Seeing and not believing this May
Published estimates vary from €500 to €700 being spent by a family on an average communion
You could stand in line outside the beauty salon for great swathes of the month of May in my neck of the woods, disposable knickers in one hand, soluble Solpadeine in the other, waiting for a seasonal bikini wax or a modest chin wax, but their diary is full.
It’s chock-a-block with seven-year-old communicants having their nails manicured and their tresses straightened, and pre-adolescent confirmation candidates clogging up the spraying booths. By the time this year’s brace of sacraments have been administered to all those glistening children, I’ll be weaving table mats with my beard.
Appointments are made for the salon months in advance, apparently, for little girls to be preened and buffed up in preparation for their date with the holy spirit. From cradle to nave, the sacramental calendar can sometimes feel like one very long wedding rehearsal.
Published estimates vary from €500 to €700 being spent by a family on an average communion; one hears of spends way in excess of this amount. One way or the other, it’s an awful lot of moolah for frilly ankle socks that will blacken on the wet bouncy castle, a case of Liebfraumilch for your tuneful granny and a glittering tiara that will end up in a box of broken dolly parts.
Obviously not all families succumb to those pressures or spend anywhere near those amounts. There are lots of little boys and girls having a blast in their back gardens with their aunties and cousins and various small terriers and pasta salads that aren’t trussed up in hoops and lace and sailor suits.
I was once told by a mottled priest, on a day-long retreat organised by my convent school for the spiritual enlightenment of the sixth-year pupils, that I was born without the gift of faith. I was thrown, but on the coach home chose to wear his pronouncement like a badge of honour. It was his ultimate pastoral weapon, I suppose, to dismiss someone from the fold, to brand them lacking.
I have no idea why my interview with the priest led him to that conclusion. I know that I was a pretty average teenager: I was in love, I had ambition, I smoked cigarettes at the back of the bicycle shed, and I couldn’t wait for the school gates to crack open and for the future to begin.
I had my own notion of God, well, Jesus actually (I thought God probably had to spend a lot of time in the boardroom running the corporation, and that Jesus was the creative), and I suspect the testy priest may have found my ideas somewhat unorthodox or downright irreligious.
My Jesus was a kind of walking, talking Joni Mitchell lyric; he was oblique and tolerant and hung out in dark cafes stroking his beard and extolling the value of personal liberty.
Anyway, the veiny priest put me and my profanity outside of the tent, and closed the flaps, and I never really looked back. I didn’t marry in a church or have my sons baptised; there have been no communions or confirmations. I respect people of faith and, occasionally, in dark times, I envy their sense of peace and certainty.
Matters of faith
I listened to a radio documentary recently, in which the mother of an all-Ireland football finalist told how she packed a scapular into her son’s kit bag before the match. I found the story moving and alienating in equal measure; her love and faith were beyond question.
The little girls and boys are terribly busy around these parts at the moment; they are out-blossoming the cherry blossom. In their petticoats and ruffles and parasols and veils, they look happy and terribly proud.
They’re saving up for bicycles and Disneyland and football boots and iPads, and their parents, no less than the mother with the scapular, are tucking talismans into their bags, and crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, and covering all bases, and simply doing their best for their children. And the ravages of the past seem to be confined to the past, for this spring-like month anyway.
I suspect that priests are more tolerant these days of our interpretations of God; I suspect they are more tolerant of well-scrubbed faces that appear in the congregation about as frequently as the tulips.
My eight-year-old neighbour sat in the kitchen the other day, eating a 99 he had bought with his communion money. He is a practical boy who calls a spade a spade and a rabbit a rabbit and a swing a swing.
He was telling me about an elderly priest who helped his class prepare for communion. “Do you know the story of the fishes?” he asked. I didn’t.
“The apostles were out fishing all day long,” he said, licking the sprinkles off the top of his ice cream.
“And they caught nothing. And then Jesus got on and said, ‘Hey, guys, just fish on the other side’. And they did. The apostles changed sides and they caught 217 fishes.”
“I liked that story,” he said. “I liked it the best.”
I like it too. I like that pragmatic Jesus – he’s one for the dark cafe.