I was raised within the Roman Catholic Religion in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
During this period the Church was being spin doctored away from its traditional, dominating and inaccessible structure, into a more subtle albeit less glamorous version of the faith.
Thus I had a rabidly religious, bitter and punishing grandmother and a neurotic, anxious and fear ridden mother.
I often stayed with my grandmother in Blenheim, a small retirement town in New Zealand with a strong Catholic community.
My grandmother built her life around Catholicism, a life structured around prayers, church-going and good work.
My days spent at the nun taught school I attended were also orientated around prayers, church attendance and good works albeit interspersed with appropriate packages of education.
Easter was an exciting time with its 40 day build up to dramatic finale on Easter Sunday; all illustrated by the priest at our local Church parading a particularly magnificent series of opulently colour coded robes.
There was more emphasis at this time of the year, on the details of Christ’s suffering and death.
Stations of the Cross were performed daily, and with more than usual fervour. We lingered just that little bit longer at images of Christ suffering as he sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane, was brutally beaten, had thorns hammered into his head, was nailed to the cross, then laid in the arms of his weeping, grief stricken, mother.
Of course things were given up for Lent, and extra pennies put in the collection box in the kitchen that had a picture of an emaciated Biafran child on it.
There were also more frequent visits to confession, with greater pressure to have an array of sins to present when I was locked in the dark wood, ornately carved confessional with a priest.
My grandmother would reiterate every Lent that if I opened my mouth with the host still on my tongue before swallowing it, my tongue would swell up, turn black and the ground would open up and plunge me straight to the burning fires of hell.
This added a certain tension to my communion taking for many years.
A new breed of nuns sang appropriate hymns one year, playing electric guitars. I thought this was wonderful but it didn’t seem to go down well with the elderly congregation and I never saw the maverick nuns perform again.
When I wasn’t living with my grandmother, I would go to the chapel attached to the school that I attended in Wellington, which was just as traditional but less mannered.
Every week boxes of empty wine and whiskey bottles were removed from the rectory porch, and I would be more entranced by the priest’s swollen red nose than any of the sermons or masses.
My secondary school was single sex, so we all took turns to act as altar girls to the officiating American priest who also taught us science, and was a particularly vicious basketball coach.
A group of schoolmates used a foetus from the science lab as a focus for a séance, and the same priest needed to perform an emergency and unofficial exorcism. This incident kept the girls that boarded at the school, hysterical and sleepless for many months.
I was discussing with an Italian friend the damage a Catholic upbringing could inflict with its emphasis on control, pain, punishment and damnation. I said that it also brought with it a fascination with glamour and the revelation of where ritual could transport you if done with conviction, and emptiness if performed without belief.
Few people can help but be affected and moved by a solid gold monstrance enclosing the host in faceted crystal, lifted by an elaborately robed priest as censors billowed incense smoke, with a background of strange and beautiful chanting.
However whether that is a ritual with substance, or superficiality designed to hypnotise and control is down to the belief of the viewer and the participant.