How I failed the St Paul correspondence course

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I dropped into a church on Sunday for the first time in ages. It was in Ireland, and the place was packed with Catholic faithful - the congregation from which I departed, with a cheery wave, in the mid-1970s. Things have changed since the last time I looked. These days, the priest jokes about the local nuns betting on the races, €20 notes (rather than 20p bits) nestle in the plastic collection trays and a dozen female deaconesses dish out the communion hosts. It was all terribly bright and modern, and should you require a comforting burst of ritualised metaphysics, I can warmly recommend it. There seemed to be fewer of the things - the irritating, the smug, the illogical things - that put me off the religion when young, even before I'd begun to lose my faith in God.

Then we got to the Readings, and it all came roaring back. It was a passage from the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians, and it started off like this: "I, the prisoner in the Lord, implore you to lead a life worthy of your vocation. Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together..." So it rolls on, this orotund epistle, lecturing its passive audience like a housemaster. When I was young, the Epistles of St Paul (mostly to the "Corinthians") were always being read out at Sunday Mass, so we could derive the benefit of their pompous and hectoring idealism. But it was because of these snippets of saintly wisdom that I parted company with religion.

Because, one day, a boy in my class asked the teacher: "Sir, did the Corinthians ever write back to St Paul? It seems a very one-sided correspondence." It was the most brilliant observation I'd ever heard. No Religious Studies teacher ever told us who the shadowy recipients of all these letters were, and I began to imagine their life.

I thought of them getting up in the morning, coming down to breakfast, and someone saying: "Any post?" and being told: "There's a couple of bills, a pizza delivery flyer - oh, and another damned great long one from St Paul," to a chorus of groans. Did they read St Paul's missive one by one, or did the guy nearest the tea urn read it aloud for the company (and were there jeers when he came to the line about "complete selflessness, gentleness and patience"?). Did they tick each other off for forgetting to send the great man the equivalent of a thank-you letter?

Did they nominate someone to write back with all the news? What would it say? "Dear St Paul; Thank you for your long and interesting letter, which we all enjoyed. We'll certainly try to do as you suggest! Everyone is well, though Ephrahim was afflicted with demons last month. Thaddeus and Solomon have taken up needlepoint, and Demetrius, son of Joab, has become a whizz at cooking! We're all off to Syria for the summer holidays and looking forward to it - the only trouble will be booking a guest-house that'll take all of us! We haven't heard from the Ephesians for a while - have they been in touch? Hope this finds you well. All the best, The Corinthians XX."

I imagined them as a company of 100-odd young male Catholic desperadoes living in some correctional facility (in, presumably, Corinth) and assumed to need daily doses of harangue and bluster to keep them on the right track. In other words, I thought of them as a gang of schoolboys like ourselves in our Jesuit academy, perhaps a little older and better at taking the mick. Once I'd got them (and the Ephesians) into my head, they took up residence there as a sort of resistance movement. They were evidently the ones St Paul was having a hard time with, approaching them with both flattery and warnings, just as the priests yelled at us for backsliding while simultaneously cajoling us into behaving properly.

I never found out who the Corinthians were. But their eloquent silence in the Great St Paul Correspondence was important. It meant that either you were on the side of the bullying saint, or you were with the mutinous boys on the receiving end.

After that day, I found it hard to take the Epistles seriously. Soon the Gospels started to unravel, then the Beatitudes, then the Acts of the Apostles, then the whole "moth-eaten, musical brocade", as Larkin called religion... So if anyone ever asks what makes you lose your faith, the answer's simple. It's them pesky Corinthians.

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