The sad release of skipping church

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There came a time for me, as it does for many, when going to church was no longer obligatory. I suspect it's most common in those middle years of adolescence, when parents feel the need to loosen their hold over you, but with the blanket of judgement ever fixed.

Church pewsMy wane in piety was not unforeseen. Each Sunday morning, as my family was getting ready, I'd linger by the bathroom still in my pyjamas, wondering what to do or say. The plan was always to tentatively make everyone aware that I wasn't quite up for church-going that day. Of course, reactions varied.

On a good day, my mother would appear nonplussed, almost indifferent, preoccupied with attaching a dangly earring or putting on her makeup. She'd say, 'That's fine, you go back to bed and rest.' My heart would leap for joy. Not only did I dodge the three hours spent swaying to an old piano in a sticky hall; but the whole house was mine, a veritable bounty for doing what I wanted where I wanted.

She'd be happy to go with my father and two sisters, and tell me about the sermon when they got home. Sometimes she was even glad for me. 'Well it's a good job you didn't come today, they had that woman who shouts at the end of every sentence. I mean, I'd understand if she was shouting "hallelujah" or "amen", but no, she just builds up and up to a shout every time. Makes my ears hurt.'

At other times, she was curiously concerned about the state of my faith. Her worried face would turn from the mirror, and pouting her lips, she'd start to tease me. She kept calling me 'sleepy head' and 'my little heathen', poking my flabby arm with her long nails.

When it came to asserting the seriousness of my not wanting to go, she'd turn fretful and annoyed, toying with my future like it rested on that single Sunday morning. If forced to come, I'd have to get ready in a frantic ten minutes, spent mostly ironing a shirt. I'd sit in the car, feeling hard done by. She always pretended to act as if no coercion had occurred.

I found the journey nauseating as she played gospel house music. I think she found it energising, or at least agenda-setting. She'd gradually take on an air of spiritual grandiosity. Later, as she sipped from a foam cup of coffee after the service with her friends gathered around, she spoke of family or friends who had gone astray, detailing her efforts to keep them on the straight and narrow. Sometimes, I came up.

I remember one instance very well as it was just before the youngest sister of the family got married. I was wandering aimlessly, as I always did, through the clumps of people bowing their heads to catch conversation. Sometimes I stopped to indulge acquaintances of one type or another, but I preferred to circulate the foyer until my parents called me to leave.

 

"At night I would feverishly read my Bible, switching to the giant commentary book upon the slightest bit of doubt. Guilt played its part, but was by no means all-consuming. Ultimately, I felt I had missed out."

  

On this Sunday, I walked passed her little group hunched around a table, and heard her announce my reluctance to go to church and to the 'deeply connecting' array of Bible study groups. She didn't catch my glance, or pretended not to. It was a strange feeling — being put up for pious inspection. I'll never forget the image of her — purple beads strung around her neck to meet her lap, the flowing dress, and all the while making her earring bob up and down by stroking the back of her ear.

When she brought me to church I hated her. The hoards of people enmeshed to make me the outcast, broody and alone. And yet when I did get away with not going, I was alone still, watching TV or on the computer, killing the time I so desperately sought to gain. I remember taking up the most mundane tasks; clipping my nails over the sink, dusting the bookshelves in the study, rearranging the tins and spices in the pantry. When I finally heard the car drive up and the garage door open, my heart would leap for joy. Mum would then offer her analysis, and I would help her with lunch, as my sisters sniggered by the pool, and my dad read the Sunday paper, intermittently reading aloud the headlines nobody was interested to hear.

At night I would feverishly read my Bible, switching to the giant commentary book upon the slightest bit of doubt. Guilt played its part, compounded by my mother's sighs during the day, but was by no means all-consuming. Ultimately, I felt I had missed out. It was alienating, I see that now. The desire to question somehow harboured a desire to be left alone.

Most painful of all was saying goodnight. On the days I didn't go, she wouldn't come to my room; the ritual of saying goodnight and of asking what I was reading withdrawn. Naturally, I always assumed she was teaching me a lesson. I didn't consider that it might be painful for her too, painful to see her son drift and wander through the people looking utterly lost.

 


Ryan SucklingRyan Suckling is a Perth student and film editor at Pelican Magazine.

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The devil is in the details, the details being two things a church can contribute to a situation like this: a service of sensible length and the fact that the go-to person for the kid should have been his hospitable pastor. A church is a clergy and laity which know the smell of each other.
Roy Chen Yee | 21 April 2017


Going to church is a big commitment, it makes us vulnerable and more disciplined, if it works well. When it's a trial and felt to be oppressive something is very wrong. God is with us wherever we are and that can be forgotten by attenders and non-attenders alike. If it's mainly about social interaction then little wonder that skipping occurs.
Pam | 09 May 2017


Our children were baptised, as infants, and confirmed, as young adults, by invitation. Both children accepted the invitation themselves so, having been confirmed, my husband and I were clear we expected them to hold to their end of that commitment until they were sixteen. After that it was up to them. Long faces and obvious disdain marked the final year or so of their church attendance! Neither of them goes to church now. But as my daughter at eighteen said to me on the cusp of leaving high school "Although I don't go to church, I'm glad I was brought up in a Christian home". We have done what we can. We have entrusted them into God's care. They will find their way.
Fiona Winn | 10 May 2017


A beautifully written yet poignant description of what I imagine, Ryan, was a Protestant Church. (???) I know many young Catholics who also view attendance at church in a similar light, something which was a relative rarity until the Catholic Church became progressively reformist and protestant in the sense of protesting against the imposition of the sacred on the human and promoting the humanisation rather than sanctification of the individual, the saddest result of the New Reformation referred to as Vatican II.
Struggling Catholic | 10 May 2017


Dear fellow Perth resident. I actually found your article reassuring, even inspiring - certainly real. Not meaning to sound pious, but "Weeds among the Wheat" by Thomas H Green SJ seems relevant. If you don't have time to read yet another book, just skip to the bits on desolation and consolation,
Anne Shannon | 10 May 2017


I had a friend who prided herself on not waking her teenage sons (and there were five of them) to go to Sunday Mass . . . she just used to go in an vacuum under their beds early enough that they couldn't say they'd slept in.
glen avard | 10 May 2017


Thanks, Ryan, for this well written article. There seems to be for many of us a link between keeping the faith and staying "at home" in the church/ temple / mosque on the designated day. I think that there comes a time for people to "leave home" and take up the questions that call them away. So, Jesus left home, to go about his Father's business, Francis of Assisi left his rich family home and the pious practices of his local church to search for a new way to be faithful. Maybe, instead of regarding as lazy and faithless those who walk away from Sunday observance to explore, we might recognise them as pilgrims looking in other places like a burning bush for a glimpse of the Divine and something worth believing in and giving their life to. Jesus did not find what he was seeking in the Temple, but in the company of strangers and outcasts. He came home in a way that no one expected.
Alex Nelson | 10 May 2017


Nowadays, in Australia, surely the big challenge for adolescents is skipping Sunday morning sport. Children are indoctrinated in competition and beating others, rather than being presented with the possibility of loving one's neighbour.
Philip Harvey | 10 May 2017


Interesting account of the 'recollections of a drifter', Ryan. Parents do tend to wonder where they went wrong, but they also tend to look for a 'formula' that might succeed in keeping their children connected to the Church, or to God at least. However, I don't believe there are any formulas that are 'reliable' and every person engages in their own path towards (or flight from) God. Bizarrely, some while claiming to believe in Him, act against Him, and others while claiming not to believe in Him, live as though they were committed to Him. Hence no clear external judgements on the parts of observers, even those close to a person such as their parents, can accurately discern 'the heart of man'. However, prayer can influence the wandering sheep, as the poet Alfred Tennyson once said: 'More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of!' St Teresa of Calcutta also reminds us that God does not call us (parents) to be successful but to be faithful. Hence also being too distant appears uncaring, being too pushy and proscriptive too constraining. And as Kahilil Gibran says, Your children are. not your children but the arrows shot from a bow!
Paul Burt | 11 May 2017


Excellent article. I feel v. much both for you and your mum. As a Catholic I also agree strongly with "Struggling Catholic" about the destruction of the sacred in the liturgy post-Vatican II. Captured in the words of an 8-year old boy whose parents took him alternately to a "modern" liturgy and to our Traditional Latin Mass after our mass one Sunday: "Mum, can we never go to that other mass again?" [This is not to say that every priest who celebrated the Traditional Mass did it justice.]
HH | 11 May 2017


Sadly a common phenomenon among young people and even among the adults. The bottom line is unless one understands what Holy Mass is all about, one will not get anything out of it. It is like a little child asking his or her mother to come and watch a game of basketball and the mother does not understand the nature of the game neither does she has she any interest in the game. She comes along to please the child but waiting anxiously for the game to finish. In the Holy Mass, the Heaven and Earth are brought together and we (community of believers) are absorbed into the cosmic fusion. Human pathos and Divine ethos underpins the cosmic fusion. God’s vulnerability in Word and Sacrament is rooted in the Incarnation when God assumed human flesh and gave his life on the Cross in complete obedience to the will of his Father. This unfathomable love commingles with the human sufferings when the community gathers to celebrate Holy Mass.
Jerome Emmanuel | 26 May 2017


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