Today is the 60th anniversary of my First Holy Communion. Leading up to this day of days, there had been some concern that it would have to be postponed. During May, a plague of tonsillitis had surged through the second grade class at Our Lady of the Angels. Pretty much every kid – all 50 or so of us – came down with some throat-ish thing at some point. I remember a day when I was one of four kids present in our class. I caught whatever it was, and was out of it for a week or so. During my illness, I missed my grandmother’s 75th birthday celebration, tucked into bed while the extended family partied in the living room, a few inches from my head. Someone brought me a piece of cake, and I recall a number of my father’s cousins sticking their head in to say hello, probably when coming or going from the bathroom across the narrow hall from my bedroom.
As we counted down to the big day, which was preceded by the semi-big day – First Confession – two things stand out. One, we kept a big calendar, and each day, our nun put a sticker (flowers, boop-di-boop angels) on the day we’d just passed. (After our First Communion, she raffled off the calendar, and I won. I did end up hanging on to it for a number of years.) The other thing was the emphasis that was placed on communion being some sort of game-changing experience. Once that host was placed on your tongue, we were told we would go into some type of ecstasy. Think whirling dervish. Think the earth moved.
And, with typical parochial school double whammy, if you didn’t feel the magic moment, it was your fault.
The hymn they sang at First Holy Communion back then began “Oh, Lord, I am not worthy.” And that’s what the priest said when he put the wafer on your tongue. Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea. (Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof; say but the word, and my soul shall be healed.)
And, apparently, despite the fact that I was a goody two-shoes if ever, I actually wasn’t worthy.
It almost goes without saying that, despite the most pious look I had on my face, despite my folding my hands in perfect steeple form as I made my way back from the altar rail – the seven-year old equivalent of Meg Ryan in the deli explaining how she faked it in When Harry Met Sally - IT hadn’t happened. And that’s when the first doubts crept in.
So that’s me, in the backyard, starting to lose my religion. (I look like a telephone booth in that dress, but trust me when I say that I was a skinny kid – the arms and legs might be a giveaway. But my mother was the practical type, so why buy a dress that fits, when you can get one a size or two too big that will last. This little organdy number was dyed mauve, and it was my good, Sunday dress for the next year or so. The veil and head piece were borrowed.) Sure, I look plenty happy. I got a few presents and we had a cake. And my friend Susan (who lived in back of us) came in her outfit, and we swanned around in our fancy dresses for a while. (Somewhere, I have a picture of the two of us, with steepled pious hands.)
A few weeks later, when I made my second confession, I had my second crisis of faith. I’d bitten my nails at Mass and gone ahead and “received” anyway, even though you weren’t suppose to eat anything for 3 hours before communion. I went through a little back and forth in my conscience, and came down on the side of it will be humiliating to sit in the pew and let people think I have committed a mortal sin. This, to me, would have been far worse than actually committing a mortal sin – which chewing on my fingernail (i.e., “eating”) and then going ahead and receiving communion was. Even though this would have put me at risk of eternal damnation if, say, I’d been struck by a car and killed on the way home from church while I had an unconfessed mortal sin on my soul. I ignored everything I’d been told about the white milk bottle soul, the spotted milk bottle soul (venial sins), and the black milk bottle soul (mortal sin). Instead, I listened to my inner Jiminy Cricket, who advised “always let your conscience be your guide.” Obviously, my conscience was pretty slippery, and somewhat situational ethic-y – at least a the moment where I had to make a decision. (If none of this makes sense, you clearly weren’t in Catholic grammar school in the 1950’s or 1960’s.)
But at my next visit to the confessional, my little Catholic conscience came to the fore – Jiminy Cricket would have been proud – and I confessed that I had nibbled on my cuticles and then, knowingly, received communion with something on my stomach that shouldn’t have been there. That confession was made to Monsignor Lynch who, even by our second confession, everyone knew enough to avoid. He actually listened to what you were saying, asked questions, sometimes reprimanded you, and gave a relatively lengthy penance: five Our Father’s, five Hail Mary’s, five Glory Be’s. (This was in contrast to the curates, who didn’t give a rats ass what we told them, and gave mini-penances like three Hail Mary’s.) But the nuns were on to us, and always forced one-third of the kids into Monsignor Lynch’s funnel.
Anyway, when I tried to explain my Big Sin to Monsignor Lynch, he cut me right off. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re being foolish. Don’t come to me with this nonsense.”
Well, right-o, Monsignor Lynch. Thanks for the advice.
After that, I did the standard kid’s grab bag confession, making up some combination of fought with my sister, talked back to my mother, and lied to my father. I varied it up a bit, but that was pretty much my litany until I was a sophomore in high school, and stopped going to confession entirely.
Somewhere during my freshman year in college, I realized that I was an atheist and that, despite many moments of piety and belief (mostly, in retrospect, of the I wish Cotton was a monkey variety), I pretty much had always been one.
So, yeah, that’s me in the backyard, sixty years ago today, losing my religion.