Sculpture by Salvadore Dali
I don’t believe in God.
There it is, the plain truth of it. If Sister Mary Clarice ever heard me say that, I’m sure she would say that was a one-way ticket to Hell. Do not pass Go, do not collect any indulgences.
I’m also sure she would pray for me. I wonder where her prayers were when I needed them. Or, more likely, she’s been praying for me all along, and that goes to show you that I am right. There is no God outside the hysterical minds of the faithful.
As far as I’m concerned, you might as well believe in unicorns. Seems to me they're probably worthy of a faithful following too. After all, there had to be a reason they missed the boat. Maybe they knew something.
Is there any more effective form of brainwashing than a Catholic school education? Governments could learn a thing or two from the good Sisters of Holy Cross-Your-Heart-and-Hope-to-Die.
Pretty much all of grade school was awful. I’ll admit it: I don’t handle guilt well. And the morning dose we were served along with “the body and blood of Christ” (hoc est enim Corpus meum, quod pro vobis tradetur) was only the beginning of a seven-hour daily feast of guilt. Being the sinner that I obviously was, I soon developed the habit of doing what I was told I was already guilty of. Besides, at least it gave me something to say in weekly Confession so I didn’t have make sins up – lies? – to tell the priest. After I’d reached “the age of reason,” I had to go to confession every week, and what in God’s name (so to speak) does a seven-year-old have to confess? “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I am me. Sorry.” While I waited in line outside the confessional, I went over the Ten Commandments like you were supposed to. But instead of determining which commandment I had violated, I considered the commandments to decide which sins would be believable for a seven year old, and I'd add them to my list for Father. I didn't know what it was, but I was fairly sure that adultery wasn't one of them, so I didn't include that commandment. But lying, stealing, and the rest all made it to the list. I even confessed to killing, but I was sure God would understand. Cockroaches are just nasty.
Might as well add the sin of covetousness to the litany, right?
I spent most of the sixth grade wanting to be Jeannie Welch. While others distracted themselves in arithmetic class with doodles and passing notes, I practiced writing Jeannie’s signature until I had her elegant J and flamboyant W down pat. I wanted to be ready in case my prayers were answered. Hey, it could happen. They had taught us all about miracles, and someone had to be the recipient of one. Why not me?
Somehow, the plain brown and white uniform we had to wear at Our Lady of the Merciful looked good on Jeannie, even stylish. The Peter Pan collar on her blouse was cute. And her brown skirt swished around her knees when she walked as if had been caught in a breeze. On me, the whole outfit just looked dumpy. Where I had mousy brown hair cut to make me look like Buster Brown, her pretty face was framed by bouncy blonde curls. In every way that I was a bland bowl of unappealing vanilla ice cream, she was a big mocha almond hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and extra nuts.
And boys and girls alike recognized the superiority of Jeannie Welch. Eager to be chosen as her friend or boyfriend, they flocked to her side, pushing Plain Jane me out of the way as they passed.
Oh, yeah, I coveted everything about Jeannie Welch. Being her was the only thing I ever prayed for earnestly.
Until the day they announced that girls would be allowed to apply to be “altar boys.” Except they’d be called “altar servers.” O-kay, then. Sitting through Mass bored out of my skull, I'd often watched my male classmates strut around the altar importantly, and committed the sin of envy. They got to wear mini-cassocks and help the priest. It seemed totally cool. I put in my application. I had something new to pray for.
Apparently all the other girls thought it was pretty cool too, because we all put in our applications. One by one, we were called over to the Rectory, where Father Ignatius interviewed us. I was terrified.
Father asked a bunch of questions, most of them from the Baltimore Catechism. For the first time I was grateful to Sister Ursaline in fourth grade, who made us memorize the whole Baltimore Catechism book.
Question: Who made the world?
Answer: God made the world.
Question: Why did God make you?
Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.
I was clipping along pretty well, committing the sin of pride with enthusiasm, until Father took it to a more personal level. When he starting asking questions about my beliefs, I stole a glance at Sister Mary Clarice -- who looked pretty prideful herself -- standing off to the side with her arms shoved up the billowy sleeves of her brown habit, and I lied.
“Yes, Father. I believe in the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
They didn’t announce the list of girls who had been accepted for three weeks. I had plenty of time to stew over it. Given my history, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get in and Jeannie Welch would. I mean, who wouldn’t want a pretty blonde girl standing at your elbow, waiting to be of service?
At the 10 o’clock Mass on the Epiphany, Father Ignatius announced which girls would soon be altar servers. The second name on the list was Jeannie Welch. I was flooded with the sin of hatred -- that had to be a sin, right? I hated that priest and I hated Jeannie. I knew he would pick her! But hatred was soon replaced with surprise, and yes, more pride, when I heard him call out “Jane Sullivan.”
I made it! I was betting it was because I had been faithfully attending Mass every morning before school. They probably though I was a pious girl who deserved to be on the altar even if she was plain looking. I wouldn’t disabuse them of that belief. My piety had more to do with the fact that you got a free donut at the cafeteria if you received Communion. I loved those donuts. Whatever. If it got me in as an altar server, God must have appreciated it, right? I figured He probably liked those donuts too.
For the next two months, Father Ignatius trained the four of us who’d been chosen as altar server. We had to memorize our responses (Et cum spiritu tuo), learn to ring the bells with just the right flair, and practice our steps as we moved around the altar with Father. I rather liked it. Rehearsal felt like we were in a play, and it all made me feel important, a new and exciting feeling for me.
On Easter Sunday, all four of us girls joined four boys on the altar to help Father celebrate Mass. It was so neat. It was the first time I didn’t spend the whole Mass wishing it was over.
I had been a server about six months when Father Ignatious asked me to stay behind after Mass one Sunday. He said he wanted to give me some additional training on parts of the service. At first, I felt special to be singled out to receive more training, but then I saw the look on Jeannie Welch’s face. I wanted to think she was jealous of me, Plain Jane. But there was no mistaking that look for jealousy. She looked sad, and like she felt sorry for me.
I soon found out why.
I prayed to God, and to every saint I could think of, begging for an end to my sessions with Father. I even prayed to unicorns, just in case. The more he trained me, the more Masses I was scheduled to serve, and the more Masses I served, the more training I got. And I knew the others were being trained too. We were never in the same session with Father Ignatius, but after every Mass, one of us was asked to stay after for remedial work. All of us became more “serious” during Mass, something our parents and teachers applauded. The reality was that each of us was dreading the moment in the sacristy after Mass when Father would select someone to stay behind.
None of us ever told anyone. We never even talked to each other about it. Father made it clear to us all that we were sinful children and he was helping to cleanse our souls of impure thoughts. He tapped into the guilt we’d all built up for six years, and we kept our mouths shut, fearful of God’s retribution if we spoke up.
Father Ignatius (who I’d privately started calling Ugly Iggy) “trained” me for about four months. Finally, I decided I knew enough. I knew what I had to do and didn’t need any more training to do it.
Mrs. Arthur, the Rectory housekeeper, discovered Father in his study when she reported to work one Monday morning. My parents wouldn’t talk about it, saying such things were not for the ears of children. But rumor had it that Father Ignatious had been found lying on the floor behind his desk, with his pants down around his ankles and a big stab wound in his chest. I’m guessing he was pretty dead.
Maybe my prayers were answered and a unicorn came to my rescue. I was damn sure it wasn’t God.
No, I don’t believe in God. A true God would never have allowed his children to suffer.
The one sin that is unforgivable is despair. At least, that’s what they always taught us, over and over, in catechism class. I guess that would mean I’m going to Hell.
Maybe I’ll see the unicorns there.
Written for the Tenth Daughter of Memory.