How to be a Heretic

My first Mass was on the first day of Advent when I was freshly twenty-two. I went with a friend who was a Real Catholic, unlike my impostor self. When she knelt and prayed in the pew before the service began she looked like a medieval lady in an Arthurian legend as painted by a pre-Raphaelite. She could also genuflect gracefully, which is a special gift. I knew about genuflecting, but I just crossed myself and slid into the pew, not wanting to fall over on the cold stone floor and embarrass myself. I embarrassed myself enough during the Mass, not knowing how to sing, not knowing when to chant along with the priest. When my friend held out her hand and said “peace be with you” I stared at her dumbly until she laughed and grabbed my hand. “Say ‘and with you’ and shake hands.” I turned around and thrust my hand at the old lady seated behind me who also looked amused by my cluelessness. “Peace be with you.” “And with you.”

St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa, site of my confusing first Mass.

I first read Brideshead Revisited when I was thirteen. Astoundingly, given how very Catholic that novel is, the Catholic themes left little impression on me. I was in love with Sebastian’s self-hatred, but I failed to grasp how that was intricately intertwined with his religion. I just liked the gay angst — I, like Charles Ryder, saw Sebastian’s Catholicism as a foible, like his teddy bear Aloysius.

I first read Huysmans’ À rebours when I was seventeen. Suddenly Catholicism was this smoky aesthetic wonder. I began to develop a morbid appreciation for Christ twisted agonizingly upon the cross. Catholics are the masters of body horror: in the Anima Christi we ask Jesus to hide us in his open wounds. Then there are all the martyrs. I reread Brideshead Revisited, and spurred on by my love of Sebastian Flyte I developed a love for St. Sebastian, the unofficial patron saint of the gays. I looked at painting after painting of him tied up and pierced with arrows. “Catholics sure are into BDSM,” I thought to myself.

The Succouring of Saint Sebastian, Nicolas Regnier

When I was very young my mother sang songs from Jesus Christ Superstar like lullabies. My mother had left the Church long ago, but you can’t undo being raised Catholic. At one wild point she had wanted to be a nun. She told me a lot of neat things about being Catholic. I know that it is terrible to be hungover in church, the altar boys swinging the sweet incense in your face so that you think you might throw up from the smell and the heat.

My Irish Catholic and French Catholic forebearers are the source of much of my religious paraphernalia. I have holy medals and crucifixes and a picture of a wan, delicate Jesus who looks like a consumptive Romantic poet. I’ve got a prayer card that gives me 300 days indulgence, and it’s Pope-certified (Pius X, June 5th, 1906). My very favourite piece of paraphernalia, of course, is my rosary, which I talked about in this post.

I’ve inherited most of my religious paraphernalia, but one of my best pieces is one I bought in the church gift shop after my awkward Advent Mass. I don’t know if church gift shops are a normal thing, but I was amused by the greedy capitalist trappings. Somewhere Martin Luther’s ghost was howling. I marveled at the rosaries and the votive candles and the elaborate holy fonts for your home. All I bought, however, was a simple St. Jude bookmark. In some ways I love St. Jude more than I love St. Sebastian, because Jude is the patron saint of lost causes and things despaired of. The thing about being chronically mentally ill, especially about being chronically depressed, is that sometimes everything can feel like the end of the world. Sometimes you’re so stressed that if you just spill a glass of water the thought of having to clean it up makes you want to commit suicide. St. Jude’s my boy, then, because everything’s a lost cause to me.

“St. Jude, glorious Apostle, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the name of the traitor has caused you to be forgotten by many, but the true Church invokes you universally as the Patron of things despaired of; pray for me, who am so miserable; pray for me, that finally I may receive the consolations and the succor of Heaven in all my necessities, tribulations and sufferings.”

I like the saints because they’re pigeon holes into which I can sort my thoughts. Religion is a psychological organization system. When your head’s usually a distressing mess of thoughts and emotions, it’s nice to be able to simplify things, to hold onto archetypes. A lot of the time I’ll jokingly ask myself “which saint’s dick do I need to suck now?” When I’m travelling somewhere I take St. Christopher with me. When I’m feeling particularly gay I give a shout out to St. Sebastian. When I need energy and motivation to get a lot of work done, I pray to the prolific polymath St. Hildegard. Then there are my “saints” or minor gods that are not properly Catholic at all. I regularly pray to Satan asking for cleverness and charisma in speech and writing. I pray to St. Steve Rogers for strength and protection (What Would Steve Rogers Do is better guidance than What Would Jesus Do). Then I get kind of pagan, and I put flowers in skulls and read Keats to the moon and drink moon-charged gin. These are all just grounding exercises, ways to shut off superfluous thoughts. St. Christopher and I are getting on a train. Satan and I are writing a poem.

This is definitely not Pope-certified.

I’m not a real Catholic. I know that I’ll never join the Church, that the closest I’ll come to taking communion is eating Lammas bread baked with a dash of holy water. Once in a while I’ll attend Mass. I have considered confession, but I wouldn’t know what to say to the priest. I feel pretty alright with God. Someone recently asked me how I coped with being Catholic and queer and my response was basically “easily.” I’m generally a good person; when I hurt someone I apologize and I do better next time, and those things that some might think are sins, like my being extremely gay or constantly blaspheming for laughs, well, I don’t think God really cares about that. If there is a God, he’s infinite and amoral, like a big network of fungi — like the whole universe is a fairy ring. Mushrooms don’t care about you, but they can be quite good to eat.

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