you don't know what you've got til it's gone, and then you can relax

I turns out that I’m not a Christian.

I didn’t know this about myself for the longest time. I didn’t know that I was once a Christian, nor did I know it when I became a happy-go-lucky agnostic. My family is traditionally Catholic on both sides, but my parents weren’t practicing, and I was never baptized. My grandparents had long ago abandoned Irish Catholicism for English Communism. When I was young they would go on vacation to Cuba and the Soviet Union, bringing me back souvenirs every so often – Che Guevara pins, bottles of Cola with Cyrillic writing, a pillbox cap that they claimed was very fashionable with young Muscovite men at the time (circa 1985).

It would be wrong to describe my family as C&E Catholics: we were strictly C Catholics. Sometimes. My mother was the one who led the annual charge to midnight mass, more out of nostalgia and a desire to break up the cozy boredom of Christmas Eve than any sense of devotion. My brother and I went along because we were allowed to open our presents after Mass.

The last time I attended I was sixteen or seventeen, and much more interested in the girl sitting one row ahead of me. She had blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail high up a narrow neck, and over the course of the mass I began to fixate on the swishes of the tail as her head tilted minutely back and forth. I liked watching her stand up, sit down, kneel on the bar and push herself back into place with her hands braced against the next pew. She was dressed in a pastel yellow sweater and grey skirt, a conservative shell that I itched to crack. At one point I tried talking to her. I had worn a motorcycle jacket to church, and looked, with my stubbly face and short curly hair, like a drug dealer. Or worse, like someone who wanted to be a drug dealer but couldn’t get the real drug dealers to notice him. Or even worse, like a Grease reject. Plus I had a massive coldsore clinging to my lip that hurt like a bitch when I smiled. I talked, grinned, flinched from the pain but kept going, determined to get something worthwhile out of church attendance. Her fixed smile and unfocused blue eyes betrayed a deep desire to get away from me. At the end of the mass she turned around and gave my hand a polite shake with the immortal and gracious “Peace be with you,” but she was staring at the coldsore. I never saw her again. Maybe if I went to church more often.

Despite my lousy record at church, I retained a great fascination with religion, and particularly with the caprices of freaky old Yahweh, who favoured inscrutable demands and poisoned quail over reasoned debate. And of course, ordered Abraham to kill his son, stayed his hand, and then a thousand years later said, “Wait. Here’s how you kill your son,” essentially forcing a theology out of psychodrama. For some reason that kind of behavior resonated with me. Notions of guilt, original sin, divine force and undeserved mercy – what the folks call grace – had a hold over my thinking.

I didn’t share a conscious belief in god, not once in my whole life. I'd read Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell, Michael Schermer and all the rest. But I sympathized with religious thinking and religious rationales. I accepted religion – not the spiritual – as an insoluble element of human consciousness. The notion of the defrocked priest, like Richard Burton in Night of the Iguana, fascinated me. For several years I inhabited the works of Flannery O’ Connor.

When did I cease to believe in religion, in all systems of thought propping up the invisible and unfalsifiable? I’m not sure. I didn’t even know that I shared some degree of belief until I looked, almost accidentally, maybe in search of something else, into the space where my faith was kept, and found nothing there. Maybe it was one too many people trying to convert me on city busses. Maybe I got tired of trying to figure out why god would permit suffering, when it became clear that suffering required no one’s permission to happen. Maybe it was just too depressing to see the post-mass exhalations of stiff churchgoers spilling out onto the street, corpulent with piety and looking to stuff their faces at the nearest brunch buffet.

Two Sundays ago I went out for a bite to eat and found myself sitting in a herd of brunching Catholics. The priest went from table to table, gently placing his hands on the shoulders of parishioners, quietly feeding on each like a giant mosquito. I was frightened that he was going to come over and place a hand on me, try to drain me of whatever strange energies the churchgoers had stored up in the capacitating rituals of Sunday mass. He swept an eye over me and moved on to the tables in the back. His shirt was blood-red and corked with a clerical collar.

As I ate I watched the parishioners at their meals: the long table full of round-faced children in various stages of pubescence; the patriarch in the navy blue suit and lean, etched face; young men in pants hemmed above the ankle pulling out chairs for their mothers. There was no equivalent to the girl I had tried to hit on during midnight mass twenty years before, but if she'd been there, I have no doubt that she'd smile again, and maybe ask me for some drugs this time around.