Fear of God
Issue #50, June 2000
My friends were going to Hell. For it is written: He who curses, looks at photographs of naked women, or plays hooky from Sunday mass shall burn in eternal hellfire.
Consider Commandment #5: "Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath." This meant no working on Sunday. Back then, in the 60s, in the days of Blue Laws, that meant something. It meant you had to go to mass. I was amazed at the number of kids I knew who didn't take this commandment seriously. I certainly took it seriously. My parents were very plain about this. "You will go to church on Sunday. Or else." Or else God would be very displeased with me, and there was the very real possibility of going to Hell or, at the very least, doing some serious Purgatory time. Purgatory was as real to me as the Belleville City Jail, though I'd not actually been to either one. Oh, but I'd heard about them. What I'd heard was vague and scary. I don't think I'd known anyone who had been to either place, except for one or two kids I knew who had died. They were probably in Purgatory right now paying dearly for those swear words and moldy Playboys.
I tried to warn my friends about the horrors of Hell. It seemed the Christian thing to do. I taxed my imagination to come up with scenes horrific enough to scare the bejesus out of them. Yet not even the pool of fire and eternal darkness had much of an effect on them. "How can there be eternal darkness if there is all that fire?" they asked. I knew I had to come up with a good answer. I was entering upon my first theological debate and I couldn't let the Church down. "Hellfire doesn't give off any light," I said. "How come?" "How come? Because it's a special kind of fire that's made only in Hell." How can you argue with logic like that?
I tried to learn as much as I could about Heaven and Hell. After all, it stood to reason that I would spend a lot more time in one of those places than I would traversing this vale of tears. However, getting the scoop on the afterlife turned out to be as tough as a cheap steak. My parent's vision of Heaven seemed to come from television sitcoms and movies like Heaven Can Wait: white puffy clouds, golden gates, old St. Peter with his list of naughty and nice. Hell was even tougher to pinpoint, located somewhere in the bowels of the earth, dark, hot, inhabited by the damned and demons with pitchforks, a version derived from the Sunday comics. My teachers at St. Mary's School apparently weren't much clearer on the subject of Heaven and Hell than I was. Maybe it was easier to scare people if the object of fear remained vague and undefined. Like the Boogie Man. There was a lot of talk about the Boogie Man, but what did we really know about him? Did he live under your bed or in your closet? Did he have long sharp fangs or rows of razor sharp teeth? In kindergarten I'd seen a picture of the Devil, a large disturbing picture of Satan tempting two innocent-looking kids. He was all lizard green with horns and hoofed feet like a goat and wings like a bat and a long pointy tail. I'd always heard he was red. And the wings were new as well. Although it made sense once you recalled that he was a fallen angel.
Hell, naturally, was more interesting than Heaven. And a heck of a lot easier to get into. According to my teachers, only Catholics who kept the commandments had a real shot at Heaven. I was totally focused on getting to Heaven, and was basically a good kid who kept the commandments like rare baseball cards; the only one I had the slightest problem with was bearing false witness. I bore false witness all over the place. Some commandments I didn't have to worry about, like the prohibition on coveting my neighbor's wife. I wasn't sure what coveting my neighbor's wife meant and nobody wanted to explain it to a 10-year-old. My neighbor's wife was old Mrs. Kretchmer. I may have called her names behind her back, but I'm pretty sure I never coveted her.
The fear of God was instilled in me by my teachers, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, an extinct race of homely Midwestern farm women who could have all benefited from a drug called Prozac had it been around then. Besides the fear of God, we were taught the fear of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Sr. John Eudes and our principal Sr. Conrad kept order in St. Mary's School with a ruthlessness that would have made Joe Clark with his Louisville Slugger look like a Bush Leaguer. Sister John Eudes, it seemed, had eyes in the back of her head. With her back to us, she could spot a troublemaker's reflection in the overhead clock, in the side windows or the chrome of the trophies atop her piano, and wheel on a dime knocking the troublemaker to the floor with an expertly-aimed eraser. These nuns taught us that there were, generally speaking, two kinds of sins, categorized as either venial and mortal. Venial sins were the small-time stuff: white lies and petty larceny, like talking back and stealing candy. These you could make magically disappear by confessing them to a priest. Mortal sins were another story. They were bad news. These were the sins it wasn't so easy to shake. Murder was the most infamous of these. Die with a mortal sin blackening your soul and you bought yourself a one-way express ticket to the Inferno.
This is where things really got confusing. The only mortal sin I was dead sure about was murder. Where the others fell I wasn't exactly sure. Like stealing. Is it a venial sin to steal a pencil and a mortal sin to steal a car? Was it a venial sin or a mortal sin to skip mass? How about lying? What if you skipped church and then lied about it to the priest? If that's not a mortal sin, it's got to be up there on the venial meter. I was terrified of committing a mortal sin, and I was almost certain that skipping Sunday mass met that classification, which of course meant that all my friends were going to Hell. Of course, it was still possible to cleanse your soul of a mortal sin by going to confession. Wasn't it? Again, I wasn't sure. It seemed too easy to wipe away a murder through a simple confession. The cops weren't likely to let it go at that, no matter how sorry you were. Why should God?
It would have been helpful if Moses had differentiated between the commandments when he chiseled them onto the stone tablets: "Okay, if you can stop with the worshiping of the Gold Cow for a minute, I got something I want to show you. Now the ones on this tablet here, these are the Venial sins, not to worry too much about them. But these over here, hoo hoo. These are the bad boys."
Sister Paulita had an interesting take on what was a sin and what wasn't. Her take was pretty much that everything was a sin. She was always telling us what we couldn't watch on television and what films we couldn't see. The Catholic Church used to publish a list of movies that had been condemned by its holier-than-thou film critics. Films like Monty Python's Life of Brian with its zany form of blasphemy were especially seen as sinful. To watch one of these movies meant that you were as bad as the filmakers. Sr. Paulita also warned us against watching the sitcom M*A*S*H. Apparently something Alan Alda had said caused Sr. Paulita to regard him as a Godless communist, therefore she condemned the entire program and cast. This was back when M*A*S*H was good, too. It was before McClean Stevenson and Will Rogers and director Larry Gelbert left the show. One Monday evening I found my older sister watching the show and I saw my opportunity to save her soul. "Sr. Paulita said that it's a sin to watch that show," I said. "Sr. Paulita ought to get a life," my sister said emptily. Oh, Lost! Was the whole world going to Hell in a handbasket?
Before I could even partially comprehend the nature of venial and mortal sins we were introduced to something called the Seven Deadly Sins. I didn't like the sound of those. The Seven Deadly Sins were Pride, Sloth, Gluttony, Covetousness, Lust, Envy, and Anger. Anger? Innocent little anger a deadly sin? And just what did they mean by "deadly?" I had a vague notion that you commit one of those babies and God would send his Angel of Death to tap you on the forehead with a ball peen hammer and that was that. Yes, God had an Angel of Death, his right hand man, so to speak. Suddenly God was beginning to sound an awful lot like a Mafioso figure and the Angel of Death his Robert DeNiro sidekick. The nuns read us Bible stories where God showed what a hard ass he could be if you trespassed on his commandments. There was one I'll never forget called the "Slaughter of the Innocents," where God sent the Death Angel to bump off every first born child in Egypt. We sat wide-eyed and stunned as we heard how God had his thug angel knock off all these innocent little kids. Of course when you're nine or ten you don't generally object to the morally questionable tactics of the Supreme Being, especially when it's ten minutes till recess. Then there was the "Great Flood" where God drowned the entire world, man and beast, except for those crammed onto Noah's Floating Shit Circus. The lesson was the same one the bad guys learned the hard way on The Incredible Hulk TV show. "Don't make God angry. You won't like him when He's angry."
But what kind of Superhero was this? One who could be a real prince sometimes, raining manna on his chosen people (By the way, is that the best He could come up with? Manna?), or a real tough guy, like when he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in a fire bombing. Either way, what I really had to fear was God's judgement. We were told that on Judgement Day He would appear in the clouds and we would stand before Christ, where He would "judge the living and the dead." That wasn't a particularly thrilling scene either. I imagined this cloudy courtroom where I (the living) had to sit in a pew awaiting my hearing next to these badly decomposed zombies. Then I would be dragged before Christ who would weigh my sins and my good deeds and then he would say either "Depart from me!" Or "Come ye Blessed!" Or "Five to ten in Purgatory!" And *poof* I'm a ghost.
I imagine it has always been easy to scare kids with visions of Hell and devils and to pray that that is enough to keep them from going bad. At a time when parenting skills were at the Neanderthal level, threats of Hell may have been a parent's only recourse. Speaking of Neanderthals, some conservatives will tell you that the reason children are so violent today is that they lack the civilizing effect of the fear of God. I rather think they lack the civilizing effect of civilization. Admittedly the fear of God kept me in church on Sundays well into my late teens. It kept me from renting Life of Brian and watching the best episodes of M*A*S*H (thank God for reruns). It kept me ignorant of the female form till it was almost embarrassing. It deprived me of the pleasure of swearing till I knew what I was talking about. Now, past my prime and somewhat more enlightened, I can look back on those innocent days of frigid black clad nuns and horny celibate priests and Gothic hymns at 5 a.m. mass and I can honestly say that, man, that was some scary shit.
Chris Orlet's one-man Off-Off Broadway show "The Penis Monologues" just closed.
Collage © 2000 by Dani Eurynome.