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.

Happy Easter!

The Muppets go Mystical

I was raised as a Catholic. I no longer consider myself a Catholic – not least because of the many insane and often downright evil things the Church has done (and unbelievably, continues to do) – and these days consider myself a theist-leaning agnostic. Basically, I believe in a deity, and believe it is possible to have a fulfilling personal relationship with said deity, but happily admit that the existence of said deity is completely unprovable and thus I could very easily be completely mistaken about the whole matter. As such I refuse to judge anyone on the existence or non-existence of their religious or spiritual beliefs, so long as they’re not going around using their faith as a justification for killing, raping, or otherwise being a complete douche (or trying to convert me I suppose – I don’t try and convince them that I have the answers, I expect the same courtesy in return).

That all said, if I didn’t make it to church at least once over Easter my mother would probably disown me, so I headed up to good old Saint Columba’s on Saturday night for the Easter Vigil.

As Masses go, the Easter Vigil is pretty cool. It’s easily the most pagan of all of the Catholic Church’s ceremonies, having absorbed a lot of the “start of spring, return of the sun” symbolism from across old Europe. When it’s done properly it’s also really theatrical and dramatic – which is perhaps the most important aspect of big, collective religious ritual.

The symbolism of the Mass is the resurrection of Christ from death, symbolised by light and dark respectively. All the lights in the church are extinguished and everyone collects outside in the darkness where a fire is burning (unless the Priest is skimping on things and can’t be bothered – back when I attended church regularly one of our Priests use to just light a candle instead, which annoyed me no end. Bonfires have been lit at the start of the northern spring for thousands of years, a candle has no ancestral continuity). The fire is blessed, and then a big candle (the Pascal candle if you want to get technical), decorated with the the Chi-Rho symbol is brought forward. The Priest ritually inscribes the wounds of Christ on the candle, invoking some of the most mystical poetry of the Church with each cut…

Christ yesterday and today,
The beginning and the end,
Alpha and Omega,
All time belongs to him,
And all ages,
To him be glory and power,
Through every age and for ever,

Call it Catholic brainwashing but even today – with the fire and the darkness and the crowd standing in dead silence – that still sends a shiver down my spine.

The candle – which will go on to symbolise Christ by being lit during every service for the following year – is lit from the fire, then the flame from the candle is passed out to the congregation, who are each holding a candle of their own. The candle bearing crowd then return into the church, and the Pascal candle is carried in in procession with the Priest intoning “Christ, Our Light!” three times, at which point – ideally – someone standing at the fuse box flips a switch and all the lights in the church crash on in a blaze of glory.

Regardless of what one thinks of the theology, when done well it’s mighty impressive.

Then there’s the reading of the Exsultet – a quite long, although very poetic prayer. It’s another bit of the vigil service that I always enjoy, as (again) it’s quite mystical and ritualistic, but it’s also happy. So much of the Catholic faith is sad and guilt ridden, going on about how everyone’s a miserable sinner, but for once this is the Church cheering about how it’s saviour kicked (theologically speaking) death’s arse and came back. It’s a moment of pure celebration and joy, which is not something the Catholic Church is generally very good at.

I’m tempted to include the whole thing here, but it’s quite long and up on Wikipedia anyway if anyone’s really interested, so here’s just a snippet…

The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
Washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
Brings mourners joy,
It casts out hatred, brings us peace,
And humbles earthly pride,
Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth,
And man is reconciled with God,

Now, this Saturday just gone the whole fire and candle thing was done quite well, although they decided to do the Exsultet by candlelight and not switch on the lights until afterwards. The Exsultet itself on the other hand was a mess.

It was sung, and sung to the most god-awful tune I think I’ve ever heard – two bars based around a descending scale over and over again. And with a four line chorus – sung to exactly the same two bars (repeated twice) – inserted every four lines. It drained the words of any poetry or feeling, sounded like a funeral dirge and took a good ten minutes, although it felt much, much longer. It was torture – by the end of it I was ready to set my hair on fire just to make it stop.

After that things went as they normally do – although it’s the first time I’ve set foot in a church since Pope Ratzinger re-translated the liturgy so I kept getting the responses wrong (when someone in a robe addresses me with “Peace be with you’, it’s a Pavlovian reaction for me to blurt out “and also with you” – not this new-fangled “and with your spirit” or whatever the hell else it’s meant to be).

The service finished up just before nine and I headed home, having not quite got my yearly fill of ritual and mysticism this time round. I wonder if the Buddhists down on Guildford Road are up to anything this time of year… 😉

Revenge of the Eggs

The chickens are restless

Happy Belated Easter to all!

I’ve been having problems with my computer, my phone and my health this weekend (ironically I ate some bad eggs at the Galleria on Saturday – spent much of the last two days semi-comatose) which means I haven’t been able to get emails or SMS’s out to everyone – but rest assured you’ve all been in my thoughts and I should be in touch soon.

In the meantime here’s something to keep you all entertained.


Derp Derp Derp

I hope everyone enjoyed this year’s April Fools prank. For those who missed it, it can be viewed in all its glory here…

I’m at the office, working away my Good Friday. Not that I’m working particularly hard mind you – just catching up on a bunch of minor jobs that have been waiting in the eaves for the last few months. It’s actually not a bad way to spend a day – working at your own pace with no other people around to distract or annoy you. A much more restful atmosphere than the usual office environment.

Anyway, before I go, here’s some twisted genius to enjoy ;D

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