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Outside looking in

When the urge to belong is not a call to join

By Yuko Narushima

I grew up attending an Anglican school for 12 years. We had weekly religion classes and Chapel built into our curriculum. This was useful in my learning to the extent that it made me question my faith, and later, my lack of it, and made me curious about what religions we weren’t learning about and why.

I didn’t know much about the Catholic Church. There’s still much I don’t know. Sure, newcomers to our school in Year 7 said “trespass” in the Lord’s Prayer, while everyone else said “sin”, and another girl curtsied and crossed her chest when we attended a Catholic former-teacher’s funeral.

But aside from the small differences in ritual, I thought Christians believed in the same God and hence shared similar values.

As I grew older, more differences became apparent. The Catholic Church seemed richer in tradition, and the churches themselves, more ornate. The Church condemned contraception and abortion at a time when I knew of Catholic girls downing the pill religiously to prevent pregnancy and hence, the need for an abortion. Catholic guilt was revived as a topic of popular culture as I was growing up. Madonna sang about it through the 80s and in the late 90s, so did Alanis Morissette. In her song ‘Forgiven’, Morissette wailed about having “confessed [her] darkest deeds to an envious man” while “[her] brothers, they never went blind for what they did”.

Despite any apparent incongruence between changing societal values and the Catholic faith, people my age continued to wear symbols of their faith with pride. A crucifix on a chain was okay with teens; as was one’s decision to abstain. And while Pope John Paul II drew international crowds to the Vatican - teenagers I knew from the local Catholic boys’ school among them - the threat of detention weighed heavier on my presence at Chapel than any promise of forgiveness, acceptance, love or salvation.

This is not to say I’d be more religious if I were educated in another denomination but it does make me wonder why I didn’t feel a pull to God, when others my age, sharing a similar geography and social environment did.   

A few possible reasons come to mind. For one, I had a lot of questions about Christianity I couldn’t reconcile. I could not understand why God would put a precondition of belief in Him on admission into heaven if He did indeed love everyone and forgave them their sins. I could not understand why Christian values were synonymous with morality, when people of other faiths were just as virtuous. I could not understand why in-depth teachings of other religions were only availed to students for comparative analysis once they’d elected to do Studies in Religion at Year 11 level, by which point they were indoctrinated in the Christian faith.

To me, the Catholic Church seemed to treat women at two different levels. On the one hand, the Virgin Mary was revered and iconic; on the other, women were subservient to the desires of men. One man dictates the Church. I understand this is in the spirit of universality, or katholikos, from which Catholicism is derived but I imagine one unified set of beliefs is going to be harder to maintain as the world unites and fragments in ever-changing ways through that process called globalization. Why are women seeking admission to the clergy still being denied?

I wonder if advances in science and technology will provide answers to people, who would otherwise have sought them in religion. Or will people, confronted with constant change, seek refuge in the tradition and sense of commonality they find in the church?

That sense of belonging to something universal is great. I’m not religious but there have been times when I’ve been filled with religion. One of these times, I was sitting alone in Madrid’s Basilica de San Francisco, a weary backpacker. I was overcome with a sense of being at home, in a country not my own, in a church I had no affiliation with.

As each of my footsteps reverberated in the empty, high-domed cathedral, my presence was sounded back to me and, as the echoes melted into the musty aroma of the room and wove around the unsettled particles of dust catching the late afternoon sun, my own insignificance was never so clear to me. I marveled at the dedication of people who, centuries ago, had hand-painted the round-bellied angels who smiled down on me from that blue, heavenly ceiling that day. How many people before me had found contentment within those walls?

And why was it that I felt full but at the same time empty leaving it?

Yuko Narushima, 23, is a freelance journalist.



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