On Faith

20 Nov

A few years ago, when we still lived on the east coast, Matt and I drove to Prince Edward Island for a long weekend. We booked a room in what was maybe the coziest bed and breakfast of all time, and in spite of the raw, grey November weather we were ridiculously excited by the chance to explore and get lost in a city that wasn’t our own.

Matt was still a student back then, and I was making minimum wage working retail, so little getaways like this were few and far between. This meant that I’d planned for our three day mini-break with the same focus and attention to detail that others might apply to a two weeks tour of Europe. I bought a guide book and filled it with highlighter marks and post-it notes. I spent hours poring over travel websites, trying to plan our every little detail of our trip. I talked to (at?) Matt endlessly about the things I wanted to see, trying to convince him to use the highlighter and post-it notes with as much enthusiasm as I did. My excitement grew to such a level that I was basically banned from mentioning the words “Anne of Green Gables” or “Gilbert Blythe” in his presence.

One place that I knew I definitely wanted to visit was the All Souls’ Chapel, which is attached to Charlottetown’s St. Peter’s Cathedral. All Souls’ Chapel is designated National Historic Site and, I learned from my guidebook, a good example of the High Victorian Gothic style of architecture. I especially wanted to see the interior of the chapel, whose walls feature sixteen paintings by local artist Robert Harris. The only problem was that the chapel was only open during services, and the only service held in the chapel was evensong. We decided to sneak into the back and ogle the artwork during Saturday’s evening service before heading downtown for a romantic dinner.

Late Saturday afternoon, Matt and I fell asleep on our room’s giant, king-sized bed. We woke up to find that it was dark outside, and realized with a start that it was nearly time for evensong. We thought that if we hurried we might still be able to make it. We were wrong, a fact that we realized as soon as we stepped into the chapel’s entryway and heard someone chanting inside.

We peeked in through the door, and before us lay one of the loveliest, heart-in-your-throat sights I’ve ever seen. The room was lit by just a few candles, leaving most of the chapel still in darkness. The flames flickered and occasionally grew strangely, eerily tall in the close chapel air, throwing grotesque, menacing shadows on the painted walls. In the middle of this little cave of light stood an old priest, his long robes faded to a greenish-black and his collar slightly wilted. He was all alone, this priest; no one else had come to evensong. Still, though, he stood in front of the lectern and recited from the huge crumbling book that sat there, repeating the same words he must have said on a near-daily basis for years and years and years. They were nice words, too – the text of the Anglican evensong is strikingly, intricately beautiful, a sort of poetry, in a way.

I thought about this man who, in spite of his lack of parishioners, went on with his service and turned it into a private communion between himself and his god. I wondered what he thought of the words that he was sending out into the darkness, and what personal meaning they might hold for him. I watched this man, who, unaware that he was being watched, slowly wended his way through the service, speaking at length to a god who never seemed to answer him. I thought to myself, this is what faith looks like.

I grew up in a pretty secular household. My mother usually dragged us to the local United Church on Sundays, but that was more boring than it was religious. I spent my time there sprawling out on the shiny wooden pews, making up stories about pictures in the stained glass windows and harassing my mother with whispered demands to know when Sunday School would start. Sunday School meant a craft, a game, a snack, and little else. Oh sure, we would read Bible stories, but they didn’t seem to me to be much different from Grimm’s fairytales, or the stories found in my giant Hans Christian Andersen book. Meanwhile, my father, an avowed atheist, would stay home to sit in the basement and burn incense while listening to classical music on vinyl.

I went to a Catholic school, so I did receive some religious instruction there, but because I was Protestant, no one really thought that it was necessary to indoctrinate me. I was often left out of things, either because my teachers didn’t think it was appropriate that I be included, or because they thought I didn’t care. I was curious, though –  and to be fair, who wouldn’t be when your classmates’ religion means that the girls get to dress up in lacy white dresses and partake in a secret ceremony to which you are not invited? After my class did their first communion, they got to eat the strange, flat, holy bread and drink real wine – meanwhile, in the United Church, there was no special initiation ceremony, and our communion was nothing but regular bread and boring old grape juice. School made the Catholic religion seem mysterious, fascinating and a little dangerous, whereas my time at the United Church had taught me that that institution was the opposite of all those things.

Super secret confession time: I have a thing about churches – a dark, guilty, secular thing. I love churches, especially old ones, especially Catholic ones. The right kind of church makes me feel quiet and awed and sort of holy. Maybe it’s because I love history, or maybe it’s the antiquated architecture. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for symbolism and ritual, or maybe it’s my love of Latin. Maybe I’m a closet Catholic. Whatever it is, it made me drag Matt into church after church when we went to Paris; it made me stand in the middle of Sacré Coeur Basilica, eyes closed and totally blissed out, listening to a choir of nuns chanting, well, I’m not quite sure what, but whatever it was, it was beautiful.

If I were Catholic (which I’m not), I would basically be the worst Catholic ever. I’m pro-choice, I use birth control, I had sex before marriage, and I think men and women are equal. I hate the Catholic church’s backward stance on pretty much everything, and I can’t stand the Pope (although, much like Kate Beaton, I have a great deal of fondness for JPII):

You know what’s terrible, though? Even though I know that the Catholic church is awful, even though unspeakable things have been done in its name and its leaders have been complicit in terrible crimes, I still love a lot of things about it. I love the singing, and the smell of the incense. I love the big old stone churches with their colourful windows and dark, mildewy corners. I love the priest’s fancy outfits, and the slow procession down the aisle at the beginning and end of every mass. I love going into an empty church and lighting a candle for the sick, or sad, or deceased. I love the tacky religious statuary. I love communion, even though one of my grade school teachers told me that if a Protestant eats a host that’s been blessed by a priest, it will burn a hole in their tongue. I love the idea of midnight mass, of staying up with a group of strangers until way past my bedtime; there’s something so ancient and lovely about staying awake with a group of people, waiting together amidst wreaths and bows and candles and music to make sure that Christmas Day is, in fact, going to come.

The thing is, if I’m a bad Catholic, then I’m an even worse atheist. Even though I know, logically, that there’s nothing out there, that science and evolution explain life on this planet, not some faraway magical spirit with a beard and a white robe, I still sort of believe. Even though I know that religion is awful and whatever good there is in the world comes from people, not from some godly presence, I still sort of believe. I’ve tried really hard not to believe. I’ve dabbled in other religions; like most people, I had a pagan phase in high school which involved chanting nonsense in the woods and spelling magic with a k. My childhood best friend was Jewish, and I tried my hand at that, too. But I still, embarrassingly, kept coming back to the Catholic church.

Why is this? I mean, the fact is that I disagree with their stance on, well, just about everything. Public religious displays make me deeply uncomfortable, and people who try to preach at me annoy the crap out of me. Once, a few years ago, Matt and I went with his mother to a Good Friday service at the Catholic church in Keswick, and they did this bizarre thing where they brought out a giant crucifix and made everyone line up and take turns kissing it. People were looking at Jesus and sobbing, I kid you not. I wanted to yell out, SPOILER ALERT BUT GUESS WHAT YOU GUYS HE GETS RESURRECTED THREE DAYS LATER. It was ridiculous. But still, I sort of believe.

We had Theo baptized in the Catholic church, and my reasons for this were pretty lame. I wanted an excuse to dress him in a frilly white dress and throw a big party for our family; I guess we could have had a special Baby Transvestite celebration, but a baptism seemed like something my grandmother was more likely to understand. I also know that he will likely go to Catholic school, and I don’t want him to feel left out like I was. Another thing is that in a weird way I think that it’s important to raise a kid with religion, so that they have something big to question later on, when they go through their philosophical existentialist phase in high school. Also, I sort of believe, so there’s that, too.

Sometimes I think about Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and how Sarah, the unfaithful wife, becomes strangely, almost unwillingly religious. There’s this really beautiful passage near the end of the book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it really resonates with me:

I believe there’s a God— I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up reasons that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.

Mostly I just wish that I believed in something, anything as much as that Anglican priest on Prince Edward Island did.

Plus, you know, Theo looks really, really good in a dress.

21 Responses to “On Faith”

  1. Elitza November 20, 2012 at 3:43 am #

    It turns out that we are kind of the same on all of this stuff. Substitute CCD for Catholic school and you’ve kind of got it.

    We spent a whole day in York last year just… going into churches. Old churches. Pre-Gothic churches. Churches with cemeteries which gravestones were worn away with time; eaten by moss and mildew and rain. Churches with box pews. Churches with amazing murals. And York Minster, which literally took my breath away–everything about it–the architecture, the chapels and their sculptures, everything. (Yes, there are photos; they’re on my FB if you want.)

    anyway. Yes. The rites and the chants and the incense and the Latin and the visible demonstration of Something Bigger Than Us. I can’t entirely discount it.

    TL;DR: right there with you.

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 4:32 am #

      Oh man, I am looking at the pictures right now, and holy shit, DID YOU TAKE A BOAT TO ENGLAND? NOT JUST ANY BOAT, BUT THE QUEEN MARY? That is basically my dream vacation, is what I’m saying.

      The churches in Paris took my breath away; I would love to see the ones in England too.

  2. CitySnacks November 20, 2012 at 4:59 am #

    Is there a love button for this? Protestant (to appease my grandparents) and Druid raised, gone to a Catholic high school, I am comfortable with being an atheist. More comfortable than I ever was seeking something I ultimately never felt was there, but I still find the churches, the architecture, the history, reverentially beautiful and sacred.

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 4:41 am #

      Druid raised? That’s kind of amazing!

      Yeah, churches kill me. I don’t know what it is about them, but man, I find them so beautiful and, as you said, sacred.

      • CitySnacks November 21, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

        It is pretty neat, but I always find it funny when people are wowed, because I feel the same way about it as ‘nonpracticing’ people of other faiths do of the religions they were raised in. I deeply respect it and believe in the tenants it teaches, but I just don’t believe in the gods. That being said, I had an inner circle tour of Stonehenge and got a similar feeling to churches. Not quite the same, almost more close because I am personally close to the religion. It was absolutely breathtaking in a way I can’t quite describe; it was not only awe inspiring, but quite an emotional experience.

  3. sarahannaoriginals November 20, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    Despite the fact that I disagree with almost every religious point you’ve made here, I still understand where you’re coming from. I don’t know much about Catholicism, as I was raised strictly Protestant, but I was always intrigued by it. I never went to a Catholic church, and I honestly can’t say I know really anything about it… just that it was different, with a different Bible, different traditions, and pretty much different anything. Whoever told you that a Protestant who takes communion gets a hole burnt into their tongue is an idiot. Seriously. Had they never been to any other denomination of church before? EVERY denomination does communion. Idiots.

    Anyways, have a look at my blog, and you’ll see a bit about my background with religion and what I’ve been struggling with all these years:



    • Matt November 21, 2012 at 3:14 am #

      As far as Protestant-burning hosts goes, I suspect it was (a) a joke, and (b) based on the belief that, for Catholics, Holy Communion requires a certain amount of preparation to understand the meaning of transubstantiation–once Father O’Finnigan blesses the host, it ceases to be unleavened bread, and–according to Catechism–actually becomes the flesh of Christ.

      This is why I always find myself thinking, “really?!” when I hear that a Protestant has converted to Catholicism. I was raised on that shit; you learned to do the old wink-and-nod to some of the crazier things that Holy Mother Church comes up with. But consciously deciding, “yes, this is the faith that makes the most sense to me,” always baffles me when I came from it.

      You say you were raised with a different Bible than the RCs use–what church did you grow up in?

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

      As Matt said, the teacher who told me that eating the host during communion would burn a hole in my tongue was just joking. There is a lot more prep before taking communion in the Catholic church, though – kids don’t do it until they’re seven, and they spend months preparing themselves spiritually before receiving it. Again, as Matt said, it’s partly because they believe that, when the priest blesses the host, it actually becomes Christ’s flesh, and the wine, once blessed, actually becomes his blood. I’ve taken Protestant communion too (they also do it in the United Church), but it doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal.

      Also, unless you are using some kind of crazy Bible, the Roman Catholic church definitely uses the same Bible as you do 🙂

      And thanks for the link! I read through your blog and found it very interesting and though-provoking.

  4. Katharine November 20, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    When you are in Montreal next, you should make a stop at the Red Roof Church (aka St John The Evangelis) http://www.redroof.ca/ – it’s a High Anglican church, complete with incense, singing in Latin, and it’s got this really weird dynamic where it’s full of gay men and ridiculous anti-woman rules (e.g. women not allowed at the altar), and priests still do things like not face the congregation during the service, they all bow in unison… it’s a crazy cool place, and definitely worth an hour of your time on a Sunday morning. But there’s no Sunday School, so it might be a solo trip for you and leave Theo with Matt 😉

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

      Whoa, that sounds AMAZING. I mean, kind of awful, what with the anti-womanness, but also awesome. High Anglicans are kind of the best! I will definitely check it out next time we’re there.

      • Susan November 23, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

        I agree that high Anglicanism might be for you. Also: the music is far superior to the modern catholic church. And there are a couple in Toronto:
        I sing at St. Thomas’s (where GFS and I used to live), but they’re both pretty great if you want super-high ritual.

      • bellejarblog November 27, 2012 at 2:48 am #

        Super-high ritual sounds amazing. And I agree, the modern Catholic music sucks.

        Will Theo be struck down by a divine force if I take him to an Anglican church? He was baptized Catholic, after all, which means that he’s a Catholic for life.

  5. k November 20, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    We can’t all abandon the Catholic church cause the leadership has gone temporarily insane but you gotta be real about its messed up history of all the purges, killings and wars on other religions. We gotta have good people in the Church to help it maintain its moral compass. Now kids are getting kicked out who support gay equality so theres that purge going on. I hope they come to their senses that they just can’t abandon the people who need them the most. Atleast the nuns have it right.

    • bellejarblog November 21, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

      Yeah, that’s fair. I guess I just don’t know what to do about the fact that so many awful things are done (or covered up) by the Church’s leadership.

      I also hope that they come to their sense and join the rest of us in the 21st century :/

  6. shannon November 22, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    This was fascinating to read. I’m so disgusted by anything churchy, I can imagine being enchanted by it. I feel so wounded by the church.

    I think it’s cool that something in you just has to believe. I respect that.

    This was really beautifully written. I felt hypnotized by its flow. You really are so gifted, Annabelle. xo

    • bellejarblog November 22, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

      I think probably a big difference is that I wasn’t raised very religiously (and the United Church of Canada, which we attended growing up, is super open and loving and hippie-dippie). I’m sure I would feel differently if, at some point in my life, I’d lived in a very religious environment!

      And thank you. And so are you xoxoxo

      • shannon November 22, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

        I really say really too much.

      • bellejarblog November 23, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

        You only said it twice!

  7. Marco :) March 31, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    I have to be 100% honest, and I sort of feel bad for saying this(well I really don’t, but maybe I should XD) I am a devout Christian and I love reading these blogs. Of course I don’t agree with a couple things here and there, but it’s nice to see somebody who isn’t so aggressive and militant against the idea of faith. It’s also good to get an understanding of a different point of view and contrast it with my own views and what I’ve been taught. There’s often two sides of things in life, and usually neither of them are wholly right. The truth is usually found somewhere in the middle ;). At least according to my experience.
    I do however, agree with a LOT of what you do say. I have a bit of a different upbringing though. I grew up with a set of parents who believed wholeheartedly in God, my father eventually becoming a pastor, and my mother working in the church later on as well. But even through this, they left me the choice of believing it or not, along with the rest of my siblings. Of course as a young child I didn’t have the capacity to understand a lot of the subject, but as I got older, I really started to search for SOME kind of truth SOMEWHERE. Whether it was the Bible or not. Personal experiences do go a long way, and long hours and talks with my father (who is sort of a mentor to me, and is also a pastor) and how “God” changed his life, along with many other personal anecdotes intrigued me. However intriguing they sounded however, the skeptic inside me still often isn’t satisfied, even to this day. But for some reason, I always find myself going back to it. I play in church, play in a signed Christian band, and I love every minute of it. The message, the love, the family, the sense of wholeness. I know all of those things are personal, and therefore are aside from true logic. I believe in Evolution wholeheartedly so far (Haven’t found anything to disprove it), but I also believe in the Bible wholeheartedly. And I’m not 100% why I do sometimes, because according to social media and the popular thought, they are complete opposites. I think sometimes maybe it’s because I don’t take Genesis 1 literally and I take it from a literary standpoint, maybe it’s because of a personal bias, I can’t say I know for sure. But I would be lying if I said that this belief didn’t change and mold my life in a positive way. I can’t say I was free from the influence of parents, but I can sure say that the choice was my own.
    Thanks for your blogs, they’re great! 🙂

    • Marco :) March 31, 2013 at 4:39 am #

      Apologies for atrocious grammatical mistakes. ^_^

  8. Gabriel May 11, 2014 at 1:57 am #

    “Even though I know, logically, that there’s nothing out there, that science and evolution explain life on this planet, not some faraway magical spirit with a beard and a white robe, I still sort of believe.”

    How can you know nothing is out there? And who said God was a magical spirit with a beard? That’s a child view of God. The rational view of God is as a creator whose characteristics are as good a guess as anybody’s. That’s theism is. Belief in the idea of a prime-mover which is a logical position. Religion is something different but we can’t just throw it away because of the bad things it has done. It has also done good and fundamentalists and extremists exist in all groups.

    It’s also possible to believe in God and evolution. *gasp* who’d have thought that?

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