Sitting in a morning, chilly, late summer garden, with my dog Andie cuddled up near my feet and holding closely a hot cup of coffee, I try falling back into those far away days, years and decades ago to reconstruct what was real, what was true, what were dreams, the fantasies of aspirations, and the bewildering intuitive understanding that evil was most likely a universal and love a choice. I was yet too young to know a true and deep love or even conceive of the complex dark forces that were explained to expel the Devil from the grounds of one’s God given purity and scare the hell out of Catholic elementary school kids back then. Being somewhat precocious and all I had, unlike my child peers, already been acquainted with evil. That evil was exciting in its beginnings. When in parochial school at the age of ten hearing a particularly stern warning about thoughts, words and deeds that were impure by Sister Five Wounds, whose admonitions in preparation for Ash Wednesday had advised us to be attentive to said points of moral necessity.
I had a dilemma. I had to confess to the new young priest that while my thoughts and words were mostly pure, deeds were another matter altogether. It was only a year before that I had experienced when sliding down a tree the most extraordinary sensation of my then young life. I must have climbed up and slid down that tree for weeks before I realized that there were more private and easier methods of exercise, which would affect the same result and wreak havoc in my gym sock.
It wasn’t clear at first why that experience with the music teacher, for which I had been groomed for over a year by his expert predation, was ‘abuse’ or even evil or that his adult flattery and attention was unhealthy and whispered to be ‘unnatural.’ It felt fine in its tiny bubble of a child’s naivety and I did learn to master ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and ‘The Volga Boatman’ on the piano. In time, dark shadows swallowed it up. At first it was ‘our’ little secret. Then as time went on, threats of death, threats of harm, and then condemnation to a burning fiery hell from the Confessional, filled a young boy’s coalescence of identity with painful and disturbed confusion. A child taking on understanding evil with no cognitive tools and no adult support is a terrible and heart wrenching journey if you also happen to be species differentiated, that is to say, Gay, a term unknown in those days, at least among our bourgeois sort in the suburban paradise of post war America.
My parents were shocked, horrified and furious when they figured it out after I asked if they would pray for me in Heaven, because Father Guppy said I was going to be burned in Hell for all eternity. The music teacher disappeared soon after and was never seen or spoken about again. They immediately engaged a child therapist for me and I attended a few sessions, before he concluded that gay was a perfectly natural biological aspect of sexuality in the then new current way of thinking. I noticed that his socks always matched his ties. Aside from the trauma of being sent to a fiery, horrible, tormenting, agonizing, burning forever Hell, I was in every way an ‘adjusted’ kid. Thankfully he didn’t say ‘normal.’
Day napping and dreaming in the garden, watching a golden sun trying to break through our California foggy, hazy late summer is a perfect metaphor for those early anguished days of childhood. I sort through that memory box of old images and psychic debris piecing together how my identity ever became whole. I feel like an old man in a movie of flash backs. I did it. I made it through with guts and determination, pushing through fear at every turn. I became gifted at confronting the obvious and merciless in my determination to be free. I did eventually come OUT, no thanks to thoughts, words and deeds and promises of a molten, ferociously burning, fiery hell for all eternity, which in those childhood years approximated an hour spent in Five Wound’s religion class.
In my own mind, I became a warrior of sorts on a lonely path conquering fear and evil, moving far beyond it to freedom of mind and spirit, well almost. I think my Scots/Irish came to fore and still does, and that’s probably why despite a lifetime on the wisdom paths I am still fiercely agitated by injustice and take no prisoners. In my prime I was not a ‘nice’ activist and God forbid, frenetically rude on many occasions. That conceit probably came from the vows of Confirmation, wherein we became soldiers of Christ and battled evil at the drop of a wafer. Fortunately, activating that threadbare metaphor helped save my life. However, I’d be the first to admit that putting my Confirmation on solid ground, if I were perfectly honest, would be a paean to the trickster gods disguised as the sacred ironic mysteries.
At St. Bernadette’s we practiced for months to make that glorious day a lifetime memory. Oh, it was! Sixty years later I remember every detail. Back then I was a lot smarter than I am now at this end of the life brackets. So, I was picked among the boys to answer the Bishop’s first catechism question. In the back of my mind it was because I had done such a nice job of decorating the Holy Mother’s Ascension into Heaven celebratory arch. Being an Altar boy also helped. Good Lord how insufferable I must have been. It annoyed me that Tommy McGinnis, who had once hawked a lunger at the altar on a dare, was boy number two that day. Maybe God was busy at that moment and didn’t notice his sacrilege.
It was a glorious sunlit day. The Church was filled with kids, parents and bowers of white flowers. The girls sat on one side and the boys, the other. The girls were doing their Brides of Christ thing in beautiful, fluffy white dresses, sans veils, while we boys wore black slacks, white dress shirts and bow ties. My wonderful father had gifted me with a beautiful red leather Missal containing all the offices of the Mass, beautiful illustrations of a blond white Jesus doing cool and miraculous deeds, the saints and a special devotional section for the Holy Mother. He also gave me an exquisite silver rosary with fluted beads and a crucifix carved so that the beveled edges sparkled when turned this way and that as they caught the light. A tiny man-God was nailed to it with wee little beads representing nails.
Then the main event began. My row was called. We all lined up, boy, girl, boy, girl in a nun designed choreography that rivaled the Ice Capades as we processed down the aisle to kneel before the altar railing. The Bishop had an assistant holding a list to read each name and confirm us as warriors of Christ and potential saints. My heart beat wildly as he approached, dropped some holy oil on me, and Confirmed me as Marie Theresa. ‘What?‘ ‘What?’ ‘Marie Theresa?’ I could smell the trail his Jack Daniels breath left lingering behind as he moved on down the line and confirmed my neighbor in her Bride of Christ outfit as ‘ Joseph Patrick’ my grandfather’s name.
Events didn’t improve much as hours seemed to go by until the processions dwindled down and the whole sacred show came to a halt. Next was the question and answer portion. The Bishop dressed in layers of beautiful satin and yards of exquisite white lace, his red morie silk zucchetto crowning the top of his theatrical dry goods extravaganza, and holding his bejeweled crosier in a sweaty ham-like hand, floated seamlessly down the aisle and landing, stood next to my pew. ‘Oh no, Oh My God, Oh no’, is he going to say Marie Theresa?’ He shouted out (or so it seemed to me) “Joseph Patrick, RISE.” We could all hear on the other side of the isle the rustling of a fluffy white dress as my counterpart ( the other Joseph Patrick) rose only to be quashed as Sister Five Wounds put a discreet stop to it. The Bishop extended his hand and I was expected to kiss that huge emerald ring as it came at me in slow motion like a flying saucer from outer space.
“Who is God?” he intoned with a magisterial and stentorian voice. I struggled to remember something about a three-in-one being and felt like fainting. I was terrified. My throat tightened. “God is a string bean,” I responded. At first, there was a deafening silence in the church and then a few muffled titters. Then the Bishop said, “Yes!’ God is the Supreme Being.” “Well done Joseph Patrick.” The rustling on the other side of the isle was more muted this time. I share this ancient Catholic drama with you dear reader, because at that moment, with that answer (unbeknownst to me) Marie Theresa was destined to come OUT and with ‘string bean’ my Buddhist life had truly begun, years before I had finally climbed out of the terrible, burning for eons, fiery pit of Catholic hell. Years later I heard that they downsized hell and eliminated the purgatory that seemed like my Catholic childhood.
Ex Catholic and possibly bad Buddhist or no, I remain immeasurably grateful for those wise women and men, those teachers who did recognize the inner light and helped define my journey as a sojourner. That was then, long ago. These days I walk with a cane, manage my pain, tend my small garden, love my dog, carry a large emptiness of grief and exalt a gratitude that is no slave to victimization. My only self-defense at this late stage of life is satire, because wisdom escapes me and irony is an artist’s canvas.