My first ethnographic project—which wasn’t very good, being the first time I had attempted such a thing—I did on the notion of growing up Catholic. There was something about growing up within a religious tradition which was foreign to me, and thus exciting. My mother was upset that I had taken up this subject at all for my class. “Pagans! They’re all pagans worshiping false gods!” she’d rant about those who followed her childhood faith. Having done a thesis on Pagans, I can assure you that Catholics are most indubitably not Pagans—although there are those who blend the two. I tell myself perhaps it’s the latter that my mother meant. I know better, but it’s easier to tell myself the comforting tale instead of accepting the hatred. Hatred burns going down.
Catholicism is a strange and beautiful beast. A Catholic church, if traditional, can be awe-inspiring. I think perhaps that it is this very quality which fragments my memories of the church. The priest I met during my ethnographic inquiries had the most musical Irish accent. The homily addressed the notion of being within the world, of doing what one can while here on earth, and doing for the sake of those beyond just our nearby neighbors. It was odd to hear this, and the priest emphasized just that. As much as Catholicism focused, he admitted, on the afterlife, and how to avoid sin rather than on being within the world, it was important to the community to be a good neighbor while the living state prevailed. So it was peculiar for me to hear this, that particular day, sitting in the pews all un-Catholic, lagging a beat behind when people stood to then use the kneelers. One thing is certain, I became adept at murmuring unfamiliar words and making it look right. Under the spell of the homily, I “stole” a blessing when all went up for communion. It was familiar. It was exotic.
My classmate, involved in her own ethnographic project, took me to interview her family. The thing that struck me most was that I kept asking about their individual experiences and interpretations of their upbringing, but they kept referring me to their priest. They didn’t view their experiences, their worship, as a true reflection of their religion. I named myself a Pagan at 15– at the time, six years of being my own expert on faith set an interesting contrast. Even my friend’s mother, to whom I explained the project, kept stating firmly, “Oh, I don’t really know anything about that. You should talk to our priest,” although he had little to do with my ethnographic endeavor.
This time period also marked an interesting battle for my soul. My mother came down hard preaching the gospel in her “I’m a Christian, not a Protestant!” Protestant way, and my friend’s mother urged me to convert to Catholicism. The funny part was when my father leapt into the fray. One day, out of nowhere visible, he asked me, “Do you believe in god?” God with a lowercase “g,” of course, it being my father, staunch atheist, and the original unbeliever.
I had to pause. A Pagan of six years, my head filled with goddesses, and I couldn’t answer the question yes. I also couldn’t honestly answer it no. So I said the thing that made most sense to me: “Yes and no both.”
“Then the answer is no,” he said inflexibly. The rest of the conversation leaked away, and the words sort of drained themselves of color after that. I asked myself that night and for days after, “Do I really believe in the Gods? Do I really not?” I came up with no answer satisfactory to my ruthlessly logical poet’s mind that really really likes both geometry and nonsense. Except that homily drifted back, and expanded, and grew, and outright bloomed.
I am here in the world now, doing and being and believing. What I believe is a contradiction. But every human endeavor is rife with contradiction. All I have is but to be here, to do here, to exist in relationship with the world around me, and to believe and not believe both at once. I thought of Janus, twin faced, and I thought of every paradoxical twist of it-can-not-be that my mind could stretch to muster.
And after all that, I realized something. My dad would make a shitty Buddhist.