Why I will be Keeping the Faith
Sheena Lambert explains why being an à la carte Catholic is better than not believing at all
One of the funniest sketches Rowan Atkinson used to perform during his time as a stand-up comedian was set in hell. Atkinson played the role of the devil and the sketch involved him standing, clipboard in hand, welcoming the newest group of recruits to his fiery abode.
The murderers, looters and pillagers were lined up in one area, the fornicators in another. He always got a good laugh when he called the lawyers and told them to join the thieves who had already been corralled.
And then, consulting his clipboard, he would call the Christians. When the audience's somewhat nervous laughter died down, the devil would look up and nod his head, sympathetically.
"Ah yes," he would say. "I'm afraid the Jews were right."
In a two-minute comedy sketch, Rowan Atkinson managed to demonstrate all that is dubious about organised religion.
And yet, here it is, coming around again: Confirmation/First Holy Communion season. The season when money is splashed out on expensive dresses and hairstyles and flamboyant garden parties with bouncy castles – and that's only the parents. When mothers and fathers of varying degrees of faith watch uneasily as their child is further initiated into a religion in which many of them no longer really believe.
Up to now, I have been a spectator at these ceremonies, attending the after-show parties, drinking the Prosecco and having the occasional sneaky bounce.
But this year, it's going to be different. This year, for the first time, I have one of my own taking part. I will be the one walking up behind my son, watching him receive Holy Communion and, for a while, I wasn't sure how I felt about that.
I would be a fairly typical 38-year-old Irish mother insofar as I was brought up a Catholic here in Dublin, went to Mass every Sunday with my parents, went less in my early 20s and eventually stopped going when one particular priest informed me one day that I could not be "an à la carte Catholic". That it must be all or nothing.
So I took my faith and left. I still believed in everything I had believed in before I stopped attending Mass but, instead of having a formal arrangement, I chatted to God in my own time, in my own way, sometimes in the church and sometimes at home or in the car.
I travelled abroad a little in my 20s, as people do, and I saw other people practising other religions, often in very similar ways to mine. None of them seemed particularly evil or misguided.
Back in Ireland, the number of people from other countries with other faiths was growing rapidly and, unlike most of our parents' generation, I had the opportunity to make friends and work with colleagues who were Buddhists, Hindus and Jews.
And then I had children. There's no denying it – deciding what way you will raise your child when it comes to religion is one of the bigger responsibilities the average parent will ever have.
In my case, based on what everyone around me who expressed an opinion said, I had two choices: I could be a hypocrite, have my children baptised and send them to the local Catholic school; or I could make a stand, not have them christened and drive them 20 miles a day to the nearest Educate Together.
But the problem was, neither of those options felt right. I want my children to believe in a god. I want them to feel that there is a greater power out there, whether there is or not, because I have found that simply believing has two major benefits.
First, it gives us a moral code by which to live. People need guidance; society works better with a few very general rules. A god that asks us to love other people as you would like to be loved yourself is surely a good guy to have around.
But there's a second benefit. It might be difficult to believe it looking at him now, but it's almost inevitable that at some time in my child's life, he will feel completely alone. Maybe he will have done something he thinks I won't be able to forgive, maybe he will be bullied at school and unable to talk to anyone about it, maybe he will lose a person close to him and not be able to find comfort in anyone else. Who will he turn to then?
I know, growing up, I always had a go-to. Even if I couldn't talk to my parents, I never felt totally alone or abandoned. When things were at their lowest ebb, I knew I could close my eyes and talk to God and feel loved. I still do. I want that for my child. Just as, I have no doubt, any Muslim or Jewish mother would want it for theirs.
Examine the bones of all the major religions and you see how similar they are. What gives any of us the right to say my way is the correct way, and yours – Hindu, Jew, Confucianist – is wrong?
Do we really believe that a Rowan Atkinson-style Mephistopheles is waiting for the majority of us on the other side?
I don't want my child to be so blinkered by his own religion that he has no respect or compassion for those with alternate beliefs – a child so definite in his conviction that he has no room in his heart to celebrate other people's faith.
But nor do I want my child to have no faith. To have no belief system. To have no one to turn to when other humans just can't understand. To be, ultimately, alone.
So I have chosen a third option. My children will attend the local Catholic school. They will learn the teachings and the traditions of the Catholic faith. They will be baptised and make their First Holy Communion and Confirmation with all their classmates.
But they will also learn that there are other ways. Other faiths. Other traditions. That people all around the world believe in God in different ways and that our way of communicating with him is just one way. Not the only way. Not the best way. Just one way.
They will also learn that many of the rules and regulations of organised religions are far from divine. That they need to strip away the scales that history has applied to the basic message of our religion and recognise that it is only really about love.
This parenting lark is not easy, but for me, this way feels right.
I'll do as I always do and light a candle in a church somewhere in the hope that it will all work out. It might not mean too much to a cash-collecting eight-year-old this coming May, but it might help form a more loving and compassionate 18-year-old 10 years from now.
And that's what it's all about.
Sheena Lambert's new novel 'Alberta Clipper' is out now on Amazon and in good bookstores across Ireland