I confess, I’ve never been religious and I’ve never joined a church. I have, however, had some unusual experiences in churches besides the obligatory weddings and funerals.

When I was around 11 or 12, my mother, in her haphazard way, suddenly decided I should attend church to find out if I liked it. My dad was not behind this — he had been forced relentlessly into church a dozen times a week as a lad — but for once my mom overruled his veto.

What she planned was that I try out different religions to see if I took to one. She, of course, a self-proclaimed atheist, hadn’t gone to church once that I knew of, though her father had long ago played church organ and her mother had sung in the choir.

Regardless of my parents’ church attendance, I took my mother’s request very seriously. Mom chose a different Sunday school each week and dropped me off outside the church, picking me up afterward. This was a lot for me to take on at that age, since I was exceedingly shy around strangers, but I persevered for my mother’s sake. I’d walk in with my Buster Brown shoes, ironed-on knee patches and clumsily knotted hand-me-down tie.

Her system functioned OK at first, but eventually it misfired. I’m not sure now if the culprit was that she overlooked daylight saving time or if she managed to get the wrong schedule, but when I opened the church door, a service was just beginning, no Sunday school to be found.

I was pointed to a pew, and being a timid and polite boy as well as shy, I complied. The sermon motored along and I began to relax, but then things turned worrisome. People began to stand and move single file toward the altar. There was no choice but to follow. A row of us knelt on a shallow bench as the priest progressed up the line toward me, placing something in everyone’s mouth.

I know now it was just a tasteless wafer, but at that moment in 1967 it scared and confused me. I had a vague idea of what communion was, and I’d heard it was pure sacrilege to accept if you weren’t in a pure state. Pure I wasn’t, having been recently in huge trouble for certain acts performed with neighborhood girls, but that’s a different column.

Kneeling next to me was an ancient, toothless fellow who was trembling. He looked to my youthful examination to be nearly 100 years old. I watched him attentively out of the corner of my eye for clues on protocol, but he did nothing to ease my terror. As the priest approached, the old fellow clamped his eyes tight, opened his mouth, and began to moan faintly. I decided not to emulate him after all, and wondered if I should simply confess to the priest that I wasn’t supposed to be there, an impostor at a sacred ceremony. But what happened next vaporized all my plans and concerns.

It was the old fellow’s turn. He went for the wafer like a starved sturgeon attacks a juicy insect. The stunned priest yelped, eyes flashing alert, but the old fellow refused to release the fingers. As he bit down, he moaned louder and seemed to be enjoying a spasm of religious ecstasy. He was probably thinking, “I’ve waited 100 years for this, and now I know it’s true! These wafers actually do become the living flesh of Christ.”

The priest managed to jerk his hand free, and I’m embarrassed to say, out of all the things I could have done, I lost it. When the priest cautiously and quickly placed a wafer on my tongue, I was shuddering convulsively with poorly contained giggles, horrified I might fall off the bench. I’ve shied away from the wafer ever since.

One of the Sunday school experiences from this time continues to ring sour. It was actually this that finally made me refuse to continue my mother’s odd experiment. I had a question. I had given it a great deal of consideration and worked it out beforehand. As far as I could see, it was the perfect question to ask in order to determine which religion to join. It took a lot of courage for me to ask it, but I did.

“Which is better?” I said. “Someone who leads a really good, helpful life but never goes to church, or someone really evil who messes with people but always goes to church?”

The answer was this: “The person who attends church, because eventually the church will turn them toward goodness and keep them that way.”

“But what if they stay evil?” I managed this because I didn’t feel my question was being judged fairly.

“That would never happen!” he said.

This was prior to certain televangelists who would compound my concerns.

As I look back over 40 years, I think my question had merit. It concerns individual versus group spirituality. It points at evil hiding behind the pretense of goodness. But is religion a guideline for human behavior, a true spiritual belief, or is the social function that’s important?

I’m sure it varies for everyone, but mine is a personal vision of God, which has changed throughout my lifetime, and a code of social conduct, which has not. I do not require a building or an overseer to practice or reaffirm it.

I have to admit, though, religion has sure erected some elaborate edifices.

The cathedral in Chartres, France, is simply overwhelming. I went there not intending to be stunned, but even at a distance that Gothic giant floats off the horizon. It’s so huge it seems to have its own weather inside. One enters the place on a busy, hot summer day and suddenly the world is quiet, dark, cool and so intricately detailed it does seem like an act of God. And then you hear birds flitting across the darkness above you. One can imagine it gently raining onto the worn stone floor from clouds in the rafters.

My first wife was French and, I think in order to annoy me, insisted we visit endless churches across France. Another female attempting to guide my swerving religious direction. The Catholics have some impressive buildings and stained glass windows, but there’s something about the simple white spires of New England that sneaks into one’s heart. There’s also a lot less to sightsee per church, thank God.

My favorite church experience is undoubtedly picking up our Christmas wreath at the First Church in Belfast. It’s walking distance from our house, which is convenient, but it’s the walk upstairs — the wooden risers sprinkled with fir needles, the varied wreaths spread out on folding tables giving off that heavenly scent of balsam — that’s so touching.

The wreaths are all custom-made, each one with a nametag attached. We prefer the 12-incher with natural decorations and a red bow. Might be the most fulfilling $20 we spend every year though the wreaths actually cost less than that; I always tip the few dollars’ difference to the church. My wife and I have our chat with Dawn, who seems to be in the true Christmas spirit no matter the time of year, who always remembers my mother and leaves everyone to his or her own religious inclination.

But perhaps the most stirring moment is when we receive the message on our answering machine, and a quavering, old-fashioned New England voice says, “Hello, Mr. Green. This is the First Church calling. Your wreath is ready.” Then I know it’s the beginning of the holiday season.

Eric Green is a Belfast artist and freelance writer.