Would you force a vegetarian to eat meat?
I asked this question to my mom more than two decades ago. I was confronted with a situation that first exposed me to a side of religion I was not made aware of, but proved to be a defining moment for me why I have all these uneasy feelings about outward displays of religiosity.
Holy Week activities as a child consisted of going out of town with relatives or family friends. Please take note that I was raised as a non-Catholic so I don't have any idea what people (Catholics in particular) mean when they talk about concepts like the Eucharist (although I must admit a fascination with the concept of transubstantiation). Whenever this particular four-day holiday would come around, I knew well enough to remember to pack the suntan lotion, some beach or swimming wear, and the salbabida (lifesaver).
It was in one such "outing" and holiday that I knew what it meant to be a vegetarian being forced to ingest "the dead, unpleasant carcass resulting from brutal violence", as a vegetarian friend once described meat consumed.
We were at a rest house of a family friend. We swam at the pool, horsed around with the other children. Then I heard the bell.
It was a signal to pray. Specifically, it was an in-house version of the Stations of the Cross. We were all tasked to surround a replica of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, as well as another replica of a bloodied Jesus Christ. It all sounded like a slow, droning monotonous chanting that went on and on. Thankfully, since I was one of the last one out of the pool, my mom and I were situated at the back of the pack.
I then turned to her after a few minutes of witnessing this.
"Mom, what are we doing? How come everyone knows what to say but us?"
"Shhh. Lower your voice."
I responded as she requested. "So, I still don't get it. What are we doing?"
My mom turns to me and says "We are doing a Catholic ritual. But instead of going out, we are doing it here at their (family friend) home."
I ponder this bit of information, then asked her: "But...we're not Catholic, right? Didn't you tell me that bowing down before a graven image was explicitly condemned in the Bible?"
"We're still doing it."
She turns to me and pulls me over to a side that was near a corner, almost hidden from everyone's view. "Yes, I know. Yes, I've told you what I've told you, it's still condemned. But we are guests at their house. we have to obey their rules and do what they do."
"Isn't that wrong? Why should we do Catholic rituals if we're not Catholic? What if someone broke all those graven images because it was against what we believe?"
"Those statues aren't ours. So we don't have a right to break them."
"But they also don't have the right to ask us to pray a prayer we don't believe in, right?"
"Look. Just go along, nod your head, and we will get through this like nothing happened."
"But that's like forcing meat down someone who doesn't eat it. Aren't they forcing us to do something against our religion?"
"Basta. Keep quiet. Take my lead, don't make a scene, and don't ask these questions to our host."
We went back to the back of the pack. There were lighted candles, there was usage of rosaries, some people knelt on the hard concrete. More prayers and unintelligible mumblings from the others. (I was straining to hear what everyone else was saying, I really couldn't catch it.)
Right after, our hostess told us that it was time for dinner. I noticed that it was all vegetables, and someone had a special fish dish prepared, none of which were particularly palatable to a child at my age that time. So I asked my mom if there were any hotdogs.
The hostess looks straight at me sternly, and says, "Oh, no. We don't consume meat during Holy Week. It's a time of sacrifice and reflection. Besides, it's rude not to eat what a host serves you."
Apparently, she overheard the conversation my mom and I had.
My mom looked at me and gave me a look that signaled me to just eat my food.
Later that night, as I got up to get a glass of water, I espied a group of men playing cards and having a grand time - and slurred speech from the amount of liquor consumed. I also saw the hostess who told me off smoking a cigarette near their laundry area (which I had a view of on the way to the bathroom).
So much for sacrifice and reflection, I guess.
We never went back to that rest house.
And we were never invited again.
That is what happened one Holy Friday, more than twenty years ago.