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Religious Artefacts

doctor_k_ poses an eternally interesting series of questions:

So : are you religious/irreligious? What role does it play in your life? What are the central tenets of your beliefs/ lack of beliefs? How do you reconcile the bits of your religion that don’t fit? If you have changed your religion – why?

Religion is a mild fascination for me. I will likely go on about it at great length.

History first: I am a failed catholic.

I like the phrase ‘failed catholic’. I use it on purpose. I don’t say ‘lapsed catholic’, because that implies that somewhere along the line I simply forgot to be catholic in some way. Neither do I say ‘ex-catholic’, because that stops short of recognising the effort I made. I tried to be catholic, and failed.

As a consequence of my failure — or perhaps, instead, my failure was a consequence of this — I have a gap where instinct tells me religion should fit. Or maybe not religion. Maybe belief. I have a gap in my beliefs that hasn’t been completely filled. It is an easy thing to live with, though. It keeps me active, and curious, and searching.

Which is, as an aside, apparently the ideal mindset for prospective cult adherents. Consequently, I stay away from cults and other undue influences. I avoid uttering phrases like, ‘Oh, that would never happen to me, I’m sure I could outwit any freaky cult leader type.’ People like me have thought that before. I am not over-confident. I have seen what religion can do to a mind. I am, after all — returning to my original point — someone who once was catholic.

What role *did* catholicism (yes, I am aware I am not using a capital letter) play in my life? Family influences were not strong. Or, rather, the strong catholics in the family were a step or so removed from my immediate sphere growing up. I didn’t go to a catholic school, but I did go to a school with a preponderance of catholics. In first grade, at the age of five, I was taught to make the ‘sign of the cross’ & told that bad children went to hell. Also, ignorant children went to hell. Children who died before learning the sign of the cross, for example. This readily instilled in me a fear of that razor’s edge of chance and circumstance that lead me there to that moment, Day 1, of Salvation.

What luck that I had made it that far, eh? But no, it wasn’t luck. It was — or so I was informed — God’s will. Just like it must have been God’s will to abandon all those ‘children in africa’ (ie. non-catholics).

Which never made sense to me, even then, but I was a good child, & quiet, & anyway, the sheer chaos of God’s will was what made Him so frightening. I became, indeed, God-fearing.

We were taught about the the day of reckoning & I remember S., age 5, saying, ‘The day of reckoning could be today. Or tomorrow. That’s why I always say my prayers for everyone every night and I try not to forget anyone. In case everything’s over before I get another chance!’

I tried to say a prayer for everyone I knew, not leaving anyone out, but my mind was prone to drifting. I worried about the people I was forgetting. I worried about the non-catholic relatives I was praying for, particularly. I worried about my pets, since pets weren’t allowed in Heaven.

Also, secretly, I began to develop a dissatisfaction with a god that would condemn people so easily & in such numbers. Heaven seemed like a wide, empty place. But I was too young to put any of this into words. It was an emotion or an instinct or some kind of spiritual twinge that I was feeling, & I tried to hide it from God.

The local priest wore shorts & an unbuttoned shirt & had a dark, unshaven face. In short, he was a disappointment. I wanted a priest with flowing robes, for a start. Still, most of my experience with catholocism was at school, so priests were an irrelevance. The real teachings came mainly from peers and parents (mostly other people’s).

When I moved to bigger schools interstate, I was surprised by how many religions there were. We were divided into scripture groups hosted mainly by local mothers. Again, I was unimpressed. Where were the monks, & nuns in crazy black habits like in Sound of Music? At age 11 an angry woman with wiry black hair was my scripture leader. She declared, ‘If you’re not going to church, you’re going to hell.” She asked, “What are you putting before God?’

There was something about the way she said God that made me wince. ‘God’, flat & spat, like a swear word. GOD! Like ‘fuck’, only with more hate. I worried that I was going to hell because my parents didn’t take my eternal soul seriously enough to drive me to the local church. Wherever that was. Mostly, I worried that my gut was beginning to curdle at the mention of GOD.

Age 14, I began to read the Bible.

I didn’t like it.

Particularly, I didn’t like the bit that said that a woman who lies with a man not her husband is committing adultery and shall go to Hell, even is she is divorced or widowed, and a man who lies with a woman who is not his wife, even if she is divorced or widowed, is _making that woman commit adultery_. I seem to recall I closed the Bible and didn’t open it again for four years. I’m not sure why my young mind was so quick to grasp the injustice of that principle. But there you have it, I renounced catholicism and realised I was something-I-had-no-word-for-then (a feminist) in one sentence. It was the cleanest break I’ve ever made.

Four years later, I did try another Bible (not a catholic one, I was sure I wasn’t catholic) when they were giving them out free at school. Nothing particularly offended me this time that I recall, but I ran headlong into that gap I mentioned; that gap where my response (love/fear/reverence?) should be. God as Father, as determining force, as judgment, as life — just wasn’t working for me. I was 18 and I realised that at least part of my course had been set. I still, for a time, listened politely to various passing evangelists, but I wasn’t Christian anymore. I was like jelly that had failed to set. There was something wrong with me that answers were so difficult for me to find or, when presented to me with righteous vigour, so impossible to accept.

It changed, of course, the feelings of ‘wrongness’ were replaced with feelings of right, and the desperation with answers mellowed into a fascination with process. I think now spirituality is something which is meant to evolve as we do, & that the truest test of growing up is not in simplifying ideas, but in making them more complex, amalgamating & synthesising them, adding coherence & depth. Or, that’s how I want to do it, anyhow. But then I also prefer personal expression to organised religion of any kind. Another result, probably, of my earlier failure.

I still have a fascination with ritual. In my twenties, travelling in Italy, I stepped into a marbled church and heard monks chanting in latin. Apparently I had to be nudged twice before I broke my trance. It really was beautiful. And in small ways, I think there is a lot of ritual in my days. My daily walk home is a kind of ritual. How I make a cup of tea is a ritual for me, how I arrange ‘found’ objects (trinkets, souvenirs, momentos) on a windowsill, how I light candles, how I watch rain, how I dust (when I dust), how I prepare a meal.

To knit together these strange little quirks of mine, I use ideas from, I suppose, Paganism, Goddess Worship, some Buddhist ideas on meditation, some concepts from Psychotherapy, yoga, Wicca. I don’t particularly buy into any one of these in total, but I use their vocabularies to talk about things I don’t fully understand & don’t otherwise have words for. It is difficult to say where the ‘spirituality’ ends & the ideas on self/life/purpose/choice/ethics begin. And maybe it doesn’t matter.

Am I religious? No. Am I spiritual? Maybe I sort of am. Kind of. I respect spirituality. I envy it when I find it in others. I pursue it — perhaps that’s a better way to say it. I pursue it. What are the central tenets of this home-made brew? Hmm. Honesty. Courage. Responsibility. And a damn good attempt to do no harm.

So far, that’s proving to be enough. ;)