It?s 13 degrees outside, 4th of March. It?s late, a weeknight. I?m driving mostly empty roads alone. The car is filled with murmuring grey music and the traffic light pauses seem longer than usual. Night spills in the open windows?a cold wind on wet, sore lips.
Someone is firetwirling in Royal Park. The sharp kerosene smell jerks me back?five years, six years, seven. A flash of flame??Do you remember when???and I do, I do?I remember nights on the beach, drinking straight vodka, and learning to cut my own hair. I remember wishing you would speak to me, what it felt like to want to be ?that girl?, and when I started calling myself a woman instead. I remember believing only in uncertainty, because every time I felt surefooted, the ground moved again and unsettled it all. And I remember letters from South Africa, a friend imploring me to say a prayer and ask for God?s love, and the first time I wrote it down on paper: ?That?s not how it works for me.?
At the intersection of Blyth Street and Sydney Road, there is a Baptist church. On the front of it, a sign in flickering, lowercase, neon purple announces that this is indeed Brunswick. It jars with me. When I think of churches, I think of reverence, silence, stillness, and a sort of reflective, ethereal joy. Gaudy plastic and fluorescent lighting sell a flimsy aesthetic that is perhaps supposed to speak to the urgency and superficiality of my generation, but still: it jars. Perhaps it?s my Catholic heritage that does it, growing up in a world of carved ceilings, glittering stained-glass and a focus on the solemnity of ceremony and theatre of the Gospel. Selling religion feels like an oxymoron. One of the things I always liked about it was the sense of something running deep, something that didn?t need to be sold. A church was a place where you considered the way you lived your life, contemplated your choices, meditated on your morality?whether you agreed with the priest or not. It was a place where you couldn?t help but be confronted by the possibility of your own mortality and fallibility. It was place that said to me, Take something seriously. Think.
University philosophy is not quite the same. It requires you to remove your emotions and your instincts from your analysis in order to systematically, logically deconstruct and reconstruct the world. There is a place for that, a very important one, but it isn?t and will never be everything. Sister Loretta, Sister Verna, Sister Barbara, Sister Anne?they taught me this. Even when wracked by crises of faith, they still got up early and took vegetables to their neighbours, taught music and maths, visited the sick and elderly, consumed literature and science and philosophy, and tried to accomodate as many disadvantaged families in their cottages as they could possibly manage. Long after I decided that the church was not where I fit?too rebellious, too changeable, too interested in the soft mouths of my friends?I still went back to stay with them, to help them, because it was so obvious to me that faith was not what made a person good or bad. Good people are good because they choose to do generous, loving, kind things. The titles they work under mean far, far less than the work itself.
My lack of faith in religion hasn?t eaten away at the reflective hush I feel when I walk into a church. It?s not religion that is evil. Belief in God isn?t what hurts people. Bureaucracy, power abuse, prejudice and closedmindedness are not the exclusive domain of the church. And the frustrated, fed up agnostic in me wants to shriek that in the last few years I have met more closedminded, pigheaded atheists in this country?closedminded and pigheaded about their atheism?than I ever have closedminded, pigheaded Catholics. The institution, the individuals, the doctrine, the interpretation of doctrine and its practical application are all separate issues, as is the social context in which they are cultivated. Calling a theist ?stupid? for their faith is arrogant and presumptuous. Fear of being wrong is emotionally toxic and intellectually crippling, whether your doctrine stems from Jesus or the scientific method. And I can?t help but feel that people who bang on about the evils of religion and quote from the bible of Richard Dawkins are just as guilty of intolerance, ignorance and spite as their accusations would have others be. It?s far harder to be receptive to and welcoming of possibility?of any kind?than it is to be blockheaded and insistent that your own tiny corner of the universe can tell you everything there is to know.