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Sunday, October 30, 2011

God

It's a Sunday morning and for the first time in decades, I go to Church and not because of a wedding for a funeral. Cue: Hallelujah Chorus.

It's an inevitable part of confronting a potentially life-threatening illness, I suppose, that I ponder the existence of God.

With 12 years of gruelling Catholic Convent education behind me, my religious roots run deep but like many of us, I am terribly lapsed.

When I enter the local Church,I find it a simple place with plastic chairs in lieu of the polished mahogany pews I remember, the entire proceedings projected onto a screen for ease of reading, hymnal included, and a few changes to what was once a familiar litany. I realise my Catholic lapse predates Powerpoint.

It's my mother and my sister Nicky who, upon first hearing my bad news, leapt immediately - and I mean, immediately! - to the suggestion that I should go back to church.

I wonder about the hypocrisy built into that notion: that hard times are ahead and now, God is needed.

If there is a God, will he judge me for that?

Now the notion of religion is a difficult one to discuss with anyone. Like politics, it generates strong emotions, unveils prejudices, creates friction. My husband, Al, is himself a diehard agnostic (despite years of Sunday School) and we've opted to give our children a non-denominational but Christian education. In short, we avoid the notion of "religion" and instead, opt for commitment to our own individual philosophies.

Still, I cannot deny that my blood is is part Catechist as much as it is part Darwinist. I adore science but I am not deaf to the siren song of that shapeless, nameless, unseen Greater Being - God, Universe, whatever.

My earliest experiences after all, were formed in a Catholic boarding school in Colombo where frankly, I saw more of the nuns than I did my own parents. They were my "Mothers" and "Sisters" in those old fashioned habits of the time who oversaw my studies, taught me piano, and forced me to eat my greens.

From the age of 5 to 9, much of my life therefore revolved around the church. We little kids had prayers on waking, prayers before meals, prayers before study, prayers before bed. Mass was attended EVERY morning. We were marched to church for every saint's day, for regular bi-weekly confessions, for benedictions and special masses and every nun who happened to bugger off into heaven.

Most despised were the infrequent but unforgettable gatherings at an outdoor grotto where I and my fellow little boarders were forced to pray to a statue of Mary covered in crow shit and set in a rock. We knelt on gravel and endured a litany - me, all the while, aware only of my 'jungies' - my knickers - which always rode up my bum crack when kneeling and gave me a kind of holy wedgie, thereby enhancing the discomfort of my devotions.

As a small child I remember our reverential collection of scapulas, holy medals and holy pictures - we would, literally, sprint to the back door of our Church as soon as we got them so the priest could bless them.

Communion and confirmation were huge events, in Ceylon deserving of special visits to a photographer's studio. Here I am at Age 8 on the day of my Holy Communion:


Confessions too were part of our 'daily bread'. Innocent kids forced to church once a fortnight vainly searching our brains for apparent sins.

My aunty, Ethel, who is visiting us from Sri Lanka right now tells a funny story. At Age 15 how she confessed to the sin of adultery, for want of some diversification from the usual suspects. The priest had asked her: "From the front-back or the back-back". Aunty is still, 60 years later, mortified by that story.

After boarding school, my family immigrated to Australia and my sisters and I were despatched to a smorgasbord of Catholic Schools around Brisbane - "Our Lady of Fatima", "Queen of Apostles", "St Cecilia's" and "Mt Carmel". Here, work routines meshed with religious protocols, every piece of work initialled at the corner of the page as follows: AMWDG - that's right: All My Work was Done For God. In other words, cheating was out of the question and there was always a Confession or two to equal the books.

High School at Loreto Convent was no different. The cavernous church at our sister school, Mt Carmel was the centre of a separate social life where I attended countless masses and the odd funeral or too, and my peers gathered for Youth Groups. Prayers, prayers, prayers.

Perhaps it was here that the foundations of the lapse that was to follow were embedded. As the funny Sri Lankan "brain", and despite my tiny coterie of a 'friends', I felt detached and separate from the other girls. I observed them with a scientific curiosity, and found many of them (not all!) vain, materialistic, sometimes cruel.

It seemed hypocritical to me, that on the one hand these girls could be openly mean - especially to those who were different, while they exercised their piety every Sunday in their expensive clothes.

I wondered about being a "Catholic".

When I left Loreto in Year 12, then, I think I was already disenchanted with the world of my Catholic girlhood and so, in my early adulthood it was no difficult step to flick sainthood for sin. Besides, it was so much more fun being bad than good!

Surely those were the halcyon days: remorseless Fornication; Alcohol; Cigarettes! And, oh bliss, Swearing! The joy of saying 'Shit', 'Fuck' and 'Arsehole' without fear of lightning strike was a new freedom that I relished and still do today :)

In the intervening years, of course, I've spared a moment for 'God'. I have spoken to Him only so much as He represents an unseen world of the spirits my own Sinhalese forbears acknowledged.

I am from a very superstitious culture after all. We believe in reincarnation. We believe in evil eyes and hexes. We believe in chanting for the sick.

We believe in the power of prayer. And we believe in Miracles. (My father was once hailed as a Buddhist hero for breaking a long drought, the rains perhaps coincidentally starting after a rainmaking ceremony when Dad foolishly offered to walk the coals. I still have a vivid memory of him sitting on a chair and nursing the seared soles of his feet!)

Now illness has me thinking about my connection to "God", "Spirits", "The Afterlife". Having been born in a multi-denominational country - Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics and Muslims all with their own lifelines to heaven - my views on this are fluid and open to suggestion.

I'm not sure who or what is true. Or even if it needs to be!

What I am sure of is this.

We live in such a material world where so much is made of physical fitness, with a passing nod to mental and emotional stamina.

But few will talk about that which is most necessary, I think, in making it through this life and that is 'spirituality'.

The word itself I think has been sullied by images of hairy-armpitted Buddha-loving dole bludgers who hang out at Byron Bay, burning incense, eking a living from their market stalls full of cheap but useless goods, and peddle a message of 'universal love' and hippiness.

For all I know, maybe these phoney Buddha lovers are what "spirituality" is all about. Maybe it is about meditation and wind chimes and dancing in the moonlight waving patchouli scented scarves?

Maybe it is a vegan diet and jangly bangles and mustard-coloured cheesecloth?

Certainly, there seems to be no universal idea of 'spirituality', the interpretation of which is as individual as DNA.

When in doubt, consult Wikipaedia which says: Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”

It would seem then that the pathways to a 'spiritual experience' are many.

It doesn't have to involve a hair shirt, a cat o'nine tails, and "Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus played on repeat.

It doesn't have to involve torture.

If 'spirituality' is indeed an interpretation of a greater reality, then surely it doesn't have to be "God" or "Church" or any "Divinity". It is whatever puts you in that place where you are aware of a place, a person, an entity that is bigger than you, that is outside of you, that surrounds and envelopes you in the calm, certainty, centeredness and peace that strengthens you when you need it.

It may be a lit match, a candle, the torch App on your iPhone, a streetlamp or a spotlight, but whatever form it takes, spirituality is that light inside you that consoles you as you lie in bed, contemplating your own darkness.

It is in essence, an otherworldly reference point - something or someone you can turn to when you have been let down by everything/everyone else.

This is what spiritual counsellors mean in asking us to 'dig deep'. This is where we go, into the core of ourselves where we bear that nut, that seed of something that might allow for a version of "God".

This morning as I sat in the pew at the local Catholic Church, I recognised part of my own'spirituality' there.

But I also left realising that it is equally enmeshed in the belief system that has sustained me for most of my adult life: the belief that my spirit is within me, and my "God" or my "Universe" is not inside a building reciting a litany under the watchful eye of a priest.

In short, going to Church doesn't need to be a good thing or a bad thing. It should just feel like the right thing - and if it doesn't feel right to you, then you shouldn't need or have to do it.

Even if I choose to return to Church regularly, I still believe that my spirit is within me and it is there that I must look now that I think of the thing I can't stop thinking about: my mortality, that undertow, the idea of dying.

Sure I have my rosary beads and I have my Mother of Mary medal (thank you dearest stranger, Jacki!). The Catholic in me will not let these go because they give me comfort. They really do.

I visualise the Virgin Mary as I once honoured her as an innocent child, free of cynicism and open to the idea of heaven, not withstanding those damn 'jungies' and I am filled with a feeling that I am not alone.

And I know that the Spirit, God - whatever shape he or it may take - is ultimately and always with me. And he is with Kathy, Patty and Wendy who burned Candles at St John's Cathedral for me, my aunty Marie overseeing masses and novenas in Melbourne for me, with my friend, Nim, a Moslem, my friend Blossom, a Hindu, my cousin, Nedra, a Buddhist, who prays devoutly every morning, and even my dear friend Tom, a pagan with his 12 naked vestal virgins waiting in line to wrench whatever healing there can be from dancing by the light of a New Moon (obviously under Tom's tutelage).

With apologies to the many agnostics among my friends, I'm sorry, but I think we are all luckier for that.

4 comments:

  1. My nana gave me, what I consider to be the best perspective on faith, religion and spirituality, when, as a small child I rejected my church/god because my grandfather had died.
    My young head could not fathom the loss, and blame was laid fairly and squarely (in my young eyes) at the feet of the Catholic Church. In my eyes he had done everything he could to live a good life and then he died so tragically....it made no sense to my little brain, therefore God and the church had lied to me. It did not matter what anybody said, what readings they showed me, or what I was threatened with as a repercussion of my lapse, I would not walk back into our church, this, in our family was not an option. As staunch Catholics this was NOT an option, guilt was to be brought to bear.....what would this mean for the rest of the family!?! (Shock! Horror! The youngest member of the family refusing to attend church....the world will end!)
    Having had multiple confrontations with my mother, siblings and teachers, my beloved nana took me for a walk into a wheat field, awash with poppies in bloom, and said a few sentences that will live in my heart and soul forever; "I can be as religious in the middle of a 10 acre field, as I can in a pew of our church, God is in me, and with me everywhere I go. Look at the beauty here in the middle of all this sadness and anger; this is Gods way of helping you heal."
    Now I am a parent myself, I ensure that I give my son as much as information and as many options as he needs. Whilst I have brought him up thus far with certain core values and beliefs, I have not tied him for life to any one religious pathway; it is his choice to make. He is spiritual, centred and has his own set of values and beliefs, these in time, he too will challenge, as that is what we do when we come to a hard place in our life, but if our values are in our hearts and not in a building that we can walk away from, we are in a safer and happier place.
    I will always be grateful to my nana, the day she passed was a sad day in my life, but she is still there guiding me, and poppies will forever bring her to my mind, even though sweet-peas were her favourite. Red poppies in a field of green wheat will bring tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. I express my faith and my spirituality in my words and my deeds, I get back what I give out, and I am grateful for even the worst of days, because I know that there is better to come.

    Much love Bron XoxoxoxoxoxoX

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  2. I saw this posted on FB the other day...

    "Religion is for people afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who've already been there."

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  3. Tom'll be hard pushed to find a vestal virgin around here these days Bron, but I'm sure he'll do his best to ferret them out for you :)

    Clo xxx

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  4. Dear Bron
    Thanks for your interesting engaging and honest blogging! I don't believe god plays hard to get or hide and seek! He wants us to find him just look at the amazing planet we live on! It's more about our readiness to open our hearts and minds to something infinite that we can't fully comprehend or control for our own ends. Faith is about choosing to let go of our arrogance and embracing the source of love and life. Developing a relationship with our creator is an amazing unpredictable life long journey! I'm asking God to help you in your search for him! All the best
    Ps you're right religion is a poor substitute for a real connection with God!!

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