The Story of My Religion
When I was in grade school I was an altar boy. I tell the joke now that I felt a lot of peer pressure to have sex because my friends all started so young but I don’t have any memories of anything bad happening to me in that time. I remember being sort of creeped out by the priests (and the nuns) at my school but I’m not sure that isn’t an ordinary function of growing up. Being creeped out by adults/authority figures, I mean. I also distrusted any peer of mine who put too much effort into school or church.
My brothers put it into my head early that anything wrong you could get away with would probably be fun. We had a hidden bottle of whiskey somewhere. We shoplifted candy. I stole a tape for my brother’s birthday once so I could take the money to spend on some other long since forgotten treasure. Probably football cards. I got into a fight once so that I could show off to my brothers as we walked home from school. Well, I punched a kid anyway. He was older than me and sort of a bully so I felt good about it.
I dreaded being an altar boy. I knew I was stuck with it as soon as third grade started. I hated school and I hated church and altar service somehow seemed to combine the two. I had to get up even earlier on weekdays and go to church up to 5 times a week.
There was a meeting to indoctrinate the newbies. I found out who among my classmates had crazy, religious parents. It was a fraternity of shame to my way of thinking. Kids grew my esteem by appearing none to eager to be in the church that night. It occurred to me, also, that the same kids who I saw at abortion protests were here with me. It amazes me now how zealous you can appear as a child without really believing anything. We got smocks and learned to tie ropes around them. We learned how to light candles and turn pages in the Bible. They told us how to walk solemnly and wash the priest’s hands after Blessed Sacrament. We were shown around the sacristy, where the wine was, where the priests hung out before going onstage, etc. It felt like doom walking out of the building. A new school year was starting next week and this was coming right along with it.
I wasn’t mistaken in the notion that being an altar boy was going to be a horror show. I really did hate it. I hated opening the book. I hated waking up early. I hated having any responsibility at all. And I still hated church. My brothers showed me early on that it was easy to steal wine before bringing it out. It didn’t taste bad to me. I didn’t get loaded on it but there were stories of kids that did. Looking back it’s probable that the priests were complicit in this scheme. Culpable, even.
There are two priests, Father Andrew and Father Richards, that tower over the rest of my recollections from altar service. Father Andrew was the young, hipster priest. He brought candy to church and gave it to kids. He took the altar boys to King’s Dominion in the summer. He had once set a Guinness World Record for riding a roller coaster the most consecutive times without going crazy and jumping off. Father Richards was the pastor. He was stern and angry. As far as anyone could tell he didn’t like kids at all. His red hair and orange eyebrows must have been a physical representation of the fire and brimstone that churned in his imagination. He scared people. He scared me. He still does.
When I first started being an altar boy, I wasn’t too sure about the idea of stealing wine or communion wafers. Not that it seemed like a bad idea to have those commodities, god knows why, but because it seemed like the priests were eternally hovering around the room with the refrigerator. It would be suicidal. It’s impossible (isn’t it?) that the priests would be allowed to spank children, pull down their pants and spank their bare asses, when some of these kids belonged to lawyers and politicians. But I’m pretty sure that was one of the things I feared. I don’t know what else it could have been. Cops? Grounding?
Whenever it was that I figured out it was okay to sip from the cheap wine (was the blood of Christ made from the urine of a wine-o whose preferences ran towards rubbing alcohol?), I took to it quickly. I got used to drinking from the bottle that wasn’t going to be used. I even added water once in a while to keep the level the same. The network of altar boys had stories of friends who had been drunk and gotten away, boys that had been drunk and been caught, goodie-goodie no-account jerks that were secretly sauced half the time they served. There was discussion among the lot of us as to whether or not any of the priests were the wiser for our shenanigans. Whether or not the priests could do anything if they knew. If getting caught might not be a bad way to have your parents stop sending you to altar service or even, please god let us all hope, have you transferred to another school. There were discussions about Saturday morning cartoons. I have no recollection of any conversation ever condemning the use of alcohol in the changing rooms. Maybe a joke here and there about sinning and burning in hell, but no piety.
I didn’t have any friends from other schools as a child. I barely had any friends in school. I don’t think I developed any particular self-esteem issues until later in life, I just didn’t socialize that much. Still, it was a secret goal my whole life, even well into high school, to transfer schools. Something seemed so exotic and fresh and open about another school. Likely I could not have had a worse situation for myself than to transfer schools. But I dreamed it all the same. Different kids to hang out with. Different, prettier girls. Maybe it would even be a public school with no nuns.
Sometimes in your life you do something that sticks with you. You encounter some presence that doesn’t imprint itself immediately with a “why” but which somehow, nonetheless, becomes important. Either as an image or as a feeling.
We were sent into the church two by two. Every mass during the week required two altar boys and on Sunday there would be three of us. We had a schedule posted each month that told us what days we would be serving. Some of the boys were notorious for not showing up. Some of the boys were obnoxious jerks that really believed in religion. Some of them were just regular dorks that you could get along with. Some were a combination of traits.
I had gauged the current schedule properly. It was a Saturday morning and my partner had not shown. I was going to be serving alone. It was fine by me. I would stumble through it with Father Richards. He would sneer at me. He would look disdainful. I wouldn’t care and then I would walk home.
Everything went according to plan. He sneered. I turned my head down to look serious. I went into the sacristy and took off my robe, laughed to myself (I’ve always secretly and not-so-secretly enjoyed it when I mess something up), and noticed the wine left out. I looked into the priest room and saw robes flying about and could hear the movement of Father Richards. I had some time to get in a swig or two of briny, dry, spit-lubricated wine. I pulled the stopper out and drank of it. Mmmm, blessed wine. I was taking a full slug when I heard feet moving over the marble flooring. I put the bottle down as fast as I could and closed it, but he was in the room by the time I was done. Here I would confront face to face what seemed like some sort of certain death. I looked back saucer-eyed. I didn’t say a word, tried to act normal. He surprised me by smiling.
“Why don’t you finish it off? There isn’t that much left?”
I smiled. I declined the offer and he walked back into his quarters. I had gotten off with no repercussions. I walked out of the church and walked home. I was made of Teflon.
Later that day I related my peril and salvation to my brothers. They were a little stunned the same way I was. It was good news. A few weeks later, the story must have gotten around; two boys were punished in some unknown way that made them cry when they openly swilled from the crystal containing Christ’s essence. The boys came out crying. Father Richards was not, contrary to my first-hand knowledge, a very nice guy. He really let them have it. My faculty for language might not have had the question posed as such but I wondered about the duplicity of the man. How had it been alright for me and not those two older boys? Did he just think they were pricks and I was an okay guy?
This story was never something I considered pivotal in my life. It did not send me into a spiral of questioning. I was at that point, if anything, well on my way to a life of smugly assured atheism. If God and Jesus and all those angels existed they were going to have to convince me on my day of reckoning that there was any reason for We-The-People-On-Earth to understand or even wonder over their plans for us. Still, I had this scene in the back of my head for a long time of Father Richards just kind of smiling at me. I hadn’t attached a particular significance to it, just held onto it.
One day a few years ago, when the stories about Catholic priests fondling and molesting boys en masse (no pun intended) were all over the front pages, I wondered aloud to my brother Tom whether or not any of our friends and brothers had been molested. He told me that it was more likely than not. He told me about the ex-model priest who committed suicide. There were lots of arrests of priests we had known.
I asked about Father Andrew. It always seemed to me that the “cool” priest was more likely to molest kids than any of the others. He hadn’t been arrested but he had been on the news for having visions of Mary. Father Richards got arrested, though. He had been a major pedophile. After he left our church he went somewhere not to far away and molested a bunch of altar boys.
I don’t trust grand pronouncements. I have trouble planning one day to the next, let alone budgeting for bills, and don’t even consider longer term ramifications. Still, it would take a catastrophic change in the chemistry of my mind to ever consider supporting the church. I have left God, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Church and all the clergy far behind me in my systems of thought. I will likely not die under the same circumstances of Catholicism under which I came into the world.