Coming from Irish Catholic stock, as a young snipe I recall that our family, like many, went through the Catholic motions but wasn’t particularly devout. After all, my father still enjoyed his Lucky Strikes and gin. In keeping with traditions going back to medieval times, I think the whole ritualistic thing was really more of a superstitious safeguard against being cast into hell rather than a true spiritual exercise. The modern equivalent of purchasing indulgences as was commonplace a thousand years ago. For me, spirituality evolved later when, as a teenager I cultivated a growing interest in music, movies, art, girls, alcohol and drugs (not necessarily in that order) but those are stories for another time.
The whole church scene fascinated me growing up. It all seemed fantastical and detached from the reality of daily living in so many ways. I’ve read that when the first Christian missionaries arrived in post-Roman Britain, the old Anglo-Saxon kings initially thought they were some sort of magicians and, being a young Anglo-Saxon myself, that was pretty much my take on it as well. Indeed, I found the mass ceremony to be absolutely spellbinding, what with the psychedelic stained glass, the boisterous sonic assault of organ music on one hand and little bells gently ringing on the other, the intoxicating smell of incense on holidays (more on that later), the priests speaking in that bizarre sounding dead language, Latin and the mesmerized congregation, formally attired, singing, chanting, sitting, kneeling, standing, genuflecting and throwing money into the collection basket, all culminating with a processional up to the altar to receive communion. Were these really the same people I encountered in my day to day world? More like a platoon of spellbound atavistic doppelgängers that materialized from the netherworld once a week. All ripe fodder for a young, impressionable and developing mind, crowding into my brain and occupying precious space in the memory circuits for all eternity. This is how it was back in the 60s. Some of these practices have evolved since then but the ritualistic core remains.
As noted, though we were Catholic, we weren’t THAT Catholic. I mean, I didn’t go to parochial school or anything. My early education was in a public school. (Curiously, my school was named after Anne Hutchinson, a 17th century religious reformer and general trouble maker who was eventually massacred by the Siwanoy Indians in what’s now The Bronx. So I guess you could say that religion made a cameo appearance in my public education system.) However, attending public school didn’t absolve me from religious education. In the days leading up to my first communion, once a week I was bussed along with the other Catholic kids to the nearby church for catechism classes. It was a requirement of the sacrament, you see.
My own elementary school was pretty modern and I always felt safe, even during the atomic air raid drills we endured during those Cuban missile crisis days. The parochial school, on the other hand, seemed very old and menacing. The dimly lit interior had a lot of darkly stained wood: wood wainscoting below walls painted green, wood doors capped by wood framed stained glass transom windows, wood beam supported ceilings (also painted green), wood framed windows looking out to a boring view of the parking lot beyond which were, yes, trees. Wood, wood, wood, wood and it all had a powerful, musty varnish smell to it which heightened the religious otherworldly experience. To this day, if I’m in an old building and encounter that smell I instantly recall walking down those dark, foreboding hallways to catechism class.
The catechism classes were conducted by two nuns who I thought were rather odd creatures with their habits (both meanings). One was younger and friendly enough but the other was an old, angry battle-axe who was always scolding. They would take turns, with one teaching while the other acted as the beadle, maintaining discipline and distributing handouts. Occasionally, a priest would pop into the classroom and do a spiel. The nuns always seemed to go a little breathless and giggly whenever Father showed up. When I got a little older I wondered if there was something going on there.
The nuns took their teachings very, very seriously and had little tolerance for any shenanigans from a bunch of wise ass, nonparochial eight-year-olds. Me and another kid were pretty good at doing impressions of the nuns and priests and competed to see who was the best. We got into trouble a few times, though just verbally, no crippling raps on the hands with a steel ruler for us. I think because we were outsiders the nuns were under orders that corporal punishment was off limits. Much to their chagrin. I think there were many times when they would have loved to wallop us.
I always thought the Bible took liberties with the truth and had my doubts about the miracles and so forth, though I did think (and still do) that the scriptures made for some damn fine story telling. I used to love watching all the religious movies they showed on TV around Easter. The idea of transubstantiation, where wine and little wafers “become” the blood and body of Christ, was beyond my youthful grasp and even at a young age the concept seemed fishy, another magic trick. (Martin Luther apparently thought so as well.) It also struck me as somewhat ghoulish. Consuming flesh and blood, that is. But I didn’t question any of it, just nodded my head.
We had this catechism instruction book, a sort of combination missal/best hits of the bible, which I thought was pretty cool. I was very good at memorizing the various prayers and chants (often called upon in class to stand and recite) and I really enjoyed looking at the color illustrations which brought it all to life. One illustration in particular which made an impression on me was the one depicting Jesus in the desert being tempted by the devil. For some reason the artist chose to color the devil green rather than the traditional red I was familiar with from Saturday morning cartoons. Very odd. What was with all the green in this church? Green walls, green ceiling, green devil. But then, years later, when I saw The Exorcist it all clicked. Green was the right choice. Never did understand why Jesus didn’t just turn stones into bread as the devil urged him to do. Oh yes, I got it, he was demonstrating fortitude by standing up to Satan but after forty days with no food? Come on!
I don’t remember a helluva lot about my actual first communion beyond the uncomfortable suit and that my grandmother treated us all to breakfast afterwards at the International House of Pancakes which was dynamite. Loved those blueberry silver dollar pancakes. The next time I ate at an IHOP was many years later in Key West, Florida where I stole an ashtray which I still have and keep out in the garage, unused since I quit smoking. Whenever I see that ash tray I think not only of the southernmost IHOP in America but of my first communion as well. But I digress.
After my first communion not much happened, church-wise, until I reached the age of ten and was informed that I would now have to serve as an altar boy, the reason being that this was part of the preparation for the sacrament of confirmation. It was just altar boys in those days, no girls. Not fair, if you ask me, but again, I didn’t ask any questions, just went with the flow. Truth be told, it never even occurred to me to ask why girls didn’t have to do it.
At first I found the idea of being up on stage in front of a churchfull of people a little unsettling. Not that this would be my first experience appearing before an audience. I had been in school plays before (most notably in the starring role as Santa in the kindergarten Christmas play, bringing my mother to tears when I uttered my “Ho, ho ho” line) but this altar boy gig, with all its religious trappings, was a little different. I felt like I was auditioning for heaven and if I flubbed it I’d be cast into hell or, in the very least, purgatory or possibly even whipped into limbo with all the unbaptized babies. However, after learning the ropes and doing a couple of masses I felt pretty comfortable. It helped that the other altar boys were friends so it was like a brotherhood and we had fun trying to crack each other up during the most solemn moments by flashing a goofy face or something. This one kid Walter was an easy mark. I had once made him stream chocolate milk through both nostrils in the school cafeteria. There was also a bit of a rock star aura to it, possibly due to me entering the dawn of my preteen years and slowly developing an awkward interest in the opposite sex.
As an altar boy there were various duties one would be assigned by the priest before each mass, on a rotating basis. One boy would carry the cross during the grand entrance at the beginning of mass. Another would have to hand over the various implements of the mass…gospel, hymnal, hosts, wine, holy water, cloths, etc…when signaled by the priest. Another pretty cool job was to ring the jingly bells during the Eucharistic ceremony. This was a little tricky because you had to pay close attention to what the priest was saying (in Latin) and doing and ring the bells three times at the appropriate junctures. Not a job for a rookie.
But by far the best job an altar boy could perform was holding the communion plate under the parishioners’ chins while the priest placed the host into their mouths. This was a polished brass plate with a handle, presumably meant to catch the host (or drool) should it drop. In those days, there was an altar rail made of stone, which ran across the width of the altar, separating the sacred, forbidden priestly zone from the rest of the church where the commoners dwelled. During communion, parishioners would shuffle forward and then line up kneeling at the altar rail to receive the host. The priest worked his way down the rail, gingerly placing the hosts into waiting, open mouths whilst saying “the body of Christ”, accompanied by the altar boy holding the communion plate. The reason this was a coveted role was that it gave the altar boy an opportunity to not only try to make friends laugh or goof on them by subtly banging their chin with the plate, but it also gave a close up and personal view of the pretty girls with their mouths wide open. Nuff said.
Now, that was the week to week altar boy drill but on holidays things got a little more elaborate. The priests wore more ornate vestments plus there would be additional priests, deacons and altar boys and the mass would be longer. Much longer. Tortuous, really. This was mostly because there were more rituals to perform which required more manpower, and also to be able to handle the higher volume of parishioners due to the additional fair weather Catholics who only showed up at church on Easter or Christmas.
One of the odder practices during these holiday masses was to burn incense. At some point in the mass the priest would march up and down the aisle, swinging the censor (the metal receptacle holding the burning incense) back and forth, anointing the congregation with the holy smoke, chanting in Latin. Probably where the expression “holy smoke!” originated and maybe what they were saying in Latin. I had, of course, encountered incense before but always from a distance and never did care much for the smell. It always struck me as kind of a demonic perfume, like how hell would smell as the damned burned to a crisp, to the delight of chuckling green devils.
By the time Christmas came around, at the age of eleven I had been doing the altar boy shtick for almost two years and it seemed like I would be stuck doing this forever. I was searching for an off ramp but it was nowhere in sight. Little did I know the fickle finger of fate was about to tap me on the shoulder.
This would be my second Christmas mass as an altar boy and at this point I was considered one of the veterans, often assigned the more experienced mass serving roles (like bell ringing). At the rehearsal for this particular Christmas mass I was informed that it would be my honored duty to hold the incense censor and hand it to the priest when signaled. This was something I had never done before and I wasn’t especially excited at the prospect because, as previously noted, I didn’t really like the smell of burning incense. However, stoic trooper that I was, I didn’t complain or question. The way I figured it, it was only one mass. How bad would it be?
On Christmas day, it was hot as hell inside the church. I think it was all the body heat being given off by the larger than usual congregation. The heavy altar boy vestments didn’t help matters either. Things were going relatively smoothly as we went through the ritualistic motions. I was holding the incense censor and was holding up OK until we got to the Eucharistic prayer which is when things started to go south. As we all knelt, at some point one of the deacons noticed that the incense had almost burnt out and bent over, opening up one of the vents on the censor to let in more oxygen which, in turn, triggered a higher volume of smoke to escape. Mostly right into my face.
As the mass got to the point where the bells were ringing, I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. Save for the bells and Latin spouting priest, things were so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I must have looked a little dicey because as I gazed out through the cloud of smoke at the congregation I could see my mother looking concernedly at me and then leaning over, whispering to my father who nodded. Apparently she sensed trouble brewing. And she was right. Things started becoming very ethereal and I suddenly realized I could no longer see anything. All the other senses seemed to be working fine. I could hear the priest chanting in Latin. I could hear the little bells ringing. I felt my knees on the cool, hard marble floor. And I could smell that infernal incense but as far as my eyesight was concerned, everything was black. Soon I had the sensation like I was falling into a big hole. I felt my body swaying, swaying, then splat. I was out cold on the floor. It seemed like an eternity but was probably only a few seconds and the next thing I knew, one of the other altar boys, a kid named Michael, was helping me off the altar and guiding me to the vestibule off to the side. (I remember Michael had once told me he wanted to be a priest when he grew up. Well, he certainly earned some Godly brownie points that day.)
I was in and out of consciousness for a minute or so and when I came to I was sitting in the vestibule, accompanied by a deacon and a nun. As the deacon held a damp cloth on my bruised forehead, the nun handed me a little Dixie cup and told me to drink. Thinking it was water, I took a big sip and was surprised to realize it was actually wine. I had tasted wine the before and had not really cared for it. Too dry, what my parents drank. This stuff, however, this sacramental red wine, this blood of Christ was actually quite sweet and, at the time, reminded me a little of grape Kool-Aid. (Later, as a teenager, I would be reminded of this sacramental wine when swilling Cisco and Thunderbird with my fellow delinquents.) I gratefully gulped the rest of it down and gestured for a refill.
I was starting to feel warm and happy, my first alcohol buzz. As the nun poured more wine into the cup from a gallon jug I remember thinking that this blackout was my ticket. I had paid my altar boy dues and enough was enough. In fact, I had about had it with the whole church scene in general. Except for the wine part. That could stay. Just as the nun was handing me the second cup, my father made an appearance in the vestibule. He took one look at me, one look at the nun with the cup in her one hand and the jug in the other, and took the cup from the nun saying that he didn’t think I needed any wine. Oh, but I did, I really did. I feebly reached out for the cup. My father hesitated, but then, smiling (and, I’m sure, not realizing this would be my second), handed me the wine. I smiled back as I took another sip. He seemed to have read my mind and understood. Missus est alea…the die was cast. I was now a man.