Register Thursday | February 9 | 2023


Sometimes when I'm feeling sleepy and religious, I like to ask myself the question: who's better, the Protestants or the Catholics? This might happen to me after large meals that I've cooked and eaten by myself, or when I'm sitting on the bus and no one is behaving strangely and reading is making me feel ill. I've been occupying my mind with this idiot question at dull moments for years, it's like a sad and ugly old armchair in a Museum of Farm Equipment, when sitting down is both comfortable and depressing. Well, it's time to rev up this old tractor and blow the hell out of here. Go till some fields or something.

In many ways, the question is really: who are the bigger dipshits? I blame the Protestants for putting this whole issue in my brain in the first place, so they go way down straight off. As a child, my family went to a Brethren church of about 30 or 40 people, which was pretty good. I remember the usual Sunday School felt board Bible lessons and the astonishing displays of enthusiasm on the part of adults. At that time, the Catholics had a big church across the street, and they seemed alright in my mind because they had a large cemetery. (What is the deal with these filing cabinets they have in cemeteries now? It's like the apartment complex model of burial.) I don't know how anyone anywhere could enjoy their pastel statuary, the ugliness of which was apparent to me at 8 but which mysteriously charmed me then and still does. At seven or eight, I was still beautifully ambivalent.

Of course, the Brethren church split in two horribly and my family was either ousted or stormed off, it was never divulged to me. Thus began my journey into the thumping heart of fundamentalist evangelicalism. We joined a big-talking church of wonderful lunatics, and I have to say, I loved it. I liked the potlucks, the way they transubstantiated bad casseroles into special luxuries, and I loved flitting around in the enormous geniality of those occasions. The act of traveling to church was also pretty great: the feeling of executing an important, mystical duty; putting on special clothes to mash together in our family station wagon for the 45-minute drive into Charlottetown; the possibility of pleasing everyone by being good. I don't think the Catholics get off on that stuff in the same way, they're both too serious and too slack. Point Protestants.

It was around then that I learned that I stood a chance of falling eternally through fire in utter darkness while being gnawed on by worms with teeth, all in the perfect, agonizing consciousness of complete separation from God. I was eight or nine, and I felt eager to avoid that and go instead to the place made entirely out of rubies and diamonds and giant pearls and the like. (Did you know that heaven is a gigantic cube? It says so in the book of Revelation.) I went ahead and got saved at Bible Camp, which I think embarrassed me on some level because I didn't tell my family, but then somehow they knew about it, which embarrassed me in a different, totally inarticulate way. Nevertheless, some process was put in motion that took me down to the Montague River to be baptized, wading into the brown water with my t-shirt on in the company of my father and stately old Everett King. Surely one of the more beautiful moments in my life, I wish I had been conscious enough to remember it clearly. I think it would suck to only get this experience as a baby, so again, point Protestants. Having accomplished this feat and shyly performed these enormous rituals, I don't remember thinking much more about it. Christianity was Narnia and not being allowed to watch The Simpsons, with intimations of some terrible burden oppressing my older siblings.

At twelve, everything changed. We left PEI and moved to the United States of America, to West Virginia, to the Appalachian Mountains, to Hedgesville, and my family joined the Independent Bible Church. Here I was initiated into the training for adult fundamentalist evangelicalism: Youth Group. Again, it was completely fucking crazy, or maybe just American, but I have to say that I loved it. In fact, I'm deeply grateful for the training I received there, and I'm grateful for the work it's taken for me to untwist myself from it. Those people loved me and respected me and did their best to engulf me the enormous pillowy arms of their Christian culture, which was fundamentally sincere and generous. I don't think it would have been as meaningful for me to discover that God is love if I hadn't been so terrified of him as a teenager. I don't think I would have understood the special freedom God offers us if I hadn't spent so much time berating myself for my spiritual inadequacies. I guess you could call that condescension, but that's the risk of appreciating the people you disagree with. But the machinations of guilt inherent to that system are appalling, and the sense of separation and exclusion they feel for unbelievers or different believers is basically unforgivable. So ratatat, down they go.

Protestants have a lot going for them, but I'll be god-damned if those people don't have a hate on for Catholics. We got that coming and going, it was a real obsession. They once sent me to a special conference to teach teenagers how to hate Catholics at one of their big missionary complexes, with different sessions on why Catholics are so wrong and why Catholics don't love Jesus and so on. I bit into that some, but not long after that conference I happened to go to a Greek Orthodox monastery in Ohio for a week, where I discovered that amazing mixture of privacy and community of the liturgy, and it changed my life. I learned that Christianity didn't necessarily mean putting on elaborate displays of piety and belting out insincere, crappy music and marching up and down aisles to the tune of emotional devastation and feeling like a number in the spinning bingo ball of God. You could be casual about it. You could just do it and not feel like you were coming back from a rave when you left. Two points Catholics, minus two points Protestants.

After that, I went incense crazy myself. I went to school in Ottawa and developed a major grudge against the Protestants. I sat in my sad old chair and talking a lot of shit about them. I started going exclusively to High Anglican and Greek Catholic and Bulgarian Orthodox churches, I was hailing Mary and crossing myself twenty different ways and buying icons and all that. Then I gave up and just kept my Christianity around as a pathetic hang-up, because really my shame was the only thing that made me feel like I had a chance with God. Jump forward a couple years and I'm like, 'Hell, I really believe this stuff. Or some of it anyway.' So I did the thing I'd been needing to do for a long time: I became a Catholic. I got baptized, I got myself a fourth name ('Maria', no joke), I got a certificate, I cried. It was great, I'm happy about it. Point Catholics, I guess.

Now it turns out that the Catholics have taken their whole model for the church from the Roman Empire. Who knew? They use a legal structure to understand the faith: God authorizes Jesus authorizes the Pope authorizes the priests authorizes Joe Soap. The amazing thing is that that is just the opposite of what Jesus was getting on about. What's more, their priests are freaking out from a sort of rarified experience of alienation, the church authorities are terrified of sex, they're stuck in this frozen Aristotelianism, which is like some intellectual fortress of solitude, and the few members that actually give a shit are mostly fixated on political struggles within the church. So, minus a bunch of points Catholics.

Where does that leave me? Well, I'm glad to be a Catholic because I love Mass and I love the eucharist and I like identifying with Christians, because it's totally real, in the sense of human, and totally counter-cultural at the same time. And to answer the question of who's better, or who's worse, or who has the more stupid hang-ups or beautiful insights... it doesn't matter. But you knew that.

(From What Comes to Mind)