I read an article recently where an author wrote of her Catholic upbringing and of learning the catechism – the tenets of Christian doctrine – which she can still recite many years later.
My response was immediate empathy and instant transportation back to my own childhood, where rote-learning of the catechism was standard and its absorption considered essential to be eligible for confirmation. I can’t claim to recall it all, but there is so much that even now (decades later) that I can recite verbatim.
Although I made a considered decision in my teens to leave that aspect of my life behind and have never returned, I continue to be amazed by the way it seeps into my consciousness in both expected and unexpected ways.
I still love to visit old cathedrals and churches, because, I tell myself, that I wish to admire the soaring architecture without and the grandeur within. But – the all-pervasive and unmistakable aromas of incense, freshly lit (or just snuffed out) candles, and the quiet air of calm always transport me back in time in what I‘ve come to recognise as a comforting experience.
Does it subconsciously recall a gentler, less frenetic time? Is it the childhood awe of church services sung in Latin (forgetting for a moment my enforced attendance several times a week) and therefore more powerful because of the language? Is it the sheer tapestry of the music and the choral singing? Perhaps it was the soothing rhythm of communal repetition – essentially a chant – of familiar responses and prayers. All these years later, I’m still trying to pinpoint exactly what it is.
My cynical self – that can recall an entire prayer plus responses on hearing the opening line – dismisses it all as the product of brainwashed attendance at a Catholic school where no tenet of dogma could be questioned without the response ‘because the Church says so’.
However it doesn’t need a church visit. A snatched overheard piece of once familiar music will lodge into the relevant part my brain and I’m away.
At this time of year with carols, choirs and some contemplative ‘church’ music never very far away, (think Handel’s Messiah just for one) I can step away from the hysteria of the high street in an instant.
Christmas Eve afternoon will find this church absentee in the kitchen preparing for Christmas Day with the festival of lessons and carols from King’s College Cambridge on the radio.
As a self- titled ‘recovering Catholic’ I mean no disrespect to those whose religion plays an important part of their daily life. Although it’s no longer part of mine, I can’t undo or deny that early exposure to powerful words, music or atmosphere. Actually, I don’t want to and all recovering Catholics that I know say exactly the same.
Whatever form your own festivities take, may they be happy, peaceful, safe and warm.