Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. — Karl Marx
Childhood, too rich for the old and too tepid for the young, perfectly mirrors the nature of desire, for it is in childhood that much of what we want is shaped. And for most of us, our dreaming, our ability to imagine, slips away unnoticed until it disappears altogether. We are encouraged to believe that the fancifulness of childhood is a lovely state, but one which must give way to facts; and with time what makes up our little lives finds new meaning as we come to realize our parents are not gods, our teachers, no saints.
Few things are as fungible as memory. And the many links to our past available to us in the early years of the current millennia only serve to make it more so. The photos, the letters we write and receive and keep (a rarity I imagine), and the terabytes of video we capture can displace or reinforce, as the case may be, our memories of what happened to us. Stories we hear as we grow, descriptions of scenes we played parts in, events we assume have the surety of fact, these are all colored by what we want to believe or take for granted as real. And the detail, the truth, gets filled in with photos or the way an older sibling recalls it. Invariably, chatter at family gatherings over the holidays infect the reality of the lives we actually lived.
Such is the case with me and my siblings. We are a curious amalgam of American beliefs. I have sisters who are fervent evangelical Christians and sisters who are devout atheists, if by devout you mean committed, fully practicing by how they live and what they say. My only brother, two years my junior, left us for reasons I can never really know, taking his own life a few years short of 60. If he was anything, he too was a nonbeliever, and like me, never took to the religion we were raised in, that being Catholic. It’s difficult to know when one sheds the religion of one’s parents (when such is the case). I started the process in high school, perhaps sooner, as I never much cared for all the ritual and bromides that came with being Catholic: the denial of sexuality (adolescent sexuality especially); the accountancy ledger of sins committed and time served in purgatory; the harsh and capricious judgment that fell to those who had sinned but failed to make a full confession, so if they got struck by a bus on the way to confession, well, they were warned. I also never quite got the business side of it, or perhaps I did, as it seemed but an extension of the accountancy ledger already mentioned.
Our parish issued individual boxes of donation envelopes, which we were encouraged to use when they passed the collection basket. Since I attended an affiliated parochial school, I got my box there, perhaps during religion class or what passed for homeroom, that being the taking of attendance and tweaking of ears belonging to the noisy and unruly. Anyway, each of us, our parents included, had a box of envelopes sufficient to cover all the Sundays and holidays of the year — basically, any official day that a good Catholic would find himself at mass and ready to redeem his faith and underwrite the parish’s fiscal needs (I used the masculine pronoun because, well, it should be obvious — if not, you’re not too familiar with Catholicism).
So, on every Sunday, and for us that commenced with a noon mass because our Dad liked to sleep in (and ruin my playtime, just saying), we prepped for our weekly rites by getting out our envelopes and putting in a quarter or dime or whatever Dad doled out to us to put in them and surrender to the ushers, devoted souls who carried a basket with an enormously long handle that let them reach across ever pew for every donation of the faithful. I’m guessing they found ripping open our envelopes and shedding them of coins a tiresome ritual that got in the way of efficiently filling the coffers. Maybe they accepted it as duty, one of many. Who knows? It was made a bit less onerous when they added perforated lines to the envelopes that simplified tearing the damn things open and harvesting their contents.
What I took from being a Catholic, including my run as an altar boy schooled in the old Latin mass, was mystery — the mystery that came from the music, an unfathomable reach that touched my soul. When I served 6:30 AM mass, a ritual observed in a parish of perhaps five or ten thousand, there were usually about 25 of the faithful, old people mostly, a nun or two from the nearby convent, and an organist, a young man who managed to fill the boredom with beauty. He also had the curious gift of making Latin hymns sound like the whisperings of heaven. I would later take these memories and come to see that creative natures need a place to live and find connection to the mystery of being, the mystery that fills a night filled with stars or the comfort we can’t account for when we see an infant’s smile or a bitch nursing her litter.
This brings me back to where I began. Does my recollection of being a boy raised Catholic fit with what it was to be Catholic back then? How much of it reflects my later day interpretation of those days serving as an altar boy, and what, if anything, it means to believe? Can one really shed faith never owned? Does our commitment to faith or lack thereof reflect the curious infusion of what makes us either believers or souls striven to some other course, a course no less free of faith, faith in things larger than ourselves? Religion, it seems to me, isn’t about where we go after we die, but how we live now.
Over the years, I lost interest in tracking my relationship to eternity and my place in it, but with the approaching close to my time here, I sometimes think about the other side of the divide. Nothing I might recover from my childhood or life since then has called me to be reborn or subscribe to any number of faiths that promise a personal afterlife. I do, however, find myself in awe of the universe, the light from stars now dead still filling the night sky, the eternal mystery that is eternity, and the watch found whose workings suggest a maker, but whose winding raises an infinite height to every leap of faith.
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