“Jesus almost got me…..
I was fifteen years old when I stopped going to mass.
I had been threatening to stop for a long time before that. My mother wouldn’t accept it. Of course I could have stopped despite this but I didn’t want to hurt my family and it was impossible to do what I believed to be right and not to hurt them.
My mother and I came to a negotiated settlement after a series of painful arguments. A truce after a long civil war.
My mother initially insisted that if I didn’t go to mass then I should spend that time doing extra homework. I pointed out that I already had so much homework that it was impossible to do any more and I suggested that I spend the time reading the Bible instead. That might seem like a strange offer to make. Why would a teenager rebelling against his catholic environment suggest that he should embark on the long and potentially arduous journey from Genesis to Revelations? It was not such a contradiction under the circumstances however.
Reading the Bible was something that the church (by which I mean the Irish Roman Catholic Church, we still refer to it as THE Church) discouraged lay people from doing. The days of the Latin Mass were not entirely gone. Only recently had the officiating priest turned to face the congregation. We were not encouraged to examine our own consciences like I have been told Protestants are. Power resided with the clergy; hovering above our heads like a dark cloud. They would read the rules of the game and tell us how to play. It would be dangerous and confusing for us to get our hands and eyes on the source material. They were to be the chemists and we the junkies when in came to the opium of the people. So actually reading the Bible was something I instinctively understood as an act of rebellion.
Rebellion was my motivation, not understanding or self-empowerment. I was angry and I wanted to tear the book to pieces through the act of reading it. Not to turn every page and take in every word would have been like walking away from a fight and like Kenny Rodgers sang: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.”
My mother might sound a little harsh here but it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the mass; not just religiously but culturally, to my family and my community back then in the mid-eighties.
My grandmother went to mass at least once a week her whole life and for all the time that I knew her (she lived next door to me until she died), never paid attention to one moment of it as far as I could tell. I believe she deeply resented being told what to do my anyone, priests included, but a combination of superstition and cultural pressure made it impossible for her ever to express that feeling.
She sat with us or in a long line of old ladies like herself. They all wore thick stockings, sheep wool lined zip up brown suede boots, long skirts and head scarves and they all rocked gently back and forward, eyes blinking rapidly threading the beads of their rosaries between the proto-arthritic knuckles of strong thumbs and first fingers. They were all old and established in this role in their fifties. I’m sure that their like was to be found in Spain, Italy and all over the catholic world. I’m sure they are still around, in smaller numbers yes, but they are tough troops.
They ebbed there in a trance and what was going on on the alter was none of their business(or none of their concern).A friend of mine once told me that he imagined them repeating “And then I went through the windscreen, and then I went through the windscreen..” mantra like, hitting the windscreen over and over in their minds at the apex of their forward arc.
Friedrich Nietzsche understood the Jesus story as a continuation of the history of religious human sacrifice. That line did stretch to my Nana and her fellows. It stretched to all of us. It is the power of that central image which keeps so many of us fixed in orbit around it. The image of the crufixion, the transsubtantiation at the centre of the mass performs the function of a human sacrifice weekly without the need for too much blood shed.
“Er lasst sich nicht lesen”
Edgar Allan Poe talks of a German book which does not permit itself to be read in “The Man of the Crowd”. Mass was something about which, for us, opinion was not possible. The facts of Roman Catholicism were as fixed as the weather, the elements. Our opinions were not required. From the old ladies and from the rest of us, only unconscious physical participation was necessary to feed the machine.
Announcing that I didn’t want to attend mass any more was like announcing that I had decided it would be best if I stopped breathing.
However, the deal was done and I read, over the following months, the Bible from cover to cover.
Reading the Bible was one of the ways in which Jesus almost got me.
It is a great book; not despite its many contradictions but because of them, not despite its being concerned with belief but because it is. The Bible fails only in the way it is most commonly used, as a self-help book. It is not a blue-print for living but it is a wonderful map of the complexities of the landscape of belief. Yes, the King James version is the best in terms of literary style but it’s good in every version. It is interesting to learn of the myths that have informed and formed our culture, influenced our morality, our history, our politics and dominated our literature but it is the stories themselves, the layers on layers of attempts to express the multitude of our answers to the question of how to exist in a godless world, or create God if you like,which really make it so compelling.
The Old Testament, I was shocked to find, exactly suited my mood. The God I found there is the type of brutal, insecure, violent, crazy God whose existence actually did make sense of the world I say around me and the way I saw that world. The deity therein is Tom Waits’ God when he’s drunk. You realised that whoever wrote this wasn’t peddling the kind of simplistic inanity that I heard every week from the alter. These writers were clearly just as horrified, disgusted, excited, titilated and puzzled by the world and the possibility of God as I was.
It was only after this period that I was able to engage with the question of whether or not I believed in God. Having found that the language of belief was both fascinating and beautiful I was able to accept the simple fact that I have never had any belief in God myself. I suffer from superstition and I am fascinated by how, what and why people believe but beyond accepting that there was a God in the same way that two and two made four, because my parents and teachers told me so, I have never had the smallest stirring of faith in my heart. My parents used to stand on the landing when my sister and I were very young and lead us in prayer. They tell me that I was three years old when they first heard my little voice from the bedroom asking: ‘What if there’s no God?’
This is not to say that I was not religious. When I was very young I was painfully religious. I used to make the sign of the cross on my torso EVERY time I passed a church (spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch- not a joke I made in my days of strict observance) much to the annoyance of my older sister.
This understanding of my own innate atheism underpins all my discussions or arguments with people of a religious persuasion these days. You either believe or you don’t. Any little spark of faith I had in me had a perfect environment in which to grow into a flame, it didn’t, it wasn’t there. I still feel moved by the beauty of an old person’s face, I still feel a ballon fill up in my chest looking at certain views in Dorset and Devon but the thing itself is enough without needing fortification from a deity. “This is this, this is not something else” Robert De Niro’s character says in an argument over boots in “The Deer Hunter”. That line comes back to me more and more often.
Later I decided that having escaped the catholic life was not enough, I wanted my name off the books.
The philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote:
“I hesitate to despite money in a bank. I am afraid that I shall never dare to take it out again. When you go to confession and entrust your sins to the safe-keeping of the priest, do you ever come back for them? ”
It turns out that Baudrillard was wrong. Most of us will want our own sins back if we feel that they have been stolen from us. We all know that if you peel the sins away then some of our identity comes away with them. I had noticed that I often heard numbers of followers quoted in relation to religions.. there are X million Catholics in the world for instance. I thought that if all the lapsed religious persons in all the religions in the world clocked out of the belief factories than the overall statistics would look very different. I admit that I was in that period of my life when my insecurity made me long for the beautiful simplicity of a fight. (The mixed martial artist Gina Carano was quoted as saying the best thing about fighting is that when you do it you know who the bad guy is, something which is not always easy in day to day life, and I have always felt and still do feel that same way.)
I found out that the Parochial house for my parish was about fifteen minutes from my house and I made an appointment to go see a priest with a view to removing my name once and for all from the role of international Catholicism.
So I went to the Parochial house up by the housing estate we called the Abattoir looking for a fight.. and I got one.
I marched up the North Circular Road singing under my breathe, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine… no, no, heart of stone, my sins are my own, they belong to me..ME” A Patty Smith version of Van Morrison’s Gloria that I still love but that frightened me a little then. A lot of things which later came to be very important to me were too uncomfortable to handle when I first encountered them.
The inside of the Parochial House had that damp, depressing atmosphere of an old people’s home. There was a carpet but it was impossible to tell what colour it had originally been. I was brought into a room the main feature of which was the large pipes running along the walls. It had the same institutional feel as my school. It was a little too dark, a little threatening.
I spoke with a priest whose tone went from patronising to frustrated to down right angry. I explained my reasons for being there; I told him that I didn’t want to be used to make the Catholic Church seem more popular than it really was, that I wanted nothing to do with it and that I felt I had a right to set the record straight. Just because I had been baptised, completely without my consent of course since I was an infant at the time, didn’t mean that I sound be doomed forever to the roles of Papacy.
At first the priest just acted like we were having a little chat in which he would set me straight and all would be well. When he realised that I had come with a demand rather than a request for instruction he became increasingly serious and progressively more angry. He insisted that he couldn’t see any reason to think that my soul was utterly beyond redemption and that as long as he saw any hope for me in that sense he couldn’t recommend that I be removed from the bosom of the church. As far as he was concerned, my soul was not my own. I didn’t have the right to remove myself from God’s grace.
This is a problem when you deal with religious people. They have a logic based on their beliefs which makes no sense if you don’t share them and is totally resistant to any argument. Their views are their own justification and you must accept them fully of not at all. If I was not utterly lost then, as far as the church was concerned the lease they had taken out on my soul was still legal and binding. The only sure way of getting the church to admit that you are a lost cause to commit the sin of despair, something I was ironically getting quite close to when I left, very angry and no less catholic it seemed than when I arrived.
That’s the state I remain in to this day. Jesus had come close to getting me with the Word (isn’t that always the beginning) but hadn’t quite succeeded. Later on he got a little closer though and we’ll talk about that next time…