Spending ten or twelve years of my life convinced that there were only two religions in the world, Catholics & Protestants, is not something I’m particularly proud of. Granted, this period of time was early childhood, extending into my youth, when I did manage to discover that there were also other religions and that it was all a bit more complex, but only a bit. You see, I learned all of this at school, an all girl’s Catholic school run by nuns. Hence, my educators were a tad biased, believing that the world’s population was divided into two – Catholics, and non-Catholics. Catholics, if they kept all the rules, were eligible for heaven, the rest of them would all burn in hell. No exceptions.
It wasn’t that easy though. Being Catholic didn’t give you an automatic ticket to through those pearly gates. There were the ten commandments, the bible, the catechism, sacraments, prayer, and all sorts of good and abstentious behavior that spun off from the ground rules.
Basically, everything was about the next life, in fact, you may as well have just written off this one if you wanted to avoid hell. The mandatory part was mass on a Sunday and keeping the ten commandments. There were the incidentals too, such as saying a prayer before meals, and after meals a few decades of the rosary would not go astray. ‘The family that prays together, stays together’, was drummed into us from a young age. In later years I prayed alone, my prayer being that not praying together would help me to escape my family.
Because of this difficult route to Nirvana (and at this stage in my life Nirvana was yet to become a word in my vocabulary and an ill-fated American rock band), there was also an escape route: confession.
If you didn’t manage to live by the rules, all you had to do was to go to confession on a Saturday where you could get forgiveness, and start over again full of good intentions the following week, in return for rattling off some extra prayers. I liked confession. It was dark and there was tension. A bit like the cinema when the lights go off just before the movie begins and you feel someone grope your leg.
In the confession box you would kneel and wait for the priest to slide open the little window and once that tiny ray of light shone into the dark box you could begin:
‘Bless me Father for I have sinned, it’s a week since my last confession.’
‘Bless you child, what have you got to confess?’
The memorized list would begin. Gluttony was always one of my favorites and being mean to my siblings. My sins were boring, but they needed to be forgiven just in case I died that week. Then you would say the act of contrition, because it wasn’t enough to tell them, you needed to be sorry too. I was always more nervous about remembering the words to the act of contrition than I was about revealing my sins, even if I did fantasize about making up a few sensational sins like ‘I killed a man’, just to see how many prayers I’d get as a penance for doing something like that. I normally got three ‘Hail Mary’s’ and an ‘Our Father’, for my lot of sins, but I had nothing to compare it to. You could hang back in the pews to see how long other people were taking to do their penance, but given that they prayed in silence, you could never knew how fast or slow they might be or if they were putting in a few extra prayers for other causes. Mostly though, I just sped through whatever penance I’d been given and rushed home to repeat my sins until next week’s confession time. Besides, if I told the priest that I’d killed a man, I’d have to come back the next week and confess that my very confession had been a sin, and with that sort of carry on I’d be unlikely to ever get my place in heaven.
Growing up in a grey backward town where it always rained, it wasn’t difficult to be sold into this amazing promise of eternal bliss. I loved my big book of bible stories and Jesus was a very acceptable imaginary friend. Whenever we passed a church, I’d beg Mammy to let me go in and say a prayer, even donating some of my pocket money into the offerings box so that I could light a candle to pray for the children in Biafra. I did not know who these children were or why they needed praying for. Likewise, I had no idea where Biafra was. I wasn’t even sure if it was in Ireland or not. I prayed for them nonetheless because there was a hidden message in there somewhere reminding me that there were people worse off than us, and besides, it was just what you did.
I was seriously considering joining a convent when I grew up. From what I could understand, if you wanted to win in the long run, Jesus was the way to go.
The rest of my family just weren’t up there when it came to holiness. They were average Catholics at a stretch, we didn’t even have a framed picture of the Sacred Heart in our kitchen, one of the ones with Jesus looking sad through his big puppy eyes and with a flickering light in front of it. All we had was a holy water font at the front door and a statue of the Child of Prague, which I guessed had been the result of my mother going to a jumble sale. Even the Virgin Mary, known more fondly in Ireland as ‘herself’ was absent in our home. Not a statue, not a framed picture, not even one of those plastic bottles of holy water from the miraculous shrine of Knock, shaped like herself.
One night, eavesdropping on one of my parents many shouting matches, I snuck to the top of the stairs to listen more carefully. It sounded like they had finally found Jesus.
“He died for you”, Mammy was screaming, “murdered for your freedom, and that’s all you can call him, you ignorant git.”
“Faggot”, Dad muttered again.
It turned out they were talking about Roger Casement, one of the rebels of the Irish Rising in 1916.
The waters were beginning to get muddy. Jesus was someone who was crucified because of me, but now there were not only different religions with other Jesus-like Gods, I needed to add the Irish rebels who had apparently also died for my country, or more specifically, for me personally. No wonder Irish people wallowed in a permanent sense of guilt.
Over time it went from muddy to murky to swamp. There were things I couldn’t make sense of. Why couldn’t a girl be a priest? How come Jesus despised gay people? Was a child born outside of marriage such a bad person that it couldn’t be christened? Later the floodgates opened and all of this stuff was nothing more than a bagatelle in comparison to how the whole story unfolded. From corruption, cruelty, money laundering and affairs, all the way to child abuse and infanticide.
There was only one thing for it now, to go into a severe state of denial and continue with business as usual, which was the general Irish consensus when it came to dealing with anything that involved facing reality. It even worked for a while, but then I had my very own epiphany. It wasn’t as dramatic as Saul on the road to Damascus, it was more of a Mags on the road to McDonalds moment. There I was, one minute debating on whether I should pluck up the courage to ask for my cheeseburger without the gherkin or if I should just do my usual timid ordering of the burger and pick out the gherkin when I got it, when suddenly a giant inflated Santa all lit up in a shop window managed to get my attention, and all of a sudden the scales fell off my denial modus and I realized: I’ve been had! This whole church and religion lark was Santa for grownups.
The Santa conspiracy though, was one that ended with toys, this one was a lot darker. Eternity wasn’t the after life, it was this life that mattered, and I’d wasted a big chunk of it investing on a promise that was about as likely to happen as Daddy promising Mammy that he was giving up the drink for good this time. So that was it, the goalposts had shifted, and off I set on my new mission, worshipping at the altar of the good in humanity, discovering that mortals and mortality might just be an eternal blessing. And discovering that the good in people is mightier than the fear of God. All I can say, is that this whole journey has been nothing less than a miracle. Thank God.