A few years ago, when we still lived on the east coast, Matt and I drove to Prince Edward Island for a long weekend. We booked a room in what was maybe the coziest bed and breakfast of all time, and in spite of the raw, grey November weather we were ridiculously excited by the chance to explore and get lost in a city that wasn’t our own.
Matt was still a student back then, and I was making minimum wage working retail, so little getaways like this were few and far between. This meant that I’d planned for our three day mini-break with the same focus and attention to detail that others might apply to a two weeks tour of Europe. I bought a guide book and filled it with highlighter marks and post-it notes. I spent hours poring over travel websites, trying to plan our every little detail of our trip. I talked to (at?) Matt endlessly about the things I wanted to see, trying to convince him to use the highlighter and post-it notes with as much enthusiasm as I did. My excitement grew to such a level that I was basically banned from mentioning the words “Anne of Green Gables” or “Gilbert Blythe” in his presence.
One place that I knew I definitely wanted to visit was the All Souls’ Chapel, which is attached to Charlottetown’s St. Peter’s Cathedral. All Souls’ Chapel is designated National Historic Site and, I learned from my guidebook, a good example of the High Victorian Gothic style of architecture. I especially wanted to see the interior of the chapel, whose walls feature sixteen paintings by local artist Robert Harris. The only problem was that the chapel was only open during services, and the only service held in the chapel was evensong. We decided to sneak into the back and ogle the artwork during Saturday’s evening service before heading downtown for a romantic dinner.
Late Saturday afternoon, Matt and I fell asleep on our room’s giant, king-sized bed. We woke up to find that it was dark outside, and realized with a start that it was nearly time for evensong. We thought that if we hurried we might still be able to make it. We were wrong, a fact that we realized as soon as we stepped into the chapel’s entryway and heard someone chanting inside.
We peeked in through the door, and before us lay one of the loveliest, heart-in-your-throat sights I’ve ever seen. The room was lit by just a few candles, leaving most of the chapel still in darkness. The flames flickered and occasionally grew strangely, eerily tall in the close chapel air, throwing grotesque, menacing shadows on the painted walls. In the middle of this little cave of light stood an old priest, his long robes faded to a greenish-black and his collar slightly wilted. He was all alone, this priest; no one else had come to evensong. Still, though, he stood in front of the lectern and recited from the huge crumbling book that sat there, repeating the same words he must have said on a near-daily basis for years and years and years. They were nice words, too – the text of the Anglican evensong is strikingly, intricately beautiful, a sort of poetry, in a way.
I thought about this man who, in spite of his lack of parishioners, went on with his service and turned it into a private communion between himself and his god. I wondered what he thought of the words that he was sending out into the darkness, and what personal meaning they might hold for him. I watched this man, who, unaware that he was being watched, slowly wended his way through the service, speaking at length to a god who never seemed to answer him. I thought to myself, this is what faith looks like.
I grew up in a pretty secular household. My mother usually dragged us to the local United Church on Sundays, but that was more boring than it was religious. I spent my time there sprawling out on the shiny wooden pews, making up stories about pictures in the stained glass windows and harassing my mother with whispered demands to know when Sunday School would start. Sunday School meant a craft, a game, a snack, and little else. Oh sure, we would read Bible stories, but they didn’t seem to me to be much different from Grimm’s fairytales, or the stories found in my giant Hans Christian Andersen book. Meanwhile, my father, an avowed atheist, would stay home to sit in the basement and burn incense while listening to classical music on vinyl.
I went to a Catholic school, so I did receive some religious instruction there, but because I was Protestant, no one really thought that it was necessary to indoctrinate me. I was often left out of things, either because my teachers didn’t think it was appropriate that I be included, or because they thought I didn’t care. I was curious, though – and to be fair, who wouldn’t be when your classmates’ religion means that the girls get to dress up in lacy white dresses and partake in a secret ceremony to which you are not invited? After my class did their first communion, they got to eat the strange, flat, holy bread and drink real wine – meanwhile, in the United Church, there was no special initiation ceremony, and our communion was nothing but regular bread and boring old grape juice. School made the Catholic religion seem mysterious, fascinating and a little dangerous, whereas my time at the United Church had taught me that that institution was the opposite of all those things.
Super secret confession time: I have a thing about churches – a dark, guilty, secular thing. I love churches, especially old ones, especially Catholic ones. The right kind of church makes me feel quiet and awed and sort of holy. Maybe it’s because I love history, or maybe it’s the antiquated architecture. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for symbolism and ritual, or maybe it’s my love of Latin. Maybe I’m a closet Catholic. Whatever it is, it made me drag Matt into church after church when we went to Paris; it made me stand in the middle of Sacré Coeur Basilica, eyes closed and totally blissed out, listening to a choir of nuns chanting, well, I’m not quite sure what, but whatever it was, it was beautiful.
If I were Catholic (which I’m not), I would basically be the worst Catholic ever. I’m pro-choice, I use birth control, I had sex before marriage, and I think men and women are equal. I hate the Catholic church’s backward stance on pretty much everything, and I can’t stand the Pope (although, much like Kate Beaton, I have a great deal of fondness for JPII):
You know what’s terrible, though? Even though I know that the Catholic church is awful, even though unspeakable things have been done in its name and its leaders have been complicit in terrible crimes, I still kind of love a lot of things about it. I love the singing, and the smell of incense. I love the dank stone churches with their colourful windows and dark, mildewy corners. I love the priest’s fancy outfits, and the procession down the aisle that happens during every mass. I love going into an empty church and lighting a candle for the sick, or sad, or deceased. I love the tacky religious statuary. I love communion, even though one of my grade school teachers told me that if a Protestant eats the host, it will burn a hole in their tongue. I love the idea of midnight mass, of staying up with a group of strangers until past midnight, welcoming Christmas together with songs and candles and all that warmth and light in the middle of the dark cold night.
The thing is, if I’m a bad Catholic, then I’m an even worse Atheist. Even though I know, logically, that there’s nothing out there, that science and evolution explain life on this planet, not some faraway magical spirit with a beard and a white robe, I still sort of believe. Even though I know that religion is awful and whatever good there is in the world comes from people, not from some godly presence, I still sort of believe. I’ve tried really hard not to believe. I’ve dabbled in other religions; like most people, I had a pagan phase in high school which involved chanting nonsense in the woods and spelling magic with a k. My childhood best friend was Jewish, and I tried my hand at that, too. But I still, embarrassingly, kept coming back to the Catholic church.
Why is this? I mean, the fact is that I disagree with their stance on, well, just about everything. Public religious displays make me deeply uncomfortable, and people who try to preach at me annoy the crap out of me. Once, a few years ago, Matt and I went with his mother to a Good Friday service at the Catholic church in Keswick, and they did this bizarre thing where they brought out a giant crucifix and made everyone line up and take turns kissing it. People were looking at Jesus and sobbing, I kid you not. I wanted to yell out, SPOILER ALERT BUT GUESS WHAT YOU GUYS HE GETS RESURRECTED THREE DAYS LATER. It was ridiculous. But still, I sort of believe.
We had Theo baptized in the Catholic church, and my reasons for this were pretty lame. I wanted an excuse to dress him in a frilly white dress and throw a big party for our family; I guess we could have had a special Baby Transvestite celebration, but a baptism seemed like something my grandmother was more likely to understand. I also know that he will likely go to Catholic school, and I don’t want him to feel left out like I was. Another thing is that in a weird way I think that it’s important to raise a kid with religion, so that they have something big to question later on, when they go through their philosophical existentialist phase in high school. Also, I sort of believe, so there’s that, too.
Sometimes I think about Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and how Sarah, the unfaithful wife, becomes strangely, almost unwillingly religious. There’s this really beautiful passage near the end of the book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it really resonates with me:
I believe there’s a God— I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up reasons that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.
Mostly I just wish that I believed in something, anything as much as that Anglican priest on Prince Edward Island did.
Plus, you know, Theo looks really, really good in a dress.