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Unfurl: Chapter 36

BELLE

Now we’ve laid ourselves bare, I pluck up the courage to pose the question I’m more nervous to ask than any of my kink-related ones.

‘I was wondering if you’d consider doing something with me on Sunday,’ I say (okay, so it’s not really a question).

‘Of course. Anything.’

‘You don’t have to say yes,’ I press.

He laughs. ‘Baby. What?’

‘I was thinking of going to Mass,’ I confess, ‘and I was hoping you might come too. I don’t know if you have a total Mass-ban these days, or—’

‘Of course I’ll go with you,’ he says quickly. ‘I didn’t realise you still went.’

‘I go sometimes to keep my parents company. Not usually. But I feel like going this weekend.’

He’s quiet for a moment, then he jokes, ‘Hoping they’ll be taking confessions afterwards? Or are you just hoping a little divine sycophancy will make up for the fact that you’re a dirty, damned little sinner?’

I make a face at him. ‘I’m pretty sure I’m far too damned for an hour at Mass to make the slightest bit of difference. It’s lucky I don’t believe in hell anymore, isn’t it?’

‘Very lucky.’ He wraps his arms more tightly around me and rests his chin on the top of my head, so when I speak next, it’s into his chest.

‘I think I just… I don’t know. I kind of want to prove a point to myself, I suppose. The way Catholicism has been served up to me is so intense that sometimes it feels like the only options are comply or die. Literally. Like, go all in or just give up and walk away.’

‘I get that,’ he says quietly into my hair.

‘It’s so set up for failure, and the rules are so ridiculously complex. But there are parts of it I miss. And Mass is one of them. I used to hate going to Mass at school—it was so boring—but now I kind of miss it. It’s relaxing. Is it weird that I feel like that, or am I totally conditioned to think it’s special when it’s just smoke and mirrors?’

‘I think it’s a bit of both,’ he says. ‘Yeah, those rituals were hammered into our subconscious week after week for years and years, so we’re going to attribute a certain significance to things that may not actually warrant it. Then again, rituals are an essential part of being human. Every culture has rituals. They ground us, and they give us purpose and meaning. The rituals you grew up with are bound to be the ones you find comfort in, even if you have a complicated relationship with the Catholic God you’ve been raised to believe in.’

‘I think that’s the reason,’ I say, ‘for wanting to go on Sunday. I want some comfort. It doesn’t have to be comply or die. I get to be an adult who makes her own choices and yet is still entitled to go to Mass on my terms. Does that make sense? I’m just trying this new model on for size.’

‘It makes perfect sense,’ he says, and pulls me into him.


Rafe’s words ring in my ears as we sit halfway down the endless rows of pews in the Brompton Oratory thirty-six hours later. This is the church I go to most often with my parents, and I love it.

Catholics and Protestants have always and will probably always feel a sense of moral superiority over each other. After years of studying the Reformation, I totally get why Luther and other mystics broke away from the church. The Catholic church of their time was fraught with corruption and abuses of power. Even bibles in the vernacular were forbidden. So ridiculous to think that uneducated folk would benefit more from a Mass said in Latin than in a tongue they could speak.

Having said that, there’s one thing I’ve always thought Catholicism does brilliantly, and that’s pomp and ceremony. Calvin and his cronies called it lavish, immoral and misguided reliance on symbolism and empty ritual at the expense of faith alone, but I disagree.

Not for me the starkly austere interiors of Church of England churches. I’m a Catholic girl, through and through. I favour stained glass, and gold everywhere, and priests in richly embroidered vestments, and utter decadence.

It’s all for the glory of God, you know.

The Oratory embodies that type of audacious, opulent Catholicism that Baz Luhrmann went with for Romeo and Juliet, and from which Dolce and Gabbana find endless inspiration for their gilded, sumptuous take on Sicilian madonnas. This place is bling.

Ironically, we’ve opted to attend the Latin Mass. I understand little more than the average Tudor peasant would have, but there’s something about the priest intoning monotonously in an incomprehensible, long-dead language that lulls me into a kind of stupor. His words are so ancient, the air is so thick with incense, the choir, when it sings Panis Angelicus during Holy Communion, is so breathtaking I feel at peace.

At home.

This is what I needed. To be able to come here, to seek refuge in God’s house, even as a sinner. Even if I don’t know what that God looks like anymore. Last night I let my gorgeous boyfriend inside my body again. This morning he’s kneeling next to me on a hard wooden kneeler in a breathtaking church, because I asked him to.

I don’t go up for Holy Communion. Neither of us does. That feels like a hypocrisy too far, especially if I no longer believe the little wafer is the body of Christ or the wine his blood. I’ll leave it to the people who do believe.

But moments ago, when we stood and recited the Pater Noster as one, the age-old words gave me goosebumps.

Pater noster qui es in coelis,

sanctificetur nomen tuum;

adveniat regnum tuum,

fiat voluntas tua,

sicut in coelo et in terra.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I’m definitely not doing God’s will. But does He care? Is He vengeful? Or does He love me anyway? If He even exists, that is.

Still, I was right to come here. I second-guessed myself this morning. I worried I might be doing this out of some good-girl desire to be forgiven for stepping (way) out of line. But kneeling here I know I’m here on my terms. And it’s empowering, because the nuns never let slip that I might one day allow myself to choose the parts of my faith that serve me and lay aside the parts that curtail me. That are damaging to me.

I edge closer to Rafe on my knees, and he covers my hand with his.


RAFE

After Mass, Belle and I stroll past the museums and cut down to South Ken, where we shutter ourselves in the cosy corner of a little brunch place on Draycott Avenue. She’s quiet on the walk, contemplative, though she doesn’t seem upset.

Mass went better for me than I’d expected. When my girlfriend asked me if I’d go with her, my answer was a resounding of course. I didn’t mention to her that I hadn’t set foot in a church in years, not counting a few weddings. Not bursting into flames upon setting foot in the place was a pleasant surprise.

There are worse places to spend an hour than the Oratory, with its staggering succession of intricately painted domes and sculpted arches and marble pillars. Not a square inch of it has been left undecorated. It’s a marvel. I spent most of the hour looking up, and the Latin words to prayers as old as time came back to me as easily as if I was still twelve, kneeling in the chapel at school.

I look across at the woman opposite me. She’s in a gorgeous, floaty dress, her long golden hair cascading in silky tendrils over her shoulders. Her breasts. She’s watching me over the top of her coffee mug, a small smile on her face.

She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

‘Penny for your thoughts,’ I say.

She lowers her mug. ‘I was thinking how much better I feel having gone to Mass. It’s like how I used to feel after going to confession, you know? I used to dread it, and I’d get so nervous about confessing my sins, and then once the priest had absolved me, I practically skipped out of the confessional. It was like the weight of the world had been lifted.’

‘I know exactly what you mean,’ I say. ‘But you don’t need to be absolved, baby. You know that, right? You haven’t done anything wrong. You haven’t caused anyone pain or suffering. Everything you’ve done—we’ve done—is perfectly acceptable.’

‘I know that.’ She traces a fingertip through some spilt sugar on the surface of the table. ‘I think it felt more meaningful this morning because I came to church willingly. I went there for peace, and closure, and I got it. Was it just me, or did it feel magical in there?’

I consider my words. ‘When you’re in a space filled with people who believe something strongly, you’re going to feel it. Especially if they’re praying. Doesn’t matter whether you share their beliefs on how prayer works.’

‘Do you believe in the power of prayer?’ she asks.

‘I do. Not in a Catholic way—not in a way that paints God as some merciful celestial vending machine who doles out grace to those who beg hard enough for it. But if you believe we’re all made of energy, and that our thoughts and beliefs have a vibrational energy too, and that prayer and faith can raise that vibrational energy to a level that’s actually transformative, then yeah. I believe prayer is powerful in the same way meditation is powerful.

‘I went to Lourdes one year in Sixth Form—a group of us took some people from the school’s parish who were seriously sick. There was no denying you could feel the faith in that place—the air was thick with it.’

I pause. I haven’t thought of that trip to Lourdes in a long, long time.

She looks as taken aback as I am. ‘So you were pretty religious when you were younger? I assumed you’d always rejected Catholicism.’

‘It’s hard to be that entrenched in something at a young age and have the capacity to reject it outright,’ I say. ‘Those Jesuits know how to mould impressionable young minds. But yeah, I was religious. I was an altar boy and proud of it. I took my duties very seriously.’

She reaches over and squeezes my hand. Her eyes are shining with emotion. ‘I bet you were the best altar boy ever. And the handsomest.’

I chuckle. ‘I took a lot of time getting the parting of my hair just right on Sundays.’

‘And what happened?’

I take a sip of espresso. ‘I got embittered, I suppose. There were so many bad experiences that I started to think surely this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be?

‘Like what?’ she asks softly.

‘Like…’ I swallow. Jesus, this is hard. ‘I had my first panic attack in a church. I think it was a panic attack, anyway. We were at a local girls’ school, rehearsing for a show with them. It was a convent. We stayed for Mass after the rehearsal and it was evening—the church was pretty dark.

‘Anyway, the nuns in charge made us leave a big space between each of us on the pews, because they said the Devil was circling the room, waiting for one of us to have an impure thought so he could come and sit next to us.’

Belle’s spare hand flies to her mouth. Her eyes are wide with concern.

‘Yeah. And it freaked the fuck out of me. I remember sitting there, glued to the pew, wondering if the Devil was next to me right then, and wondering what He’d do if he got close enough to sense my sins. I swear I could barely breathe. I remember it so clearly—my heart was beating so hard, and there was noise rushing through my ears. I suspect I nearly blacked out.’

Belle lowers her hand, her other one still gripping mine. ‘How old were you?’

I think. ‘Eleven? Twelve, maybe?’

‘Oh my gosh,’ she whispers. ‘That is so messed up. It—it defies belief. I don’t even know where to start.’

‘I know,’ I say grimly.

‘I can’t work out if those nuns were just totally bitter and twisted and got off on scaring the hell out of kids, or if they truly believed that crap. And I don’t know which is worse.’

‘Exactly. The idea that they might genuinely believe it and then feel like they’re doing the right thing by putting that fear of God into us is majorly, majorly fucked up. But that was just one example. I lasted as an altar boy for another two years, but I got more and more disillusioned. I kept thinking surely it can’t be this complicated? And this vicious?

‘Seriously,’ she says. ‘That’s what frustrates me most about my dad. It’s like he’s constantly running this giant checklist he can’t possibly keep on top of. It’s exhausting. Surely, if there’s anything, there’s God, and there’s love, and there’s humanity. And we all do our bit. That’s it.’

‘Amen to that. Someone, somewhere, has over-engineered the shit out of spirituality to create organised religion, and in my view, it does more harm than good.’

‘I think that’s why today was nice,’ she says thoughtfully. ‘Lots of people, lots of families, who were hopefully there to find peace and not tick a box or ward off the Devil or whatever.’

‘That’s fair,’ I say. ‘I hope that’s the case. Coming together and praying and just being… I get all that. It’s the idea that anyone, individual or organisation, has any jurisdiction whatsoever over another person’s brain that fucks me off beyond all measure. And Jesus, it’s caused so much pain and suffering over the centuries. Witch trials, the Inquisition… it’s so fucked up.’

‘It all comes from fear, right?’ Belle says. ‘That’s the ultimate fear-driven behaviour. You and I have different opinions, and only one of us can be right, and when you think differently from me you scare the hell out of me, so I’m going to suppress and persecute the hell out of you until you shut up and stop threatening me with your weird, “other” beliefs.’

‘I know,’ I say. ‘It’s exhausting, the entire thing. Just ease the fuck up, everyone. Stop giving a shit what other people think and do. Newsflash: it is none of your fucking business.’

‘That’s the single sentence I would most like to say to my dad,’ Belle says with a rueful smile as she picks up her fork.

I gaze at her. At this woman who, on the face of it, is so different from me, who’s had fourteen fewer years than I have to put distance between herself and the faulty logic of the beliefs she was branded with.

She’s come so far these past few weeks. She’s brave, and intelligent, and stunningly insightful. She’s discovered her worth, harnessed her currency, and demanded her freedom.

She’s truly amazing.

I bet she’d want to bring her kids up exactly the way I do. I bet she’d want to tell them every day that their mind is their own, that their observations and beliefs are valid, that the things grownups try shamelessly to pass off as facts and rules and foundations of stone are in fact as ephemeral as air. Subjective beliefs. Shaky social constructs.

I bet she’d teach them to nurture their own worldview and to accept those of everyone around them without feeling threatened.

I bet she’d make an amazing mother.


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