Intro: The original version of the following short story was written in 1984. I did some re-writing and re-editing before sharing it this week with my short stories group. The theme, if you cannot guess, was Catholic schools. Enjoy.
“Good morning, sister.”
“Have you read today’s lesson?”
“Yes, I have sister.” I had glanced at it five minutes before walking into the room.
“All right then, hand me your book and recite for me the ‘Our Father’.”
“uh… Our Father… who art… in heaven… uh… hollow bee… uh… uh…”
“Thy name. uh… uh… Why kingdom come… uh… Why… uh… Why…”
“Not ‘Why kingdom come,’ but ‘Thy kingdom come’!”
“Thy kingdom come… uh… Why what begun… uh… uh…”
“On earth who sits in heaven!” I stared out the window of the school’s classroom to an ugly overcast day. I kept staring out the window, hoping that sister wouldn’t know…
“Young man, are you sure that you read this week’s lesson?” Somehow sisters always seem to know everything.
“Yes, sister,” I said weakly.
“All right then, recite for me the ‘Hail Mary.’” My weak smile broke and my mind went blank.
“Hail Mary.. uh… uh… Hail Mary… uh… uh…”
“Young man, do you or don’t you know the ‘Hail Mary’?!”
“Yes, sister, I do… but right now I don’t.”
“Very well then,” she began to scribble something into my workbook, “when you get home show this to your mother and see to it that you do your homework before you come to class. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, sister.” I reluctantly took the workbook and walked out of the classroom like a sentenced criminal. Even though I was only in second grade I knew that some doom was impending, and failing a test with a nun spelled doom as clearly as anything. Forget about what God thinks, my mother was more the one who was going to kill me. When I got outside I looked at the note that sister had written. Darn it, she wrote it in cursive. She knew I can’t read handwriting. Here I am carrying my death sentence and I can’t even read what it says.
When I got home mom automatically took my workbook and read the note. She shook her head and gave me her “you’ll never amount to anything” look and walked to the kitchen to start dinner. This class was supposed to prepare me for my first Holy Communion but all it really seemed to do was cause my mom a lot of heartache. I wasn’t very hungry that night.
The other years that I had been in C.C.D. (the Catholic equivalent to Sunday School) all we had to do was listen to dumb stories about some guy with this boat full of animals that got swallowed by a whale and draw pictures of God. But now we had to learn prayers and ceremonies, and with nuns! (Pity to you parochial school kids! I only had to put with nuns for one year, just one day each week, and that almost killed me). And what was worse was that we also had to go to our first Confession. Why anyone would stick a scared seven year old in a dark box to confess to a stranger things that he wouldn’t share with his best friend was beyond me.
Fortunately, at least this time I knew what to recite… “Bless me Father, for I have sinned, this is my first confession.”
“Oh, these are my sins: I lied to my mom and I lied to my dad. I broke my little brother’s bow and arrow and told my mom that my sister, Tina, did it.”
“Nope.” I didn’t tell him about wetting my pants earlier in the week and then throwing my underwear away.
“Well, then…” The man proceeded to rattle off some prayer in some foreign tongue. “Your penance is to say four Our Fathers and six Hail Marys.” Oh God, not more Our Fathers and Hail Marys! I walked out of the dark box, knelt in the empty church, prayed to the invisible God, then went home to tell my little brother about the funny man in the box.
A week later I found myself with a hundred other squirming second graders being herded into a processional line in a back room of the church waiting to begin our first Holy Communion ceremony. The head nun, Sister Mary (why are all nuns named Mary?) addressed us:”Boys and girls, your mothers and fathers are going to be very proud of you when they see you march up to the front of the church, so please stay in line and do not converse with one another. Remember that the little Lord Je…”
“Sister!” A boy ahead of me in line was waving his hand in the air and frantically jumping up and down.
“Sister Teresa, will you please take little William to the restroom?” We all giggled and pointed at the puddle that William was standing in.
“Boys and girls, please remember that the little Lord Jesus is in the church and is waiting for you to receive him in the Host. This reminds me of what Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to say to her congregation of nuns when they used to walk through the streets of that God-forsaken city…” She talked so long, I swore we were going to grow out of our brand new suits. “… Now, Father is waiting for us in the front of the church, so let’s walk in. Remember two lines and no talking!”
We all began to file into the church. By this time most of the adults were leaning on their elbows, the weight of their boredom causing them to disfigure their faces, making them look like pudgy little pigs. We sat in the first rows of the church, boys on the right side and girls on the left. After we sat down, Father O’Donnell and his two altar boys paraded around the altar in their robes, kneeling and standing and praying and doing things with their hands. Some of the kids were enthralled to be so close to the front of the church for such a holy event. But after a while my friend, Chuck, and I got bored and began a silent game of “paper-scissors-stone.” When the time finally came to receive communion, having missed our cue to stand up, we were prompted by sister’s loud cough.
Heads bowed, we slowly walked up to the railing at the front of the church and knelt before the altar. Then the priest went down the row, with the altar boys on either side of him while he placed thin white pieces of stiff bread (it looked more like small circle of white construction paper than bread) on our out-stretched tongues, each time repeatedly chanting something that sounded like “Body cry.” When we got back to our pews we had been instructed to kneel and pray with our faces in our hands, thanking God for our teachers and parents. Anyone who dared to look God straight in the face while praying would be struck dead. Luckily, God must not have been looking in my direction when I tried to peek at Him through my fingers.
When Mass ended we filed out amidst flashing cameras and crying mothers. At home there was cake and punch and a gift from my god-parents. I worried a little bit that Jesus might not enjoy the company of the cake and punch in my stomach. He was there first. But it didn’t seem to bother him.
A week later life was back to normal. We found our usual place at church, standing in the back because we were always too late to find a place to sit in the pews. My brother and I played our game “the Leaning Tower of Pisa.” Each of us would stand with our legs together and lean in every direction like a spinning top that was slowing down. The object of the game was to see who could lean the farthest in any direction without falling down. My brother usually lost. That was the extent of my religious life. I guess I was too busy dreaming about becoming an astronaut or some great football player. And no one really seemed to care; that is until I reached the eighth grade.
In the eighth grade we were all poured into one large group where we had “rap” sessions each week. I still have no idea why these were called “rap” sessions. It just seemed like an excuse to let the more extroverted kids (usually the girls who were beginning to fill out their sweaters and the guys who had a real reason to use their fathers’ razors) to voice their confused frustrations. Anyway, to climax these weekly excursions into obscurity, we were given an eighth grade retreat.
The retreat was supposed to prepare us for our Confirmation. They wanted us to become committed Catholic young men and women.
“What we would like for you to do is pair off into groups of two and…” Everybody got out of their seats and started shuffling around in search of a partner. The extroverts in the front, the introverts to the closet, I thought to myself. I ended up with my best friend. “… And please make sure that the person that you’re with isn’t a close friend.” My friend and I looked at each other while everybody else got up and changed partners.
Shaking his hand I said, with what was supposed to be an English accent, “Why, it certainly is a pleasure to meet you, Master Charles. My name is…”
“Please introduce yourself to your partner and then we will give you five minutes to ask your partner these questions: What is your favorite color and why, what is your favorite season and why, and what is your favorite food and why? After you have asked these three questions your partner will have five minutes to ask you the same questions.”
“What’s your favorite color Charles? No, let me guess… pink!” We laughed while everyone else struggled through the questions. What these questions had to do with Confirmation, we didn’t bother considering. Besides, after the first question my friend and I pretty much ignored the rest of the questions and proceeded to play “paper-scissors-stone.” The eighth grade version of the game the loser didn’t get whacked on the wrist, he got slugged on the shoulder. Unfortunately one of Chuck’s more perfectly aimed slugs caused me to fall over and knock some girl in the head (don’t ask me how that happened… I guess she wasn’t paying attention or something). Anyway, Chuck and I were separated. He had to pair up with a teacher and I had to sit with a homely girl who had no partner and who I couldn’t hear because she never looked up and barely spoke in a whisper.
After watching a film and some more ‘rapping” about the masks people wear we listened to sermon number 651 provided that afternoon by Mister Jonathan Conner entitled: Commitment and Hypocrisy. Tall, serious, determined, Mr. Conner, roamed across the front of the room as he began to speak, “Many of you consider yourselves adults. You think that you’re old enough to make your own decisions, to exercise the freedom that everyone’s talking about. You live in a generation that is very quick to point out the hypocrisy of my generation… How we say one thing and do another. Well, many of your points are well taken, I mean, you’re right about the hypocrisy and the phoniness of my generation, in many instances. But so far, all I hear coming from your generation is just a bunch of talk.”
“Okay… here is an opportunity for you to do something about this hypocrisy, the hypocrisy in the church as well as in our community. In two weeks we’re going to be administering the sacrament of Confirmation. Now most of you intend to show up because ‘mommy and daddy’ want you to, and that’s good, you should want to please your folks. But, if that is your only reason for attending, then you’re going to miss a lot of the significance that this sacrament could hold for you.”
“God sent his Holy Spirit into this world so that we as Catholics might be able to live a good life, just as the gospel says: ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, because you love one another.’ And, we, meaning you and I, if we are going to get rid of the hypocrisy in the world, then we’re going to have to start by eliminating the phoniness and hypocrisy in our own lives. To do this we need the Holy Spirit.”
I always thought that Mr. Conner was an okay guy. But I kind of lost interest a couple minutes into his talk and when I left the retreat I could not help but feel as if all that I had received was more empty words.
Two weeks passed. I found myself in church, in the same front rows, with basically the same people surrounding me. There was Father O’Donnell up at the pulpit giving the same long winded indecipherable sermon. We, in the meantime, were trying to decide which girl was the hottest. Later we decided that the girl who slipped on her way down from the altar literally showed the most potential. The sign of the cross, a light tap on the cheek by the bishop, and back to my seat I went, to pray to God with my face in my hands.
When Mass was over there was the same array of camera flashes and the same weeping mothers. And at home more cake and punch and a gift from my god-parents. Only this time I did not worry about whether Jesus or the Holy Spirit enjoyed the company of my cake or punch in my stomach, because if they were there I did not know it.
image: Eileen Fisher, Snapple, nun by Timothy Krause, creative commons – some rights reserved, https://www.flickr.com/photos/timothykrause/5837887406/