Reminiscences of an old altar boy
WEEKEND of August 9, 2015 found me at Oniru Estate of Victoria Island, Lagos, as an official guest of Cybernetics International Services (Oil and Gas) Limited, CISL. The latter is a fast-growing petroleum products marketing company, and a prospective petroleum oil refiner. At about 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, my chief host, CISL’s amiable executive vice chairman, Sir. Andy Isichei, called to inform me that “Mass will be for 11a.m.” I had earlier intimated the knight of the Catholic Church that I have a Catholic background. At 10:30 a.m., we set out for church; my host was driving, he announced that we shall be worshipping at the Catholic Church of the Assumption, located at Falomo Roundabout, Ikoyi. “Church of Assumption!” I thought with memories immediately flooding back. “I used to be an altar-boy there in the late ‘60s”, I informed . “Really?” my host shot back, momentarily darting a glance at me as though seeing me for the first time that morning. “I used to be an altar-boy myself at Saint Dominic’s Yaba. How long were you an altar-boy for?” he enthused. Long enough to influence my immediate younger brother, Ndubuisi (now practising Medicine in the USA) to join me in the altar services, I responded. Interesting, he mused; why did I come short of making it to the Seminary? he further asked. He thought there is something of the Reverend Father about me. “That’s a discussion for another day!” I airily declared.
As I made that declaration, our car negotiated a bend that took us into Union Bank’s “Horse House” premises, sharing a boundary with the Church of the Assumption. In spite of Horse House’s towering presence, Church of Assumption’s commanding presence didn’t diminish, I quickly observed as we alighted and made our way to the church building. In fleeting seconds, some 40 years took on the air of 400 years. So much has changed about the place that played a major role in giving foundation to my life, I thought. Though still imposing but the awe that the church used to invoke has all but evaporated. The entire church premises has been cut off from nature, as it were; not a single tree or grass could be seen anywhere. “Interlocking technology” has broken the bond between man and nature. The Church building seemed more like a huge social-events hall. So taken aback had I been by the less-than-cheerful transformations that I couldn’t recall the words my host and I had exchanged during our short walk from the car-park until we stepped inside the church building.
Inside the church held even bigger surprises for me. Though extensively redesigned and refurnished to conform to 2YK sense of places of worship with giant air-conditioners to boot, but the solemn air was certainly gone. We sat three benches from the front. Altar-boys, old or young, never fight shy of the altar. The church quickly filled up as I, just as quickly, adjusted to the extensive changes that had taken place under the roof that could well have passed as my second home in the late 60s. Catholics would win the trophy for sartorial-elegance, anywhere, any day. They didn’t disappoint on that Sunday at the 11 a.m. Mass Service. Soon after, the entrance hymn; then began a ritual that I had been well acquainted with from my tender years. In those years, Mass was palpably solemn. On that Sunday, I didn’t have any such sense, even with my eyes virtually glued to the officiating priest and the six altar-boys that attended him. Even the huge wooden crucifix had lost its usual hard-to-define effects on me. I just stared at the image of the crucified Jesus like I would any other high-value piece of art, my mind rationalising. Again, in those days no one rationalised because we were taught to simply believe like innocent children. That Sunday, August the 9th was not the first time I would rationalise over the crucifix. To tell the whole truth, I have since I had first set eyes on the picture of the crucified Jesus. I never could come to terms with the doctrine that God delivered his “only begotten son” to evil men to crucify, merely that the sins of the world will be forgotten by him (?). Forgiveness of sins is well within the purvey of God, we had been taught, why then was it necessary for God to uncharacteristically offer up a human sacrifice to himself? The inherent confusion of selfsame doctrine, and my utter inability to satisfactorily revolve the riddle largely accounted for why I grew less passionate about Catholicism as I transited from a teenager to a young adult; eventually, that decreasing passion was to affect my Christianity. I shall return to this issue later.
When Service ended, my host and his family made to the altar to offer the customary after-Mass prayers; I irresistibly made my way to the back of the church to exchange pleasantries with the new occupants of my former second home. The resident priest stood out in his white robe, exuding the same infectious warmth he had radiated during the just concluded Mass; young and elderly parishioners swarmed around him. I patiently waited my turn. The priestly eyes soon fell on me. “Good afternoon, Father”, I greeted. The Reverend smiled radiantly, offering his hand. It was a great honour for him to meet an old altar-boy of his church, he assured me. As we discussed, I observed that the adjoining Saint George’s Boys and Girls primary school has been uncouthly walled-off from the church, and wondered aloud about this. (I am of the 1969 class). The resident priest imputed the ill-beseeming separation to government take-over of schools.
In my day, the church and the primary school were essentially on the same premises, separately only by a dwarf fence and a standard gate. The entire school regularly worshipped at the church. If with that close supervision of the spiritual development of the youth of the past, a former dedicated altar-boy could suffer enduring doctrinal confusion, then I shudder to reflect on the true state of mind of the contemporary youth, whose development is devoid of unified spiritual programmes. I dare say that my aforesaid doctrinal confusion is shared by countless millions of Christians, albeit silently. No thinking individual would whole-heartedly believe the “Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins” gospel. The dramatic personae himself had repeatedly said “I am the light, the way to the Father.” And long before he was born, there had been talks about “the coming of the one that will lighten the world.” More significantly, Jesus didn’t suffer death in the conventional sense of the term; he had accepted to temporarily give up the ghost because he, by his own utterances, had been issued a guarantee it would be restored after three days. The “temporary death”, as it were, was therefore for enlightenment (demonstration), a show of sorts for those with cultivated eyes.
It is debatable whether Jesus’ closest associates had cultivated eye; the highest ranking Apostle, Peter the Rock (the foundation of Christianity) even on the eve of the Calvary crucifixion hadn’t cultivated the eyes to see past the “temporary death”; he had tried to persuade his master to evade the imminent death. And when Jesus was finally arrested, the “rocky” Apostle had vigorously denied his master. Apostle Peter had evidently doubted the resurrection because he didn’t fully understand the true reason for the death in the first instance.
Expectedly, my sustained curiosity had led me to indulge in extensive comparative religious studies. I thus became familiar with the central philosophy of Buddhism; Confucianism; Judaism, etc. It is significant to state that the philosophic thrust of non-Christian religions are in full consonance with the teachings of Jesus; Islam, which emerged centuries after Jesus, is overtly enamored of “Prophet Isa” for speaking truthfully to the world. However, the conflict between Christianity and other religions consists in what Christians make of the life and teachings of the Great Prophet.
Now, it is crystal clear to me that the Calvary crucifixion and the subsequent resurrection are for the benefit of humanity; however, what is not so clear is how that benefit will accrue to humanity. This brings us back to the issue of cultivated eyes. May God grant religious leaders eyes sensitive enough to see through the film darkly of Calvary.
• Nkemdiche is an engineering consultant in Abuja.