canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief

by T. F. Rigelhof

Goose Lane Editions, 2004


Reviewed by Gilbert W. Purdy  


T. F Rigelhof introduces his book Nothing Sacred with a description of the Solar Temple cult massacre, near Montreal in 1994, Cardinal Law’s resignation in 2002, a stroke Rigelhof himself suffered in 2003, and a reference to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. He informs the reader that, unlike Rousseau, he makes no claims to originality — the primary reason Rousseau gave to justify writing an autobiography — and his point is well taken. 


He has written an earlier book, A Blue Boy in a Black Dress (1995), which sold out its first printing and which “may or may not be the Canadian classic some have said it is, but [  ] is very difficult to obtain and commands a substantial price on the rare book market…”.  The book was also autobiographical, also included his experiences as a Catholic altar boy.


In the intervening time, since the earlier volume appeared, the Catholic Church has begun to endure its deeply saddening sexual abuse scandal.  As a result of this chronological inconvenience, the book made no observations on the matter.  Having written a book on a young boy and the Catholic Church, he has since been repeatedly asked, in light of present revelations, if he had ever been abused.  Although his previous publisher never saw fit to issue a second printing, the feedback the author has received convinces him that there is an audience for another go.


So then, Rigelhof has, after a fashion, done his market research.  His topic, it tells him, is timely and gripping.  There is only one problem: he was never sexually abused.  His complaints against the Catholic Church — inasmuch as he had any, to speak of — are not at all the stuff of scandal, not highly dramatic.  He may have been propositioned once by a priest in a Catholic high school that he did not wish to attend.   The one Jesuit teacher who he liked at the school felt he was mistaken, or even lying, and he marched off to get drunk.  That is the whole of it.  He left the church because he wanted to be free of the harsh discipline of the seminary.  He wanted to be himself.


Neither did his father ever abuse him.  The elder Rigelhof was, however, a Catholic, a parent and an adult: all groups which discouraged the author from being himself and launched him on an unnatural path which ended in drinking binges and regurgitation when infuriated and which nearly ended in suicide at a young age.  Like at least half of the teenagers in the world, he didn’t much like his father.  Like some, his father died before he grew out of being a teenager and the matter was left unresolved.  A selective, but nonetheless interminable, rendition of his childhood suggests that Father replaced father, as it were.


As a result of all of this, while the portraits T. F. Rigelhof draws, in Nothing Sacred, of the priests he knew at any length, are quite positive, he is regularly having to remind the reader that his own much more minor personal complaints were being rejected by a community, it would later be revealed, of specious pederasts and their apologists.  To his credit, he is honest about the parish priest who arranged for him to attend various Catholic schools on scholarship:

His words could be cruel and his manner mean, and he was probably as much loathed as loved, but Father Walt never allowed any priest in his parish to physically or verbally abuse any altar boy without facing his wrath.  Or to grow so friendly as to give a hug.  If it happened once, it never happened a second time.  Not on his watch.

Fellow seminarians, however, who may have been homosexual, are close enough to the issue that they must be pressed into service:

Everyone knew that overt homosexual acts could be punished by immediate expulsion.  Even so, a few seminarians weren’t circumspect about their attraction to other men.  They found things to do in small groups that seemed innocuous but provided lots of opportunities for pairings and privacy.…  A group that went on excursions to study the architecture and furnishings of local churches was also reputed to be inordinately fond of Judy Garland movies and wearing women’s silk underwear.

The author, having so little material to work with, is making the best he can of what lies at hand: the reader is informed that there are closet homosexuals in the church.  By innuendo, then, the roots of abuse begin in the very seed ground of the priesthood.


Again not to waste material, he has actually, undeniably been propositioned by a gay man who left no room for imagination or doubt.  Not being a homosexual, Rigelhof had no interest, of course:

My own sexual preferences were well defined.  Like my two friends and most heterosexual males of that age, I could fall into all sorts of involuntary erotic responses and become mildly unfocused by sudden flashes of human flesh, especially female cleavages fore and aft….  I found (and find) women of every complexion and colouration attractive.

While the proposition came at a health club suggested to him by a priest, the offer itself came from an army officer.  The author presumably being in favor of gays in the military, the officer provides no grist for his mill.  Never again, however, will he think that a priest who suggests a health club is innocent in his intentions.


Again and again, Rigelhof is faced with an authorial dilemma.  He finds himself praising heterosexual priests and casting mild aspersions upon homosexuals.  Early on in the abuse scandal, various allied gay and lesbian groups released statements making it clear that anyone who attempted to make the scandal into a homosexual problem would regret it.  This was to be framed as a priestly elite problem.  The target audience of Nothing Sacred is clearly the adherents of the wider alliance of secular liberation theologies.  To make matters even worse, this greater alliance is the religion he left Catholicism for: the religion of being oneself.  His is a ticklish situation, at best, and he does not prove able to craft any nuanced position in respect of it.


Not that he doesn’t do his best to be properly offended by priests.  There is, of course, the priest who insidiously suggested the health club.  The priest dubbed “Father Kitchen” seems impossibly cynical and nosy to young Rigelhof.  But it has to be admitted that Kitchen was absolutely uncompromising in his ideals.  The last glimpse we get of him, he is giving an object lesson to an abusive, alcoholic husband that the man is unlikely to forget.  “Father Ogre,” the rector of St. Pius X Seminary, makes life hell with his unbending adherence to the rules, rules, rules.  But the two meet again after the young seminarian has been years in the world at large and the older man, no longer rector, seems much more personable.

About “Father B” there is nothing but praise.  He takes the author under wing at seminary.  After years of hard, honest work, he has his own little room.  It’s nothing much, mind you, but it does have an amenity or two.  From his room, B. follows the proceedings of the Vatican II council and pours over  theological texts.  In order to balance off the highly favorable review of B., the author intersperses a commentary on the Catholic system of internal book censorship.


The author of Nothing Sacred was abused, alright.  Whatever good must be said of these representatives of the Catholic priesthood, they were preventing him from being himself. They knew as much and yet they persisted.  He almost killed himself as a result.  Now their church has been revealed for what it really is: a place of perversion, intolerance and archaic rituals no longer bearing any positive relationship to the world.


We are no longer small groups of illiterate, stateless people living off the land, surviving by our wits, depending on what women and donkeys can carry, listening to seers delivering divine messages from out of the whirling visions that engulf them and passing them off as eternal truths, and condemning everyone who doesn’t believe as they do.

Having meandered to this tired conclusion, and having dutifully implied that religion has remained fossilized at this level, Rigelhof proceeds to expand the reading list he periodically provides the reader.  On top of Rousseau and Thomas Merton, now are added the New Journalist Tom Wolfe, psychologist Steven Pinker, biologist E. O. Wilson and a host of authors who have written alternative visions of just who the historical Jesus of Nazareth might have been.  Tradition and religion have been set aside in favor of the contemporary and science.  Western internalized authority has been replaced by internalizing the mores of one’s group and the implications of one’s genetic profile.  The change is indicative and the list would be promising, in its realm, if it did not come two-thirds the way through a book which can only be characterized as confused and self-indulgent.


As for the final third of the book, it is a desultory grab-bag of barely connected personal anecdotes and observations on the ascendance of charismatic religion and on genetics and the cognitive sciences.  This is understood to contextualize and support gay marriage, it would seem.  But soon his support for gay marriage becomes support for civil unions and gives way to a closing discussion about the “mounting social and political chaos” and “[t]he possibility of human devolution” in the world today.


All of this said, the final assessment — inasmuch as there is one — is not inappropriate.  The author arrives, at last, at the conclusion that:

The complex mental processes that have created and continue to sustain religious beliefs have been wired into our neural apparatus by thousands of generations and ancestors numbering in the millions.


Our fundamental nature is a welter of genetically resonant adaptations suitable for Ice Age hunter-gatherers that are largely archaic and atrophied in most of our daily circumstances.

Neither assertion, as it turns out, is correct but each is within striking distance of being a fact.


Like so many great thinkers, Rousseau was also prone to being wrong in great ways.  It was Jean Jacques’ observation that man in his natural state is noble and that society thoroughly corrupts him with perverse demands upon his inherent gentleness and goodness.  It happens that the secular liberation theologies spoken of earlier are ineluctably based upon his historical whopper, as is Rigelhof’s memoir, his self-indulgence in writing it, and his method of reasoning by saying sort of whatever are sort of the prevailing ideas of his social milieu.


Of course this is absolute balderdash.  Not only is man not fundamentally noble but he is not even fundamentally an Ice Age hunter-gatherer.  He had already made tremendous strides in order to reach the hunter-gatherer stage.  Man is fundamentally a slightly upgraded version of his closest genetic relative from the animal kingdom: the chimpanzee.  Like the chimpanzee, he was amusing, and generally compassionate to those within his group who obey its mores — particularly its imperatives of territory and dominance.   But like a chimpanzee, he was also lazy, inattentive, moody, selfish, randy, a ready thief and liar, and prone to commit vicious physical attacks when his assessment tells him that he has little to fear from his potential victim.


Yet man has come to have the complex mental processes Rigelhof attributes to him.  These processes are decidedly not “wired into [his] neural apparatus”.  During the many tens of thousands of generations which have passed since man’s path separated from that of the chimpanzee there has been little change in the structure or size — the circuitry, as it were — of his brain.  Instead, they are wired into his culture, his collective social brain: a brain that evolves much more rapidly and is his whole reason for having become so much more than a chimp.  And it is all resoundingly about learning how not to be oneself: both the glory and the burden of being human.


As rapidly adaptive as culture is, compared to biological evolution, several million years have nevertheless been involved.  At some point, perhaps as little as 12,000 years ago, languages began to coalesce and what we presently call culture came into existence.  Storytellers were vital to the survival of the groups that acquired these languages.  We are left the mnemonic devices they utilized in order to maintain the vital identity and accumulated skills of the group over generations: rhythm, consonance, assonance, rhyme, etc.

About five thousand years ago the stories began to be “remembered” on clay tablets, animal skins and papyrus.  Stories repeated for thousands of years were folded into The Mahabharata, the Bible and the other records we now call sacred texts.  They teach us, as the storyteller taught his people, what laws and mores were best adapted to the circumstances of the time and place.  They provide records of medical precautions taken in order to avoid contagious diseases, healing techniques, military tactics, means of keeping the group birth rate as high as possible and much more.  Some were so successful that the conditions became possible to reflect upon still further progress for mankind.  Charity stabilized the group, they realized.  A generalized love among people did so even more.


Those stories were so exceptionally successful that it has become possible, over time, for more and more members of the group to join in writing the greater text should they wish to develop the skills to do so.  This as the demands placed upon the text are ever more complex.  Whether the group will survive the results intact remains, as with all new adaptations, to be seen. 


In the process of all of this, we have designed a culture so ubiquitous that every neural network within it is closely programmed during a process we call maturation.  A great philosopher might think that the release that comes from going on vacation to the woods or escaping the city for a rural commune proves that man is better off without civilization but what success may come of such actions comes from a neural network programmed with behaviors millions of years removed from our natural state.  Much to our benefit, we have succeeded to an astonishing degree, to this point, at not being ourselves.


As for the Catholic Church, its present sex scandal does not directly arise from archaic beliefs, an elitist attitude or even from gay priests.  It arises from priests choosing to be themselves.  The priests in question did not have the good grace to do as T. F. Rigelhof did when he finally admitted to himself that he preferred to follow Jean Jacques Rousseau rather than Jesus of Nazareth.  They saw no reason to lose their special opportunities for social and sexual access by an inconvenient honesty with themselves or others within their supposed group.  The honor system within which they operated was shot through with dishonorable and ignoble men that it had developed no tools to deal with.  Therein lies the single indisputable fault of the church itself: it refuses to admit to itself that, regardless of all representations to the contrary, its priests are often not Christian, have no grasp of the most fundamental tenet of their religion: that man is called upon not to be himself.


T. F. Rigelhof’s Nothing Sacred can only be recommended, by the compassionate reviewer, to the author’s family and friends and especially those friends for whom he so kindly contrived cameo roles in the book.  The author has mentioned, a number of times, that he has not fully recovered his capabilities as a writer or a reasoner in the wake of a stroke.  Nevertheless, there are some nicely turned descriptions of life as a Catholic altar boy in the 1950s and a general sense of what are some of the issues relating to religion in today’s world.  He could have avoided much that is problematical in his book if he had chosen to compromise his honesty.  Much to his credit, he did not.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); The Pedestal Magazine; Poetry International (San Diego State University); Grand Street; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); and Eclectica.  His Hyperlinked Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.  Query to







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