According to Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul was struck blind by a vision of Jesus while on the road to Damascus. Up until then he’d been an active persecutor of early Christians, but within three days he was preaching that Jesus was the Son of God.
Losing your religion, on the other hand, is a much slower process. As Monica Dux explores in her memoir, Lapsed, faith is a sticky beast. When her daughter asks to be baptised while on a family holiday in Rome, Dux re-examines her relationship to Catholicism – in particular, her transition from a devout ten-year-old playing Jesus in an Easter play, to a staunch atheist.
As a fellow ex-believer, Lapsed feels like the group therapy session I needed after 13 years of Catholic school. I may have turned my back on the One True Faith, but its rituals have stayed with me; like Dux, I still have the urge to bless myself on the rare occasion I enter a church. ‘One of the Catholic bones I still had stuck in my throat, unable to cough the damn thing out’, as she would put it. The fact that her experiences so closely resemble mine, and those of my old school friends, makes for some satisfying reading. Dux is a deliciously irreverent narrator, and her commentary takes the edge off years of internalised shame and butchered sex education – for anyone who was taught abstinence as the preferred method of contraception, the chapter ‘Making Babies with God’ is a particularly cathartic experience.
But Dux’s critiques are always balanced. As much as she enjoys poking fun at Catholic quirks, she makes space to reflect on the positive impact the Church had on her life, especially the sense of belonging it gave her as a child. I get the feeling that she’s honouring the pious ten-year-old she used to be.
As I’ve mentioned above, Lapsed will have a particular resonance for other ex-Catholics. And while she’s got our attention, Dux takes us into some thorny territory – most notably in the chapter ‘Rotten Apples’, where she covers the extent of paedophilia in the Church with well-harnessed rage. There are more revelations in ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ and ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic!’, which explores how the figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, respectively, have been mythologised.
Throughout the book, Dux isn’t afraid to ask the reader some tricky questions; as lapsed Catholics, is it enough that we quietly turn away from our faith instead of calling out the harm perpetuated by the Church? And to what extent are we complicit in that harm when we continue to uphold these institutions – be that by baptising our children or enrolling them in Catholic schools – despite the fact that we no longer believe?
Even those who don’t have a connection to Catholicism have much to glean from this book. Dux deliberately writes for an audience unfamiliar with Catholic practice, covering complex topics like Vatican II and the consecrated host without oversimplifying them in any way. Instead, she explains the particulars succinctly – and with her signature wry wit. These sections thread easily into the more personal chapters, as Lapsed is first and foremost a memoir. Other than exploring her own process of unbelieving, Dux examines the Church’s influence on members of her family, and the relationships they had with their faith. History, theology and autobiography are beautifully interwoven.
While I was reading, I kept thinking about Shaun Micallef’s testimonial for this book, where he describes Lapsed as an ‘exorcism of our need to believe in a man in the sky’. And I think that’s precisely what this book is – an interrogation of why Catholics believe in the God they believe in, and why that belief is so hard to let go of. In an interview with Radio National, Dux said that she began writing this book as a means to cut those final ties between her and the man upstairs. ‘Maybe if I figure all that out then I could just unpack it all and get rid of it,’ she said. ‘I still see myself as very Catholic and I know it’s imprinted on me.’ The rituals, the idea of sin, the sense of wonder in the world around you – each of these things get under your skin.
Lapsed is essential reading for every ex-Catholic – and their support group. Fans of the piercing observations of Clementine Ford and the wry humour of David Sedaris are sure to feel in safe hands with Monica Dux.
Reviewed by Melina Bunting, The Book Bird’s new guest book reviewer. Read Melina’s review of New Animal by Ella Baxter here.