I left the Church (for ex-Catholics, it's always Church with a capital C) when I was twelve. I remember the first moment of doubt distinctly -- I was in seventh grade, Catholic school, and I had just asked the biology teacher (a Christian, but not one of the nuns) why God allowed good people to suffer pain. She told me honestly that she didn't know, but that she had faith that God had good reasons for it. It was the first time I hadn't been told that God had a plan, and that I was just too dumb (my 12-yr-old interpretation of what the nuns were saying) to understand it. I knew I wasn't dumb -- and here was a smart grown-up telling me that she didn't understand it either. She was able to make that leap of faith...but I never could.
I'm at my aunt's house now, with my family and cousins and second cousins -- a good twenty people at least, and this is only a small fraction of the clan. We've been eating and chatting for hours, and a few minutes ago they all piled into cars to go attend Midnight Mass, leaving me alone in the house with my computer and you, my invisible audience. For a while, I thought I might have more company -- one of the cousins apparently has also left the Church -- she's somewhere between a Buddhist and an agnostic now, I think, but her grandmother is here, so for the sake of family harmony, she's going to Mass this one last time. I can understand that -- I kept going to Sunday services for another six years, while I was still living at home. I only stopped going to Midnight Mass a few years ago.
I can't pretend I don't miss it. There is something...many things that are beautiful about the Catholic ceremonies. The tall white candles and the solemn altar boys lighting them. The stained glass windows telling the stories of the saints. The priest blessing the wafer and wine: "This is my body. This is my blood." The somber winter coats at Christmas -- the cheerful exchanges of hugs and hearty handshakes at the sign of peace -- the joyous singing of the congregation and choir. That last is what I miss most.
I love singing. I'm not a great singer -- it often takes me a while to find the right key, and staying in it can be a problem. But while I'm there, my voice is not bad, and I do know all the words. I can sing most carols from start to finish, often with verses nobody else knows. I can do a few of the standard other languages...Adeste Fideles is one of my favorites. I really love singing in a group, and at church, everyone has a book with all the words, so hundreds of people can sing along with you, and if you're lucky, you've got a good choir and musicians leading the way to help keep you all in key. It's gorgeous.
But you know -- I'm just as happy singing the secular versions of the hymns as the Church ones...sometimes I prefer them. Lord of the Dance has beautiful pagan verses. And if I can slip in a few Jewish songs, that's good too. There's a lovely round, that starts "Shalom chaverim, shalom chaverim, shalom....shalom..." Some of the Christian verses make me uncomfortable, especially the ones that are heavily into self-sacrifice and abnegation. And even when I respond to the beauty of the Christian verses, it's usually because I'm loving the storytelling, or the imagery. If there's ever a moment of possible communion with an Almighty -- well, She isn't necessarily Christian.
Maybe that doesn't matter. I know plenty of Christians who would say that it isn't the specifics of what you believe that are important, that it's having the right feeling/intent that counts. Maybe. All I know is that every year I attended Midnight Mass, I became more and more uncomfortable. It became harder to wait for the singing, and then harder to lose myself in it. Finally I felt so uncomfortable that I stopped going. And now I sit here with my computer, trying not to fall asleep as I wait for the family to come back, and it's probably not any more fun than going would have been. Probably less. But it feels more right for me.
Ah well. Soon they'll all be back and the present opening will begin. And tomorrow Roshani and Tom (as well as a host of other friends of my aunt's) are coming by the house. Roshani has a beautiful voice, and my aunt has a baby grand piano. Maybe I can get some carol-singing started. With twenty-plus people in the house, I imagine we can get a decent little chorus of our own going. I'm going to go upstairs and mess with the piano a bit now, just to practice. And maybe so that the little part of my brain that is still eleven years old, the part that still believes that the story might be true, and even manages to ignore the probable inaccuracies in the dating system and other incongruities, can hope that maybe there might really be a benevolent God out there somewhere. And maybe he really does have a good reason for all the suffering in the world. And maybe he did send his only son down to suffer and die for us, which in some strange way redeemed the suffering. It's a good story, at any rate.