The Devils of Loudun
Displaying the virtue of chastity contra vice
Henry was in his glory when surrounded by us in soiree discussions. About a dozen of his fans would meet every Tuesday at his theater where we’d discuss religion and politics. His brilliant mind gave us the opportunity to ricochet ideas around, as in a game of racket ball.
He had been chief assistant to a famous television/film producer for years, editing the script for a prime time show every week. Leaving that all-consuming job, he opened his own theater in a small Southern California town. He would compose, produce, and direct volunteer amateur actors in a new musical satire every month. His plays consistently won drama awards and favorable reviews. He told us this was the most fulfilling period of his life.
He’d been on the faculty of a Catholic seminary where he taught sacred music. So it was surprising to learn that he’d become an agnostic, ever since he left his wife and son to pursue a homosexual lifestyle in Hollywood. When the AIDS scare first hit, he and his steady lovers swore fidelity to each other, thus avoiding infection.
I regularly met with him in private at his apartment, where we’d discuss all sorts of things. I braced for his sexual overtures, often jokingly made. Boasting that God made him gay, he ached to consummate our intellectual intimacy in a more physical way. But I had revealed from the start of our acquaintance my inviolable dedication to Christ, affirming that my chaste intimacy with God was quite enough. He took it as a challenge to win me over, baffled that any attractive man would be so austere as to sacrifice the erotic pleasures. “God gave us sex to freely enjoy without guilt trips,” he’d often say. Trying to explain to him the mystery of divine union with Christ became an exercise in futility, so I remained an unfathomable enigma in his mind.
One day over lunch, The Devils of Loudun became the topic of our discussion.
“You’re up on the hypocrisy of the Church regarding homosexuality?” he asked.
“Clergy sexual abuse and cover up? Yeah.”
“Oh, that’s small potatoes. It goes much deeper and way back. Have you ever read The Devils of Loudun, a nonfiction novel written in 1952 by Aldous Huxley?”
“I read it about 40 years ago. I forget the details,” I said, taking another bite of taco.
“I’d been thinking of doing it as a play until I learned that one was staged by John Whiting. You know me… I’m always looking for shocking, controversial stuff. They even did a film called The Devils, starring Vanessa Redgrave,” he said.
“The Church has been covering up its sex scandals for centuries. Nothing new.”
“Oh, has it ever. Let me refresh your memory about The Devils with its religious fanaticism, sexual repression, and mass hysteria occurring back in 17th-century France. That reality-play took place in the small town of Loudun, its protagonist being a Roman Catholic priest antagonized by an entire convent of Ursuline nuns who allegedly became possessed by demons after he made a pact with Satan. A sequence of sordid events led to several public exorcisms of solemnly professed nuns, as well as the priest’s execution.”
“Didn’t that priest have a promiscuous reputation before his troubles? I believe he was falsely accused, and a jury found him not guilty. But I don’t recall what happened.”
“He publicly blamed power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu of political shenanigans — which of course was true. This angered the prelate who forced another trial that found the priest guilty as charged. Even as he stood bound at the stake for his alleged devilry and the flames surged, he never admitted guilt.”
“So, what’s your point?”
“That our sexual instinct is not the evil, but the Church’s doctrine repressing it is,” he said, sitting up and slapping his hands for emphasis. “Essentially, the Church is wrong for insisting on celibacy in its priests and nuns. It’s brought out the devil in them.”
“Here are more examples of that: Littlemore Priory in Oxford, England in the 14th century, where nuns were seduced by monks, and their babies aborted or murdered. Or consider the nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio during the 1850s, who reported the devil took over their Prioress who required novices to have sex with her. Then she ordered secret serial poisonings of novices who resisted her lesbian advances, murdering some of them. As recently as 2014, a 33-year-old Sister of the Little Disciples of Jesus had a baby she named Francis, after the current Pope, mind you. Ain’t that a kick in the womb?” he laughed. “Back to the Borgias and beyond, scores of illegitimate children, rampant nepotism, and murderous intrigue forge a long history of white-washed hypocrisy.”
“Your point is that the Church’s doctrine of celibacy has been a disaster. But that doesn’t mean Her moral doctrine is wrong, only that it’s difficult to put into practice. So we’re supposed to abandon Christ’s teachings and behave like Bonobos, having sex whenever we can get it?”
A bevy of sparrows landed on the balcony railing and sang to us in a tweeting chorus as if the heavens gave support to the notion of free sex.
“Wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Compared with warlike Chimps, Bonobos have a matriarchal culture that invites strangers and releases its aggression by having ad-lib sex.”
“Sounds like a kind of hippie-utopia,” I said.
“Exactly. So why not enjoy sex while you can?” he asked. “You’re not getting any younger, you know. And you can repent as I intend to do on my death bed, like Oscar Wilde, converting to Catholicism in my 11th hour, as insurance.”
“Sorry, but there’s where you and I must part,” I said, standing up to leave.
“No offense meant,” he said with a seductive smile, finishing his Chardonnay.
“None taken. But I hope you can obtain God’s forgiveness for trying to seduce me.”
We both had a good laugh over that. Unwashed dishes from our lunch were piled in his sink, so I washed them before I departed. His multiple sclerosis made it difficult to do chores.
His activities gradually decreased as symptoms worsened such that he couldn’t feel his fingertips at piano keys or his feet at its pedals. He had closed his theater and focused on compiling his musical scores and videos into 25 e-books to sell through Amazon. I saw Henry one last time before he died; he was unable to even get out of bed to use his wheelchair but was eagerly working on his 26th book. He seemed quietly resigned to his fate.
Not long after, I got the news he’d gone to his reward. I bet he managed an Oscar in his dying breath.
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