When I fell, I fell hard and I fell fast.
When I was a kid, eternal damnation haunted my young life. Only through sins of the flesh would I come to believe there was no such thing as sin. In other words, sin served as the starting point for my redemption.
In grade school, I accepted without question the admonitions of priests, nuns, and family members that I, as a human being, was corrupt and without hope, except through the mercy and grace of a hard-hearted god. Sin accompanied me wherever I went and in whatever I did. When I whispered something in class, I recoiled from myself and said a prayer of forgiveness. When I went around public school children and Protestants, I prayed Satan would not infect me with doubt and that god would save my immortal soul from the grasp of unfaithful.
My church and school taught conservative reactionary religious tenets as if the very deliverance of humankind depended on them. My father bought into these instructions. He inculcated in his children a fear of god and of the world at large. He joined conservative Catholic organizations trying to recover the teachings of the One True Church. He longed for the return of the Latin Mass, nuns in habits, and priests in capes. His father beat him for becoming distracted at mass, and he beat me in return. From him, I learned to live mortal fear of Protestants, communists, and liberation theologists. They might influence me and my thinking with the softer aspects of a changing church. Guitar masses, drums in church, and priests in blue jeans represented all that was wrong with post-Vatican II Catholicism.
And I was a sinner. Try as I might, I could not keep my hands out of the cookie jar. Frustrated in a task, I cursed under my breath and immediately regretted my actions. Hatred plagued my young heart. I detested classmates who taunted me, my siblings when they received something I didn’t, and a world’s people who acted in contradiction of the rebukes of the pulpit. Cleavage on television or movies, as much as I liked it and found myself drawn to it, produced profound regret. When I teased or treated my siblings poorly, I lay awake at night, praying with all my might that I might be forgiven and give up my contemptible behavior. I went to confession constantly and did penance in the hopes that I might be forgiven infractions, no matter how small, that would keep me from heavenly redemption.
The contradictions all around me rived my young and tender soul to the point of breaking. How could I attend morning mass at school and then deal with the bullies who pushed, beat, and intimidated me? Couldn’t they understand the need to treat others as they would be treated? My reactions—really self-defense against bullying—violated a standard I held for myself, one that I believed others, particularly my parents, judged me by. I wanted to turn the other cheek. But my innate need to fight back defeated me every time.
Sins were venal and mortal. Dying in a state of venal sin relegated a person, me, for instance, to Purgatory, which sounded as bad as Hell, only not as long-lasting. If I went to my grave with unforgiven mortal sin, I was going straight to Hell. Stealing cookies and contesting bullies demanded punishment in Purgatory. Cursing another person using the name of god sent me straight to Perdition. I was almost certain I would never commit the mortal sin of murder or blaspheme. But I never knew. I could commit sin in action or thought. If I wanted to see Mark Smith die because he hurt me on the playground, that thought might just constitute a mortal sin. I was always on the verge of neurosis. What if I forgot a sin and didn’t confess it? Would that exclude me from Paradise?
The doubts went deep. What kind of god commended all non-Catholics to Hell? How long would Purgatory last, for instance, for the sin of stealing cookies? What about indulgences, the sort of “get out of jail free” cards that one stacked up for good works, visiting holy sites, and praying for the good of others?
I first smoked a cigarette when I was 11, about the time I started to drink out of my dad’s liquor cabinet. Both (venal) sins that felt really great. I first smoked weed in the fifth grade, and, boy, did I have to go to confession for that one. The priest at confession wanted me to rat out my boys that were involved, but I was afraid. They would certainly know who told on them. But wasn’t keeping the information to myself a sin, as well? Was it mortal or venal not to turn a guy in? Was the sin or lying to a priest a moral or venal sin? I couldn’t keep track. I wore a scapular for years. In case I died with mortal sin on my soul, at least I wouldn’t go to Hell. I might spend a long time in Purgatory, but I wouldn’t go to Hell.
Things became more complicated in high school. Our Catholic high school demanded entrance testing. One guy, who would later become one of my friends, jacked off the whole time we were taking the test. Jacked off! Not with his penis in his hand but by rubbing his penis through his plaid slacks. He moaned every now and then and went straight back to beating off. All of us in that quiet room were stunned, speechless. No one knew anyone else. The teacher always seemed to be looking away. Everyone was so embarrassed that we stood wordless in the hall during breaks in the testing. Here I was trying to do algebra problems while watching a guy condemn his soul to hell. Was I supposed to tell on him and save him from eternal damnation? What was the sin for keeping it to myself?
The social relations of high school confused me. I tried to get along with my mates, but I was still the fat kid, awkward, backward. I made friends with the outcasts—people who didn’t fit in with nerds, jocks, or dopers. Surely it was a mortal sin to smoke dope in the parking lot, just as it had been for me during a class picnic in the fifth grade. Of course, bullies would go to Hell, which was my only comfort. Other kids talked about hitting their fathers in retaliation for being beaten. I couldn’t imagine such an action. My dad was too strong, too big for me ever to win a battle like that. And, of course, hitting your father must be a mortal sin. As much and as badly as my father beat me, I never raised a hand to him in fear of burning in Hell.
After a year or two, I settled into the workings of high school. My moral standards relaxed, or, perhaps, became more mainstream. I made friends with the kid who was obviously gay. I smoked cigarettes in the parking lot after I started to drive my own car to school. I hung out with the dope smokers, though it would be a long while before I smoked dope again. I drank. In my house, drinking was normal. My dad was drunk often. Certainly, my father may be committing venal sin for imbibing too much. I could put up with some time in Purgatory in exchange for the euphoria that came with drunkenness.
My faith became more tenuous as high school progressed. Where once missing mass on Sunday was mortal sin, it became more and more palatable over time. God wouldn’t condemn a person to Hell just because he missed mass, would He? The more I drank, the more I wanted the touch of a soft breast, the more I found small infractions tolerable, the close I came to the end of my faith.
I first masturbated when I was fifteen. A whole new world opened up for me. At first, of course, I was convinced I was going to Hell. But after a short time, I couldn’t keep my hands off myself. Surely, something this good cannot be wrong, despite what Father Francis taught at every single religion class we had with him. I began to understand the masturbator at the initial testing to get into the school. Masturbation was good, particularly if you were never caught, and I got caught more than once by one or the other of my siblings. I went right on masturbating. I didn’t go blind (I was pretty blind already), my palms never grew hair, and if I suffered from the corruption of my mortal body, I never knew. I was already saddled with a corrupt body heavier and clumsier than other kids. I broke bones and went to the hospital numerous times for stitches whether I masturbated or not.
I’ll never forget the first time I found a porn magazine hidden in a tree at a park. The women and men seemed to enjoy themselves despite what they were doing to their future in eternity. I liked looking at them. It added whole new dimensions to my masturbation. Porn, while sinful, must be good, I thought.
I would never touch myself in public for fear of the kind of retribution the masturbator suffered—no one even talked to him until we were juniors. Even then, they could not forget watching his arm pulse, his buttocks jiggle, and his moaning. Poor kid probably walks around today with the scars of what I thought at the time was his sin.
Then, when I was 19, I missed mass for the first time. I went with a friend to his family’s cabin in the Ozarks. We didn’t get away in time to make mass. He opened a bottle of grape juice and some saltines. We had a sort of in-jest communion. I didn’t feel like I was going to Hell for it. I never went to mass again.
The end really came when I slept with a woman the first time. I was in college and working at the school newspaper. She was a sorority girl and I had the keys to the newspaper office. One thing led to another. The feel of soft, springy flesh reminded me of mountain waterfalls, trees in the Fall, and all of the great human wonders hanging in every art gallery in the world. I felt myself falling into the hands of the Demon. But there on the couch at the newspaper office in the center of the college campus, with the night watchman wandering outside the window, I decided that if having sex meant I was going to Hell, then that was just all right.
All the unconsidered teaching I’d absorbed in grade school and high school came to the fore after that first tryst. Religious constriction fell from me like leaves from a tree in autumn. I began to question theology, sin, what I had been taught at home and in school. I doubted the good of country, mother, and familial piety. I took to philosophy classes like a man in the desert takes to water. I became agnostic, then atheist. God could not exist, I thought. Randomness and natural selection were just all right.
Through masturbation and fornication, I had been redeemed.
And I slept with every woman I could lay my hands on. Or, rather, any woman who would lay her hands on me.
The order of my youth fell away to reveal the chaos that underpinned the universe. I never felt more comfortable and at peace in my life.
Penance, it seems, is not just for the church. No god saved me from the hell I would put myself through in the intervening years. I still pay penance today for the sin of being me. In fact, I believe there is no sin except that of being me. But that is a subject for a whole other essay.