I’ve been thinking a lot about spirituality and where mine fits in this world. Despite not believing in a god, I find it unsatisfying to simply call myself an atheist and be done with it. I also enjoy hymns, fellowship, reflection, and charity and I’ve yet to find a secular model that provides that in a meaningful way outside of organized religion.
But to properly reflect on where I’m going with this (and I’m not sure where that is yet), I need to go back a few generations. I had two grandmothers: Nanny, my maternal grandmother, and Gommy, my paternal one.
Nanny was raised a Roman Catholic and remained so until she married my grandfather, an Anglican. The mixed marriage resulted in their families shunning them as the newly wed couple fled to the US to briefly live with a relative. Eventually, they were permitted to return to their hometown.
When her daughter died in a drunk-driving accident (she was the passenger), the parish priest told her that until she returns to her proper church, her children will languish in Perdition. This was the 1950’s.
Since then, she become increasingly bitter toward Catholics (but really, all minorities). When my brother was in high school and met the Catholic girl he would eventually marry, Nanny told him that she would be the ruin of him.
‘Stay away from those Mickeys. They run in packs,’ she told him. ‘Like wolves.’
Fortunately, I can say she was proven much wrong.
My other grandmother, Gommy, was a much jollier woman who loved to kiss her grandchildren and bake cookies. It wasn’t until years after her death that I learned of her own attitudes. A member of the United Church, she wouldn’t allow any Christmas Eve eating until after midnight Mass was let out, so as now to raise the ire of the local Catholics. That said, she refused to attend their lobster suppers because, as she put it, ‘They’d never attend ours.’
Her father-in-law’s first wife, a Catholic, died of consumption. I was told by his daughter the ‘Catholics took her away and buried her in their graveyard. Papa didn’t do anything because Papa was soft.’
Despite all this, I was raised in the United Church of Canada with a naive assumption that there were two strains of Christianity: the Protestantism to which I belong and the Catholicism to which my relatives belonged. Our religious services were short and to the point. Theirs were all fancy and long. There wasn’t much else to it, or so I thought, because I had no idea that these deep tribal divisions that I read about in such far away places as Northern Ireland existed in my own family. It wasn’t a simple question of preference, it was practically an ethnic identity and it existed outside any rift between Rome and Martin Luther.
But that’s my family’s religious history. What I was raised believing is another story.