Anyone who follows this blog regularly will know I’ve been practicing the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin (SGI version) since late 1986, and one of the things I often say, in speaking about faith – and which tends to surprise people – is how fortunate I was to be brought up in a Catholic family.
Admittedly ours was Catholic-lite, both parents had been divorced before they married each other, my mother didn’t convert from high church CofE, and while we always went to church on Sundays we were not a novenas on Friday evenings or first Fridays or even mass-on-every-Holy-Day family. We went to church every Sunday, both of my parents were solid believers, my father refusing communion to the last (because he’d been divorced) even when the young and modern priest assured him it was probably ok. (Though he died at a mere 67, I’m not sure my dad was ever young or modern.) And aside from a couple of tricky ones, the nuns I was taught by at secondary school were more interested in us getting a good education (a forerunner of feminist nuns in many ways) than in hellfire and brimstone.
So yes, I had a far easier version of Catholicism than many people I’ve met in my life in London (I suspect our being in NZ had something to do with this too, the reformers tending to place themselves further from the Vatican perhaps?) but I still had to deal with the Church’s absurd views on contraception (why do Catholic boys tend to stay Catholic longer than Catholic girls? Because Catholic boys don’t get a period at 11/12/13 and realise they’re going to have to make choices very soon that will affect their own body, and they’re going to need to be their own choices), and abortion and homosexuality … All that stuff.
And it put me off for very many years, sent me on my quest to find a form of spirituality my own heart accorded with, and I was lucky to find my practice all alone (ie, unusually no one introduced me to it), and have been practicing ever since.
BUT, back to the gratitude …
It’s just gone midday on Christmas Eve in London, very early Christmas morning in NZ. And when I was a child we always went to midnight mass. As I said, we always went to Sunday mass as well, but midnight mass was so special. This was Tokoroa, so it’s not as if it was ever swelteringly hot, but it was dark, and it was cool out, and we’d all turn up at the church, families we saw there all year, and others who only came at Christmas and Easter, people rolling in from pubs and from parties, the aisles and the back of the church full. There was a Samoan choir as well as the standard church one (not all of them pakeha/palagi, just not specifically Samoan), and carols might be sung in English or Samoan or Maori, and my mother loved the old fashioned English carols of her own childhood, and my dad didn’t really sing but he’d sing in church, and there were lights and smiles and singing and a procession bringing the baby Jesus into the manger up by the alter. And it didn’t matter how young I was, it was big and shiny and lovely and full – full of people. Full of communion. People in community.
And that’s what I’m grateful for. The sense of spirit that praying/singing/celebrating together gives us, which I now believe is a sense of human spirit. I’m grateful I had that every Sunday of my childhood, that we had a modern NZ Catholic church with gorgeous stained glass windows and a Samoan choir, that my family’s beliefs, my mother and father’s fairly old-school Christianity, gave me an idea of that which is other. Which I believe to be utterly human (and my humanist Buddhist practice does too) and also transcendental. Transcending the everyday and lifting us – and in that lifting, encouraging us to be better people, better neighbours, better humans. And – being human – we get that best in community, when it’s not just about our own families, those we already feel a sense of caring for, but others too. When we are encouraged to extend our compassion beyond just those we already love, already care for, to those we don’t know at all. And even, Buddhistly, (Christly!), to those we actively dislike.
Sure, there’s tons wrong with the way traditional faith is practiced – and enforced – by this pope and plenty before him (and yes, I would say that wouldn’t I?), but I refuse to throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bathwater – I’m glad and grateful I grew up in a family where a sense of spirit was important, I’m glad and grateful my mother loved Christmas and when I put some of her decorations on my tree, and I’m glad and grateful for all those shining, bright, choral, communal midnight masses.
(And the mince pie and glass of sherry when we got home at 1.30am – yes, even when I was tiny, we start ’em young in the Duffys …)
Merry Christmas one and all.