I went to church on Ash Wednesday. Back to that cavernous place I haven’t been in for a while. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent – the season of the church calendar which leads up to Easter. I hadn’t given Lent any thought until then, but at some point on that Wednesday afternoon I realised I wanted to go to church.
I drove into the car park a few minutes late. The service was supposed to start outside but I couldn’t see anyone, so I presumed it had already begun. I walked in the back entrance and saw people filing in the main door in front of me, past the minister and past something burning on the ground by the doorway. I walked round to the back of the line of people, and peered down at the metal bowl on the first step up to the entrance. It was a bowl of fire. A pile of flax crosses burning.
I’d never smelt anything like it. It was acrid and pungent and bitter. There were no base notes, there was no depth to it at all. It was not like the smoky sweetness of incense, which is rich and beguiling; or like the smell of charcoal burning for a BBQ, the promise of a good meal. It was sour and disconcerting, impossible to ignore. And as we filed into the church and sat down it followed us.
I used to go to church a lot. You’ve probably heard me say this before. I went to church every week, usually several times a week, for a long time. The church I went to was the kind of church where what you believed came in bullet points. Where belief was a concrete, absolute thing that existed outside of a person, and was either accepted and absorbed, or rejected. And it was the kind of church which categorised people accordingly. You either believed, or you didn’t. You were either in, or out.
It was a pretty ordinary church, as far as evangelical churches go. We believed in a literal heaven and a literal hell, and that you needed a conversion experience to secure your place in the former. We felt pretty grateful for our own said personal conversion experiences, and so we had a lot to be happy about. And happy and clappy go hand in hand, well they did in my case. But we were also burdened. We were burdened for the world. Because we didn’t take our ticket to heaven for granted, and we wanted as many people as possible to come for the ride.
At best, this kind of evangelicalism is benevolent, shoring up a host of social programmes and charities just about everywhere you look. But at its worst, it quickly morphs into fundamentalism; which – as far as I can see – is nothing less than the scourge of our age. In fundamentalism those bullet points of belief come laced with fear and control, and the categories are iron-cast. There is no wriggle room, no tolerance for grey. If you are not in, you absolutely out.
If we mapped out a spectrum – benevolent evangelicalism moving to the benign and then through to toxic fundamentalism at the other end – my church experience would span almost the whole range. I know how attractive it is to be part of something big and thriving, and how strong the pull of conformity is in that environment. I can attest to the value of community, to the change that can happen when someone has the support and resources necessary to change. I was never ostracised, and never part of an actual cult. I was always “in.” And yet I’m only just now beginning to understand what it cost me to stay “in.”
One loss from those years was that I was disconnected from symbol and metaphor. Those bullet-pointed tenets of faith acted like a rigid layer of certainty over everything in our tradition which was ambiguous or open to interpretation. Anything less than absolute was rendered invisible. And metaphor; the great language of art, literature and the unconscious was wiped from the register. It was not a language we were proficient in. If anything, we were suspicious of it. Anything that was less than concrete was likely to lead us down the slippery slope to “out.”
I went to church that Wednesday night to get ash on my forehead. I knew that if I went to church I’d come home with a black-grey smudge in the vague shape of a cross. That was what I wanted. I wanted the ash. I wanted to be marked. I wanted to sit in that sprawling and beautiful building and think about my humanness. I wanted to own up to my smallness, to my need, to the dust that I am made of. And I knew that the smear of ash would mean something.
My insides haven’t always matched my outsides. I’ve been a master of disguise. Smiling but internally torn. A bundle of anxiety and nervous energy which made me look like a go-getter, a worker, a get-things-happening kind of person. I was on an endless mission to improve things. The things I was bent on improving were always external. Houses. Relationships. Organisations. Domestic functions. Somewhere deep inside me was this nagging sense that something was wrong.
My search led me to explore Catholicism. Suddenly I found I had a voracious appetite for ritual. I wanted to cross myself. I couldn’t get enough of the incense. I was enchanted with transubstantiation – the belief that in the Eucharist ritual, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. I’d spent so long singing and praying about God being in me, that of course I wanted to eat God – it was an obvious progression. Yet at the same time the idea of eating God was so natural, so ordinary. Eating being such an ordinary activity and hunger our most base need. The juxtaposition was thrilling. And I was hungry.
I was hungry for the saints. The way you could see them. The ones sculpted in white, watching the parishioners kindly from the back of the church. The small ones on cards you could carry around with you – pocket saints. You could touch them. The pocket saints came with their own prayer on the back, words that they (more-or-less) had prayed themselves. You could pray with them. And the saints felt real. Their stories might have been (more-or-less) fabricated, but that wasn’t the point. I knew that behind all the layers of story was a flesh and blood person. And I loved the women saints. There were so many of them. They led me to Mary.
I needed to know that God looked like me. I needed to know that God was soft. I needed to know that God had a womb. That God laboured, that God had breasts, that God comforted, that God hovered like a mother bird over her nest. Those images were all in the bible – which at that time I read like my life depended on it. But I couldn’t see them properly until I saw Mary. Mary was everything I missed out on in the male-dominated and performance-driven Christianity of my upbringing. Ever-present Mary, she who carried the divine seed and let it grow, patiently pregnant with God. She was my antidote.
Anyone who knew me could have seen that my crush on Catholicism wasn’t going to take. The fact that I would have had to be baptised again was a deal-breaker. In the midst of all the coercion and control I experienced as a teenager, both at home and at church, getting baptised was one of the first things I did in my life for myself. It meant something incredible to me then, and it does now. And then when you add the fact that the Catholic church doesn’t ordain women, and is probably about a thousand years away from being open and affirming of queer Christians, well… you get the picture.
But we should always pay attention to what we’re attracted to. My attraction to the Catholic church was telling me something. It was telling me I wanted to smell God. It was telling me I wanted to look at God with my natural eyes, that I wanted to look in the mirror and see God staring back at me. It confirmed to me that I wanted a new experience of God – something grounded in ritual, something grounded in the simple movement of my own body. I wanted an expression of faith that sprang from more than just the latest edict from the latest male to grace the pulpits of my youth.
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I often wonder if I ever will. But the night I sat in my favourite ancient place, the air rank with bitter smoke, and came home with a grey smudge on my very own skin, I knew that I had found something. Every time I surprise myself by capturing the mystical and dragging it into the ordinary bounds of my very real life, I feel just like I did when I was sixteen and freshly baptised. Like the mystery I felt burning inside of me was lit up on the outside of me as well. I was one.