Religion and me (2)
In the first part of this series I wrote about Christian upbringing in foreign countries, about Catholic kindergartens and schools in Bombay, India. In my very early teens, schooling switched to a new town and a new school. That is what this chapter is about.
When my father approached 70, he could no longer take the intense heat and humidity of Bombay. He bought a beautiful house in the “garden city” of Bangalore, located on the Deccan Plateau, around 1000 metres above sea level. For a few years, before we moved into it, I was sent to a boarding school in Bangalore. It was, of course, a Catholic school run by Jesuits, and I was subjected to the final phase of my religious upbringing.
St. Josephs’s was an upper class school, with highly qualified teachers, generous facilities, play and sports grounds. It was quite expensive, but hey, my family could afford the best education for their children. The school was owned and run by Jesuits, from different countries — England, Spain, Italy, France and the Philippines, all highly educated. So academically, I received an excellent education.
The school was also deeply religious. There were regular bible classes, and a chapel to which the students were shepherded every morning for a full mass. This involved sitting, standing and kneeling, praying aloud, singing, confession and communion. The process lasted between thirty and forty minutes. All very tiresome for a restless student.
I discovered a way out from the tedium. Every priest had to celebrate daily services, and most did this before the class mass. They needed “altar boys” to assist in the service, and I volunteered to take on the task. I was efficient and competent, which saved time and made the service last the shortest possible time. We rarely needed more than fifteen minutes.
I learnt all the rituals, the pouring of wine, ringing of bells, joining in the prayers. Until today I can recite most of the catholic mass — in Latin! Confiteor Deo omnipotenti et vobis, fratres, quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere et omissione, and, striking your breast three times, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. You can get a full impression of what I knew by heart, all that I mastered, on this page.
I quickly advanced to head altar boy and was much sought after. My assistance in the service involved getting up more than an hour before the other students. But it had great benefits: I was finished long before their mass started, and had well over an hour all to myself. And I got to share the priests’ breakfast, which was far more extravagant than the victuals the others got.
There was another advantage. I was given permission to freely use the school’s well-stocked library. After the early mass and the quick breakfast, I would proceed to the library and start pouring over the books. My privileged position allowed me to do the same whenever I had any free time during the day. The priests watched with approval — here was a really eager student with a thirst for knowledge. This was reflected in the class essays, where mine were always the best of all submitted.
But there was a disadvantage: they kept getting embarrassing questions from me in religion classes. At one stage we were learning about Noah and the great flood, and I had questions on the justification of God destroying all life, human and animal, all across the world, for the wickedness of man; but also technical questions on building an ark for all those animals, and feeding them over forty days. I asked how the marsupials migrated from Ararat to Australia, without leaving any of their species in Asia. Things came to a head when I mentioned the same flood story in Gilgamesh. The priests were flabbergasted. How could a thirteen-year-old know about marsupials and Gilgamesh?
The solution became clear: the library! It was not just filled with religious books, but with the Encyclopedia Britannica and other very comprehensive works of knowledge. I would usually find the bible or a catechism on the table laid out for me in the library, with little pieces of paper indicating passages I should read. But I would quickly move on to the encyclopedias and spend most of my time with them. That’s where the troublesome questions came from.
One day I entered the library and found my beloved encyclopedias had disappeared. A quick search revealed that they had been moved to the top shelf in the corner of the room. Clever! But the priests, eager to curb the thirst for secular knowledge in a young boy, neglected to anticipate the quick solutions he would find: a chair. I would use it to reach the books and continued reading them as before. My questions remained embarrassing, and at some stage my free access to the library was rescinded. In compensation I was given a private copy of the King James bible, to educate me properly. It was filled with little markers showing me passages which I was urged to read.
Still the embarrassing questions kept coming. Does God really condemn a person to an afterlife of eternal fire for the crime of eating meat on a Friday (it was a “mortal sin” at the time)? Did God really kill all the Egyptian babies for the sins of the Pharaoh? Did God lead the Israelites in attacks on entire towns and countries, where they killed everyone? And finally: would the Hindus who surrounded us outside the walls of the school all go to hell, because they were believing in the wrong god?
I was generally considered a trouble-maker, a smarty pants whom you had to ignore. But there was one priest who actually enjoyed arguing about religion with me. He thought he was teaching me, explaining to me the reasons for believing in god, and following the precepts of the bible. But actually we were debating, and although he in no way succeeded in his proselytising, he clearly enjoyed our discussions, and sought every opportunity to pursue them. And me, although I was not swayed by his teachings, I remain thankful to this priest for involuntarily training me to be a critical thinker and a well-armed debater.