Eight years of getting up early, walking a mile and crawling down stairs into the catacombs of St. Margaret’s for Mass was the beginning of every day of elementary school. High school was different. For one thing, I didn’t have to go to church six times a week. Eight years of that should be enough for any lifetime. That was hell. The biggest difference in high school was that the boys were on one side of the building and the girls on the other. It was junior year before we were integrated. We wore suits with ties and they had a uniform: grey pleated skirts, oxfords and white, starched cotton shirts.
I was assigned to homeroom with Father Dominic, along with all the other boys whose names started with an S to Z. Fr. Dom was a good draw. He was 31 years old in 1969, the year he told us how proud he was of his arm hair that had taken him that long to grow. His head was not as ambitious. He was balding, and would be totally by age 40. Well, not totally, but the top would be. He had that ring of established hair above his ears, running around the back of his head to the other ear. He looked liked a monk. He was a Franciscan Friar, and many of them worked at Bishop Canevin High School. They wore brown robes cinched by thick brown sashes with knots so big they scared me.
Most of those bastards were raw, but Fr. Dom was a good one. I saw him lose his temper one time, but he just yelled and got real ugly in the face. No violence. His compatriots, most of the rest of the Fathers anyway, were strict disciplinarians and would beat us bloody every day if they thought they could get away with it. I saw and experienced some violence in elementary school. In seventh grade, I was smacked in the ear with an open hand by a 250-pound man. That blow deafened me for several hours and I still get ringing in that ear. But most of the violence took the form of ceremonial corporal punishment. What kind of mind comes up with the idea of air holes for a paddle, drilled aerodynamically to improve the speed and sting for swatting 12-year old boys and girls while they bend halfway over at the front of the room, facing their classmates?
Those were nervous times, but high school was the big leagues. Early in that freshman year, we S to Z boys were trucked down to a room off the cafeteria for a new speed-reading class. That first day, Alan Zaboski was getting a little rowdy and, right in front of me, Father Andrew hauled off and smacked him in the mouth so hard that teeth flew by me in a sudden sheet of blood. There weren’t many more disruptions in Father Andrew’s class that year. There were dozens of other incidents like that throughout high school, but that one and a couple others really stand out.
Besides the Evelyn Woodhead course, most of my classes that year remain a blur of chalk dust, fear and polished linoleum, as well as treasured glances across the expanse at the pleated grey loveliness. Girls were really starting to look good and the sway of all those lectures about chastity was fading under the weight of burgeoning sexuality. That freshman year, I had a class called Religion, which could be expected at a Catholic school, but it was nothing like the religion classes in elementary school. It was held in a room down the hall from the administration offices, away from all the other “regular” classrooms. It was smaller than a classroom and the chairs were positioned around the room, against the wall, leaving the middle of the room open. Fr. Dom taught Religion and we all seemed to look forward to it. Maybe it was the ease that settled over us knowing we would probably not be beaten in that room. Fr. Dom was a good teacher. He was interesting. He sat in one of the chairs against the wall, just like the rest of us. We talked about other religions besides Catholicism, and he asked and answered questions that I thought could never be discussed inside a Catholic school.
One day, in the midst of a deep zone, contemplating the possibilities of actual physical contact with a girl and considering the usual waves of guilt passing over me, I heard Fr. Dom say, “I don’t believe in God.” I’m not sure what he had been talking about and I don’t remember what he said after that, but I’ll never forget those five words: “I don’t believe in God.” With those five words, Fr. Dom opened a door for me to experiencing life in an entirely new light. Here was a man of the cloth admitting to the possibilities everyone else had been telling me could never exist. If Fr. Dom could admit to doubt, there must be hope. While I struggled with maintaining my facade of belief for a few years after that day, I knew then that the truth was elsewhere. His words lent credence to all my unspoken thoughts, buried under years of Baltimore Catechism, hiding from so many wimple-framed scowls, thoughts that I had secreted away in a vault in my mind, because some part of me knew of their potential.
For the first time, I seriously considered the possibility that all that other stuff had been lies. The absurdity of Baptism and Extreme Unction. Confession. As if when I told my sins to another man he could wave some magic wand and make it all right. Holy water. Holy Cards. I still can’t believe that we were taught that our sentence in Purgatory could be reduced through the purchase of Holy Cards. And then there was sex. A Catholic upbringing had made me a psychological wreck. I was torn between the reality of my desires and the oppression of my suddenly crumbling faith. One talk with me and Sigmund Freud would have thrown away his couch. It’s a miracle I didn’t turn out to be some kind of serial criminal. The years after that day in Religion class were like the slow awakening from a long, horrible nightmare.
There have been other helpful and righteous voices since Fr. Dom’s: Carl Sagan, Frank Zappa, my father. Dad went Left on us in the 70’s but is now firmly back in the fold, in preparation for his ever more rapidly approaching Meet with Saint Pete. Will I too succumb to that fear in my latter days? Saints alive, I hope not.
I’ve grown happier through the years in my belief that I don’t believe, and I consider myself lucky that I can ponder absolutely any possibility. Now, faith is a shifting and malleable consciousness and not the stifling, collected doctrines of perversion devised by a bunch of old men dedicated only to oppression and false righteousness that nearly ruined my life.
Then again, maybe Father Andrew and the others were right. It is, after all, one of the possibilities. But, come on, Immaculate Conception? If those Fathers are right, I’ll have to put my faith in the eight-year, six-days-a-week clause and hope for a last minute reprieve from the Fisherman. Maybe Dad will put in a good word for me.
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