Monsignor Hannan reminded me of a wadded up piece of paper. Pale, bent, and curled up awkwardly at the edges in his arthritic stubs of fingers and permanently creased and bent black leather shoes. He had little, wet, blue eyes. Like someone had flung two droplets of water onto the wadded up paper, and they’d landed on one of the thin blue lines, and run the color just a little. Like my Grandpa, he didn’t speak much, but when he did, he expected you to listen. Mostly, it was Sister Faith and Sister Pearl speaking. I’m referring to catechism class. I went to catechism class every Monday, we got pulled out of school to go. We didn’t all go, some of the kids didn’t. I wondered why some kids didn’t go. Did their parents not go to church? Were they bad parents? Why did we go, but not them?
We’d leave as a group around lunchtime. If we needed to, we’d bundle up, then walk in two rows from the school to St. Mary’s church. I’d see the kids who didn’t go to catechism sitting there doing their reading exercises, or math as we walked out of the room to begin our little journey, and I didn’t understand why no one explained to us why some kids went to catechism, and other kids didn’t. I also didn’t ask. I never asked.
I liked doing new things. Leaving school and going for a walk was fun, and I kind of liked being part of something secret. The kids that didn’t come with us, they didn’t know what we did. But, I didn’t know what they did, either. Maybe they also had catechism, but different, I thought.
Lately at catechism we’d been learning a prayer. It was long. Too long. The Act of Contrition. They wanted us to memorize it. A lot of what we were doing in catechism lately was reading this Act of Contrition off the chalkboard, aloud, as a group of kids. There was a lot of memorization, which I didn’t like. Ten commandments, now three prayers, all of which they wanted memorized. I could do it, I’d done it by the second week of hearing it repeated in class. I wrote it down as well, the two sisters made us, but I just needed to repeat it aloud a few times for it to stick. I found myself repeating it to myself sometimes without realizing it, as I was walking to or from school, or such. So it wasn’t a problem to repeat it aloud for Monsignor Hannan.
We were in a little room at the top of the stairs of the school attached to the north side of the church. A room usually closed. This was the day we were being tested for our second sacrament, Penance. There was one high, small window, still the little room was dim, only lit with a reading lamp next to the chair on which Monsignor Hannan sat, at the edge, elbows on his knees. He leaned over toward me, he held his fingertips together; I imagine he would have interlaced his fingers if he could, but they were curled, twisted up, stubby, bent things. They didn’t fit together well enough for that. He was all in black, but for his stiff, bright white collar. A little floating square below his ghostly, cross-lit bald blue face, his wisps of glowing white hair a halo against the darkness behind. His intent little wet eyes were colorless shadows in the only light provided, the small green reading lamp beside him, throwing a harsh light that only reached so far. A chain dangled from under the shade.
I repeated the prayer at his request: Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins because of thy just punishments, but most of all, because they offend thee, my God, who art all good, and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.
I really didn’t like memorizing things. And the first part of this was sort of hard to remember, though the last part, I even kind of enjoyed. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to sin no more, has a nice rhythm, a sing-song cadence, followed by a different, but also rhythmic cadence. Most of it had no rhythm at all, and so it was harder to memorize.
He told me I did well, which I knew, and he asked me then to confess my sins. I knew what sins were. The Sisters talked about them, reading down that list of commandments. I couldn’t understand why they said bear false witness instead of just saying lie. But I knew what sins were, and that I had none, so I told him so. He investigated, I remember, leaning in, he asked me if I knew what sins were, and he gave a few examples. You have a new baby sister, have you been jealous of her? Have you been argumentative with your parents? They don’t have the same time for you they did, do they? I didn’t understand why I was going to have to repeat myself. I knew what sins were.
No, I said I haven’t done any of those things. I haven’t sinned. His shoes were black leather, nondescript shoes. Both toes came to a nice blunt, smoothly rounded point, the right toe had a heavy crease breaking the smooth surface of the shoe’s toe where it folded as he genuflected, over and over, for years I imagined. I had noticed that crease once before in class when he was standing at the front talking about us being tested today. While standing flat footed, his right toe curled slightly up.
Okay, he nodded, and leaned back a bit, but we can still ask for God’s forgiveness because we are all guilty of original sin.
What do you mean?
The fact of being born, when you were born, you became guilty of original sin. We are all guilty of this, and we can ask God for forgiveness.
I really wish I could remember what I said in response. I know what I’ve liked to have said, but I cannot confirm. I do know that, despite my eagerness to put on the new rusty brown leisure suit I’d received for the First Communion ceremony itself, despite the theatre of the whole day surrounding the ceremony, I would never from that point on think of myself as a Christian, or call myself one again.
The building itself was cool. St. Mary’s. Really big, the tallest in town, and the most…fancy? I wouldn’t have known to call it Gothic as a child. Extravagant, decorated with details and nooks and crannies and hidden stairways and passages, and of course a tall dagger of a spire aimed straight up that could be seen the moment you crested McCarn’s Hill on your way into town from the south via route 12. A school was attached to the church, though I had never found a direct route between the two buildings. I tried. We attended catechism in the school, and I was convinced that little room where Monsignor Hannan interviewed me was somehow key to finding the passage between the church and the school.
It was the coolest building in town, the church. If I had to go to catechism, I would find my way into as many secret places as I could while I was there.
My family would sit midwayback, on the left. It seemed that families had their spots in the congregation they kept to. Congregation. I thought of it as an audience, though I liked the word, congregation. Families also had their times they kept to. Some families showed up early, some late. Some left early, especially right after communion. Some hung around late. Some sat right up front, everytime, right in the front row, their heads lifted up to whomever was talking at the time.
I can remember, we always sat on the left side, about halfway down. The pews were polished and slippery, there was a short bench under the pew in front of ours. It was padded with a dark red, velvety material to make frequent kneeling more comfortable. The back of the pew in front of us had a place to hold the missals built into its dark oak. I always reached down into the recess to see if I might find some little thing or other that someone might have dropped. There was also a small push-button clamp on the back of the pew as well. It could be used to hold a hat or pair of gloves; it could also be flicked in a satisfying, though noisy fashion.
I learned recently from my aunt that when they were kids, the family sat there as well. I assume many families are like this at the church, I noticed back then that everyone had a place. Also a time. When people and families arrived and left fit similar patterns. Patterns that people seemed to rarely stray from.
There were the people who showed up early, sat in the very front, wore their Sunday best, and glowed with smiles during service. These people truly believed, I could tell even then, they truly believed and they meant it. I knew they were either the very good, or the very bad people of town. I didn’t trust them in either case.
There were the people who came late, left early, and looked at the floor. These people believed but resented it somehow. They came out of a sense of duress, pressure, or guilt. I knew they were people not to be trusted as they didn’t exercise their own free will.
There were the people who went to other churches, the few there were in town. These people were a mystery to me. They may or may not believe, I wouldn’t have known. I was curious as to what went on in the other churches, and why there were other churches even. I didn’t feel I had enough evidence as to the trustworthiness of these people.
There were the people who didn’t go to church, didn’t spend Sundays or holidays at church, didn’t talk about it, their kids didn’t get pulled from class to walk down to catechism, and their holiday mornings weren’t spent there either. These were the people who didn’t believe, and didn’t seem to spend much time thinking about it. If anyone was to be trusted, I thought, it was likely these people.
Sitting there in the pews we were all surrounded by the stations of the cross which told the counterclockwise story of Jesus being condemned to death, carrying his own cross way across town apparently, and ultimately being nailed to it, stabbed repeatedly, then left to die hanging from it, as depicted in a very realistic, if not quite lifesize sculpture of a mostly dead man hanging from nails and leaking blood right there directly diagonal from where we sat, up in the front right of the church on one of the support columns extending up to the vaulted ceiling. The thorns, I forgot the thorns in all the images and in the sculpture. Wrapped around his head, digging in and drawing blood the entire time.
Where we sat, we were usually closest to the station of the cross depicting Veronica wiping Jesus’ face. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. The place was a shrine to the meanness and cruelty of people. Meanness I saw many days as a kid at school. And here too, in this stations of the cross story, depicting a crowd of people singling out one man, and torturing him. And where we sat I’d look at Veronica kneeling and looking up at Jesus, gently administering human touch and care while this crowd of torturers just, what, watches mid-death-parade? This struck me as so ridiculous as to be absurd. The entire fucking thing. I mean the story of Jesus sure, born of a virgin mother, and come back from the dead after being tortured, it didn’t make sense. But it was a story, and who cared if it was real or made sense. I didn’t. That didn’t bother me.
It was the unconscious ritualized devotion all these people from town showed by attending mass each weekend, despite the obvious hurry to get in and out so many of them displayed. The weekly listening to what we were told was going to be about love, but typically was a story about people being cruel. The repeated refrain of how he died for us, how his torture and killing was for our freedom and salvation and despite a couple thousand years of evidence to the contrary, people are still just as cruel in how I heard them talked about on the news and in conversations amongst grown ups. It tweaked my young nerves, the expectation everyone seemed to have that I would simply go along with all of it. That was what really filled me with…an emotion I still struggle to name. Self-righteous indignation, I think, is close. Pretty sure I can claim to recognize that in me as a fairly young person.
It was around this time I began to see not just the church, but a large part of the world this way as well. There were so many things I was expected to go along with. Things that were just lies. Christmas was one. I understood there was a secular Christmas and a religious one. I wouldn’t have been able to describe that as an elementary school aged kid, but I knew more people celebrated Christmas than just the ones who go to church, and that there was a bit of a difference. I knew that the whole Santa Claus thing and everything that went along with it was just a great big lie. A great big lie meant to sell toys. And apparently the entire world thought I was stupid enough to attempt to enlist me into their lie, even after it’s acknowledged that it’s all just a big lie meant to sell toys. I mean, how is this not supposed to make someone distrust everyone and everything they know? How am I supposed to have any kind of reaction other than self-righteous indignation toward a world that thinks I’m that fucking stupid?
I thought all of these things back then, in elementary school. I thought all of these things, but kept it to myself. No one else seemed to think like this. When I would broach any such subject, or my feelings around such a subject, I received what I now would call negative sanctions. Looks, body language, outright condemnation. I mostly kept thoughts to myself. If asked, I would gladly share, but I was rarely asked. People tend to want to discuss the weather or some funny thing they saw somewhere. Or to prove they are right about something. Not whether an entire religion is bullshit or not.
There was some sort of a special class or event that happened once in elementary school. We were pulled from regular classes and brought in groups to a different classroom than usual. It was where in similar groups we had watched movies about drugs and talked about peer pressure. I can remember sitting in a circle and somehow the topic of the death penalty came up. I don’t recall how, but I remember an adult asking us as a group if we believed that the death penalty was right or wrong. They asked to raise our hands if we thought it was right, and it looked like most everyone raised their hand. They asked if it was wrong, and I raised my hand, and I was the only one. Kids said that murder was wrong and murderers should be killed. I told them that didn’t make any sense, to do something that’s wrong as a punishment for something that’s wrong. Then I said what if you got found guilty but it wasn’t your fault? What about that, I asked? And the answer I remember is that mistakes like that don’t happen. It wasn’t good enough for me.
This must have been around 6th grade. Around the time I became an altar boy, and began serving at masses on Sunday, and funerals as needed. As much as I disliked being an altar boy, and I told my parents so, and was told that the family required me to be an altar boy; as much as I disliked being an altar boy, I did really liked the opportunity to get out of school when there was a funeral with a mass that I could serve. And unlike a normal Sunday mass, a weekday funeral mass was quite compelling to me. It was different, it was private, it was intense. When a person was grieving and really in the midst of the rawness of fresh grief, they looked at you differently. I noticed it right away as a kid. Especially when you have the robes on and are in church with the incense and candles and the reverb. People who are grieving look at you with eyes that cannot lie. I noticed and liked that for some reason.
When I recently visited home for my grandfather’s death, I was struck by this as well. I had never attended someone’s death. I’ve had a lot of people close to me die, but I’d not been there for the event itself. Being there, in that moment, with my family was the very first time I’ve ever felt like we were in a room where everyone was on the same page. Where there was only the truth of what had just happened, and no bullshit. No ignoring it, no denying it, no covering it up. He was there, and then he wasn’t. And it was painful but easy to accept.
I didn’t like hearing myself say it, but I kept on saying it It was a wonderful experience being there with you at the end that word like the Limberger cheese you would bring clearing the house of all but a few Felt wrong to say wonderful but that word still keeps falling out of my mouth the word I feel most simply describes this fleeting feeling (the motives of people, or (the reactions of people I felt like I belonged in my body, there in that room at the end, with you I felt like we were all on the same page, all of us in that room We all understood the same thing at the same time together That was a wonderful feeling, even though you were dying. So I won’t call it wonderful, grandfather because it doesn’t seem right but that’s how the world works and how complicated feelings get ignored rather than named
One thought on “A story about church and trust and death”
I used to hear a lot of “horror stories” from kids who went to Catholic schools and how they were… compelled to memorize stuff, confess to sins they weren’t committing, questioning some of the things they were being told – like the original sin – and being chastised or punished for it. I don’t remember anyone saying that they enjoyed any of it; a couple of them wanted to transfer to one of the public schools but their very devout Catholic parents weren’t hearing any of that. Some would grow up and say that the education they got was top-notch… excluding being taught like they were expected to enter the priesthood or become a nun.
Religion has a very powerful hold on us. I was raised a Baptist and made to go to Sunday School where we’d learn one thing about God and Jesus then attend service immediately after and… doon and gloom time about the wages of sin – and here I am, clearly a sinner because I was having sex with my male friends – and pretty much being terrorized with Old Testament ranting and raving and to the point where pastors would switch to speak on the New Testament, the messages were… contradictory. Confusing. Funerals, which I attended a few because I was in the choir, man, it was depressing enough that someone had died and seeing their loved ones grieving – or acting like they were – and our pastor would start preaching… more doom and gloom but insisting that funerals weren’t for the dead – they were for the living and the promise of eternal life and…
None of which had little to do with the reality of things. I thought that being in the Baptist church was bad but it couldn’t come close to what my friends who were Catholic and went to Catholic schools had to say…