Story suggested by Barbara Hatfield Tuesday 9 March
Religious rituals imprint emotions and memories early in life, for those raised in religious families. I suppose that is their function.
I am not talking about Christmas Carols and Easter Egg hunts and associated, market controlled commercial events, but family occasions.
Early Sunday was a tough time in our house, as my father hated being late for anything, especially mass. And my sister could never get her act together. I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t an early streak of the rebelliousness which bloomed in her older life. Certainly the nuns at Loreto could not quell it; in fact they probably caused it!
So driving to mass with a smouldering volcano and muttering sister was a fraught affair and my brother and I skulked low.
At mass, we were separated. He sat with Mum in the fourth pew from the front on the right, I was jammed into the space between the organ and the wall in the choir, of which Dad was the bass section. This was after we once had a fight over a holy bookmark card.
The little church was packed every Sunday. The best was when the Bishop came and there was incense and a throne for him. Except we had to kneel and kiss his ring which we didn’t care for.
Our Saturdays too were interfered with by religious stuff. We received religious instruction at Catechism classes, which were held at our house. As the priests and nuns were mostly Italian or Swazi, whose English was poor, my Mum used to take the classes.
A good illustration of Mum’s disciplinary powers was at meals if we forgot about “elbows off the table please darling” our elbows got jabbed by a carving fork. So we two Purcell boys mostly behaved.
The others were four or five Smiths, mostly girls, a couple of Allardices and the occasional O’Kelly or two. They were wild boys and sitting still was not their forte. Adept at slipping under the tables, they tickled and pinched and generally disrupted proceedings.
They were eventually persuaded by the promise of cake and biscuits afterwards, or the threat of having to recite a decade of the rosary, out loud.
Nevertheless, a number of us duly made out first Confessions, which were always difficult as the concept of sin was so seriously guilty or not guilty. We resorted to a litany of transgreessions like: bless me Father for I have sinned, I told a lie to my friend and thought bad things and I forgot to say my prayers… It was not easy to sound original every time.
Then Communion and the terror of not chewing Jesus’ body which sat dry on the tongue or stuck to the roof of your mouth, while you looked pious and holy, which required a great deal of concentration. But I think there was a feeling of grace for a while afterwards.
Confirmation was weird – you had to choose a saint’s name and remember it was you they were talking to (don’t ask me why). We all lined up at a special Sunday parade and the Bishop came along and asked you a question (you’d been told the answer). Then he marked your forehead with oil and slapped your face – apparently to chase the devil away.
Strange this practice of marking the head with oil and ashes on Ash Wednesday. We have no right to look sideways at the Hindus and their tikas.
For a while I was a devout Catholic, bound by duty and ritual and desire to please my parents. I was often the only boarder from school that walked the two or three miles through the winter frost across the icy river to mass. Then back again, too late for breakfast, if no-one gave you a lift.
I even entertained a fantasy of becoming a priest and saving lepers on a remote island like Father Damien. Maybe it was the island name Molokai that resonated some significance.
As life exposed the temptations of the flesh, duty and the basis of faith were examined and rationalisation gave excuses to avoid. Conveniently, I think, I embraced the mantra of Domine, non sum dignus * to avoid Communion, as I knew I would continue to commit sins of the flesh like over-indulgence, idleness and neglect of holy obligations. It was sort of a sidestep about which I felt a little guilty.
Over the years I have come to understand the place and need for religion in society. The vast number of different faiths and rituals seem to me as expressions of need, not the presence of gods in different forms.
Nevertheless the rituals still carry some reverence for me and I am conscious that we must acknowledge sin and need to try to improve. So a little stuck.
Sadly few of my Catholic contemporaries seem to have retained much devoutness. Some of my Protestant friends are more devout, but they have a wider menu and less demanding regime to follow. Generously, they include me in their prayers.
* Lord, I am not worthy