I spent the first years of my life in Post Franco’s Spain, back when it was a religious state, each classroom had a crucifix, and every school day started with a song to baby Jesus, (which would later be replaced by ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag’ when we moved to America).
My family was not very religious. We went to church once a year for the special Christmas mass, la misa de gallo, which celebrated the birth of Christ, and took place particularly late. It was great. The whole town would dress up to attend. And after wishing each other happy holidays, we’d all walk home lighting sparkles knowing a full Christmas dinner and presents awaited.
The town priest, Don Arturo, let us use a run down moldy room behind the church, which we did up as our secret headquarters. He would sometimes give us left over non-consecrated communion wafers.
I did my first communion by accident, on a day I decided to attend mass on my own, but my parents didn’t tell anyone, and let me have the ceremony and the party with the rest of my friends. After a short stint in the states, the family moved to Chile, where I joined a girls-only school run by nuns.
By this point I was pretty unimpressed with most of the stories I was being told: I had issues with the claim that Mary was a virgin, and the implication that sex was somehow dirty and related to the original sin; I had issues with the fact that women couldn’t be priests, let alone popes; I’d read a book that claimed to have proof that Christ had lived after the crucifixion. That he’d walked up Mount Olive and descended on the other side, where he got a job, a wife and children, and I was happy to discuss it openly. My religion teacher purposefully avoided eye contact or calling on me whenever I had a question.
One day a priest came in for confession. He and I sat alone in a room. Well, he sat on a chair, he made the thirteen year old kneel between his legs. I proceeded to recount my sins: I’d lied to my mom, I yelled at my sister, the usual. Unsatisfied he asked if I had a boyfriend.
The day I had that old priest asking about my love life, while I knelt between his legs, was the day the church and I finally parted ways.
My mother was cool about it, and signed a note stating I was unwell every first Monday of the month so that I could skip mass. We told them I had already done my confirmation, and we all left well enough alone.
Later I attended a college run by Jesuits renown to be the best for my field. Psychology, philosophy and theology have always been closely linked. Half of the bar was filled with missionaries in long black robes. When I started working in development, we would often have religious organizations as our grassroots counterparts. It was all fine with me. After years of debating about the church, my philosophy was pretty much ‘I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone’.
Then came the whole marriage thing. Not a big fan of marriage to begin with, I agreed to a big wedding, I even agreed to a religious wedding on one condition: that I be married by a woman, which technically should have been possible given that in the Roman Catholic tradition, it is the spouses who are understood to confer marriage on each other. It didn’t fly, shocker, so instead we had an amazing civil service by the sea during sunset; friends read passages of their choosing; The Little Prince, love poems. My sister, a professional singer, sang Noa’s version of the Ave Maria, where she talks about war and the lack of grace in the modern world, and wrote our own vows.
Given that the moms, (as in mine and the hubby’s), were very disappointed by this, we offered our children’s souls in exchange; both our kids have been baptized.
Again, fine with me, they can make their minds up about that one later, dropping out is easy, having to get baptized in high school might have been more of an ordeal.
So long story short, my kids have attended some religious gatherings; baptisms, communions and the like, where the religious element was completely drowned under the social element; the excitement, the party, and the presents. They’ve never asked any questions.
Then the other day we went for a walk. A nice aimless stroll to kill time before dinner was ready. We were minding our own business when M the princess spotted a castle on the horizon, and off we went on an adventure to find it.
Just as we reached the castle walls a priest came out and opened its doors. The kids were excited, so I politely asked if I could show them around. He said yes, mass wouldn’t start for another 20 minutes. And so I squatted to eye level and spoke in a stern tone:
“This is a special place. Here you cannot run, and you must keep your voice down. You must be very respectful of…”
and then I drew a blank. When you have never spoken about religion before, where do you start? What do you say?
Fortunately they didn’t care why, they just wanted to enter the ‘castle’, so they accepted the rules.
The church was empty, and I was surprised by how nice it felt to be in there. The kids followed the priest, who was lighting the candles. It felt so welcoming, so quiet, like a great place to meditate. It made me think of my Muslim colleagues in Somalia, and how envious I often felt of their five prayers a day ritual. Five times a day the world stopped for them, no matter what. They faced Mecca and took time to give thanks, to acknowledge the universe. I’d often walk into an office to find them prostrated on the floor. At lunch they would gather in the garden, and when their prayers were done, they’d lie on their rugs under the trees, chatting away and eating.
The children continued following the priest as my mind wondered. I tried to point out statues of angels, but they were mesmerized with the robed man that could make fire. Once we got near the altar, we sat down to take it all in.
‘I need to say something’ I though, ‘ I can’t have them going around thinking these places are castles’
“look!” I finally said, “that’s the virgin Mary over there” pointing at some colorful statues near the ceiling, immediately regretting that I had used the word ‘virgin’ and might be asked to explain it. My daughter was having none of it
‘No mom, that is the queen”
Then I saw the pieta; the virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus on her lap. It made me sad, it always makes me sad these representations of death. I’ve always wondered what extraterrestrial life would think if they came down and saw all this paintings and sculptures of a man nailed to a cross. What a cruel culture they would think we are. Even in that context, a mother holding on to her dying child seems particularly cruel to me.
“look, that is a mother with her child, he is sleeping’ I lied. They could not see the blood, and a mother was appropriate in the castle context, so they accepted my explanation.
As people began filling up the space preparing for mass the spell was broken. I’d had enough. I had no idea where to begin nor what to say.
“it’s time for dinner now”
And so we walked away.