Updated: Mar 25
When I was in grade school, I was a very religious and holy little boy. ‘Pious’ would perhaps not be too big a word. I was intent on pleasing all of those people who had authority over me. They were all bigger than me and could make my life very unpleasant if I crossed them. Foremost in this group were my parents and The Nuns. This, I must say in retrospect, was not an unwise decision.
But overriding all of these authorities was God Hisownself. His oversight was much broader than even the Nuns, and He could get to me in ways even they couldn’t. The way it was explained to me, God was paying attention to EVERYTHING I did. He saw it all, and there wasn’t NOTHING, nor NO PLACE left unexamined. Thoughts included. I was profoundly uncomfortable with this type of perpetual scrutiny and pretty sure He was NOT pleased with my early performance.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing wrong, but I knew for certain that He was waiting to whack me if I got too far outside the lines. And those proscribed lines were generally rather vaguely marked. Given what I knew about Original Sin, my tainted nature and my proclivity to sinful conduct and all, I assumed I was doing something wrong most of the time. And day in and day out, He was looking over my shoulder and under my covers and generally pounding my conscience something terrible. And I wasn’t able to put up much of a fight.
His purview, by the way, was not restricted to the Heavenly Realm. He could rain down His righteous ruination on you anywhere. In the playground, the classroom, even your own backyard. So anything that I did or did not do in regard to His proscribed protocol would likely find me somewhere.
And if we knew anything about God, it was that he was a pretty judgmental Guy. He didn’t deliberate long, and He was quick to impose sentence. So I determined it was better, in almost all instances, to be safe rather than sorry.
It should be said that the punishment for Sins in those days was severe. Even the Venial Sins. The lesser ones. ‘Impure thoughts’ for example were pretty serious offenses. Just one of them could get you days or weeks in Purgatory. Though “time” in Purgatory was poorly defined. There were no minutes or hours to count. No clocks or even calendars to watch. A day in Purgatory was maybe a month of Sundays here. Or thereabouts. It was pretty much left to our own imaginations, but we understood that it dragged along pretty slow. And it was predicted that most of us would spend an inordinate and very painful amount of time there. On average.
‘Impure thoughts’, as I mention, was particularly a tough one. I recognized full well that they were ‘sins’. Yes, sir. And I wanted to resist them. I did. I even prayed for help in that regard, but they had The Power over me. I knew they were wrong, but dang they were fun. It was a Catholic quandary, for certain.
But as time wore on, I was more and more willing to risk some time in Purgatory for a few well-crafted and creative ‘impure thoughts’. And after a while, they became premeditated and full-on voluntary.
The epicenter of most of these ‘thoughts’, impure as they were, was one MaryBeth Glenworthy. Whew…she bloomed early, sat right in front of me at St. James the Greater and stirred up some most fine creative narratives. As a writer, I recognize now that some of the most inventive and inspired imaginings I ever did were in regard to me and her developing, young self. Some things, it turns out, are worth the risk. I am even now unrepentant. I will gladly face whatever punishments still await me.
The other sin that was difficult to control was ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’. Even then, there was something so inviting about profanity. “God-damn it” was just such a satisfying curse. It expressed displeasure and disgust, anger at the World—things I had plenty of-- with such dead-on accuracy that it was hard to avoid for long at a time. And all the older, cooler guys I wanted to be like were using it. So it was a tough one.
There was apparently a certain number of times that one could take-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain before it became an unforgiveable sin. God could apparently only be ‘damned’ a certain, specific number of times before you permanently pissed Him off and He would have nothing further to do with you. Even though no one knew or was telling what that precise number was, I had arbitrarily decided that one-a-day was the cut-off. I recall keeping a running total of my transgressions in that regard, and I endeavored to stay below that count. Consequently, I tried to choose my cursing moments wisely.
In the middle of all these temptations, vices and virtues, I was of course an altar boy. Being an altar boy was kind of like being a Boy Scout for God. There was a uniform to wear--a floor length black robe (called a cassock) and white top vestment with wide, full sleeves (called a surplice). You were kind of the Priest’s assistant and a pretty highly ranked and respected functionary. There was Latin to learn, which made it a little like a secret society. We were considered adolescent Soldiers in the Legion of Decency.
It was of course a ‘Boys Only’ club. We were allowed up on the Altar. This was Hallowed Ground, where no women, not even Nuns, were permitted. It had been this way for two Millenia. Since the very beginning. It would be another 30 years before John Paul II made allowances for girls, and I certainly don’t recall any of us boys calling for more rapid Ecumenical Change on this issue. The status quo was just fine for us.
The other main attraction for serving Mass was that we were very visible. The Altar was kind of a Stage on which we got to strut our 12-year-old selves for all to see. It was pretty heady stuff, particularly at High Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation. Not that I was vain or self-important or narcissistic, but, yeah, I was. I don’t recall however that those were ‘real’ sins. Nothing worth confessing.
I was too young of course for any of the serious Sins--the Mortal Ones, like murder, rape, robbery and petting or French-kissing before marriage. Those Big Ones could get you a life sentence in Hell. With no possibility of parole. There was literally Hell to pay for a little tongue or a quick feel.
One of the beauties of Catholicism, however, was Confession. In this wonderful Sacrament, you could confess these sins to the Priest. And if you were truly sorry for your sins and were absolved by the Priest and then did the penance, you could start all over with a fresh slate. Woo-hoo! Pardoned! Forgiven! Redeemed! Get-Out-Of-Hell Free!!
However, if your timing was bad, if I was for example on my way to Confession after having killed someone or stolen the Sunday collection box or tried to stick my tongue in Mary Beth’s warm, inviting mouth and got hit by a bus before I had gotten to church and been able to be absolved, it would just be Bad Luck on my part. ETERNAL DAMNATION would be the result. FOR-GODDAMN-EVER!!
You did have a possible ‘out’ though. This was termed a ‘Death Bed Confession’. If you didn’t die right away and got the chance to have a brief, private conversation with God before you died and told Him that you were REALLY, REALLY SORRY (which I REALLY, REALLY WOULD BE!!) then you could avoid Hell and enter Heaven straight-away on account of your newly clean slate. It was a long shot, but, for me, Mary Beth would have been worth the risk.
This would also work for venial sins. Most of us were counting on at least a couple of seconds before the curtain came down, and we were confident we could unburden ourselves of all those impure thoughts, all that God-slamming, and maybe slide right through the Pearly Gates without too much of a ruckus. Perhaps straight through to Heaven itself.
Although, to be truthful, there wasn’t much in the description of Heaven that really appealed to me. “Surrounded by God’s Love” just didn’t do it for me. I kept hearing that God “Loved” me, but I just wasn’t feeling it. The God of my youth basically herded me—the way a Big, Old, Bearded, Angry, Bad-Assed, All-Powerful Border Collie might. He kept me in the fold until it made no sense to me anymore. There came a time when fear of God, which was basically fear of Damnation, was no longer a motivator.
And to tell you the truth, I don’t think I became any less ‘holy’. Though my boyhood God would perhaps argue the point. There were many good things I took with me--Faith, Hope, Charity, Obedience, Discipline, Structure. And many good people—Priests, Nuns and Brothers—who touched me along the way.
Let’s just say that I started to look over my shoulder less. And saw the hereafter as a grand and glorious mystery.
For more recollections and imaginings, you could go to uncleduke.org. Or you could look at your old family photo album.