This is a first for the Pleased Middle, a real bona fide scoop. First, some background. About three years ago, the monks of Mount Melleray, as part of some sort of extreme penitence, were compelled to have John Waters as a sort of guest speaker at their annual retreat, giving two talks per day for six days. For foreign readers, John Waters is best described as a mash-up between a morose Peter Hitchens and Harvey Keitel’s character in Bad Lieutenant, though more psychologically unstable than either of those.
A few weeks ago, a defrocked monk, who wishes to remain anonymous, contacted the Pleased Middle Press Corps with his own account of what transpired during that six-day retreat. We thank our mystery monk for his dedication to the truth. Here follows his unedited account of that week.
About three years ago, while I was still a monk of the Cistercian Order, we were informed that we would have a guest speaker at our annual retreat. This was no surprise, for guest speakers (usually a nun or missionary of some kind) were, and are, a regular feature of the retreat. That year, unusually, our guest speaker was to be John Waters. I was quite excited until I discovered that it wasn’t the transgresssive film-maker, but a less interesting individual of the same name. Nevertheless I felt it would be stimulating for our spiritual development to hear perspectives from a layman, even if he wasn’t the director of Pink Flamingos. As such, I volunteered to welcome Mr. Waters to Mount Mellary and to show him around.
On Sunday evening, Mr. Waters arrived. I greeted him at the gates. The first impression Mr. Waters presents is that of a sexually embittered trad musician whose eyes are bottomless recesses of melancholy. Nevertheless, he managed a smile and thanked me for my hospitality. I inquired as to his journey and was surprised to discover that his drive from Dublin had taken over nine hours. When I asked why, he explained that he usually drove in bizarre, winding and circuitous patterns in order to avoid ‘them’. When I asked who ‘they’ were, he refused to answer. I would later discover that whenever Mr. Waters made veiled references to ‘them’, he was implying the existence of an international conspiracy involving the ‘lavender mafia’, family court judges and Diageo.
I took Mr. Waters to his room and allowed him to get comfortable. He placed his luggage in the corner of the room and produced a length of hard leather. Seemingly ignoring my presence, he stripped to his waist and began to whip himself mercilessly on his back. I attempted to interrupt him, informing the journalist that self-flaggelation was not common practice among Cistercians, and was, in fact, severely frowned upon. He just smiled and told me he would see me at breakfast.
Mr. Waters had agreed to provide two half-hour talks per day. Since the retreat formally began on a Monday, I awoke that day with some excitement as to what I could expect to learn from this layman. I was, alas, disappointed. The columnist’s first talk was a rather laboured piece of exegesis that tried to demonstrate that Patsy McGarry was the ‘lawless one’ referred to in 2 Thessalonians. The second was a rather unusual confession of John Waters’ own sexual proclivities, which was, I must confess, inappropriate and irrelevant, particularly when he asked for audience feedback as to the specific penance recommend for each of the (relatively mild) sex-acts described. Neither of these talks gave me much hope for what was to follow.
Tuesday was perhaps the nadir of the week. John’s first talk was a explanation of how much comfort he had taken from the Book of Job during his own persecution, during which he unironically compared his being called a homophobe on the Brendan O’Connor show to the destruction of the second temple. The second talk was less coherent, simply consisting of random threats of litigation.
Wednesday morning’s talk focused on what Waters described as the ‘continuing progress in Iraq and Libya’ which concluded with Waters anointing a papier maché AIM-9 Sidewinder missile with holy water. During the afternoon talk he described how the Irish Times had personally thwarted the consecration of Russia. When pressed for evidence, he produced an image in which he appeared to have crudely photoshopped a picture of the 1985 Moscow Victory Day parade to depict Fintan O’Toole (in full military garb) standing next to Gorbachev atop the Lenin Mausoleum.
Thursday’s talk revolved mainly around an event called the ‘Electric Picnic’ which I had previously believed to be a music festival, but which Mr. Waters described as a ritualistic cult-celebration. Central to his description was something called ‘Soul-Poison’ which I initially assumed to be some new form of recreational drug and / or musical genre. It turned out to be beer. The afternoon session, however, was a great deal worse, bordering on heretical when Waters claimed that he knew the third secret of Fatima, and that it involved alimony payments.
Both sessions on Friday were a powerpoint-aided taxonomy of the differences between paedophiles and ephebophiles. I wasn’t sure of its relevance to spirituality, though I was certainly impressed by its exhaustiveness and depth of research.
By the last day, John Waters’ health had visibly deteriorated. His hair and beard were tattered and unwashed, with substantial amounts of toffee knotted throughout. His pallor, not great to begin with, had declined to a sort of soupy-greyish blue. Indeed, his skin seemed to hang off his bones like melted wax. Nevertheless, he managed to hold himself together for the first talk in which he quoted extensively and approvingly from John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. I personally felt the inclusion of a protestant theologian to be rather unusual, even though I am of a somewhat ecumenicist disposition. His final talk was perhaps the most unusual, a comparison of Mao’s China and the UK Family Court system. It concluded with Waters rending his garments and howling in tongues. Most of us became quite uncomfortable at this point and slipped quietly out of the room, leaving Mr Waters to his demons.
John Waters left that night, under cover of darkness. The visit, it was agreed by all, had not been a success. The Abbott, whose idea it had been to invite Mr. Waters, was even worried that he would be excommunicated for his decision. Indeed, he later privately admitted that inviting the director John Waters may have been a better choice.
For myself, it was the beginning of a crisis of faith that would lead me to leave behind the religious life. My encounter with Mr. Waters showed me that searching for meaning in a world where Mr. Waters had a column in a national newspaper was a fruitless endeavour, a Sisyphus-like struggle that was ultimately futile.
Still, some nights, I dream of John Waters, not in his human form, but that of an emaciated buzzard, perched on a telephone pole at a music festival, sighing and shaking his head in disappointment at a world that has ignored, mocked and rejected him. At the end of the dream he flies away, pursued by an eagle with the head of Patsy McGarry.