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October 15, 2007
Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl
John Cornwell is an author and currently Director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge. His work is a tenderhearted and realistic look at his life as a young teen-ager in a Roman Catholic seminary in the West Midlands of England just after World War II.
Brought up in a family with a father afflicted by epilepsy and psychological problems, a wildly determined, fierce Irish Catholic mother and many siblings, Cornwell finds himself stranded between two radically different worlds: the turbulent life of a poor family on holidays and the austere and intellectual demanding community of Cotton College.
Choices mark the seminary boy's path. As Cornwell moves through his seminary education he reads avidly about different models of spirituality. Should he follow Thomas a Kempis, Francis de Sales, or Saint Therese's path? And what about friends? In friendships made and broken, he details the deep uncertainities of an attachment as he slowly becomes aware that he must choose to resist or allow a seduction by one of the boys. He learns about what the priests describe as "unnatural attachment." The ambiguous and heart-wrenching mixture of religion, love and adolescent sexuality are portrayed honestly and without contempt.
What of the different priest-teachers at Cotton College? As an early twenty-first century reader, habituated to expect the worse by the last 20 years of newspaper headlines, one is pleasantly surprised to read of the generally positive influence the sometimes-eccentric teachers had on Cornwell. For the most part they loved their subject matter, were patient with the boys but swift to discipline, maintained their boundaries and in some cases took pains to cultivate the talents they saw in Cornwell. One is also struck by the honesty and unwillingness to make Cornwell or his peers feel guilty when it came to the boys' struggles with the realities of developing adolescent sexuality.
This work excels in Cornwell's exquisite descriptions of a young boy who learns to love God, who finds the strains of passionate religious devotion within himself as he explores the loving heart of Jesus and its contrast with the wild, rugged beauty of the countryside around the College which bespeaks of God, Creator. It is a rare work that can describe adolescent spirituality with the fine and delicate manner Cornwell employs.
If you are interested in spiritual autobiography, this is one of the finest early twenty-first century examples one might find.