Sister Mary Alice was getting annoyed with me. I was attending catechism at the behest of my mother, a devout Catholic. The nun was trying to get through one of the many allegories aimed at shaping our impressionable minds, and ultimately, our morals. She had just told us that heaven was a wonderful place where we would see all of our perished loved ones in a total paradise. I raised my hand and Sister Mary Alice stopped herself and asked me if I had a question.
“What if none of our loved ones are there? Just people we don’t know or people we don’t like?” I asked.
“Why would you ask a question like that? Of course your loved ones and friends will be there.” she said.
“I don’t think so.” I said, shaking my head.
“Goodness child, why would you think such a thing?”
I thought for a moment and then spoke. “Well, God has only given us people ten commandments. There’s lots of stuff in the bible about what Jesus and the disciples suggested and told a lot of little stories that help us get what they’re talking about. But God himself has only spoken to us once, through Moses, and that was the ten commandments.”
“That’s very observant, Bob. But I don’t think I understand what you’re getting at.” said Sister Mary Alice.
“Breaking any of the ten commandments is a mortal sin. Father Keeley says that there are no exceptions to the ten commandments, they they apply to everyone all the time.” I said.
“Of course that’s true, but you can confess your sins and make an act of contrition and be washed pure of your sins.”
“The thing is, almost all of my family are Presbyterians or Lutherans, we got a couple of Jews in there too, and they don’t believe in confession like we do. So in my family, only me, my mom and sister have any chance to go to heaven.” I said glumly. Sister Mary Alice looked like she’d sucked on a lemon.
“Well, dear, God does make exceptions. If your heart is pure and you ask his forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven is open to you.”
“So, I don’t really have to go to confession? I can just feel bad about what I did and I can still go to heaven?” I asked, brightening.
“Um, no. You need to go to confession.” said the nun.
“That’s not very fair. I have to go and tell my priest all the stuff I did wrong because I’m a Catholic and everyone else just gets to wish they hadn’t done something? Besides, the ten commandments doesn’t say that people who confess to their priest or feel bad about what they did get their sin erased. It just says don’t do this stuff, ever!”
“We really should get back to our studies. Bob, why don’t you take your concerns to Father Keeley after class. Now, I was reading about heaven and…”
“Sister Mary Alice?” I called, raising my hand again.
“What is it, Bob?” Sister Mary Alice didn’t sound happy.
“It’s just that… well… it seems to me that everybody breaks the ten commandments. Quite a few of them break all of them. I don’t see how we can be so sure about who’s going to be in heaven, so sure of it, since God’s only words to people were the ten commandments. Everything else is just what people think, and there’s a lot of people who think differently but say that they are basing their thoughts on the bible, I think we should follow what god says rather than what people think.”
Sister Mary Alice was at my little desk in a wink and she slapped the back of my head. Hard. I jumped out of my chair and screamed at her that she was mean and I was pretty sure she was a liar because she was telling us to believe her and not god. With that I ran out of the room, slamming the door behind me.
Sister Mary Alice pursued me as I scampered down the hall towards the door of the parish building. She called out to me, sounding kind and saying “please stop. Let me talk to you.” I flashed out the door, hopped on my bicycle and pedaled home as fast as I could. On my way, I passed my mother going in the opposite direction on her way to mass. She honked and waved, giving me a smile. I gave her a limp wave in return.
I dropped my bike outside the back door of the house and went into my room and threw myself on the bed. I was afraid that I was in trouble with everybody. Only a minute later, my mom knocked gently on my door and came in to see me crying on the bed. She sat down and pulled me to her. “Shhh. Shhh.” she said. “Tell me what’s wrong. When I saw the expression on your face I just knew you felt miserable about something.” I told her about catechism and my questions and how Sister Mary Alice hit me. She turned my head to look at the back of it and gently rubbed it, kissing me on top. “Sister Mary Alice hit you?” she asked. Mother had the tone. Mom got the tone just before she was about to unload on someone. “We’ll just see about that.” she said, her mouth formed a straight line of unhappiness. “You can be a handful sometimes, Bunny Rabbit, but no one gets to hit my little boy!” On those words she told me I could watch television or play outside, that she was going to catch the rest of mass and then have a word or two at the parish house.
That night after dinner the doorbell rang. My sister ran to the door and opened it on Father Keeley and Sister Mary Alice. She invited them in and went to get mom. When I saw who it was, I quietly ducked into my own room, avoiding them seeing me. I figured that I might be in trouble after all. I heard the murmur of voices in conversation and then my mother came and knocked at my door. Opening it, she said she’d like me to come to the living room please. I followed in grim anticipation. As I walked into the room father Keeley stood up smiling and held out his hand. I shook it and said hello. My mom pointed to one of the chairs and I sat. To my surprise, Father Keeley smiled and said that Sister Mary Alice had something to tell me. I looked at her.
“I would like to apologize for striking you. I allowed my frustrations to get the better of me. Corporal punishment was not called for and I regret my actions.” she said.
“Okay.” I said. My mother gave me an unhappy look and asked me to accept her apology. “Okay,” I said again. “I accept your apology.” It was obvious I didn’t mean it. My mother challenged me on it and suggested I should say it like I meant it. “But that’s just it, mom.” I said. “This is just like confession. She says she’s sorry and is kind of making an act of contrition.”
“That’s right, son.” said Father Keeley.
“Well, that just makes it all worse. I mean, I’m putting on this face that says ‘I forgive you’ but the truth is, I don’t. She hit me and it hurt.” I said, rubbing the back of my head for effect I guess. “The thing of it is, I’m still mad because she hit me. I mean, how does a person of god get away with that. I’m just a normal kid. I hit someone and go to confession, and I say my act of contrition and a few Our Fathers and a few Hail Marys and it’s over. Except I still hit the other kid and he didn’t even get an apology and yet I’m forgiven. See? That’s why I think there’s something wrong with all of this. God gave us ten commandments. God didn’t say that a priest or feeling bad about what you did will make it all better. A wrong is a wrong, right?”
My mother raised her eyebrows and looked to see Father Keeley field an answer. “Well, there are many mysteries to god’s will. We have to accept that and have faith in the Holy Trinity and their teachings to see us through.” he said. I saw my mother squint as though she was trying to figure out whether a picture was hanging straight.
She looked at Father Keeley. “He’s only eight and he’s suffering a crisis of faith. My son is precocious to say the least and he’s always been analytical. If something doesn’t make sense to him he’ll tug it every which way until he understands it …or rejects it. I think you’re going to need to explain things to him so that they make sense.”
“Well, Jade, as you’re aware, life has many mysteries. We cannot hope to understand god’s will and design.” said Father Keeley.
“You’re a man of god. You get to speak to god.” I interrupted. You should be able to get the answer to a question, expecially if it means the difference between someone believing in the church or not.”
“You cannot extort God, son. You must give of yourself willingly and accept the situations we face with faith. You can’t tell god to answer your question or you’ll stop believing in him. Things happen because it’s god’s will and we need to accept them with faith.” said Father Keeley.
“So everything is god’s will?” I asked.
“Then he must be the reason I’m asking these questions.”
My mother made a funny noise and put her hand over her mouth. “There’s no reason to be sassy, young man.” said Father Keeley.
“I don’t believe my son is being rude, Father. He’s listening to what you say and accepting it at face value. For him, he’s making a valid point.”
“Look, son, let’s just leave it at this. Sometimes things make no sense and seem to contradict themselves. We have to believe in the teachings of Mother Church and try to apply those teachings to our lives. We can’t question the little things that we ponder in our spare thoughts. That’s the best answer I can give you.” He stood up, indicating that his visit was over. Sister Mary Alice stood too. Father Keeley reached to my mom to give her a one armed hug, but she took his hand and shook it and then indicated the way to the door. The two visitors strode to the door which my mother opened. Father stepped out wordlessly but Sister Mary Alice paused at the door.
“So, I’ll see you in class next Sunday?” she asked, smiling. I replied with ‘maybe’ and he smile faltered. She trotted to catch up with Father Keeley.
Mom shut the door and looked at me. “You’re not happy about this are you?” I said I wasn’t and asked if I had to keep going to catechism. My mom studied me for a moment and then said no, that religion had to be a matter of choice and I was old enough to start making judgments. I was eight, after all.
“Going on nine.” I said.
“I would like it if you would go to mass with me on Sundays. Could you do that?”
I said I would, but asked if we had to go to high mass at 11:00, preferring low mass at 10:00. She smiled and said “deal.”
“Mom? What do you think of all this? Do you believe that we’ll go to heaven?” I asked.
“I hope that I do. I have faith that my life will be rewarded by my best efforts. It would be hard for me to go on without that belief to shore me up.” she said. “Does that sound silly?”
“No, mom. It makes sense to me. You should be a priest.”
“Women can’t be priests.” said my mother.
“That’s just crazy.” I said. Mom gave me a hug and kissed me on the cheek.
“You’re still my Bunny Rabbit.” she said, smiling.