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I Was a Teenage Altar Boy
...And Other Confessions
Actually, I was a pre-teen altar boy, but that doesn't sound as catchy.
An altar boy "assists the celebrant at a church service," in my case, at St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church in the Seattle suburb of Kent. My dad was raised Catholic and was an altar boy himself. He turned my Presbyterian mom on to Catholicism when they married and had two daughters, then me, all of us baptized. My oldest sister was never serious about church at all, while my other sister was the most devout member of our family, sincerely displaying an electric Virgin Mary lamp in her bedroom. Me, I worried about my mortality on occasion and said my prayers every night before going to sleep.
Attending a one-hour service each week was the most formally structured tradition our family practiced. Perhaps my parents' distance from their own folks accounted for our lack of established rituals, so we looked to the church for guidance. At home we said grace before dinner, "sacrificed" material goods for Lent, stuck a crèche on the fireplace mantle at Christmas, or once in a long while, read passages aloud from the bible. To me it seemed as if we were half-heartedly going through the compulsory motions, and we never really made ourselves full-fledged members of the church community either. But if nothing else, Sunday mass was important.
St. Anthony's was built early in the century when Kent was just a small dairy town. The modest, colonial-styled brick building featured a pitched roof, tall steeple, and stained glass windows. Up in the balcony were an organist and choir, and on the wall behind the altar hung a big cross with a graphically realistic, life-sized Jesus nailed to it. The parishioners were mostly working class families and a few veiled old ladies clutching rosaries. The strain of Catholicism we experienced there was fairly non-stereotypical; none of us kids went to parochial schools, nor were there any nuns around. I was never molested by any priests, nor did a miraculous visage of Jesus Christ appear in my mashed potatoes.
When I was three or four, I was inexplicably impressed by the way the ushers gathered the collection during mass. They used these baskets with long handles to reach down the rows so people could drop their donations in; once I had everybody at a backyard picnic put their dirty napkins in the butterfly net I waved at them. At the age of six I was still too young to be an usher, but after taking my first communion, I did qualify to become an altar boy.
My doting godmother somehow seemed to play an influential role in convincing my parents to put me to work. Altar girls were forbidden, so my big sisters were spared the experience. Over my uncomfortable dress clothes and clip-on tie, I wore a uniform that actually made me feel holier-than-thou: a long-sleeved, black, floor-length robe with a square-cut neck, covered by a shorter white tunic. About the same time, my mom got me a store-bought devil costume for Halloween. Go figure.
Three altar boys would serve at each mass, beginning with a procession up the aisle carrying a portable cross, holy water, wine, and a bible. Tasks included lighting candles and ringing a bell when the priest read key passages during the offering, but the greatest chore came during communion. We were to hold a paten, this small metal plate shaped like a ping-pong paddle, under people's chins as the priest deposited eucharistic wafers into their mouths. It served as a sort of safety net. Once I was caught off-guard when some old lady accidentally let one slip off her tongue and it dropped to the floor, blowing the only opportunity I ever had to catch a falling wafer. I probably just said "oops," and was mildly disappointed that my perfect record had been snapped. The priest most likely just fed her a new one, and nobody seemed to get alarmed over whatever the theological implications might have been.
Otherwise, we altar boys were as bored and restless as the other kids in the congregation, making faces at each other and desperately trying to stifle our uncontrollable giggles. We'd follow the STAND/SIT/KNEEL directives in missal, recite the appropriate refrains aloud, and sing the hymns along with everybody. Masses were almost indistinguishable from week to week, year after year, and since I had the routine down pat I could've done the altar boy duties in my sleep. Rather than paying attention to the sermons, I would often daydream, stare at cute girls, or imagine Batman leaping out of the air vent above the altar.
After cartoons, Saturday mornings meant CCD -- Catechism something something -- a sort of "Sunday school" held in classrooms adjoining the church. There weren't any grades so I could take it easy and goof off, more than I dared to at my regular school. The highlight each week came after class when I'd sneak over to the Ben Franklin store to buy baseball cards with lunch money I stole from my mom, before heading to the library where my dad would come get me. Of course I knew I was breaking some Commandment, though I figured I was only human and could make amends later. The one time I confessed to a priest was during CCD, except I didn't fully grasp the proper etiquette. Instead of the customary whispering, I talked so loud that my sisters and the other kids waiting their turn outside the confessional could clearly hear my transgressions. It was nothing terribly scandalous (probably just petty disobedience of my parents), but when I stepped outside the booth to everybody's guffaws, it was embarrassing just the same.
Whether at CCD or on altar boy duty, I was endlessly bewildered by the weird Catholic practices I was a part of. For instance, I was never sure if the cannibalistic overtones of "the body of Christ" were to be taken literally. Was Jesus actually made of flour? Or if it was merely a symbolic gesture, why would anyone want to "eat" him anyway? How's that for gratitude? "All access" altar boy privileges allowed me a mystifying glimpse of a Zip-Loc bag full of communal wafers stored away in a closet. Wasn't that some kind of sacrilege? Why would Father Donohoe smoke cigarettes out on the sidewalk after mass? I couldn't grasp why, at the annual Ash Wednesday service, everybody got black soot smeared on their forehead. I found it hilarious. And much of the lexicon left my little boy brain addled too. I wasn't sure what "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" meant, though I didn't see this as a problem since we didn't know our neighbors all that well anyway.
Seeing is believing, and in my heart I couldn't quite take all this as seriously as I tried. My blind faith certainly wasn't genuine, as a lurking fear of death, increasing sense of guilt and shame, and above all, that implicit threat of going to hell outweighed any "love" I had for God. And the fact that I never got that flamethrower I prayed so hard for didn't help either. I wasn't completely plagued however, as my boyish enthusiasm and naïveté kept me centered.
When I was about eleven our family switched to a new church a few miles away, St. Stephen the Martyr, for reasons I never knew. Maybe the modern user-friendliness and relatively progressive atmosphere of this '70s-era suburban worship complex wooed us in. (Personally, I liked it because it bore my name.) It looked more like a business park than a church, with its large parking lots, attractive landscaping, concrete walls, and flat roof. Inside was a disarming abstract tapestry of Jesus emerging from a cave behind the altar, not a gruesome crucifix like St. Anthony's had. The congregation was predominantly young, white, middle-class families, while the equally young, enthusiastic priests made St. Anthony's seem old and bitter. The altar boys (and girls) sported yellow hooded robes. Fortunately I was never made to join their ranks, and though I wasn't sure why, I didn't complain. "Breakfast with God" was St. Stephen's euphemism for CCD, held Wednesdays before school at the cruel hour of 7 a.m. About the only thing I retained from those red-eye classes was that St. Stephen got "stoned to death," which invariably provoked laughter in class whenever the topic arose (as did the word "pews").
The years at St. Stephen bring to mind the difficult time of my parents' divorce. They joined Marriage Encounter, a church-sanctioned couples' group involving mysterious closed-door "dialogues" conducted by themselves at home. We had the fairly ubiquitous Marriage Encounter window sticker on our station wagon too (but not that "Protect Human Life" bumper sticker, the one with head silhouettes of a baby and an old man, who's probably in a coma). In hindsight, the marriage was on the ropes at this point. My mom got more serious about her faith as things came undone, and became a wine server at communion. My dad did mass readings as a lector, but when my folks finally split, my dad quit being a lector and was prohibited from taking communion any longer. My mom became increasingly zealous, making us pray openly in restaurants before meals, and sponsoring a family friend's baptism. Then she faded from the church altogether; perhaps it failed her.
The last couple years that I went to church was while my sisters were away at college and I lived alone with my dad. By then I was probably too old to be an altar boy, even if I wanted to. Mass was usually put off all weekend, so the two of us would go to the "cool" one Sunday night, where the organ and choir were replaced with guitars, drums, and tambourines, and where the simple phrase "amen" turned into a lively production number. This one was popular with the kids, but while the rest of the congregation was cutting loose, we were pretty stoic. By then I just plain dreaded church, even if I got to wear T-shirts and jeans. Any pretense of sincerity or devotion on my part was long gone. I always felt relief when the priest declared, "The mass has ended. Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord."
All the while I grappled with many theological issues that were never resolved. Simple curiosity pondering unanswerable questions ("How come church smells funny?") evolved into serious challenges to the faith, mostly concerning the afterlife. Everybody sins to some degree, so what exactly are the minimum credentials one needs to get into heaven? (Or, more to the point, to avoid hell?) Would everyone who doesn't go to church go to hell, including my grandparents, friends, and most kids at school? What about people in remote parts of the world who haven't heard the "good news" from some missionary? If a person is condemned to hell, isn't God to blame for not getting through to them? Or was their damnation already part of God's master plan? Are we simply helpless to God's control over our fate? Or could one theoretically live an exciting, sinful life, then just 'fess up on their deathbed and be off the hook? Why would a compassionate God allow the world to be such a mess? Just what concrete proof does any religion have that theirs is "right?" What's the deal with Mormons? Perhaps the bible is full of loopholes; I just don't know. But these questions are largely academic to me now anyway.
My mom's dropping out of the church made it easy for me to do the same, especially once I moved away from my dad and into her place for my last two years of high school. I was never officially confirmed in the church, yet that lingering fear made me consider going back while in college. I got over that, and these days I don't really subscribe to any spiritual doctrines. I approach all persuasions with the same healthy skepticism as I have for Bigfoot, UFOs, and most meat products. Now I wouldn't be so bold to call myself an atheist, either. This reflex still urges me to start praying when things aren't going my way, and sometimes I wonder in the back of my mind if I might be wrong. In any case, "religion" bores me and, despite my background, I'm biblically illiterate and ignorant to such matters in general. I can't name the current pope or understand the mess in Northern Ireland, nor do I know what the Vatican's position is on 75 mph speed limits. The closest I come to religion anymore is my perverse fascination with the Trinity Broadcasting Network on TV. One look at Benny Hinn's Miracle Invasion or Jan Crouch's hair and you'll understand.
My dad still goes to mass every week but says little about it, while my mom's spiritual interests now lean toward New Age ideologies, with the astrological charts, crystals, and related accoutrements. One sister quit church when she started college and hasn't looked back. I'm not so sure about my other sister; I think she quietly practices some kind of faith and just keeps a lid on it. We're probably all the better for ourselves, yet it's hard for me to remember those altar boy days at St. Anthony's without some fondness. It's not so much the church stuff -- maybe it's our misguided attempts at wholesome "family values" that I miss. More likely, maybe I just miss myself as a kid without so many hang-ups, uncertainty, and cynicism, enjoying that innocuous time when simply being an altar boy was the most responsibility I knew.
I never get up before noon on Sundays anymore.
Originally appeared in issue #8 of the defunct Urban Outfitters publication Slant, Winter 1996/97.
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