Earlier today I headed out to my favourite cafe in search of chocolatey croissants and a higher order of coffee. Instead of taking the regular route – the one along 10th avenue – I walked up 11th. With its canopy of billowing trees and row upon row of perfectly manicured yards, 11th Ave makes for peaceful reflection. It’s quieter back there. And prettier, too.
Three blocks past my house and perched upon a pricey piece of real estate sits the local Baptist church. Its angular, 1970s design makes for an oddly foreboding presence – something I was brooding over when suddenly, their choir burst into song. Across the pasture and up into the sky an amateurish yet no less enthusiastic hymn unfolded as though it were surely bound for heaven. This sudden shift in my surroundings was a bit jarring, and whereas the uninitiated or the indoctrinated might have felt uplifted – joyful even – for their sudden good fortune, I began to feel sick. Bit by bit, as sections of this choir added their blessed harmonies to a syrupy, lamb of God cacophony, my stomach began to turn and my head began to spin.
I stepped up my pace while blocking out memories and doing my best to deny a wave of sadness that was beginning to radiate from my gut outwards, but it was too late for any of that. The horse had left the paddock; the memories, unleashed.
When I was a youngster, and a young adult, the Sunday morning church ritual was a fiercely overbearing practice; a time when our family focused solely upon appearances and vied collectively for the honour of the best of God’s children. There were no languishing sleep-ins at our house, because we were Catholic – Catholics on a mission to make the 10:00am Mass, proving to one and all that ours was a family of discipline and devotion, worthy of much approval and more importantly, much envy. Unfortunately, my good natured yet hopelessly doddering father, whose inability to conjure up any semblance of enthusiasm over this demented routine, kept us rolling at a snail’s pace. We rarely, if ever, made the coveted 10:00 am pew, which meant we’d end up at the 11:30 Mass. The Mass for lazy, chaotic, extra sinful families.
This drove my Mom up the wall, and she would admonish my father mercilessly for his sloth right up until the moment we walked into the church and miraculously transformed into the very picture of grace, as if to say: “We are attending the 11:30 Mass by choice! And if there’s any question on the matter, one look at our perfectly pressed clothing and the orderly obedience of my children should set you straight. We are not like you.”
As with any delusional haven, Holy Trinity had its fair share of miscreants. There was Mr. Swandoda, a purple, bloated, brewery of a man who reeked of rancid scotch. He drank like a sailor, beat his children on a regular basis, contributed large sums of money to the church and received communion as though he were the very paragon of the Christian ideal. Over to the right and a little further back the lead singer from the Dirty Diamond Coal Factory sat next to his Mom. His wild black hair looked as though it were part barbed wire, while the chemically induced expression on his face never once changed. And let’s not forget the star of our show up there at the pulpit: Father Kilty. Father Kilty, the much revered head of clergy who groped us children as though we were his chattel and drank with the local trollop night after night in the privacy of his rent-free home.
It was all so ecclesiastically shiny. Shiny on the outside, murky on this inside, if you allowed yourself to drop the facade and take a closer look, which we did not, because nobody wanted to go to Hell.
The inside of that church was very appropriately dark. The carpet, well worn past the original purple tufted loop-pile, looked like an avenue of blood. Our choir was dowdy and lame. The place smelled like a combination of incense and moth balls. It was a miserable experience that left me feeling confused and ashamed of myself for reasons I could never put my finger on. I was a good kid, but I worried. I worried that a bolt of lightening was imminent. That at anytime, God was about to make an example out of me in order to keep his flock in check.
“She was there a minute ago, poor wretch!”
I’ve never been able to overcome that dreadful, irrational feeling. So I keep my distance from places like that. Places where members put their faith in an invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent guy whose biography expounds a magnificent ability to pull off just about any miracle at any time – yet the holocaust, and countless other atrocities, are given a nod and the supreme, green light. To some that may be the miracle of “free will,” but to me, it’s irreconcilable.
Absolved of my cravings for coffee and chocolate, I turned toward a nearby park that I’ve always loved for its spectacular views of the ocean and the North Shore mountains. It even comes complete with benches for weary souls.
I sat down, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that it’s all in the past. It’s all in the past, and with that, a crisp wind blew. The smell of lavender relaxed my muscles while little pink rose bushes danced back and forth, like an exercise in EMDR.
I leaned against the back of the bench, looked over toward the area where I’d grown up, and I took stock. Is my behaviour in line with my moral compass? Am I staying true to my principles and my values? Can I be more kind, more generous, today? Can I learn to forgive? I need to learn to forgive.
And there it was, without the threat of Hell, a mind-bending Our Father/Hail Mary penance, or a boatload of shame.
Solitude, fresh air, and a fragrant field. It’s all the church I really need.