A long, painful break from the church
IN SPIRIT I left the Irish chapter of the Roman Catholic Church sometime in my early teens. Too many times afterwards I found myself physically at church in reluctant body – a victim of an oppressive orthodoxy that permeated the fabric of family and community life. To reject the apparent absurdities spoken every Sunday in church – and every day in the rosary kneeling on the kitchen floor – was to puncture not just the family heart but the very fabric of reality itself. The parting was therefore a long and painful one.
I am now 48, and recently I attended a non requiem Mass for the first time since the 1970s. What drove me to distraction as a teenage rebel at Mass then was the collective and obedient unthought of the congregation before things that seemed utterly and obviously preposterous – a profound questioning of reality that all but drove me mad because it was so central to lived reality.
My return, with a friend, on the outskirts of Belfast down the road from what had been the Purdysburn mental hospital when I was young, was both a token of how far I’d travelled psychologically and a toe in the post-relativist waters of religious belief. In an age of belief in belief, of faith fed on the oxygen of “respect” and relativism – and sometimes extraordinary apologism for faith on the part of apparent atheists – I wondered whether I would “understand” (or even respect) what I saw and heard.
Or indeed what it might feel like to try to “believe” at some level or other.
Over 30 years later, there it was again: people en masse enrapt by unmitigated daftness, ritually shriven of thought. Yet there were new questions: “do they really believe it?”; “aren’t they happier going along with this stuff?”; and “why do you have to take everything so seriously?”.
Oh, and of course, “so what if it is a load of baloney?”
Some things had changed – things that seemed important back in the swinging decades. Children were seen and heard – so much so that I couldn’t hear much of the proceedings. But then we knew the words anyway.
Small children clutched things to keep their interest – Thomas the Tank books to read there and then, or DVDs they were promised they could watch once they got the Mass over and done with. Where once only the priest’s ordained hands could touch the host (which was administered to the worshipper’s mouth and doubly protected by a platen and by a long run of white cloth folded over the altar rail and our human hands), a bunch of ordinary people emerged from the congregation and started handing out the hosts to the rest of them – either to the mouth or on the hand. And many of them were women.
The gospel was, remarkably, a “difficult” passage – Jesus said:
I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! … Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; the father against the son, son against father …
In the Penitential Rite of the Mass Jesus had just been told by these good Belfast folk that he “came to reconcile us”.
I was interested to find out how the priest would explain Jesus’ declared appetite for conflict and destruction – but instead he gave up his sermon to a member of the congregation, who took the altar to talk about his experiences on a lay retreat programme.
No need for answers, as nobody was going to ask questions, or even think that it mattered one way or another. At the church gates after mass the talk would be of absent friends, of the week gone by, neighbourhood developments and other social tittle-tattle – nobody, I suspected, would even dream of talking about the day’s gospel.
Members of the congregation collected cash and offered the basket of cash along with the bread and wine – holding the basket aloft while genuflecting to the tabernacle. I think the money for the clergy may have always been part of the holy sacrifice, but the doctrine’s practical archness had never struck me so graphically.
And then the highlight of the proceedings – the bread and wine were imperceptibly turned into the body and blood of the Son of God, then consumed by the congregation. Indeed, having taken delivery of the glittering prize, many people headed straight for the door.
As a boy, trying to believe the doctrine of transubstantiation created a strong sense of metaphysical displacement. All the ripples around this preposterous stone threatened a maelstrom of unreality: this was not my understanding of reality, yet it was that of everybody close to me.
One could not safely question such things. And even now, in today’s world, the idea of “respect” for religion casts questioning as rude, probably for similar reasons (what boor would want to go round picking holes in a highly delicate fabric that redefined reality?) And there is probably an appealing simplicity and peace in not questioning anything laid down by those in authority. Why would anyone want to question such simplicity?
Indeed, I could not go up to any of these people and ask whether they really believed that the substance of the bread and wine had just been miraculously converted into the body, blood and soul of the whole Christ?
That would be rude, assuming an untruthful response. I could be the little boy who whispers that the Emperor has nothing on – who, while knowing it to be true, would probably, as in the fairytale, simply have completed the procession with his head held high.
There is a guise of profundity in the doctrine of transubstantiation – power over the substance of things, what things are in themselves, rather than what they appear to be – that is challenging and says firmly that it is not to be meddled with. Yet I had a disturbing intimation that these people were not taking life seriously – that they were denying real life in favour of an imaginary one, betraying our common humanity to rank meaninglessness.
How much this was driven by a deep inner fear of mortality (“make us worthy to share in eternal life with Mary, the virgin Mother of God”) I could not guess; nor how much by a social bonding akin to the manic football chant (“Before the nations he has bared his holy arm: our God reigns, our God reigns”). Yet it seemed to be a deliberate rejection, certainly of the intellect, but also of the mind – an agreement to suspend disbelief in a fabulous narrative, the better to shelter from the hard questions of existence.
There is a comfort to be had in un-thought, in missing out the how for a certain why: it seems at times that those who accept things as they are told rather than as they are, are at home in the world, in this life; yet ultimately they are not – and, one suspects that they suspect that they are not. But it doesn’t pay to be too conscious. Who speaks of the big things – existence, time, death? “All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”.
It was the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, and we prayed that the love of God would “raise us beyond what we see”.
One day with God is, apparently, worth a thousand without him. The value of things that are real has been sold for a pittance – the present moment cruelly sacrificed to harkings for a mythical past and a fantastic future beyond this, our exile.
• This piece first appeared in the November, 2007, edition of the Freethinker.