Everyday Religious Practice 5: The Power of Ritual in the Catholic Mass and a Sense of Place.

"...if not for the women of this church, it would be poorer. So we acknowledge the role of these women who serve us with enthusiasm.” Different man in many layers


Again I let go of my skepticism about gods and let the power of the ritual of the Catholic Mass surround me.


I meet a skinny man who had been going to this church since 1961. Not this exact building, but the same precinct. The building in which we chat now has been a school chapel, a school house and then a church. The building has changed but the ritual now performed in it has not changed much during that time, he told me.


The skinny man told me of the attempt made by the hierarchy of the church to sell the building. The plot of land is right next to the central business district and he reports that: “It is worth millions.” A challenge had been made to that sale. A legal hearing later that day would determine the fate of the building that had been a school chapel, school rooms and a church. The skinny man spoke with obvious fondness for the building, but was deferential the hierarchy of his church. He bemoaned the lack of a grand church in this city; all the other cities that he named had a large and traditionally designed building close to their centre. This city had a lop-sided building that had been renovated, but still showed obvious signs of prior and different use.


I had not existed, then been born, indoctrinated in Catholicism, rejected God, become an open apostate and missed 25 years of masses in that time. During that time, the skinny man had been here, in the Catholic church. He had lived my years and had extra years spent in belief too (as though it was celestial spare change).


The service was the same as I remembered the same calls, the same responses and the same ritualised movements of the body. It was all too familiar, comforting, frightening and repulsive at the same time. I was beginning to wonder why I had left the Catholic church and if I may return, until the opening words of the priest (a different man who also wore many layers). He reminded the 47 people (19 men and 28 women) assembled there of their sinful nature and asked them to “recognise their sins”. And there it was, the accountant god who keeps track of sins and confessions, that these people worshipped.


So, that is why I left: I had taken the doctrine seriously; I had taken the idea of a existence of gods seriously. But the accountant god was not my god, my god had been a kindly old, harmless hippy. But that god had moved away every time I tried to get closer. Eventually that kindly old, harmless hippy had simply slipped away. Remembering that experience, the rituals and doctrine I was revisiting were emptied of their power. Now they were annoying. “Why are these people still doing this?” I wanted to scream. But the power of a sense of place, habit and ritual had kept the skinny man here for 42 years. I suspect it will keep him there for as long as he lives.

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