Losing My Religion Almost: On Catholicism, Belief, and Belonging
“I wanted to be the one Father Tom winked at, the one whose hair he gently touched with his large, sturdy hands.”
As a young child, I knew people struggled to believe every story in the Bible. One night, under the covers after a Christian bedtime story, my father agreed: The stuff with the animals and the ark might be a little far-fetched. But when he described what he believed to be the ultimate goodness in the phrase turn the other cheek , with his hands waving for emphasis and his profile illuminated by the night light on the wall near my door, I felt frightened.
Bryan , he told me, you’ve got to understand. Anyone can fight back when they get hurt, but only a real man would look a bully in the face and let him do it all over again. The next time some kid tries to mess with you, I want you to remember that.
I knew plenty about the motives of schoolyard bullies, and when I thought of the times when I had become the target of their violence, I sincerely doubted that it was my lack of empathy that empowered them. By the time I was twelve, I was certain that I had already offered my other cheek too many times.
After many terrible years of fighting, my parents finally divorced. Gone were the nights of cuddling my little sister to sleep, assuring her that our parents didn’t mean the horrible things they said to each other, as well as the nights when we were awoken by my father, shirtless to show us the open palm prints across his chest and back, screaming I need you both to see what she did to me .
Gone too were the earlier, sprawling weeks of leave from the Navy, when he would return home from nine-month deployments to Iceland, or Spain, or Guam, and appear on our doorstep in his green flight suit, his arms filled with candy for us kids and red roses for our mother, when he would get down on a knee and tell me you’ve gotten so big, thank you for being the man of the house, for taking care of your mother and your sister while I was away, I’m so proud of you. We’d spend those weeks tearing through our little house, jumping on the beds and playing hide-and-seek, and I’d show him just how high I could jump, how well I could hide, and how much I had learned on my own without him.
After the divorce, my father drove a hundred miles across New York to move back in with his parents in Rochester, the city where my uncles also lived. I felt close to my two uncles and grandfather, but only saw them for Christmas. The only other men I had contact with were my gym teacher and the priests at my Catholic school. I was entering adolescence, and a panic was growing within me — how could I ever evolve into a good man without ever knowing any?
In my family, and among the people I knew growing up, being an active participant in a religion was less important than believing in something . Going to church was something we did occasionally, in bursts, in order to remind people that we still considered ourselves a part of the community. Nobody cared whether you were a Catholic or Protestant or Jewish. What mattered was that you acknowledged the existence of a higher power, and that you believed in something greater than yourself .
Every year, after a holiday dinner had been cleared, the bottles of wine had been emptied, and the women had left to prepare dessert, the men in my father’s family would groan when my grandfather would once again tell the old story of how he decided not to become a priest: I knew I would find God when I was studying at the seminary, I just never expected her to look like your grandmother. Every time, my father would roll his eyes and say that it was the corniest thing he had ever heard, but I thought it was sweet. I didn’t know if I would ever find God, but I knew I wanted to find someone who could make me feel like that.
The night after my grandfather’s funeral, when I was twenty-three, I stayed up with my grandmother to finish the last bottle of wine after everyone else had gone to sleep. I regretted retelling that story to my grandmother, when I saw that my words landed on her face like a blow. She asked me, I was going through paperwork this morning, and do you know what that man did? When he went to the courthouse to file our marriage license, he also paid a dollar to license me as a dog. For fifty years, my name has been on a dog license in a locked drawer in that man’s study.
After being discharged from another month in rehab, my mother left me a voicemail: One thing I learned is that it doesn’t matter what you believe in, just as long as you believe in something. I wanted to tell her that repeating something doesn’t make it true. I wanted to tell her that I believed in nothing.
In Catholic school in sixth grade, I sat in church every Friday afternoon with my class, amazed by the skill with which Father Tom would present his homily, the way he could make the old themes relatable to us children, and how he would smile gently to his altar boys for emphasis. The lines around his eyes creased into a happy squint as he winked to indicate that it was time for them to carry his heavy gold Bible over to the pulpit. I noticed the way his heavy hands twitched slightly as he drew them through his thin white hair to set it back into place, and the way his heavy gold ring with its large ruby stone would gleam from his pinky when he blessed the altar boy with a few loving pats to the top of his head before he would muss the boy’s long dark hair, laugh, and clear his throat with a loud cough before beginning to read.
I wanted to be the one Father Tom winked at, the one whose hair he gently touched with his large, sturdy hands. I wanted him to feel proud of me, of my school, his congregation. I wanted to laugh casually, allowing my bangs to fall over my eyes as I avoided contact with his own, scanning the congregation for any sign that my teachers were proud, or that my classmates were jealous.
Each year, two sixth graders were chosen to be altar boys. I secretly doubted everything I had ever learned about the Bible, but since faith was so important to my family, I volunteered. Perhaps religion was something that could be forged in my own heart with enough effort. I didn’t get into much trouble and my grades were generally fine, but as my lack of belief solidified, I had begun to feel like a bad person. Evil, even. I volunteered because I wanted to be good, or at least I wanted to be a person other people believed was good.
Even though only two of us applied for the two open positions, Daniel* and I still went through a vetting process. Father Scott, the new priest in his early thirties, with slicked-back hair, a leather jacket, and a strong New England accent, was, naturally, the favorite priest amongst my classmates. I liked him, too, but the squareness of his body and the way his five o’clock shadow was always visible before lunchtime reminded me too much of my absent father.
I often sat on a swing in the wooden playground during recess, with Nirvana or Alice in Chains Unplugged blaring from the headphones of my Discman. I would watch Father Scott playing basketball with the other children, and notice the way that with his back turned, he could pass as my uncle, a long-lost brother of my father.
In order to proceed to the next step in the process of being chosen as altar servers, Daniel and I would first need to pass Father Scott’s verbal quiz on the Bible. Having transferred from public school as a result of a redistricting the previous year, I knew my knowledge of the Bible lagged far behind that of my schoolmates. I knew the names of Solomon and Noah and Moses, but the details of their stories were murky. During the quiz, I grew anxious, feeling helpless as I mixed up the timelines and incorrectly answered questions, with Daniel smiling smugly at me each time the priest looked down to read his next question. Finally, with the last bit of strength I wanted to use instead to storm out the door, I broke down, telling Father Scott that there were just so many men with long beards and they had so many children, and that it was just so hard to keep their stories straight.
Don’t be so hard on yourself , he laughed. I’ve been reading this one book, over and over for years, and sometimes I still need to keep crib notes . At this he opened the worn leather bible he always carried, flipping through page after page whose margins were filled with handwritten notes in pencil. This made me feel better, and I settled back into my chair for the rest of the examination, smiling and allowing Daniel to answer more of the questions.
Once he was satisfied with our interview, the final step was individual confession with Father Tom, whose approval was our last obstacle to being officially chosen. I had never gone to confession, since it wasn’t required for First Communion at the church we attended when I was younger, and, ever since we’d moved, I had always been able to come up with an excuse to avoid it. I would say I wasn’t feeling well, or that I had gone the previous Sunday, and my teachers unknowingly allowed me to postpone it indefinitely. To sit in the confessional, confined inside the dark box, with the face of a man whose affection I craved obscured by the shadows cast by the black metal grate between us, was the opposite of the interaction I wanted. Everything about it was so serious. I decided that if my only option was to confess, I would need to think of the right sin, something bad enough that my remorse would be believable, but nothing so bad that it might poison the priest against me.
Walking to the confessional, I knew what I wanted to confess. I wanted to tell him that I didn’t believe anything in the Bible, and that I might not even believe in God. That I knew this disappointed my family, but that sometimes I wasn’t sure if I even cared.
Over the summer I got my sister into big trouble , I heard myself telling Father Tom instead, after asking him to forgive me for my sins, and saying that I had never been to confession. We were visiting my grandparents in Indiana, and they had an above-ground pool in the yard. My grandmother had specifically told us that we were not to jump into the pool under any circumstances, and to use the ladder no matter what, but I had begun to climb up onto the surrounding benches and use them as a platform from which to practice my running cannonball. One day , I continued, when my grandma said to come in for lunch, I disobeyed her and did the biggest cannonball of the summer. She came rushing out of the gazebo, over to the side of the pool, and pulled me by the ear up the ladder. I knew I was in big trouble, but my sister didn’t want me to be the only one in trouble, so she climbed up the bench and launched herself into the pool too. My grandma really let her have it. She grounded her for the rest of the vacation.
Father Tom asked if I was sorry, I said I was, and he told me to pray three Hail Marys for penance before he said the prayer of absolution. Then he welcomed me to serve him, the church, and the congregation as an altar server. I was in. I felt a familiar blend of pride and guilt then, proud that the priest would trust me to serve him, and guilty that I had been unable to open my heart in confession.
By late fall, after eight or nine masses, I had grown confident with my responsibilities and routines, and Daniel and I had finally arrived at a division of work that minimized conflict between us. It wasn’t easy. At first we fought for the jobs most likely to get us noticed by Father Tom, but, after a particularly bad mass we spent swarming around the priest, racing to his side at each stage, he gave us one warning: Decide who would do each task or he would decide for us.
We divided up the tasks we felt were inconsequential, which was everything that happened before or after mass and outside of Father Tom’s gaze, like counting out communion wafers, and filling the cups of wine and fonts of holy water. I lost the argument about who would stand at the priest’s side with the plate and bottle of wine for the long duration of communion, but in return, I would help with the readings. This allowed me to stand face-to-face with the priest, looking up with the heavy book rested against my chest, allowing him to read from the side of the pulpit with his arms outstretched with a blessing, and gave me time to stand in plain view unnoticed, looking into his stern, wet eyes for guidance.
Daniel already had so much on me. The previous year, on the last day of school, he out-leaned me to win the fifth grade’s 100-meter dash, and, a few weeks later, had sent me to the nurse’s office with a broken nose when he asked, “What’s that on your shirt?” and uppercut me when I glanced down.
There seemed to be one kid like Daniel in my class each year: red-headed, jittery, buck-toothed, and hyperactive — a class clown who wasn’t even that funny. But he surprised me whenever we were alone, when he would reveal a softer side — one that was serious and melancholy. He would ask about my life at home, my friends outside of school, and even listen with sympathy whenever I would mention my parents’ divorce or my father’s absence. He, too, would share intimacies, but even when we were confiding in the rectory, he would flip between topics of conversation and levels of intimacy in ways that stunned me. One moment, tears would well in his swollen eyes as he asked if I thought his mother knew that his father sometimes hit him, the next they would terrify me with their anger, the brief warning I had to escape before being put into a headlock and rammed into the brick wall.
These two sides of his personality made me distrust him, as I was never sure which side I would see at any moment. Eventually, they inspired in me a sense of competition and desire for payback. I knew I might be able to get a small amount of revenge through a cruel joke in the classroom, if I shared some little confidence he shared with me during a lighter moment — Daniel’s too much of a baby to stand up to his old man — but it always felt too mean. I didn’t want to hurt him with any one cheap action; I wanted him to feel dominated by me succeeding over him repeatedly, and particularly in ways that I knew mattered to him the most.
After a modest Friday afternoon mass around Halloween, I returned to the rectory wearing my long white robe, and my arms were heavy with the remnants of mass: the priest’s large bible and the gold communion plate topped with its final wafers. I was surprised to find that the main room was empty, because Daniel usually got there first in order to sneak a swig of wine from the sacramental bottle before locking it back into the cabinet. It wasn’t until I dropped the communion plate on the table that I heard voices coming from Father Tom’s office.
From the curt tone of their whispers, I could tell that Daniel and Father Tom were in his room alone. The wave of jealous nausea that consumed me quickly turned to a hot rage. This couldn’t be happening. Daniel could beat me in every race for the rest of time for all I cared, but he was not going to beat me at this. I wouldn’t let him.
I decided right there and then to show the priest that I had been paying attention to his sermon, that he and I had so much in common, and that I had internalized and learned from the things he had said from the pulpit. I grabbed his Bible, opened it to where I had carefully placed a string before mass for him to find James 3:14-16, and thought of a simple but honest way to relate what he had said in mass about bitter envy and strife in my heart to my relationship with my little sister. I hurried to his office, and hesitated in front of its heavy door, adorned with an intricate wood crucifix. The ancient gold handle startled me with a quick snap as it turned and the door opened.
Daniel bounded through Father Tom’s door when I opened it. He shouldered through my body, and continued to hold my gaze for several steps before turning to accelerate even faster down the hall. With my back pressed to the slick cinder blocks of the rectory wall, I thought I could read a message in his eyes, something desperate.
I watched the red hair on the back of his head as he sprinted down the hall, his dress shoes from his school uniform squeaking on the linoleum floor, his pounding footsteps echoing in the empty space between us. He made a sharp left turn around the corner and disappeared, while I took a quick breath to collect myself, pulled my long bangs behind my ears, and walked into Father Tom’s office to show him what I had learned.
* His name has been changed out of respect for his privacy