Being tested

“No-one with any intelligence does not believe in God!”

…retorted Sister Mary Immaculate, looking even more fierce than usual.

This was her response when I went to tell her that I did not wish to sit the Religious studies mock O-level exam.

“What made you think I was going to allow you to?”

As I had not myself decided, at that point, what I believed, I took her remark to be a dig at my father who was most definitely an atheist. Whatever else you could say about the man, however, he was not un-intelligent.

So I decided her argument was not valid, but I listened as she continued to berate me:

“I see you sitting there with that look on your face!”

My face has often “said” what I wouldn’t speak. This can be problematic. There is value in learning to keep what the Mongols called “the cold face”.

However, the sister had misinterpreted boredom for disbelief. There had been a question I wanted to discuss with her, but her attack put it clear out of my head and that was that.

Instead, I decided that I had no further interest in her particular brand of religion.

Another nun had already given me serious doubt.

In Cambodia, the Belgian head mistress Sister Marie Andre, had been annoyed with me too.

It seemed she did not like me because I was British.

She begrudgingly told me I spoke good French, though I did not have “the Parisian accent”. (How could I?) and then she nastily added: “I knew the “Tommies” in the war. They didn’t have much guts.”

My parents were then in Thailand and with diplomatic relations having been cut between the two countries, I had been totally out of contact for some time.

The sister’s verbal assault came because one day, a car turned to get me and she had not been warned. Well how I was supposed to know?

As I quickly threw all my stuff together, I must have been relieved, but I remember only the sting of her words and the fact that once again, I was being a nuisance.

It had seemed an unkind, belligerent way for a Christian nun to treat a 13-year old child.

Whatever brought me here today?

The Armed Man is a mass by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, subtitled “A Mass for Peace”. The piece was commissioned by the Royal Armouries Museum for the Millennium celebrations, to mark the museum’s move from London to Leeds, and it was dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis. Like Benjamin Britten‘s War Requiem before it, it is essentially an anti-war piece and is based on the Catholic Mass, which Jenkins combines with other sources, principally the 15th-century folk song “L’homme armé” in the first and last movements. It was written for SATB chorus with soloists (soprano and muezzin) and a symphonic orchestra. Guy Wilson, then master of the museum, selected the texts for the mass.[1]

Since I first heard this mass twenty years ago, I go back to it periodically, especially in times of strife.

When I was very young, I wanted to have a religion because I wanted to be part of something. My dad had refused to have me baptized and one day in school our teacher, for reasons I cannot conceive, decided to separate our class into baptized and non-baptized.

My group were dubbed “Mary Magdalene’s.”

At the time Christianity was the only religion I knew and as I was not baptized, I felt excluded.

It is ironic that despite being an atheist, my father entrusted my education to Catholic nuns.

The sisters at my first boarding school had seemed to be good examples of their faith. So too were the Franciscan monks in Cambodia. They were humble and gentle. I loved their evensong which I found very soothing.

It should take more than two bad experiences to shake one’s faith, but I had only ever been tentative about it.

Christianity and I are like oil and water.

More like organized religion and I.

Some feel that the absence of religion sees the disintegration of ethics and society. I don’t agree.

Are people cowed into good behaviour out of fear of an unforgiving God? Surely this cannot be so.

When I was asked some years ago, what I believed, I said “the Universe”, which afterwards I thought must have sounded pretentious. But it is the force that drives us, it is what we are all part of.

In truth, I have no firm belief in anything. I am probably superstitious. I respect places of worship, whatever the faith because I would hope they generate good karma. And because I respect other people’s beliefs.

In the same way, if I knowingly found myself in a place where something evil had occurred, I would feel a dread of negative karma.

Karma. I think karma sticks but I can’t say it influences the way I conduct myself. Of course, I am very fortunate never to have been in a situation where I needed to make decisions that would test my personal ethics.

Religion is a very touchy subject.

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy religious music though.

8 thoughts on “Being tested

  1. Amen to that last sentence! I so enjoy your reminiscences, and the always brilliant photos. Your Spring is behind ours, also glorious.

  2. I failed my mock RE GCE (Religious Education – General Certificate of Education (the standard qualification at age 16 then valid in the UK)) Because my Mum always thought i would become a Methodist Minister, the school was persuaded to allow me to take the final examination anyway. I failed that too – and joined the army!

    1. That’s funny. those exams…we took it all so seriously. I remember all most none of it. As far as I know, no one ever went looking for my scholastic records.

  3. Yes, religion may be a touchy subject … but I was completely surprised with the outcome of this during the two Camino’s we have walked in Spain and Portugal.
    We were aware that we were entering strong Catholic countries. There were days that we walked with others and then I realised while some were devoted Catholics, Protestants or Buddhists, there were also some hikers that were atheists … and there was never any conflict about religion. All I experienced was respect between each other … to this day, I’m still wondering why this can’t be case in our every day life …

  4. I passed GCE O-level RE, even though I was completely non-religious. When the teacher congratulated me, I told him, “Now I can drop the subject next year and study something that is not a fantasy”.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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