BT 329 & TalkTalk 329
Why I'm glad I grew up religious
New programme Preachers' Daughters is about to reveal what life is like for the young women who grow up in religious homes with spiritually focused families. Daisy Buchanan can match their crazy moments with her own memories – but thinks that ultimately, growing up with religion taught her a lot about love.
Kolby Koloff and her dad Nikita
"Jesus is everywhere" is one of the very first things my mum and dad taught me, and in our house, he really was. Looking sorrowful about the Sorrowful Mysteries as he peered out of a gilt frame in the hall. Curled up, cherubic, on porcelain crosses and lumpen gift shop bits of Christian decoupage. From prayer cards to presents, kids' bibles to cakes, God's son, rendered as a handsome white man, was as powerful a childhood presence as Barbie and Mickey Mouse. And I believed in all three with an equal fervour.
My parents' brand of Catholicism has never been fashionable. They didn't take to it in order to get us into a decent school, or to give us a broad, handy moral compass. They were - and still are - fairly Old Testament in their thinking. Not fans of Vatican II. (And in the highly likely event that you have never heard of Vatican II, it was a big papal council held at the start of the sixties that was responsible for, and some would say stands accused of, modernising the Catholic Church. Not to the point where you can have sex before marriage or female priests or contraception, but it was groundbreaking in terms of admin. When I think about it, I knew an awful lot of Vatican II facts for a 7 year old.)
When I mention my religious past, people are taken aback. You can see people wondering whether I spent my childhood speaking in tongues, locked in cupboards, and if I know a reliable supplier of pigs' blood. Sometimes, dance invitations are rescinded. But I wouldn't change a thing about my childhood, even though I probably spent well over a solid year of it in church.
Olivia Perry and her dad Mark
Ah, Church. The endlessness and inevitability of Church. Every Sunday, every Holy Day Of Obligation (does anything in the world have a less fun sounding name?) my five sisters and I would troop off to be choked with incense and listen to a man in a dress wearily and drearily incant Latin. The only chance I had to get out of it was when I broke my leg, and proved so bad at using crutches that it would have taken me a whole Lent to get out of the house and onto a pew. Thankfully, I’d had enough religious training to wring the maximum amount of positivity from the experience. “Thanks God, for breaking my leg and getting me out of church” I prayed “and also, thank you for not making my family Evangelicals, otherwise I would have been carried to the service and been forced to let the priest stand over me and demand that You fuse the bones back together.”
If our limbs were unfractured, we were all expected to go, no matter what - even though all six of us protested long and loud. “It isn’t supposed to be fun,” said Mum, by way of an explanation. “Life isn’t always fun.” And looking back, that was what I liked about it. From the earliest age, my sisters and I were taught not to expect endless gratification. My parents were scathing about Sunday School, and when other kids were allowed to run off and make posters with the nuns, we had to sit, listen, and quietly absorb the Holy Bible in its least palatable form. I heard fascinating, archaic language, lyrical passages, lines that would catch and stay stuck like a strange song. As a dreamy, introspective child, the effect was soothing and meditative. I found that being forced to sit still and listen to stuff you didn’t quite understand had a potent power of its own.
I especially enjoyed the quiet moments because, in proper Catholic fashion, my siblings were as numerous as they were noisy. My Mum got pregnant with such regularity that I thought women were contractually obligated to have a baby every 18 months. But growing up the eldest of a big gang of girls meant that you always felt like you were in on a stupid, secret joke.
Religion might be solemn, somber and constantly in the background, but you couldn’t turn around for people making up songs about each other, or planning plays with homemade costumes, or organising midnight feasts, or forcing you to slide down bannisters competitively. There was always something to celebrate, and Catholicism gave our celebrations greater resonance. A sober, sugar free Lent would lead up to an hysterical Easter, when we felt that we had earned the right to scamper about the house, chocolate smeared and shrieking. At Christmas, mass became magical. When you had to annually commemorate the birth of a child who taught us all how to love, despite being born in the presence of cow poo, believing in Father Christmas was no stretch at all. In fact, had we been told that one of the reindeers was actually Shergar, we would have smiled and taken it in.
Luckily, we had enough non-Catholic education to save us from complete naivety. And what was even luckier was that it gave us all the tools to question and wonder. Catholicism teaches you that your body belongs to God and you need to treat it with the utmost respect. But our parents were of the opinion that a brain is God given and not to be wasted. And we became cerebral enough not to become completely hung up on corporeal neuroses. Obviously the Catholic Cult of The Virgin gave me sex and body hang ups a-go-go, but because I was encouraged to read widely, I soon discovered that the issues were hardly unique to Catholics - but religion had given them a narrative that gave me the space to criticise them. Space to answer back.
As Preachers’ Daughters demonstrates, if you’re raised in a religious household, you’re going to experience strange situations. You’re going to encounter a lot of conflict. But you’re being looked after by people who not only believe in love, but believe in doing their very best by you for the sake of a higher power. People who teach you that kindness isn’t a vague and abstract concept, but a fundamental part of any teaching worthy of being passed down. Ultimately, a religious upbringing gave me a secular sort of faith. It might not be a faith that brings me to church, but it gives me faith in love, faith in family and an automatic, subconscious trust in anyone who can look reasonably good in an embroidered robe. It’s also given me quiz skills non pareil. A working knowledge of the Bible is surprisingly useful when you’re playing Trivial Pursuit, so I’m offering up all those little cheeses to Jesus.
Preachers' Daughters is on Wednesdays at 9pm and again on Sundays at 11pm.