Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Holy Moley

I wasn't always an atheist. As a child growing up in a large French Catholic family, I embraced every bit of dogma and pomp and arcane ceremony that came my way: the Blessed Trinity (which included God in the form of a pigeon!), the mysteries of the Sacred Heart (which my best friend Paul navigated as surefire loopholes that could get you into heaven no matter what sins you'd committed), the Ascension of Mary (the only human, according to the nuns, who wasn't required to die to reach Heaven), and even the Stations of the Cross with its droning dirges that solemnly recounted Christ's progression through a long series of humiliations and atrocities toward his ultimate demise.

The rituals of Catholicism provided a comforting platform for a child besieged with ugly images of a distant war and constantly reminded of an impending nuclear annihilation. I loved the smell of the incense and the empty thrum of the church when I arrived in the morning to serve Mass as an altar boy, where I also "served" at funerals of people I'd never met -- becoming overwhelmed with sadness regardless -- and attended weddings where grooms in the know tipped each altar boy a whopping five dollars. The priests were all red-faced alcoholics who would insist on an extra splash of wine from the cruets even at seven a.m., but I learned the entire Mass by heart -- fortunately no longer read in Latin -- and rang the huge altar bell at all the right times. I even believed that I really did have a guardian angel whom I named Tony, and because he never seemed to get even a Sunday off I took pity on him and would sit to one side on any chair in case he needed to take a load off for a few minutes.

There was something amazingly reassuring about prayer -- you could pray for a good grade on a test or to find your geography book and because things couldn't always turn out for the worst, once in a while when something went your way you could choose to believe that your prayer had been answered. I'm sure that today's Bible-belters who pray for their football team's victory experience the same sense of justification when Bubba scores a point, never considering that a real God might be a bit more concerned about the housing crisis or the Haitian earthquake victims.

For someone so comfortably entrenched in a religious culture that was also a fundamental part of my ethnic background, it all got left behind pretty easily. Our parish church was within walking distance so our parents let us choose which Mass to attend (as long as we did go), and one Sunday when I was 11 I passed my friend John's house (a family of Down East Yankee, non-practicing Methodists). It suddenly occurred to me that I could stop in and hang out with him as I often did, then return home in time for our usual huge Sunday dinner (which was actually lunch) and then no one would be the wiser. It was as though my very ability to frame that thought shattered the dream I'd lived in up until then...suddenly I knew I was in charge of my own destiny, and it was up to me to develop my own moral compass rather than depend on a mythology that did it for me. At that instant all the powdery myths and hoary legends fell away like so much gosamer and cobwebs, and I never believed in any of it ever again.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! As a fellow former Catholic and just general person, I find this to be both insightful and brilliant. I myself gave it up when they stopped the rule of No Meat on Fridays. I'd thought the rules had come down from God and were therefore immutable. Imagine the shock to my moral compass. Then again, if I hadn't been raised with religion I might not even have a moral compass to shock. Or to revise, or, like you, to develop. So thanks again and please say hi to Tony. (My own guardian angel's name was Iago.)