For the first 15 years of my life, I was made to attend church with my parents every Sunday. I do not regret this. In fact, I feel it was an essential part of my upbringing—not for religious or spiritual reasons, but because it caused me to learn about people and evolve along certain introspective channels.
I acquired a degree of human insight beyond my years by having a relatively consistent group of people to observe once a week. Catholic services, if you pay attention (and I always did) were like a social psychology human subject pool. Never again would I encounter such a telling and quietly dramatic group of lost souls and arrogant insecure fools to analyze once a week.
I learned to see the good and the bad in organized established religion. The priests were all very smart, kind, decent, and sincere men. I knew them from the religion classes at the parochial grade school I’d attended, which was attached to the same church. The popular media characterizes Catholic priests as either pedophiles, secret Illuminati-Satanists holding black masses, or wild-eyed exorcists fighting a secret war against the legions of hell. Like most of what we see on the screen, that was pure rubbish. Still, whenever I encounter a (Evangelical, ultra-conservative, fundamentalist, paranoid) website talking about the end times and featuring the Pope shooting lasers from his eyes, I know accusations of pedophilia, Satanism, and dabbling with the Necronomicon are not far behind.
As an ancient and enormous institution, the Catholic church has housed every kind of madman, philosopher, believer, and atheist possible throughout history. This is not to excuse the church for existing in a state of hypocrisy whenever one of its representatives abuses a child, commits a mortal sin, or otherwise breaks his vows. This is to say that just as one cannot claim the church is perfectly good, one cannot claim it is perfectly evil. Rather, like humanity itself, it contains all sorts. I was lucky enough to meet some of the better ones. And I saw a fairly balanced cross-section of humanity there as I was growing up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this perspective would help me later when surrounded by judgmental purple-robed Wiccans, who’d have gladly burned the local monsignor at the stake without ever even putting him to the question.
I also developed the ability to sit quietly and turn inward for long periods of time and I had a few small magical moments, like the time the statue of the Virgin Mary turned its head to look at me or when I saw the aura of a priest explode with golden flame. These experiences helped me realize and remember that there is more to life than physics and money. For that insight, I would gladly sit through all those services a second time!
Having acquired all of these things, I still left the church around age 16 when I realized three important truths: (1) if people started acting particularly churchy and devout, it was nearly always a smokescreen behind which something else was taking place—usually something selfish, nasty, and hurtful; (2) there is more than one truth—there are competing truths that may contradict each other and still be equally true—and the Catholic church did not have a lock on the one true way; and (3) faithful observance of religious ritual did not make the people I saw every Sunday any better or wiser. All it did was puff them up with self-righteousness and social importance.
The religion of my parents had failed me. No one was there to teach me the esoteric side, the mystical side. In fact, it should come as no surprise that I was discouraged from asking those sorts of questions. The priests were uninterested in discussing the finer points of Catholic mysticism with a teenage boy. However, when I would ask magical or theological questions, my mother would say, “Leave that to the priest,” and roll her eyes. When I would ask the nuns at my school, they would say all the answers I needed could be found in prayer—which, to be fair, was probably true; though, saying such a thing to a young person and leaving it at that can only be an evasion, not a useful constructive response. When I would ask people in the dreadful confirmation classes I was eventually forced to attend, they would say, “Don’t be a weirdo,” then roll their eyes and we’d sing a hymn.
What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t see at that young age, was that the priests were immersed in the work of their religion. They were busy helping the homeless downtown, counseling failing marriages, bringing some manner of hope to prisoners, and performing last rites for terminally ill parishioners about to die. The priests dealt with issues that were simultaneously less interesting and more vital than my half-coherent questions about invisible powers and cosmologies.
My parents were like most of the other members of the church—”Sunday Catholics.” They went through all the motions and then blissfully forgot all about their religion, secure in the knowledge that they were on the right side of things and didn’t have to worry. Meanwhile, the fools at the confirmation classes, ranging in ages from 16 to about 35, were mostly that sort as well; though, even then I suspected that a few of them were using it as a lonely hearts dating club. That was before everyone had a smartphone. Now, I’m sure there is a “confirmation class” app for hooking up after the meeting.
Sometime in seventh grade, Sister M., one of my favorite teachers who always had a glimmer around her (now I think it must have been because she did spiritual exercises of her own), gave me a strange look when I gave a particularly intricate answer to a question in her religion class. I think she said something like, “You may be a priest someday.” And she was right. I did eventually become a priest, but not of her god.
I remember all of these things. Having traveled to some very strange places geographically as well as spiritually, I can say I hate neither the Catholic church nor Christianity in general. I find some expressions of it highly unpleasant but that is more due to the stupidity, paranoia, and overall brokenness of individual people, not the tenets themselves.
So I write this little memoir for a slightly different audience than my usual posts. If you are a spiritual seeker and if you are angry at the religion of your parents, by all means, leave it. But be advised that there is probably a very magical hidden side to it that you have not seen correctly or at all. Keep an open mind, above all else, and know this: big organized religions are human institutions first and ways of connecting with divinity second. As human institutions, they will contain the good and the bad, the sincere and the cynical, the wise and the foolish. As connections to divinity, they will contain mysteries that need to be uncovered by the individual—that cannot be taught by a priest or a book. With this in mind, follow your heart, your True Will.
Thou hast no right but to do thy will. Do that, and no other shall say nay.
For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.
Liber Al vel Legis