Play- Agnes of God

I had not heard of the play ‘Agnes of God’ till the controversy erupted. In the theatre production of the play, written originally for American audiences by a New York-based playwright some thirty years earlier, Agnes is a fictional character, a consecrated nun of the Catholic Church, who conceived a child despite her vow of celibacy. On being questioned by her Superior she insisted she was a virgin! The obvious intent of the playwright was to question the Catholic Church’s dogma of the Virgin Birth of the central figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ.

It is this aspect of the controversy that roused the ire of fringe Christian groups and must certainly have disturbed the Catholic clergy. The ancillary damage to the regard and respect commanded by nuns in the Catholic world would be of secondary importance though the fringe groups I spoke about would harp on that aspect as well.

Delving first on the honour of the nuns I can only say that it is not impossible for a woman dedicated to a life of chastity and service, to err. An odd case in some remote corner of the world can occur. After all, priests and nuns are too numerous to count. They are human and human beings do deviate from the beaten path at times. Nuns who feel the urge for male companionship usually resign from their Orders and marry. There is nothing wrong in that. But instances like the one depicted in the play would be very unusual.

The Church would be able to absorb accusations about the sexual misconduct of their religious. It is common knowledge that many priests have transgressed the boundaries of propriety or worse paedophilia and homosexuality have attracted adverse notice in the West in particular. Even the greatest of Catholic theologians, Augustine of Hippo, had led a colourful life before he gave up philandering and devoted himself entirely to Christ. His seminal work “Civitas Dei” or the “City of God” is testimony to his absolute devotion to his beliefs. Pope Francis has not hesitated to admit that the Church has been amiss in trying to sweep misconduct of its priests under the carpet.

The sting in the play ‘Agnes of God’ lies in the allusion to the ‘Virgin Birth’. A nun going astray is small change to the larger issue of questioning a well-held belief. Christians have been indoctrinated in the last two millennia in the dogma that Jesus was born of a virgin. Thinking Christians will not object if the dogma is questioned. They know that beliefs cannot be put to the strict test of scientific proof. Every religion has its quota of beliefs that cannot stand scientific scrutiny. The mass of the followers of any religion are brought up on faith. In our country blind faith and belief is ingrained in the Indian psyche unlike in the Christian West where the spirit of inquiry has mellowed religious practices to much more moderate levels.

Virgin birth finds mention in Hindu mythology also! Kunti, daughter of the King of Kuntibhoja was granted a wish by the sage Durwasa, whom she had looked after so well when he stayed as an honoured guest in her father’s palace. She conceived by the Sun God and gave birth to Karna without carnal intercourse. There are many such stories which have crystallized into beliefs in the sacred texts of every recognized religion.

My own take on such weighty matters that intrude into the realm of the meta-physical is not to spend too much time and thought on them lest it leaves one confused and isolated from the mainstream.

Go along with the beliefs and practices of the religion you are born into but never forgot that the most important and the common skein that flows through all religions is to do the right thing and not to wrong others. That is a tall call for us mortals to follow and hence is often forgotten in practice.

Some years ago the same Christian group objected to the screening of the film ‘Da Vinci Code’ because it spoke of a fictional descendant of Jesus Christ by his fictional marriage to Mary of Magdalene. The Censor Board invited me to view the film before it was released. I did not see any challenge to my faith or beliefs after viewing the film and I am sure I will not find any such challenge after viewing ‘Agnes of God’. Those who object on principle should not view it themselves but they should allow others with stronger faith than theirs to do so.

Personally, I believe that the teachings of Jesus Christ as reflected in his Parables are much more relevant to Christianity as a religion. The Parable of the adulterous woman and who should throw on her the first stone, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Good Samaritan who tended to the traveler when he was attacked by thieves are what define the teachings of Jesus. It would be much more edifying if the protestors follow these teachings instead of trying to make themselves prominent through protests and demands for bans.

(The writer is a former police commissioner of Mumbai)