Sunday 23 October 2016

No religion - just a sense of wonder

Miriam O'Callaghan will be ticking that box on the census but she'll continue to marvel at the beauty of religion

Miriam O'Callaghan

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

NATIVITY PLAY: Without the Birth of Christ (depicted here in the movie The Nativity), what would millions of aspiring thespian schoolchildren do, left with no inn-keeper to play, no wise men, nor three kings bearing gifts for Baby Jesus?
NATIVITY PLAY: Without the Birth of Christ (depicted here in the movie The Nativity), what would millions of aspiring thespian schoolchildren do, left with no inn-keeper to play, no wise men, nor three kings bearing gifts for Baby Jesus?

Tonight, filling in the census, I will tick the box 'No Religion'. But I'm not an exultant secularist. I pray for friends, for their special intentions, for their broken hearts or minds, for refugees, for those with no one to remember them, that MRIs will be clear, exams will go well or, in spells of catastrophic thinking: "Please, let nothing bad happen."

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When friends - and increasingly their children - make offerings at shrines in India or Nepal, I'm thankful.

In turn, I light candles for them, in the few churches where I feel the presence of God. On an altar - actually a rickety shelf - in my house are the Marys: Rocamadour, Carcassonne, Amiens, Valentia Island; Mary Magdalen from Rennes-le-Chateau, from further South, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Beside them is a miniature Kuan Yin, stones from Tibet, a small polished box, a token from the Hajj, my father's rosary beads, a Florentine Annunciation. Totemic, heretical, idolatrous.

Often, looking at Gabriel and the Virgin, I'm six again. In Miss Ahern's first class. The partitioned classroom with its May Altar, the teacher walking silently among us in her crepe-sole shoes drilling: "Who is God? God is our Father in heaven. Who are We? We are the Children of God. Where is God? God is everywhere."

Only such a theologian could have the gossip on Gabriel: the archangel flew in through an open window, folded his wings, told Mary a mystery. And though Mary was frightened, she listened to everything he said, pondering it in her heart.

According to Miss Ahern, this was "the Annunciation, the Gospel". As she issued her afternoon command, "Leanai, teigi a chodhladh," in unison we put our heads on our desks, suddenly privy to the scrapings of the underworld. I worried that the Annunciation might not be unique, that God might be a serial dispatcher of angels.

At the time, I was frightened of feathers, sensed their capacity for torture. More urgently, I didn't know what pondering was. Or how it could be done.

In the years since, I've become an expert at pondering. It goes with motherhood. On holidays recently, I did it a lot. In churches. Though I'm not a Catholic - particularly of the 'Roman' variety - I'm a closet Mass-goer.

But it's okay. My religious recidivism is contained and sporadic, extended only by Archangel Michael O'Leary's wings to certain churches in certain cities. I like the churches' cold anonymity, austerity; how feminine they are in France, masculine in Italy.

I don't want happy-clappy, democratic stuff, Hallelujah-hugging, weeping bishops and the like. No raising of congregational hands in the rubric of raising the dead. No moguls of spirituality presenting rings to be kissed, or "ostentatious humility".

No minor clerical aristocrats, sultry escapees from the canonical version of the Pirelli calendar, processing through Renaissance streets, with statues or crosses, women fainting (futilely), small boys swinging mini-thuribles in their Envy-by-Gucci wake.

Instead, give me the white monks in their Byzantine abbey who say mathematics, philosophy and astronomy brought them to God; who pray Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Or the old men in their parishes, unsteady on their feet and perhaps in their faith, sheltering the homeless, protecting the immigrant, visiting the sick, the imprisoned, wondering where did the years go, what possessed me, is there a God?

The churches I haunt heave with people like me. Adults knocking on the door of their childhood home, asking the current inhabitants if they could come in, just for a moment, to remember.

At the front door, the old roses still smell of Turkish Delight and lemonade. From that eave every year, a dead fledgling fell. In this corner was the Christmas tree.

In one holy childhood 'home', there's the inscription Haec Est Porta Coeli. This is the Gate of Heaven. It brings back years of Masses spent contemplating the gold inscription in the local church, Vere te es Deus absconditus. Truly you are the Hidden God. As you consider how God didn't hide, but often absconded through the years, a monk says that all are welcome, especially former Catholics. That you are searching. That God is not about rules. He is about mercy. Stay. Be in the mystery.

And I could do with mystery. Recent weeks have been full of the hazards of rules and rationality. A cleric on the radio warning of the evils of masturbation, citing "parental rights" in the "smacking" of children, duetting with a Catholic mother, advising another maybe-Catholic mother on 'the cure' for her gay daughter. Young women pontificating over wine after work on how a 20-week-old foetus is a mass of tissue, a collection of cells.

Maybe they are right. But those same cells are assembled in a form astonishingly like a tiny human.

There's the eight-year-old who says he wasn't making his Communion because he is "an atheist". I tell him about my Italian friend, 10 times his age, who is an atheist and also a Communist. He keeps the local shrine to the Madonna, as did his father and grandfather, who he suspects, were ever only cultural Catholics. Today, he keeps the shrine out of tradition. As he sees it, she shares his property. She comforts people. They believe she protects them. Therefore, her protects her.

He is 80, he says, burying friends and with them his memories, the witnesses to his virility. "Who will remember that I swam in that river, I climbed those mountains? That from these farms they (Germans) took the food? That here on the hottest day they forced my neighbours to dig a trench, then machine-gunned them into it?" As an atheist, he says, he has nothing to prove. As a Communist? He's still angry, hopeful.

A few years ago, away on sabbatical, I spruced up the local shrine. One morning, going up with a candle, I saw a large, handwritten sign duct-taped to the tall gates of the villa opposite. "Watch out, bastard mafioso, or you will end up without hands".

I don't know if the Madonna protected the recipient or he's wearing prostheses, but there was a strange exchange at the shrine itself. Fresh flowers appeared most days that spring and early summer. Since I never saw who left the flowers and possibly, they never saw who lit the candle, if engaging in Resistance or an affaire, tending a shrine was a perfect form of secret communication.

On the day we are to be counted, I consider how a census shaped the Christian story. Without it, Mary could have given birth at home. There would be no manger, no star of Bethlehem, no "secret scripture of the poor", no shepherds, no crib.

Millions of school nativity plays would lack the innkeeper. And his wife. The Magi's arrival at the door of a prosperous Galilean builder lacks the Divine and divining quality of their adoring a newborn Jew in a working stable.

But this census week, too, has its 'star': Jupiter. In Rome, Jupiter was the god optimus maximus, all-good, all-powerful, of the Heavens, of the Light, of thunder, lightning, justice, state, the laws. Ruler of the Universe.

No Religion. By Jove.

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