Once, when I was nine, I made the sign of the cross in front of the mosque on Piccadilly Street, East Dry River, Port-of-Spain. Nearly 45 years later, I remember the look in my father’s eye as he weighed the harassment of explanation of such matters to a small child against its benefit. He came down on the side of rationalism, thankfully, and explained a mosque was not a church, and I had no obligation to avoid displeasing God by tapping myself quickly in the head, shoulders and chest. More than my father’s look, though, I remember the guilt and shame I felt. Even though I managed to confess my sin to the priest next Saturday, for a long time after I accused, and convicted, myself for making the deeply holy sign of the cross in front of a pagan or heathen building. (Insane as it sounds today, these really were the terms of Catholic instruction at the time: Catholics were the saved; everyone else was bound for eternal suffering; oh, wait, hold on; that’s still doctrine.) It was a mistake, and a tiny act, but I had been instructed that God paid meticulous—today I would say “psychotic”—attention to every blade of grass, every beating hummingbird wing. God, I was told, knew intimately every hair on my head (He’s lost a lot of friends from my now monkish pate, poor fella) and was agonisingly hurt by any betrayal.
My father’s route to work took us past the mosque daily and, every day of that long vacation, I worried I was going to hell, was seriously anxious about the fate of my eternal soul. (I went to work with my father often: being of largely Portuguese extraction, we children had to go to the shop to learn business from early; it never took in my case, sadly.) That was the first time I understood clearly there were other religions beside mine. Like the Hindu sadhus today, who worry about losing their market share to the Pentecostals, the nuns at my Catholic primary school thought it prudent not to mention that there might be other gods or faiths which might offer me more return on my investment of belief. It would be like a Coke salesman admitting he preferred Pepsi for them to disclose that I could go to Islam or Mormonism and gain multiple wives (I got ’em, anyway, just in serial form, not simultaneously) or to Hinduism and keep coming back to life until I was perfect, or at least refined enough to get into Katalyst on a Friday night. Yesterday was the Catholic/ Christian feast of Corpus Christi, which translates from the Latin as “Body of Christ.” It celebrates the Eucharist, the Christian echo of the Last Supper. Real (or symbolic) bread and wine, consecrated by a priest, represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ, whom most Christians hold to be the physical manifestation of God, the Creator Himself made flesh and dwelling amongst his creations.
Strict Catholicism requires acceptance of transubstantiation, the particularly bizarre (and, for rational people, extremely offensive) belief that the consecrated host is the body and blood: the hair and fingernails and alimentary canal of Jesus himself, even if the eating of the body and blood, for the faithless, is cannibalism, pure and simple. The schism between Catholics and Anglicans is most marked in the Eucharist. Anglicans, more sensibly—or, perhaps, marginally less wildly—believe in consubstantiation, the idea that the body and blood coexist with the consecrated foodstuffs, sort of floats around it, without actually becoming it. (This may actually be Lutheran, rather than strictly Anglican, doctrine; it’s hard to keep all the Christian sects in order in one’s head.) Though I can recognise that I have an almost unreal capacity for cramming enough knowledge into my head in one night to get a B-plus in any university exam next morning—I have an LLB to prove it, as my friend Sonja says—I’ve never thought of myself as being smarter than anyone else. If I can understand something, it really isn’t too difficult to grasp. My ex-brother-in-law once said, accurately, to me, “If anyone can do it... I know you’ll have a lot of trouble.”
And, from the day I made the sign of the cross in front of that mosque and found out there were half-a-dozen religions, it started becoming obvious to me that there could not be half-a-dozen one-true-ways to God. If I had been told making the sign of the cross across my tiny body could protect me from evil, what had little boys in that not-church been told? (Today, I feel more sorry for Muslim and Jewish people than anyone: sitting at the right hand of God could never compensate for never having tasted bacon.) Yesterday was Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, and a sacred day for Christian believers. I accept that what they believe is, to them, miraculous and a gift from God; and I can follow the thought processes (or lack thereof) that leads them to declare the day important enough to be a public holiday. But I cannot find a way of escaping my own conclusion that to focus on Corpus Christi—or Eid or Divali or Passover or Kwanzaa—is to lose sight of far more important matters. We are all free to believe whatever the firetruck we care to about the afterlife, but we should be more responsible about our own actions in this, the only life we can be sure we have, and our feast days should reflect that thought. How much better would we be, as Caribbean people importing nearly everything we eat, if we gave some of our thought to the practical matter of growing our own food. Should West Indians be studying the body, or the bodi, of Christ?
BC Pires is a climbing a stairway to heaven made of chewed-up pepper shrimp skins. Read more of his writing at www.BCraw.com