Sunday Mass is the last place I ever thought I would find myself. I’m half Jewish and half Pentecostal by birth, and fairly consistently atheist by choice. But my mother wanted to hear the organ play in the Notre Dame Cathedral; her favourite hymn was in the program. So to Sunday Mass we went.
My mother was the preacher’s daughter, something you’d never guess once you’d met her. She grew up in a home where radio, dancing, and movies were a sin; but I guess God liked television because my grandfather was rather fond of sitcoms.
My grandfather and his impossibly conservative wife were considered do-gooders. He was the minister, the backbone of the Mission and a much needed friend to all sorts of questionable people. She opened their home and more importantly their fridge to the homeless and destitute of London, Ontario. I remember the pair warmly, but there was always something alien about them. They had cross-stitched scripture hanging on the walls of their house and bibles in every room. God was an unfamiliar character in my life.
At a young age my mother began to question the institution of religion and later faith itself. Only “perfect” people got into heaven, so why did her parents go to such lengths to help those who were already damned? Why would God damn people to rot in hell anyway? And surely you couldn’t be sentenced to burning for eternity just for listening to the radio.
She began to lose sleep. She was plagued by horrible nightmares and often dreamt of burning in some dark imagined hell. She constantly felt guilty for sins she hadn’t yet committed and became a deeply anxious child. So, after graduating from high school left home. It was on a trip to Africa that she completely abandoned religion.
She was volunteering in Swaziland digging water pipelines for a small village. Pictures of her from the time reveal sun burnt, smiling cheeks set against a backdrop of endless green. She was amazed by the tribal culture and reverent of the beauty, but disgusted by the missionary presence. She watched her fellow Christians set up a base camp completely separate from village life. She watched them come into town every day and impose their rigid beliefs upon those they had made no effort to understand. The Pentecostals graciously offered the forgiveness of God as an alternative to damnation, but only if you converted. Their message was clear: They were better. They were holier. And you were most certainly going to hell.
Thoroughly disillusioned with her faith my mother broke ties with the church and stopped speaking with her childhood friend who had married a missionary. She vowed never to bring up her children the way she was raised.
And she didn’t.
Which is why it was so strange to be sitting next to her on a pew in a cathedral on Sunday morning. There was a family of four sitting in the row in front of us: a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. They all seemed so happy. At one point the son wrapped his arms around his little sister and she laid her head on his shoulder. I didn’t need to understand God to understand this. I was struck by the overwhelming desire to have all my loved ones with me. That way we could wrap our arms around each other and lay our heads on each other’s shoulders and listen to beautiful music together, too.