When I was a young boy growing up in Downey, California, I was required to attend catechism class and Sunday mass. And one day, in the August heat, while kneeling interminably and watching my mother tap her heart in rhythm with the sounds of bells and begging for mercy for sins she never committed, I had an epiphany. Within a flaming halo I saw the light of absurdity. Oh, I was ahead of my time.
I foresaw, or perhaps divined, a time when papal authority would be challenged. When pedophile priests, protected by craven cardinals, would be tossed from one diocese to another like hot potatoes baked in Hell. Oh, what a child prodigy visionary was I!
I was instinctively repulsed by believers wearing crucifixes around their necks, with small, tormented figures nailed to the crosses. Picture if you will, a parallel universe where everything is the same except their Messiah was dispatched through decapitation, and dangling from the necks of the devout are tiny headless figures tethered to diminutive guillotines. We don’t need to hop to other parallel universes where impalement was implemented instead of crucifixion; there are limits to even my imagination.
Then there were the nuns in catechism, cloaked in black and faceless like brides of The Grim Reaper, perpetually en route to someone’s funeral. Oh how they would bewilder me with the God Is Omniscient versus Individual Free Will conundrum, and their wrathful glares when I asked if God knows what I’m having for lunch tomorrow- “Yes, yes,” they said, “Of course he knows- he’s omniscient.” “And if I’m having a turkey sandwich he knows?” “Yes, yes,”they would reply, “Of course he knows.” “Then, if I change my mind and have a ham on rye, he is not truly omniscient- but if I MUST have the turkey sandwich because God has so ordained, then I have no free will- do I sister- do I?” They quickly whisked me out of class, fearing I might taint the other boys, whose awakening hormones could be nudging them to ask their own questions.
And once, the parish priest, growing exasperated by my increasingly vocal skepticism, took me aside after mass, and to restore my faith told me to gaze upon a portrait of The Savior, hanging ponderously on the parish wall, the radiant Messiah in all of his splendor, his flowing, flaxen hair, his blue eyes sparkling on his handsome, alabaster face. “Look at him, my son- this painting was created by one of the Great Masters- do you know its title?” Puzzled, I stared, then quipped, “The Pride Of Denmark, father?” And oh my severe penance- I rattled off so many Hail Marys you’d think I was Aaron Rodgers.
And to enlighten me on the Great Masters, I was required to check out art books from the library and study Renaissance religious painting and I quickly noticed a curious redundancy- the depictions of Heaven often featured a man wearing a hospital gown, sitting passively on the edge of a cloud, a harp held limply in his hands and a vacant look on his face suggesting he was recovering from a lobotomy. And the paintings of Hell, in stark contrast, featured naked people frenzied with lust and oblivious to shame, chasing each other around an immense bonfire, cavorting in ecstasy and copulating with anthropomorphic strawberries-
and my innocent young mind reeled and I thought, I’d better tow the line- I certainly don’t want to wind up there-