Tuesday, March 13, 2007


I like irony.

When I did my teacher's degree years ago, I ended up taking the mandatory religious ed course for teaching in the public Catholic school system. I didn't really want to; but as a baptised Catholic, I could double my chances of getting a job by applying to both the public and public Catholic boards. In the job-scarce late-80s, that was a smart thing to do. So, hey, I signed up.

On the first day of the course, the nun who ran the program told us that regardless what we each personally believed, our duty as a teacher in a Catholic school was to teach church teachings. This meant keeping our mouths shut about our own beliefs. Yeah, right.

My friend Leah, who has never kept her mouth shut in her entire blessed life, raised her hand. "You mean you want us to lie to the kids?" she asked.

"It's not lying. It's just teaching the program."

"But what if the kids ask us questions?"

"Then you give the answers that are in the book."

"But kids know when we're lying! What good is it going to do if they know we don't buy it but we're telling them to buy it?"

"That's not the point. The point is that you are paid a salary, and that salary is to teach church teachings."

"What about integrity? Honesty? Real discussion?" The nun just turned away and made a move to start on another topic. Case dismissed. "Hey, I'm just asking," Leah finished, then sat back down, arms folded.

I dropped the course that afternoon.

However, and here's the irony, I ended up teaching in a tiny Catholic high school anyway. In a small going-nowhere town that to this day I lovingly call "Deadstock." They were desperate for a French teacher, and I was desperate for a job. A match made in, er, heaven.

Another new hire that year was a francophone from Quebec named Gilles. He was an older guy, or maybe just older-looking from hard-living. He was thin and scruffy, spoke hardly any English, smoked like a chimney, peppered his speech with expletives from both of Canada's official languages, lived with his girlfriend (which was top secret: the school board was not allowed to know), was divorced AND a recently reformed heroin addict, and has never gone to church in his life.

He was hired to teach the religion program.

Yeah, irony. Funny too. Hilarious if you'd ever met the guy.

I had little chats with Gilles about teaching the program. He would just give a gallic shrug and say in his gentle, soft-spoken voice, "Me, I don't care, I just want de &*%# money, dey give it to me. The kids, dey don't believe any of dis &#$@%. I just tell dem to write it down. I don't care. Dey don't care. We agree on dat." Shrug. "It's not so bad."

"But how can you stand that? Don't you want to talk to them honestly?"

"No, me, I don't $&@% care. Dey pay me to teach it, so I teach it."

He would have done the nun proud.

At about that time, I started driving on Sundays to the nearest Quaker meeting, which was more than an hour's drive away. I told no one at work because it would have cost me my job.

A student teacher showed up at the school to do his practicum rounds. He was working with one of the senior teachers. This guy was a little older than the usual student teacher, was married, and lived in a small town not far away. He and I got along really well. We talked a lot about the ironies of teaching in a Catholic school. He found it kind of surreal too. We often touched on spiritual topics, but very carefully.

His teaching round was over after four weeks. It was only after that, quite by accident, that I found out he was a Quaker as well. There was one other Quaker meeting in the region, about an hour from where he lived. He attended that one. I never knew, and neither did he. We would have been the only two Quakers in that entire town, and there we were, working side by side.

And never admitting one to the other who we were. Because that would have spelled the end of our jobs.

I quit that job. I guess you saw that coming. But I left with a clear knowledge of what it was I was leaving: pretence.

The Catholic church is not alone in this. I see this pretence as a foundation of modern religion.

The first act required by church and religion is to pretend. The mere fact of belief systems, creeds, and doctrines makes it so. Pretending gives a nice atmosphere of conformity. It allows the institution to function.

Kind of like during a job interview when they ask, "Are you willing to work on weekends?" and you say, "Yes, of course," when inside you're saying, "&%$#@." But it's what you have to say to get the job.

I think that at one time, religion wasn't about pretense. There wasn't much knowledge, so churches and religions had a kind of monopoly on what knowledge there was. These were one-book cultures and one-institution cultures. Everybody believed in church doctrine because that's all there was to believe. One book had all the truth because there was only one book.

Contrast to today. The information age. The education age. The diversity age. The multifold institution age.

It's a clash of civilizations across time.

I raise my hand. "How can Goodness come out of religion if its foundation is pretense?"

"Is Goodness still in religion? Or is honesty a prerequisite for Goodness?"

Hey, I'm just asking.


The last I heard, Gilles was still teaching in the Catholic school system. Go figure.

So, fortunately, was Leah.

And she's never kept her mouth shut in her entire blessed life.


At 5:42 PM, Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hi, Nancy--

This story gave me a good chuckle or two. I think, like you, I would not have lasted very long in that class/that job. My integrity is too important to me to put on hold!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up


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