Jumat, 25 November 2011

LOSING MY RELIGION by Peter Nolan Smith

My math scholarship to Our Lord’s Health High School was revoked at the end of the first semester of my sophomore year. It was a week before Christmas 1967. Disaster was partially escaped, since Bruder Karl had been gracious enough to give me a D+ in German, but Brother Valentine scourged my report card with an F in religion.“Sorry.” I showed my mother the report card. She was sitting at our kitchen table. My brothers and sisters were in the den watching TV. Her eyes blinked in disbelief.“What is wrong with you?” She had been so proud of my winning the scholarship. “Nothing.” I hadn’t the nerve to tell her the truth.“Nothing?” Her finger jabbed at my grades. I had scored B plus in History and Geometry. My other subjects were As. “A D+ in German I can understand.”My Irish grandmother was only family member gifted with speaking in a foreign language and her native tongue was Gaelic.“I t-t-t-tried my best.” German was too difficult for my stuttering tongue.“How do you explain an F in religion?” My mother had me on the stand. There was no wiggling out of her interrogation.“I got a 90 average in the t-t-t-tests.” I was well practiced in evading the deeper explanation on this issue.“What about your homework?” My mother was furious. Her mother had been shipped out from Galway at the age of 12. My mother graduated from high school. She expected her children to excel in all their subjects.“A B+.” Religion required faith. I had pretended to possess that virtue most of my life. My tests and homework were the best in my class. They weren’t enough to get a passing grade.“I don’t understand.” My mother threw the report card on the table. “What will Nana say about your failing religion?”I didn’t see any reason to tell the old woman.“You were an altar boy.”“I know.” My mind filled with the responses to the priest’s entreaties during the Mass. I fought off the urge to say ‘mea culpa’. My mother wanted to hear the truth and not that I was sorry. “What would Nana say?” She repeated the question.“I don’t know.” My Irish grandmother would be hurt by my failure.Nana had taken my older brother and me into Boston once a month on the trolley, when we had been kids.Our first stop had been St. Anthony’s shrine, where we had lit candles for the dearly departed. She had visited the confessional to tell her sins. I hadfollowed her next and mumbled my wrongs. The priest had forgiven my trespasses with five Hail Marys. I had muttered the prayers without contrition. My sins had been only sins to the Church and I had ceased to be a Catholic in thought and deed at the age of eight.“Stop saying ‘I don’t know’.” My mother picked up the phone.“Don’t call Nana.” I loved my grandmother. Nana's faith was a fire and mine resembled a dead match. She didn’t need to know about my apostasy.“Heavens forbid I call my mother. I’m getting to the bottom of this.” Her finger spun numbers on the Princess phone. She simmered waiting for a ring and then said to the person answering her call. “I’d like to speak with Brother Valentine. Go into the living room.”Whatever she had to say to my teacher was for her ears only and I sat on the sofa. A plastic covering protected it from ruin. My ears were not good enough to hear the muted conversation, but I heard her rack the phone in the receiver. She entered the living room and stared at me with disbelief. “Brother Valentine said he failed you, because you don’t believe in God.”“I got all As in the tests and did all my homework. I don’t deserve that F.”
“But you don’t believe in God. Tell me that isn't true.""I have doubts." Certitude wa"Brother Valentine didn't say doubts. He said disbelief. What is it?"I shut my eyes like a parachutist jumping out of a perfectly good plane."Disbelief." My best friend had drowned at the age of eight. No righteous god would have allowed his death. "My son is a disbeliever." Her sigh left her lungs, as if her last breath had been stolen by the Devil, and her right hand made the sign of the cross.She was shocked to the core. The Church had burned heretics for challenging the divinity of Jesus and atheism was an even greater anathema than communism for Cold War America."You're 14 years-old. How can you know if you don't believe in God?" "I've thought about it a long time. Sorry." Children were to be seen and not heard in her eyes. Free thought ran against her best wishes.“But you were an altar boy.” Her head was spinning by the challenge to her beliefs.“I did it for you.” I also served at the masses, because we received $5 for funerals and up to $20 for weddings.“Your teacher said if you recant, he will give you a B and your scholarship will be reinstated.”My high school offered a better education than the town school, but it was all-boys. My girlfriend attended the town high school. Failing religion seemed like the fastest way to end my Catholic schoolboy career and I told my mother, “I can’t do that.”“Why not?” She was not used to any resistance to her will.“I don’t believe in God.” The Christian god had exterminated non-believers. Genocide was wrong. I believed in anything, but Him.“Wait till your father gets home.” These words were my mother’s standard threat of last resort.
“Yes, ma’am.”I was scared of my father, even though he had never hit me in my life. Punishment was my mother’s job. His was putting food on the table for six kids. My fear was based on the desire for his love and I had a tendency to make mistakes.My father was an electrical engineer. They liked order.That evening I waited for his arrival on the front steps. The night was cold even for December. I almost thought about running away, but the low sky was promising snow.My father walked up to the house and groaned upon seeing my face, “Now what?”“I failed religion.”“How did you fail religion?” He was a big man and played football in college.“I don’t believe in God.” I struggled with each word.My father was stunned by my admission yet he listened to my explanation without anger. The Maine native had converted from the Episcopal Church to marry my mother. His faith was born of desire. Shaking his head he lifted me to my feet.“If that is what you believe, then that’s up to you, but don’t expect any Christmas gifts this year. Christmas is for Christians.”My mother and he had words that night. My older brother put his hands over his ears. He was a believer too, but didn’t criticize my decision. He had been Chaney’s friend too.Christmas morning I received gifts and our family attended the 8 o’Clock mass. The pastor’s sermon was dedicated to Christ’s sacrifice of divinity. His eyes fell on me several times. I didn’t not take communion. My mother said I was sick, but the rumors of my heretical stance were spreading around town. My girlfriend stood by me. Kyla loved me more than she loved God.After New Year’s the phone rang every morning. The brothers at Our Lord’s Health wanted to speak with me. They pleaded for my soul. “Come back to the faith and we’ll give back your scholarship.” The vice-principal was offering a carrot.“I don’t believe in God.”I wasn’t biting at the bait. Football players were testing Kyla’s loyalty. They called me a commie faggot. I belonged somewhere other than Our Lord’s Health High School and that was closer to Kyla.Our Lord’s Health suggested that I see a psychiatrist. Atheism was a sickness. I agreed to this experiment to please my mother.My mother and father drove me over to Commonwealth Avenue in our Delta 88. We didn’t have much to say to them and I looked out the window at the long-haired hippie girls of BU. They were the inspiration for the Standells’ hit DIRTY WATER. We arrived at the Jesuit seminary ten minutes before our appointment. My mother was as devoted to punctuality as she was Jesus.“You’re my son. I will always love you, but you know how I feel about God. Please have an open mind.”“I will.” Her God hadn’t lifted a finger to save Chaney, but I loved my mother. She knew me for nine months before I was born. “And don’t slouch in the chair.” My father was a stickler for a good impression.“Yes, sir.”I got out of the car and walked to the nearest building. The cardinal lived on these grounds. He had blessed my head on my Holy Confirmation. I lowered my head hoping that he wouldn’t see me.The diocesan shrink had an office on the second floor. A huge crucifix hung over his desk. A painting of Jesus was bordered by diplomas from several universities. He greeted with a soft handshake.“Please sit down.” He pointed to a pair of leather chairs.I took the one closest to the door.“I’ve read your file.” The chubby man sat next to me. “I see this problem all the time and it concerns the Cardinal when a gifted boy loses his faith. You were an altar boy and attended a few retreats for boys with a calling.I was familiar with the Cardinal. He said the rosary every evening at 5. My mother joined his raspy voice as did thousands of other Catholics around Boston. I looked out the window. Snow was falling on a withered lawn. The room was warm and the chair was too comfortable. I had a funny feeling about this meeting.“Don’t you believe the Bible?” The man was wearing a checked polyester suit and his skull gleamed under his sweep-over strands. I remained silent, because I couldn’t see myself as a Biblical figure, unless it’s was an extra in a BEN HUR chariot race and that movie has nothing to do with New or Old Testament.“Are you going to tell me why you don’t believe in God.” His head was topped by a misplaced toupee. Sweat was trickling from underneath the crow-black rug. His tongue licked at a trickle.“I have nothing to say.” His hands were soft as butter. I pushed them off my lap. He had a nice touch.“The truth will set you.” He leaned forward and his right hand adjusted his slipping wig.“Why should I tell the truth to a man who lies to himself about being bald.” I was surprised by my audacity. Teenagers weren’t supposed to speak to adults with such irreverence and the shrink threw me out of the office, sputtering about blasphemy. “You’re damned.”“The only reason you believe in Jesus is so he can cure your baldness.” I shouted before slamming his door. I walked back to the Olds with my head high, my lack of belief stronger than ever, until spotting my mother in the car. She looked like she was praying for my soul. My father was staring into the distance.I didn’t care about the Holy Trinity, heaven, purgatory, hell, The Holy Eucharist, the infallibility of the Pope, or the Blessed Virgin.My mother was more important than the Church and all its teachings. My birth had taken twenty-two hours. She had gone down to the Valley of Death to bring me life. I sat in the car wishing I was the six year-old boy in a white communion suit. Chaney had worn the same suit. We fought over something that spring day. I had to tell him that I was sorry. He was my best friend.I opened the door and sat in the back seat, knowing the next few minutes would be hell on earth for at least two of the three of us.“How did it go?” My father started up the engine. It was a big V-8, but not loud enough to drowned out my answer.“Not good. The man said I was damned.” “Damned?” The word struck the pit of my mother’s heart.“He’s not a priest. He can’t damn me.”“My son damned by the church.” Her hands covered her mouth in shock.I’m sorry.”“Sorry is not going to save you from hell.” My mother cried into her palms. I was lost to Satan. My soul was doomed to Hell.“The man touched me.” My only defense was the truth.“Touched you?” My father turned around and studied my face for deception. He had never lied to me and I tried to return that gift to the best of my ability.“My leg and not in a nice way.”“You’re saying he touched you.” My father tightened his fist. “No one touches my son.”My father had nothing against queers. Arthur across the street lived with a friend. They had served in Korea together. Arthur took care of his mother. It was a quiet rumor that he was not like the rest of the men in the neighborhood, but that didn’t stop my father from playing tennis with him. one touched his kids.“You’re telling the truth.”“Yes, sir.” I felt bad about snitching, but I was an atheist and not a heretic. To be truthful I didn’t know the difference.“I have to make a phone call.” My father drove to the nearest phone booth and got out of the car. “Who are you calling to?” My mother had been silenced by accusation.“Uncle Jack.”Uncle Jack was a lawyer. Uncle Jack had been a marine in Korea. Chosin Reservoir tested his faith. Some people called him a hero. He believed in the love of his wife and children. He had won $500,000 for a deaf girl in a similar suit against the nuns torturing their students. I was his godson.Several days my Uncle Jack and I sat in the principal’s office. The ex-Marine instructed Brother Valentine on the freedom of speech and religion guaranteed under the Constitution. He loved the idea of fighting the Church on this issue. His record in court was well-known throughout the state of Massachusetts. The brothers had folded like a wet newspaper.My teacher changed the F to a C. Brother Karl’s D remained a D. It was an honest grade. My scholarship cut in half to seal the deal and Uncle Jack told me to keep my atheism to myself.I wished that they had stuck to their guns and been thrown out of school, but my girlfriend was happy that I remained at Our Lord’s Health. Kyla liked her space. We stayed together until our senior year and religion had little to do with our faith in each other.Talking about non-belief is difficult in America, which has IN GOD WE TRUST stamped on coins. Friends and family are deeply smitten by religion.
I tell them my lack of belief does not subtract from my spirituality. I have visited some of the most holy sites on Earth and read countless books on devotion. Fundamentalists and born-agains have tried to reconvert my soul, but I have remained true to my non-belief and was proud to hear President Obama mention non-believers in his inaugural speech. Our numbers are not a few weirdos. We are at least 20 million strong.Two summers ago I was at a pool party at my doctor’s house on Staten Island. Two parents overheard my discourse against organized religion and said that their 10 year-old son was a non-believer.“Could you talk to him, so he knows he’s not alone.” The mother was truly concerned about her son's divorce from the norm. “No problem.” I understood his path and walked over to the young boy. He was playing a video game. The other kids were cannonballing into the pool. He looked like he was winning his game. It probably meant killing aliens or bad people.“Your parents wanted me to speak to you?” I flashed back to the shrink in 1967.“About what?” he sighed, as if he had more than one problem.“God.”He lowered his head and asked with resignation, “Are you a priest?”“No, an atheist. I don’t believe in god and I wanted to tell you it won’t kill you either.” I kept it short and sweet. 10 year-old boys rarely want to hear anything for a man in his 50s. I certainly hadn’t at his age, but at least I didn't have a sweep-over."Everything will be fine." It had been for me.“Thanks mister.” The boy was genuinely relieved that I had stopped talking. Religion and especially lack of religion is a private matter best left to the soul.“No worries.” His road wasn’t easy, but I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone.I took off my shirt and bellyflopped into the pool. The impact wave washed over the rim. The kids screamed with delight and I almost felt like Moses parting the Red Sea, but only almost like Moses. He had a big beard.I got out of the pool and pushed back my hair. The kids screeched for me to repeat my feat.“Only if we do it together.” I pointed to the little atheist. They called him by name. He put down his video game carefully to not let it get wet. I jumped out of the pool to join him. The rest of the kids were game too.“One, two, three. Cannonball.”We made a wave to make Noah proud and I broke surface with a smile.It was good to be a kid again.

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