One of the most important things a parent can provide to their child is consistency.
I recall an incident from many years ago, back when I was a kid and still living at home. It was a Good Friday, and as good Catholics my brother, mother and I were fasting and abstaining from meat. Doing so makes for a pretty miserable day, but there was one thing that made it bearable, which was having a decent feed of fish and chips when dinner time came around.
So we phoned through and placed an order (nice and early, Good Friday being the peak day for fish and chip consumption nationwide) and Dad went off and picked it up. He bought it home and in the kitchen he and Mum divided it up onto the plates. I grabbed mine, and reached for the tomato sauce, only to be prevented by mum who in a very serious and pious voice declared that fancy condiments were forbidden on the day of Christ’s crucifixion, and that the only salt (representing the world’s tears) and vinegar (like that offered to Jesus on a sponge and hyssop stick) would be permitted.
So I doused my food with salt and vinegar and went off to watch TV.
A year or so later Easter again rolled around, and again we fasted and abstained until dinner time when Dad went off to pick up the fish and chips. Once again it was divided into portions and as I waited to grab the suitability pious condiments of salt and vinegar I was somewhat shocked to see Mum smear tartar sauce all over her fish, then reach for the tomato sauce bottle. In puzzlement I suggested that we should only have salt and vinegar on Good Friday, and Mum looked at me like I was insane.
It was one of very few occasions when I lost a bit of respect for her.
My brother and I had quite a strict Catholic upbringing. I didn’t actually realise this for many years, not until my brother mentioned it – ruefully – at a party. My imediate response was to laugh and declare “as if!”, but on thinking about it I realised – to my surprise – that he was right. We were sent to Catholic school. We attended church every Sunday morning and all through Easter. We were both enrolled as altar servers and inducted into the Guild of St Stephen. We received all the Sacraments when they came around. We said prayers every night, and instead of bedtime stories we got read the Bible from end to end. It would be hard to imagine a more Catholic upbringing without involving a drunken Irishman whipping us with a belt for the Sin of Disobedience.
Skipping church was, of course, a big deal. The only excuse was serious illness. I recall one Sunday towards the end of my schooling when I had a big exam coming up and I declared that I couldn’t go to church because I had to study. It took a good twenty minutes of arguing before Mum backed down, and even then she was in a foul mood all day and had Dad keep checking on me to make sure I was actually studying rather than goofing off.
In spite of occasional incidents like the former, my upbringing never really rankled with me. Call it autistic, but I accepted this state of being as the only possible state of being. I was born already having drunk the Kool-Aid. My childhood was one of earnest piety, and religious conviction followed me well into my teens – even as I modified my beliefs to deal with irreligious friends and raging hormones. I tend to think of myself as a rational being, and remember myself as a rational teenager, but I can also recall thoughts that seem quiet strange and alien to me now. Worrying about the immortal soul of a girl I had a crush on who was known to be sexually active, or being both shocked and saddened when my friend Ryan stopped going up to Communion at school masses.
Religiosity also affected my social life, or lack thereof. For much of my teens I tried to avoid romantic entanglements on the basis that they could only lead to temptations that couldn’t be fulfilled, sex before marriage being a dreadful sin and something I would never do. The lack of dating and social experience resulting from this philosophy turned it into something of a self fulfilling prophecy – by the time I revised my views it was too late to be the gawkish, shy, inexperienced guy, a problem that still has an effect on my romantic endeavors to this day.
My brother, I think, had it worse however. Where I was happy to spend much of my teen years as some kind of contemplative monk, he rankled under the rules and restrictions.He was social and outgoing, having his behaviour tested and scrutinised through a religious lens must have been excuciating. On top of this, coming to terms with the fact that you’re gay is not easy for any teenager, let alone one raised in a Catholic household and attending a Catholic school. Discussion of feelings and emotions is just not done in our family so I don’t know the full scope of his suffering, but I knew at the time that he had some kind of problems, and looking back I see that they must have been awful. I don’t think that I was much help either, floating along in my self assured little cloud. The depression and anxiety that I’ve been bedeviled with since my early twenties really makes me despise some of the ignorant attitudes towards mental suffering that I had – and expressed – as a teenager.
So, here we are at another Easter. I no longer consider myself a Catholic, I’m more of a sort of agnostic-pantheist who believes in a Deity but will happily admit that no hard evidence for such a Deity exists, and therefore I could very easily be completely deluded. I’ll more than likely attend church at some point this weekend, if only to hold up the traditions and to keep Mum happy. Then I’ll eat my chocolate and wish good to all those who wish good unto others.