Catholic in Paramus
Copyright 1999, held by author
Sister Henora blew her nose several times a day. After the nasal expectoration, she studied the handkerchief, which she kept in the billowy sleeve of her habit. She would snort out snot into the white cloth, then just stare at it for what seemed like several minutes. I kept wondering if she was having a vision, like those three kids at Fatima. Maybe the Virgin Mary was in the mucus, revealing wisdom to this bride of Christ.
Sister Henora was a physical manifestation of God’s ultimate power. She stood six feet tall and weighed nearly three hundred pounds. She was huge, one of the biggest human beings I’ve ever seen in my life. She wore the drab blue habit of the Sisters of Charity, a formless dress that came down to the ankles, a white rope around the waist and a veil. She was the last of the conservative nuns, taking the hard-line with discipline and the Catholic world view and she taught Seventh Grade, the year after confirmation, the year before eighth grade, when High School and the promises of teen age rebellion filled our narrow horizons.
Seventh grade was the last year of the dark ages. Eighth grade meant more privileges. Eighth graders were the role models. As altar boys, they had their pick of masses, serving the prominent Midnight Masses of Easter and Christmas, and nearly all the Weddings and funerals, both of which included tips. Eighth graders served as hall monitors and bus monitors, which meant they wore special sashes and could boss all the other students around. Eighth grade also meant Sister Agnes, known throughout the school as Battle Ax, the strictest nun in the school. Her mission was to make sure the school’s role-model serfs behaved. She smacked kids around with rulers, humiliated them by washing out their mouths with soap for saying curse words, or having them stand in the corner with their backs to the class for even minor infractions like whispering or passing notes. If a boy’s hair was too long, meaning that it came over the shirt collar or fully covered the ears or if the bangs came over the eyes, the parents were notified. Hair was a big thing back then, a rebellious act. We all wanted to be like the radicals and rock stars on the news and so all the boys would push their hair behind their ears so it would look shorter at inspection time. Sister Agnes would pull the hair out from its combed positions until your face turned red from the pain. The girls had it worse. Skirts had to be no less than an inch above the knee. They could wear no make up. Sister Agnes had the girls stand in front of the class, and measured the distance between the hem of the skirt and their kneecap. You could see the girls squirming in their seats, trying to roll down the skirt before the inspection. If someone was wearing make up, Sister Agnes would call her Pocahontas, and rub the rouge, eyeliner and lipstick off with steel wool.
In Seventh grade, our rebellious impulses were still in embryonic stages. By eighth grade, they would explode. Sister Henora wasn’t as physically cruel as Sister Agnes, she inflicted more psychological punishments. She gave us an underpinning of guilt, fed our latent outrage. Our behavior wasn’t the problem. She wanted to gain control of our hearts and minds.
Sister Henora made us understand that Satan had an interest in every aspect of our lives. People were manipulated by Satan because the devil never worked alone. Her explanation resembled what parents used to say about Santa Claus when we asked how Santa Claus was able to be in all the malls and stores before Christmas to listen to every kid’s Christmas list. “Santa’s busy so he sends his elves, dressed as Santa to work the malls, and they bring the lists to the North Pole.”
According to Sister Henora, Satan implemented a similar work policy. There are little devils that we have to resist. These sinister minions constantly prodded us to give into our weaker, baser urges. “When you feel like going to sleep without saying your prayers, or you say your prayers while lying your in your in your bed instead of kneeling by the side of the bed, those are little devils making you do that, making you act less than your best,” Sister Henora told us.
Lent was Sister Henora’s favorite season. Self-sacrifice should be more gratifying than getting the present you wanted at Christmas, or even a charitable act. “During Lent, these little devils work even harder to tempt you, because they know that you are giving up something for God. If you give up eating cake for Lent, every time you see a piece of cake, the devil is the one at your side, saying that one piece of cake doesn’t matter, to eat the cake. The devil gets your mouth to water, heightens your desire for something sweet. And when you eat the cake, God sees you, he knows you broke your vow.”
Cake was only an issue during lent. All year long, devils made us talk back to our parents, say dirty words, or do things that are bad for us, like smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol.
“The reason children don’t do these things is because your bodies are young, and they will stunt your growth. Do you think Satan wants you to have good health? Satan hates everything that his good. His minions act accordingly. His minions will get you to smoke cigarettes before you are old enough.”
Terry Loftus raised his hand. He was a straight A-student, who would get top honors in science at Rutgers University and go on to be a robotics engineer. Cigarettes were big news stories back then. Television advertising was being banned, warning labels had to be attached to packs. People could no longer deny that cigarettes were unhealthy for everybody. They were known carcinogens.
“But Sister,” said Terry. “Are the little devils telling parents to smoke, because cigarettes can cause cancer in an old body too.”
“Adults know what they are doing, and they can smoke. Children can’t.” Sister Henora was adamant. Adults could not be questioned. Terry’s father had to have a lung removed, and became a fervent anti-smoker. Terry sank back in the chair, frustrated and frowning. He had worked something out logically, but Sister Henora squelched his innate propensity for reason. Terry got married when he was twenty seven, and at his bachelor party he told me, “there ain’t no way I’m having a priest there, Tim. A civil ceremony. My wife feels the same way. It’s bullshit.”
Going to Catholic School means that you get a biased view of world history. In the early grades, you learn the bible stories of the old and new testaments. But Jesus Christ was more than just the Messiah the world waited for since Adam and Eve. His life, and the Catholic church his followers spawned, was the turning point of all history, the salivation for this world as well as the next.
European History was taught to us in Seventh Grade. Historical events like the Crusades or the Spain’s Conquering of South America were examples of Catholicism fulfilling God’s Will. Sister Henora emphasized that the Spanish Inquisition helped clear out the enemies of the church. Because of my last name, I immediately was made fun of. Timothy Heretic. I kind of liked the moniker. I kind of liked the heretics. I wanted to be a radical. People like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin seemed to be in the news a lot when I was a kid. They were a lot more fun than people like Richard Nixon, and besides, who would want to get that old.
Sister Henora explored an important question of salvation for those poor souls who were not members of the One True Faith, The Catholic Church. “The people who were Jewish, and followed Judaism even though they heard the word of the Apostles, or the people the who followed Martin Luther away from the teachings of the One True Faith, the Catholic Church, they were very wrong and will go to hell. There is no salvation outside the sacraments. But God takes pity on the descendants of those people, they’ll just go to Purgatory.”
I raised my hand, “My father’s Protestant, sister.”
Some classmates gasped, some chortled. It was a mix of the shock that somebody actually didn’t have a concrete Catholic ethnicity—Italian, Irish or Polish—and the fact that my father was Protestant, yet I wasn’t in public school. Sister Henora cleared her throat, blew her nose, glanced at the fresh contents in the handkerchief in her hands, then replied. “No one can know God’s will. Those born into non-Catholic faiths, they really had no choice, and God will take that into account.”
As usual, her answer didn’t satisfy. I was worried about my father’s soul trapped in Purgatory. I asked my father why he didn’t convert to Catholicism. My father’s favorite past time was Scout Master of OLV’s troop 138, and he remained one long after I, the youngest son, dropped out of scouting.
“I don’t believe in the Pope,” he said.
“The succession of Peter, Dad?”
“I just don’t believe the Pope has that much power. I don’t believe he’s infallible.”
“But papal succession is in the New Testament, Dad.” I replied, nervously. My father had a way of just blowing up. His temper flared often, with little or no provocation. But he seemed genuinely concerned with my confusion about his religion. People who went to Purgatory eventually went to Heaven, but it took a long time and the environment was nearly as bad as perdition. “Jesus said to Peter, upon this rock I will build my church.”
“I know what he said, but I don’t believe that Jesus meant each pope would be the same as Peter. I think he meant Peter was to be the leader of the Apostles after he died,” he said. “I also don’t believe in the Eucharist.”
This was even more shocking. “The Eucharist?”
“I believe it’s a symbol, not the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
“You don’t believe in the transubstantiation.”
“I guess I don’t. I know your mother does, and we agreed to raise you kids Catholic. There are a lot of good points to the Religion, Timothy. Don’t get me wrong. I just don’t believe it, myself. In America we have freedom of religion. We all have our own beliefs, and we all try to lead good, moral lives.”
“You don’t believe in the transubstantiation? You don’t believe that at Mass, the Priest makes a miracle, transforming the bread into the body of Christ?”
At the time, I still wanted to be a priest. I thought the whole world revolved around these supposed facts. By the end of seventh grade, desire vanquished all priestly aspirations. I had learned about sex, playboy, masturbation, and even kissed Lisa Greenfield at a party. I had learned about Celibacy, and all that implied, and being a Priest no longer was part of the plan. The need to loose my virginity was. Of course, sex and sexuality are painful issues for Catholics, and as I lost my priesthood aspirations, I also questioned my faith. The two seemed so connected in my youth. But just as I have never fully lost the feeling that sex is dirty—that’s what makes it so intense—I have never been able to shake the belief that the Transubstantiation was absolute truth. Miracles do happen, and happen because of Jesus Christ. I can deny it all I want, use reason and experience to dispute it, but on my deathbed, call a Priest. Why take any chances? It has nothing to do with what is right or wrong, or even likely—it has everything to do with your childhood, and you either make peace with it, or you don’t.
And, in the end, it didn’t even matter what my father believed. When he died, he had a Catholic send off—a full blown funeral mass, attended by all the boy scouts, young and old, he had fathered by proxy during thirty plus years of scouting. The priest burned incense in the sensor, anointed the coffin with holy water tossed out of the aspergillum, gave out communion. Dad, they buried him in his boy scout uniform, rosary beads wrapped around his hands. The uniform, because that’s what he requested. He loved America’s leading paramilitary youth organization. My mother insisted on the mass and the beads. She wasn’t about to take any chances with his soul staying in Purgatory any longer than necessary.
In boy scouts, I learned how to tie knots, set up tents, swim. It was the also the place I first smoked cigarettes, pot, drank beer and hard liquor, and learned how to masturbate. Not that it takes any real technique, it’s such a simple function. But it’s not obvious. I suppose someone, somewhere first realized that if you stroke your penis it can result in pleasure, relief, jism—and who ever that was, taught another adolescent, and he taught another, and so on, down the line. Something to do when you’re not allowed to hunt.
Jimmy Christie was the instigator; he showed us how to do it one night in a tent. Some guys drive better than others, some swim while others flounder, and some can hit the ball out of the park and others only strike out or walk, but every guy is good at masturbating. I suppose homosexual and bisexual guys do it in front of each other well into their teen years and beyond, but after learning the simple movements of your hands, heterosexual males soon keep it a solitary endeavor. Nonetheless, to this day, the smell of canvass and wood fires brings back tactile memories of early release.
I can remember my next door neighbor, Christine Manna, a blonde, blue-eye princess, showing me her vagina when we were kids, like seven years old or something. I showed her my penis. I remember a small brown dot, a birth mark, near her vaginal lips, and how it was similar in size and shape to the one on her cheek, just below her eye. Then, later, maybe a year, maybe a few months, for some reason she got mad at me and pulled my hair so hard I cried. In retrospect, this action seems like some kind of response to our show and tell session, but it seemed truly harsh since pulling down our underwear in that backyard tree fort was her idea. There were no boys in her family. She was very curious.
It’s funny, how when you’re a young kid, before all the pubic hair and hormonal eruptions, it’s just innocent fun, seeing the difference between boys and girls. Then that show-and-tell stuff ends. The hair grows, the sexual imperatives start issuing priorities. Innocent curiosity is replaced by fear. Then it’s more than curiosity. Suddenly it’s the world.
My parents never discussed sex with me. After Jimmy showed me the secret trick, somebody else in the troop explained the what fors—that you’re supposed to do that with a girl—the kiss on the lips, then the tongue kiss, then the feeling up of breasts, then the fingering, and then, of course, the final insertion. I was confused. I finally had to ask my father, and he walked me into his bedroom and shut the door. He then explained, in quiet tones, how the egg is fertilized, and how it’s an expression of love. Love I think I knew about. I was writing poems to Lisa Greenfield. Connecting sex, which seemed like such a vile, exhilarating endeavor, with love, took more maturity than I had at the time. I figured that my mother was like Mary—she had kids by Virgin birth. The nuns were never clear on the Virgin part of the Virgin Mary, how she was the only one to make a success of Immaculate Conception. My mother had six kids, and after the talk with my father, I realized that not one was a virgin birth. They were all conceived by that exciting, yet frightening and banal coupling.
It seems one day, you’re just a happy boy thinking only about comic books and Star Trek and playing touch football, and then, you notice hair sprouting on your genitals, which was okay, because no one else saw it. Then, just as suddenly, maybe you wake up with sheets wet and images remembered from the naked neoclassical statues of women you saw on the class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art lingering from the dream. Around the same time, the erections start. Your cock hardens with no provocation. I can’t remember when I was first told of the word boner. For a long time, they could not be controlled. I can remember being called on by Mrs. Mckellcany, a semi-senile Sixth grade math teacher, just as a rod popped up behind the zipper of my green uniform slacks. I waddled up to the blackboard, nonchalantly crossing my hands in front of myself, as if I walked liked that all the time. I kept my back to the class as I scrawled the numbers with the chalk, then trotted back to my seat when the equation was completed, hoping no one would notice the persistent bulge.
By seventh grade, we knew why got erections. At night before sleeping, we knew how to deal with them.
Sister Henora never addressed the issue of masturbation. But she scared us indirectly, with the story of John. She only told the boys this parable. I don’t know where the girls went, but they came back all giggly and with pamphlets they weren’t allowed to show the boys. I think they learned about their periods. Boys didn’t get periods. We just got hard-ons without cause, sheet soiling, dream-motivated discharges, and the rite of passage of masturbation. Of course, masturbation may not have made you less of man, but it wasn’t the same level of maturation as menstruation. We still had to prove our manhoods, and the stigma of our virginity would plague us for years and years.
So, here we were, fed up with school, listening to rock and roll, knowledgeable enough about sex to enjoy dirty magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Sister Henora knew all this. She was going to set us straight.
“I want to tell you the story of a boy, he used to be one of my students. I won’t use his real name. Let’s call him John.”
We looked around at each other. Was John one of us?
“He’s not in this class,” she said, although we could not be sure if this was true. Sister Henora stood at the front of the class-room, leaning her large frame on the podium. “Everybody thought well of John, all the parents and the teachers and priests. He was an altar boy, and never missed a mass.”
So far, he sounded familiar. I was an altar boy, and my mother would have killed me if I missed a mass. I even got an award at graduation for serving the most masses. Most of the boys in the class aided the priest in the holy sacrifice.
“But he had a club house, a fort in the woods, where he hung out with his friends. And they would smoke cigarettes, drink beer they stole from their parent’s house, and they would play cards and read magazines, those dirty, sinful magazines like the one I found in Jimmy Christie’s desk last week.”
Jimmy bent his red face low. His mother had to be called from home for that incident. When Sister Henora found the magazine, which had already made the rounds of all the boys, she hit his hands with the ruler, then as he started crying, dragged him by the ear out into the hall and up the stairs, to the principal, Sister Eileen Cecelia.
“They would do other things that are mortal sins, to themselves, and they thought it was all a big joke.”
Our silence revealed our guilt. Nearly every boy was a member of Troop 138. We knew exactly what those “other things” meant.
Sister Henora made her final point. It wasn’t just the sin of Onan, or adult activities like smoking and drinking that were punishable by eternal damnation. “John never confessed his sins. He would serve mass on the altar, receive communion like he had done nothing wrong. He thought he could get away with something.”
And, as students of Our Lady of the Visitation, that was the one ultimate and absolute truth we learned. You could not get away with anything. Try as you might, lie as you best you can, you will be caught, you will be punished, and it will go on one your permanent record. But John didn’t need a permanent record to damn his future.
“Then one day, John died,” Sister Henora said. “He was hit by the car. It’s was God’s will that he died so young. So, his two friends were going to say mass with the priest. And I knew the priest boys, and he’s the one who told me this story. See, the priest was getting ready in the sacristy, and as he was going out of the sacristy onto the altar to begin mass, he couldn’t pass through the doorway. Something stopped him.”
Sister Henora mimed the act of trying to take a step. It reminded me of on Star Trek, when a force field appears and Captain Kirk becomes trapped. She kind of marched in place, restrained from moving forward.
“Then the priest heard something in the back of his mind. A little voice, ‘Father, I’m in Hell.’ The priest thought that maybe the death of someone so young had troubled and confused him more than he realized. So he tried to get through the sacristy door one more time.” She did her mime act again, bobbing and lurching, unable to pass through the imaginary doorway. We tittered apprehensively. Her voice became dry and low. “But he could not get on to the altar, then he heard the voice again, ‘Father, I’m in Hell.’”
Our mouths were agape. Did this happen at OLV? Did people know about this, words from beyond the grave. We were shocked. We were all as guilty as John.
Sister Henora’s voice became very low, very serious. “The priest had to walk the long way around to the Altar Boy’s changing room, where John’s two friends were putting on their cossacks. He sat them down, and said, ‘tell me about John.’ Oh, it took a while and some coaxing, but they soon came forth with the facts, of what they did in the club house, and that John wouldn’t confess these things, and that he served mass and received communion with these blemishes on his soul. The priest had to call off the funeral. And John, he will suffer for all eternity because of his impurity.”
Then Sister Henora grabbed the handkerchief from her sleeve and blew her nose. She stared at something only she could see, then said. “So, if you do those sort of things, or know somebody who does, just remember, what happened to John.”
I still wonder if Sister Henora was just acting to teach us the lesson, or if she honestly believed in this particular X-File. I was too shy or scared to mention masturbation to the priest during confession, but I always murmured a sincere Act of Contrition before receiving communion. I didn’t want to go to Hell.