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It’s December, and Stephen is still dominated by his physical desires – for food, sex, and wandering around. Since his first experience with the prostitute, he has returned to the red light district many times. He feels divorced from God and has stopped praying; a "cold lucid indifference" dominates his inner self.
Stephen is inwardly contemptuous towards basically everyone else. He scorns churchgoers for being hypocrites and is disgusted by pretty much everything… in LIFE.
Stephen has earned a prefecture (a position of honor) in the college. Every Saturday evening, he takes part in a sodality – really just a fancy name for a specific church service – in honor of the Virgin Mary. Though he feels separated from the church community and from God, he is still fascinated by the ritual of the Latin mass and by the image of Mary herself. He is confused by his opposed feelings of religious awe and sexual desire, and he cannot understand how the two can coexist in his soul.
Cut to the schoolroom – Stephen’s thoughts have been wandering (nothing has changed after all these years), and the sound of the bell brings him back to reality. Heron, his wisecracking, cane-swinging frenemy from Chapter Two, is still in his class. The other boys rely upon Stephen to ask mind-boggling questions to the rector in their religion class.
Stephen ponders his sins some more. He takes a kind of perverse pleasure in the thought of his condemnation; he’s fascinated by the idea that by breaking one commandment (of the Ten), he has broken them all. One can imagine that Stephen probably spends most of his non-brothel time thinking about complex religious matters such as these… if you haven’t figured it out yet, he is not your average teenage boy.
While the boys are waiting for the rector to arrive, Stephen mulls over the impossible questions of religious doctrine he has been waiting to ask.
The rector comes in but doesn’t ask for questions on the catechism. Instead, he announces that the school will have a three-day religious retreat. The retreat is in honor of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of the college. A brief historical note: St. Francis Xavier is probably one of the biggest rock stars of the Catholic world. He was a 16th century missionary who helped found the Jesuit order, and also one of the first missionaries to go to East Asia.
The rector’s enthusiasm and passionate praise of the saint are striking to Stephen; he feels his soul wither under the scrutiny of the priest’s burning eyes. Oh, the drama.
The rest of the chapter gets more and more intense, so be prepared.
The next section is largely made up of the sermons Stephen hears at the religious retreat.
Oddly enough, the priest who delivers these texts is Father Arnall, making a significant guest appearance in this chapter. You may remember him as a teacher at Clongowes – specifically the one who excuses Stephen from lessons when his glasses are broken in Chapter One. This takes Stephen back to those early years, and he feels his soul become more childlike as he listens to his old teacher.
We "hear" the sermons along with Stephen, and we’re also given insight into his reactions to them. Father Arnall’s talk starts pleasantly enough; he praises the boys who have chosen to go on missions to distant lands, following in the footsteps of St. Francis himself. However, we soon learn that his real purpose is to give the boys a talking-to concerning four of the great (and alarming!) mysteries of Catholicism: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. To accomplish this, he asks the boys to put aside all of their worldly cares and desires, which, for Stephen, is something of a challenge.
Father Arnall’s sermon sticks with Stephen, and that evening he mulls over its meaning as he eats dinner. The dirty plates and the scummy feeling of his mouth gross him out. He feels everything get bogged down in a sludge of unease; he imagines his soul "congealing" inside him into a foul, greasy state, while his body stares out stupidly and helplessly. Gross.
(Note to the squeamish: the Ick Factor definitely rises exponentially from here on out.)
Day Two of the retreat focuses on death (some retreat!). Stephen feels terror seep into him as Father Arnall describes the whole grisly process of death and judgment. For the second time, Stephen imagines his own death (remember, the first time was in the infirmary at Clongowes). Stephen shares the oh-so-lovely image of a corpse crawling with "creeping worms" and "scuttling fatbellied rats" with us. Nice.
After death comes the inevitable judgment of the soul, followed by the big-deal capital-J Judgment. We get a juicy description of the apocalypse, courtesy of Father Arnall, in which Christ returns to judge all the souls who have ever lived and died. Christ will either send them to heaven or condemn them to hell.
Stephen is HORRIFIED, and so are we. Stephen is sure that every word of this sermon is meant for him, since he sees himself as such a terrible sinner. He’s dreadfully, dreadfully ashamed of his past sins, and vividly imagines the scene of his damnation.
We’re finally given insight to some of Stephen’s sins. First, he sees the image of the girl mentioned in Chapter Two (we learn that her name is Emma), and he can’t believe he would dare think dirty thoughts about her. Next, he admits to having a hidden store of porn hidden in the chimney that inspires his dreams of "harlots" (unrelated note: why don’t people use the word "harlot" anymore? C’mon, it’s so much better than the ones we do use!). Finally – and this one is actually kind of funny, even though we know that Stephen is dead serious – he has written dirty letters confessing his sins that he then left out in public, with the hopes that a girl might come along and read it. Oh, what a filthy (and, let’s admit it, weirdly creative) teenage mind he has!
Anyway, though these things may not seem so terribly awful to our jaded 21st century minds, Stephen is just mortified by them. He tries to appeal to God and the Virgin Mary but feels too distant from them. He imagines a somewhat optimistic scene in which Mary blesses him and Emma, despite their sins.
Day Three of the retreat. This is where things start to get seriously twisted. One has to wonder about whoever came up with the truly horrific images of hell that we’re about to encounter… if the author’s point is to show us how warped religion can be, he certainly does a pretty bang-up job here, so mad props to Joyce. It’s almost as though Stephen King steps in for a few pages here and just goes totally, totally nuts. Ready? Let’s visit Father Arnall’s Hell.
So, the priest starts off with a pretty tame description of Lucifer’s rebellion, then of Adam and Eve’s original sin (eating the forbidden fruit). We all know what happens next: they’re shunted out of the Garden of Eden into the world, where their ancestors hang out until Jesus shows up to redeem them. However, not everyone buys into the whole religion thing, and some people keep right on sinning. These wicked folk, Father Arnall tells us, are destined for an eternity in Hell.
… And Hell, as you might imagine, is sooo not cool. In fact, the way Father Arnall tells it, it is so horrific that we can barely read through this section without tossing our cookies. He goes into EXCRUTIATING, DISGUSTING, and TRULY GORE-TASTIC details that make us feel just as creeped out and terrified as Stephen. We’ll spare you most of the grim details, but here are a few highlights: everyone in Hell is crammed together and can’t move, and they have to breathe in the stench of innumerable rotting corpses, described as – are you ready for this? – "jellylike mass[es] of liquid corruption" that have been set on fire. Blech! Gaah! Gluughghgh! Just typing those words make us feel ill. Oh, and that’s not even the worst of it, apparently. There’s also the eternal fire of Hell, which is a kind of magical super-fiery fire, that doesn’t destroy bodies, but just keeps burning and burning and burning, until the damned souls are basically boiling outside and in – FOR…EH…VER…
Also, this description of Hell feels like it goes on forever. We’ll spare you the rest of the details; Father Arnall goes on to describe how awful it is to spend eternity with a bunch of other terrible sinners, and how even more awful it is to spend said eternity with foul-mouthed, scary devils.
And that was just the morning of Day Three. Phew. Stephen is, understandably, in a state of total shock and horror. He’s even more certain than ever that he’s going to Hell, and that the grotesque torments described above are awaiting him. He can practically feel the fires consuming him.
Interestingly enough, the other boys don’t seem as upset as our hero. Heron, smartass that he is, is pretty unaffected and goes on casually chatting with a teacher. This just reinforces what we should really know by now – Stephen is special and sensitive.
This chapter just keeps inflicting itself on us, and on poor Stephen. The school takes a break from all the sermonizing to have a couple of classes, but Stephen can’t concentrate. Come on, it was hard enough for him to focus in class without getting distracted on normal days – now that he’s worried about his eternal damnation, he doesn’t have a chance.
After an English class, some of the boys return to the chapel to give confession. For those of you non-Sunday Schoolers out there, confession is a hugely important sacrament in the Catholic Church. Basically, by confessing your sins to a priest, you’re admitting them to God and asking for forgiveness.
Stephen, however, can’t bring himself to confess to a priest in his school chapel, so close to his schoolmates and teachers. He tells himself he will confess somewhere else later.
Eventually it’s time for everyone to return for a second heaping dose of Father Arnall’s fire and brimstone. Since he focused on the physical torments of hell in the morning, he moves on to the spiritual torments in the evening, and they’re just as terrible.
Okay, so the spiritual tortures of Hell break down into four categories. We’ll just lay them out plainly here, minus Father Arnall’s elaborations, and you can make of them what you will. They are (drum roll, please…):
The pain of loss (separation from God).
The pain of conscience (pretty straightforward).
The pain of extension (this one’s a little confusing; it basically means that every little part of the soul will suffer in special, individual ways).
The pain of intensity (kind of related to #3, this means that pain and evil themselves are even more intense in Hell than on Earth).
Eternity is the last subject addressed in the sermon. Now, in case you don’t know, eternity is a REALLY LONG TIME. In fact, it’s infinitely long, which is to say, it’s, um… eternal. But Father Arnall is not willing to simply leave it at that. He constructs this elaborate metaphor for eternity just to rub it in: imagine an inconceivably ginormous mountain of sand. Then, imagine a little teeny tiny bird. So the bird has to carry away the mountain of sand one grain at a time, at the rate of one grain every million years. No, this is not a calculus problem. The time it takes this unfortunate (and fascinatingly long-lived) bird to move the whole mountain is not even an instant in the grand scheme of eternity. Anyway, as we said, eternity is a REALLY LONG TIME. Get the picture?
Finally, after this insane whirligig of terrors, Father Arnall offers a kernel of hope: ask for God’s forgiveness, stop sinning, and you’ll have a shot at actually reaching heaven (which must be pretty darn sweet, if it’s the opposite of the Hell he described).
Stephen is blown away by what just happened. He desperately prays for forgiveness.
At home, Stephen goes to his room to be "alone with his soul." He feels as though a jury is waiting inside the room to judge him; he’s scared to go inside. He manages to go in, tortured by his imagination. His conscience goes into major, major overdrive, making him rehash all of his sins.
Stephen either falls asleep or slips into a kind of waking nightmare. He finds himself in a barren, desolate landscape, surrounded by grotesque devils with goatish features and tails. They close in upon him, and when they’re about to get him, he wakes up and bolts out of bed.
Stephen is sure that God has allowed him to see a vision of the special personal hell that’s waiting for him if he doesn’t change his ways. The dream is so powerful that he’s physically sick; he pukes in the washbasin.
Overcome by this vision (and probably by the taste of vomit), Stephen goes to the window and prays like he’s never prayed before, then weeps for his lost innocence.
When night falls, Stephen leaves the house, still thinking obsessively about his sins and those of the whole world. He walks through the dark Dublin streets and feels a desperate need to confess his sins.
Stephen goes into a chapel and tries to pray, but he can’t. He waits in line for a confessional to talk to a priest.
When it’s Stephen’s turn, everything comes pouring out. All of his sins and guilty desires "ooze" out of him, and he tells the priest about everything, ending with his "impure" sexual thoughts and acts. The priest tells him to promise God that he won’t sin again and gives him prayers for penance.
Stephen leaves the chapel thinking he’s a changed man. He feels like the whole burden of his sins has been lifted now that he has confessed and been forgiven. He’s unbelievably happy that he has a fresh start. He goes home and sees groceries (sausages, eggs, and white pudding) waiting to be cooked for breakfast the next morning. This image contrasts with the earlier treatment of food in this chapter – instead of being disgusted by the filthiness of his body’s needs, Stephen is struck by how simple and beautiful they are.
The end of this chapter passes as though in a dream. Stephen goes to bed, then wakes up and goes to chapel at school. The altar is covered in white flowers, and everything is pure and beautiful to him. The priest passes from student to student offering Holy Communion, and as Stephen prepares himself for the sacrament, he sees a new life starting for him.