Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Ramblings: The Church of the Poisoned Mind

As a teenager I dallied with the idea of religion. That was until I realised that I was actually what religion often calls an inveterate sinner and decided to give it up.
My dad was agnostic, tending more towards atheism and my mum had been raised a Roman Catholic. My brother and I were christened and all that business and my mum took us to church regularly as small children which my father neither approved nor disapproved of. I remember it as being a crushing bore. My mum would intermittently pass us dusty boiled sweets or Polo Mints from the recesses of her handbag, to placate us as we stood up and down repeatedly, listening to the strange and spooky incantations in the local Catholic Church. I hated it and would often try to smuggle a book in to pass the time and distract me from the anxiety it invoked. As a child I hated museums and churches. They gave me the creeps. I like museums now, though, as long as they’re light on the stuffed animals. Taxidermy freaks me out too.
For a small child a Catholic church can be a sinister place. The masses of blankly staring statues, the smoky incense, dim light, candles and the mumbling, all combined to give me the jitters and to be honest still does. The huge crucifix with the depiction of a man with a collection of oozing wounds gave me nightmares. I shudder now on the rare occasions I have to enter a church. I still recall that strange mix of boredom, cold and terror instilled into me and it brings me out in a sweat. I can understand that scene in “The Omen” where Damien goes off on one. I feel his pain. I also get funny urges to shout absurd made up swear words in very quiet places. Not good, no one wants to hear me shout “Fuck-bumble” or “Wank-toffee” whilst they’re praying so I avoid that risk.
Luckily my mum got bored with the whole idea and the joy of accompanying two bored children to church soon palled and she gave it up for many years. My dad made a decision that we shouldn’t have to attend a Roman Catholic school as he felt it would be limiting and I’m eternally grateful for this.  
I got to age 12 and decided I’d rethink the whole church issue. My maternal grandfather was an amusing spiv of a man, all Brill Cream, bandy gait and cheeky charm. He amused me and I liked his carefree manner and his love of fruit machines and Embassy Number Ones. I decided to try going to church a few times with him. Oddly, I enjoyed it. The service was a bore and the bobbing up and down was hard on the knees but I got to spend time with my funny granddad who’d be wearing his best suit and we always went in the bar at the Catholic Social Club after and he let me have a Shandy. It seemed a fair pay off for having to go in the spooky place.
I quickly become quite entranced by it all and found I quite liked the ritual and the pomp. There was gold, perfumes and shiny things and a man in a dress standing at the front; ideal fodder for a teenage gay boy’s imagination. I decided to have my first communion and get confirmed, all in one go.  
To become a good Catholic you have to go to classes. I went once a week to the presbytery and sat in the priest’s office for an hour of instruction after school. No, before you ask, he didn’t try a thing. Priests and nuns really weird me out though, to this day. I avoid them where possible. He was in his eighties, a funny little walnut of a man who smelt of old age and fusty cassocks. I was given a little red book called the Catechism which was kind of a manual to tell me how bad I was. That’s where it all went a bit wrong.
I was 13 and there I was with a little book telling me how full of dirty nasty sin I was and the voice of the wizened little priest to back this up. The book had such delightful entries as the one telling you that homosexuality was a sin crying out to heaven for vengeance. That didn’t make me feel very warm inside. It was on a par with murder, apparently. My teenage love for Nick Hayward from haircut 100 was the beginning of the road to becoming as evil as Myra Hindley, according to the priest. It wasn’t just a sin to do the bum thing. It was also a sin to think about sex and to masturbate. I was 13. Masturbation is the prerogative of the teenage boy. I could no more stop myself thinking about sex as I could give up food or air. I made a few valiant attempts to give up “the sin of self abuse” but it made me crabby and deranged and never lasted. As Woody Allen once said, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone you love.”
Apparently I also had to obey and respect my parents. That one was even harder. I sat through the classes getting more and more anxious and mixed up. It was an odd feeling to be told you’re fundamentally wrong and bad. I wouldn’t recommend it.
I went for my first (and last) confession. It was a bit of a farce. Anonymity wasn’t achieved as I was the only one in the church. It was also a wet autumn evening and the flickering candles did little to dispel my nerves as I sat behind the grotty little grill. The priest asked me what sins I’d committed and I made up a few minor things, omitting to mention the time I got caught shoplifting in Smiths and the bouts of long and steamy dirty thoughts about Peter Duncan off Blue Peter with my hand down my trousers.
The confirmation service was the biggest bore ever, worse than any maths lesson at school. The church was packed with proud parents and was hot and uncomfortable. A little officious man ran up to me and my granddad just before the service began. It’s traditional to choose the name of a saint to be confirmed with and add this as a new middle name and they’d forgotten to ask me my choice. I blurted something out and to this day can’t remember which name I chose. It may have been Simon or Peter but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Aloysius.
The Bishop led the lengthy service and did a sermon about how evil Boy George was. Badly dressed and a bit irritating but I’m not sure about evil. He also added in a topical element by telling us what a sinner Mick Jagger was too. This raised a few puzzled looks from an audience of teenagers in the early 80s who weren’t quite sure who he was.
My granddad seemed proud, which was a consolation. In retrospect, it’s not really worth months of sitting in a little room being told you’re evil, just to try and make someone proud. The head fucking isn’t a great thing and I feel very angry when I look back and think of myself as a vulnerable child being given such psychologically damaging misinformation. My granddad died not long after that and the appeal of the church going faded and I gave it up.
My dad converted to Catholicism when he was dying and in an odd twist, at the time, I was dating a man who was a devout Catholic and had once entered a seminary and almost completed his training to be a priest. Strange times indeed. My dad’s funeral was an excruciating experience and if you’re a non-catholic you maybe won’t know that there’s no speed or economy to a Catholic Church service. The funeral lasted over two hours, including the reception into church and the cremation. It wasn’t good to prolong it and required medical sedation, thanks to my understanding G.P. and a Valium prescription which barely contained my grief and anger. My mum is once again a very regular church goer now.
I don’t intend to ever enter a church again or sit through a service as long as I live unless it’s to marvel at the architecture or the church is now a pub. I won’t attend church weddings or christenings and if I need to go to a funeral then the little bit at the crematorium is fine. I don’t think that’s disrespectful at all, just respecting myself. Maybe my views will change as I get older and I’m self knowing enough to realise that maybe the threat of terminal illness or old age might send me running back in a search for comfort and meaning. I hope not. If there’s one thing the Catholic Church never gave me, it’s comfort or meaning.

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