I’m an ex Catholic. Catholicism is like herpes. You can disavow it, shake it off, take strong medication, but it still pops up to remind you that you’re still Going to Hell.
First time I felt guilty I was seven years old and about to go to Confession. Born with Original Sin which washed off in Baptism, but since then I’d racked up a load of venial sins (less bad than mortal sins but my catechism said we should ‘shrink in horror from the venial sin like a slug’) But what exactly was a venial sin? Swearing . . .wishing somebody ill . . . not obeying my parents immediately . . .it was impossible to get through the day without committing any kind of sin. And what happened if you were forgiven and went out and did the same thing again? ‘Well you have to try very hard not to,’ said mum fiercely. ‘Because God is EVERYWHERE.’ That must be why mum always lowered her voice when she was describing that girl in my school as a ‘big fat heap.’ Just in case God’s ears were flapping.
The red light went on and I stumbled inside the Confessional. It was pitch black. ‘This way,’ said a tired voice and I spun round banging my shin on the pew. ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned.’ Had I? I’d made a list in my head and now every single sin fled my brain. I wore NHS specs in a lurid pink and mum was going through a phase of trimming my hair with bacon scissors so it wasn’t vanity. I was shy and swotty at school so not pride either. I hadn’t even pinched my baby sister and that time she fell off the sofa really was an accident. Lying about a sin – was that worse than committing one? I could feel the Priest shifting about behind the grille. ‘Erm I wished my friend at school would fall off a cliff,’ I said suddenly. ‘But she’s always saying mean things to me and then when I tell her to go away she cries. I don’t know what to do.’ The Priest gave me two Hail Mary’s as my penance and told me to try not to wish for her death again. Easy!
I left feeling nicely sinless until next time. On the way home I asked mum about Limbo which was where the babies born out-of-wedlock went to live. She said it was like living in a very nice room and only seeing God behind a curtain. ‘A thin curtain?’ I asked, ‘or the velvet ones we have?’ (They were velveteen. The idea of God having velveteen curtain – the big tightwad).
‘But what happens if you really haven’t committed any sins?’ I asked mum.