I had a really interesting conversation with my parents at the weekend. My darling niece was baptised and I was honoured to be allowed to be her godmother. so I paid more attention to the ceremony than I usually would. And I wasn’t sure the child would be baptised, but her parents decided it was important to do so. (Which is entirely their choice and business) But I was surprised by the ceremony – it was far more relaxed and inclusive of the people in the church than I remembered from the last baptism I attended.
Now in case this is your first time here, I consider myself a Pagan Catholic and this was a Catholic baptism. Also, if you’re not Irish, you may not understand the role the Catholic Church plays and has played in our society and culture, so check out the other posts I have on that. It might help with background.
Before I get into the details of the faith vs religion conversation, I do want to talk about Brigid in the ceremony as well – because there is a part of the ceremony where the priest calls on various figures to pray for us, in this case: Mary, Jesus, Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Patrick and St. Brigid. (So I was feckin delighted with that!) Then there is a part of the ceremony where the child’s baptism candle is lit from the Paschal Candle (the big candle, usually on its own holder, standing on the altar towards the back usually when it’s not being used) to symbolise the light of faith being passed on. And I got the job of lighting that candle, which probably seemed less important to others in the church, but to me, that was hugely important. Here is a ceremony, where we’re calling on Brigid to protect a child and using water and fire to bless the child… And then people wonder why I say I’m a Pagan Catholic!
But anyway, on to the conversation about faith vs religion. For me it’s simple: faith is the belief and religion is the structure and the system. So for me to say I believe in God, in Jesus, in Mary – I do. But my opinions of the Catholic Church as an institution, as an organisation, as a structure – well, suffice to say my opinion wouldn’t be high. Individuals within the church have done some good, I will not argue that, but at this point I would say, it’s in spite of the church rather than because of it.
So it was easy to say to my parents that my faith is strong – it is. That’s not to say I don’t have doubts, but I believe there is a Divine power out there to help us in this life. I have had too many incidents in my life that I should not have survived to say otherwise. But the religion, well now that’s a different thing. And my parents have a different view on it as well. I commented at the weekend that I wanted to go to mass in a particular building because it always lifts my spirits. My Dad is of the opinion that it’s the man saying mass should lift the spirits, whereas my Mam agrees that architecture helps the whole experience along. For me, my respect for and opinion of the man saying mass affects my experience of the ritual. For me Dad, it’s the spiritual experience itself that matters, not who facilitates it. Perhaps my Dad is the better Catholic for being able to sidestep the physical representation of the experience and go straight to the source… I don’t know, but I know right now, it’s easier to go to mass with a priest I don’t know and will probably never speak to rather than one that I know has what I consider to be hideous opinions or a belief in maintaining the status quo.
So what is more important? Faith or religion? For me it’s faith. We can create our own structures and systems to support our spiritual life and as long as we’re not selling them as the One True Way, no harm, no foul. The structure should never be mistaken for the faith. Faith is something that can be easily faked using systems and structures, in public view anyway. But a firm belief in the divine, a faith that there is a higher power of some description, is something that can’t really be faked to oneself. And that faith for me is the feeling inside me that there is something looking out for me. That something is far outside my ability to comprehend fully, so I divide it into saints, deities, powerful beings, but yet ones that I can comprehend.
It’s like thinking of space. I get panic attacks at night sometimes thinking of the great blackness of space, that massive, unending, emptiness, from which we came and to which we shall return. It’s simply too big for me to think about, and my mind closes over. It’s the same with the Divine. It’s too big to think about and so I break it up. But the faith is still there, underpinning my actions and life.
This is how I can call on Mary for patience or Brigid for help in times of need. It’s why I don’t often have the perfect prayer, but I have the shape of a thought to throw at the divine. It’s why I know that while my prayers might not seem to be answered, or might not be answered in the way I want them to be answered, they will eventually be answered. It’s how I know that somethings I won’t understand in this life and that’s alright. Maybe I don’t need to. But I have faith that I have what I really do fundamentally need in this life.
Religion can be a community; it’s usually rules and strictures and man-made restrictions. Faith is a power force linked to the divine that can move mountains.