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Sometimes I wake up surprised by a long forgotten memory that hasn’t passed my way in years, like a hazy ship coming into sight over the horizon. My mind is a mysterious maze.

The clock had just stroked past midnight ushering in Christmas Day, 1970, and my friend Renato and I were snickering – sacrilegiously so – as the Bishop, dressed in his flowing robes and ornate finery slowly made his way, like a blushing bride, down the aisle of sacred St. Eugene’s Church.

Slowly swinging a heavy gold thurible bubbling over with the sweet smoke of heady incense, the Bishop’s voluminous robes and the thurible’s hypnotic oscillating motion brought a vision to my head of him tossing sugary Christmas candies – Santa-like – to the children in the pews.

When I whispered this to Renato, he burst out laughing which made me crack up as well. Disapproving eyes turned our way.

A firestorm of lightning and hail should have rained down upon us.

That was my very first and to this day, only, visit to a Midnight Mass.

I sometimes wonder now if perhaps my photo has been placed in all Catholic Churches worldwide as a “Wanted Dead or Alive” reminder to those who might laugh out loud in the presence of God.

Wanted Dead or Alive

The mass was mystically ephemeral and awe-inspiring, the cavernous hall filled with deep-bassed bone-rattling organ music reverberating off the rock solid walls and high ceiling of the church.

The genuflecting, recitations, prayers and hymns filled me with a mix of reverential wonderment, and even a tiny bit of fear that I would somehow be exposed, singled out to the large congregation as a blasphemous outsider, and stoned to death as a sacrificial Protestant offering.

We were young teenagers and Renato had invited me to the special annual event to join with his Italian family: Mom, Dad, older sister and brother.

Just a couple of blocks away from my own family’s St. David’s Church, St. Eugene’s Catholic Church was all “Paris high-couture” compared to my United Church’s “dressed-down Levi jeans”…

Catholics took Holy Communion with real drunk-inducing wine, we United’s merely sipped on wussy Welch’s grape juice. OMG, we were amateurs at this religion stuff.

Compared to the much more casual, laissez-faire services at St. David’s, it was like going to the Queen’s Coronation in London. It reeked of splendour and religious gravitas.

Religions are like bird species… they all fly about in pretty much the same manner but their plumage and songs can look incredibly different.

Bird church

I’m not a religious guy but I love going into churches, all churches: tiny, mammoth, simple, ornate.

I’ve been in Cathedrals and Basilicas and Chapels.

I’ve entered Mosques and Synagogues.

I’ve stood in a Rain Forest Cathedral.

Without exception, they all impart to me a sense of grandeur, an inner feeling of the greatness of all that exists in a world that none of us can explain with any certainty.

And yet I call myself an atheist, a heretic, a heathen, a non-believer of a God.

But in fact, I have to admit that I’m really a nothing because I have no belief or knowledge or wisdom that allows me to say with 100% confidence that I know an answer… THE ANSWER.

And I hesitate to say it, but really, does any human know the answer? I don’t think so.

Not me, not you, not the Pope, not the Dalai Lama (actually, the Dalai Lama puts it this way: “God exists or God does not exist. Leave it for us. Your task is to learn how to live peacefully.”) or any other religious figure that we use as a conduit to a God.

I trust my eyes and ears and science more than I trust biblical texts written thousands of years back by fallible, earthly men. I tend to throw back most of the faith and religious fish outside of those caught that instruct us in morality and good-living.

For many years, I felt bashfully nervous about releasing my inner beliefs.

My views were contrary to the God-steeped teachings I was raised with and I felt insecure running against the non-secular crowd. It came down to that pee-my-pants insecurity that people would think less of me if they knew I was a non-believer.

Well so be it. Not any more. I don’t mind the smell of my own shit.

I’ve grown older and more confident in my beliefs. Hallelujah!

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And… I think those around me who do believe in an omnipotent deity are today more flexibly tolerant and understanding of others’ beliefs (Donald Trump aside), much in the same way that many, maybe most of us, accept gay love as just one more normal way of loving another person (OK, the whole American Republican Party aside).

Religion, like Communism, holds out for utopian ideals that are heartwarming and based on love and caring for our fellow travellers. When these visionary ideals are taken to heart and observed, which they often are… then… I love religion.

But when those teachings are twisted and malformed into a monstrous means of shutting out and rejecting and hurting others, when horrific wars and jihads and death squads are unleashed, when innocent women and children are shamefully abused, when obfuscation and lies are used to protect and hide those bastard transgressors, THAT is when I hate religion.

Religion can be a wonderful, rich philosophy of living a life, just like many other non-deity based philosophies that teach and promote love and humility and kindness.

Religion supports the needs of those in pain and suffering of which there is no shortage in this world.

Religion offers shelter where disease and poverty and injustice strike mercilessly upon the weakest.

There have been numerous times in my life that I wished I could embrace an inner belief that someone was looking out for me, protecting me. What warmth that blanket holds in the chill of the night.

Be religious. Don’t be religious. Be caring. Be thoughtful. Say thank you.

And be prepared to catch sweet candies tossed your way when you least expect it.

Christmas candy

 

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