Census

Mar. 8th, 2011 11:53 am
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My census form arrived this morning; as I'm on leave and avoiding many other things to do - of course I filled it in. There's a handy dandy website this time, meaning that the whole process took about 20 minutes instead of the interminable paper form ticking that I'm sure I did 10 years ago.

Or rather, it would have taken 20 minutes if it hadn't been for one question.

20. What is your religion? (This question is voluntary).

10 years ago, I ticked the Christian box without a thought and carried on. Today, my mouse hovered over the screen for a while, then I went to make a coffee, then I ticked Christian. And then, when it came time to submit the form, I went back and dithered a little while more and then changed my answer to 'No Religion'.

I still have a faith; that I'm certain of, even if I'm not sure what it's necessarily a faith in. And I refuse to tick a box saying 'other' and write in Jedi - I don't notice the great outpouring of charitable works in the name of the Church of the Padawan that the 390K people who affirmed that as their religion 10 years ago surely should be responsible for. Or did the Phantom Menace turn them all apostate?

I still have a cultural background - I'm Irish Catholic (and that's very different to English Catholic, or French Catholic etc. etc.). I can watch certain knee-jerk reactions that are buried deep within my psyche emerge to certain stimulae. On a good day, I can even interrupt them and overrule them.

But I'm really not certain I have a religion any more.

Lourdes

Mar. 31st, 2010 10:49 am
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There's a film out at the moment about a pilgrimage to Lourdes, which has won a lot of awards at various film festivals. I'd had in the back of my mind that I wanted to see it, and then I read this article in the Guardian this morning which has put me in two minds about it.

The journalist, Sara McCorquodale, talks about her experience of Lourdes as a "Holy Blackpool" and her experiences as she describes them certainly jibe with mine. Lourdes was a place to work hard, play hard. The 6am shifts? I remember them; getting up after an hour's sleep because there was no-way I was going to miss work, no matter how late I'd got to bed. The dullness of the overnight shifts - the medical staff in the hospitals were motivated and on the ball and we were, after all, volunteer hospital porters at that point. We were pushing people to the loo in wheelchairs as quietly as we could, with long gaps in between where the only conversations were whispers.

But I remember other things. I remember the heavy metal blue carriages that we would use to pull around pilgrims who couldn't walk. Not just in the Dominion - the area around the Grotto, nice and flat with wide paths and no vehicles to fight with - but also through the town up and down hills as we took people out to see the sights, to get lunch or a drink. I remember the heaviness of the metal handle - shaped like a spade handle. I remember trying to drag one of those uphill, and the relief I felt when the brancadier in the queue behind me reached out and pushed my carriage for a little while, even though they were also pulling one of their own. And I remember how that made me make sure that I could reach out and push the carriage of the person in front of me. My load had been lightened. Why shouldn't theirs?

I remember the camaraderie. I had my heart broken in holiday romances, and had my shoulder cried on as other's hearts were broken. I remember long and involved questions about faith and belief, both with those for whom the trip had reignited the fire in their heart, and with those for whom it extinguished it. I remember sitting in Le Carrefour - the bar by one of the bridges that was the Shrewsbury Diocese bar for the two weeks we were there, and having multilingual conversations with young brancardiers from across the world - often having to shout in English "Does anyone know the French for  ..." just as they were shouting something similar in French. I remember smiles being an acceptable substitute for vocabulary.

But most of all I remember the silence. Post pub, post shift, at 3am or 6am, before the day had really started, we would go into the Dominion - always with respect - your friends would be sure to mention if they thought you were too drunk or too loud to go - and we would sit on the slabbed area before the grotto, and we would just be quiet.

The Dominion was always quiet compared to the town. No vehicles, and people rarely talking above a murmur unless it was to sing. But at 3am there was silence. Companionable silence. I was always aware that my friends were nearby, and if I really needed to talk to someone then I could - we would withdraw a little so that we weren't disturbing anyone else, lie on the warm stone and talk. But more often than not, we would simply sit, quietly, and let the waves of the world wash away from us. I don't know that I've ever experienced the serenity of those moments since.

The film about Lourdes seems to have captured the bustle of the town, and the tension between faith and scepticism. My fear is that it won't have captured the calm.
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I'm putting the following behind a cut - this is a public post, so anyone is welcome to comment, but I'm sure it's a subject that many of you don't particularly care about so I'm putting it behind a curtain, as it were. Feel free to join in or pass by.

Read more... )

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“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Thomas Jefferson
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"Faith sustains us in the hour when reason tells us that we can not continue, that the whole of our whole lives is without meaning."

-- Brother Alwyn in Babylon 5: "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars"

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Candles are such a transitory memorial. They're part of my family
tradition, born out of long years of Catholicism; the response to bad news
is to light a candle or two in front of an appropriate saint.

My Dad's family are Marian; most of them, male and female, took Mary as a
Confirmation name. I didn't. When you're 11 and standing in the middle
of a packed cathedral with all of your friends around, it's a difficult
thing to do - instead I chose Patrick out of a sense of connection with
the land that all my family come from. Sometimes I regret that, but in
truth, I know I didn't have the strength at 11 to put up with the jibes
that would have haunted me through my teenage years. I'm not sure I'd
have the strength now, but I would have the ferocity to fight back and to
defend my decision. Is that growth? Perhaps.

This morning, on the way to work, I stepped in to the local Catholic
church - it's about 100 feet away from my office. We're actually
bracketed by two churches - one Catholic, one CofE. Like Liverpool, the
Catholic church is a squat, 60's building, a church almost in the round.
The CofE church is of an older style, with a steeple and bells. But the
Catholic church has a peace within it, a chill that comes from the stone
and a quiet that muffles the sound of the traffic mere feet away.

Because of repeated arson and vandalism attacks, the Catholic church is
not open all hours. The front doors swing wide a half hour before each
service, and shut a half hour after each finishes. Other than that, if
you wish entrance to pray, you negotiate with the owner of a small cafe
whose premises back on to the church and if he considers your motives
pure, you are let in.

Actually, that's overstating the case - I merely asked if I could light a
candle and he showed me the door. When I returned because there were no
matches available in the church and it being early in the morning, no
other candles other than the Sanctuary light lit, he lent me his own
lighter. When I returned his lighter and left, he wished me a good day,
and God speed in an Irish accent.

I knelt, and I prayed, two decades of the rosary, and I lit two candles.
One for Uncle Jack and one for the rest of us.

Candles provide a focus. A sharp clear light in the darkness. I remember
a Roald Dahl story where a man learnt to see through playing cards by
studying intently the borders of light and darkness within the candle
flame. The light redeemed him; he started using his ability to win money
from casinos and fund orphanages.

Candles are transitory, though. No graven memorial, no stone to last the
ages, no marker that will last beyond the flickering of the flame and the
guttering of the wax. In a philosophical mood, I could wax lyrical about
the candle as a metaphor for life. But I won't.

All I will say is this - that the candle will inevitably burn out, and the
darkness will overcome it. But we can always light another candle, even
if it is only for a while.

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