement, Tom Hayden once remarked that I had a very catholic sort of mind.

 I have always acknowledged this debt to catholicism, however radical my rejection of nearly everything else about it. It inculcated a belief in having a comprehensive world view and a demand for total commitment to the values flowing from it, which has stood me in good stead, even if it has been turned to purposes the church never intended for it.

This is a far deeper and much different thing from the glib interpretation often put on a transformation such as mine, which is superficially seen as simply substituting one religion for another. When I later told a protestant professor of mine that I had joined the Communist Party of Ireland, he wrote back to me:

"I don't understand how you could have become a communist, but then again, I've never been a catholic either."
It was true, but there was much more to be said. I did not go directly from being a catholic to being a communist. There were many ports and many storms between the one and the other.  There were many vantage points, from which to see the world, explored between these two places.

The contrasts were as striking as the continuities.  Learning to explain the natural world without recourse to supernatural forces, learning to live without God, learning to live without the church:  these marked a sharp break not to be taken lightly, especially by those who have never been able to find it in themselves to make it.

The many continuities, the taste for totality, both in terms of philosophical vision and moral commitment, the need to ritualise that vision and that commitment, the emphasis on a strong inner life as a foundation for our outer relationships:  these are fundamental human strivings.  They have expressed themselves through the world's religions in the course of our evolutionary development so far, but they are not reducible to religion.  They can not only survive religious belief, but they can evolve into higher forms.

I do not believe that spirituality is dependent upon religion, however much it has been nurtured and developed by it, but it is dependent on world view.  By spirituality I mean that deepest core of a person where we sort ourselves out in relation to our most fundamental assumptions, our deepest values.  This active sorting out involves a constant synthesising of experience, not only our own immediate personal experience, but the collective experience of our world.

Even though I have now lived more of my life as an atheist than I did as a theist, I feel as great a need for contemplation as ever I did.  No matter how much the activist, I need a considerable amount of time alone to contemplate.  No matter how talkative I can be, I require an extraordinary amount of silence.  In fact the activism feeds upon the contemplation and the talk feeds upon the silence and vice versa.

The great interest in spirituality today indicates a great hunger for something that has been lost, but the flurry of new fads on the one hand and the revival of religion on the other reflect a desire for a quick fix, a short cut, a second-hand spirituality.  But the old forms cannot meet the needs of a new age and the new fads will only reinforce the worst evasions of the new age.  The quick fix will leave the vessel even more empty.  There are no short cuts, no esoteric techniques, no magic mantras, to fill that need to be one with oneself and at one with what is worth affirming in the wider world.  There is no second hand fulfillment of this need.

Even if we locate ourselves within an existing tradition, we need to work through it in our own time and in our own way in order to make it fully our own.  It must be our own thinking, our own synthesising of experience, to produce our own world view, which can be the only grounding for a sound spirituality.  Very few people are willing to do this, but those are the only people who are truly centred, the only people who are really 'together'.

Although I eventually found in marxism a far firmer grounding for my spirituality, I still find more in common with religious believers who have really sorted it all out for themselves than with other marxists who haven't. Although I have found within marxism the ultimate resources I have needed to sort it all out,  I cannot say that I have met too many marxists who are as 'soulful', as deep, as warm, as generous as christians.  It needn't be so.

I find everything positive that I have taken from my christian past entirely compatible with marxism, even including what has been called mystical experience.  Both before and after believing in God, I have had moments of heightened awareness and emotional exhilaration, a powerful feeling for the fullness of things, a merging with the totality.  Openness to the far reaches of human experience, both the heights and the depths, needs no God to underwrite it.

In my striving for synthesis, marxism did not at first present itself as a fully-fledged option, although I drew on Marx along with Feuerbach, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, James, Dewey, Whitehead and put together the elements of a world view that was processive, relational, contextual, holistic, naturalist, historicist.


I was evolving politically as well as philosophically and struggling for an analysis of the social order as well as the cosmic context.  It was not only that I could no longer sing Faith of Our Fathers, but before long The Star-Spangled Banner had to go as well.  The stable world of my youth, in which a good catholic was a good American, was well and truly shattered.  Once the seemless web had come untangled, every thread had to be taken up again.  The whole of the civil society I had taken for granted had to be called into question and sorted out all over again.

Not that everyone who lived through the same years felt the vibrations of these tempestuous tides in the same way.  Indeed, many of my contemporaries pursued their daily rounds and private pleasures, living lives remarkably similar to those of their parents, selling insurance, pushing prams, buying wallpaper, eating pizza, mowing lawns, watching soap operas and securing pensions, untroubled by apocalyptic interrogation, untouched by epochal engagement.  They felt no need to hurl themselves at history in the making, no compulsion to feel the pulse of the times, no obsession with being at the cutting edge of the era.

Others of my contemporaries, however, were made of different stuff and had other priorities.  With them, I felt the pulsations of powerful forces converging within me and radiating out again.

"Here you are," said Tom Hayden, handing me a cup of coffee on the day after we first met, "this will help carry you forward to the next era of history."  He had a way of seeing and saying things like that, things that not only penetrated personality, but gathered up the collective experience of a generation and coaxed it another step.  It was a time for saying things like that.

It was a time of transformation, breathing the air of which made many people more world-historical than at any time I remember before or since.  We all struggled in those days to name the zeitgeist and to name ourselves in relation to it.  I burned with it, so much so that I was teasingly called "World-Historical Helena", even among others who burned with it.

In the Port Huron Statement, I found an analysis of American society and a sense of direction toward an alternative that spoke powerfully both to my estrangement and to my longing.  As a new left activist, I attended and then organised anti-war marches, draft and tax resistance, women's liberation meetings and talked long into the night about everything from food prices to free love, in an atmosphere in which everything seemed to be up for grabs, all philosophical assumptions had to be re-thought and all social arrangements had to be re-negotiated.

A momentum had been building and gathering mass and velocity.  Questioning that began in response to particular injustices swelled into a critique of capitalism, which saw racism, sexism, poverty and war, no longer as isolated phenomena that occurred in spite of the system, but as interconnected manifestations that emerged because of it.  Movements mobilised for specific reforms converged and adopted the rhetoric of revolution.  Peaceful protests erupted into increasingly bitter and violent confrontations.

Civil society was torn asunder.  Families were split down the middle.  At times we even shocked ourselves by how far we had come and how quickly.  One of the slogans of the day was:

"We are the people our parents warned us against."
We could no longer sit down cozily to Thanksgiving dinners together.  I certainly couldn't sit down with my brother who was transporting nerve gas to Thailand.   Gone were the days of watching Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and playing cowboys and indians together.  I had faced a flank of soldiers with gas masks on and bayonets fixed at Fort Dix and wondered if any of  them was my brother before being tear gassed.  The interface between us and them was more and more marked by marches, occupations, arrests, trials and prisons.
scenes from the antiwar movement 1970-72
The whole texture of our everyday lives was transformed in a fantastic flourishing of new forms: a vibrant counter-culture of communes, co-ops, collectives, sit-ins, teach-ins, be-ins, liberated zones, consciousness raising, street theatre, underground press and independent cinema.  It was a whole vast network of alternative institutions, which we prematurely saw as the embryo of a new society germinating within the shell of the old.

It was an atmosphere which brought spirituality into politics, in a way that was different from anything we had previously known or even imagined.  Much of it was in the mode of a quick fix, latching on to eastern religions as a panacea for everything that was wrong with the western world.   For myself, however, it was the discovery that politics was about everything, about consciousness, about the texture of everyday life, and not just about governmental institutions.  It posed problems requiring original solutions, for which there were no gurus and no panaceas to bridge the gap between what we wanted to destroy and what we wanted to create.


There is still much to be said in settling accounts with the 60s and the great tide of social unrest that shook much of the western world to its very foundations, despite the recent flurry of superficial and spurious assessments of it, as the mass media noted in 1988 that it had been twenty years since the watershed year 1968.  Jerry Rubin's egoistic and exhibitionist trip from YIPPIE to YUPPIE has received more media attention than all the serious work of all of the rest of us in all the years since, in our long march through all the institutions of society.  The lingering impression left by it all is of spoiled kids running on a rampage and getting high on the action, who have now either grown up to become prospering entrepreneurs and respectable matrons or have not grown up and bask in anachronistic sixties nostalgia irrelevant to the 80s.

Despite desertion by the opportunist, the cowardly, the faint-hearted, the flotsam that flow with every tide and despite genuine casualties, those really committed then are still committed now, sadder but wiser, older, quieter, less certain of the future, but far from finished.

What did we accomplish ?  In the 60s, we seized the intellectual and moral initiative.  We shook up a very smug and stable social order, which would never be the same again.  We challenged the hegemony of the dominant ideology and shattered forever the consensus of the 50s.

It is true that we have since lost that initiative and witnessed the aggressive re-assertion of all that we sought to undermine: the primacy of the free market, imperialist patriotism, traditionalist definitions of male and female roles, fundamentalist religion.  However, the pendulum has not swung back to where it was and these areas remain disputed territory.

It is true that no government fell, but it is also true that no government has ever ruled in such an uncontested way as before.  It is true that capitalism has prevailed and indeed has shown itself to be a far more resilient system than we ever imagined, capable of restructuring itself and regaining lost ground on a scale we never could have anticipated.  However, our critique of capitalism has not been refuted and massive (if not so noisy) disaffection remains and may yet rise up again.

The legacy of the 60s is contested and complex.  It is a story of both victory and defeat.  Our defeats were due, not only to the resilience of the capitalist system, but also to our own limitations and blindspots.  Our movement splintered into bitter and opposing factions, each with its own set of particular limitations and blindspots.

As for myself, I took issue with the strain of anti-intellectualism, the cult of violence, the tyranny of structurelessness, the romanticisation of the third world, the indulgence of drug culture, the ethos of consumption versus  production.  I did, however, share the general new left rejection of the old left, naivete about power politics, ignorance of economics, suspicion of science and technology.


In the 70s, I set out to re-assess my new left attitude to the old left and to fill in the gaps left open in my world view in the 60s.  This was greatly facilitated by the fact that I left America in the early 70s and I have lived in Europe ever since.

In America, I grew up in the shadow of cold war anti-communism and it was at first difficult enough to move to the left and to soften into a kind of anti-anti-communism, without immediately embracing communism.  After growing up on the Army-Mc Carthy hearings and I Led Three Lives, it was a mind-blowing experience even to find myself in the same room as communists in anti-war coalitions.  Like other new left activists, I was constantly clashing with old left activists, stalinists and trotskyists alike, whom we saw as stodgy, manipulative, unimaginative, overcautious and reductionist.  For their part, they were forever counterposing what they called bread and butter issues to the worst excesses of drug culture, flower power and free love.


Next:  coming to Ireland /  the Irish left
            living in Europe: east and west / marxism and the communist movement

                                                     (under construction)


Home page: Dr. Helena Sheehan    E-mail: helena.sheehan@dcu.ie

More pages:

Marxism and the Philosophy of Science:A Critical History
The Fate of Marxism
The October Revolution: Marxism in Power
Lysenko and Lysenkoism
Ideas and Purges: Soviet Intellectual Life in the 1930s
The Comintern: Early Days and High Hopes
Christopher Caudwell  JD Bernal   JBS Haldane
The Comintern: Discussion, Debate, Disillusion, Dissolution
Has the Red Flag Fallen ?
European Socialism: A Blind Alley or a Long and Winding Road ? Reflections on the Trajectory of History
Grand Narratives Then and Now: 150 years after the Communist Manifesto
Gender and Genre