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  • I was raised a Catholic and between the ages of seven and ten served as an altar boy at our local church. For a while I thought I might enter the priesthood but even then there were signs that I was travelling in a different direction.

    As you may know, Catholics believe that during the mass, wafers of bread and red wine are miraculously transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. These are first consumed by the priest before the wafers are distributed to the congregation.

    Our priest, Father Davenport, would always leave about half of the wine in the bottom of the vial. Not much of a drinker, I suppose. At the end of the mass as I cleared the altar and took the various accoutrements back into the vestry I would pause for a moment in the corridor, throw back the dregs of the blood of Christ, wipe my lips and continue on my way.

    The primary school I attended was staffed by nuns and once every two weeks they would walk us across the road to confess our sins to Father Davenport. At the time I was a reader, a daydreamer and never really gave it a thought until I was actually sitting outside the confessional booth and my turn was next.

    Then I would panic. I could never remember a single sin I had committed since my last confession. I knew there must be some but my mind would draw a blank. So I made stuff up. Mostly it was fairly undramatic, “I was jealous, I swore”, stuff like that but I would occasionally get into it and start weaving more elaborate tales of wrongdoing “I watched Sister Mary Oliver getting undressed through the convent window”, for example, or “I stole money from my mum’s purse and spent it all on cigarettes and pornographic magazines”. At the end I would always add “I lied” to cover me for the fabricated sins. Father Davenport would give me penance, usually a number of prayers to say, and I would put it out of my mind for another two weeks.

    Many years later a young evangelical Christian I knew expressed the situation in a way that I liked. “It all comes down to this, Chris,” she said, “are you going to put your faith in God or in monkeys?” For a very long time now I have put what little faith I have in various monkeys, some of whom have justified the decision and others who have not. However, I am happy with my position and feel no need to appeal to the supernatural for comfort or explanation. The only time you’ll catch me in a church is when some enthusiastic friend drags me in, grumbling, to appreciate the architecture or the music.

    But sometimes when the heavy doors of a catholic church swing open the smell hits me. It is a particular combination of furniture polish and incense and it takes me straight back to those days when I could believe in magic.
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