We all know our actions have consequences for others, but we might not know, and never know, what they are or even whether they existed. Sometimes they are unintentional, resulting not from our deliberate plans but from chance encounters. Such indirect consequences shaped my perceptions of the Catholic faith.
My grandfather was devoutly Catholic. When I was young, I thought this was rather strange. He had a habit of cornering people, such as a bewildered schoolfriend of mine, and pronouncing on religious matters, not in an aggressive way but with the blithe assumption that they would find Catholic doctrine and history as interesting as he did.
Watching The Simpsons one Christmas, he exploded with anger at the episode where Homer and Marge celebrate a negative pregnancy test. On another occasion he was not keen on visiting the Anglican Bath Abbey, even though we had just toured the pagan Roman Baths. To me, observing these reactions, Catholicism seemed to make everything more difficult.
As I entered adolescence, though, with all its complications, and he barrelled through his eighties and into his nineties, I saw my grandad in a different light. I had viewed old age as a terrible, stifling condition, but his faith helped him to power through it with astonishing good humour and gratitude. He had bad days, I know, but every time I went to see him, the sparkle in his eyes was stronger than his frame was weak. He died peacefully, aged 99 – short-sighted and deaf but nonetheless able to recite Robert Browning’s “Home-Thoughts, From Abroad” from memory.
Another experience of Catholicism came at a retreat centre I first visited on school trips. Tucked away in Kintbury, a charming village in Berkshire, is St Cassian’s Centre. We went with our RE teacher and head of year, Ms Richardson, who pulled off the unlikely feat of commanding respect among 14-year-old boys and who would often casually cite Bible verses. We loved visiting, though the religious aspects seemed less important than making friends and talking, haplessly, to girls.
Later on, at university, I sank into a bog of depression and chronic anorexia. I dropped out, but did not feel much better at home, where everything reminded me of my failure to grow up and leave. I wanted somewhere to recover in peace, and remembered St Cassian’s. They were generous enough to let me live there for a while.
It was only a few days, but it was important. I could see the difference between the cruel and vaguely masochistic order that I had imposed on my life and a community based on love, and grace, and charity. I walked about the grounds with one of the De La Salle Brothers, who ran the centre, and talked about the animals who lived there. He did not talk about God, or anything transcendent, but he did not have to.
I am not making claims to universality here. People have had awful experiences with Catholics and wonderful experiences with people of other beliefs and none. One’s experiences of religion and the religious, of course, neither prove nor disprove their beliefs about God. What has kept me interested in the Catholic Church is the philosophical seriousness of Thomism and the descriptive power of Christian theories of the soul and original sin. This is where I have no satisfactory conclusions.
But it would be foolish to pretend that one has ice-cold reasoning. Our intellect responds to our experiences. If the reader will indulge me in one more anecdote, when I was at university I visited my sister in Cambridge, and met one of her friends, a Catholic who is now Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame. I might have grown warmer towards faith as an institution, after a period of teenage antitheism, but I did not think it could be rational. I began talking to him about God and politics, and realised, to my horror, that he was far more knowledgeable and logical than I was.
Politely and charmingly, without a hint of condescension, he made me feel as if I might as well have gone back to crèche and started school again. Of course, smarter irreligious and areligious people would have put up more of a fight; but it made me realise, in the best of senses, how much cause I had to be humble before great philosophical traditions.
If I have a point it is that one should appreciate how much one’s relationships and even passing interactions can affect people. Small examples of grace, and charity, and intellect have stayed with me throughout my twenties and have nudged me towards what I hope is an open, curious, unsettled agnosticism. I like to think I would have arrived here without them, yet who knows? I can only hope to pass a little inspiration on.
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