When I was young my parents tried to get me excited about their Catholic faith and largely, it worked. I think the Catholic faith, any faith really, is so exciting for children because like the good fairy tales that they actually are, all their foundation myths are so phenomenal and exciting that it puts the Marvel universe to shame. At least in the tradition that I grew up in, there were talking snakes and virgins and redeemed sex workers and evil rich people and money lenders, there were heroes and villains and harlots- well, whores. Literal whores.
I don’t mean to use the term as a pejorative but rather a factual descriptor of my favourite biblical character, the Whore of Babylon. My parents either purchased or were given a bright red book which sought to explained the Bible’s Book of Revelation. In lieu of more appropriate bedtime reading, my parents would see me off to sleep with stories from the Book of Revelation.
I was fascinated, perplexed even, by the Whore of Babylon. I remember she was portrayed so spectacularly in this book. She wore scarlet robes and looked like she has having the time of her life astride a three headed dragon or tiger or something. She was turned out, her face was beat, she was snatched for the Gods (pun intended) and looked fucking amazing. My seven year old self wanted to be with her and to be her. To me, she was like Madonna (pun again) but with a three headed dragon as a pet.
I’ve lost my faith and it’s been a long time now; actually it’s fairer to say that my faith lost me. It required, demanded, undeserving devotion without any tangible proof. Now, my life, my friends and everything surrounding me more resembles the Whore of Babylon than it does the Lamb of God. I prefer it that way. Even though I don’t believe and haven’t for a long time I still remember and take some comfort in one thing that I read in that bright red book full of fantastic stories and lies: we will know the end times are near when preachers no longer preach in the street and there will be no prophets proselytising and the streets will be empty. Even though I loathe street preachers, even the Bible itself doesn’t care much for them (Matthew 6:5), my inner child is still terrified of the four housemen of the apocalypse and the destruction of Earth so I still get a small amount of comfort from seeing them. It means the world is not going to end, at least not imminently and I’m OK with that.
Isn’t that something? Even though I don’t believe, and even though I haven’t believed for decades, one throw away line in a book of stories masquerading as a factual reference can still affect me. I remember clearly the very moment I knew that believing in God, in any God was a sham.
I was in grade 3, at a Catholic school in El Salvador and as good Catholic children we would have to go to chapel often, but often felt like always. I genuinely enjoyed going to church though, I loved the singing and the mystery of what was being revealed, I loved the rituals and the ceremonial dress. I loved going to a Catholic church as a young boy in much the same way that I love going to the theatre as an adult. The reasons are identical: the cast of fictional characters, the heightened sense of drama and occasion and the infrequent scandal.
While waiting to go in to the chapel at school, the priest, Miguel De Marchi, his name is still burned in my memory, came out of the chapel dressed in his usual civilian threads. He walked over to one of the basins that were sunk into the floor of a dirty and overlooked corner and that were used to rinse the dirty mops that would fruitlessly try and keep the tiled floors free from dirt and mud. He proceeded to pull out a small crystal jug or decanter from his pocket, fill it up with water from the filthy sink and as quickly as he came out he went back in to the chapel. Minutes later he opened the chapel doors with a fake sense of grandiosity and occasion, albeit now in his full regalia and he proceeded to bless us with the water from the filthy sink.
I don’t know where 8 year old me thought holy water came from. The sky maybe? If it was holy then it must be from somewhere special, not a filthy sink used for mops. Nevertheless, if something as fundamental (or so I thought) as holy water is just filthy water with an incantation murmured over it then surely the whole thing is probably bullshit.
It was very much an unmasking the Wizard of Oz moment, because at that very moment the Wizard had been revealed to me. He wasn’t all knowing and all powerful and omnipresent, he was a scared old man behind a curtain or in my case a pre-senile old priest with filthy water in a jug.
I think to say that was the very moment I stopped believing is probably not completely true, I think my faith in a god, or at least the god that I had been told was the real and only god was fatally wounded. Faith however is as resilient as a plague and even though mine had suffered a brutal kill-shot it didn’t finally come crashing to the ground for some years after that. When it fell, it fell hard and forever.
I love the rituals though, the via crucis at Easter, the food, oh the food. The whole bit. I particularly love the fusion of traditional Mayan belief of my ancestors and their ability to fuse that to the Roman Catholic faith of their conquistadores that resulted in a melange of nature worship/saint veneration that even today I have something that resembles nostalgia for.
The veneration of the cross and the offerings of fresh tropical fruits to it, the enormous Ceiba trees that were venerated by the Mayans and so were planted outside colonial churches to encourage the easy transfer from the old faith to the new. The extensive worship of Catholic saints that married well with the old multi-theist faith of old. All of these things I respect and love as part of my history as well as placing me in context of who I was, who I am and more importantly who my ancestors were and how that will shape my future in one way or another.
I can’t believe in something that requires absolute and complete faith without proof, that as far as I’m concerned is a recipe for disaster. There has to come a time for anyone who questions their faith to take a leap into something that cannot provide proof of its existence. For some, that leap is quite small, for others the leap may be massive but doable after a lot of effort and preparation. For me, it’s insurmountable. This is despite the fact that seeing street preachers still makes me feel a faint but yet warm glow, because according to the collected works of short stories that is The Bible, it means that the end of days is not yet imminent. There will be street preachers until there aren’t, and when they’re gone, we’re fucked, so says the Good Book. This is despite the fact that The Bible alone condemns said street preachers, then again, contradictions in The Bible? Nah, couldn’t be true?