SEPARATION AT THIRTEEN
Traveling with a friend, talking of many diverse topics. She asked me about the bravest thing I had ever done. Not knowing the bravest thing I had ever done, I did know when I had been the most scared. Having thought about that, my answer went something like this.
It had to do with the Catholic Church and all that God and Jesus stuff, all of which I fervently believed for a time as a child, but which I began to question starting at age 7 approximately. That’s when I starting seeing inconsistencies in the teachings. The doubts were not reduced by a priest saying “One must believe, one must have ‘faith’. Trouble began to accelerate a bit as the nuns, those frightening black-clad creatures tried to hammer God and Jesus into our heads. At age 10 or 11, now with serious doubts stewing in my head, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question. The nun at the front of our religious education class (probably Sister Catherine) stated that what she had just read (and I’ve forgotten the specifics) was “The Word of God!” Now, you have to understand that at this point, I did really believe in this God, rather strongly. So, in sincerity, I asked if God had said that in English. The nun looked at me and said “Of course not, English had not been invented yet.” And she seemed instantly and greatly irritated with me. So I asked, or rather said, if English wasn’t used at that time, what she read was really a translation of something by a human person and not actually “The Word of God Himself.” This was a technical point, but valid, I felt. The nun, this servant of God told me to sit down and keep my mouth shut. There’s nothing quite as frightening as a pissed-off nun to a skinny little Italian Roman Catholic kid in the middle of an almost totally Irish church.
There were more incidents after that, but … all that’s just background for the actual story, and here’s the story: That church had five masses every Sunday at 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11:00 AM with the last one always being a ‘high mass.’ The normal routine for our family was that my father would drive us to church for the 9 or 10:00 o’clock mass. A few weeks before my thirteenth birthday, on a Sunday morning, my mother said we’d be going to the 10:00 AM mass. I said I would go to the 9:00 AM and would walk, it was a beautiful day and a fifteen minute walk, etc. That was not unusual and there was no notice taken. However, instead of going to St. Francis of Assisi Church, I walked to the drug store and bought a New York Times and then walked to the Stanley Quarter Park (not far from the church) where I sat on a bench out in the open sunshine so that God could have an unobstructed view and a clear shot at me. And I had this one-way conversation. “Look God, if you’re really there … I’m going to miss mass this morning intentionally, on purpose, with no excuses, and I know it’s supposed to be a big sin, a ‘mortal’ sin, and all that. So God, if you exist and if you’re not too big a shot, too big a cannon, to mess around with us little shots, us bee-bees, then I expect you to strike me dead or least give me a serious sign that you’re pissed off about this. So … I’m going to miss mass and read this newspaper. And if I don’t get a sign from you in the next hour before the church bells announce the end of mass, you can just forget about me. I’ve been an altar boy for seven or eight years and at one time, believed all the stuff your hired hands, your priests and your nuns, told me and now I believe it’s all man-made bullshit. So make your move anytime. When the bells ring, I’m going home. And I’ll never believe any of that garbage again. OK God. That’s all I have to say. So do your stuff.”
My little speech to God seems melodramatic and childlike. The truth is I was deeply and genuinely frightened. I had worked on that little speech and practiced and of course, if God knew everything he was supposed to know, he’d not be surprised. What if this God guy decided to fry me on the spot? … a real possibility in my mind at the time. How would that affect my family? What a sad ending that would be. Still, I was unwilling to continue this ‘not knowing’ state of religion with all the hocus-pocus. I felt the priests and the nuns had their own doubts. As a Roman Catholic, we had church doctrine drilled into us, and we were not much exposed to Biblical training. When I finally had some long discussions with the Bible thumpers, they seemed as deceptive and even more convoluted in their reasoning than the crazy-assed nuns if that were possible. So was I brave? Courageous? Or just selfish and lazy in not wanting to deal with church and religious nonsense the rest of my life? Maybe we’ll know someday and maybe we won’t, but I stayed with that decision. (Reader’s note: Now it is more than 60 years later and I have indeed stuck with it. Doing some basic math, that’s about 3000 Sunday mornings to the good.)