My earliest memories of the organised side of religion are – appropriately enough – a sense of duty. Sundays were church days, and that was that. It wasn't just that discussion on the subject was discouraged; there simply was NO discussion about, around, above or below it. It was the most solid of all our family's unwritten laws: it was Church on Sunday, and only illness teetering on the brink of imminent death would suffice as an excuse for non-attendance.
There were of course many other rules around this weekly observance (Catholics have an affinity for rules which is akin to the love of a train spotter for his dark blue, faintly oil-stained anorak and wire-bound reporter's notebook) and transgression of the rules was unthinkable. Although some of the rules were expressly explained by my parents (usually with some kind of tugging/pushing/pulling or associated walloping around the legs), most were learned through copying my siblings and keeping a sharp eye out for raised parental eyebrows - or even worse, a glare - and instantly stopping whatever it was that I was doing.
For anyone unfamiliar with the rituals of the Catholic church (lucky you), it began the moment that we entered the hushed environs of the church. Our family church used the huge pipe organ sparingly in order to ensure that there were no outbreaks of enjoyment, and so the atmosphere was almost silent as we entered - especially as we were always one of the first families to arrive. All conversation between us kids ceased as soon as the door was opened, a rule presumably based upon the assumption that God was a stickler for silence - unless of course we were telling him how marvelous he was. Silently we would file into the stony, unwelcoming vestibule at the front of the building and - apart from keeping our gobs shut - making our first gesture of worship and belonging. Set into the wall and clad in stone was a porcelain basin which contained - we were promised - 'holy water', which we dipped a finger or two into and then made the sign of the cross upon ourselves with. This involved touching the forehead first, then the sternum, and the chest (while of course, steering well clear of any sinful nipple - brushing). It's an act so deeply ingrained into my muscle memory, it is still automatic to this day - I know this because I just tried it to remind myself of which way round it is done: forehead, sternum, left and then right...doing it in any other order is just weird.
Our family ritual then commenced. For reasons I have never quite understood (although I suspect a rather overdeveloped sense of performance-humility), my folks insisted that we always sat in the very rear-most pew in the church. On almost every occasion, the church would be populated only by ourselves, an aged crumpled-faced usher or two and the three little old ladies who seemed to be a permanent fixture, and whom nobody ever saw arrive. The emptiness was the main reason why we got there so early - we had to secure the rearmost seats in the house, and if anyone had the temerity to usurp our position of maximum distance from the altar, there would follow much harrumphing, tutting and general irritability from the aged parents as we inserted ourselves into the next bench. The communication of their righteous indignation was of course somewhat limited due to the all-pervading rule of silence, but my parents were past masters of conveying disapproval through the back of their heads. Worst of all, we kids all knew that such a happenstance would have only one outcome: the next few weeks we would be leaving for church even earlier than usual, to make sure that no other absolute swine took our rightful places at the back.
Another possible justification for our positioning soon became evident as the rest of the congregation began to arrive. Of course it could never, ever be admitted to (it would be far better – and more understandably Catholic - to claim the humility excuse if pressed), but the fact was that we had the wonderful opportunity to gawk at every person who entered, simply because they had to get past our position in order to find a seat...