Saturday, 16 April 2011

A Confession: Parallel Lives

It seems an act of extreme hubris to write what amounts to autobiography, especially in the progress of an ordinary life which is in any case only in its twenty-sixth year. I have been trying to write down how I came to became a Christian. Indulge me. This will take a few posts, I think, but here is a first chapter.

I was a non-Christian for a long while. I don’t mean this in the sense that I was baptised when I was twenty five, although it is true in that sense also. I mean, rather, that I long moved alongside but not part of Christianity.

I was born in a happy family with no serious interpersonal issues, and it has remained so thus far. For this I count myself lucky. My parents are good, conscientious but irreligious people, sadly moving in a direction opposite to my own. I have no siblings. At the age of five, of course, it was time for me to go to school, and my parents chose the nearby St. Malachy’s Junior and Infant School. It was a reasonable place to send me and only ten minutes walk from home. It was also, as may be gathered from the school’s name, Roman Catholic.

I do not, I think, specifically recall my earliest encounter with Catholic worship. I do remember going to Mass from quite a young age, and of course it must have begun at five when I first started attending the school. I remember the stained glass window behind the altar, very bright and, to my mind then, very interesting. It stands there still, of course, and is the most appealing feature of a somewhat down-at-heel parish church.

I slowly learned the words in the same way as everyone else. Repetition made them familiar, although I never quite managed to memorize the Creed or the Gloria. I still can’t recite them on my own without prompting. With the new translation of the missal in the works, I suppose now is not the time to work on it.

I was perhaps vaguely aware that I was neither a Christian nor a Catholic but it was not until preparation for First Confession and First Holy Communion that I fully appreciated that I was not really part of the club. The school asked my parents what they wanted me to do during this preparation and my parents said that, rather than taking me aside to do something elsewhere, I should go through the same lessons as everyone else and then attend the First Holy Communion without participating in the communion itself. I was taught to go up to the priest for a blessing, a practice I continued until I was finally received into the Church years later.

A Catholic ethos naturally permeated the school in plenty of ways other than the occasional Mass we attended. Religious education was heavily weighted in favour of it. I remember doing a pastel drawing of the Good Samaritan with which I was particularly pleased. I remember also talk about materialism and pride. It was not forced upon us, and it was certainly not indoctrination.

What I received was a way of looking at the world which was contrary to the assumptions of society as a whole. Material success is quite secondary to love, and love is not just for those who deserve it.

My secondary school was St. Catherine’s Catholic High, or Halifax Catholic High as it was named through most of my time there. Masses, of course, continued. I was always worried about what I should say, as I was not a Catholic, when it came to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It seemed odd to me for someone who did not believe to say all the responses, so I often kept quiet.

There was a Mass celebrated every Thursday at lunchtime. At primary school Mass was, I think, said on or around the important dates in the Church calendar - we would have Mass before breaking up for Christmas or Easter and at other times throughout the year. Attendance was not something we ever had a say in, and that was no different at St. Catherine’s when it came to Masses for feasts. The lunchtime Mass was open to all staff and pupils not otherwise occupied but was mandatory only for those who had been banished to the chapel in lieu of detention.

I went through plenty of phases when I was at St. Catherine’s, including the mandatory brush with Marxism, so I am reluctant ascribe too much significance to the phase during which I attended Mass on Thursdays. It was, nevertheless, my first entirely voluntary engagement with religion. At this point I have no recollection of how it came about. For only a few months, at most, I would go to the chapel and be one of the dozen or so people (unless an entire class had been sentenced to penal religiosity) who turned up. There were always some familiar faces there, and I have an inkling that the core of this group, consisting of an uncompromising and devout R.E. teacher, a classroom assistant and a handful of schoolchildren, possessed a degree of stability.

Regular attendees notwithstanding there was still a shortage of competent readers. Father Jonathan, a young priest who I remember for his easy manner and his Doc Martens, served as school chaplain at that time. He noticed I did not receive communion and assumed I was an Anglican (I must have looked like one). He was short of readers and so he would often press me into service as one when I attended Mass. I like to think I did a reasonably good job of it, but I’m not sure that readings by curious yet unbaptised teenagers are strictly canonical.

Until I started my GCSEs, R.E. had never particularly grabbed me. I did enjoy looking at other religions, which we did in Year 7, and I had always been interested in the myths and legends of other cultures. Something, and I cannot remember what, made me warm to R.E. part way through my GCSEs. I suspect this coincided roughly with my brief attendance at the Thursday Mass.

I had gotten my first taste of philosophy at the hands of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gardner, read to me by my mother. This is the story of a young Norwegian girl who starts to receive letters from a mysterious source, posing a series of metaphysical questions which spark her interest in philosophy. As I approached my A-levels, I realised that I would have the opportunity to explore at least some of these questions if I did Religious Studies.

In my whole year, only four students did the AS level in Religious Studies, of whom only myself and my friend Tony remained when we came to the A2. A classroom seemed unnecessary, so we often had classes in either the little meeting room or the staffroom which served the R.E. block. Attitudes were relaxed, and we often spent our lunchtimes in the meeting room, away from the hubbub, listening to Mr. Long’s Bob Marley CDs.

The R.E. department at St. Catherine’s during my time there consisted of about four members of staff, two of whom took responsibility for my A-level tuition. Mr. Milton Sharman was the only teacher in the school shorter than me and was an Indian by birth, having moved to England when he was a child. He taught our philosophy of religion classes and would often pass good-natured judgement on the books he found me reading in the form room. He thought I could be reading better things than Orwell’s essays, and was disappointed to discover that the only T.S. Elliott I knew was Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I hope he would be pleased to know I have come to appreciate Elliott a little more broadly now, although I still like Orwell.

His colleague was Mr. Tony Long, who taught us liberation theology, his sympathies clearly lying with the liberation theologians and the poor for whose plight so moved them. He was a potentially fearsome teacher, and not one to suffer fools, but gifted with a wry sense of humour.

I was, by this point, close to being an out-and-out atheist. As with many people first asking religious questions, I latched onto the Problem of Evil as a fundamental rejoinder to the Christian God. I do not want to belittle the beliefs I held as a sixteen year old, because whilst I was certainly guilty of the sort of overblown philosophizing which is endemic to teenagers of a certain temperament, the questions I asked were quite valid, even if my conclusions were hasty.

How can God, in his loving-kindness, permit evil? Similarly, how can the existence of the all-loving God be reconciled with the existence of hell? When it came to the Church’s moral teachings, I was similarly critical. Modern society’s beliefs regarding sexuality are quite different to those of the Church, and I accepted the prevailing opinions pretty much uncritically.

But I believed these were questions worth asking, and I enjoyed R.E. immensely. When it came to be time to apply to universities, I could not decide between my two favourite subjects, history and religion, and so in the end I decided to take a joint honours degree and do them both. I arrived at St. Johns in the autumn of 2002 and within the first year had decided to concentrate mainly on religious studies, albeit mostly in the form of comparative religion rather than perhaps the slightly more exacting philosophical and theological side of things.

I was happy at St. Johns, albeit occasionally little lonely and unsociable in my first year. The expected homesickness did not manifest itself. I read much, and I particularly remember Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill, minds synonymous with modernity and secularism.