I am like a lot of people. In the beginning, long before I knew what was happening, religion was planted inside of me. Grafted, really. Nourished by holy water and incense, its vines spread everywhere, like ivy growing up around the trunk and along the branches of an evergreen. Soon it was impossible to tell where one of us ended and the other began. Daily prayer, the rosary, the blessings of our parish priest, Confession, Communion, and the ever-watchful eyes of God and the saints. These were as much a part of me as my hands and feet, my arteries and lungs.
And, always, there was the fear, a deep and nagging terror that welcomed me each morning, followed me through the day, and refused to let go, even in my sleep. It was the helpless dread that no matter how good I was, if death were to find me with a soul stained by sin, I would spend eternity cooking in the flames of hell. All for a crime as minor as a half-eaten hot dog on a Friday afternoon.
This anxiety about everlasting punishment was fueled by an awareness of evil, and the temptations lurking in the shadows on the corner of every street, and in the corners of my mind. When I thought about tripping that annoying fourth-grader on the stairs, it was the original Slewfoot at work in me. When I lied about not feeling well in order to avoid going to church, a demon had infected my heart. When I discovered a comic book in the bedroom of my friend’s older brother – a special issue I’d never seen before, and in perfect condition – I failed to resist the urge, hiding the treasure in the sleeve of my jacket. Later, at home, I soaked in the thrill of having gotten away with something so wicked that it involved breaking no fewer than three of the ten commandments. And as I devoured each delicious page, I found refuge in the belief that the devil was again at least partly to blame. I was a little boy, after all, and in moments of weakness no match for the prince of darkness, the leader of the fallen angels.
There came a time when I wondered about the many names assigned to God’s adversary. He was called Satan in my earliest memories. But one day someone referred to Lucifer, and spoke of him with the same disdain, spitting his name as if in a hurry to get it out of their mouth. Were Satan and Lucifer the same beings, or were they evil twins? Or first cousins? Did they even know each other? Maybe they worked separate territories, and I’d been worrying about the wrong one all along.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
They were the Big Three for Catholics. Well, after the Trinity — the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of course. When an adult uttered their names in a single phrase that way, it was a signal to watch out. We didn’t consider it blasphemy, but rather a sign of surrender, and awe. My parents said it mostly when they were at the end of their rope, angry or exasperated, or when they had been struck otherwise dumb by some overwhelming problem or news. My mother said it when she saw my finger after I had closed it in the door of our 1962 Chevrolet Impala. She said it again on a cold day in January, when we heard that the son of my Godparents had been found lying face-down in the street with a bullet in his head.
Mary, I noticed, was sometimes called the Blessed Mother, or the Holy Virgin, but her actual name was always Mary. Jesus and his earthly father Joseph were equally distinct; there was never the possibility of mistaken identity.
The devil, though, continued to appear in different guises. Beelzebub. Mastema. Mephistopheles. He was a hideous creature with hooves, horns, and a tail, and he carried a pitchfork, for reasons that were never explained. He was a snake. A dragon. A smooth-talking man in a freshly-pressed Italian suit. A woman with a lot of make-up. A little boy, just like me, but with an early Beatles haircut, which I was never allowed to have. A doll. An animal in Australia. A hockey team in New Jersey. A small vacuum cleaner. The devil was everywhere, but at his most frightening, he was whispering in my ear — or worse, controlling my thoughts.
Keeping it all straight was crucial. I was sure of that, and often wished for a scorecard, the kind you got at a baseball game. There, the players had numbers on their backs and positions in the field. You could tell who was who, and what everyone had done. In the end, things added up just as they should, and you knew which team had won, and why.
Religion, which we were told was far more important, somehow seemed far less clear.
We received our instructions from God. They were written in his book, expressed in the form of mysterious stories and thick, convoluted quotes that we could never hope to fathom without the help of his human intermediaries. To a child of single-digit age, the Bible floated on a sort of invisible cloud. Its pages were nearly transparent, as if to allow holy wisdom to shine through. And their edges were coated in gold, a reminder that they contained more than words, but provided the guidance necessary to achieve eternal life. I once turned off the lights to see if it glowed in the dark.
At some point I began to notice that the people charged with translating the Bible’s secrets – the priests and nuns – were themselves struggling to comprehend them. They often closed down discussion, especially troubling questions, with the tantalizing and maddening response that we would understand everything when we got to heaven.
Even in my nearly constant state of bewilderment, it wasn’t lost on me that it would be far easier to get to heaven if we knew what to do beforehand. Yes, God would reveal his mysteries to us personally; that was part of the reward. But what if we never reached the destination? What if we took a wrong turn somewhere, just because we had trouble following the directions? God was the creator of the universe, I dared think to myself one fateful day: Why wasn’t he a better writer?
I’ve turned off comments because this is going to be a three-part post, maybe four. My thoughts and beliefs have changed over time, and I wanted to try to work through most of it before inviting feedback. I’ll probably turn comments back on with the final post, unless I completely chicken out.