Thursday, February 2, 2017

LOSING GOD by Peter Nolan Smith

A week before Christmas of 1967 I received my midterm report card from Our Lord’s Health High School. Bruder Karl had been gracious enough to pass me with a D+ in German. Having a stutter and stammer I had been expecting worst, but I was surprised to see that Brother Valentine had failed me in religion as well as an accompanying letter stating that my scholarship to the all-boy's parochial high school had been revoked for the remainder of my sophomore year.

“Sorry.” I showed my mother the report card in the kitchen. My brothers and sisters were in the den watching TV.

"You failed religion?" She sat at the table, her eyes blinking in disbelief.

"Yes."

"And you lost your scholarship?" The devout Catholic had been so proud of my winning free tuition to Our Lord’s Health High School.

"Yes."

“What is wrong with you?”

“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 straights As. “I can understand a D+ in German.”

My Irish grandmother was only family member speaking in a foreign language, which was her native tongue of Gaelic.

“I t-t-t-tried my best.”

“Yes, I know you did, but how do you explain an F in religion?” My mother had me on the stand.

“I got a 90 average in the t-t-t-tests.”

“What about your homework?” My mother was a true believer in the One True God.

“A+.” These results weren’t enough to warrant a passing grade from Brother Valentine.

“Then how can an altar boy get an F?” My mother threw the report card on the table.

I had served Masses throughout grammar school.

"I don't know."

I couldn't tell her the truth.

"Even Stalin didn't failed religion." My mother hated the communists, but wasn't above mentioning that the late Soviet dictator had been a altar boy in Tsarist Russia.

“I know.” I fought off the urge to say that Stalin had been a bank robber too.

“What will Nana say?”

“Why do you have to t-t-tell Nana?" My Irish grandmother's faith rose with the sun and burned deep into her sleep.

"Telling her that you failed religion will ruin my mother's Christmas." My mother picked up the phone.

“P-p-please d-d-don’t call Nana.” Nana prayed for my soul every day, since the old woman could see through my deception.

Like me she had been born with 'the veil'.

“Heavens forbid I call my mother, but I’m getting to the bottom of this F.” Her finger angrily spun the Princess phone dial and she said to the person answering her call, “I’d like to speak with Brother Valentine."

"P-p-p-please don't," I begged, since not having a scholarship meant my transfer to a town high school with girls.

"Go into the living room.”

Whatever she had to say to my teacher was for adults and I sat on the sofa covered with plastic to protect it from ruin.

Five minutes later 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.”

Ever since Vatican II priests and nuns were departing from the orders in the hundreds. Something that made them leave. No one said what it was.

“But you don’t believe in God. Tell me that isn't true."

"I have doubts."

"Brother Valentine didn't say doubts. He said disbelief. Which is it?"

I shut my eyes like a parachutist jumping out of a perfectly good plane.

"Disbelief." No righteous god would have allowed my best friend Chaney to die in Lake Sebago.

"My son is a disbeliever. An atheist." A 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. The Church had burned heretics for challenging the divinity of Jesus and atheism was an even greater anathema than communism in Cold War America.

"You're fourteen years-old. How can you know if you don't believe in God?"

"I decided three seconds after you told me, "Chaney is dead."

"He drowned in a lake."

"Yes, but God didn't save him."

"That's not his job."

"I know that."

“But you were an altar boy.” Her head was spinning with my challenge to her faith.

“I did it for you.” I also served, because my older brother and I 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 girlfriend attended the town high school and failing religion seemed like the fastest way to end my Catholic schoolboy career, so 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.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Corporal punishment was my mother’s job, but I was scared of my father, even though the Maine native had never hit me in my life, for my fear was based on the desire for his love and I had a tendency to make mistakes.

That evening I waited on the front steps. The night was cold even for December. I thought about running away, but the low sky promised snow and I liked sleeping in a warm bed.

My father walked up to the house. He was an electrical engineer. They liked order and he groaned upon seeing my face, “Now what?”

“I failed religion.”

“How did you fail religion?” He had played football in college. Discipline was a key to survival in his world.

“I don’t b-b-believe in God.” I struggled with each word.

"Since when?"

"Since Chaney died."

That long?"

The summer of 1960 was only six years ago."

Forever for a teenager.

"Yes, sir."

"And you don't believe a force ruling the universe?"

"Maybe gravity and the speed of light, sir." I was good in math, but rejected the infallibility of any law of science other than 1 + 1 = 2.

"Heaven and hell?"

"Fairy tales." I could tell him the truth.

"You're going against the beliefs of most of the people on Earth."

"I know." I had calculated that there were about a million atheists on the planet.

None of them lived in my town.

"This is a problem for your mother. What are you going to do?"

"Whatever she wants." Obedience was the path of least resistance.

"Good boy, but try and keep an open mind."

"You're not mad."

"I'm mad, if I know what's good for me." My father had converted from the Episcopal Church to marry my mother. His faith in the Holy Roman Church was almost as young as me. He pulled 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 cupped his hands over his ears. Frunk was a believer, but didn’t criticize my decision. He had been Chaney’s friend too.

Christmas morning I received no 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 told her friends that 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.

My Nana came to Christmas dinner with the rest of my relatives. Uncle Jack spoke with my mother. They looked at me. Nana gave me a Realistic transistor radio at the end of the meal. I kissed her with all my love. She blessed me at the door, then left to be driven home by Uncle Jack.

"And you want to hurt that woman?" my mother murmured behind my back.

"No."

"Then today would be a good day to rejoin the Church."

It was Jesus' birthday."

"I'll think about," I said, giving her a wrapped box.

It contained a silver chain and cross.

She loved it almost as much as my wavering.

After New Year’s the phone rang every morning. The brothers at Our Lord’s Health were pleading for my soul.

“Come back to the faith and we’ll give back your scholarship.” The vice-principal was playing good guy.

“I don’t believe in God.” I belonged somewhere other than Our Lord’s Health High School and that was closer to Kyla.

"Then you'll be damned to Hell." The Vice Principal switched to bad guy with the ease Dr. Jekyll becoming Mr. Hyde.

Things got rough that January. Football players in my hometown called me a commie faggot. I was neither.

Our Lord’s Health suggested to my parents that I see a psychiatrist.

I agreed to this experiment for my mother's sake.

On a cold gray afternoon my parents drove me over to Commonwealth Avenue in our Delta 88. We didn’t have much to say and I looked out the window at the long-haired hippie girls of BU. They had been 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 to Jesus. We parked before the Order of Jesus' main building. Snow covered the lawn.

“You’re my son. I will always love you, but you know how I feel about God. Please have an open mind.”

“I will.”

“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 into the building.

The cardinal lived on these grounds. He chanted the Rosary over the radio every evening at 5. My mother joined his raspy voice along with thousands of other Catholics around Boston. He had anointed me on my Holy Confirmation and awarded me my scholarship certificate.

I lowered my head hoping that he wouldn’t see me.

The diocesan shrink had an office on the second floor. A chubby man in a three-piece plaid suit met me at the door.

"I'm Bob. Please sit down.” He pointed to a pair of leather chairs and shut the door.

I sat, but said nothing, because his head was covered by a thick mat of hair, whose color didn't match his sideburns.

"We both know why you're here." Bob sat next to me. “I’ve read your file. 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 looked at the huge crucifix hanging on the wall and then out the window. The room was warm and the chair was too comfortable for a meeting about a young man's soul.

“Do you believe the Bible?”

I remained silent, because any words could be used against me.

“Are you going to tell me why you don’t believe in God?” His hands rested on my knees. He had a nice touch.

“I have nothing to say.” I pushed this hands off my lap.

“The truth will set you.” He leaned forward and his right hand settled his toupee on his head.

“Why should I tell the truth to a man who lies to himself about being bald.”

"Bald?" he gasped.

"Yes, and you're wearing a rug." I stood up and ripped the toupee off his skull.

“You’re damned.”

“You only believe in Jesus, so he can cure your baldness.” I threw the wig in his face before exiting from the office.

I walked back to the Olds defiant in my lack of belief, until spotting my mother in the car. She was praying for my soul and my father was staring into the distance, but I didn’t care about the Holy Trinity, heaven, purgatory, hell, The Holy Eucharist, the infallibility of the Pope, or the Blessed Virgin.

My birth had taken twenty-two hours. My mother had gone down to the Valley of Death to bring me life and I wished that I was still a six year-old boy in a white communion suit. Chaney had worn a similar suit for our Holy Communion. We fought over something that spring day. My mother had ordered me to say 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. The 88 had a big V-8, but it wasn't 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.

“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.

“He touched 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. Neighbors whispered 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.

“Are you telling the truth?”

“Yes, sir.” I felt bad, for while I was an atheist, I was not a snitch.

“I have to make a phone call.” My father drove to the nearest phone booth and parked the car.

“Who are you calling?” My mother asked softly.

“Uncle Jack. He'll know what to do."

Uncle Jack was a lawyer.

"We can't sue the Church."

"No one is suing anyone." My father got out of the car.

"Now see what you've done?"

My mother cried into a handkerchief.

"Yes, ma'am," I answered, but breathed easy, because I was closer than ever to attending a public school.

Several days later my Uncle Jack and I sat in the principal’s office. The ex-Marine told Brother Valentine of the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed under the Constitution. He loved the idea of fighting the Church on this issue and his record in court was well-known throughout the state of Massachusetts.

Only the previous year Uncle Jack had won $500,000 for a deaf girl in a suit against the nuns for torturing their students.

Surrender was less costly than fighting and the brothers folded like a wet newspaper.

My religion teacher changed the F to a B+. Brother Karl’s D remained a D+. It was an honest grade. My scholarship was reinstated, but to half to seal the deal Uncle Jack told me to keep my atheism to myself.

"Especially around your mother and Nana."

Yes, sir."

I wished that the brothers had stuck to their guns and I had 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.

I attended church with my parents until I graduated from high school. I never went again.

Uncle Jack became a judge.

My mother prayed for my soul to the end.

My father stopped attending church only because he was sick.

Over the years I have explained that my lack of belief does not subtract from my spirituality, for I had visited the most holy sites on Earth to expiate the sins of my deceased baby brother and in 2008 I was proud to hear President Obama mention non-believers in his inaugural speech.

Our numbers within the USA have grown to 20 million strong since 1971 and we are getting stronger, despite America having imprinted IN GOD WE TRUST on its money.

Two summers ago I was at a pool party at my doctor’s house on Staten Island. We had attended a big Catholic college in Boston. Nick was BBQing burgers and Italian sausages. I was glad to be out of Brooklyn and intended on sleeping over in the spare bedroom.

After three Margaritas and a glass of wine I told his wife the story of my scholarship. Her religion was a comfort to her and I said nothing to disparage her devotion, so Rose laughed at the funny parts. We knew each other over twenty years.

Her husband told me to cool it.

"I have a hard enough time getting my four children to attend Sunday Mass without you preaching the beauty of sleeping later on the Lord's Day."

"I can't blame them." Sleeping late was my favorite drug.

Two parents had overheard my discourse against organized religion and the father said, "Our 10 year-old son is a non-believer."

"And you want him to be a believer?"

"No, we were wondering if you could you talk to him, so he knows he’s not alone.” The mother was concerned about her son's divorce from the norm.

"Are you believers?"

"Yes, but we have tried everything with Charlie and we want him to feel good with his choice."

"You do?"

"Yes, so do you mind talking with him?"

“No problem.” I walked over to the young boy, who was playing a video game.

The other kids were cannonballing into the pool.

Charlie looked like he was winning his game, which probably meant either killing aliens or zombies.

“Your parents wanted me to speak to you?” I flashed back to the shrink in 1967.

I still had a full head of hair.

“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 that not believing won’t kill you.”

I kept my spiel short and sweet. 10 year-old boys rarely want to hear anything from a man in his 50s. I certainly hadn’t at his age, but I didn't have a sweep-over.

"Everything will be fine." It had been for me.

“Thanks mister.” Charlie was genuinely relieved that I had stopped talking.

Religion and especially lack of religion was a private matter best left to the soul.

“No worries. I just wanted you to know that you aren't alone."

"I already know that." He motioned to two kids at the end of the patio. They were Goths.

"Then have a good life."

I took off my shirt and bellyflopped into the pool. The impact wave washed over the rim. Nick's children screamed with delight and I almost felt like Moses parting the Red Sea, but only almost like Moses. The prophet had a big beard.

I got out of the pool and pushed back my hair.

The kids screeched for a repetition of my feat.

“Only if we do it together.” I pointed to the young atheist.

The others called Charlie by name.

He put down his video game carefully to not let it get wet.

“On the count of one, two, three. Cannonball.”

Our combined impact created a wave to make Noah proud and I broke surface with a smile.

It was good to be a kid again. I only wished that Chaney was with me, then again he was with me always, because memories of the Here-Before live forever in the Here-Now.

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