When I was a boy I attended a Catholic parochial school from second to eighth grade and was given a heavy dose of religious indoctrination. It was unfortunate that I didn’t learn to ignore what we were being taught about heaven and hell, sin and salvation. Most of my classmates just nodded along and waited for the lessons to end, but I sat and thought about them for a long time after.
My sister Carla suffered from a similar inability to tune out the nuns and priests. In second grade she received a scapular, a brown patch of cloth with a holy image on it. It had ties and was meant to be worn around the neck. She and her classmates were told that they couldn’t die in mortal sin as long as they wore their scapulars. It was a stay-out-of hell lucky charm. They were given an instructive little story to go with their magic present: “Suzy got a scapular and thought that she could do anything she wanted to do and still avoid eternal damnation. So Suzy got mean and rude and did increasingly horrible things: she kicked old ladies; she shoved her sister down a flight of stairs; and she stole a cupcake from a bakery. As she ran out of the shop, laughing merrily as she licked the icing off the top, she didn’t notice the bus rounding the corner. Suzy ran out into the street right in front of it. The bus crushed her and as she lay dying on the hard cement she thought, ‘It’s okay. I’m going to die, but I’m not going to hell.’ And then the ties loosened and her scapular slipped slowly off her neck. She saw it lying beside her as she drew her last, horrified breath. The end.”
Carla couldn’t fall asleep that night, but sat up in bed terrified that she might end up in Hell if her scapular fell from her neck while she slept.
When I was in fourth grade we were told in religion class that if we damned someone, even if we just thought “God damn you” without saying the words out loud, we had committed a mortal sin. One moment of mental frustration and spite could earn the offender the penalty of eternal flames (unless he confessed to the nearest available priest before a marauding bus ran over him). I took this piece of information home and brooded over it with a growing sense of foreboding. I had a quick temper and a little brother who annoyed me. We shared a tiny bedroom. The odds didn’t look good.
I had never considered the possibility of damning anyone before the lesson, and even though the thought of committing that sin had been implanted by my teacher, I knew that I would be held accountable in the end. Incitement couldn’t be used as a defense. And sure enough, late the next day, my brother did something sneaky and mean to Carla when the three of us were out playing in the front yard. Maybe he hit her with a downed tree branch and hurt her. Maybe he said something nasty. I don’t remember. I got angry at him for his behavior, thought the dread words and attached his name to the end of the phrase, and sentenced myself to be cast into the Pit.
I looked around me after thinking my bad, bad thought and wondered why nothing seemed different. No one noticed any change in me, and I was treated just the same as before. Why wasn’t I shunned? I had committed a sin that was in the same category as murder, rape and desecrating a church, and there I went about my business for the rest of the day unmarked and unscathed. I ate a cheeseburger for supper, listened to my parents talk as we watched Lawrence Welk, did the dishes and got ready for bed. I was a tiny bit relieved that there were no immediate consequences, but was also aware that God knew what I had done. And though I might fool everyone else, HE knew just what kind of little boy I was. I didn’t bother to go looking for my scapular in the cluttered dresser drawer where I had carelessly tossed it a few months after getting it. I knew that it wasn’t worth the effort to dig it out. I could tie it with triple triple knots and it would still fall off my neck at my moment of reckoning.
The next day I woke up early on a sunny Sunday morning. I fixed myself a breakfast of chocolate milk and a pop tart. I sat down on the carpet in front of our television set with my brother and sister and we tuned in “The Tom and Jerry Show”. This was my favorite cartoon. I loved all the violence and vengeance. And as I sat there laughing when Tom chased Jerry up a drain spout and got stretched out to ridiculous proportions, I had the nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong. Then I remembered that I was going to Hell. Jerry whacked Tom with a pool cue. I grinned at my brother even as I realized that I was eternally estranged from my Lord and Savior. I nearly snorted chocolate milk out of my nose when Jerry stuck Tom’s tail into a light socket and burned it to cinders. But when I stopped laughing and choking the crappy feeling of dread returned.
I managed to resolve my spiritual dilemma during the car ride to church. I knew that I could never go to confession and admit what I had done. The parish priest was a grim giant of an old man who intimidated the adults as well as the children in the congregation. I couldn’t face him in the darkness of the confessional booth even if it meant that my cowardice sent me to Hell. I told myself to forget about the whole thing, that I couldn’t possibly be held accountable in such a terrible way for thinking a couple of words, and that I must have misunderstood what the teacher said during our lesson.
And I remembered a precedent: when I was five I heard that an actor on a TV show got fired, and I thought that his termination meant that his boss tossed him into a bonfire and killed him. I was very relieved when my mother cleared up my confusion and told me that the actor was alive and well. I convinced myself that this damnation business was a similar case.
So I sat in our pew with a fairly clear conscience, sang the songs, rose, sat and genuflected at the right times, and went up for communion. The sun still shone through the church windows and no angels descended from heaven with flaming swords to smite me when the priest placed the host on my tongue. The last traces of guilt, fear and dread began to dissipate, and by the end of the day I felt just fine.