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Seminary Boy

Harper Perennial
RRP $22.99)

"Seminary Boy" is a memoir by a renowned historian about his schoolyears at a ‘minor’ seminary, called Cotton College, in the West Midlands of England.

Cotton, which closed in 1987, was one of five similar institutions in England in which students prepared for ‘senior’ seminary and the Roman Catholic priesthood.

This book is satisfying on several levels. As a social history, it taught me much about working class Catholicism in the United Kingdom during the 1940s and 1950s.

As a childhood memoir, it reveals how the struggles of early adolescence can be recalled and retold with sensitivity and significance.

But it is as an account of spiritual formation that "Seminary Boy" is a primary source. Cornwell is making sense of his search for identity, intimacy and inspiration – from deprived childhood in war torn East London, to regimented boarding school in idyllic North Staffordshire, and thereupon to young adulthood as a seminarian and scholar in Birmingham and Oxford.

Cornwell never became a priest and, for some years, lost his faith completely. By the book’s end, however, he describes his journey back to the Faith of his Fathers.

"Many who have turned away from religion to embrace agnosticism and atheism, as I had done, are perhaps as much in a state of desert spirituality, the ‘dark night of the soul’, as any contemplative. What we are escaping is not God at all, but the false representations, the ‘trash and tinsel’, as W. B. Yeats once put it, that pass for him."

This reminds me of earnest discussions of my university days in which seasoned believers would tell questioning newcomers, "I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in."

So it is a great and effective memoir which prompts the reader to remember their own journey. I think many Journey readers will relish "Seminary Boy": it is full of nourishing goodness.

Reviewed by Mark Young