Friday, October 08, 2010

The Great Man, The Book, The Letter and the Prize

I didn't attend Catholic school back in the care-laden days of pre-Vatican II. Back when every Catholic of conscience wore that conscience on their backs like a gong, sounding for all to hear every time sin won. Where nuns would point to the crucifix that hung in every Catholic elementary school classroom, to the tortured, brass Christ -- whose halo rested on the back of his head like a miniature, un-gonged conscience that never sounded the victory of sin -- and declared, "Your sins did this to Jesus!"

I came of age when Catholic teachers spoke of "warm fuzzies" and "cold pricklies." The Jesus of our classroom was depicted in a colorful laminated print, looking strangely like the love child of David Bowie and David Essex, surrounded by shafts of orange, yellow and red light, looking like an out of print Emerson, Lake and Palmer album cover.

The only time we knew the pain of Christ was when we had to rip ourselves away from the Sunday morning television set where Abbott & Costello bumbled through yet another incoherent plot-line, heading off to the boring grind of mass, which was like seeing the same poorly produced stage play week after week, where nothing changed except the readings. But when read with the same gray lay-person drone, it was all the same harmonica note.

I remember one Sunday, ruminating amid the tomb boredom of mass, thinking that Lou Costello was like Jesus Christ. Lou Costello suffered, needlessly and unjustly, week after week. Lou Costello was abused, misunderstood, misquoted. Even his supposed best friend, Bud Abbott, would slap him in the face on occasion. That seemed worse to me than someone merely denying knowledge of a person after they were dead.

It was cool, though, that Jesus knew Peter would do that before "the cock crowed three times." There was always that hint of show biz about Jesus that kept everyone coming back.

Then I got older and stopped going to church the moment I could. After a while, all the stories of Jesus and all I learned about God just seemed silly.

* * *

Reading the newspaper the other day, I saw that a guy who went to Catholic school with me, whom I'd known quite well at one time, not only had written a book, but was up for a major literary prize.

It was both shocking and not shocking at all.

After all, this guy was the son of the Great Man, who had published a bestselling novel in 1999, which he'd worked on for well over a decade. The Great Man was a local celebrity. He was brilliant, everyone agreed, and his children shared in that.

And now here was a book by a guy I'd once wrestled with in the schoolyard shortlisted for the Great Prize.

Thinking back on those schoolyard days, and then recalling the fanfare surrounding publication of his father's novel, my mind ricocheted to the time I'd written The Letter.

It was sometime in 2003 or so, give or take, and the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal had achieved hideous momentum in the press. To even a lapsed Catholic, the idea of a priest molesting children was alien and ugly and unthinkable.

But the stories and accusations, court cases and guilty verdicts poured into the press and the unthinkable coalesced into the sickeningly real.

At the time, I recalled, years previously, actually meeting a guy who'd been abused by priests. He never spoke of it to me; a friend in common mentioned it. The story was so jarring and unreal. Before anything was done at the time, in that one guy's case, the priests were moved by the Church to a country that had no extradition treaty with Canada.

It seemed like a horrible, unforgivable anomaly.

During the "naughts" as I've heard the ealry 2000s called, I was ordained a minister over the Internet and even performed a couple of weddings.

Still, I was unhappy with my proximity to the Catholic Church. It wasn't enough to be "lapsed" or "non-practicing" or "indifferent." After the sex abuse stories came to light, I was anything but indifferent. It seemed obvious that the Church should be brought up on charges of being a terrorist organization before a court adjourned in The Hague.

In lieu of that happening, I wrote The Letter.

I wrote to the parish where I'd been baptized asking that my baptism be rescinded or annulled or expunged.

My reasoning was this: Had I been enrolled in Hitler Youth as a child and then grew up to know what the Nazis were all about, I would ask that my membership in Hitler Youth be rescinded. I'd want it on record that my older, rational self wanted nothing to do with the bullshit.

So, it was the same with the Church.

So, I wrote an unpleasant -- though not impolite -- letter with my unpleasant request, citing the sex abuse scandal as being the impetus for the request.

After mailing The Letter, I had visions of an old, dotty priest reading it, his rheumy, alcoholic eyes widening a little more with each sentence.

I imagined receiving a formal certificate of Excommunication from the Catholic Church on high grade bond paper, with embossing and seals, and barely readable gothic script condemning me and sidecar soul.

What actually arrived was a simple one-line letter that came off a printer that was running out of ink. It merely said that my request had been fulfilled. No details, no harangue. Not even a signature.

Months later, after visiting my parents, I drove by the church where I'd been baptized and I was surprised to see that the once-regal rectory had been torn down -- and not recently. By the look of the property, it had been gone for years.

I suddenly wondered, "Then where the hell had my letter gone?"

The next time I spoke to my parents, my mother said that nearby St. Patrick's Church took care of our old parish's administrative duties, along with its own.

Months and months after that, during a conversation with my mother, she mentioned in passing -- in the most offhand manner -- that her friend, the Great Man's wife worked at St. Patrick's Church, doing our old parish's administrative work.

The casual remark crystallized in my mind: Dear fucking Jeezus, she would have received and read my Letter.

There was no sweeter person I knew than the Great Man's wife. She was simply and completely a good person. She was exactly the last person on earth I'd have wanted to read my Letter. The idea of offending her as no doubt my Letter had was sickening.

After learning that information, I was suddenly able to reconcile the oddly cold encounters I'd had with some of the Great Man's kids as I ran into them around the city. I knew them all to be good people; people I liked very much. So, when I was met with cold prickly receptions rather than warm fuzzies, I wondered.

I wondered no longer.

So, I went out on my lunch hour the other day and picked up my former school mate's book. It's very good. He's a very good writer.

I learned from the newspaper article where he worked and sent him a congratulatory email. Probably more to do with there sheer time that's past since I last saw him, than The Letter, I'm sure I won't hear back from him.

"So it goes," Kurt Vonnegut would say -- an author this old school mate had put me onto many years ago.

I hope he wins The Great Prize.

No comments: