Growing up in a large strong Catholic family was mostly fun and beneficial. But being a Catholic was not always easy. At the Catholic grade school we had to start every day with a Mass that was boring and took over an hour it seemed. The nuns that lived in a nearby convent taught most the classes. These women that sacrificed their lives for God could be quite kind and caring, but also at times vicious. But most of my memories are filled with the Sisters of Mercy trying to care for me and help me adapt to school sometimes to the point of over protection. They worried constantly about my handicap and wouldn’t want me do to things because they were afraid I would be hurt or be made fun of.
In the first grade I was put on the third floor in a class where I knew everybody. For my safety they decided to move to a class on the first floor where I knew no one in the class. I was not happy. And being stubborn made life miserable for the sister that taught the class. I remember not getting along with her and not doing very well in school that first year. I wanted to be on the third floor with my friends.
In third grade I ended up on the third floor and I didn’t want to move. After some discussion the Sisters decided that I could stay but would be left out early before the crowd so I would not be pushed down. One student would be assigned to help me go down the stairs slowly and carefully. Everyone wanted to be my helper since we would get out early. I could choose a different person every day and it gave me some power over friendship. Usually I would decide who was going to help me and then the sister would let me go 20 minutes early since there were many stairs to go down. After we made it to the ground floor I was to wait for the bell to ring and then commence to leave the building.
What usually happened was I would walk out of class and as soon as the door was shut I would run to the stairwell with the chosen student running behind me. I would then jump down the stairs in one fluid motion taking a flight at a time and the other student would try to keep up. We would then run right out cross the road and parking lot and get on our bicycles and pedal down to the nearby store We would have a piece of candy and wait for the other students to get out. I think sooner or later the nuns caught on and I lost my privileges.
The priest ruled both at the school and the church nearby that was attached by an underground tunnel to the school. They were considered to be close to God. These men of the cloth were scary to me. Especially since everyone was required to go to them and confess their sins.
My mother made me go to confession at the church once a week, even though at the age of ten or eleven I had already decided I didn’t like it and thought of ways to avoid the dark little room. But nevertheless every Saturday I would jump on my bicycle and ride the 4 blocks from our house to St. John the Baptist Church and make a confession to some strange man behind the curtain in a small room called a confessional. First you had to stand in line where there were two confessionals for every one priest. As one person told of his weaknesses and sins the other would wait patiently kneeing on the other side in that dark room that smelled like our basement closet or in many cases the bad odor of the strange person between the rooms. Sometimes you could hear the other person talking and confessing to the priest. If it took a long time you would wonder what sins the others had committed that took so long. Your knees would ache as you waited your turn. I would usually think ahead of time what sins I committed and be ready.
“Dear Father forgive me for I have sin” is how it would start.……Disobeyed parents so many times changing the number from week to week. Fighting with my brothers. Being disrespectful. One time I confessed to picking my nose and the priest explained that it was not a sin. I responded that my mother had told me not too. So we agreed that it fell more under disobeying your parents then picking your nose. So I upped that number and the priest absolved me. I could then bolt out of there and ride my bike home.
Sometime during this period a neighbor boy that was older then I showed me a picture of Marilyn Monroe naked in a classic pose. I knew I shouldn’t be looking at it but it was hard not to. God had given her a mighty nice body. I stared in awe. Later that night while lying in bed I thought of the picture and started rubbing myself. It felt rather good. This “impure thought” ended with messy underwear and the knowledge that I had just committed a sin.
There was guilt afterwards and I had heard that you could go blind. So when Saturday came around again I decided to confess. It was a busy day in church and a long line. When it was my turn I had it all rehearsed. I started out with the regular stuff about disobeying and fighting. At the end I would just slip in the part about one impure thought.
The priest woke up and said “What?!!” I told him again “and one impure thought”. The priest voice began to get louder and louder. He asked where I went to school. He asked if I knew that it was a mortal sin, not just a venial. I told him I did not. He asked what the impure thought was. I told him. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t know that it was a mortal sin. He said that I was going to go to hell because it was a mortal sin. No stop in purgatory for me. He was talking very loud and I knew everyone in the church now knew all about my impure thought. I knew that when I left the confessional all those listening outside would be looking at the boy on crutches that had impure thoughts. And they would remember because everyone remembered the boy on crutches. I wished I hadn’t told the priest. I thought I’d rather be blind.
After enough time that I was sure the other person’s knees had to be aching, the priest behind the curtain stopped lecturing me about the evils of the mind. He decided that I was to say the rosary every night for one week as penance before I could be saved from God’s personal torture chamber, Hell. The priest said to come back in one week and make sure I came back specifically to him. At that time he would absolve me from my weakness and sin against God. It was the only way to avoid the fires of Hell.
I left the confessional and yes everyone was looking at me. I kept my head down and ran out of church. I jumped on my bicycle putting my crutches across the handle bars and pedaled as fast as I could for home.
That night I got out my rosary and set to the task of being absolved and avoid God’s eternal pain machine. My brother asked what I was doing. Are you doing penance he asked? No I lied in return. The next night I waited until I was all alone which is extremely difficult in a house where 7 children reside. So I slipped into a dark closet underneath the hanging close and started my task. Saying the Rosary took a while and I did not like it. Mumbling those words over and over did not release me from the guilt. I did not feel closer to God. And praying was terribly boring. On the third night my mind began to wonder. I started to think about why I was saying the Rosary. I started to think about Marilyn’s naked beautiful body. And sure enough, I had another impure thought. Dang I said and slammed my fist on my knee. This could go on forever.
So I never went back to the priest. I never even went to confession again, never said the rosary. My mother would yell at me to go to confession and I would ride my bike to the church but I would not go in. I would get off and lie in the grass and look at the blue sky with the clouds rolling by. I would watch the birds fly overhead. I would think about baseball and school……and yes I would think about Marilyn. I accepted the fact I was going to go to Hell.
10 years later I would be at a Catholic college. I would be taking Metaphysics. I liked Metaphysics. All we knew for sure was “I am”. Someone had to be asking that question. Everything else was in the mind. I studied Descartes Method of Doubt. I was getting an “A” I wanted to continue getting a good grade so I attended a Saturday retreat put on by the Jesuit teacher. We would as a group, sit around and discuss philosophical questions like the tree in the forest and sound that George Berkeley wrote about.
But the conversation took a turn and the priest talked about masturbation and how it was a sin. Now I should have kept my mouth shut like the other students but I could not. I challenged him. “How could it be a sin when 99% of all males and most females do it?” I asked. “Is God setting us up for failure?” The argument was long and intense. Maybe it was the memory of that priest in the confessional so long ago but I wasn’t going to give up on this one. I actually at this point in my life didn’t believe in sin at all or hell. At last the Jesuit priest gave up and told me I was going to go to that place I no longer believed in, the torture chamber of the mind.
But that didn’t bother me I already knew that. What bothered me was that he flunked my final and gave me a “D” in the class. I went to him but he refused to show me the final test. I protested and told him I was going to take it to the head of the department. So this just and holy man changed my grade to a “C” and told me if I went to the dean I would get an “F”. I kept quiet with my “C”. This priest really had problems, especially with masturbation.
Lately I have been doing paintings of two entirely different subject matter combined together to make a complete picture. It has been very challenging for me. It forces the viewer to not only visually focus on the physical nature of what is on the canvas but also the mental duality. The individual’s conscious decisions create the reality of the painting. I use different styles depending on what I want to convey. It is very hard to pull off and I often spend hours trying to solve some of the visual problems. Sometimes I am successful sometimes I am not, but it doesn’t matter, it is the doing that is important. My recent combinations consisted of a nude with something.
A couple of months ago I finished a 24 x 36 canvas in a Pop art style. I call it Nude with Bees. The nude is in the basic pin up Marilyn pose that I was shown so long ago. There are large bees all around her. Do they think she is a flower and something sweet? Or are they going to sting her? As I sit here and look at the painting, I think that maybe I could have done better but overall I like it and it is finished. I contemplate the painting, the classic Marilyn Monroe pose that fascinated an 11 year old boy…. and low and behold that same impure thought creeps into my mind. Dang, I thought. I’m going to hell again. And I had to laugh.