When I was young, bedtime meant shrinking beneath the covers in case the Devil found me. My parents said you could tell he was there by a sudden sense of dread, and the smell of excrement on the air. The small crucifix they hung on my bedpost didn’t help—as soon as the lights went out, fear swamped me. I’d recite prayers under my breath, but how could words fend off evil?
The world I was brought up in—the strange, insular world of Catholics in Britain—was full of beliefs and rituals I either only half-believed in or took too much to heart. I was never quite convinced by a priest’s ability to absolve sins, or a communion wafer being transformed into the body of Jesus. But the idea of the Devil looming in the dark, or of God knowing my every thought, my every action and inaction and perhaps judging me fit only for hell, they were enough to make my gut ache with fright.
In our world, it was a mortal sin not to attend mass on Sundays and holy days. Ash Wednesday was the worst because the priest would smear an ashy cross onto our foreheads. I’d surreptitiously rub mine away. I was self-conscious, but it wasn’t just that—I was uneasy about being marked out as Catholic when we headed back onto the street. God surely counted my lack of fortitude against me, but then, how must he have judged the adults who declined the ash altogether? Who didn’t want to return to work with a smudge on their foreheads because, my parents explained, not everyone liked Catholics?
Back then in the late 1970s, the sense of being a persecuted minority lingered. The number of Catholics in Britain had risen to eight per cent, thanks largely to immigration. Before that numbers had been tiny, and no wonder when being Catholic had once been downright dangerous. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were imprisoned, tortured, exiled or executed. Allegiance to Rome was met with a distrust and hostility that would endure for generations (not without reason, given that Catholics plotted to assassinate Elizabeth, and later tried to blow up Parliament). The country not only banned Catholic worship, but enacted laws barring Catholics from serving in civil office, Parliament, or the military, or from buying land. Some laws stayed on the books well into the twenty-first century: until 2013, those in line for the throne lost their place if they married a Catholic, and even now no monarch can be Catholic. Catholics couldn’t serve as prime minister, and none did until Boris Johnson—Tony Blair hedged his bets by attending Catholic mass during his time in 10 Downing Street, but not converting until he’d left office.
In my childhood community of Catholic church, Catholic schools, and Catholic friends, we nurtured a feeling of grievance for our persecuted ancestors. In truth, though, many of our families were originally from Ireland, France, Italy, or Poland. I had one English grandparent, and when we studied the Elizabethan age at school, I imagined his forebears risking everything to attend mass in secret. It never occurred to me that they’d been Church of England, and that my grandfather had converted when he married my Irish grandmother. Finding out left me awash in disappointment.
It wasn’t just a sense of injustice that bound us Catholics together. There was the belief in a particular sort of magic: the infallibility of the pope, the halfway house of purgatory for moderately sinful souls, the road straight to hell if you died having missed mass without confessing. There was a wondrousness to it all, but now decades later I ask myself, who teaches children such things? Who tells them about eternal damnation, or that the Devil might be lurking in their bedroom?
One summer night when I was in my teens, I stood in our garden and stared up into the darkness. I called out, “If you’re there, God, give me a sign.” One breath later, the first shooting star I’d ever seen flared across the sky. I was astonished, then bemused. God didn’t provide proof of his existence—I’d heard that often enough. What was this, then? Coincidence and nothing more, I decided. A chance to let go. I lingered before heading back inside. High above me the sky was glimmering with the light of ancient stars, and the world felt vaster, less certain, and far more magnificent than it ever had.
Gerri Brightwell is a British writer who lives in Alaska. Her latest novel, Turnback Ridge, was published by Torrey House Press in 2022. She is also the author of the novels Dead of Winter (Salt, 2016), The Dark Lantern (Crown, 2008), and Cold Country (Duckworth, 2003). Her short work has appeared in many venues including The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, Alaska Quarterly Review, Copper Nickel, Redivider, and BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.