Caricatures of Religious Sentiment: 4

I’m going to do something crazy. Serialize the narrating of my inner unfolding in a shamelessly autobiographical manner. This is my truth and intimate meaning. I do not care if it offends, but that is light years away from my intention. (Use index at left for specific chapters; here is the previous episode.)

Fragment 4 — Nativity Scene

Hard to recall. I think it might have been Aloysius or Ignatius or something like that. One of those Latin-sounding given names you never come across again after Catholic school. His holy day rolled around every February and I still enjoyed the ritual despite myself. Aloysius was the patron saint of throats. American Catholicism had numerous patron saints attached to all sorts of obscure aspects of secular existenece. Bodily regions. Professions like miners or nurses or fishing boat captains. Probably with sufficient research I could uncover some esoteric roots about the meaning of a specific saint for blessing the throat once a year — something that maybe 1% of all the clergy in Vatican City have a clue about, like ensuring that the words we utter come clothed in humble truthfulness. But what the nuns sold about it was quotidian and simple: protecting us from colds and bronchitis. Still I liked the ceremony. Kneeling up at the altar threshold while the priest operated along the row of supplicants taking this contraption with hinges and two long beige beeswax candles, shaped like an X, and placing it around your throat gently with a quick invocation. It smelled clean.

I was on my own planet by then. The World’s Fair and modernity, the periodic table of chemical elements and IBM, plus the near certainty that I would personally be visiting Jupiter for a vacation or job assignment during the glorious future, had seized one portion of my consciousness, while the world of myth and poetry and music was making inroads on the rest of it. Then there was the matter of girls. Something alchemical happened during the summer vacation between 7th and 8th grades. When September wafted past my senses I was utterly bewildered at how these female creatures had magically transformed. The nuns had anticipated it also. For the first time ever our class had been split into two halves, grades 8A and 8B. A for angelic adolescents and B for, uh, boys. Certain of my classmates adopted a crude sort of rock&roll stance to this situation, responding with drooling and posturing whenever a member of 8A was sighted. But I simply floated in a kind of dreamy amazement that I was suddenly cast away on an island where all these thoroughly gorgeous beings happened by. And one day, early in December, one of them knocked on the door of our 8B stockade and announced to the teacher that the presence was required of me — she spoke out my name musically — in the auditorium.

A longish walk it was, like three corridors. I felt the testosterone-soaked eyes on me as I departed the classroom with Lynn, a consensus high-ranking ‘babe’ within 8B lore. To counter my temperature increase after about 20 paces with her I mustered the moxie to inquire as to what was up. Personal escort, Principal, auditorium, middle of the morning. “Nothing bad”, she assured me. “I think they want you involved in the Christmas Play”. While I truly enjoyed walking alone with fragrant Lynn for 5 minutes, I was gripped by an anxiety as to what was being planned for me. I knew from experience it was not going to be a voluntary request. When we got there, two other 8A girls were present along with Howie the hired hand and the principle and another nun. “Hello Mr. Stolzy, you’ve been chosen for the honor of depicting Saint Joseph (the manger dude) in our Christmas play. Marie will be playing the Blessed Virgin, and Barbara here will represent an angel.” It’s true that Barbara had an angelic aspect about her. A radiance even more mind-numbing than Lynn’s, long blonde hair, etc. Why on God’s earth had they selected me? I didn’t dig the idea of performing in front of an auditorium full of adoring judgemental parents. While Howie was messing around with some hay and a makeshift wooden facade I meekly protested “what would I have to do?”. I was assured that basically I just needed to stand there and project piety — to the extent that a male person could. No lines, just some kneeling on and off, and gazing down at a rattan crib with a blend of adoration and folksy wisdom at the miraculous child. Angelic Barbara was to be positioned between Joseph and Mary — they were still working on her golden halo — so I would be spared the embarrassment of holding hands with Marie or anything like that. I was quite worried, however, about how to keep my face from going crimson standing within the sphere of Barbara’s exhalation for 15 minutes or more. Lynn mentioned to not worry about costumes; she was planning to rummage an old brown bathrobe with a waist rope from her attic, and she recommended I wear moccasins.

In retrospect the eternal mystery is why they had settled upon me to portray the ultimate bastion of husbandly humility and piety. But settle, they did.

On the big night the stage lights were like blinding heatlamps. The blinding: maybe a good thing. I could only detect vague outlines of figures in the audience. The heat: not so good. Lynn’s father’s bathrobe or whatever was thick and oppressive. Barbara was delectable and shiny in a kind of figure-revealing modified bedsheet. I could barely glance at her. I could hardly see Marie through her angelic glow. There were also three wise men who’d been thoughtfully added from the 8B extras union. They featured an assortment of striking plaid bathrobes and theatrical turbans. I soon realized that their sole mission was to destroy any actorly composure that the three of us holies could evince. After all the Magi did not have to face the audience. Basically they just approached the stage and knelt to present gifts of adoration. Patrick, one of the class clowns, was their spiritual leader. It was he who had borrowed a hideous Chatty Cathy™ doll to stand in for the infant Jesus. I could not glance down on it without grinning so I had to maintain an out-of-focus prayerful gaze the whole while. Patrick’s coup-de-grace gag was his presented gift: a partially bitten, still wrapped Snickers™ bar which he laid next to Cathy’s lips with studied beneficence. We survived this somehow, and then endured a side choir of further extras singing Silent Night plus Jimmy’s performance of Little Drummer Boy on a snare drum. Jimmy’s haircut came closest to emulating the Beatles in our class. They put him behind a backlit sheet and rendered the whole thing in silhouette. Finally, applause, relax.

Only two or three months later serendipity intervened to arrange Catholic education and my life upon divergent routes. I was considered one of the golden boys. Always great grades, never got into trouble. There were even rumors that I might be courted into pre-clergy programs once I began high school. And there was a Catholic high school in our diocese, about four or five towns away, which many of the prouder students were psyching themselves up for. But thank heavens, my pragmatic and visionary father pointed out in early March that our town’s local high school was walkable, considerably cheaper, and featured a curriculum with approximately four times the number of varied course offerings than the Catholic place. He convinced my mother, and then after a brief period of scandal and protest brought on by the announcement of my 9th grade destination to the nuns, I was free. I did not realize it yet, but I was free. I would miss my friends, but these feelings were going to evaporate rapidly soon as I was deposited into a community of more than a thousand mostly new kids and teachers and facilities.

The institutionalized religious filter had been removed from my cognition. Really for some years now; I was larger than it. But I had become much more subtly and intricately ensnared within a more sinister unforgiving creed. This was the scientific and material worldview. At least religious indoctrination had an honesty about it. Its means and trimmings were largely unconcealed and direct. But this new worldview disguised itself skillfully as ‘objective knowledge’ and appeared to involve no agenda save for infinitely increasing the level of technological convenience for the global citizenry. I would spend roughly the next twelve years discovering the true nature of my predicament and constructing a suitable defense for it.

On the last day of grammar school they let us out just after lunchtime. No buses necessary, we could walk the two miles home. A cluster of us boys who lived in the same area ambled down the avenue, feeling spirited, accomplished, and masters of our domains. On the other side of the street a lonely figure walked. It was Eileen, whom I’d raised upon a pedestal when I first began. After a ways, she turned down a long sideroad. And I don’t believe I ever saw her again.

_______RS

This tale is to be Continued… The next installment will be linked right here.

[ Image : this bird of the eastern woodlands, slightly smaller than a robin, is known as a wood thrush. Two things distinguish it, their brightly bold spotted chest, and their unbelievably liquid calls echoing with great volume and complexity through the forest. Whereas humans have a larynx, this species possesses a ‘syrinx’, the two chambers of which enable the bird to call out in stereo, essentially producing two harmonized notes simulataneously. It sounds spectacular in habitat, but these two links offer a good sample. ]

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6 Comments

  1. An engagingly-told “right of passage experience,” Rob, in which Patrick seems to have played an important (and amusing) role opening up a new chapter in your journey.

    Reply

    1. Thanks alot for commenting, Carol. I find it intriguing that you’ve seen the Patrick character in this light! For I had thought of him mostly as a comic side figure. Perhaps I should think more about him, and jog my memory. 🙂

      Reply

      1. Your description of Patrick’s antics made me laugh. It reminded me a little of Phillip in my 3rd grade class. He was brilliant but always testing limits. I remember that he put a penny in a light socket on the bus during our class field trip from NJ to the NYC just to see what would happen. (It shorted out the electrical system.) And then he disappeared in the Museum of Natural History creating panic for the teachers and chaperones. Somehow, his difference and curiosity made me feel okay about being curious and different, too.

  2. It was an adorable story. — when i was a child, our Spanish calendar had a saint for every day of the year. I did reflect on my birthday saint and I wish my mom had given me a similar name.

    Reply

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