Sermons be damned. It’s the little rituals that stir the spirit.
I confess, I don’t know much about religion. I grew up Protestant with a grandfather who was a minister, and I still don’t know much about religion. I stopped going to church at the age of 12 when my grandfather died, and up until that point, religion was waking up every Sunday morning to get ready for the 10 o’clock service.
Religion was my mother delivering a freshly ironed dress to my bedroom door, and the smell of shoe polish in the kitchen. It was something that interfered with watching cartoons. It was a dark, windowless room in a basement where preteens drew scenes from the life of Jesus with crayons on paper plates. I didn’t know much about Jesus except that I could never get his beard right.
Religion was the Banquet Burger Combo afterward at the Bo-Peep Restaurant, sometimes accompanied by red Jell-O, sometimes chocolate pudding. It was begging my parents to ask the Bo-Peep hostess if we could sit in the banquet section where the chairs were padded with red faux leather attached by brass studs, the walls covered with dark wood paneling and the stern expressions of British dukes in full hunting regalia.
Religion was picnics at the park—deviled eggs, macaroni salad, potato salad, and Dixie Lee chicken. It was escaping the adults when the food was packed away and exploring the perimeters of the forestry station’s “experimental forest,” a thicket of scraggly trees that invited games of Truth or Dare. Religion was Grandpa giving my two older brothers a dollar to go to the arcade and telling me to help Grandma in the kitchen.
I never quite realized that only the kneeling, praying, and hymn singing counted as actual religion. I thought they were just things that we did before the real religion—the business of living—began. Don’t get me wrong, I knew they were important; I did them voluntarily, with relish even. I even had a favorite hymn—“Onward, Christian Soldiers”—that I’d sing while I walked to school. But the actual words of the hymns were as meaningless to me as my grandfather’s sermons. I looked for a catchy tune underlying the words in both. I discovered it by watching the stained-glass windows blaze in the late morning sunshine. I saw how the artist had perfected the curls of a sheep’s wool, the gentle gaze of a cow. I discovered it observing the actions of the congregation: the nose picking, the napping, the fondling couples. It was during these moments that I found enlightenment.
I wasn’t aware that my ignorance of the true meaning of religion was disrespectful or irreverent. The only time I seemed to breach the contract I apparently signed with my baptism was when my grandfather scolded me for exclaiming something remotely blasphemous (“Holy cow!”) or too close to the Lord’s name (“Geez!”). If you had asked my 12-year-old self if I believed in God, I would have replied yes without a moment’s hesitation. Of course I believed in God. At that time, I believed in everything.
I especially believed in Sunday—those spring Sundays when crocus shoots appeared, robins pecked at ground still damp from snowmelt, and the scent of rural Ontario filled the air. I believed in the look on my mother’s face when I walked down the carpeted stairs in something other than corduroys and a sweatshirt. I believed in the hostess at Bo-Peep as she lifted the barrier to the banquet room and laid five heavy faux-leather-bound menus, one by one, upon the round table. I believed in sitting there, uncomfortable in my dress, passing around the ketchup and not wanting to be anywhere else. And when my older brother, after a week of torturing me in a subtle, big-brotherly fashion, laid his prized slice of dill pickle on the edge of my plate, like an offering, I even believed in miracles.
Angela Long’s writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, Arc, Fugue, and Prairie Fire. Reprinted from the “30 Sermons You’d Never Hear in Church” issue of Geez(Summer 2008), which promises “holy mischief in an age of fast faith”; www.geezmagazine.org.