A Pilgrim’s Tale

I guess I was just born without the religious gene or whatever it is you call it. You know, that need to believe in a written-down god. It’s not that the opportunity wasn’t there. I mean, I was brought up a Catholic farm boy, went to church, attended a Catholic primary school for a few years, even went to a Catholic boys’ high school. And it’s not that I was mis-treated or compelled in any way. My high school memories, particularly of the two years I spent as a boarder in a diocesan school run by priests, remain some of my fondest. No abuse there that I was aware of although the priests themselves, in retrospect, were an odd mix of conviction and unhappiness, their personal feelings and failings sometimes on full display. But, somehow, it just never took. I always remained an outsider, looking at the displays of religious feeling from behind a glass of puzzled indifference. Anyway, I’ve never been much for rules.

For the longest while this bothered me. I mean, I should believe, shouldn’t I? What on earth was wrong with me? And so, from time to time, I made stabs at becoming an inner believer. I showed up for singing groups; I went to Masses. In Grade 11, I even went on a ‘Challenge’ weekend at a seminary. This was the full treatment: encounter sessions, chanting, personal revelations, even some speaking in tongues (tastefully Catholic tongues, of course). At the end, though, I had to admit failure in front of the entire group. While others could talk of the way they had been changed and uplifted by the experience, I got up and said that while I had an interesting time, the whole thing had left me a little flat. Surprisingly, no one seemed to mind, really; maybe they too suspected from the start that I wasn’t all that solid. At the end of the personal witnessing and after a little ecstatic writhing, we held hands and sang songs and then went home.

The priests at my school suspected and somehow understood, I think. It was clear that there were some boys they thought of as having at least the potential for a religious ‘vocation;’ it was also clear that I wasn’t one of them. I could flub reading at masses, getting the parts mixed up, and, apart from a little exasperation, nothing was ever said. As long as I went through my motions and didn’t turn into an out and out apostate, everything was good.

My off-again, on-again attempts at religious devotion continued for many years into adulthood, mostly in the form of intermittent church attendance. For a college course in making radio documentaries I even chose as a project an arcane controversy involving a conservative religious group called Oratarians and their attempt to take over a parish in Ottawa, Ontario. This turned into a deeply weird foray into a Catholic reactionary demi-monde including an anti-Protestant publishing company based somewhere like Milwaukee, cut-throat battles over whether altar-boys could wear sneakers as opposed to lace-up dress shoes when serving at Mass, and a spying nun. My project, though, ended in an incomplete. Everyone was too afraid to give their names, especially the nun.

Even though I don’t really know how to believe, this doesn’t mean that I don’t have an affection for the Catholic Church of my youth and I watch with sadness its current decline into confusion and pain. The seeds were always there, of course: the bizarre, preoccupation with sex and how to regulate it, the ongoing war against the very gays and lesbians who comprise such a large proportion of its clergy and the suburban banality of so much of its modern ritual. In the end, of course, it is that almost fetishistic relationship with sex, attempting to brutally regulate it among believers while denying its obvious existence within its clergy, which now has the potential to be the Church’s end of days. Anyway, I’ve never really understood the need for the Church to recreate the structure and occupation policies of the old Roman imperial army. Perhaps, in current circumstances, the concept needs a bit of a re-think.

Is there anything after my life here, something behind the veil? I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years and I suspect there is although I have no idea what. This could, of course, simply be the triumph of hope over plain evidence, but I do have this nagging feeling. As a non-joiner, I’m not doing anything in a ritualistic sort of way to promote my suspicion. I do, though, try to respect the only commandment which has ever made any real sense to me: ‘Be kind.’

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