Here is Leap of faith, first published in The Big Issue #575 (16 Nov to 2 Dec 2018).
It was the Christmas I fell down the steps outside the church.
It wasn’t a typical church. It was a room within a beach-house owned by a priest. Or perhaps his archdiocese. (Priests are sworn to a vow of poverty, are they not, along with celibacy?)
Not surprisingly, the beach-house overlooked the ocean. To the east was the lighthouse of Aireys Inlet, five kilometres away. To the south-west, 10 kilometres along the Great Ocean Road, was the holiday town of Lorne. And behind the ‘church’? A national forest. Not a bad setting for God’s office.
My family and other local Catholics had attended Christmas morning Mass. Maybe I was looking out to sea, my eyes adjusting to the summer glare. My footing faltered and down I tumbled. Only two or three steps. But that’s all it can take to shake your faith. My faith had been going out with the tide since my mid-teens and it wasn’t coming back.
And now here I was, 21 or so, dazed and maybe a little bloodied. It was the Christmas – I like to think a little too neatly – that God and I parted ways.
It was not a dramatic falling out – only those few steps – but enough to seal my fate. Goodbye feint-hearted believer, hello atheist.
I was such a good Catholic boy in primary school that kindly Sister Felicity and her fellow nuns at Our Lady’s Primary chose me to lead out the first holy communicants. I shared the honour with Bernadette Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic name if ever there was. Yet my enduring memory of that Sunday is of walking home alone in light rain. There had been a little party in the church hall after the Holy Communion, my parents were elsewhere with some or all of my five siblings, so I walked home amongst the raindrops. I can’t say I felt any closer to God. But it took another ten or so years to fall.
My parents had seen this before – I was the fourth of six to stray – and they would see it again. There were, as far I can recall, no arguments, no confrontations, no shouting. Just teenagers who slept in a little longer each Sunday morning. I guess I did not have the courage of my convictions to state my case to my parents. To say church was boring. That the stories did not add up. To say secondary school was a contradiction: the Christian Brothers at St Joseph’s giving you the strap. (And much worse, for some.) To say wars in the name of religion did not make sense. I just fell over.
It happens all the time, of course. You go your own way. You find something else, or nothing else, to believe in. An earlier inkling might have been when, at about 18 years old, I stopped eating meat. Mum shook her head, a little disappointed, and noted I’d have to cook my own meals. Fair point.
Had my parents rebelled against their own? Mum, one of eight Catholic children, married Dad, an only-child Methodist. Dad would sometimes joke that his slight change of faith, from the strictness of the Methodists to the more lively Catholics, meant he could now gamble and drink.
My wife and I raised our three children as vegetarian teetotallers. For health rather than religious reasons. They went to state schools. They grew up believing not in a god but in – well, what, exactly? Kindness, friendship, music, play, stories, the beach? These are not articles of faith, or belief systems. Just parental instincts.
My daughter, a mother of two now, is raising her family vegan. Is that like a believer becoming a fundamentalist? I would be concerned if any of my children became carnivores. And I’d certainly be surprised if they became church-goers. But would I be upset? Would I argue?
My daughter has an occasional glass of wine, my older son enjoys a beer. This does not make them sinners, so to speak, in my eyes. I do not see it as a rejection, or failing, of my parenting.
You raise your children to be independent, so one should not be too surprised when they, well, become independent.
My parents did not admonish me for turning my back on their religion. They could probably see it coming and thought, ‘Oh well, we tried. He will find his way. They all do.’
My parents picked me up from the steps outside the beach-house church, my pride and knees grazed, and took me to the safety of their home. Concussed perhaps, it was a quiet Christmas Day for me. Mostly, I slept.