When she was a girl in rural Ireland, my mother’s family went to church on Sundays as a community obligation and on sufferance. It was three miles by horse and buggy.
The neighbours, most of them farmers, had built their own house of worship. It didn’t bear a saint’s name. It marked the nearest village – Renanirree Church.
They brought in a priest named Father Murphy from a nearby parish to mind God’s business. In Ireland in the fifties, one parish over may as well have been an ocean away. People did not warm to this pushy foreigner – but they dared not say anything about it.
At the time, the Catholic Church in Ireland was more of a shakedown operation/guilt factory than a place of sacred healing. You paid for your family pew. Where you sat said a great deal about your social standing. In order to goose donations and discourage thrift, the weekly offerings were read aloud during the service – parishioners’ names and what they had given. “John Buckley, seven (shillings) and six (pence)” and so forth.
To make the sermons relatable, Father Murphy framed them around whatever was happening in the village. For example, who’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock. No names were used because, in a parish of just a few dozen families, none were required – everyone already knew what was what. But this was an opportunity to sit through an excruciating rhetorical stoning in what passed for the public square.
Some of the village men didn’t embrace Father Murphy’s take on community relations. They’d linger outside as mass began, watching the women pass and gossiping among themselves.
This was a non-starter. If anyone was missing at the outset, Father Murphy would rush out and harangue them into the building. If that didn’t work, he would take bodily hold of objectors and throw them into the church. He was a sort of bouncer in reverse and, by the sounds of it, a terror.
A significant part of Father Murphy’s influence stemmed from the local belief that he had both the ability and inclination to curse people. Not just wish you ill or rubbish your good name, but actually cast a metaphysical hex that would bring very tangible disaster to your life.
My grandfather lived in fear that he would run afoul of Father Murphy and have the evil eye turned in his direction. That his crops would fail or his cattle would die or someone in the family would get sick.
My grandfather also believed that if you built a house at a crossroads, anyone who stayed there overnight would perish. And that his own mother had heard the banshee – another portent of death – just days before an itinerant salesman showed up unannounced at the farm, walked into the barn and dropped dead. So they say.
But the church was the focus of his dread.
Whenever my mother or her siblings misbehaved, they were reminded of this awesome and capricious power that lay in wait only three miles away, watching them. My grandfather was not one of the men who refused to take his seat on Sunday morning.
As he aged, his faith intensified. Whatever he’d been afraid of during the prime of his life consumed him as he neared the end.
In the best tradition of Irish miserabilism, this all sounds vaguely charming now. But it doesn’t explain why they did it at the time. “Why would you put yourself through this?” I asked my mother recently.
“Going to church is good for you,” she replied with a shrug. “You have to get up. You have to make yourself presentable. You have to talk to your neighbours.”
That makes sense, though I don’t remember it sounding that reasonable when I was a kid. I do recall the obligation part. Ours was not a household in which the art of explaining was much practised. Things happened, and you accepted them. My mother brought that much over from County Cork.
As a child, it would not have occurred to me to resent going to church. I can’t say how it goes down in other religions, but most Catholic indoctrination is a function of rote learning. You memorize and repeat the words. Your lizard brain does all the work. That was 90 per cent of how I worshipped, and I did it happily.
As a high-school kid, that changed. I would like to say that I chafed at the authoritarianism, but really I just wanted to sleep in on Sundays. I did try the tack of moral outrage. But as a not-terribly-devout devout Catholic, my mother was able to deploy a logical jiu-jitsu that no amount of teenage angst could overpower.
“But don’t you think that there should be women priests?”
“Yes. There certainly should.”
“Then doesn’t that mean we’re supporting a corrupt organization?”
“Yes, probably. But you’re still going.”
So I went.
My mother and younger brother would go Saturday nights, when I was busy drinking with friends in a public park. I went alone the next morning.
On one awful occasion, I fell out of bed at the last moment, felt around half-blind on the floor for something to wear, pulled it on like a slug tugging on a body sock and left the house without looking down.
Our priest at St. Cecilia’s, Father Manley, did a nice, quick mass – a half-hour start to finish. An uncle of mine called it “the McDonald’s of Catholicism.”
Father Manley was a distant, decent man who I think quite liked my family. Until the day my brother came in ill and vomited in church. He didn’t like us so much after that.
Though short, his mass was not short enough for me.
I’d heard somewhere that you had not technically missed the sacrament if you were present for the beginning of the blessing of gifts – where the bread and wine are turned into the metaphorical body and blood of Christ. This bought me 10 extra minutes in bed while the suckers sat through the prelims.
On that day, I schlepped out of the house – I was 15 – hungover and truly careless. I got on the bus. I got a couple of looks, but as my teenage hairstyles got weirder, I had gotten used to the looks.
My routine was to enter the church quietly, then stand in the foyer at the back rather than sit down. I would watch the proceedings through a doorway. There were always a couple of stragglers back there. After 20 minutes of boredom, I’d walk up to receive the host, swing back up the aisle and march out of the building. If things played out right, there was a westbound bus pulling up across the street as I exited.
When I got there that day, an older lady I did not recognize was also standing in the back. She gave me a look. And the look did not end. She openly gawped at me.
I gave her an appraising glance in return. That usually worked. No effect.
I turned away for a couple of seconds, then turned back. Still staring.
I escalated things – raised eyebrow and slight sneer. Still staring.
Finally, I threw out my hands – “What?”
She pointed at me. I looked down.
I was in the midst of a pitiable phase of wearing nothing but rock T-shirts. The one I now had on inside the house of God was a reprint of a Dead Kennedys album cover. It featured a chalk outline of a body with the screaming caption “Too Drunk To Fuck.”
I am trying to imagine something more offensive I might have put on for a pleasant Sunday morning of worship. Maybe a belt of human skulls. Or the words “I AM HERE TO KILL” smeared across my bare chest in pig’s blood. But it’s hard to get there. This was pretty irredeemable. If you have any doubt, read the lyrics.
What would Father Murphy have done? Beaten me to death with a crucifix in front of a cheering mob, probably. I can’t say he would’ve been wrong.
In the moment, the best I could think to do was misdirection. I pulled the shirt away from my body and regarded it thoughtfully, trying to pantomime mild surprise – “Oh my, how did this get on me?”
The lady wasn’t buying it. She bugged her eyes out and gestured toward the door with her head. I looked back, caught somewhere between petulance and humiliation.
Had I my wits about me, I might have gone to the bathroom in the basement and turned the shirt inside out. But I have not been gifted with many wits and didn’t want to have gone to the trouble of having gone to church without having officially gone to church. Also, I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. That meant I’d have to make the long walk up to the front.
I stood there for another 15 minutes, angling the front of my body away from the view of passersby. I could have folded my arms across my chest, but that seemed too much like submission.
The lady continued to helpfully stare, her alarm settling into disgust. Which meant I was winning. I pictured her going home later: “How was church?” “Uneventful. Wait, there was one thing. I stood beside the Antichrist.” The time eventually came to go up and receive the sacrament from Father Manley. I waited for the lady to go first, lest she try to rip the shirt off me as I entered the church proper.
St. Cecilia’s was never quite full. There were perhaps 200 people there. I folded myself into line, pressed up hard against the gentleman directly in front of me. I repeatedly tripped over his heels as he sighed with increasing irritation. Everyone was facing forward, obscuring my apostasy.
Only Father Manley could properly see me. He had the priestly habit of giving everyone a good hard look as he said, “The body of Christ,” then pausing for a long beat after you responded with “Amen.”
Of course – of course, of course, of course – he spotted the shirt straight off. The cup held up chest-high dropped slowly as he read it to himself a few times. His face slackened, and his eyelids fluttered. This was beginning to feel like a miscalculation.
He looked at me. I looked at him. He shook his head very slightly. I was too stubborn to feel genuine shame, but I did feel awfully stupid. He said his words, and I said mine back.
It is part of the ritual that once you have received the host, you leave with your hands clasped. I held mine in front of me and double-stepped toward the door.
On the way back into the house, I met my mother at the door. She looked at the shirt, then at me.
“Did you wear that to church?”
No point in lying – “Yes.”
“You must have been quite a hit.”
She pretended to be disappointed, but I know she was pleased. I often suspected that the only reason my mother continued to practise was that it gave her the moral standing to resent certain parts of the church.
She still goes. I do not.
Shortly after the Great T-Shirt Debacle, I found the only excuse that trumped religious duty in my mother’s calculus: a job. Neither my Saturday nights nor my Sunday mornings were free any more. It is remarkable how something that comprises such a regular part of your life can fade so quickly.
Now out of the habit, I return less than a half-dozen times a year – Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve and one or two furtive visits to confession. I am fairly certain now that there is no heaven or hell, but I’m not taking any chances.
As such, I lack the courage to accept what Sartre called “the divine irresponsibility of the condemned man.” I’ve become one of those Catholics.
Intermittently, this causes me guilt. Not because I’ve let down my mother or the Church or God. All three have more important things to worry about.
But guilty because I’ve let a cornerstone of my identity slip from my grasp and replaced it with nothing. That thought most often occurs to me at this time of year, beginning the first time I pass someone on Ash Wednesday with the telltale smudge of devotion pressed onto their forehead.
Though I did not recognize it as such at the time, there was a profound comfort in church. It wasn’t the message or the teachings – though those remain a bulwark of civilization. It was something even greater.
I’m sure my Catholicism – or my grandfather’s or my mother’s – is not entirely like any other person’s. It’s possible it’s not even close. I’ve always been curious about how other people, not just Catholics, pray. What do they say? How do they feel as they do it? Is there real communion with God? Is that possible?
Once you start down that mental path, the world falls away. Your trivial concerns, your problems, your faults, your secret desires – they all become insignificant as you consider the purpose, direction and meaning of human existence.
I remain convinced that we all confront that in church – any sort of church – and that it is depressingly possible to avoid it everywhere else. Perhaps even likely.
In church, this doesn’t require discussion. I’ve never heard a sermon that changed my mind on any particular issue.
The implicit bargain of worship is that you spend some time each week sitting still and giving thought to what it’s all about.
You could do that at home, but you probably won’t. There isn’t time – you have too many photographs to like on Facebook.
When you go out to do this, there are other people to do it with you. You may not know them but you feel fairly certain you have something basic in common. You can assume you are all like-minded about at least one thing, have come together in goodwill and want to share an idea.
When I was not yet an idiotic middle-aged man but rather an idiotic teenager with a mohawk, earrings and an air of erratic aggression, strangers still wanted to shake my hand in church. Regardless of how I looked, they assumed we were on the same page. And though I might not have agreed at the time, I know now they were right.
That involved more than accepting that Jesus was a real person and that he rose on the third day. It was more profound than that.
I cannot assume when I walk into any home, bar, shop or other place of business that I will receive a warm welcome. One would like to think so, but one can’t know. We’ve all experienced that small feeling of doubt before we cross certain thresholds – “Do I belong here?”
But I do assume that all people of good intent will be embraced in any church, any mosque, any synagogue or any temple. Because if that were not the case, there would be no reason for those places to exist.
I also assume that’s why people do it. You get up. You make yourself presentable. You talk to your neighbours. God is the reason they built the place, but community is the reason people go. That’s the heart of it.
I suspect I’ll end up back at church some day. More than any deep spiritual longing, it’s too perfect an arc.
Because even if you leave the church and do not return, church never really leaves you.Report Typo/Error
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